Nobody knows, and nobody can ever know

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Absolute                       -                    Relative
Attached                      -                    Detached
'Is'                                 -                    'May be' 


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Scepticism, as a doctrine of the schools, was first proclaimed by Pyrrho [...]

He is said to have maintained that there could never be any rational ground for preferring one course of action to another.

In practice, this meant that one conformed to the customs of whatever country one inhabited.

A modern disciple would go to church on Sundays and perform the correct genuflections, but without any of the religious beliefs that are supposed to inspire these actions.

'We sceptics follow in practice the way of the world, but without holding any opinion about it. We speak of the Gods as existing and offer worship to the Gods and say that they exercise providence, but in saying this we express no belief, and avoid the rashness of the dogmatizers.'

To men who, by temperament, required a gospel, it might seem unsatisfying, but like every doctrine of the Hellenistic period it recommended itself as an antidote to worry. Why trouble about the future? It is wholly uncertain. You may as well enjoy the present; 'what's to come is still unsure.'

It should be observed that Scepticism as a philosophy is not merely doubt, but what might be called dogmatic doubt.  

The man of science says 'I think it is so-and-so, but I am not sure.' The man of intellectual curiosity says 'I don't know how it is, but I hope to find out.' The philosophical Sceptic says 'nobody knows, and nobody ever can know.'

The only logic admitted by the Greeks was deductive, and all deduction had to start, like Euclid, form general principles regarded as self-evident. Timon denied the possibility of finding such principles. Everything, therefore, will have to be proved by means of something else, and all argument will be either circular or an endless chain hanging from nothing. In either case nothing can be proved.

The manner in which Arcesilaus taught would have had much to commend it, if the young men who learnt from him had been able to avoid being paralysed by it. He maintained no thesis, but would refute any thesis set up by a pupil.

Sometimes he would himself advance two contradictory propositions on successive occasions, showing how to argue convincingly in favour of either.

A pupil sufficiently vigorous to rebel might have learnt dexterity and the avoidance of fallacies; in fact, none seem to have learnt anything except cleverness and indifference to truth.

[Bertrand Russell]
History of Western Philosophy ('Cynics and Sceptics'), p.224-6, 228-9

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[...] 'There are certain opinions about what is right and honourable in which we are brought up from childhood, and whose authority we respect like that of our parents.

[...] but what happens when he is confronted with the question, "What do you mean by 'honourable'?"

When he gives the answer tradition has taught him, he is refuted in argument, and when that has happened many times and on many different grounds, he is driven to think that there's no difference between honourable and disgraceful, and so on with all the other values, like right and good, that he used to revere.

What sort of respect for their authority do you think he'll feel at the end of it all?

[...] Then when he's lost any respect or feeling for his former beliefs but not yet found the truth, where is he likely to turn? Won't it be to a life which flatters his desires?

[...] And so we shall see him become a rebel instead of a conformer.

[...] there's one great precaution you can take, which is to stop their getting a taste of [philosophic discussion] too young. You must have noticed how young men, after their first taste of argument, are always contradicting people just for the fun of it; they imitate those whom they hear cross-examining each other, and themselves cross-examine other people like puppies who love to pull and tear at anyone within reach.

[...] So when they've proved a lot of people wrong and been proved wrong often themselves, they soon slip into the belief that nothing they believed before was true; with the result that they discredit themselves and the whole business of philosophy in the eyes of the world.

[...] But someone who's a bit older [...] will refuse to have anything to do with this sort of idiocy; he won't copy those who contradict just for the fun of the thing, but will be more likely to follow the lead of someone whose arguments are aimed at finding the truth. He's a more reasonable person and will get philosophy a better reputation.'

[Plato]
The Republic (Penguin Classics Edition), p.271-3

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Related posts:-
The perils of Radical Subjectivity
Only playing
The Colour Wheel
Solid Ground
One thing tumbling into the next ...
Are you sure? 
All is change 
Shades of gray
The Dangers of Dogmatism 

4 comments:

  1. Descartes ... invented a method which may still be used with profit - the method of systematic doubt. He determined that he would believe in nothing which he did not see quite clearly and distinctly to be true. Whatever he could bring himself to doubt, he would doubt, until he saw reason for not doubting it.

    'I think, therefore I am,' he said (Cogito, ergo sum); and on the basis of this certainty he set to work to build up again the world of knowledge which his doubt had laid in ruins.

    [Bertrand Russell]
    The Problems of Philosophy, p.7-8

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  2. All knowledge, we find, must be built up upon our instinctive beliefs, and if these are rejected, nothing is left.

    But among our instinctive beliefs some are much stronger than others, while many have, by habit and association, become entangled with other beliefs, not really instinctive, but falsely supposed to be part of what is believed instinctively.

    Philosophy should show us the hierarchy of our instinctive beliefs, beginning with those we hold most strongly, and presenting each as much isolated and free from irrelevant additions as possible. It should take care to show that, in the form they are finally set forth, our instinctive beliefs do not clash, but form a harmonious system.

    There can never be any reason for rejecting one instinctive belief except that it clashes with others; thus, if they are found to harmonize, the whole system becomes worthy of acceptance.

    It is of course possible that all or any of our beliefs may be mistaken, and therefore all ought to be held with at least some slight element of doubt. But we cannot have reason to reject a belief except on the ground of some other belief.

    [Bertrand Russell]
    The Problems of Philosophy, p.11-12

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  3. According to W. K. C. Guthrie's The Greek Philosophers, while sometimes erroneously believed to be a method by which one seeks the answer to a problem, or knowledge, the Socratic method was actually intended to demonstrate one's ignorance. Socrates, unlike the Sophists, did believe that knowledge was possible, but believed that the first step to knowledge was recognition of one's ignorance.

    Guthrie writes, "[Socrates] was accustomed to say that he did not himself know anything, and that the only way in which he was wiser than other men was that he was conscious of his own ignorance, while they were not. The essence of the Socratic method is to convince the interlocutor that whereas he thought he knew something, in fact he does not."

    Wikipedia page on the Socratic method:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socratic_method

    ReplyDelete
  4. In 1958 I wrote the following:

    'There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.'

    I believe that these assertions still make sense and do still apply to the exploration of reality through art. So as a writer I stand by them but as a citizen I cannot. As a citizen I must ask: What is true? What is false?

    [Harold Pinter]
    Nobel Lecture, 'Art, Truth & Politics'
    http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/2005/pinter-lecture-e.html

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