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A Reality with Rounded Edges

Philosophy is a love affair. It is an assignation between an inhabitant and its habitat: a knower in a world of knowledge, a real thing in reality, stretching forth to a truer understanding of that relationship. This truth is knowledge, but many so-called philosophers’ first love may not be real knowledge at all. They love certainty and they love fact. They love proofs. Though they won’t admit it, they most likely love simply out-knowing (by which I mean out-talking) the next philosopher over. At best this kind of knowledge is a confusion of words, and at worst a dangerously misguided approach to understanding the world.

This battle for the truth of knowledge (in pursuit of the knowledge of truth) is age-old. In ancient Greece it was first raised and pitted between those who claimed knowledge was concrete and those for whom nothing could be known at all: the Dogmatists and the Skeptics, respectively. The question is no less pertinent today, in our world of fundamentalists and nihilists, relativists and scientists. Their disparate positions are now so old as to no longer even warrant a capitalization, but the problem is no closer to being solved.

Unless it already was, when a particular Skeptic named Pyrrho offered an alternative:

Knowledge is this: it seems to me right now.

While the dogmatist may know, he may not know how to know. The skeptic who scoffs at knowledge of any kind will be unable to act. Both are trapped within their egos. But perhaps if knowledge is something more nuanced, more flexible, we might both know and act in truth.

This phrase, ‘it seems to me right now,’ is the key to a meaningful career in skepticism. Built into the phrase is the dynamism that allows the skeptic—those who came by it naturally as well as those who sought it out—to doubt not only the very fabric of the universe, but also, and most importantly, their own doubt. This self-negating sort of skepticism, of the school of Pyrrho, seems to me right now the purest philosophical stance one could hold towards the world. It is also difficult and easily misunderstood.

Many will similize skepticism and cynicism; if not in terms of the proper philosophical movements of the ancient world, certainly in colloquial usage. A skeptic, they say, is one determined to frustrate truth-claims, an inveterate contrarian, who (and this is where they err) sees the world as meaningless and the pursuit of knowledge as vain.

But not being certain is very different from being apathetic. Deferring judgement is very different from destroying it.

It is true that your resident skeptic will poke holes in your worldview. He will burst your bubbles with infuriating tenacity. When your paradigm is challenged, it is a natural response to be afraid or to be defensive, but you mustn’t project your emotional response upon the skeptic. Certainly it was deliberate, but it may not have been malicious. You must consider that, perhaps, they have already faced their fears, and are encouraging you to do the same.

To think as a skeptic is to battle that most insidious of human propensities, certainty. Certainty is safe. Certainty is comfortable, and the skeptic is wary of intellectual comfort. If an idea is simple or one-sided or black-and-white, it is flimsy. When scrutinized, much of what we consider knowledge falls to the infamous Skeptic Modes. Dogmas of all kinds can be reduced to infinite regresses, circular arguments, relative assertions: brought down to size by some small exertion of the intellect. This is, of course, the frightening side of skepticism. When you’ve imploded the very idea of knowledge, what are you left with? The cynic would say: nothing. The immature (Academic) skeptic might say the same.

The mature skeptic, however, would say: everything. The honest and persistent intellect will follow every idea to its finality and more often than not is left with “contradicting alternatives of equal force.” Yet rather than eliminating all these truth-options, the skeptic suspends them: holds them in tension together, at odds but not at war.

Thus the mature skeptic has not only learned the tools of his trade but has turned them upon his own trade and finally upon his own tools. The concepts of knowledge and doubt are called equally into question until they too are floating in tension. The questioner has stumbled almost unwittingly upon a new kind of knowledge, the kind we mentioned above:

It seems to me right now.

This kind of knowledge is a buffer between dogma and deliberation. It allows the philosopher to engage with any and every idea he desires. He can consider, mull over, cogitate and compare. He can entertain at once the most obstinate cultural assumption and the most ludicrous of alternatives because he knows that he could well be wrong. He is free to change his mind.

Of course, were this intellectual activity the only work of the philosopher, it would be easy enough to defer into oblivion or to hide behind the suspension of judgement. Then, indeed, skepticism would be fruitless. Productive philosophy would disintegrate.

The redemption of the skeptic is that he, too, lives and acts in the world as a cognizant, animate entity. To act at all is a judgement. It is a decision to affirm some particular appearance and to interact with it as a person. The defensive dogmatist (whose bubble was burst) might here object that action therefore negates the skeptic’s claims; a pure skeptic would rather sit still and silent for fear he acts on an untruth.

But this is an absurd objection. Skepticism is the ability to act on how it seems right now. The skeptic will happily follow the “guidance of nature, the compulsion of the feelings, the tradition of laws and customs, and the instruction of arts.” These things seem to be, and that’s as close as we get. The skeptic will make no attempt to prove that it is so. He will not make knowledge what it is not just to pacify the fearful believer.

This kind of action (the only authentic kind) is in one sense strenuous and in another simple. To act from such a position takes an immense grit, a determination to operate in a world of unknowns, to resist the temptation to fade into cold, black apathy. Not knowing as we once thought knowledge would let us know is only frightening if we are so toxically attached to certainty that we are paralyzed without it.

If our knowledge itself is flooded with air, made up of the very stuff around us—if this sort of open, buoyant knowledge is our perceptual mechanism, we have little reason to despair. We have only reason to act, to do. We are free to explore a new reality, one with rounded edges.

The skeptic acts via this essential process of self-negation: while he is not confident that he can know anything at all, he also has no evidence that he definitively cannot. In this space between certitude and doubt resides Pyrrho’s “mental tranquility:” a hope that he might eventually know and an acceptance that he very well may not.

This sort of knowledge is not at all difficult to love.