By B.P. Morton
[The sun came up with no conclusions ...] Skepticism is typically associated with epistemological concerns. Humans seem to have limits. These limits seem to effect what we can legitimately know. Ergo there are things we cannot know with as much certainty or justification as we might like. We can haggle about the scope of our limits and knowledge, about the details of our knowing and lack of knowing. There are many details to be filled in. The skeptic can list long sets of “modes” or standardized arguments for lack of knowledge. The epistemic optimist can try to overcome them. Rinse, lather, repeat. And there are plenty of ancient modes and arguments to examine, and plenty of more recent ideas (about say cognitive bias results, or the neuroscience of the timing between brain activation and the feeling of making a decision) that can easily be fashioned into new modes.
But as Hilan Bensusan recently pointed out, it's possible to read some skeptics as having motivations that go beyond the epistemic. Aenesidemus can be read as worrying that reality doesn't provide the right background for human knowledge, that the world is “in a flux, multiple, mixed and undetermined.” And this worry builds bridges between a skeptic like Aenesidemus, and various near skeptical positions like say Heraclitus or the Mahavira. And once you open the can of worms, I think it is clear that there are many examples here. You can motivate skeptic or near-skeptic positions from metaphysics rather than epistemology, but I think you can also do so from ethics or logic or even aesthetics. Skepticism is a stream of philosophy into which, many quite different sets of motivations flow.
When we are arguing for lack of knowledge, often we understand the lack in terms of human limits, but often we understand it instead as residing in that-which-is-to-be-known. Skepticism can be a metaphysical problem almost as often as an epistemic one. I trust Hilan to say lots more about metaphysical understandings of skeptic and near-skeptic position eventually, but one more quick comment before I move on. The dynamic becomes especially clear, when you look at debates about divine omniscience, because any lack of knowing can't be explained as failures on the part of the one trying to know (at least on classical theism accounts). Yet we get plenty of people arguing that there are things that even a classical theist God can know, because they, as it were, don't have the right metaphysical structure to be known. Future contingents are the classic here, but you can generate problems about de se knowledge, or mutable truths, pretty easily too. What I like about the omniscience case is that it takes thinkers who are not typically skeptics, (who take non-skeptical approaches to many other questions), and forces them to look at if there is any room for a little skepticism even in a fairly ideal case. In a sense, it creates a mode from the divine: there are things even an ideal knower can't know, we are less than ideal knowers, there are probably plenty of things we can't know either.
But importantly, I think there are also logical and ethical motivations for skepticism in some cases, that go beyond the epistemic or metaphysical issues which are more common. At the level of ethics, both curiosity and humility push us towards skepticism. Curiosity bids us to investigate, whether we think we already know a decent provisional answer or not. Curiosity is oddly neutral towards the epistemic status of its target. If we already know, then lets know more fully, or in more detail, or in a different way; if we don't know then let's try to find out. And this investigation-rather-than-resting-on-a-provisional-conclusion IS skepticism even if it doesn't look like it at first. With humility, the skepticism is more obvious, but it is less obvious how the moral constraint here differs from the epistemic constraint. Humility, is in part, the awareness of our own limitations and imperfections, and that was basically what motivated many of the epistemic motivations for skepticism. But it seems to me that humility is more than just an awareness of our limits, it is a desire to value what we are even though we are imperfect. The grandiose person feels insufficient and therefore tries to improve, thinking that maybe that we bring a feeling of sufficiency. The humble person feels valuable already, but finds their urge to self-improvement to be a part of their value-already. And so for a humble person, lack-of-knowledge doesn't have to feel like a fatal flaw, like a dis-valued thing, even if it is an imperfect thing. Humility and epistemic-pessimism both lead to assessing human knowledge as limited, but can lead to very different value judgments about the limitations of human knowledge. Humility makes lack-of-knowledge less scary, less embarrassing, less morally suspect. If we have a positive duty to know, and do not, then we are moral failures. If we have a positive duty to try to know, other things being equal, and try and fail, then we may be epistemic failures, but we are not necessarily moral failures.
Ancient skeptics ran an argument for skepticism through the moral desire for peace of mind – ataraxia. The argument goes that when one categorizes the world into good and bad, right and wrong, one will be “disquieted” by such bads as one still suffers, such goods as one still lacks, such rights as are not yet exemplified or known, such wrongs as still persist etc. But, the skeptic argues, if you relax assertions of what is “naturally” good and bad, right and wrong, it becomes possible to reach a partially untroubled state (ataraxia). Mo' assertions, mo' trouble. As it were. I struggle with this one a lot. My ethical stands are important to me, and I am strongly tempted to think I am right, especially when I read one more transphobic meme, or the latest claims of Donald Trump. But I feel the knife of my own moral failures pretty sharply too … Even the Sextus-style Neopyrrhonist doesn't give up ethics or moral judgment, or political/social opinion completely. Rather they, give up asserting these as “natural goods” or “weighty pronouncements” and rest only in asserting appearances. It seems to me like Donald Trump is a terrible *&^%#@!&, but whether he really is so perhaps I could suspend. Someday. It seems to me that that meme is a piece of transphobic trash slightly disguised to be cutesy, but is it really so? I personally, cannot attest to the ataraxia argument. Does skepticism, in fact, clear space for the possibility of moral freedom-from-trouble? Beats me, but it sounds more plausible to me today than it did a decade ago. Or two. Sigh … At the very least, this argument that, quite apart from epistemic concerns, skepticism opens the possibility for a special kind of less-unhappy life is an ancient one, that I think still has some modern bite, whether it ultimately works or not. Perhaps for some, skepticism is the road to joy, or something like it, regardless of how the epistemic picture plays out.
But another group of my motivations for skepticism seem to be logical rather than moral, metaphysical or even epistemic. At the most basic level there are things I think I know, but don't feel comfortable asserting. Often the problem feels like the insufficiency of language to me, rather than of my knowledge, or of the world. It seems as if there is something which I know, but every time I try to phrase it as a declarative statement it goes awry, and no longer looks like what I was trying to say. The impulse which drives me to poetry, drives me also to skepticism, and for the same reason.
But other times, the problem is not so much language itself as the nature of assertion, or perhaps of the judgment stroke. I have some scrap of truth I want to assert, say “Paris is the capitol of France” and I try to hammer it into some assertable form and get something like “Some of the buildings in Paris, and we can argue further about exactly which ones, currently serve as the capitol of the Fifth Republic of France - well OK the legislative and executive branches of it anyway, and parts of the judicial branch, but it gets more complicated, and let's not even talk about why the Constitutional Council doesn't count as part of the Judicial branch, but it's headquartered at the Palais-Royal so no problem there, and that's all assuming that this world isn't primarily a dream or a fiction or simulation, and that you and I mean roughly the same things by these words, and dozens of other assumptions, and ...” And then I start wondering about where the borders between assertion and non-assertion are. And that's a fairly easy case, with lots of detail but little controversy. If I try to assert “that meme is a piece of transphobic trash, dressed up to be cutesy” if I mean it as anything more weighty than an off-hand remark, I have to dress it up with so many caveats, and definitions, and background knowledge, and assumptions, a personal positions, and such, that the overall effect seems as much like non-assertion as like assertion. Indeed, “it seems to me that that meme is a piece of transphobic trash dressed up to be cutesy” is probably the best abbreviation of the whole complicated mess, that that has precisely moved from asserting profound truth, to discussing appearances without asserting. The whole panopoly of skeptical phrases, “maybe” “perhaps” “it seems to me” and even more strongly “I suspend judgment” “I determine nothing” often seem as tools to shoehorn complicated opinions into short comprehensible packages. Indeed, Sextus glosses “I determine nothing” as “I am now in such a state of mind as to neither affirm dogmatically nor deny any of the matters now in question.”
And the problems of the logic of assertion and non-assertion go beyond the problems of summarization. Assertions exist to play a role within an account, such as an argument or explanation. But accounts also typically build on each other into larger and broader accounts or pictures. And the tension between these two conflicting goals, is at the heart of my own skepticism. A claim that is close enough to accurate for the purposes of this narrow account, is extremely unlikely to be close enough to accurate for all further accounts that one might attempt to build out of this one in later contexts. In assertions that function as terminii of accounts, say a judgment or conclusion, we have many levels and varieties of conclusiveness. But the problem is equally keen for assumptions and supporting assertions. There is a built-in tension between “I assert this for the present purpose” and “I assert this intending it to stand for all possible future purposes.” Building accounts we speak, and speaking assert. Surveying the uses of accounts we notice conflicts and retract, and retracting seek to unassert. We could try lots of different formal mechanisms to make sense of this. Maybe we track conditions. Maybe we use modal possibility markers to keep track of our perhapses. Maybe we use non-monotonic systems of inference. Maybe we use relevance logics to attempt to track topic drift. Maybe we have a retraction operation as well as conclusion operation. Maybe we use a grey scale between 0 and 1 for assertions, rather than something simpler like assert or deny. But in all these cases, we are trying to explicate the underlying tension between asserting-for-this-purpose-here-and-now, and asserting-in-a-more-context-free-way-that-could-be-exported-into-many-possible-projects. [The sun came up with no conclusions ...]
I'm sure we could think of plenty more examples and arguments with more work. But my basic point here is that skepticism, and near-skeptic approaches, are primarily about epistemology, but by no means exclusively about epistemology. And it isn't just that epistemic issues spill out into other issues. Epistemic pessimism gives us reason to be pessimistic about our knowledge of morality, and thus motivates moral skepticism. But there are channels going the other way too. Moral issues can and do motivate skepticism for reasons that don't run through epistemic pessimism. A philosophy that values investigation, account-building, awareness of conflicting accounts, and suspension of judgment, and even perhaps peace-following-suspension is going to have many motivations. Heck, you could just have an aesthetic taste for cognitive dissonance, and find the moment of suspension-in-conflict to be aesthetically pleasing. But more likely, the host of motivations for investigation, or account-building, or awareness of our opponents, will all be at least as salient as our more formal epistemic motivations for suspension of judgment in light of conflicting accounts. For example, there is a certain kind of "fairmindedness" that makes us want to listen to our opponents and consider there accounts, and that virtue is already a motivation for skepticism at least as much as it in turns motivates skepticism. Skepticism has a philosophically pivotal moment, but it also has a process, and thus a series of less pivotal but still key philosophical moments, and this means it's going to have a host of motivations feeding into it, and cannot be limited to its epistemic upshot.