HOW TO KEEP AN OPEN MIND: An Ancient Guide to Thinking Like a Sceptic

Sextus Empiricus

Selected and translated by Richard Bett

ISBN978-0-691-20604-2  Princeton £13.99

reviewed by Alan Dent

            Sextus derived his scepticism from Pyrrho of Elis who lived some three centuries B.C. and is reputed to have been influenced by some “naked wise men” he met in India while on a campaign with Alexander the Great. Perhaps, then, Sextus was indirectly inspired by Buddhists, but that’s speculation. Richard Bett’s selection is based on Sextus’s  Outlines of Pyrrhonism which, on the surface, looks like a form of extreme scepticism. Yet Sextus is far from a naïve or simplistic thinker who rejects all firm belief out of hand and adopts a position of doubt regarding every question. The sceptic does not have “doctrines”, a term which implies not an entrenched belief, but rather a conclusion or set of conclusions about matters which do not lend themselves to easy resolution. To put this in modern terms (those proposed by Chomsky, for example) it could be said he is pushing at the limits of human cognition. Yet, the sceptic does accept what is forced on the mind by “appearance”, or what we would call evidence. Pyrrhonism might be said to adumbrate Hume’s observation that “a wise man will proportion his belief to the evidence.” The Pyrronhist accepts the world as it is: the sun warms us, frost makes us cold, jump off a tall building you will be likely to injure yourself, consume poison and you will be ill or die. Scepticism doesn’t drive the Pyrrhonist to a rejection of all conclusions, rather it permits a relaxed acceptance of what can’t be denied, even though an explanation may not be available. Where the refusal to believe enters, is the point at which conclusions are reached about what is not clear. The dogmatist makes assertions. We might find examples in our commonplace political discourse: “there is no such thing as society” or “the Central Committee expresses the will of the people”. The slogans from Nineteen Eighty-Four are typical of the dogmatist. The Pyrrhonist is comfortable with accepting the world as it is, but refuses to claim an ability to offer a definitive view on what is unclear.            

            This orientation implies a use of language which avoids disproving what you try to assert: “Nothing is true” denies its own truth. The sceptic belongs to a school of thought in the sense that she has “an approach which obeys a certain rationale.” The rationale of the Pyrrhonist is to live “properly”, which implies not only a virtuous life but the ease which comes from being able to accept what is but defies explanation.  

            The Pyrrhonist lives according to “the routine of life” by which are meant four principles:  the guidance of nature; the necessity of  how we are affected; the handing down of laws and customs; and the teaching of skills. The first ( suggestive of Chomsky again) recognises that nature has made us “thinkers and perceivers”; the second shows us how hunger makes us eat and thirst drink; the third directs us to good rather than bad behaviour and the last involves us in avoiding laziness or inappropriate choice of occupation. All this operates without the need for opinions. This may seem odd to us, inhabitants of a culture where being opinionated is taken for granted, but that is perhaps just where the value of rational scepticism lies: there is no need to be opinionated about what is a matter of evidence; we can get on with our lives calmly as we accept that salt makes us thirsty and physical effort tires us. On the other hand, it is supremely foolish to be opinionated about what is in doubt. A simple example could be the question of the existence of a deity. The question is beyond our knowledge. Of course, the right to freedom of belief is a different matter. Pyrrhonism prohibits no belief, while it encourages rational people to hold back from fixed positions. A Pyrrhonist would counter the deist’s arguments without drawing a conclusion about the existence of a supernatural intelligence. Scepticism permits lively debate without falling into bigotry, which makes it of great value to democracy.            

            Scepticism’s aim is said to be tranquillity. Like anyone, a sceptic may suffer thirst, but doesn’t trouble her head over what a bad thing thirst is; by acceptance, tranquillity is attained. When it comes to contentious questions, the sceptic will set one argument against another but will restrain the impulse to draw final conclusions, which equally results in tranquillity.            

            Sextus is aware of his position among philosophers and takes some pains to prove himself as a logician. He discusses what he calls “signs”, which we would term evidence, some of which are apparent other indicative: smoke is evidence of fire, thus an apparent sign for example. He is drawn into a discussion of inductive and deductive logic, essentially rejecting both. Some of the discussion in which he attacks what he calls the dogmatists, particularly for their argument that if he has demonstrated there is no such thing as demonstration then he has proven there is, gets entangled:  

            And if the argument against demonstration is agreed to do the job of demonstration, the dogmatists are not helped on this account toward their being demonstration…; for it concludes that there is not demonstration, and if this is true it becomes false that there is demonstration… 

Nonetheless, Bett has made a judicious selection and is an expert guide. There are, of course, easy ways in which Sextus can be challenged: science has advanced so dramatically since the days of somewhat hit and miss natural philosophy, for example, and we know that science defies logic. Sextus might have been alarmed to discover particles really do seem to be able to be in two places at once. Yet there is wisdom at heart of his scepticism: what we can’t confirm by evidence we have grounds for not drawing conclusions about. That begs the question of just what constitutes evidence, but perhaps that requires another volume.