Posts Tagged ‘pyrrho’

Scepticism Ancient and Modern

January 8, 2008

There’s a tendency in contemporary atheism to present itself not as a dogmatic denial of religion and the supernatural, but as an attitude of simple doubt. Atheism is stated to be the lack of belief in God or gods, rather than an outright disbelief in them. The attitude therefore becomes one of philosophical Scepticism, which is perceived to be essentially rational and open-minded, as against the perceived close-mindedness of theism. This strand of atheism dates from the 17th century, when European philosophers and scholars took a renewed interested in the philosophical Scepticism of the ancient world. The arguments of Pyrrho and Carneades against the existence of the gods were taken over into the nascent free-thinking milieu of the period.

Yet despite this position of critical doubt, Scepticism, both ancient and contemporary, nevertheless is constructed on certain assumptions about the world, assumptions which paradoxically act as dogmas in constructing a Sceptical worldview, despite philosophical Scepticism’s rejection of dogmatism. Examining the nature and the underlying assumptions of Graeco-Roman and contemporary Scepticism not only gives an insight into the changing nature of Scepticism and atheism, but also the paradoxical nature of atheist doubt as a worldview in itself.

Ancient Scepticism 

Firstly, ancient Scepticism was a systematic application of doubt not just to religion, but to just about aspect of intellectual life. According to Pyrrho of Elis, one of the founders of Hellenistic scepticism, who lived from c. 280 to 80 BC, the universe was fundamentally unknowable. Nothing definite could be said about the world as it really was, and so the correct attitude towards it and its objects should be one of suspension of belief. This non-committal attitude was held to have the benefit of conferring peace of mind. 1 In some respects this position is closer to philosophical postmodernism, which states that all conceptions of reality are intellectual and cultural constructs with no objective validity, than to the scepticism of atheists and agnostics like CSICOP. Richard Dawkins, for example, is a religious sceptic, but as an avowed opponent of Postmodernism I doubt he would consider that reality is fundamentally unknowable.

Amongst the most brilliant exponents of ancient Scepticism was Carneades, who lived about 214 to 129 BC. A superb debater, he became notorious after his arrival in Rome as head of the Platonic Academy in 155 BC for his ability to argue both for and against any position. He caused a furore by first demonstrating this tactic in a piece of oratory in which he first argued for, and then against, righteousness. 2 While respecting his brilliance, the Romans didn’t like him because of this critical attitude to just about every intellectual or moral idea. I got the impression he was distrusted because he was ‘too clever by half’. Nevertheless, while the Sceptics attacked the Stoic doctrine of cataleptic phantasies, which stated that there were sense impressions that were clear and trustworthy, they did not entirely reject sense experience. 3 Carneades himself believed that there were sense impressions that were persuasive and credible, and that their persuasiveness increased when corroborated by associated impressions and perceptions. He did not believe, however, that such sense impressions could ever be certain. 4

Now clearly there’s an element of common sense in the Sceptical attitude. It’s accepted that sense experience is unreliable, and clearly a statement or impression of reality does become more persuasive with supporting impressions. And the attitude that notions of reality should be lightly held has allowed science to progress as its statements have been refined and superseded by fresh evidence. Indeed, Scepticism had an influence on the Roman empirical school of medicine through the writings of the physician and sceptical philosopher, Sextus Empiricus. 5

Difference Between Ancient and Modern Scepticism 

Yet despite the similarity between the empiricism and attacks on dogmatic statements about the nature of the gods by the ancient Sceptics and contemporary atheists, there are a number of important differences. The most significant of these is that while Pyrrho argued that the world was innately unknowable, contemporary atheism assumes that the world is intelligible and that definitive statements about the world can be made with a very high degree of confidence. Even if scientific views of the world are subject to revision, it is nevertheless assumed that they correspond to reality. Moreover, the intelligible, rational nature of the universe means that the universe does not require the existence of a Creator, and that the existence of any kind of supernatural entities is unlikely to a greater or lesser extent. Moreover, however tentative the philosophy of science insists scientific explanations are, in practice the assumed close correspondence between scientific models and reality mean that many are taken to be established, dogmatic fact. For example, despite his religious scepticism, Carl Sagan always strongly insisted that evolution was fact, as against the possible view following the logic of ancient Scepticism that evolution was more persuasive than the alternatives of special creation, but not certain. Thus, contemporary religious sceptics nevertheless make dogmatic statements about the world.

Limited Nature of Modern Philosophical Scepticism

Indeed, Scepticism itself has its limitations which prevent it merging into Nihilism. For all that philosophers may strenuously debate the meaning and nature of justice, morality and individual ethical qualities, like good and evil, few would actually state that there is no such thing as justice or morality, even if the universe as a whole is simply taken to be a brute fact, neither good nor evil, as Dawkins does in his attitude towards natural evil. Yet there is a problem in that if the existence of God or the gods is dismissed because the different conceptions of them renders the idea of divinity incoherent, then it is equally possible to dismiss morality and justice as illusory because of the sharply different concepts of them in various cultures. Atheism assumes the existence of some kind of objective morality, especially as one important part of its attack on religion is based on the supposed evil or lack of morality in religion. This demonstrates another difference between contemporary Scepticism and that of the ancient world. Carneades, Pyrrho, Arcesilaus and the other ancient Sceptics argued against the existence of the gods because it was felt that the idea of them was incoherent. They did not dismiss religion as evil. Contemporary religious scepticism moves beyond this stance and does declare religion to be evil. You only have to look at the pronouncements of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens and co.

Basis of Atheism in Philosophical Assumptions 

In all of this, however, there are a set of assumptions about the nature of reality, science and morality on which atheism is based. All of these assumptions are vulnerable to attack. However, the stance of some forms of contemporary atheism that atheism is really nothing more than the lack of a belief in God or the gods, and that as such the burden of proof is on the theist, acts to disguise this position. Those atheist polemicists who adopt this position effectively try to avoid exposing their own assumptions to scrutiny by denying that atheism is anything beyond this lack of belief. Yet if atheism is anything more than a simple fideistic denial of the existence of God or the gods, without any supporting reasons or arguments, then clearly there is a structure of belief – positive beliefs and truth statements about the nature of reality – behind it that have to be argued for.

The attempt by atheists to put the burden of proof on the theist is based on the presumption that atheism is somehow more rational than theism. This presumption is considered to be so axiomatic and self-evident that it is not argued for. Instead, it is stated that atheism is merely the lack of belief in God or the gods, while theism, it is suggested, is about the existence of entities for which there is no evidence or proof, that atheism is the default, commonsense position.

Yet this is another assumption. Throughout history, the vast majority of societies have believed in God or gods, and atheism as a belief system based on logic has had to be argued for. It is not for nothing that the British atheist philosopher, Robin le Poidevin, entitled one of his books, Arguing for Atheism. Given that atheism is based on logical argument and positive beliefs and truth statements about the world, it is far more than a merely negative position as expressed by the statement that it is about nothing more than the lack of belief in God or the gods, and the theist is entitled to expect the atheist to provide proof for his statements as well.

Atheists Required to Critique Beliefs in Socratic Dialogue 

This is also true if the debate is seen as a kind of ‘Socratic dialogue’. For many atheists, Socrates is a hero because of his execution by the Athenians for atheism, despite the fact that contemporary historians and classical scholars consider that his own religious views were entirely orthodox. Indeed, Socrates himself claimed to have been inspired by a daimon – a spiritual entity like the Judaeo-Christian concept of a guardian angel, that acted as an intermediary between the gods and humans. Part of Plato’s Phaedo consists of the arguments by Socrates in support of life after death and the existence of superior, transcendental world. Now atheist groups like the RRS admire Socrates for his questioning of dogma, just as the ancient Sceptics did. However, Socrates saw himself merely as a midwife helping to deliver the ideas of other people. Now clearly, as the presumption that atheism is nothing but the lack of belief in God or the gods, and so is somehow more rational, is based on a set of assumptions that are not articulated by this stance, and indeed it is the purpose of this stance to avoid having to articulate them, then, if the Socratic method is to be properly followed, there is the requirement that these assumptions should be brought out into the open and critiqued, just as Socrates brought out of his interlocutors their assumptions and critiqued them in order to get to the truth.

William James’ Criticism of Withholding Faith 

In fact the atheist position that it is better to withhold faith, and doubt the existence of God until there was sufficient evidence to accept it was criticised by the great scholar of the psychology of religion, William James. James considered it to be a tantamount to stating that risking the loss of truth was better than the chance of error. This stance he considered to be like a man indefinitely hesitating to marry a woman in case she wasn’t the angel he thought she was when he took her home. In so hesitating, he lost the good as surely as if he had disbelieved. ‘We cannot escape the issue by remaining sceptical and waiting for more light, because, although we do avoid error in that way if religion be untrue, we lose the good, if it be true, just as certainly as if we positively chose to disbelieve.’ 6 James considered this stance of withholding consent from religious belief because of the possibility of error to be no wiser than accepting it through hope, and strongly criticised it, stating

‘to preach scepticism to us as a duty until ‘sufficient evidence’ for religion be found, is tantamount therefore to telling us, when in the presence of the religious hypothesis, that to yield to our fear of its being error is wiser and better than to yield to our hope that it may be true. It is not intellect against all passions, then; it is only intellect with one passion laying down its law. And by what, forsooth, is the supreme wisdom of this passion warranted? Dupery for dupery, what proof is there that dupery through hope is so much worse than dupery through fear? I, for one, can see no proof, and I simply refuse obedience to the scientist’s command to imitate his kind of option, in a case where my own stake is important enough to give me the right to choose my own form of risk.’ 7

This is not to advocate religious belief against reason, merely to state that the policy of withholding faith until some criterion of ‘sufficient evidence’ is met is not necessarily any better guarantee of finding the truth than accepting religious belief because of the hope it offers.

Conclusion: Modern Atheism and Ancient Scepticism Different, and Atheists also Required to Provide Proof

Thus, despite its adoption of some of the conventions of ancient Scepticism, modern atheism and ancient Scepticism are very different worldviews. Ancient Scepticism stated that the world was fundamentally unknowable, and that statements about it could only be tentative. In this situation, the correct attitude was to cultivate an attitude of detachment. Contemporary atheism, on the other hand, is predicated on the belief that the universe is intelligible and that true statements about it may be made. It is based on a distinct set of assumptions and statements about the nature of the universe, statements that are not intuitively and self-evidently true, but which have had to be actively argued for. As such, it constitutes a distinct worldview in itself, not merely the lack of belief in God or the gods. Theists are therefore entitled to demand atheists also provide proof for their statements, while the principles of Socratic dialogue means that any attempt to disguise the assumptions on which atheism is based by shifting the burden of proof to the theist means that it is even more necessary that the assumptions of atheism should be stated and critically examined. Furthermore, the attitude that theist needs to provide sufficient evidence before belief in God can be granted is not necessarily a wise decision in itself.

Thus, atheism is indeed a worldview, whose scepticism is limited and whose assumptions deserve to be critiqued by theists. For a true Socratic dialogue to occur, the atheist needs to share provide proof for his worldview as well as the theist, and it needs to be recognised that the Sceptical policy of withholding belief pending sufficient evidence is not necessarily wiser than immediate acceptance. Atheism still makes truth statements about the world, and Scepticism is no guide to the truth, either of religion or the cosmos.


1. ‘Scepticism’ in Jennifer Speake, ed., A Dictionary of Philosophy (London, Pan Books 1984), p. 314.

2. ‘Carneades’ in Speake, ed., Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 56.

3. ‘Scepticism’, Speake, ed., Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 314.

4. ‘Carneades’ in Speake, ed., Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 56; ‘Scepticism’ in Speake, ed., Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 314.

5. ‘Scepticism’ in Speake, ed., Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 56; ‘Sextus Empiricus’ in Speake, ed., Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 326.

6. William James, ‘The Will to Believe’ in Paul Helm, ed., Faith and Reason (Oxford, OUP 1999), p. 243.

7. James, ‘Will to Believe’, in Helm, ed., Faith and Reason, p. 243.