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Topic #H65

Sextus Empiricus: The Ten Modes of Scepticism


13 March 2002

Scribe: B. Wong



These minutes were not spoken; for another version, go to the spoken minutes             


Scepticism About Opinion-            

1st Degree- I think I know, but I could be wrong.

2nd Degree- I think that’s probably how it is, but I could certainly be wrong.

3rd Degree- I have no idea why I should think this way and the other way.


The other diagram detailed the different types of truth there are and the ways by which we reach them. Professor Hutchinson then noted that this type of scepticism wanted to, in his words, “deconstruct the chain of epistemology,” and to prove this, sceptics said that both sides of any given argument could be argued with equal legitimacy and given equal weight.


                  Professor Hutchinson then went on to lecture about the ten modes of scepticism themselves. He noted that we have several different ancient sources for all the various modes of scepticism. The most famous, the ten modes, are found in the first book of Sextus Empiricus’ Outlines of Pyrrhonism. More information on the modes of scepticism can be found in the works of Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish philosopher who wanted to reconcile the religion of Judaism with ancient Greek philosophy. Philo wrote about the various modes of scepticism in his commentary on the story in Genesis in the Old Testament of the Bible, in which Noah gets drunk and must be saved by his sons from another son who is about to take advantage of him in an unnamed way. This commentary was linked with drunkenness for it outlined ten ways in which people did not know things.


The five modes of scepticism of Agrippa, which were probably written against and in response to a revival of interest in the Posterior Analytics of Aristotle, are found in both Sextus Empiricus’ Outlines and in Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of Eminent Philosophers. Yet another description of modes of scepticism, that of Aenesidemus’ eight modes of scepticism, is found in Laertius’ account of the Life of Pyrrho. All these endless variations and modifications of the modes of scepticism reminded Professor Hutchinson of the philosophy of that eminent warrior-poet/Communist tyrant Mao Tse-tung.


Professor Hutchinson also noted, however, that all these modes of scepticism would probably be useful to people like journalists, for the purpose of verifying stories and the like. The professor used the example of the supposed phenomenon called “global warming.” Much of the evidence claiming to both prove and disprove this phenomenon is simply being used by people to further their own partisan agendas, not for objective scientific research. Professor Hutchinson then stated that he himself maintained a sceptical viewpoint over the phenomenon of “global warming.”


Another useful purpose for the modes of scepticism is that they help open-minded scientists against the too-easy tendency for overly convoluted and complex theory-making, which tends to lead to mistakes being both made and overlooked. When we have theoretical models within theoretical models within theoretical models, as is often the case in science, scepticism is especially needed to prevent such mistakes. Professor Hutchinson then concluded that scepticism was indeed highly helpful in cultivating a truly scientific viewpoint.


Scepticism has played a highly influential role in both philosophy and science throughout the modern era. In the sixteenth century, translations of sceptical texts spread sceptical philosophy throughout Renaissance Europe, influencing such people as Michel de Montaigne, whose famous Essays, in turn, influenced the first founding-figure of modern philosophy, Descartes. The spread and influence of sceptical philosophy is outlined in Richard H. Popkin’s many works on the history of scepticism, all of which Professor Hutchinson heartily recommends.


Professor Hutchinson then noted that, ironically, while the ten modes of scepticism along with its various sub-modes, are the showpiece of Sextus Empiricus’ philosophy, Aenesidemus’ eight modes of scepticism were, in fact, far more influential. Then, in an attempt to bring philosophical scepticism into our everyday lives, Professor Hutchinson asked us to ponder two statements and ask ourselves whether they were “true” or not, and then, using the diagram on the board, to determine what kind of “truth” it was. The statements were, respectively, “Sibling incest is wrong,” and “Good amounts of sugary candy can make children excitable.” Someone in the class pointed out that the phrase, “good amounts,” was grammatically incorrect and that it should be replaced with “large amounts,” but Professor Hutchinson pointedly ignored this criticism. Instead, he continued, by noting that the Persians of the fifth century BC did not have a problem with brother and sister incest and that the ungrammatical second observation about sugary candy, was the type of quasi-scientific fact that actually affected people’s lifestyles.


Sextus Empiricus’ ten modes of scepticism seek to resolve the eternal conflict between appearances and judgments. The goal of the ten modes is to get us to feel an attitude of indifference; the slogan was ou mallon (ancient Greek for “no more”). The Stoics made the fatally wrong assumption that everything which was within the range of our sensory perception must be real, but what about a dog’s ability to hear sounds which are not within the auditory range of humans? Surely, those sounds, even though we cannot hear them, are just as real as the sounds we do hear. Stoic epistemology seems like a naïve type of realism, especially if you do this sort of species-to-species comparison. Professor Hutchinson then read an excerpt from Sextus Empiricus’ tenth mode of scepticism, which he said was similar to Diogenes Laertius’ fifth mode scepticism, and which outlined things that were common in other cultures, but which would probably have seemed culturally monstrous to an ancient Greek reader.


Professor Hutchinson then asked the question, “What is the best way to dispose of the dead?” and is the answer to that question, an objective truth or subjective truth? To clarify this question, Professor Hutchinson then used another example, “Spinach is tasty.” Professor Hutchinson said that such a statement was an objective truth, but one that was relative to perspective. When a student asked why the statement about spinach was not considered a subjective truth, Professor Hutchinson said it was an objective truth because if I said spinach was tasty and I was not lying, then such a statement had been proven true. Perhaps the statement about spinach would not be true for other people, but it would be true for me. Professor Hutchinson then gave two examples of subjectively true statements, “The world is a discouraging place,” and “Toronto is an unfriendly city.” Both statements are subjective truths, because ultimately both such statements are not provable either way, except with reference to how certain subjects feel about the question.


Going back to the question of the correct way for getting rid of dead bodies, Professor Hutchinson outlined the way Tibetans disposed of their corpses. They hauled the corpses up to a high-altitude place in the mountains and left them there, allowing the birds to dine on the corpses. While such a disposal method might seem repulsive to us in the West, Professor Hutchinson said that he personally thought that all the ways of disposing of a corpse, which maintained that corpse’s individual privacy and respect were perfectly good methods of honouring the dead, and that all the ways which did not maintain the corpse’s individual privacy and respect were not. This, Professor Hutchinson felt, was an objective fact. But it also depended on the cultural perspective. Thus, dumping a corpse into a water body nearby, which some cultures do, would be viewed as disrespectful by people in our culture. Professor Hutchinson said, that if he disposed of the corpse of his mother, in the same way the Tibetans did with their dead, by hauling her up to a mountain top and leaving her corpse there for the birds to dine on, this would be an objectively bad action, since it would be viewed as culturally and socially unacceptable, unless, of course, Professor Hutchinson’s mother had requested this method of disposing of her corpse beforehand. Professor Hutchinson concluded then, that the correct way for getting rid of dead bodies was culturally relative. He was not impressed by those who asked questions like, “Who knows what is the right way to dispose of the dead?” and the like. People simply do not have that type of excuse. As for the vexed question of whether to bury a corpse or cremate a corpse, Professor Hutchinson thought that both methods of disposing the corpse could be the right way, so we had to know the person’s wishes before deciding. If we did not know the person’s wishes, then, he thought, and only then, could there be room for scepticism.


Going on to the statement, “Sibling incest is wrong,” Professor Hutchinson concluded that such a statement was an objective truth. He himself did not give much credence to those philosophers who think that all truths are subjective. A student pointed out that sibling incest can be viewed as being objectively wrong for the products of such incest, usually suffer from some sort of genetic deformity. Is anyone in doubt whether that is mere opinion or scientific medical knowledge?


As to the second statement, “Good amounts of sugary candy can make children excitable,” a student said she thought that this statement was objectively true, since she had seen this occur while she was babysitting. Professor Hutchinson replied that the statement was actually, fallacious, since numerous scientifically-controlled studies had found, that large amounts of sugar, in fact, tranquilized children and this fact had been exposed in a news report six months ago in The Globe & Mail. The myth of large amounts of sugar making children excitable had all been based on one flawed study in the 1960s using American candy, which had a high level of preservatives in it and it was, in fact, those preservatives which had made the children excitable, not the sugar at all. From this incident, Professor Hutchinson concluded, finally, that it is right to be sceptical at times.