Ontology with Lessons from Pyrrho and Sextus

Chakravartty concludes his defense of stance voluntarism by drawing analogies with the ancient skeptics Pyrrho and Sextus Empiricus.

  • The Agrippan Trilemma
  • Background

This was an ancient skeptical argument. Here’s the setup.The trilemma’s key assumption is what might be called the No Free Lunch Principle:

If q is S’s justification for believing that p, then S must be justified in believing that q.

This assumption seems plausible to many. Yet, it leads to one of the toughest skeptical arguments in the history of Western philosophy. Here’s the gist:

Suppose that you claim to know that p (e.g., that frogs are green.)

How do you know that p?

Because q (e.g., you’ve seen frogs in good lighting conditions, and they appear green)

But how do you know that q?

Because r

How does this end? Three options:

  • It doesn’t end (infinite regress).
  • r is justified by p or by q (circular reasoning)
  • r is unjustified (arbitrary assumption)

Infinite regresses, circular reasoning, and arbitrary assumptions fail to yield justification. Hence, it appears that no belief is justified.[1]

Nevertheless, each of the three bullet points can be given a positive spin. The most exotic are infinitists who hold that infinite justification isn’t as utopian as it may initially seem. Coherentists distinguish between “vicious” and “virtuous” circles, and then argue that circular reasoning of the latter sort is justificatory. Finally, foundationalists hold that beliefs can be self-justifying without being arbitrary.

  • Should We Be Skeptical About Stances?

Recall that stances are justified via coherence. Chakravartty also describes them as “foundational,” albeit only in a qualified sense. However, he also asserts the following:

A stance is not something for which one gives justifications as such, but rather something that one adopts because it reflects what one values, epistemically. (242)

One might not think that Chakravartty is letting himself off the hook too quickly here. Although one does not give justifications for stances, considerations of coherence point to at least one way in which stances can be justified or not. Moreover, one may wonder whether one’s choice of core epistemic values is arbitrary. If so, then stances fall on the third horn of Agrippa’s trilemma.

  • Isotheneia and Ataraxia

Chakravartty suggests that we can learn other lessons from Pyrrhonian skepticism. First, we can align competing arguments to appreciate their equal strength or isotheneia. Chakravartty suggests our situation with competing stances is similarly in a state of isotheneia. He takes this as ground for collaborative epistemology, which he defines thusly:

elaborating stances and the values that favor them, entertaining them dispassionately, seeking to understand their purchase on ourselves and our interlocutors— this must not be conceived as a surreptitious means of arguing for the superiority of any given rational stance, for as we have seen, the relevant mark of strength here is rationality, and all rational stances are rational. Regarding the question of superiority there can be only aphasia, speechlessness, and suspension of judgment. (244)

In ancient skepticism, recognition of isotheneia brings about ataraxia or peace of mind. In short, we see that trying to hash out the superiority of one stance over another is futile, and so we stop engaging in such endeavors. Here we get one of Chakravartty’s clearest pronouncements on the upshot of his book:

The disagreements were ill formed. The attempts to resolve them were wrongheaded. With a clearer understanding one is now free to focus attention elsewhere, on issues worthy of philosophical agonizing. One stands relieved. (245)

[1] Here’s a slightly fancier version of it:

A1. For all S, p, and q, if q is S’s justification for believing that p, then S must be justified in believing that q.

A2. If A1 is true, then all justification results in an infinite regress, a vicious circle, or stopping at an arbitrary assumption.

A3. We cannot possess an infinite chain of justification.

A4. Viciously circular reasoning does not provide justification.

A5. Stopping at an arbitrary assumption does not provide justification.

A6.\ No belief is justified. (A1-A5)

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