Three New Books: Three — How to Keep an Open Mind, edited by Richard Bett

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. [1]

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.

Notes

[1] 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.

26 comments

  1. Kevin, this is a lovely, clear and concise exposition of the issues.

  2. Kevin,
    But as the saying goes, there is such a thing as being so open-minded that your brains fall out.

    I think the answer to that is there are different kinds of belief that vary in their importance to us. Some are vital, and we hold to them tightly while others are so loosely held that we easily disregard or discard them.

    Knowing which is the beginnings of wisdom, requiring well formed intuitions and deep experience. Which explains in part why youth are so strongly attached to their beliefs. They have not yet grown into the wisdom that will guide them to distinguish between the importance of various beliefs.

    Strong beliefs can be valuable because they supply the impetus and motivation to get things done. They can supply the motivation to overcome obstacles.

    But strong beliefs, to be valuable, must be preceded by a period of reflective formation. It is a contemplative process that embraces multiple perspectives, analyzing them, comparing them and developing compelling goals from this understanding. These kinds of beliefs begin in a loose, flexible mindset that slowly firms up.

    On the other hand, strong beliefs directed towards the maintenance of ‘tribal‘ identity generally have bad results.

    The real point here is the manner in which we use strong beliefs. Strong beliefs are good when
    1) they guide us towards humane, compassionate and loving behaviour.
    2) they motivate us to achieve important goals.
    3) they motivate us to endure adversity.

    They are bad when
    1) we use them to attack or hurt others.
    2) when they blind us to other perspectives.
    3) when they ossify our thinking.

    I must say that I love what you have done by reviewing these three books. I hope we see more of this.

  3. Kevin,
    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?

    Indeed, what good is there? I have found that it often makes one the target of attacks from people who derive pleasure from attacking.

    But even so, and this is just my personal experience, I find the process of debating issues to be valuable because
    1) I learn so much about the perspectives of other people. I love this.
    2) I learn so much about the way other people function. This is valuable.
    3) It forces me to research and clarify the issues in my own mind. I always learn from other people.
    4) opposition from others forces me to adopt a stance of multiple perspective taking.

  4. In my experience being open-minded is a personality trait and like all personality traits the result of inheritance or early childhood development. The people I know whom I would describe as “open-minded” were that way when they teenagers when I first met them.

    Maybe you can become a little bit more open-minded by following a set of steps, but in general, I suspect that being-opened is a trait fixed at relatively early age.

    Dogmatic people who try to be open-minded generally end up being dogmatically open-minded.

    There’s a certain mental flexibility and a sense of humor about their own ideas that non-dogmatic open-minded people have and dogmatic “open-minded” people don’t.

    The open-minded people I know generally are a bit cynical about big ideals and above all, are not especially competitive about winning arguments. The excessive need to win arguments seems correlated with not being open-minded.

  5. It’s interesting that William Kingdon Clifford the ‘Ethics of Belief’ man was also the first of the modern panpsychists a position that can’t be proven deductively but clearly one which he thought rational. You might well describe his position as a transcendental hypothesis and therefore beyond the reach of the resolute sceptic. There isn’t a matter of fact about it.

    We might even be sceptical about scepticism as a general principle and dismiss it as ordinary fact checking. It isn’t philosophically deep. There are so many beliefs that we give assent to which can’t be proven and which we would not consider abandoning.

  6. Certainly the best in this series, Kevin. Well done. Haven’t read Sextus Empiricus in 25 years, this makes me want to look him up again.

    I was trained to skepticism by early experiences with my mother’s family. She was the kind of mom who tried to “keep peace” by lying to one child about another child’s behavior. (‘She didn’t take your book! That’s not a book! There’s nothing there? Watch some TV and I’ll buy you a bag of chips.’) Her mother, my grandma, beat me for discovering there was no Easter Bunny, just chocolates she had bought for the occasion and kept in the cellar. Needless to say, eventually I developed a strong suspicion that most of what I was supposed to believe was crap. After going through decades of trying to find something to believe in, in some religious sense, I finally came to the conclusion that permanent suspension of belief was actually a good thing. I could work with reality on a purely pragmatic basis – if it worked, then it was true for the present; but if there was anything suspicious about the claims, or any serious lack in efficacy – move along.

    Just today I had a bizarre conversation with a friend of mine – highly intelligent, doctorate, professor at a university, published author – he not only tried to persuade me of the veracity of ‘Remote Viewing’ – telepathic imaging for espionage purposes – but laughed at my demands for reputable scientific data on the matter. ‘Hey, one of these guys is a recognized scientist at Stanford! – He’s a laser technology specialist!.’ I pointed out that laser technology doesn’t have much to do with ESP; but there we go, why should it. The faith in the paranormal establishes its own rule. I insisted on publications in reputable scientific journals, he said there was. Turns out these ‘reputable journals’ are all published by parapsychology advocates – including some loosely connected to well-established universities. Why? possibly because for 20 years apparently the CIA did flush money down research in this field, and there’s always the hope the grants will come back. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Remote_viewing

    Recent claims for Remote Viewing – that psychics can see the past, the future, and life on other planets.

    Slugs and snails are after me
    DDT keeps me happy
    Now I guess I’ll have to tell ’em
    That I got no cerebellum
    Gonna get my Ph.D.
    I’m a teenage lobotomy
    (Ramones)

    Why do seemingly intelligent people buy the conspiracy theories, the pseudosciences, the aliens, ghosts and Big Foot. I don’t know. My sister Helen was really wacko about just every superstition/ pseudoscience down the road, I think because she wanted our runaway father to come back, and such beliefs filled a hollow in her soul. For me, with similar issues, the answer was simply to ‘wait and see.’ Sextus Empiricus’ skepticism can be taken too far – but the answer to that is simply, habit, a well-worn practice of living in the world as-is. My friend is still my friend, silliness doesn’t change that; I’ve grown used to being someone different than he. The world keeps turning, as it always does.

    Once Hakkuin, a Zen monk, was accused of fathering an illegitimate child. “Is that so?” he responded to inquiry; but since the family was on the point of disowning the child, he took it in and cared for it. Shortly thereafter the family decided to reclaim the child, because the mother confessed that Hakkuin was not the father, Hakkuin remarked “is that so?”

    James Randi on ‘Remote Viewing,’ etc.: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9kVYvlRgPZM

    1. Ejwinner,
      Is there such a thing though as “what works” in a values vacuum? An example would be capitalism vs. socialism. If your belief is in egalitarianism then one system would work much better than the other. If your belief is personal freedom and opportunity the other would work equally well. It would seem to me that pragmatism only has use in the context of working within an already existing belief.

      1. Rageforthemachine,
        most human behavior is, I think, entirely a matter of habituation, some determined by desires of the individual, most determined through socialization. Habitual behaviors are what get us through the day. Sometimes we have values that align with our desires and hence help to motivate our behaviors; more often we adopt values that seem to explain our behavior and that link them with grander commitments. Most of these grander commitments are lighter than air, and remain earthbound only through our recurrent emphatic re-iteration of them through words, symbols, and institutional structures. What works in our habituated, day to day behavior is simply what gets us out of bed and to whatever destinations we have set for the day. Epistemologists sometimes worry themselves about these as a question of whether we can trust our senses, and what constitutes “justified true belief.” In fact I think the term “belief” is misapplied in such instances. (See my essay https://theelectricagora.com/2018/06/22/belief-and-knowledge-reconsidered/) And for the grander commitments, I think “faith” is a better term for our motivated reasoning concerning them, since faith is much more resistant to evidence, much more resilient in argument, and usually includes not only an explanation of the past but embedded predictions for the future. Clearly, “what works” for these grander commitments has to do with the hopes of faith and predictions they derive from. That is often a matter of perspective, and so that is where political choices, debate, and action occur.

        Most such faith or belief is driven by emotions, not reasoning. That is not to say the two are unrelated (as Hume notices when he remarks reason as the slave to the passions). William James, following Peirce and followed by Dewey, thought that the “will to believe” was a necessary component of any knowledge or its development; I see it as an inevitable component in that process, but not always a healthy one. Suspension of belief in such matters strikes me as the wiser course. This is especially true regarding what I am calling grander commitments. Politics especially can be treacherous, and too many commit themselves before they’ve checked their emotions or their reasoning. But ultimately, especially in functioning liberal states, one must engage in politics, and often in such matters – and in other social, cultural, economic choices – one must act without absolute conviction or certainty. That, I think, is what appalls many in such discussions. Aristotle remarked, “all men love to know;” he should have written “all men want to feel damn righteous, and screw those who disagree!” I think many feel – and want to feel – that their emotional commitments are justified by their ‘certainty’ concerning ‘the way of the world’ – which ‘certainty’ passes for “knowledge.” This is why I am pessimistic concerning the human condition – we are the animal that feels certain, and acts on this, willy-nilly, oft to our own detriment.

      2. I also wanted to remark the examples you give, socialism and capitalism, which are certainly floating about as what I have called “grand commitments.” “Capitalism” refers to any economic system with a system of signifying value exchange without barter, which is pretty much every economy in the world today. “Socialism” thus only refers to a specialized form of capitalism, and the specialization changes from country to country – I put it that way because all countries currently practice some form of socialism. Indeed, socialism is effectively hard-wired into capitalism, since the signifier of value exchange – money – is best manufactured and insured by the government of the state. “What works” economically will deviate state to state in such matters, but often those involved refuse to address this – instead – this is what causes warfare, bloodshed, famine and revolutions? One sees why I’m a pessimist, no?

  7. I heard a story about Sextus Empiricus, that he was well loved by the towns people and well rewarded by them in the town that he lived. This just makes me suspicious. Perhaps he was appreciated for his wisdom, but perhaps they liked him because his skepticism basically supported the status quo. Suppose a politician was reputed to be corrupt, but then flat out denied it. We can’t really know for sure, because some say he is corrupt, but he and his followers deny this. According to Sextus we should then just suspend judgement on the issue and move on. On the other hand the people of Athens despised Socrates and had him executed. Socrates challenged people and pissed them off, because he basically showed that they didn’t know what they were talking about. Sextus seems to be saying: “You can’t be sure about anything, so better to play it safe and don’t rock the boat.” A good way to get people to like you but not a good way to further the cause of philosophy and knowledge. Philosophers before Socrates were called the PreSocratics for a reason. To further knowledge you have to take risks.

          1. Glad to hear that he’s hanging on. Please keep us posted about your father.

  8. Kevin,
    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.

    Agreed – ‘It was stupid. It always is‘.

    As the saying goes, people only open their minds to renew their prejudices.

    But why? What is going on? One answer can be found in the theory of cognitive schemata. We build cognitive frameworks in our minds that order our understanding of our environment and guide our response to it. They help us make sense of the world. As adolescents and young adults we are building out our cognitive schemata. We flesh them out with new data as we acquire more experience of the world.

    Thus our cognitive schemata take form, firm up and then, unfortunately, become rigid. With that comes the problem of how we reconcile new data with existing cognitive schemata. Do we assimilate it, repel it or modify our cognitive schemata? We may react somewhere on the following dimensions, according to the development of our personality:

    1) curiosity vs indifference
    2) flexibility vs rigidity
    3) tolerance vs hostility
    4) respect vs disdain

    In part this is determined by the extent to which we have acquired intellectual virtues. People with strong intellectual virtues react with curiosity, flexibility, tolerance and respect. They are more likely to say “that is interesting. What do you mean by…? Please explain… I never thought of that…”.

    In part this is determined by our tendency towards sollipsism and narcissim. Such people tend to be incurious and hostile to any input that threatens their fragile sense of identity. They are low on respect for other people

    In part this is determined by the degree to which we have assimilated the cardinal virtues and aligned with virtue ethics. Such people show higher tolerance and greater respect for others.

    In part this is determined by how mature our sense of identity is. People with a mature sense of identity are more ready to accomodate and tolerate inputs that do not fit their own cognitive schemata. On the other hand, people with immature and fragile senses of identity tend to strongly reject inputs that do not fit their cognitive schemata and do so with hostility and disdain.

    People who score high on curiosity, flexibility, tolerance and respect tend to learn more, contribute more productively and are more fulfilled. They tend not to indulge in, as you put it, “keyboard wars” .

  9. This reminds me of an old joke.

    A man is in a bar pouring out his soul to the bartender. He is at the end of his rope. Stress and bitterness are eating him up. He is thinking of ending it all.

    The bartender says. “You know I had a customer in here a few years ago who was in the exact same shape you are. Then one day he came in and he was all smiles. I asked him what changed and he said he had found the secret to peace and contentment.”

    The man asks, “do you know where this man is?”

    The bartender replies, “last time I heard he was somewhere in the Himalayas”.

    So the man sets out to find this guru. He searches months, years even, until he finally comes across a serene man sitting in a cave on a mountaintop. He cries out, “are you him? Are you the man who has found the secret to peace and contentment?”

    The serene man responds, “that I am”.

    The man cries, “please tell me, tell me the secret to peace and contentment, I must know.”

    The serene man thinks a bit and says, “the secret to peace and contentment is to never argue with anyone. Never have a cross word or disagreement. Always defer to the other person.”

    The man looks at him for a minute and then shouts, “that’s not the secret to peace and contentment!”

    The serene man looks at him and says, “ok then, it’s not.”

  10. I am more than a little sympathetic to Sextus position, not as a philosophy, but as a psychotherapeutic technique. Certainly we’ve seen the disaster that has been wrought by the “someone is wrong on the Internet” syndrome both for interpersonal relations and people’s blood pressure. Interactions on the Internet are generally not exchanges of viewpoints or opportunities to learn or sharpen your position, they are opportunities to show how stupid anyone who disagrees with you is regardless of that persons greater expertise.

    I think one of the problems is that people generally don’t have a good answer to “why does someone hold a different position than you do?”

    If we go with the idea that people are operating from different perceptions and experiences that leads us to an epistemological relativism that most people would find untenable. Clearly there are ideas about the world that are factually right and ideas that are factually wrong. To get out of that the best position may be to advocate for truth as a method totally divorced from our opinions and biases. People don’t like that though because it goes contrary to what I described above and eliminates most people from the conversations. Truth-seeking becomes the domain of experts who have learned certain techniques and everybody else just needs to shut up and listen The whole idea of the Internet and even sites like this is it allows people to participate in a conversation that they are interested in and have views on, but they aren’t those experts. There is something appealing about the democracy of that idea even if it has led to disaster.

    Of course there are still positions that people can take that are demonstrably wrong and it is not hard to figure out why. Creationism comes to mind. Creationists like to say that we all have the same facts just different interpretations. That interpretation is the result of deciding on a deductive conclusion about the world, deciding there is one source for that conclusion that completely trumps any other, and sealing off that source from any outside criticism. Should we not attempt to counter such thinking with methods that have proven more conducive to describing reality, and resist the urge to say this is just people having different beliefs?

    1. There are a lot of views which “should” be spoken out against, creationism (as you say), violent racism and xenophobia, bellicose jingoism, etc.

      However, as you point out in your anecdote above about the man in the Himalayas, if you always defer to the other person as a general principle, it’s better for your mental health. Thanks for the anecdote. I’m going to try out defering to the other person as a general principle for a few days or maybe a few weeks now.

      By the way, as I recall from reading it about 50 years ago, the best-selling book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie, recommends never arguing as a basic principle.

      1. It’s funny though your post actually made me think in a lot of situations there is really nothing wrong with “arguments”. Many people’s fondest memories are of the late night “arguments” over the meaning of everything in life during their college days. Socratic dialogue is a type of argument I am much in favor of. Recently my wife and I have been having more arguments and it has been very good for us as we are getting our feelings across more and doing it in an increasingly constructive manor.

        Even on the Internet I have had good exchanges and bemoaned the lack of more of it. Example, I an an atheist and used to hang out at debate forums a lot. There are a lot of aspects of the philosophy of religion and apologetics that I do find interesting and important though like presuppositionalism’s view on knowledge, how Christianity spread so quickly, is there teleology in nature? Yet when I brought up these questions to the atheist side I was labeled a believer, and when presented to the religious side I got the type of pseudo-answers that are only rooted in a blind faith. So I felt I had to give it up for my own piece of mind. Luckily I decided I am too old to even begin to wade into the cancel culture arguments so I get to avoid that joy all together.

    2. Here’s what Dale Carnegie says:
      The only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it. Whenever we argue with someone, no matter if we win or lose the argument, we still lose. The other person will either feel humiliated or strengthened and will only seek to bolster their own position. We must try to avoid arguments whenever we can.

  11. SW,
    The only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it

    But in any case, why even try to get the best of an argument? Matters of winning and losing should be confined to the sports fields.

    Semantics matter and the moment we substitute the word ‘argument‘ with ‘debate‘ the issue is coloured differently Matters of the mind are illuminated by debate whereas emotions are aroused by argument. Through debate we develop the reasoning, collect further information and clarify the issues. Debate allows us to test the arguments and facts. Good debate arouses us from the lethargy of intellectual sloth. It awakens us from intellectual slumber. It inspires us to reconsider and reexamine issues. It energises our thoughts.

    However it is the manner and the spirit in which the debate is conducted that is vital. It can be done with goodwill and respect but still be a vigorous debate.

    On the other hand, there is no reason, whatsoever, to engage in mocking, derisory, scornful, disdainful or hateful comments. They have no good outcomes, perform no useful function and only make the originator look foolish. It is the signal they have lost lost the ‘argument‘. Which is why, when such remarks are directed at me, I smile inwardly and don’t reply.

    There is a powerful reason for thinking that ‘winning’ an argument is a delusory goal. Attacks arouse defenses that block thoughtful consideration. On the other hand, clear, cogent arguments stated simply have far greater persuasive power than rhetorical force. You don’t need the other person’s admission of defeat and you should not try to obtain that. Good, clear, pertinent reasoning has a momentum of its own and a power to infiltrate, over time, the thoughts of others.

    The essential outcome of good debate is that it exerts influence, not that it changes minds. People only change their minds much later, in the privacy of their thoughts, once the cumulative tide of influences, over time, modify their outlook. We won’t know this and it may even never happen. But that does not matter. What matters is that we conduct ourselves honourably, in a spirit of goodwill that contributes to harmonious relationships. This is the most important influence we can have.

    It was in this spirit that I created the Seven Rules for the Commentariat, in comments to the last essay

    1. I put myself on a diet. I’m not going to argue or debate with anyone for at least a week, maybe more. I haven’t yet worked out how I’ll go about that, but probably I’ll answer “ok” to anyone who says anything I disagree with.

      In internet it’s easy enough because nothing compels me to even comment in blogs, but in daily life people do say things that I disagree with and as I said, I’m not going to try to argue with that for a while.

      I’ll see if that helps me be more “open-minded” and/or less defensive about beliefs that form part of my perceived identity or maybe even it may help me grow a bit as a person.

      1. OK 🙂

        I look forward to reading your report back on your experiences.

  12. Hi Kevin,

    Enjoyed the series. And look forward to more from you. I really like Sextus, I only wish there was more of his though still available.

    “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.”

    I agree the methods for convincing others, the modes, can appear straightforward, but that applying them to oneself isn’t always a simple matter or obvious how to go about it. On lack of belief, I think Sextus believed in a kind of provisional knowledge or suspension of final judgement on non obvious matters, a position somewhere in between the dogmatists and the skeptics who seem to have held a more complete lack of belief than Sextus.

    “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.”

    I see epoqué, or suspension of judgement, as a pleasant feeling, a dénouement, or the unraveling of badly formed or no longer useful beliefs.

    “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?)”

    On lack of willingness to take position or relentlessness in seeking counter arguments causing strain, though some tension is good I don’t think ‘strain’ is necessary. We can have beliefs and counter arguments can be cultivated and will often come up on their own in thought or conversation, and I think when there’s strain it’s often caused by taking on, with ourselves or others, war like positions, tendentious language, competitive attitudes, or the kind of certainties that seem bound to cause disruption.

    Good observation on sometimes belief feels good, I’m still thinking on it.

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