Scepticism and the Middle Way

Scepticism (spelt ‘skepticism’ by Americans) was originally a philosophical movement from Hellenistic (i.e. later Greek) times, and is used today loosely to refer to any doubting position. However, here we are concerned with a broader type of scepticism, often called ‘philosophical’, ‘global’ or ‘radical’ scepticism. This type of scepticism points out that we have no certainty about any claim, and thus cannot be sure that we have knowledge or truth. Pyrrho

The Middle Way implies this type of scepticism by avoiding the ‘truths’ of metaphysics on either side. The earliest Greek version of scepticism was probably brought to Greece from India by Pyrrho (pictured), who travelled with Alexander the Great’s armies and talked to Indian philosophers. In the earliest Pyrrhonian version scepticism does not offer any counter-assertions: for example, it does not say that what we think we know is false: only that we can’t be certain that it is true. It is this type of scepticism, rather than the negative ‘Academic’ type, that is compatible with the Middle Way.

Scepticism puts forward arguments like the following:

  • As finite beings occupying a limited point in space, the information that we have access to is always necessarily limited.
  • Given our limited mental capacities, it is unlikely that the concepts we form are capable of accurate representation of reality.
  • Our senses are limited in what they can detect (for example, we only see objects that reflect light between certain wavelengths), so we cannot gain true perceptions of objects through the senses, since we might be missing crucial features.
  • Given evidence and arguments for one belief, alternative evidence and arguments that appear to support opposing beliefs can always be found.
  • Our conceptual frameworks for understanding the world are limited by our cultural and linguistic background.
  • No conclusive proof can be offered that one’s current experience (or any given past experience) is not illusory. You may be dreaming at this moment.
  • Given how often we have made mistakes in the past and had to alter our beliefs, it seems likely that we will make more mistakes and have to alter them again. At least some of our current beliefs thus seem likely to be mistaken, and we do not know in advance which ones.

None of these arguments justify a negative metaphysical response of claiming that our beliefs about reality are necessarily false. They justify only metaphysical agnosticism, because they leave us without justification for either definite positive or definite negative assertions about how things actually are.

In the Western tradition of philosophy there have been many false assumptions about the implications of scepticism. One of these is that if we take it seriously it stops us from holding beliefs or making claims altogether. This is not an implication of scepticism, because all it undermines is claims about reality. It does not prevent us from making statements about our experience, nor does it prevent us making justifiable provisional statements about what appears to be the case based on that experience. Scepticism is not a threat to science or to human understanding, only to dogmatism. All our claims are subject to revision. Nor does scepticism deprive us of justification for our claims, given that objectivity can be based, not on metaphysics, but on our degree of avoidance of limiting assumptions that prevent us from engaging with conditions in our experience.

The most recent attempt to dodge scepticism in modern analytic philosophy involves defining terms like ‘certainty’ and ‘truth’ only in terms of their everyday use, so that it can be argued that we do have the ‘truth’ in an everyday sense, for example, when we don’t have any positive reason to doubt the evidence for something we believe (as in accepted scientific theory or a criminal verdict). This is an unhelpful move, as if we remove the absolute sense of ‘truth’ and ‘certainty’, we have nothing better than clumsy phrases left to remind us that we do not have access to them. This approach to things undermines our capacity to deal with what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls ‘Black Swans’ – unexpected events that defeat all our expectations, but that nevertheless happen quite regularly in history. This approach also appears to be motivated by a quite unnecessary fear of scepticism.

Scepticism is not a threat to be defended against, but a welcome support for the Middle Way. It continually challenges us not to settle down into truth-claims, but to recognise their lack of justification, and thus is the basis for the skill of critical thinking. Since the Middle Way requires an avoidance of the truth-claims of metaphysics, scepticism used consistently and rigorously is a force for good.

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