by Kevin Currie-Knight
A friend of mine posted a meme about how vegans are cultural elitists because they do not take seriously the fact that many societies are dependent on eating animals. Against my better judgment, I chimed in. I pointed out that it isn’t necessarily cultural elitism to see something another culture does – slavery comes most readily to mind – as wrong. If vegans think eating meat is murder, their condemnation of societies dependent on eating meat need not be motivated by cultural elitism, but by a desire to condemn murder.
I shouldn’t have said anything. My comment started something equivalent to keyboard wars. And this one ended where most do: nothing is agreed to, people use increasingly heated rhetoric, and everyone treats the discussion as far more consequential than the situation warrants. It was stupid. It always is.
Why do I mention this in a review of How to Keep an Open Mind? Because the book consists primarily of excerpts from the works of Sextus Empiricus, a third century Greek skeptic whose skepticism was motivated by the peace of mind that comes from avoiding the type of beliefs one is tempted to defend, because having beliefs one now feels obligated to defend detracts from peace of mind. Had I seen the meme and had no views on the matter, I would not have chimed in. As soon as I did chime in, however, I felt a need to defend myself, which is what leads to the mental commotion Sextus’s skepticism is meant to avoid. By contrast, if everyone in the above discussion were Sextus-style Pyrrhonean skeptics, we’d have said things like “It appears that one could argue that,?” Then again, others could argue that,” and “Therefore, I don’t have a firm position.”
I bought the book expecting something other than what it was. It belongs to a series called Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers, and the series title and book’s subtitle (“The Ancient Guide to Thinking Like a Skeptic”) led me to think it would be a description of Sextus’s thought applied to the modern world. In truth, the introduction (by Sextus translator and editor Richard Bett) is short, while the bulk of the book consists of excerpts from Sextus’s three surviving books, with brief introductions setting each excerpt in the context of Sextus’s thought.
I am in no position to assess the translation of Sextus. (I’ve read another translation of his Outlines of Pyrrhonism and got the same terse and crystalline prose and the same message from Bett’s translation, but that’s all I can say there.)
I do, however, have thoughts about the impetus of the book, about whether Sextus’s philosophy relates well to the dilemmas of belief and peace of mind in the internet age. It comes up surprisingly short. (Well, it was a surprise to me, at least.)
Those who read (my review of) Julia Galef’s The Scout Mindset may remember her metaphor of argument as war. For those who don’t, here’s what she says (and when reading, keep in mind the social media story I told above, or maybe a similar experience of your own):
Arguments are either forms of attack or forms of defense. If we’re not careful, someone might poke holes in our logic or shoot down our ideas. We might encounter a knock-down argument against something we believe. Our positions might get challenged, destroyed, undermined, or weakened. So we look for evidence to support, bolster, or buttress our position. Over time, our views become reinforced, fortified, and cemented. And we become entrenched in our beliefs, like soldiers holed up in a trench, safe from the enemy’s volleys (p7).
On its face, Sextus’s skepticism is about refusing to have beliefs, and his motivation is that not having beliefs means having no beliefs to defend, and this translates into peace of mind. Really, though, Sextus doesn’t argue that we should refrain from having beliefs as much as that we should refrain from having a certain kind of belief: beliefs that claim to have arrived at the truth about what is. (One can have beliefs, so long as they are beliefs about what appears to be the case, knowing that appearance is always perspectival and potentially deceiving).
Chapter 2 (“Arguments to Have Up Your Sleeve”) rehearses what Sextus calls “the modes”; arguments that justify skepticism. They tend to look like the following: different species will sense and encounter the world differently; different people whose sensory capacities differ will sense and experience the world differently; and different people with different vantage points will experience the world differently. It is impossible, then, to tell how much of anyone’s perception is of the object and how much is of the peculiarity of the senses, etc. The modes are essentially rationales for why people disagree and why these disagreements might be fundamentally irresolvable. While some could take these impasses to be a reason for relativism, Sextus takes them as reasons for withholding belief backed by any sense that one has gotten at truth rather than (as we’ve seen, very bounded) appearance. 
Subsequent chapters review Sextus’s skeptical arguments on the power of inductive and deductive logic, physics, and ethics. In each case, Sextus’s skepticism and the arguments supporting it are means to the end of peace of mind. The idea is that whenever one feels tempted to believe something with conviction – say, a seemingly unassailable argument rooted in deductive logic – you can remind yourself why such an argument is indeterminate. Thus, any belief should start with something like “Right now, it appears that…but there are many reasons why that might be wrong.”
Julia Galef’s idea of holding your identity (and the beliefs that contribute to it) lightly is very much reminiscent of this dimension of Sextus’s thought. Here’s the way Galef says it:
Holding an identity lightly means treating that identity as contingent, saying to yourself, “I’m a liberal, for as long as it continues to seem to me that liberalism is just.” Or “I’m a feminist, but I would abandon the movement if for some reason I came to believe it was causing net harm” (201).
And here is what Sextus says:
For it is not those who admit that they don’t know how things are in their nature for whom still investigating them doesn’t make sense – it’s those who do think they know these things precisely. For the latter, the investigation has already come to an end (they imagine), whereas for the former, the reason why every investigation gets going – thinking that they haven’t made discoveries – absolutely applies” (p 114-115).
The difference is in how lightly identity is to be held. Galef suggests that we believe, but always with care not to identify too strongly with the belief and to acknowledge that one’s belief is “for now.” Sextus takes this farther by suggesting that in reminding ourselves of all the reasons why what appears to be so now can never add up to a picture of what is, which should keep us reluctant to state any belief. Galef’s “for now” warns us not to vest too much in our beliefs; Sextus’s “for now” is a guard against vesting oneself at all in belief.
But how good can Sextus’s advice apply to today’s internet age? In one sense, I can see what he means by equating lack of belief with peace of mind. I find myself noticeably calmer in discussions where I simply have no view on the matter, or at least no view that is firm in any way.
A sensible criticism long leveled at Pyrrhonean skepticism is whether much of our lives can fit into this “agnostic” area. I can’t cease to have a (vested) opinion about whether my wife is beautiful (or cheating on me, as I very much believe she isn’t), whether the student paper I am grading deserves an “A” according to the rubric, or whether it is wrong to spank my children. However, in Sextus’s favor, there are many things I form opinions on that, however important, don’t entail that I hold – let alone express – opinions on. Whether climate change is happening or systemic racism exists are important issues, and it is hard not to form views on them. But especially in light of my ignorance and lack of power compared to experts, what I believe on these matters will (and should) not have any real social consequences. And even if we do form beliefs – even strong convictions – what good is accomplished in the world by expressing and arguing about them on social media?
After reading this book, though, my real concern is that I do not think the path from “lack of belief” to “peace of mind” is anywhere nearly as straight as Sextus thinks. First, Sextus’s skepticism is not passive, but active. It’s not about burying one’s head in the sand, but rigorously resisting temptations to believe by always seeking out counterarguments so as to keep one’s hands thrown up. That seems to take a lot of work and not the type that lends itself to peace of mind. Additionally, sometimes belief feels quite good and it is the lack of willingness to take a position that causes mental strain. (Imagine a position you believe in strongly where the evidence seems firmly in your side’s favor. Now imagine purposefully giving up that belief by relentlessly seeking out counterarguments. Feel any Zen?)
Sextus is certainly an interesting read (as are Richard Bett’s own books expounding on Pyrrhonean skepticism). But after reading How to Keep an Open Mind, I either wish that Sextus’s arguments would have been more explicitly placed in a modern context with a longer introduction, or not have had Sextus put in the position of offering advice for the modern world. There is virtue in being humble about what we believe and being judicious with how personally we hold our beliefs and take disagreements with them. There is virtue in restricting the importance in asking why we feel it important to have (firm or any) beliefs about everything in this age that expects nothing short of that. But as the saying goes, there is such a thing as being so open-minded that your brains fall out.
 While I think understanding the modes is key to understanding Sextus’s thought, this chapter is oddly brief, reviewing less than half of the modes and Sextus’s description of them. The mode I am most impressed with is what we might today call the framework or criterion problem, and goes like this:
For the proof always needs a criterion to establish it, and the criterion needs a proof that it may be shown to be true; and a proof can neither be sound without a pre-existing criterion that is true, nor a criterion true without a proof that is shown beforehand to be trustworthy. And so both the criterion and the proof are thrown into the circulus in probando, by which it is found that they are both of them untrustworthy, for as each looks for proof from the other, each is as untrustworthy as the other. (p. 106)
This mode, in fact, strikes me as quite relevant to today’s internet age, where disagreement often comes down to disagreeing on judgments about what sources and arguments to judge compelling, where each side is convinced that whatever criterion they are using to decide these matters is the only sane or rational one; better to think one’s interlocutor an idiot than to think one’s preferred criterion may not be the last word.