Friday, April 24, 2009

The varieties of sceptical thought, Part One: Sceptical Scepticism

"We are not the type of philosophers who think that nothing is true."

The first thing you need to know about philosophical scepticism is that Plato and Pyrrho were the fathers of all of the ancient schools of scepticism. Plato wrote a book, titled the Timaeus, in which he explained that the entire universe is a single, living, intelligent, immortal, ensouled, blessedly happy, and divine being. Pyrrho, on the other hand, learned everything he knew about scepticism by traveling to India and studying with mystical philosophers there, and also traveling to Persia and studying with the Magi, the very people who gave us the word "magic".

The second thing you need to know about philosophical scepticism is that it was revived during the Renaissance by, among others, folks like Girolamo Savonarola and Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa. The first was a fanatical, book-burning, Christian fundamentalist; while the second was one of the greatest occultists of all time.

What do these two things tell us? Only that we must apply scepticism to scepticism itself. That is, scepticism is not necessarily what you have been led to believe it is. In particular, scepticism has nothing whatsoever to do with the crude philistinism and hamfisted debunkery of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and that lot. The so-called "New Atheists" have nothing to offer other than a slightly updated (and significantly dumbed-down) version of iconoclastic Calvinism deprived of it's (always thin an unconvincing) religious veneer.

Among our most important primary sources for ancient scepticism is Cicero's Academica. Cicero was an adherent of the school of so-called "Academic" sceptics, who traced their intellectual lineage back to Plato. During the same year that he wrote his Academica, Cicero also produced his De Natura Deorum (On the Nature of the Gods) in which he informs us:
As for those who express surprise that I have adopted the Academic system in preference to all others, I think that the four books of my 'Academica' offer them a clear enough answer.... I stress, however, that it cannot be the case that those who follow this line of philosophy have no guiding principles. Mark you, I have discussed this matter more rigorously elsewhere [Ac. II], but certain people are such slow learners that they clearly need to be instructed more than once. We Academics are not the type of philosophers who think that nothing is true. Our claim is that certain falsehoods impinge on all true statements, and that these bear so close a resemblance to the truth that they contain no criterion by which to judge them or to lend assent to them. The outcome of this is our view that many things are probable, and that though these are not demonstrably true [that is, not provable with absolute certainty] they guide the life of the wise man, because they are so significant and clear cut.
[Cicero De Natura Deorum I.11-12, P.G. Walsh translation]
What did Socrates know, and how did he know it?
Socrates, the teacher of Plato, believed that all wrongdoing results only from ignorance, that is, that no one ever does wrong knowingly. This Socratic teaching was echoed by the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, who was born over 450 years after Socrates was executed:
"They are free who live as they will; who are not subject to compulsion, to restraint, or to violence; whose pursuits are unhindered, their desires successful, their aversions unincurred. Who, then, would wish to lead a wrong course of life? No one. Who would live deceived, erring, unjust, dissolute, discontented, dejected? No one. Wicked persons, then, do not live according to their own wills; therefore no such person is free."
[Discourse IV.1]
Ignorance leads to true slavery, the slavery of the soul/psyche. Through our own ignorance our pursuits are hindered, but through knowledge we can attain true freedom. Epictetus had himself been born a slave, and he reveled in taunting his aristocratic students that they were the real slaves because they were not true masters of themselves.

Epictetus was a Stoic, not a Platonist. But he was a true-blue Socratic. Socrates and Epictetus were agreed that ignorance enslaves us, while knowledge leads to true freedom. Socrates never claimed that knowledge was impossible or unattainable, nor did he ever claim that he himself lacked all knowlede whatsoever. But he did emphasize that there was one thing above all others that he did understand: his own ignorance.

In Plato's famous Apology, which recounts Socrates' defense speech before a jury of 500 (or perhaps 510) of his fellow Athenian citizens, we read of how it was that Socrates came to have so many enemies, including enemies who wished to see him tried, convicted, and executed. (But the number of Socrates' enemies should not be exaggerated. When the jury finally voted, almost, but not quite, half of them voted to acquit.) Socrates himself acknowledges that he would not be on trial for his life unless he had been "doing something rather different from most folk." [20c, R.E. Allen translation]

Socrates tells the jury that his present situation came about "through nothing but a kind of wisdom. What kind? The kind which is perhaps peculiarly human."[20d-e] Although Socrates was at pains to insist that whatever wisdom he possessed was of a decidedly human variety, he nevertheless insisted that he had divine backing for his claim to possess this human wisdom. In one of the more incredible passages ever written down in any human language, Socrates, according to Plato, tells the jury the following (and he tells this as if the story were perhaps already known at least to some of them):
For as witness to you of my own wisdom--whether it is wisdom of a kind, and what kind of wisdom it is--I shall call the God at Delphi.

You surely knew Chaerephon, I fancy. He was my friend from youth and a friend of your democratic majority. He went into exile with you and with you he returned. And you know what kind of man he was, how eager and impetuous in whatever he rushed into. Well, once he went to Delphi and boldly asked the oracle--as I say gentlemen, please do not make a disturbance--he asked whether anyone is wiser than I [that is, wiser than Socrates]. Now the Pythia replied that no one is wiser. And to this his brother here will bear you witness, since Chaerephon is dead.

Why do I mention this? I mention it because I intend to inform you whence the slander against me has arisen. For when I heard it, I reflected: "What does the God mean? What is the sense of this riddling utterance? I know that I am not wise at all: what then does the God mean, by saying I am wisest. Surely he does not speak falsehood; it is not permitted him." So I puzzled for a long time over what he meant, and then, with great reluctance, I turned to inquire into the matter in some such way as this.... [20e-21b]
And with that preamble, Socrates then proceeds to describe how he went about Athens "examining" his fellow citizens. He started off with leading Athenians who were widely regarded as exceedingly wise, and who also believed themselves to be wise. For each such leader of Athenian society that he examined, Socrates found that "though he seemed wise to many other men, and most especially to himself, he was not."

Socrates' told the jury that, as a result, he found himself
thinking to myself, '"I am wiser than that man. Probably neither of us knows anything worthwhile; but he thinks he does and does not, and I do not and do not think I do. So it seems at any rate that I am wiser in this one small respect: I do not think I know what I do not." [21d]
After dealing like this with Athens' political elites, Socrates then started in on the poets, but:
presently I came to realize that the poets, too, do not make what they make by wisdom, but by a kind of native disposition or divine inspiration, exactly like seers and prophets. For the latter also utter many fine things, but know nothing of the things they speak. That is how the poets appeared to me, while at the same time I realized that because of their poetry they thought themselves the wisest of men in other matters--and were not. Once again I left thinking myself superior to them in just the way I was to the politicians. [22c]
And from the poets Socrates went to the artisans and all those who worked with their hands, and there Socrates found people who "knew many fine things", but, alas,
it seemed to me that the poets and our capable craftsmen had exactly the same failing: because they practiced their own arts well, each deemed himself wise in other things, things of great importance. This mistake quite obscured their wisdom. [22d]
Socrates' general procedure was quite simple: he would elucit from people claims as to what they believed they knew. Socrates would then proceed to question them closely about the knowledge they claimed to have. He found that once confronted with a clear demonstration that they did not know what they claimed to know, rather than accepting this knowledge (that is, knowledge of their own ignorance) many (although not all) people continued cling to their previous claims to knowledge, and, in the process, came to hate Socrates for exposing this ignorance (which they nevertheless denied).

Many Athenians, especially among the young, became admirers of Socrates during this process. And this only added to Socrates' troubles, as his admirers emulated, or attempted to emulate, Socrates and began going around challenging people about their knowledge. It turned out that even these youthful "amateur" Socrates wannabes could easily (and publicly) expose many prominent citizens as frauds and hypocrites, for claiming to know what they did not.

Throughout his speech, Socrates minimizes his own wisdom, but he never claims to know nothing. While avoiding explicit claims of his own knowledge, Socrates nevertheless clearly believes that he does possess superior judgement with respect to distinguishing truth from falsehood. Without making positive knowledge claims, therefore, he does make a de facto claim to possess an ability (what we might today call "critical thinking") which certainly gives the impression of having the potential to lead us to knowledge.

And not only that, but there is (and this is almost too obvious to point out, but it is perhaps so obvious as to be easily overlooked) an air of supreme confidence in Socrates as he stands before those who hold the power of life and death over him. There is nothing to suggest that Socrates wishes to die, or that he misunderstands the gravity of the situation. It might be tempting to simply attribute Socrates' bearing to courage and leave it at that, but in one of his many conversations with his fellow Athenians (recounted in Plato's Laches) Socrates has already objected to defining courage merely as "perseverance", for, Socrates insisted, there are many times in battle where prudence dictates withdrawal, and since prudence and courage are both virtues they cannot be in conflict with each other. Therefore, Socrates' performance before the jury, even if we attribute it to courage, must also be consistent with prudence.

And here we come to clear evidence of Socrates' knowledge (whether he claims this knowledge openly or not - and there is nothing new in suspecting that Socrates may have known more than he claimed to know). Socrates goes so far as to give advice to the jury (which will be discussed in a future post), advice that strongly implies some certain (or very close to certain) knowledge on Socrates' part, even though he continues to couch his language carefully. It would be tempting to focus on Socrates' attitude toward death. But that would be jumping over the crucial issue on which his whole case rests: that it is never right to do wrong, and that one who acts correctly, that is, justly, will always benefit from acting so, whereas all those who act wrongly, that is unjustly, will always suffer as a consequence.

Nothing could be further removed from the colloquial usage of the word "sceptical" than Socrates' attitude toward ethics. And yet despite (or, rather, if you think about it, precisely because of) Socrates' certainty with regards to ethics, he eagerly welcomes a thorough investigation of his own ethical principles in Plato's Gorgias and also in the monumental Republic. But in the Apology there is no investigation of ethics, rather, what was merely investigated in the Gorgias and the Republic is put into action in the Apology. Socrates demonstrates, with every word, how a just human being acts.

[to be continued.....]

The Varieties of Sceptical Thought:
[1] Sceptical Scepticism
[2] Socrates on Death
[3] Socrates' Advice to the Jury
[4] Richard Popkin
[5] Overview of the Trial of Socrates
[6] "Socrates of all mortals is the wisest"