Plato’s Nephew

Skepticism is a funny thing, even among the Greeks – especially among the Greeks. The “original” skepticism would have been completely palatable to modern religionists, because it challenged pre-Socratic efforts to attain a true picture of the world and stoic claims to have the map to true knowledge. To the early practitioners of skepticism Thales’ notions just didn’t hold water, and if Heraclites was right today, he might well be wrong tomorrow. “‘What I may think after dinner is one thing,’ returns Mr. Jobling, ‘my dear Guppy, and what I think before dinner is quite another thing.’” A little healthy skepticism never hurt anyone, except those with fixed and final positions, those who claim to possess the whole and unvarnished truth, or the careless throng who pride themselves on leading an unexamined life.

The Greek word skepsis has about a dozen definitions in the big Oxford Greek Dictionary, the most common being “examination,” or “inquiry,” though it can also mean “doubt,” and “revision,” – as to revise an opinion – like Mr. Jobling at dinner time, but for cause, not whim or indecision. It always implies a certain restlessness or impatience with answers and “positions.” According to an unreliable tradition (and most ancient traditions are) it was Plato’s nephew and “successor” Arcesilaus who revised (Diogenes says “meddled with”) the teacher’s system by stressing the importance of arguing both sides of a case, giving weight to evidence and argument. How this was “new” is not clear from the reports; the sophists did it; Socrates did it. Even Arcesilausian “skepticism” seems to have come from Uncle, who had said that “nothing can be known with certainty, by the sense or by the mind,” a conclusion which taken to its limit means that the conclusion cannot be known with certainty. So there we are. Skepticism always lands you in the solipsistic mud and solipsistic mud exists only outside the mind, and hence cannot get you muddy. But in paving the way for what academics like to call Academic skepticism, Arcesilaus paved the way for an important development. Take those arrogant troglodytes, the stoics. The followers of Zeno were the reductivists of the ancient world. This means they only believed in mud puddles. Sensory impressions or rather katalêpsis – a mental grasping of a sense impression) – guarantees the truth of what is grasped, or in this case, fallen into. If one assents to the proposition associated with a kataleptic impression, i.e. if one experiences katalêpsis, then the associated proposition cannot fail to be true. To put it simply: for any sense-impression S, received by some observer A, of some existing object O, and which is a precise representation of O, we can imagine circumstances in which there is another sense-impression S’, which comes either (i) from something other than O, or (ii) from something non-existent, and which is such that S’ is indistinguishable from S to A. Questions? So the definition of truth, which Plato had made an Idea (call it I if you want), fell on the knife of the stoics’ claim that only kataleptic experiences are true and that the true stoic wise-man (who was seen to be a more perfectly developed type of humanity—a bit like Aristotle’s megalopsuchos except taller) is capable of infallibility. For Arcesilaus, this is folly: first because we can be mistaken about sense impressions (as the Arab philosopher Al-Ghazali noted centuries later), and second because the world and life-in-it that we experience is more complex than our senses can grasp, and also because our sense experience fails to de-code the world of value that is also an essential part of human perception – lived experience. It is all, as a teacher of mine used to say, about our epistemic limits – a nice way of saying that to some people a palm tree is a cycad within the genera palma and to others a meeting place for an evening rendezvous on a deserted beach. Not either – or, of course, but when – then.

Why all this about skepticism and a nephew of Plato, barely visible in the footnotes? There is a confused idea that modern science has vindicated the stoic view of the world by refining and redefining what constitutes a kataleptic experience. True, the skeptics were correct to suggest trickery, hallucination, error, and deceit weighed heavily against the infallibility of the senses. But hasn’t modern science improved the thoroughgoing empirical model espoused by the stoics, to the extent that the skeptical caveats now count for much less? Freud deciphered the dream state; Einstein the continuum of time and space. –Jews since Moses have been busy compensating for Grandpa’s imaginary friend. And even non-Jews have contributed to the scientification of understanding. Even if the media insist that there are two sides to every story, isn’t it really the case that there is only one – the kataleptic one? And didn’t we all learn to be self-effacing about this when we learned the scientific method? The motto of false self-effacing irony. Science deals with facts, not truth; probability—(heaven forbid) not certainty. After all, a thousand bits of experimental corroboration can be falsified by one patchwork-colored elephant. In the treasury of scientific knowledge, the holy grail is the principle that the limit of the epistemic quest is the possibility a fact can be un-facted. (“Not bloody likely,” is not to be said out loud, especially by Nobel laureates). In this way skepticism has been deflated and subsumed into scientific method. Research professors have given it its own room at the back of the house, like a troublesome grandparent, and invite it to dinner every time a new discovery is announced. C P Snow and Karl Popper may quibble with these metaphors. But a true reductivist will bristle. A true reductivist will say that an essential element of the modern outlook – a condition of being modern, indeed – is to enshrine the scientific as the only appropriate way of viewing the world we see. Snow touched on this in his 1959 Rede lecture recalling a group of Cambridge dons (“educated men”), who were speaking contemptuously of the illiteracy of scientists. He comments, “… if I had asked [them]…What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, ‘Can you read?’ — not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their Neolithic ancestors would have had.” The Snows of the twentieth century insisted they had not forsaken the verities; goodness, truth and beauty were alive and well, and living in the apartment next to a reprogrammed skepticism. But now the good was grounded in the goodness of a particular “way” of knowing particular kinds of things; truth, the basic axioms we need to refine that knowledge, and beauty the beauty of the cosmos – in its deciphered and intelligible form.

But this is not a postmodernist screed against science. It is a question looking for an answer, and not just in the scientific arena. Has skepticism no separate voice in the understanding of the world? If it does, is it limited to stabs at religious dogma, debunking miracles and visions, looking for Chiye-Tanka’s poo in the Oregon woods or space debris in New Mexico? –The kind of skepticism that (it seems to me) gives back to credulity as much as it takes away. The humanist intellectual tradition, which is something I find vitally important, was shaped by a healthy respect for epistemic limits – not about a particular stance toward the infallibility of method and experience. The biblical God fell to skepticism (not science) only a few centuries after Anselm announced His discovery. Biblical infallibility did not fall to Darwin but to Erasmus – even Luther’s German successors; church authority began to tumble when Lorenzo Valla went to work on the claims of Pope Stephen II in 1440, not when Galileo was proved right. None of the perpetrators of these designs had any notion of the scientific method; what they did have was a healthy sense of the disconnect between what was claimed to be known (or true) and what a liberal application of skepticism discovered to be the case. Later on, biblical scholars would call this the hermeneutics of suspicion. It’s a phrase worth remembering.

And in the world of human values? Skepticism has done yeoman’s service in a non-scientific sort of way in freeing us from the taboos and stereotypes of tradition. If we point to the “achievements” everyone agrees are politically salutary—civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, you name it, we ordinarily hear in the background the voices of skeptics who doubted the prevailing orthodoxy and the way a social world was interpreted. Is this the same as demythologizing the cosmos? Yes and no, but mainly no. It’s not just that social worlds are made by fools like us, but only Process can make a tree. It is that social worlds are provisional in a way the physical world is not, and to the extent “laws” operate in both nature and society, they are different sorts of laws. Doubtless, ideas whose time has come, come—but not without nursemaids. Skeptics have undeniably been good nursemaids for every liberation movement of the last three centuries: only a Bible rendered politically ineffective by the growth of democratic secularism could be non-instrumental in maintaining the slave trade. Only a secular government could keep in check and (mainly) out of power those who want a Christian America, with all that might imply for social justice and the environment. If skepticism is defined as a kind of heresy, heresy applied to repressive, cruel or dogmatic social orthodoxies, then it has done a pretty good job in those areas where it has been able to do its work.

Skepticism has been less good, however, where it might do the most good. Arcesilaus taught that no intellectual position can be fixed and final. This was not a statement about truth, directly, but about the infallibility of knowing. The two-sides dialectic was not a doctrine about giving equal time to opposing viewpoints—that is an American media obsession not Greek philosophy. What skepticism entailed was the obligation to test good arguments against each other—“The fire of argument is the test of gold.” Now, as a skeptic and a humanist let me say something for which I ask, and have no right to expect, God’s forgiveness for, even if he existed to grant it. The real crisis of skepticism is reflected in a skeptical deference to those who feel that science can provide answers to all questions of value, serve as its own guide in questions of ethics, and is ultimately compatible with a species of Truth completely different from the lowercase truth one arrives at in other enterprises. Sometimes, as Snow recognized, humanists abjure the sciences out of ignorance—a real, persistent, and inexcusable ignorance. Sometimes they abjure the sciences because they see through the false modesty to the methodological conceit that locates both the nature of the universe and the meaning of life in the house that the stoics built. Whatever the anatomy of the problem the two cultures still exist, much the same as in 1959, complicated in America, at least, by the fact that outside the circle of educated men and women who cannot define acceleration and energy, there is a subculture of yahoos who defend such ignorance on religious grounds and reductivist humanists who define the epistemic limits as what science can teach us. The answer to the two-cultures problem, if there is one, is a reemphasis on the two-(good) sides polity of the skeptics.

Finally, at a social level, skepticism has been snoozing, along with modernism and historicism and other materialisms. Humanism is in disarray—not old and new versus tried and true, but a humanism that wants to liberate itself from the skeptical worldview that gave it birth. The social dogmas of the multicultural society are now being accepted as “reasonable” because they predominate, not because they have been thought through; or “right” because they happen to violate “religious” opinion which we think modernity has so thoroughly discredited that argumentation is superfluous. The enfolding of all rights–civil, gay, women’s, fat, challenged, seniors’, children’s–into “basic human rights” is the sort of category error that skeptical thinkers used to demolish like God did Sodom, and with the same apparent vengeful delight. Worse, those fondest of making it these days are globalists and humanists who have no particular use for the other manifestations of multiculturalism. But the iconoclastic kick is gone. To suggest that a self-respecting humanist must be, above all, skeptical in his approach to social catechisms, in the way his ancestors were toward other sacred books is—incorrect. And so, we embrace reason, but not the consequences of reason; and we pay tribute to skepticism until the sacred cow turns out to be another barnyard animal. If it were Oz, we would turn back just before Dorothy discovers the hoax. Inconsistency is consistency: Mr. Jobling begins to make sense.

To make matters worse for the skeptic, he is now told that the quest is for “social justice.” It sounds noble—not worth questioning, something everybody is “for.” And that the goals (all progressive and therefore right) of social justice cannot be achieved by discussion but only by law. The fate of the failed philosopher is to be a lawyer, and of a bad idea to become a law, an official “position.” Humanism especially suffers from a native desire to have the moral gravity of religion without its baggage, without the supernatural, without the obedience; but what it gets without skepticism and self-reflection are ideas reduced to legalities, pronouncements, and positions. A skeptical humanism would probably recognize no intellectual position as a “humanist position,” especially on the mere basis it differed from a religious one. It would be more in line with the skeptical tradition to differ from all positions, and to be especially suspicious of the ones that have been legalized, pronounced, globalized, trendified, or inserted into a socially correct catechism. I am, if I must be coffee-spooned into slogans, pro-choice, about 60% of the time. I cannot however imagine assuming this position with a fixed certainty, offering it as universal, considering it unassailable; and it is a skeptical humanism that makes me restless to know the other side and the exceptions to my view. As a matter of simple preference I support the cause (the right?) of gays who want to possess the same benefits as married heterosexual persons. But, as an historian, I find the contemporary debate fatuous. The history of the purpose of marriage influences my thinking, and a respect for language makes me want to know whether “marriage” is the best word for a same-sex union. (Appositely, I still want to know why ordained Anglican women refuse to be called priestesses but like the idea of women priests.)

As a skeptical humanist, I believe that such positions should never be framed dogmatically, and that humanism reduced to scientific simplicity at one level or legality at another will be humanism in a convoluted, reduced, and semantically weakened sense.

Extract from my book in progress, A Higher Atheism.

R. Joseph Hoffmann, PhD

Senior Vice President
Director of the CFI Institute
Center for Inquiry International

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