keskiviikko 29. tammikuuta 2014

Against dogmas

Until now, the philosophers we have studied have tried to establish their opinions as more or less certain truths, in other words, they have held on to some dogmas they have believed in. We have also seen philosophers attacking opinions of other philosophers and trying to find weaknesses in them. Yet, the end of such arguments has always been establishing the truth of one's own opinions. Still, one might suppose that some philosophers would merely argue against opinions of others and delight in finding holes in theories and still not teach any credo of their own.

We find such an attitude in some Greek physicians. Medicine in general had had a sort of rivalry with philosophy: both physicians and philosophers were sure they could improve people's lives. Of course, some physicians endorsed philosophical theories of the constitution of humans and based their practice on them. Yet, others of the so-called empirical school thought such theories were always untrustworthy, and instead, based their practice on immediate observations: if this substance appears to make this patient feel better, we should probably make him take it more.

In philosophy, the first clear sign of such a dominant use of criticism had been Socrates' habit of questioning his fellow citizens, although even he was probably trying to get them admit some moral truths. Use of Socratic dialogue was continued in Plato's school, although more as a method for educating young students, while Plato and his immediate followers undoubtedly held on to some dogmas. Still, in course of time, the Socratic method actually overthrew Platonic dogma from its place of honour in Platonic Academy.

The beginner of this trend was Arcesilaus, who was fond of showing that no dogma of other philosophical schools was more believable than a contrary dogma: indeed, he apparently taught that no assertion was to be believed. His opponents and especially Stoics doubted that such a life would be even possible, because believing something was so ingrained in human mind. Arcesilaus answered that one might still use what is reasonable as guidance in life.

An even later teacher of Academy, Carneades, countered the Stoic doubt that instead of firm assertion one could base one's life on plausibilities. Thus, one need not believe in a single sensation, but if it happens to cohere with many other sensations, it might still be recommendable to live as if this sensation was really true. If we ignore external appearances, Carneades' view was actually not that far from official Stoic doctrine: in place of firm truth one could just put high probability. It is therefore not that surprising that later Academicians moved closer to the position of Stoics.

The true embodiment of the critical attitude was the Sceptic or Pyrrhonian school, named after its founder. Pyrrho was famous of doubting everything, even what he saw in front of him, and his opponents told stories of Pyrrho being saved by his followers from dangers he just couldn't accept as true. Pyrrho had only few followers, most notable of them being Timon, famous for poems making fun of all the other philosophers. Later, Pyrrhonian school became to have some affinities with the empirical school of medicine, as evidenced by the name and the testimony of Pyrrhonian with most surviving writings, Sextus Empiricus.

Pyrrhonians shared some methodological points with Academy of Arcesilaus and Carneades. Most importantly, both schools showed that every belief could be countered by another plausible belief. Thus, what one sensed could be countered by other sensations – like tower could seem round and angular from different directions – or by theories – like white could be said to actually be multi-coloured, and similarly theories could be countered by sensations or by other theories.

While Academics were quick to conclude that no assertions should be believed in, Pyrrhonians thought this was contradictory, because it would mean believing in this demand of non-belief. Instead, Pyrrhonians couldn't even decide whether something should be believed in or not.

Seemingly out of all options, Pyrrhonians explained that in addition to conscious choice of holding on to some assertion, people were forced to choose things according to what things seemed to be: thus, when I feel hungry, I am forced to find food, although there might be no guarantee that I am actually in need of nourishment. Similarly, Pyrrhonians suggested, when two opinions appear to be equally plausible, we are forced to suspend our beliefs concerning them altogether. Still, the possibility that either one of the opinions was the correct one still remains.

Just like Academics, Pyrrhonians faced the problem how one could live in such a state of non-belief. While Carneades had relied on the notion of plausibility, Pyrrhonians thought that it was enough to rely on what thing appeared to be and what these appearances forced us to do, just like in the case of hunger and accompanying desire for eating.

Pyrrhonian Aenesidemus was famous for inventing general argument schemes by which all sorts of opinions could be attacked. His general method was to note that we could always view things only from some perspective or context and by changing this context the opinions would also have to change. This relativity or perspectiveness could be caused by the peculiar nature of the one holding the opinion. Thus, different animals sense and think of things differently, and we have no right to hold one species to have a more perfect view of the world than others. Even if we could somehow hold humans as the species with best cognitive apparatus, humans themselves would still have different constitutions and would view things differently. Even if we then could pick out some person as truly wise, she would still feel things differently with different senses: something that would look pleasant could taste horrible. Furthermore, she would see things differently under different conditions, e.g. as young she hears things that she couldn't hear while old.

In addition to the person holding opinion, the things that the opinion should be about cause also differences of opinions when they are changed. Thus, quantity of things affects how we view it: drinking a glass of water is refreshing, drinking whole ocean is deadly. A peculiar case is formed by laws and customs, which differ from place to place and engender different views about the good life.

Finally, the variablity of perspectives could also be caused by the interaction between those who investigated things and those who are being investigated. Thus, even the relative locations of the observer and the observed could make a great difference, because things look different from different angles and distances or when observed in water and out of water. Furthermore, if something is novel to the observer, it will seem more or less different from what a familiar object feels like.

An even simpler and more effective set of arguments was invented by a later Pyrrhonian, Agrippa. His starting point is familiar: there are many contradicting opinions and they all seem to be just a matter of perspective. It is when someone attempts to present an opinion as something more than mere opinion that Agrippa's arguments really begin. If something is just supposed as convincing in itself, then the opponent has an equal right to suppose her option. If then one attempts to base this supposition on something, it will have to be based on something similar or something different. If you base it on something similar, you face the same questions again and at most you can set up a never-ending search for foundation. If you base it on something different, you still have to find some base for this new supposition and you then also have the same two choices: basing it on something similar falls again to the problem of never-ending search, while always trying to base suppositions on something different will eventually go through all possible options and create a loop that itself is not based on anything. The end of the story is that nothing can be supposed without begging the question.

Pyrrhonians also insisted that there appeared to be nothing that could be taught. Either we would be taught all the things that do not exist – but this is absurd – or then we would be taught all the things that exist – but this is equally impossible, because we couldn't start anywhere, if everything had to be taught to us. Furthermore, what was taught isn't corporeal, because bodies are not thoughts, while it is uncertain if there are any incorporeal things.

Then again, Pyrrhonians continued, it was doubtful that there were any experts good enough to teach anything – and non-experts clearly aren't able to teach anything. Furthermore, even learning appeared to be impossible: experts couldn't learn anything anymore, while non-experts couldn't even recognise when they have learned something.

Finally, Pyrrhonians stated that there was no proper method to teach anything. If you just showed things to a pupil, he would just pick up what evidently appeared to him and not learn anything new. Speech, on the other hand, couldn't be used to teach anything, because one would already have to know what the words meant, if he was to learn anything – and if she knew what they meant, then she wouldn't need anyone to teach them more.

Armed with such strong arguments, Pyrrhonians could have just rested on their laurels and declared all attempts to find knowledge futile. Instead, they went to quite some length in order to discredit even individual disciplines. They began with the traditional Greek elementary studies, in order to show that knowledge could not be found even in such elementary topics.

First of the elementary studies skeptics rejected was the learning of grammar and classic literature. Sextus noted that learning grammar was not altogether useless, because reading and writing were important for surviving in the real life. It is the supposedly expert part of it, dealing with intricacies of language that is both useless and doubtful. An expert of language begins by defining its elements or individual sounds, but it is problematic to even decide what is an individual sound. Is a long vowel a separate sound from a short vowel or just two vowels put together? Is a differently pronounced s a new sound or a combination of s with some other sound? Written language is of no help here, because it is far from being consistent and in some cases it accepts such as different elements and uses a different letter for them, but in other cases it uses a combination of several letters.

Combining sounds into syllables and words is also problematic, because it is sometimes difficult to distinguish combinations of several syllables or words from a single syllable or word. Even more inconsistencies are produced by grammatical genera of words, especially if they are defined as masculine or feminine. If the experts of language try to make the linguistic inconsistencies disappear by making all conjugations and such bound to a rule, the problem is which rule one should follow in unclear cases. The only sufficient criterion appears to be the actual language use of different people, but this requires no expertise and would also mean acceptance of all inconsistencies. If the experts would want to revert to some original state of language, they couldn't explain what was better in such archaic forms – if they were natural, everyone would use them.

The teachers of grammar also boasted of knowledge of myths and ancient poets, but this did not impress skeptics. Because myths and poems are so variable and have different version, there can be no systematic discipline studying them. Furthermore, trying to find great wisdom in such works of art is futile, because these works are so inconsistent in their teachings: should we follow the advice of one character or of another?

After grammar, it was rhetoric that faced the skeptic attack. Sextus ridiculed teachers of fine speeches who rarely made speeches themselves, and noted that floral expressions of famous orators rarely received any sympathies from listeners and judges of court anymore and thus failed to convince or impress, which supposedly was the major achievement of this art. In addition, he noted that a community would not benefit from people who could lull others with pretty words, thus making the status of rhetoric as a useful art suspect.

Even mathematical arts weren't left in peace, at least if they passed the limits of what was required in everyday life. Pyrrhonians criticized the notion of points as dimensionless entities, out of which were generated breadthless lines, depthless planes and finally normal bodies. All that we see, they say, has some dimensions, has breadth and even depth, so we truly have no reason to suppose the existence of such non-entities like points, lines and planes. Furthermore, even if such incorporeal entities existed, it would be mysterious how they could produce corporeal bodies or even limit them.

Equally suspect in Pyrrhonians' opinions was the attempt to base arithmetic on the philosophical notion of One as something that made all things into unities. Was this One itself a unity? Wouldn't it then make all the unities into just one entity, thus making it impossible to count anything. And if it was more like a material that could be divided and attached to each unity separately, how could we speak of the One as a unified entity?

It was not practical land measuring and counting that Pyrrhonians criticized, but theories supposedly meant as their foundations. Similarly, they were not antagonistic towards empirical study of stars and their movements, but towards the attempt to read people's destinies from the position of the stars at the time of their conception or birth. Pyrrhonians noted that even if stars do influence human lives, such studies would have to be of utmost accuracy, because clearly there have been persons born very close and very near one another and still with quite remote destinies. Then again, such accuracy is impossible to maintain, because it is too difficult to determine the exact point at which a child has been born or conceived.

The final part of traditional Greek education or music was also argued against by Pyrrhonians. While music was usually hailed as necessary for cultivating human character, Pyrrhonians noted that in many cases music appeared to have quite the opposite effect and that its apparent good consequences were caused by its capacity to captivate its listeners. Furthermore, musical education appeared useless to Pyrrhonians, because even small babies could appreciate good music. Finally, Pyrrhonians attacked the whole notions of a systematic study of music, because it consisted of fleeting melodies, which had no stable structure to be investigated.

Pyrrhonians continued on to argue against the more refined philosophical disciplines. In the order of presentation, they mostly followed Stoics, probably because it was the most famed school at the time. Thus, like Stoics, they began with logic, but instead of showing how one can find what is true, they presented arguments against the possibility to find truth. The other schools had supposed there had to be some group of entities that were able to decide what is true or not: most of them had supposed this group contained at least some humans. Now, Pyrrhonians noted that even recognising someone as a human would require a commonly accepted definition of humanity, which no one had yet given. Indeed, because no one had satisfyingly discerned the generally supposed constituent aspects of humans, that is, material bodies and mental life, there was no reason to assume a combination of these aspects was any more understandable.

Even if we could discern humans from other entities, Pyrrhonians continued, we still could not accept that humans would be able to know the truth, unless someone who knew truth confirmed it – thus, another regress was generated. Further problems were created by the diversity of human opinions – surely not humans with all their disputes could all be truth recognisers.

If humans or at least some of them were still accepted as capable of knowing the truth, Pyrrhonians could always move on to study the tools by which a human being knows something. Of these tools, sensations clearly contradict themselves from time to time, while intellect is somewhat fuzzy entity, of which nothing much is known for certain – and even we just accepted it, as it is, different people would appear to have been lead to different opinions by their intellects. The only option would then be to let senses and intellect cooperate, but even this cooperation would be useless, because neither could be used as a final standard in cases where the senses and intellect disagreed.

Finally, Pyrrhonians doubted the veracity of the idea that what appeared to us human beings through either senses or intellect could be used in discerning truth. Indeed, they said, it is unclear what these appearances are and how they are produced, so there is nothing to indicate that they have any connection with truth. Indeed, it appears that appearances tell more of the internal states of human beings than of any external objects. We couldn't even say that appearances are similar to the objects, because we cannot have any direct view of the objects. And in fact, while appearances contradict one another, there is no standard for deciding which of them are true.

Pyrrhonians went even further and even suspected the very existence of truths. Truths appeared to be something beyond mere perception, because truth is not a thing that we could literally see. Truth also doesn't appear to be a linguistic attribute of statements, because statements as temporal processes come and go and then truth would also vanish after the statement has been uttered. Then again, if truth was just something in our thoughts, then no things we perceive would be true, which would appear strange.

Even more problems arose from the attempts to know something mediately, through signs or symbols, just like fire might be recognised through rising smoke. Sign apparently must then be immediately apparent and clear – otherwise we couldn't know of it – while that which is known through a sign must be hidden and unclear – otherwise there wouldn't be any need to use sign. Problem is, we couldn't know that A is a sign of B, because we wouldn't be aware of the B at all. Furthermore, it is problematic whether knowing something as a sign requires only perception or also thought. If it would require mere perception, it would be unclear how people conceive different causes for certain signs, for instance, two doctors who make different diagnose from same symptoms. Then again, it cannot require thinking, because even dogs can use signs like smells for information gathering.

An important subspecies of sign use that Pyrrhonians also attacked was demonstrations, which derived formerly unknown truths from known truths. Their main point was that all apparently valid conclusions were either useless or inconclusive. Consider, for instance, a proof of the form ”A, if A then B, thus B”. Here the statement ”if A, then B” is actually quite problematic. You cannot really know it is true, unless you have gone through all known cases where the statement A holds. But if you have done this, then you already know directly that B is also true at this time, so the whole deduction is pointless. If, on the other hand, you don't know whether ”if A then B” is true, you cannot prove B through this argument. Weaker inductive proofs fare even worse, because one could not generalise from a single observation. Indeed, Pyrrhonians noted that logicians were not even better in choosing what arguments to follow than real experts: for instance, a doctor might know instinctually that certain prescription was not made right, while logician would have nothing to add to this.

Pyrrhonians also spoke against the need to define things precisely. Indeed, because definitions couldn't be made infinitely big, there should be some ultimate undefined terms, thus showing that skill of defining things is not always useful. Indeed, many definitions made things even more obscure by replacing fairly well known terms with further murkiness. Finally, Pyrrhonians ridiculed the division of classes – if we cannot even know what these classes are, we cannot really say the division is complete.

In physical matters Pyrrhonians could easily refer to the variety of opinions held by different schools, yet, they took pains in finding arguments against certain common opinions. Thus, when Stoics tried to argue that physical matters could be explained by active causes interacting with passive materials, Pyrrhonians raised doubts against both of them. The ultimate active cause was often said to be some god or gods, but Pyrrhonians could also easily bring forward philosophers doubting and even ridiculing the idea of the existence of gods. For instance, god would have to be either motionless and even incapable of motion – rather pathetic god – or else it would love and thus be susceptible to corruption. This point resembles a basic contradiction in the very notion of divinity: gods were thought to be good and powerful, but still they either couldn't manage or wouldn't want to relief the world of all the suffering. Paradoxically, Pyrrhonians thought that this lack of definite conclusion was actually best thing that happened from a religious viewpoint. If no conclusion was certain, then one should just continue following traditional worship just in case. Those who wanted to prove the existence of gods, on the other hand, made religion susceptible to ridicule by blasphemous counterarguments.

In addition to gods, all active causes are actually suspect, Pyrrhonians suggested. Firstly, we couldn't even conceive what causes are, because knowing a cause would presuppose knowing its effects, which would then presuppose knowing their cause. Even if one could know what causes are, she would have to give a cause that would guarantee that there are causes: this would lead to a never-ending series of causes. Finally, it is actually in most cases even impossible to distinguish between the active and the passive components of causal relation. For instance, when sun, say, dries a piece of clay, sun is not the only active thing, because the clay itself is acting to allow the drying – if it would be snow, the result would be quite the contrary, that is, a wet spot.

Furthermore, Pyrrhonians thought the very process of causation to be dubious. Presumably causes either added something to things or took away from them. Now, such an interaction would in most likelihood occur either between two bodies or two non-bodily limits of things, like lines, because it would be difficult to say how e.g. lines could add anything to bodies. Line then apparently could in a sense take away something from another line, for instance, when one line cut another in two. Then again, the very notion of such splitting of lines was very awkward. If a line could be cut in two, then its parts would have to have been joined by a point, which the cutting line would then go through. But where would this middle point then belong? It could not belong to both parts, or they would still be joined, but if it belonged to either, the line would not be cut evenly, and if it belonged to neither, the line would have been cut into three parts. Similar problems would be faced with combining lines and other limits of bodies.

The notion of bodies interacting with one another is equally difficult, Pyrrhonians continued. Suppose a smaller body is added to another. If the smaller body truly changed the essence of the larger body, it would make this other body similar to itself – namely, smaller. Addition would then actually diminish a thing, which would be absurd. If the smaller body, on the contrary, would not affect the essence of the other body, it would not really add anything to the other body, but would only come in close contact with it.

In addition to causes, the very things that causes act on are suspect, Pyrrhonians continue. Most of the philosophical schools assume that there are material objects or bodies that can be described through geometrical means. Yet, in order to account for three-dimensional bodies geometrically, one must regard them as formed from two-dimensional surfaces and finally from one-dimensional lines – problem is that we can see no such two- or one-dimensional things flying around anywhere. Furthermore, it is a mystery how concrete bodies can be thought about reliably. If we could do it, such thoughts would have to be based on prior perceptions of bodies, but it seems that we perceive only fragments of these bodies – we see colours, we smell certain odours, but our perceptions do not tell us that these colours and odours go together. Because we cannot directly perceive all such properties as belonging to one thing, we cannot even think about such belonging.

This still leaves the possibility that there could be incorporeal substances that could be affected by some causes. Problem is that we seem to be unable to define incorporeal substances without any reference to the corporeal substances, which were already deemed problematic. In addition, incorporeal substances cannot be perceived to exist, because they cannot exert any influence on our sense organs. Furthermore, their existence cannot even be argued for, because arguments definitely are not corporeal, so we would have to decide first whether there are incorporeal things, before we could just assume the existence of incorporeal substances.

In addition to the general attack against incorporeal substances, Pyrrhonians also went against some particular types of such substances, such as place and time. Of these two, place cannot be material, because then it would repel bodies, but it cannot also be a void, because then it would vanish, whenever occupied by a body. Time, on the other hand, consists of a part that is not yet, a part that is yet to come and of a fleeting limit between the two – how could it exist? But if place and time do not exist, how could there be any motion, or indeed, change in general and thus anything for physics to study? Then again, motion and change are so natural concepts that defending them requires just reference to common experiences. Because there are good reasons both for accepting them and for disregarding them, Pyrrhonians concluded that we should just refrain to say anything about them.

After physics, Pyrrhonians set their sights on ethical questions. Here they could easily refer to the various opinions and customs in different cultures and with different thinkers, so that any supposed taboo was practiced or at least allowed by some people: for instance, some of the early Stoics had seen nothing bad in eating human flesh. Hence, Pyrrhonists concluded, nothing was naturally good or bad, for otherwise everyone would think it good or bad.

Furthermore, Pyrrhonists denied that anyone could really be an expert of how to live. This couldn't be a natural trick, because then everyone would know it by instinct and need no philosophers to guide them, but learning how to live was as impossible as learning in general. Furthermore, philosophers are often in awe of the idea of a truly good person, but Pyrrhonians noted that such people are usually like nothing when compared with even better persons. Finally, supposed experts of good life lived actually rather poor lives full of all sorts of hardship.

In fact, skeptics appeared to live much calmer lives than their dogmatic fellows, Pyrrhonians thought. Latter had all sorts of beliefs about what is good and what is bad and then spent all their life craving for what is good and fearing for what is bad, thus making their life full of woe and misery. Pyrrhonians, on the other hand, had no opinions about the matter and were thus hurt only by such unavoidable physical feelings like hunger.

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