Philosophical Skepticism

The Oxford English dictionary definition of a sceptic is “a person inclined to question or doubt accepted opinions”. Scepticism is a doctrine that was followed seriously first by Pyrrho, who believed that the true way to find peace was to avoid dogmatising and to live life with no set beliefs. Nussbaum sums this up in The Therapy of Desire as the belief that ‘to every argument another argument of equal strength is opposed’.

Therefore it is impossible to decide on one argument, and true inner peace is found by accepting this and allowing yourself to simply exist, acting only on your instincts and senses. A Sceptic would not assert “the sky is blue” but rather would say “the sky appears to be blue”. However, even Pyrhho struggled to stick to scepticism, saying that we would have to “altogether divest ourselves of the human being” to live completely as a Sceptic. So the question must be asked: is it impossible to live without opinions?

From the outset it seems that society, particularly modern society, is built on the assumption that we all have beliefs, even if only fundamental ethical beliefs, for example the assumption that murder is wrong. We are brought up with set ethical beliefs before we are old enough to philosophise for ourselves, and it is this social conditioning that allows us as humans to live without the constant threat of being murdered hanging over our heads. Indeed, those that choose not to live by these fundamental social rules are often institutionalised, either in mental facilities or in prisons.

Although these beliefs change and vary over time and in different world cultures (for example, it was common for promiscuous girls to be mentally institutionalised in the 1960s, whereas now that practice would be shocking to most) most societies define themselves by their beliefs, either religious or cultural. The most strong and consistent belief system that has pned over time and continents is the belief that without strong ethical principles, the world would turn to chaos. Moreover, it is impossible to ignore that life often depends on making decisions. We must almost every day decide on what would be the best course of action.

When we wake up we decide whether to stay in bed for the rest of the day or to wake up and carry out whichever activities we had planned. After breakfast we decide whether to do the washing up immediately or to leave it for later. Sceptics argue that we must be led by our senses and instincts, as well as by necessity and the laws and customs of our land. This addresses concerns about the possibility of the world collapsing into anarchy without any set ethical beliefs, but then if the whole world practiced scepticism, there would be no laws and customs of the land to adhere to.

If someone in this sort of society felt a natural instinct to murder every day, there would be nobody who would decide that this was wrong and so find a way to stop this person from killing. After the fall of Baghdad to coalition troops in the Iraq war widespread looting took place. This sort of natural, instinctive reaction to the absence of strict laws and belief systems shows all too clearly the impossibility of a universal imposition of pyrrhonian principles.

Another important factor to remember when discussing Scepticism is the thought that, by asserting that scepticism is the best way to live, sceptics themselves are dogmatising. “Sextus cannot have a single definite procedure without having some values”-, “How can Skeptism be anything, one might ask, if the Skeptic has no beliefs? “- Nussbaum) Sceptics counter this with the idea that Scepticism isn’t a fixed doctrine, but a natural inclination, an instinct. They are flexible in their beliefs, allowing them to be questioned too. Therefore they escape the accusation that Scepticism in itself is a belief system. However, it is still difficult to apply this theory to the average human being.

We would have to un-learn our tendency to be dependent on our beliefs and re-condition ourselves in the ways of Pyrrhonism. This would take time and demand motivation and rigid training of the mind- far from a natural instinct. However, it is also possible to argue that, regardless of the difficulty, it is impossible in this world to find peace without having sceptical beliefs. Take the example of a fictional dogmatic. He is confused about how best to find happiness, and so takes up philosophy in the hope of discovering the truth and therefore live a happy life.

After many months of enquiry, he comes to a conclusion and so sets out a guideline for himself, to help him work out on a daily basis what to do to keep himself happy. He happily carries on his life under these new guidelines, until he comes across someone who argues with him about the way he lives his life. A seed of doubt is placed in his mind and he is confused and angry. He is now no longer happy. Scepticism would mean that our man would never have had to go through this cycle. He would have inquired into happiness but kept an open mind.

Now imagine that the guidelines that he had decided on in the first place had been wrong and after many months of living by them he was not happy at all, though he thought he was because he had never experienced true happiness. By not dogmatising he could have avoided becoming arrogant for no reason. Another argument for scepticism is that of human suffering. It cannot be denied that humans, dogmatists and sceptics alike, will experience suffering in their lives. However it is their reaction to it and the significance they place on it that determines how much the pain affects them.

Pyrrho believed that, by theorising about pain and suffering, and imagining it as some kind of evil, people increased the level to which they felt their pain. Sceptics accept that they feel pain and that this is natural, but do not have any particular theories about it, and therefore achieve peace. However, although the benefits of scepticism seem ideal, this does not remove the difficulties of applying it to every day life. As an ideology, a level of scepticism applied to every day life would perhaps make people happier and better adjusted.

People would be less prepared to accept false theories dogmatically, always remembering that an apposing argument could be just as valid. They would not be fixated on their suffering and try to create reasons for it, but instead would “relax and let life happen to [them]”, and by relaxing would live happier, more fulfilled lives. But scepticism applied fully would be impractical, as we could have no assurances of safety, and the effort it would take to re-condition our entire way of life would be too great.

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