Illusive Mind

The Unquestionable should be questioned

Monday, January 03, 2005

Suspending Belief


Following on from my previous post: "I believe, not" the question is asked "how does one go about refraining from belief?"

Note that thanks to Richard's comment I am distinguishing between two types of beliefs, those that are a matter of trusting or placing confidence in something "I believe it is warm" and being convinced of the truth of something "I believe the world exists". The former I call, ideas, thoughts, and notions. The later I call beliefs.

The easiest thing to construe first up is that refraining from believing is believing in nothing. But this is clearly different, just as the strong atheist believes in the non-existence of God and the weak atheist refrains from believing anything about God.

A chap named Arcesilaus came up against the same problem. Arcesilaus was the sixth head of Plato’s academy and was a skepticist. Arcesilaus primarily attacked the Stoics for relying on sense impressions for knowledge in creating various systems of metaphysics, ethics and epistemology. According to the Stoics a wise person would never assent to anything that is uncertain, Arcesilaus said that you could never tell if your senses were completely accurate or not and as such a wise person should never assent to anything.

Some say that by arguing for this kind of skepticism Arcesilaus abandoned Platonism. However, In the apology of Socrates by Plato, Socrates says:

I will endeavor to explain to you the reason why I am called wise and have such an evil fame I reflected that if I could only find a man wiser than myself, then I might go to the god with a refutation in my hand. I should say to him,' Here is a man who is wiser than I am; but you said that I was the wisest.'

Accordingly I went to one who had the reputation of wisdom, and observed him, his name I need not mention; he was a politician whom first among I selected for examination, and the result was as follows: When I began to talk with him, I could not help thinking that he was not really wise, although he was thought wise by many, and still wiser by himself; and thereupon I tried to explain to him that he thought himself wise, but was not really wise; and the consequence was that he hated me, and his enmity was shared by several who were present and because I heard me.

So I left him, saying to myself, as I went away:

conceit of Man, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is, for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows; I neither know nor think that I know. In this latter particular, then, I seem to have slightly the advantage of him

Arcesilaus goes further by saying not that he knows that he knows nothing because if he knows nothing he knows nothing at all.

Arcesilaus often refuted the arguments of the Stoics by providing reasonable explanations for both sides, establishing aporia (perhaps in a Derridian fashion) and thus suggesting that the only wise action was epoche, the suspension of belief or mental commitment to either or any view, i.e. refraining from belief.

The Stoics thought that without knowledge of something there can be no basis upon which to act. Much like having ‘foundational beliefs’ in order to play the game at all.

The skeptics challenge this by saying that we act upon the appearance of reality not the truth of reality and admitting this does not preclude men from continuing to act on such appearances, that “Men naturally seek what appears good and avoid what
appears bad; in this sense they follow nature as their guide.” Custom or tradition can also be the basis of action or decision, as customs can be observed at the level of appearance and followed without a mental conviction or belief. “It is on this basis, for instance, that the skeptic performs acts of piety and avoids impiety. Thus Cotta, the Academic spokesman in Cicero's De natura deorum, insists that he may be a philosophical skeptic and still participate in the traditional Roman religion”

Arcesilaus goes further by suggesting that such skepticism need not be reduced to what we might today call Nihilism by virtue of eulogon. Eulogon is the reasonable, so we may perform actions for which reasonable defence may be given. It is not contrary to skepticism according to Arcesilaus to use as one’s guide the actions any reasonable man would do.

I think that these are reasonable methods of making decisions and acting in the face of skepticism, or whilst refraining from belief. These were criticised by the early skeptics however, by the proponents of Pyrrhonism.

Pyrrhonians disagreed that these kinds of reasonable or probable standards for action or knowledge are required. They argue that the path of skepticism is maintaining epoche, the state in which you neither affirm nor deny anything in hope of attaining ataraxia. Ataraxia is the state of tranquillity, calmness, mental and emotional disquiet supposed to be achieved from letting go of the human need to believe in truths about the world. Pyrrho (B.C. 360-270) coined the term Acatalepsia, which means it is impossible to know things in their own nature, thus the validity of not only the senses but of the objective world could not be verified. (Much like Kant’s noumenal reality).

Does this mean Pyrrhonians sat under Bhodi trees refraining from judgement of the world whilst calmly meditating their lives away? No, they too like the Academic Skeptics of Arcesilaus supposed that you can act upon the senses and upon reason so long as you don’t infer from ‘it seems or feels x” to “it is x”.

I think it is right to “act as if” the world is known and the truths are real, however this is a far cry from “suppose that” or “think as if” my sense are infallible receptors of the truth. To me this means, admitting skepticism does not mean abandoning science by denying empiricism. It does not mean that you should give up doing what you think is right, and being ‘ethical’. It does mean giving up thinking your perspective is privileged, that you are right, and that you know the truth.

How can these things be compatible? Well that is most definitely the subject of another post, however I will say that there are many ways of deciding actions or making scientific progress without believing in an objective existence. Consensus reality, for one.

I would like to make further studies into the similarities and connections between early skepticism and post-modernism and also eastern philosophy. Pyrrho is generally attributed as the founder of skepticism, (a precursor to Academic Skepticism).

“He took part in the Indian expedition of Alexander the Great, and met with philosophers of the Indus region. Back in Greece he was frustrated with the assertions of the Dogmatists (those who claimed to possess knowledge), and founded a new school in which he taught that every object of human knowledge involves uncertainty. Thus, he argued, it is impossible ever to arrive at the knowledge of truth.”

I would not be surprised to learn that the whole movement has its roots in Indian philosophy. Some of the core ideas of Zen Buddhism bear striking resemblance to the practices of Epoche and Ataraxia.

Upon googling +epoche and +zen I found a journal article by Philip J. Bossert in the Journal of Chinese Philosophy called:


“In a recent article in this journal, Dr Chung-ying Cheng discussed the seemingly paradoxical use of language in Zen dialogues and suggested a means for understanding this paradoxical quality. The "principle of ontic non-commitment" and the method of "ontological reduction" which he described as an approach to resolving the paradoxical qualities of Zen language appear to me to be quite similar to the phenomenological technique of epoche and the method of phenomenological reduction which the German philosopher Edmund Husserl developed early in this century to deal with certain paradoxes of subjectivity and objectivity”

I for one think that Eastern philosophy has been remarkably overlooked in understanding the intricacies of post-modernism and post-structuralism. Though perhaps not entirely due to ethnocentrism but due to the bizarre manner in which writings on Zen for instance appear to the western academic.

From On Zen (Ch'an) Language and Zen Paradoxes

By Chung-Ying Cheng
Journal of Chinese Philosophy

“Zen (meditation school; Ch'an in Chinese) as a form of Chinese Buddhistic religion and proto-philosophy seems to be constantly puzzling and persistently inscrutable to modern philosophers in the Western world. Even philosophers of religion with the most broad-minded approach to religion do not seem to be able to make intelligible and intellectual sense of Zen thinking and Zen practice.”

In the midst of studying continental philosophy of the likes of Saussure, Foucault and Derrida, imagine my amazement when perusing Wikipedia and finding the entry on Shunyata :
“Shunyata signifies the nonsubstantiality or lack of essential nature of everything one encounters in life. (i.e., that everything is empty of substance, being, soul, essence, etc.) Everything is inter-related, never self-sufficient or independent; nothing has independent reality”

I don’t know by how many centuries this Indian term predates the writings of those philosophers, but I am looking forward to finding out.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Alston distinguishes between voluntarily accepting a proposition and finding oneself believing it, which is a largely involuntary process. I think what you're distinguishing from belief may well be what he's calling acceptance.

I'm a bit skeptical of the eastern origins of western belief (and vice versa). It may well be that these are longstanding western ideas that we have no record of, and that they eventually trace back to India or somewhere else (or the two have a common ancester), but this period of Greek philosophy was quite fruitful, and I wouldn't put it past them to have come up with it independently. 

Puported by Jeremy Pierce

1/24/2005 08:07:00 AM  

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