There is a strange problem with ancient Skepticism, or Pyrrhonism, as it is described by the best authority, Sextus Empiricus.
I have to confess that several features of this account of how the Skeptic will achieve ataraxia and happiness through epoche [suspension of judgement] are very puzzling…Now the so-called “Modes of Epoche” give us an overview of the kinds of considerations that supposedly lead the Skeptics to adopt a pattern of life in which they live by the appearances and do not believe any assertions or theories about an external world. But it is striking that all but one of these Modes are concerned with questions having no immediate relevance to the domain of values; instead they have to do with such questions as whether the honey is really sweet, whether there really are invisible pores in the skin, whether things really have the shapes they appear to have, and so on. Only Aensidemus’s tenth Mode offers the sort of considerations that presumably bring the Skeptics to epoche as to whether things or actions are good, bad, or indifferent. Yet when (at PH 1.27f. and much more fully in M 11) Sextus gets down to the business of explaining in detail how epoche about the external world leads to ataraxia and happiness, he considers only value judgements. The Skeptic gives up any belief that judgements about good and evil have objective validity, and through his epoche in this limited area he achieves his ataraxia. Not even a hint is given of how the state of epoche on such matters as are considered in most of the Modes contributes to peace of mind. For these kinds of case we are left to conjecture that the relevant discomfort is perhaps the kind of frustration a biological scientist might feel at being unable to find the cause of cancer, or a physicist might feel at being unable to find a unified theory for all types of force.”p75-76 Mates 1996
Sextus Empiricus neglected to explain how scientific knowledge seems to be opposed to rest and peace of mind. I have already discussed that “science” (which has become too general and ambitious a word) uses as its ultimate concept that of work. Heidegger argues that it is work that prevents questioners from getting a word in edgewise. They are always “working on it” and, for now, we should content ourselves with the marvelous achievements we have, and not ask so many questions that they stop working.
It is exactly the Skeptic’s situation that asking questions has won out as the dominant attitude over any entrenched scientific doctrine. There are some opponents of Skepticism that say such an attitude amounts to paralysis, and if not paralysis then to behaving eccentrically, and if not that then at least a Skeptic would speak strangely. Sextus deals admirably with these objections in his Outlines of Pyrrhonism.
Further, we are told in several places (e.g., PH 1.191, 194, 207) that the Skeptic uses language (katachrestikos) “loosely” and does not join the Dogmatists in fighting over words or in seeking to use them with philosophic precision (kurios). In view of this we may conjecture that a sophisticated Pyrrhonist, following the ancient maxim of lathe biosas (“live in such a way as to escape notice”), would also be inclined to follow the advice to “think with the learned, but speak with the vulgar.””p72 Mates 1996
The way the Skeptic uses language is related to the problem at hand: how to show that scientific work is not conducive to rest and peace of mind, or of leading a happy life. How? Sextus says at the beginning of his Outlines that
if the theory is so deceptive as to all but snatch away the appearances from under our very eyes, should we not distrust it in regard to the non-evident, and thus avoid being led by it into precipitate judgements?” p92 Sextus in Mates 1996
The Skeptic takes appearances as not open to question, so they are not nihilists. And they question doctrines that attempt to undermine appearances. Take the famous example of Sir Arthur Eddington (1928) on the term “solid.” As a scientist, he argued that a common table is not actually solid, because it is mainly made up of empty space. This goes against the table’s appearance of solidity, and was famously rebuked by Susan Stebbing (1937), who said that tables are things that help us know what we mean by “solid.” From a pragmatic point of view, a table is solid,
but Mates points out a problem with Skeptics in siding somewhat with the pragmatic use of words. He points out that at first we learn to say “the honey is sweet” and that is the correct and normal way of using language, while the Pyrrhonist would, at least a little later, assert that it merely appears to be sweet, and since this is not the way a child would normally use language immediately, it is a kind of abuse of language. To be more precise, Mates’ problem is that he thinks “the honey is sweet” and “it appears that the honey is sweet” are meant differently by a child. What exactly does a child means when she says honey is sweet? I would bet that the child is referring to an appearance, not a property of an external reality beyond such appearance, independent of a perceiving mind. The added word appears is merely a clarification for realists, not a modification of what a child means or how she uses language.
In other words, we were not born with the distinction between Berkleyan idealism and naive realism, and both suffice for the purposes of the child saying the honey is sweet. Indeed, that is the only way to really “go by appearances” as a child does, by experiencing the sweetness of honey without bothering about the realism or idealism (or both, or neither) of its appearance.
This leads directly to the central point that a scientific attitude is not a way that leads to very much happiness. When we study honey with a microscope so that we “know” things with the eye or with the mind about honey, so much that when we taste honey all we think about are these concepts and sights, not the taste, we miss the enjoyment in knowing the truth of this appearance of sweetness. Applied to our lives in general, the scientific attitude will quickly make us miserable. The way to know about the sweetness of honey is not any other way than to taste it yourself. Maybe an equivalent to a microscope can be invented for the tongue, and that would yield interesting, if warped, results, but is the world more enjoyable if we walk around with telescopes attached to our eyes?
Also maybe the difference between a scientist and a happy person is not so clear as this example, for take a wine connoisseur who can identify all the qualities of all the flavors of any particular wine. The question then becomes: does a wine connoisseur enjoy wine better than someone who is just really good at paying attention to taste and doesn’t know anything about wine or its ingredients? The answer, under the economic principle of diminishing returns, is a resounding no. The wine connoisseur has tasted so many wines and has remembered and analyzed it so well that they do not enjoy it as much as they used to. In effect, they get burnt out, and the pleasure diminishes. The pleasure diminishes for the Pyrrhonist too, (it is doubtful she will taste wine as many times as a connoisseur) and she may learn to taste wine better, but the pleasure diminishes in a different way: the Pyrrhonist returns to ataraxia or dispassion and peace of mind because there is no identifying with or grasping for any “being,” there are only appearances. Without their external reality appearances are like water flowing through your fingers. Grasping after it is obviously futile. The Skeptic believes appearances are states of their soul, not external objects. So there is nothing to know more about, no endless searching to know and enjoy a tiny new thing about wine.
But this is the same with language use. The person who really enjoys language is not the analyzer-knower type, but the one who can appreciate vagueness. The person who enjoys the word solid uses it for a table, not a tiny particle. Not that particle is any less poetic than table: particle is still infinitely large compared to the infinitessimal, and the infinitessimal, which may escape being poetic, emerges as a piece of mysticism.
I hope this clears up Mates exasperation about Sextus not going into detail on why a scientist trying to cure cancer would not be as happy or have as much peace of mind as a Skeptic who has cancer. If the scientist didn’t have at least some skeptical approaches to life he would not taste honey, or feel the solidity of the world around him. The appearances of art would not be felt by him. Would you rather be him or the skeptic?
Of course, the idealized scientist doesn’t usually happen, and most scientists and other specialists move from their work to a more skeptical attitude at home or outside work. With a very flexible mind, a scientist could still be mostly a happy person. So this message is more for science education and communication. I had to argue with my mom that the things she sees in day to day life were more real than invisible particles. Sometimes people can’t live the skeptical life until they have reached the forefront of research in an area, just to confirm that appearances are just as good or better than the truths found in research. (example: me) I have to argue with my students to see the world of appearances. There have been projects such as logical positivism with a goal to make general language use more analytical and scientific. So the relevance of this argument has more to do with taking away the authority of the scientist to “discover” things that don’t appear to us, and giving appearances back to regular people, even if that makes the job of the scientist less valued and harder to communicate. We should educate and communicate with science in a way that empowers regular people and makes them happy, that is more important that the work of science.