Skepticism in the 21st century

by Jeroen Bouterse

I sometimes consider becoming a skeptic, but then I’m not so sure what that entails.

Mind you, I mean a proper skeptic, a Pyrrhonist or something. What attracts me is not this unsustainable Cartesian angst about maybe living in the Matrix, but the wholesome promise of the ancient skeptics: that if you can live with uncertainty, you unlock this treasury of psychological benefits. Suspension of judgment, not believing to know what you don’t know, supposedly allows you to level up intellectually: to be inquisitive and critical, to open your mind without your brain falling out. The ancient skeptics were smart and prescient about contrasting themselves to the ‘dogmatists’ – who wants to be a dogmatist anymore?

So what’s holding me back? Well, I’m ashamed to say that the first thing that comes to mind are those paradoxes. You know them. Does our skepticism extend to the truth of skepticism, and similar objections. Also, are we supposed to suspend judgment about the truth-value of identity-statements, tautologies or contradictions? And if not, don’t those simple tautologies bleed into more complicated analytical truths, or even into mathematics? I’m not sure. Do I have to have a clear-cut opinion on questions like these before I can, with conviction, call myself a skeptic – all the while maintaining my suspension-of-judgment? That is a difficult balancing act that sounds almost like work.

Even though I humbly admit that I don’t know enough about these issues, I fear that my very insecurity about them demonstrates that I don’t have the mind to be a skeptic. I’m afraid to be a dogmatist about any of these questions, because I’m afraid to be wrong. That’s a condition that can easily escalate into desiring to be right. The skeptic on the other hand, while interested in problems surrounding knowledge, somehow manages to see all of them as somebody else’s problems.

Pyrrhonism and the pursuit of knowledge

The Pyrrhonists claim, apparently in earnest, to be tentative even in their conjecture that the truth has not been found yet, and to suspend judgment even on the question of whether it cannot be found in principle. Sextus Empiricus, who wrote primers on skepticism in later Antiquity, explicitly interprets famous skeptical slogans (such as “nothing can be known”) as imprecise ways to convey an inquisitive attitude, rather than as statements of skeptical doctrine.

Still, the battery of skeptical arguments he presents is so general that it is hard to imagine any case where none of them applies. Sextus says that even if skeptics were presented with a compelling argument in favor of some claim, they could retort that there may be a compelling counter-argument that simply has not yet been thought of by anybody! (PH 1.33-34) This one-size-fits-all response is not self-refuting – the skeptic may keep an open mind about the possibility that it is itself answerable. Yet, a willingness to play this card strongly suggests that knowledge is unlikely to be found. Armed with arguments like these, it seems the skeptic does not really need to investigate particular cases anymore.

Pyrrhonism is, at the very least, a decision to arm yourself against positive arguments, and the reason for that decision seems to be the expectation that a state of suspension of judgment is more robust, a more reliable source of tranquility, than a state of dogmatic conviction. The skeptic calculates that committing to any claim leaves one vulnerable to equally convincing considerations, and predicts that there is always a risk that those exist.

Given that the aim is tranquility, ataraxia, it seems the skeptic should suggest that if you do choose to be a dogmatist, you had better be as closed-minded as possible, so as not to be perturbed by good arguments against your beliefs. Alternatively, the dogmatist could be satisfied with her strongly held beliefs, and, should she feel herself moved to convert to different beliefs, take the accompanying anxiety as a temporary evil. After all, this way she will be at ease most of the time. If asked “doesn’t it bother you that you used to be equally convinced about different opinions before?”, our dogmatist could just say “no, why? I am perfectly convinced that I am right in the present, and that is what counts”.

What I’m getting at, is that I’m not sure that the Pyrrhonist aim of tranquility is most reliably realized by skepticism and general suspension of judgment, rather than by dogmatism and discriminate commitment. According to Sextus Empiricus, the discovery that suspension of judgment led to ataraxia was itself serendipitous. This illustrates that it is a non-evident psychological belief, and suspension of judgment seems the proper position with respect to it. Assuming that the skeptic no more than the dogmatist can rule out being confronted in the future with arguments that sway her either way, there seems to me to be no asymmetry between the two that favors skepticism. After all, the dogmatist can also play the card of an as-yet-unthought-of-decisive-argument-in-her-favor!

The only possible symmetry-breaking consideration I can think of, is that the Pyrrhonist skeptic is interested not only in ataraxia but in the pursuit of truth. Where the dogmatist complacently thinks knowledge has been found and no further arguments are needed, the skeptic, in conjecturing that the truth has not been found yet (and is also not provenly unattainable), is the only person in the room with the right mindset to keep searching – unbiased and never afraid of what she will find, because she has no prior epistemic interests to satisfy and because she expects to counterbalance any findings with the possibility of their opposites. That sounds liberating.

Who’s afraid of relativism?

The skeptic, of course, has arguments, or ‘modes’ as they are usually called, that serve to deflate particular knowledge claims. Many of these boil down either to the circular or regressive nature of our reasoning, or to the relativity of our observations. What we experience depends on all kinds of contingencies – including the physical makeup of our species – and we can’t bypass those contingencies to get to the things themselves. We are effectively stuck in our own experiences.

These musings may feel uncomfortable ‘in this day and age’. The skeptic, with her relativistic inclinations, sounds like a poor ally in the battle against, you know, all the lies. Who wants somebody on their side who is constantly teaching the controversy? Don’t we need to defend knowledge claims now more than ever? Don’t we need science and truth to battle the politics of alternative facts?

Certainly. However, I believe these worries are unfair to the skeptic. First, I am not convinced there is such a thing as a ‘politics of alternative facts’. The problem with Trump and his cronies is not that they adhere to a skeptical philosophy that is consciously playing it fast and loose with the notion of knowledge; they claim, fictitiously and in bad faith, that they (too) have facts on their side. (That is the context in which Kellyanne Conway first used the term ‘alternative facts’.) If they have any implicit position on the matter, they are not skeptics but precisely lying dogmatists; they need to employ notions of truth and truthfulness to attack the Lügenpresse and their other opponents, cheapening and abusing those notions but not dispensing with them.

Second, a call for ‘facts’ itself relies on an equivocation. We need facts, fair enough; it doesn’t follow that we need any philosophically demanding concept of facts. We need the tools that scientific data and scientific authority provide, we need some clarity on whether or not to wear masks, we need informed government policy and we need to follow the most promising routes to vaccines. In general, we need to remember why a robust scientific consensus is worth relying on over uninformed propaganda. That doesn’t mean that we have to lose our sense of irony or contingency even with respect to this scientific consensus.

It’s a difficult balancing act, I admit. And maybe there is a case to be made that we can’t have the benefits of facts without policing the concept too; in the spirit of things, I’ll call myself agnostic about that. Even so, shouldn’t it be possible for a skeptic to say that truth, facts and knowledge are useful notions in political discourse, while also maintaining – sorry, conjecturing – that that discourse is devoid of real knowledge? That calling something true or factual in practice is more like a social compliment? The point of the comparison being that compliments are definitely not meaningless, perhaps even necessary for a functioning society; but they are not thereby essentially different from other speech-acts, let alone philosophically fundamental.

I have talked myself into a bit of a corner here, however, in that while defending the skeptic, I have made her rely on a rather clear distinction between public language and philosophical thought. That doesn’t seem right. The Pyrrhonist does not protect any beliefs from her philosophical reflections. When Sextus Empiricus attacked the knowers of his age, he didn’t just go after the Stoics and the Platonists, but also after the professors of grammar, of logic, of geometry, of all the liberal arts.

That is, he went after the best science of his time, indicating ways of looking that made the whole enterprise look silly. Take Euclidean geometry, with its ‘lines’. What is a line, anyway? Has anybody ever seen or successfully endeavored to imagine a one-dimensional object, or can it be coherently abstracted from other phenomena? It is, supposedly, made of ‘points’. Do the points leave gaps, or do they touch? If they leave gaps, then why do you think what you have here is a line; if they touch, well, how on earth are they going to cover any distance at all?

Now that’s heroic, I think. Would you dare to do this? To knock on the door of a respected university faculty building, and hand them a copy of your manuscript respectfully explaining why all the work they do there rests on shoddy concepts and fragile logic? The Pyrrhonist has to be rather confident in her conviction that no knowledge has yet been found and that everybody should keep on looking; it’s a confidence that I, living in an age where so many people so much cleverer than me are looking and have been looking for quite a while, can’t muster. Today, skepticism’s essential intellectual humility is negated by the very self-assuredness you need to have in order to believe that your whataboutery is a counterweight to all the scientific evidence and expertise. Present-day vaccine skeptics or climate skeptics may be critical and independent thinkers, but the force with which they defend their positive beliefs shows they do not have the mind of a skeptic. There. QED.

Beliefs and agency

You should distrust that conclusion, obviously; it’s a political, highly contextual one. It’s because I believe what is called ‘skepticism’ about topics such as climate change is not an exercise in intellectual honesty, but rather the opposite: it is harmful denialism about robust scientific findings, peddled by interested merchants of doubt, to borrow the phrase from historians of science Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway. What do contrarian arguments do in public discourse, except muddy the waters? What, then, is the skeptic other than a useful idiot?

Was there ever a time for an honest skeptic? I don’t know. Perhaps less polarized times are friendlier to irony and criticism, because they don’t mistake the skeptic for a partisan of the other side. Still, I wonder whether intellectuals in Sextus’ time would have appreciated the tough love he gave them: thanks a lot, I imagine them tweeting, for saying that the discipline of grammar is useless. The emperor saw you on Fox and now there goes my funding. I suppose you want Romans to stay illiterate?

At the very least, there is never a time in which a skeptic can be sure to do good – by definition. To me, this is a source of considerable stress, and it puzzles me that to the skeptic it seems to be the opposite. As a skeptic, you never know if by attacking something, you are strengthening or improving it, or weakening or destroying it; nor, in the last case, if what takes its place will be better (‘would appear to you to be better’). Your very choice to become a skeptic is an experiment of which you will never know all the results.

Of course, if this is true, it is probably true about any choice about how we arrange our lives. The Pyrrhonist, however, seems to go further than admitting this. She seems to consciously abandon the pursuit of meaningful agency while the jury on truth is out, acting only on immediate appearances and not on any carefully obtained positive beliefs about non-evident issues – since after all it appears to her that the opposite of those beliefs could equally well be right. That appears to me, presently, to be a problematic attitude.

The problematic aspect to Pyrrhonism is not its relativism or its wager against knowledge, but the very suspension of judgment that it prides itself on. For all the attractiveness of its call for open-ended inquiry, and for all the intellectual honesty of its insistence that knowledge is a tricky thing and claims to have attained it should be subject to scrutiny, I believe it pays too high a price in sticking with appearances.

Beliefs, however tentatively and ironically we hold them (thanks to many centuries of absorption of skeptical philosophy), do not appear to me to be merely an obstacle to tranquility. They appear to me to be an indispensable tool of social and political communication – even more so than their dignified relatives, the facts. They are so precisely because assent to them indicates social commitments.

The Pyrrhonists teach us that when we commit to some belief about what is good or bad, it increases our anxiety. So what if it does? Now is not the time for withholding commitment to political causes; and that means preferring the beliefs that those causes are entangled with over ‘alternative facts’ – not because our beliefs have the definitive stamp of truth, but because we have become honestly convinced that they are better than those alternatives. We need to act on examined beliefs; we need to exercise judgment, not suspend it.

I guess that means I will remain a dogmatist. For now, pending further investigation.



In preparation for this column, I have benefitted from reading the following texts:

Bett, R. (2019). How to Be a Pyrrhonist: The Practice and Significance of Pyrrhonian Skepticism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Burnyeat, M. (2012). Can the sceptic live his scepticism? In Explorations in Ancient and Modern Philosophy (pp. 205-235). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cooper, John M. (2012) Pursuits of Wisdom: Six Ways of Life in Ancient Philosophy from Socrates to Plotinus. Princeton; Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Morison, Benjamin, ‘Sextus Empiricus’, Accessed May 9, 2020.

Perin, C. (2010-04-29). The Demands of Reason: An Essay on Pyrrhonian Scepticism. Oxford University Press.