Skepticism Without Nihilism

Featured image is The Philosopher Pyrrho from Elis, by Petrarcha

The Greek term skeptikos means, not a negative doubter, but an investigator, someone going for the skeptesthai or enquiry. As the late sceptic author Sextus Empiricus puts it, there are dogmatic philosophers, who think that they have found the truth; negative dogmatists, who feel entitled to the position that truth cannot be found; and the sceptics, who are unlike both groups in that they are not committed either way. They are still investigating things.

Julia Annas

In his autobiography, Charles Darwin lamented that he used to love poetry, but could no longer “endure to read a line” of it. He complains:

My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive.

I think economics trained me to think this way. When I began a fresh foray into philosophy a couple of years ago now, I approached it from this stance. Every book went into the grinder, to mash up and join with others in the cage of general laws. I steamrolled my way through book after book; when I couldn’t follow them I just pressed on so I could get to the next one. There was no thought of reading for pleasure or respecting the book before me like I might respect a partner in conversation. What is more rude than completely dominating a conversation without consideration for the other person?

But I launched into reading as if quantity equaled quality, as if I could become an expert simply by reading a lot.

I did, indeed, learn a great deal. But for the last year or so, I felt that I had stumbled on authors who helped me grow in an important way—they helped me to see more clearly a wide and yawning ignorance in myself, including an ignorance of how far the ignorance itself extends.

Increasingly, I wonder: isn’t this what philosophy is supposed to teach? For all the flaws of the historical and fictional Socrates, don’t we still admire him for saying that he only knew that he knew nothing?

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In a secular age, we are often uncomfortable talking about faith outside of church or possibly among family. Many of us do not even go to a church, or have not ever. Especially among decisive, hard-headed people of business, faith can be an embarrassing subject. But it is an important subject, for Atheists and Christians, businessmen and teachers alike. And this isn’t a high-minded statement pronounced while looking down from above—faith is as crucial to the practicalities of daily life as the very ground under our feet.

For thousands of years there have been philosophers who made a name for themselves by attacking what was accepted on faith. The ancient skeptics believed all knowing and reasoning was impossible. The ancient cynics thought human society was inferior to nature. More recently, David Hume argued that the fact that something has happened repeatedly does not logically demonstrate that it will happen again—so there is no proof that the sun will come up tomorrow. Even more recently, Derrida emphasized that context determines the meaning of what we say and do, but we have an endless amount of context that we could focus on for any one action. So how can we ever be sure we understood it or have been understood?

In some sense, all of these skeptics were right. There are deep limitations to our knowledge and what we can work out with nothing but reasoning.

Faith fills in these gaps and makes it possible to live a full life without constantly being paralyzed by uncertainty. This is not a blind faith—treating faith and reason as opposites is a big mistake. It’s not just that you need faith and prudence together to be fully virtuous, the way you need to be courageous on behalf of justice rather than cruelty. It’s more than that. You need faith before prudence is even possible. Remember our discussion of the novel—how all other books and stories we had read or heard or watched helped form the perspective we bring as readers of a specific book. This is faith—the belief that everything we have experienced up until now in our lives is not for nothing, that it is salient as readers of the situation we are now confronted with and as authors of the rest of our lives.

Again, this is no blind faith! When we are confronted by circumstances that challenge our perspective as it stands, the prudent person will reexamine those aspects of their perspective that have been challenged. The just person knows that they owe it to the people in their lives to be open to the questions such circumstances pose to us, rather than stubbornly ignoring them and missing an opportunity to refine our judgment.

But stubbornly ignoring the questions posed by situations that do not fit your expectations is not what it means to be faithful. That is an unvirtuous faith, an imprudent faith, just as much a vice as an imprudent courage is mere recklessness. Moreover, unexpected circumstances only appear at all if we have expectations in the first place. It is the faith that we bring into the situation that identifies it as special to begin with. It is only because of the perspective we already have that we are capable of viewing our subverted expectations productively in the form of questions that such subversion raises.

Without faith, you are just a “bundle of experiences,” as Hume put it. With faith, you are a person, a character in an ongoing story of which you are both a reader and a co-author. Confidence, self-assurance, and trust—these qualities, which are so vital to our lives, are aspects of the virtue of faith.

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