Is it Psychologically Possible for the Skeptic to Suspend All Belief

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.

19 replies on “Is it Psychologically Possible for the Skeptic to Suspend All Belief”

  1. I’m very much in line with much of what you’ve written on the treatment of the meaning of belief.

    Apart from that, I do have a separate thought on this matter: “Skepticism about what?” Assume that there is a domain of discourse about which one can or not believe certain things, and that tacit assumption amounts to the belief in something. Assuming that there is something that can be disbelieved is enough to undo any universal skepticism.

    This isn’t exactly the most original dismissal of skepticism, though. As far as I know, it’s at least as early as Descartes and at least as recent as Wittgenstein.

    I have another question, though. Are we restricting judgments from beliefs? How “conscious” or “unconscious” does a judgment have to be before we qualify or disqualify it as a belief according to this system? If a snake bites me once and afterwards I fear ropes for ten years, is or isn’t the phobia based on a judgment about long, flexible strips?

  2. Hi Eric; I’m not really very well read on phil mind, but two things occurred to me and you could probably help me with them.

    First, I assume you just mean: is it possible for anyone to suspend all belief. So, one question I had here was, for how long? If you were actually talking about a skeptical life of some sort involving sustained suspension of judgment as skeptics like the Pyrrhonians have recommended, for example, that might seem next to impossible. But maybe it’s difficult but interesting enough to understand how someone might do so for moments.

    Second, I wonder how much of this idea of suspending all belief involves the same kind of practical issues that making yourself believe something brings up. There’s something very difficult about voluntary belief in general, and I wonder if voluntary suspension of belief involves exactly — or only — those same difficulties.


  3. Thanks, Steve and Manyul, for working out the details of cross-posting here! It has been a while since I’ve done it.

    @ Joshua: Yes, I agree that skepticism is always over a domain of proposition types (e.g., the past, the future, the external world, mathematical truths). Some radical skeptics, though, seem to have a universal domain in mind, including perhaps Zhuangzi in Ch. 2. I don’t accept the Wittgenstein criticism of skepticism that you allude to. Why does the skeptic need to judge that there is something that can be disbelieved? That seems to assume the very philosophy of action and of intellection that is at issue here.

    I think of “judgments” as necessarily conscious, so you might fear ropes but not judge them to be dangerous. If you generally act and react as though they were dangerous, despite the contrary judgment, then I would say that you have a mixed dispositional profile such that it’s not quite right to say either that you do or that you don’t believe that ropes are dangerous. At least, that’s the way I would slice up the domain! There may be other equally good ways too.

    • Why does the skeptic need to judge that there is something that can be disbelieved?

      The standard answer is the logical priority of the domain which provides the context that gives comprehensibility to the judgments or beliefs at all. If some universal/radical skeptics are making a disbelief in the existence of that very domain, they sweep the carpet from under their own feet, so to speak, because their claim (for judgments) or behaviors (for non-judgmental beliefs) only makes sense or works in practice under that assumed context. If the context is gone, then the skeptic’s judgments are really propositions about an empty domain or the skeptic is comporting his life to nothing at all.

      The judgment issue is undone by the classical skeptic’s paradox (i.e. If there isn’t something that’s can’t be disbelieved, then everything that there is must be believed.), but is also undone with some appreciation for the universal set U, for which every universal claim is in U. In a first-order system, it’s a recognition that ∀xP(xn…xm) := ((xn…xm) ∈ U) ⇒ ((xn…xm) ∈ P). Claiming, then, that U doesn’t really exist amounts to claiming ¬((xn…xm) ∈ U). Now the inference that the radical skeptic needs to follow is lost to him. He has no basis for the assertion that his claim P(xn…xm), or even ¬P(xn…xm) is the case. In fact, the only way for him to prove his claim ¬((xn…xm) ∈ U) is to negate his statement (in other words, to assert ¬P(xn…xm)).

      I agree with your claim that belief in a proposition p is just an action of comporting one’s life as if p were true, and in that there is disjunctive smattering of sufficient conditions for which belief in p follows. You mention some: planning around p, expecting p, surprise at disproof of p, etc. My thinking is that your more accurate picture of qualification for belief actually makes judgment that much more open, as well. I don’t see why we are restricted from saying still that someone has judged something to be the case when he believes it, that there’s something to a lack of vociferation My thinking with leaping away from oncoming trains or exhibiting rope phobias after snake bites is that there are split-second judgments that go into play, but that we shouldn’t say that only overt declarations, or reflective assertions from chin-on-fist deliberations, or the like count as judgments.

      But that may not be very charitable to the distinction that you’re making. I guess that I could read it like this: We have autonomic responses that don’t involve conscious reflection, yet work to some effect. Now, if a supposed skeptic leaps from a train’s path or fears ropes, maybe that reaction is autonomic, and therefore it isn’t a judgment in that sense. However, a reasoned explanation for the behavior still exists. He leapt because the train was going to hit him, or he fears ropes because a rope-looking thing bit him once. Even if there’s no iteration of those facts, those tacit assumptions still present themselves in his behavior. Any actual disbelief of those assumptions would negate patterned behavior from those assumptions. If he really were a skeptic, his reactions to these events (supposing that they were regularities) would be random. Maybe he’d try to walk through the train, or maybe he’d think that some ropes are his friends, etc., etc. He would have to disregard every tacit assumption about causality or his place in the universe if he were going to consistently maintain that he is a radical skeptic.

      I don’t think that we’d accept this claim: “Deep down, I really am a skeptic, but I don’t at all act like I am.” There’s no falsifiability in it.

    • Thanks for the interesting reply, Joshua! There’s a lot there, but briefly:

      * The paradox of skepticism that you discuss with your formal logic arises in lots of different ways, of which the way you mention is just one. The simplest version, perhaps, is just that it seems that the skeptic is committed to thinking she knows (or justifiably believes) that she doesn’t know (or justifiably believe) anything. Sextus dealt with this issue explicitly, using metaphors like the ladder that you kick away after climbing up it (which Wittgenstein later borrowed) or the rhubarb that empties your intestines and flushes itself out last. This seems to me a perfectly adequate response. When the skeptic lapses into momentary judgment that P, she then moves to the judgment that she doesn’t know that P, and then she judges that she doesn’t even know that latter fact, and then the whole thing dissolves in self-contradiction and she is left without any judgment at all.

      * The problems you raise in your penultimate paragraph are exactly the problems that I hope my distinction between belief and judgment helps the skeptic avoid. Withholding *judgment* doesn’t require acting at random. The story about belief is more complicated, but the skeptic who acts skillfully, while withholding judgment, might be said to possess only part of the dispositional structure constitutive of belief and not the entirety of it.

    • Thanks, Eric! I see that you’ve got a lot of mouths to feed on both boards, so I’ll try to stay brief, as well.

      * I think the reply that I (or a non-skeptic) would level against Sextus is that alternating between contrary beliefs at different times does not amount to a rejection of both. But perhaps worse, the radical skeptic relies on a recognition of a claim, which is distinct from other claims, to which he opts to profess disbelief over a range of alternatives. But how is that procedure going to get off of the ground with no surrounding knowledge or trusted assumptions (beliefs) at all?

      * I don’t think the distinction helps, but outlines that skepticism falters in two distinct ways. There’s a propositional issue about the judgment that radical skepticism is correct, and then there’s a behavioral issue with attempting to act according to the (non-judgmental) belief that radical skepticism is correct.

      But further, if judgment is one of those dispositions of belief (via intellectual endorsement or explicitly stating that p is true), isn’t that enough to imply belief, even if she doesn’t comport her life to that judgment in other ways? Are you not endorsing that any adequate combination of dispositions suffices for belief? I assumed that a consequence of that endorsement was that it actively prevents radical skeptics from attempting to divide their rationales for skepticism from their non-skeptical behavior.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Joshua. On your first star, why not consider a reductio-style approach, tentatively assuming P, which gets swept away at the end of the argument (but not in favor of not-P, rather in favor of a suspension of judgment)? On your second star, I think of belief as depending as much on how you live generally as on what you explicitly judge. I think that approach has some general appeal, though I know it’s contentious. (I have a paper on this in PPQ 2010.)

    • To your question on my first star, I think that there’s a problem with seeing proof in terms of a “suspension” of judgment when the judgment follows as a logical entailment from that reductio procedure. From minimal logic on up, a reductio proof would discharge contradictory premises and establish one or another (with so many negations on the tails of them, depending on the logic you allowed). The worse matter on this approach is that skeptics can’t task themselves with that work, since a proof (or utility of a logical procedure with an aim to suspend judgment) relies on a deductive system that the skeptic cannot claim is reliable, and yet seeks to commit himself to one belief over another.

      The other issue is that propositions in an argument must express any temporal matters in the propositions, themselves, for us to take account of them in an inference. Simply altering a proposition doesn’t “wipe the other away,” but rather joins it to a whole argument. If we are simply altering a premise, then the problem is that the person hasn’t settled on a premise in his argument, and thus will not allow any procedure to prove or disprove his claim. However, the logician could settle that procedure by presenting two arguments — one in which the skeptic’s claim is the premise, and one in which the negation of that claim is the premise. One will prove inconsistent, and the one that is left standing is the acceptable proposition.

      To your reply on my second star, I guess that’s a fair point. However, the beauty of treating them as disjunctions and disjunctive antecedents is that they do each carry equal weight. If judgments J or actions A imply belief B, then J implies belief B and A implies belief B. Either one is enough, and subtleties over which kinds of disjuncts we allow can be settled with more questions into the kinds of actions of judgments that suffice (in isolation or in combination). In effect, you get that weighted consideration at the cost of denying skeptics the coherence to claiming skepticism because the sufficient conditions for belief in your model are more general.

  4. @ Manyul: Thanks for those comments!

    I am inclined to agree with you that success is likely to be momentary rather than enduring (as Hume discusses in his own case at the end of Treatise Book I). I don’t see why in principle it couldn’t be enduring though. With practice, maybe one can get better at it and do it for longer and longer periods.

    On your second question, Sextus is good. He seems to reject direct voluntarism about belief/judgment in favor of indirect voluntarism, which is a much less contentious position. Indirect voluntarism works like this: You intentionally put yourself in a position such that you involuntarily attain (or in this case lose) an attitude. The most famous example of this is Pascal in discussion of his wager, where he recommended intentionally surrounding oneself with religion so as to be drawn to religiosity. So Sextus recommends various “modes” of skepticism as exercises to eliminate dogmatism. You voluntarily, for example, run through trains of examples of cases in which the senses appear to be unreliable. The result is the shedding of dogmatism, not by direct willing but only as a consequence of an intellectual pattern of reflections that you do directly will.

    • Thank you for the very interesting post. I have a comment which sounds similar to Manyul Im’s one, i.e., HOW FAR can skepticism reach? In the example you chose, for instance, one might train oneself not to take for granted that the charriot will run into one. But will one ever be able to withdraw belief from many things at once? E.g., doubting that if you move your legs to the right your whole body will occupy a different spot of physical space? In summary, I think that skepticism is healthy and needed as an intellectual exercise, but it only works with a subset of our beliefs (e.g., the one we are currently focusing on, plus perhaps a few more, in case we are very good trained). It cannot regard the whole range of our beliefs.

    • Thanks for the comment, Elisa! I guess my thought is that although you can’t fully withdraw belief from everything at once, in the sense of fully failing to match the dispositional profile of a believer in anything, you can fully withdraw *judgment* from everything at once. I regret not having been able to make the distinction between belief and judgment clearer. This is something I will need to work on. But a judgment, as I conceptualize it, is something like a conscious inward assent or an explicit taking as true. It is plausible that in skillful acting I make many fewer conscious judgments than would be necessary to instantiate the skill. I don’t need to consciously judge, for example, that *now* and *now* is when I should shift my weight as I walk. Maybe under certain conditions (perhaps in “flow”) we can bring the conscious judgments down to zero while still skillfully responding.

  5. Hi Eric,

    I quite like this; thanks for your interest in cross-posting it over here! I had one small question about Zhuangzi. You write: The skeptic will utter affirmations — Zhuangzi compares our utterances to the cheeping of baby birds — but with an openness to the opposing view. I acknowledge that the passage in question resists definitive interpretation (on purpose!), but it sounds like I read it slightly differently from you. Here is the passage, in Ziporyn’s translation:

    “But human speech is not just a blowing of air. Speech has something of which it speaks, something it refers to.” Yes, but what it refers to is peculiarly unfixed. So is there really anything it refers to? Or has nothing ever been referred to? You take it to be different from the chirping of baby birds. But is there really any difference between them? Or is there no difference? Is there any dispute, or is there no dispute? Anything demonstrated, or nothing demonstrated? (p.11)

    A natural reading of this points toward an in-between state, as you suggest in your post, but I would have thought that the chirping of birds is not such an in-between; instead, it represents one of the extremes–the no-reference extreme. The other extreme posits fixed references. The fluid middle position allows us to provisionally refer, to talk about things in an unfixed way. What do you think?

    • Yes, that’s a tricky passage! I wouldn’t want to rest too much on any interpretation of it. It seems to me that in that passage and the immediately following material, Zhuangzi is undercutting truth and falsity and referential language entirely, and that part of doing that requires that he also undercut his own statements that there is no reference or truth. That undercutting can be interpreted either as expressing a moderate position or as expressing such a radical position that it can’t even be stated without self-contradiction. I inclined to think that Zhuangzi is reaching for the latter. I am enabled to interpret Zhuangzi maximally radically by my interpretative strategy of reading Zhuangzi as writing therapeutically rather than truth-expressively and so as not expressing a self-consistent and genuinely believed position (my 1996 essay on this) — so there’s no need to temper the seeming radicalism here in order to reconcile it with other parts of the text.

      The other attractive feature of the peeping birds comparison is this. Skeptics are often accused of acting in bad faith when they make assertions. One skeptical response to this is to say that a human can no more stop making assertions than any other animal can stop making its own natural noise. (Bracket skepticism about this assertion itself!) Although the peeping birds passage isn’t explicitly developed in that direction, I am tempted to see that suggestion as somewhere under the surface.

  6. 1

    Eric’s point that we can lack a disposition to judge but have the rest of belief suggests a (to me) new lexicographical question: does propositional knowledge require belief? Maybe it doesn’t require the whole thing.


    Hi Eric! You mention as a part of belief
    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).

    I don’t feel like I understand this. You say “explicitly … (though not necessarily in language)” – I suppose your thought is that nonverbal representations (mental or otherwise) allow us to have explicitness without language. Now, if I look at a scene (or see it on TV) I have a nonverbal mental representation that it obtains. You must think that’s not enough to count as judgment. What more is needed, if not language? Are you thinking of a nonverbal mental representation of endorsement?

    I think my cat has beliefs. Do you think he doesn’t?


    Eric, you write:
    To believe that P is to steer one’s way through the world as though P were the case.

    This kinda looks elliptical here for “… as though one believed that P is the case.” Or to put the point another way: it seems as though, wherever pairs like the following pull apart, what you have in mind is captured by the second member of the pair, not the first.

    ‘as though he had eaten one of those mushrooms’
    (sluggishly, confusedly)
    ‘as though he thought he had eaten one of those mushrooms’
    (racing with anxious clarity to the hospital)

    ‘as though she had been doing it all her life’
    ‘as though she thought she had been doing it all her life’

    ‘as though he were a great driver’
    ‘as though he thought he were a great driver’

    ‘as though she were full of courage’
    ‘as though she thought she were full of courage’

    … I doubt that this worry is news to you. I think the circularity of “part of what it is to believe something is to act as one would if one believed it” doesn’t prevent the statement from communicating something interesting and important.

  7. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Bill! You’re right about the ellipticality, but the result is not that the view is circular. Rather, I am grounding metaphysics in folk psychology. Folk stereotypes or pronenesses to associate certain dispositions with belief that P — the existence of those psychological facts about ordinary belief ascribers is what the philosophical account of belief that I propose is parasitic on.

  8. Hi Eric, thanks for your answer to my 3! It sounds like you’re suggesting

    a) For all x, Bx = whatever is folk-associated with Bx.

    Aside from looking circular, that looks dangerously close to being necessarily false. Maybe what you have in mind is:

    b) Belief that x = whatever is folk-associated with “belief that x.”

    And then I can see an interesting reason for being elliptical rather than spelling things out: one thing that might conceivably be folk-associated with a radical belief in free markets is this: being a young male in business. That’s not the kind of association you mean. The full phrasing may invite this kind of association; i guess the elliptical phrasing can’t.

    The folk might think that belief in P tends to cause us to act in certain ways, without thinking that belief in P includes such action as a part. Does that matter to you?

    • Yes, Bill, (b) is what I endorse. But the only part of the folk associations that I appeal to are, given the belief, how is the person going to be disposed to behave, undergo phenomenal experiences, and enter further cognitive states. That’s why “being a young male in business” doesn’t qualify — though maybe there will be an association of the right sort between believing in the power of free markets and being disposed to go into business. It will be a vast cluster of dispositions, some of which will be more central than others.

      My phrasing is elliptical in this post because I’d rather not distract the reader by trotting out my whole apparatus for dealing with the metaphysics of belief. If you’re curious to see more details, you can check out my 2002 paper in Nous (also available on my website).

      You’re right, though, that the plausibility of the remarks in the post above depends on the plausibility of my view about belief and judgment, so it’s a good place to push against my view.

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