The following is the continuation of the book review of Pyrrho’s Way: The Ancient Greek Version of Buddhism, by Doug Bates. The first part of the review is here.
In Pyrrho’s Way, Doug Bates presents numerous arguments in favor of the Hellenistic Skeptic tradition, and against dogmatism. For the sake of clarity, let me explain what is at stake. In modern parlance, generic skepticism means “a skeptical attitude; doubt as to the truth of something”, and a second definition (of the philosophy of Skepticism) is as “the theory that certain knowledge is impossible“. Skeptical means “not easily convinced; having doubts or reservations”, and a second definition says that Skeptical philosophy relates to the theory that certain knowledge is impossible.
On the other hand, a modern definition of dogmatism is “the tendency to lay down principles as incontrovertibly true, without consideration of evidence or the opinions of others“. These are the first definitions that showed up for me in an online search. Part of the problem that we face when we discuss ancient philosophy in a 21st Century setting, is that words carry meanings that were not originally intended. Notice that both definitions unfairly dismiss evidence as a criterion for dogma, which is the Epicurean method. Being skeptical is called for when we have no evidence one way or another. That is fair: but when we HAVE evidence and corroboration of it by various senses and faculties, then (Epicureans argue) it is necessary to acknowledge dogmatic truths, so that we may found additional knowledge in the future on the truths already established, and verify them against these truths. The dogmatism of the Epicureans is empirical, evidence-based. The modern definition of dogmatism seems to exclude this, perhaps because dogmatism has come to be associated with Christian and other faiths whose doctrines have nothing to do with empirical evidence.
Furthermore, in introducing this controversy, we must also explain the meaning of the Canon. In Epicurean philosophy, the Canon is the standard of truth that was established by nature. To us, this Canon is composed of three sets of faculties (frequently known as the Tripod of Truth): the five senses, the pleasure / aversion faculty, and the anticipations (a pre-rational faculty tied to memory and speech). In generic philosophy, the canon (from the Greek word for “measuring stick”) is any standard that is established for truth–so that the canon includes the implicit understanding that truth can be attained. So the question of the extent to which we should be skeptical or dogmatical, in the philosophical sense, is tied to the problem of the canon, whether it’s fair to establish a standard of truth, and to what extent it’s trustworthy.
Bates polemicizes (page 41) the tendency to “dogmatize” regarding the non-evident. For instance, Epicurus’ Letter to Pythocles dogmatizes concerning astronomical phenomena (which was not empirically available to the ancients via telescopes or space flights) utilizing the Epicurean method of inference by analogy, as described in Philodemus’ scroll On Methods of Inference. While this method is not perfect, and there may be problems in determining the extent to which two phenomena must be similar in order for the inference to apply, this method remains much more reliable, safer, and useful than speculation without evidence. Also, this critique does not address the core problem with Skepticism: that it treats evidence as unimportant, dismissing it as “appearances”, not as truth.
Pyrrho’s Way (by showing us some of the key flaws of Skepticism) allows us an opportunity to see why philosophy should not be endlessly speculative, and why doctrines not only help us to assimilate important truths, but can also be useful as Epicurean upayas, or efficient means to a pleasant life.
Frequently while reading the book, it occurred to me that Skepticism is not too different from nihilism. No truths can be established, and nothing has meaning. When I approached the author to see if he wanted to engage in friendly debate concerning this point, he did not produce an argument against skepticism being nihilistic. In his book, he accuses nihilism of being just another dogma, which sounds like Pyrrhonist word-play. It looks, walks, and quacks like nihilism.
Are All “Truths” Equally Valid?
Let’s consider the main epistemological problem at hand. Pyrrho would agree with those that say that everything is fake news. No certainty is ever possible. In one passage of the book, Bates gives same amount of credibility to a baby having one father versus multiple fathers, as some tribes believe, thereby resulting in extreme moral and epistemological relativity. This view might find some adherents in the nihilistic, post-modern world–but it’s extremely flawed. Extreme suspension of belief is non-empirical: it treats all empirical truths as equally valid to dangerous or idiotic superstitions.
Furthermore, the lack of a canon, of a standard of empirical evidence is dangerous. We saw it most recently in the death of Herman Cain, and in Brasil President Balsonaro’s CoVid diagnosis. These two prominent leaders had been denialists of scientific “dogmas”, of truths that had been empirically established, and had surrounded themselves with peddlers of religious faith who insisted that scientific insight has no value. Cain’s death shows that empirical facts do make a difference, and can indeed be a matter of life and death.
Science is of particular importance to Epicurean dogmatists because, in many ways, the scientific method has perfected the Epicurean canon. It has given us focused, and highly efficient, methodologies to use and interpret empirical data.
Bates claims that Skepticism is responsible for scientific advance–and there may be some limited merit to that claim–but science could not have evolved using the tools skepticism provides because if we accept that no truth or certainty is possible, a hypothesis can’t evolve into a theory. It remains forever in a speculative state because there is no canon, no standard to determine whether its truths can be established. In page 167, Bates equates science’s insights to “faith”, and disregards both evidence as well as checks and balances that might help us discern between truth and untruth. Following the Skeptical method, there’s nothing wrong with “prophet” Muhammad’s unwillingness to provide proof for his outlandish supernatural claims, and they have to be considered potentially true even in the face of evidence against them because societal convention (in some societies) accepts them.
Many of the false beliefs that people adopt are dangerous to our lives, our health, and our happiness. Denialism about CoVID (and about sexual education, and many other matters related to health) can have devastating results, including death. The belief among some fundamentalists that God forbids blood transfusion has led to the death of many children of pious families. Unwarranted religious beliefs also lead to great violence and injustice–from terrorism to the loss of even the most basic civil freedoms in many countries.
Does Dogmatism Really Make us Arrogant?
At times, Pyrrho’s Way reads like an anti-dogmatist manifesto. Are dogmas as dangerous as Skepticism claims? Bates (in page 234) goes as far as to claim that all evil done to others is based on “beliefs”, and even that the civil war was caused by dogmatism–which was a bit forced. He also says (page 36) that the “analog to dogma in Buddhism is attachment”, “conceit”, and that dogmas are like parasites which must be removed via epoche (the suspension of opinion). Epoche is achieved through the opposition of arguments.
Can one hold something to be true while remaining unattached to this truth? I think it’s possible to remain unattached, but not necessarily always desirable.
In a scholarly dispute, he who loses gains more because he has learned something. – VS 74
The book argues the simplistic view that “skeptics are humble and dogmatists are arrogant”. But dogmatism can be the humble acceptance of evidence. An arrogant dogmatist would say “I have the truth, and if you disagree I will cease being your friend“. A humble dogmatist may say “I know these truths, but I respect that you have a different opinion“. An arrogant skeptic will be a troll, constantly questioning one’s every opinion while offering no alternative views because there are no truths out there. A humble skeptic will use his methodology to achieve ataraxia.
Can Humans Live Without a Criterion for Truth?
I’ve seen all of the above in people I’ve met. Laertius, Book 9.11 (74) of his Lives of Eminent Philosophers said
The Sceptics were constantly engaged in overthrowing the dogmas of all schools, but enunciated none themselves; and though they would go so far as to bring forward and expound the dogmas of the others, they themselves laid down nothing definitely, not even the laying down of nothing. So much so that they even refuted their laying down of nothing, saying, for instance, “We determine nothing,” since otherwise they would have been betrayed into determining …
Pyrrhonists are adamant that the rejection of all dogmas is not itself a dogma, but this requires great skill at word play and rhetoric on their part. Pyrrho classifies things as evident (the Zen word is “intimate”) or non-evident (harder to reconcile among people), and will concede that things are evident, but not that they’re real. The “appearances versus facts” controversy sounds like word play. Appearances are particles in photons, aromas are particles in the air, noise is waves in the air, etc. There’s a way in which these attestations from nature can’t be other than factual. Later in (103), Laertius continues to attest to the arguments between Skeptists and Dogmatists, citing the Skeptics as saying:
And we say in conversation that a certain thing appears white, but we are not positive that it really is white.
Diogenes Laertius 9.11 (106) is more biographer than philosopher, but even in his work he argues that it’s impossible to go through life without a criterion for truth by saying:
Therefore the apparent is the Sceptic’s criterion, as indeed Aenesidemus says; and so does Epicurus.
Even La Mettrie, who called himself an “Epicurean Skeptic”, focused on the canon in his studies of the faculties of the soul. And so the Skeptics are often accused by the dogmatists of word play: appearances, which are evident for all, for all intents and purposes are true. Why not call them true? When the book argues that “we (Skeptics) do not oppose evident truths“, this is the same as trying to say that something can be evident but untrue. Laertius, in his account of Pyrrho’s life, seems to indicate that Skepticism proves to be unreliable by saying (Book 9.11, 71)
Some call Homer the founder of this school, for to the same questions he more than anyone else is always giving different answers at different times, and is never definite or dogmatic about the answer.
Can a person that acts in this way be considered reliable and dependable? Even as they claim to have no doctrines or criteria for truth, they still need a functional canon or practical standard. Their insistence that their standard is not a canon simply renders their words meaningless. In Diogenes Laertius 9.11 (101), this is the reported
There is nothing good or bad by nature, for if there is anything good or bad by nature, it must be good or bad for all persons alike, just as snow is cold to all. But there is no good or bad which is such to all persons in common; therefore there is no such thing as good or bad by nature. For either all that is thought good by anyone whatever must be called good, or not all. Certainly all cannot be so called; since one and the same thing is thought good by one person and bad by another; for instance, Epicurus thought pleasure good and Antisthenes thought it bad; thus on our supposition it will follow that the same thing is both good and bad. But if we say that not all that anyone thinks good is good, we shall have to judge the different opinions; and this is impossible because of the equal validity of opposing arguments. Therefore the good by nature is unknowable.
This critique by Diogenes Laertius, that Skeptics withheld judgment even on ethical matters, reminds me of Philodemus’ critiques against the rhetors who worked as lawyers, and frequently defended both the right and wrong position in court cases. The view that since subjective experiences are relative, there are no moral truths, is rejected by the Epicureans, who point out that nothing absolute exists. We know that Polystratus argued in this manner in Irrational Contempt. His argument echoes Epicurus’ Epistle to Herodotus, which says that in addition to primary or inherent properties, bodies also have relational properties. In this way, the first Epicureans argued in favor of a moral realism based on the physics.
Different people experience things differently. Polystratus attributed this to the relational properties of bodies. He cited examples of how some people are allergic to bees or peanuts, but not to other things, or how some plants cure people with certain diseases but not others, or how a magnet attracts certain stones but not others. He said that this is the result of the properties of the relevant bodies. Similarly, the pleasant and the painful, the noble and the vile, are also relational properties. Social chemistry is, literally, chemistry. Just as we may be affected by the presence of a certain allergen in the air, people affect each other in their social interactions, which–we now know–produce the release of oxytocin and other hormones. Polystratus’ argument is that nothing absolute exists, but that does not render relational properties of bodies any less real.
One other problem must be pointed out concerning Pyrrhonist ethics. If we say that nothing is inherently good or bad, does this not lead to a lack of critical thinking? Is there no cruelty, no harm, no pain or suffering? Can these things be “good”? Can words have meaning anymore? Anyone who has a moral compass, must refer his moral judgments to SOME criterion, or else he’s practicing passive nihilism.
Skeptics, who pride themselves in being the inquirers, find shortcuts to end the inquiry without sincerely evaluating any potential solutions, while the Epicureans do not give up on the inquiry. This is because the Skeptics are not seeking a solution to philosophical problems: they are seeking the suspension of judgment.
To What Extent is Skepticism Called For
To be fair, the Epicurean must start every investigation from the point of view of skepticism, and withhold opinion until clear evidence is presented. We have a canon or empirical standard, and we are flexible enough to allow for inferring about the non-evident based on the evident. For instance, I’m skeptical concerning the existence of gods. I feel that we should prudently withhold a definite opinion until after evidence has been gathered and evaluated.
I concede that withholding opinion about the non-evident is generally wise and justified, but ONCE evidence is presented, Skepticism’s utility is limited. While in theory the skeptical method may sound stimulating to some individuals, in practice it leads to endless, pointless, speculation.
Pyrrhonism: How the Ancient Greeks Reinvented Buddhism
Pyrrho’s Way: The Ancient Greek Version of Buddhism