Guest-poster Eric Schwitzgebel wonders:
Is it Psychologically Possible for the Skeptic to Suspend All Belief?
Please address your comments to Eric, who will be checking in here periodically. (See also discussion on Eric’s own blog.)
I keep bumping into this question. Casey Perin gave a talk on it at UCR; Daniel Greco has a forthcoming paper on it in Phil Review. Benj Hellie launched an extended Facebook conversation about it. Can the radical skeptic live his skepticism? I submit the following for your consideration.
First, a bit about belief. I’ve argued that to believe some proposition P is nothing more or less than to be disposed to act and react in a broadly belief-that-P-ish way — that is, to be disposed, circumstances to being right, to say things like “P”, to build one’s plans on the likelihood of P’s truth, to feel surprised should P prove false, etc. Among the relevant dispositions is the disposition to consciously judge that P is the case, that is, to momentarily explicitly regard P as true, to endorse P intellectually (though not necessarily in language). Dispositions to judge that P often pull apart from the other ispositions constitutive of belief, for example in self-deception, implicit bias, conceptual confusion, and momentary forgetting. (See here and here.) To believe that P is to steer one’s way through the world as though P were the case. One important part of the steering, but not the only part, is being disposed to explicitly judge that P is the case.
Okay, now skepticism. My paradigm radical skeptics are Sextus Empiricus, Montaigne (of the Apology), and Zhuangzi (of Inner Chapter 2). When such radical skeptics say they aim to suspend all belief, I recommend that we interpret them as really endorsing two goals: (a.) suspending all judgment, and (b.) standing openly ready, with equanimity, for alternative possibilities.
Arguments that it’s impossible to suspend all belief tend to be, at root, arguments that it’s impossible to refrain from action and that action requires belief. Perhaps it is impossible to refrain from all action. No skeptic advises sitting all day in bed (as though that weren’t itself an action). Sextus advises acting from habit; Zhuangzi seems to endorse well-trained spontaneity. (Of course, they can’t insist dogmatically on this, and Zhuangzi actively undermines himself.) If the runaway carriage is speeding toward the skeptic, the skeptic will leap aside. On my account of belief, such a disposition is partly constitutive of believing that the carriage is heading your way. So the skeptic will have at least part of the dispositional profile constitutive of that belief. This much I accept.
But it’s not clear that the skeptic needs to match the entire dispositional profile constitutive of believing the carriage is coming. In particular, it’s not clear that the skeptic needs to consciously judge that the carriage is coming. Maybe most of us would in fact reach such a judgment, but spontaneous skillful action without conscious judgment is sometimes thought to be characteristic of “flow” states of peak performance; and Heidegger seems to have valued them and regarded them as prevalent; and perhaps certain types of meditative practice aim at them. Suspension of judgment seems consistent with action, perhaps even highly skilled action. Though suspension of judgment isn’t suspension of the entirety of the dispositional profile characteristic of belief, it’s suspension of an important part of the profile — perhaps enough so that the skeptic achieves what I call a state of in-between believing, in which there’s enough deviation from the relevant dispositional profile that it’s neither quite right to say he believes nor quite right to say he fails to believe.
The skeptic will also, I suggest, stand openly ready, with equanimity, for alternative possibilities. The skeptic will leap away from the carriage, but she won’t be as much surprised as the non-skeptic would be if the carriage suddenly turns into a rooster. The skeptic will utter affirmations — Zhuangzi compares our utterances to the cheeping of baby birds — but with an openness to the opposing view. The skeptic will be less perturbed by apparent misfortune (for maybe it’s really good fortune in disguise) and thus perhaps achieve a certain tranquility unavailable to dogmatists (as emphasized by both Sextus and Zhuangzi). The skeptic stands humbly aware, before God or the universe, of his flawed, infinitesmal perspective (as expressed by Montaigne).
Judgment is stoppered; action still flows; there’s a humility, openness, tranquility, lack of surprise. None of this seems psychologically impossible to me. In certain moods, I even find it an appealing prospect.