Suspending Belief

Tamer here (and here and here). This is my first post and I’d like to thank Dhananjay for inviting me to contribute. I am currently working principally on metaphysics, especially in Aristotle and Hellenistic philosophy; however, I have been thinking about a number of issues at the intersection between epistemology and ethics for a while now and I thought that for my first couple of posts, I’d write about these issues as they were discussed the ancient sceptics. In this first post, I’ll offer a brief introduction to Pyrrhonism. Subsequent posts will offer slightly more detailed discussion of a number of puzzles posed by what the Pyrrhonists were up to.

It is frequently emphasised that ancient scepticism, at least in its Pyrrhonist flavour, was as much about belief as it was about knowledge. We might understand this scholarly platitude as follows. The modern sceptic is usually taken to argue for something like the following:

(1) For any proposition p, one does not know that p.[1]

In contrast, the Pyrrhonist is typically taken to argue for something like the following:

(2) For any proposition p, one should not believe that p.

How does one accomplish (2) and refrain from believing? Well, by producing arguments for p and against p (or for not-p, or else for some proposition which entails not-p).[2] If the arguments of equal strength, one is placed in a position where the reasonable thing to do is to suspend belief: neither to believe that p, nor to believe that not-p.

There are a number of points of interest here, but the one that probably gets discussed the most in the scholarly literature concerns the scope of (2).[3] What, precisely, is the scope of the sceptic’s suspension of belief (epochē)?

(i) Does the Pyrrhonist suspend (or aim to suspend) all beliefs; or
(ii) Does the Pyrrhonist suspend (or aim to suspend) only a certain subset of beliefs?

To many, (i) has seemed silly or impossible. How, for instance, would action be possible without beliefs? A life without beliefs, the thought goes, is that of a vegetable and is undesirable for any rational agent. Further, suppose someone were to desire such a life, how could they possibly hope to suspend all beliefs? Accordingly, (ii) has seemed more promising to many, and discussion has centred on how precisely to construe what sort of beliefs are forbidden to the Pyrrhonist.

The other notion that is worth drawing attention to here is the fact that tranquillity (ataraxia) is supposed to follow (fortuitously, tuchikōs [PH 1.29]) from said suspension of belief. Those questions I am particularly interested in are: the nature of the sceptic’s epochē; how ataraxia is supposed to be the aim (telos) of the Sceptic (e.g. PH 1.25); and why, precisely, tranquillity should follow from the suspension of belief. I’ll be discussing those in forthcoming weeks.

If anyone would like to raise any particular issues for prospective future discussion post them here and I’ll see what I can do.

[1] There is an important disanalogy between (1) and (2). Despite a few notable exceptions (e.g. Peter Unger) very few contemporary philosophers embrace the label ‘sceptic’ or would openly (and in print) embrace (1). Instead, the sceptic (and a thesis like (1)) is usually a shadowy antagonist that most epistemologists fight against. In contrast, Pyrrhonists lived (or at least seem to have professed to live) the stuff of (2).

[2] The sceptical modes (tropoi, PH 1.31-179) offer the material for such arguments and are the means by which this suspension of belief is generated.

[3] For discussion of what I have characterised as (i) and (ii), see, for instance, M. Burnyeat and M. Frede (eds.), The Original Sceptics: A Controversy (Hackett, 1997).

    • Matt
    • January 16th, 2014


    Maybe these points have come up in the secondary literature. If so, it would be good to know where. It seems that the idea of what it is reasonable or rational to believe seems to play a big role in the way of thinking you lay out.

    For example, you might think that what is rational is, when faced with some options, just to select whatever is good for the agent, all else being equal. In that case, if you think suspension of belief is good (because it leads to ataraxia), why does rationality not dictate they you just suspend belief directly? Why go through the process of opposing arguments? I assume that they have some other conception of rationality, which would be interesting to know about.

    Maybe it is something like Hume’s idea in On Miracles, that we should ‘apportion our beliefs to the evidence’? But then, when faced with equal evidence that p and that not-p, it seems we should believe both, not neither: maybe with half our credence in p and half in not-p.

    Also why is it rational, when faced with equally compelling arguments that p and that not-p that we suspend belief about whether p? Why not flip a coin and believe p if heads and not-p if tails? These sceptics would need some notion of rationality that rules out the coin-toss view, either as an irrational or some other way.

    • Dhananjay
    • January 16th, 2014

    Thanks for steering us into new waters, Tamer!

    I’m especially intrigued by the scope question. In particular, does the fact that the Pyrrhonist sceptic professes to have a method require her to insulate a relevant set of methodological beliefs from her overall scepticism? This is a positive way of putting a point often cast in terms of self-refutation. You mention practical self-refutation, the idea that a sceptic can’t live her scepticism or that action is impossible without beliefs, but theoretical self-refutation looms for the sceptic, too.

    Is theoretical self-refutation just a species of practical self-refutation, where the activity in question is endorsing scepticism or endorsing the sceptical thesis?

    Are there ways of construing the acceptance of practical advice, even quite theoretically loaded practical advice, that side-step the rational process of belief formation the sceptic wishes to avoid?

    Is the sceptical method instead a kind of ladder that must be kicked away once you rid yourself of undesirable behavior?

    What are the range of doxastic attitudes considered by the sceptics and their opponents and how do these map onto contemporary distinctions?

    As to the last question, it seems to me that belief as a propositional attitude (“believing that something is so” where the belief can be held very weakly or very strongly or anywhere in between) is a philosopher’s term of art. In ordinary language, we speak more often of what we think about things, and reserve belief for belief in things, including propositions but also institutions, people, etc. Does the sceptic want to us to stop thinking things about things, or just to stop believing in them as real, powerful, valid, etc.?

    • djr
    • January 17th, 2014

    I’m also glad that Tamer is writing about Pyrrhonism here. In the past I’ve largely ignored the Pyrrhonists as loony and vulnerable to devastating self-refutation arguments, but more recently I’ve come to see that things aren’t so simple. Dhananjay’s last questions about doxastic attitudes and belief are, I think, especially important: just what is it that the skeptics are supposed to be giving up? As I understand it, doxa is indeed a philosopher’s term of art, but has some features that the analytic philosopher’s ‘belief’ at least sometimes doesn’t. Most notably, doxa is distinguished from phantasia, and phantasia would pass for belief on many intuitive conceptions of belief. It seems that a whole lot rides on how we understand the distinction.

    Perhaps relevant to Matt’s questions is the role that anxiety is supposed to play in motivating Pyrrhonist skeptical practice: belief produces anxiety, and that’s at least in part why, when we find equally compelling arguments that p and that not-p, we suspend belief rather than flipping a coin or what not. So perhaps it is not so much an implicit view of rationality that lies behind the preference for suspension of belief, but a kind of psychology? Interestingly, empirical studies seem to show that many people don’t share that psychology, insofar as strong religious and ‘spiritual’ beliefs are correlated with lower levels of anxiety and with effective coping strategies. What would a Pyrrhonist say about that, and do they address anything like the claim that belief doesn’t always induce anxiety?

    My understanding of these things is rudimentary and they’re pretty distant from my current work, so I hope Tamer gives us plenty more in the near future.

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