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The Essence of The Philosophy of Skepticism

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Skepticism is presented as an overall attitude of persistent inquiring and examining of propositions. In its most basic form, is to doubt certain knowledge. Skeptics have the ability to “set out oppositions among things that appear and are thought of in any way at all”. Pyrrhonian skepticism is the concepts first school of thought and what distinguishes it from neighboring philosophies is its use of certain methods for investigation of propositions. It claims that when one is faced with a proposition p, where there are reasons for p and not-p, they must suspend judgment on p to reach a state of tranquility. One of the most renowned objections to Pyrrhonian skepticism is the apraxia charge. The objection claims that skepticism cannot be as skeptics do not hold beliefs. How can skeptics live properly without certain essential beliefs that enable action? In defense of skepticism, scholars claim that skeptics do indeed hold beliefs and only attack dogmatic beliefs are based on uncertain propositions. I believe this defense to be successful as Sextus, a philosopher who provides the most complete work of Pyrrhonism, corroborates it in his work in which he states that there are two different kinds of beliefs and that they only dismiss a certain type. Some beliefs are forced upon us by perception and the others are formed through rational inquiry, the latter of which is not accepted by skeptics. While the reply is a sufficient argument against the apraxia charge, I do not believe that suspension of judgment will bring about tranquility. As long as skeptics do not have any theoretical beliefs, they cannot provide a considerable guide to living a good life.

The philosophy of skepticism is presented as an ability to construct an overall attitude of persisting in inquiry. A skeptic avoids putting forward their own opinion and judgment whether it supports the proposition or opposes it. Individuals that perform philosophical investigations can be categorized into different groups. Dogmatists are the ones that claim they have discovered the truth regarding a matter while Academics claim that knowledge cannot be apprehended. Pyrrhonian skepticism follows four key parts. Suppose a proposition p is introduced. A skeptic first sets out opposing and supporting account of proposition p. The skeptic seeks to discover the truth, but while investigating, the skeptic finds what the dogmatist has consistently failed to discover. While persistently inquiring into a proposition and setting out all accounts for and against it, the skeptic discovers that “there is as much to be said against the position you are considering as for it”. When one is faced with equally convincing arguments, the rationally cannot believe that one is more justified than the other. Matters for and against proposition p are opposing arguments because they reach conflicting conclusions. What follows is a balance known as “equipollence” which simply means that there is an equal amount of appearances or thoughts in the opposition set out for proposition p. The Opposing arguments become equipollent as they are based on how people perceive things. Is a skeptic always able to set out oppositions for and against a proposition p? A significant portion of the text by Sextus on the outlines of skepticism is committed to this question and it displays the methods used by skeptics to construct opposing arguments with respect to a proposition. These methods were organized into patterns known as the ten and five modes. The ten modes are “general skeptical patterns of argument to lead the reader to feel the force of conflicting appearances in a variety of cases”. The skeptic becomes for a proposition as much as they are against it. Following this, the skeptic decides to suspend judgment with respect to the proposition involved. It is only when a skeptic is unable to commit to or be against a proposition that they are able to suspend judgment and reach a state of tranquility.

According to Sextus, this conclusion is the desired outcome. It is only when we are able to suspend judgment that we reach a state of tranquility which is the truth that the skeptic has been seeking all along. When a skeptic decides to suspend judgment, they cease to have any belief on the matter. That said, “we are not left with nothing or a mental blank; we are left with what Sextus calls an appearance, best understood as the content of the original belief”. This outcome frees us from constant pretensions and improves everyday life.

A popular objection to skepticism is known as the apraxia charge. This attack claims that skepticism cannot be as skeptics ultimately have a deep desire to live without beliefs. In the “Outlines of Pyrrhonism”, Sextus states that the “chief constitutive principle of skepticism is the claim that to every account an equal account is opposed; for it is from this, we think, that we come to hold no beliefs”. How can skeptics live without belief? Life requires action and action is impossible without beliefs. Imagine a man that lives in an isolated island somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. When this man needs drinking water, he has to travel to a nearby well that he knows contains drinking water. But to do this, he must have belief that the well is at the place where he thinks it is and contains drinking water. Without beliefs, this man cannot perform this action and support his health, therefore he cannot survive. A person assents to the impression that something is to be done. This assent serves as an impulse for the action. No action can occur without the assent and therefore, without a belief in the action’s occurrence, the action cannot be.

In response to the objection, Michael Frede in addition to some other scholars has argued in defense of skepticism. This defense of skepticism states that when skeptics speak of living without beliefs, they are only attacking a certain kind of dogmatic belief. Sextus corroborates this response in his work as he distinguishes between a wider and narrower sense of belief. The wide sense is the kind of belief that is forced upon us by our perception while the narrower sense consists of the kind of belief that is constructed from unclear objects of science. When skeptics speak of living without beliefs, they do not take belief “in the sense in which some say, quite generally, that belief is acquiescing in something; for skeptics assent to the feelings forced upon them by appearances”. When skeptics are beginning to feel the urge of hunger, they certainly do not dismiss this urge as false; rather, they assent to this feeling because it has been forced upon them by appearance. They hold these beliefs that are of a narrower sense because they are forced upon them through perception and are necessary for their survival. Skeptics do not, “hold beliefs in the sense in which some say that belief is assent to some unclear object of investigation in the sciences; for Pyrrhonists do not assent to anything unclear”. The distinction between these two different kinds of beliefs is made through how these beliefs are formed. If a belief is constructed as a result of a direct appearance, the skeptic accepts it. If the belief is constructed through rational inquiry, the skeptic dismisses it.

The reply to the apraxia charge presents a good argument as to why skeptics choose to live without a certain kind of belief. While the charge claims that skeptics cannot sustain their lives without beliefs, skeptics claim that they do have certain beliefs that enable them to survive and only dismiss the dogmatic beliefs that they feel are an obstacle to reaching tranquility. While skeptics are able to survive, they are not able to develop without theoretical beliefs. Suspending judgment on matters that are inconclusive cannot bring about tranquility as humans have to at times take risks to succeed. Humans have over time developed beliefs based on propositions that consisted of inconclusive accounts. While some have brought about negative outcomes, many have had a positive influence on humanity and are a significant factor in humanities’ development over time. How can skepticism be a guide to the best life without theoretical beliefs about the goal of life? Developing a hypothesis over matters is essential to humanities’ development and furthermore into their search for happiness and the goal of life.

The ultimate goal of skepticism is to reach a state of tranquility and peace. The skeptic’s guide to reaching this state involves using the skeptical method of persuasion. After making continuous inquiries, the skeptic discovers that they are rationally for a proposition as much as they are against it. At this point they have established equipollence. Following this, they suspend judgment on the matter to reach tranquility as they are unable to either commit to or be against the proposition. The popular objection against skepticism claimed that skeptics cannot live properly as they ultimately seek to live a life without beliefs. While it is true that skeptics wish to live without beliefs, they only wish to dismiss certain unjustified beliefs that are based on inconclusive accounts while holding beliefs that are forced upon them by appearance which are essential to their livelihood. Overall, I believe the skeptic’s suspension of judgment on inconclusive matters to be an impeding element of human development. There are countless mysteries and questions that remain of our world and its existence and suspending our judgment on inconclusive matters that are associated with these questions will not have a positive impact on people. 

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