Notes on the modes of Scepticism

1 Scepticism is a disposition towards knowledge and learning.

1.1 The sceptic asks for sufficient proof before providing assent to a certain claim or judgement about how things stand.

1.2 The method has to be rigorous and precise to eliminate any dogmatic tendencies. It must remain open to the possibility of further revisions.

1.2.1 Dogma is the staunch refusal to reconsider the given opinion. It also is the adoption of a firm view about things in the absence of sufficient evidence.

1.3 An open method is characterised by dubitativeness and inquisitiveness. Its objective is the attainment of episteme, or else objective knowledge.

1.3.1 Episteme is certainty about a fact. It should be distinguished from “knowledge” in the familiar sense. That typically denotes “familiarity with” or “intimate understanding of” a certain case, even if that is not necessarily objective. For instance, one may know what the story of the Lord of the Rings is. That does not constitute episteme.

1.4 Objective knowledge must be accessible by anyone using established, imitable methods. The results must not rely on subjective evaluations, revelations, or any kind of intuition that is not reproducible and independently verifiable.

1.4.1 Mysticism or occultism cannot fall in that description, for their premise is that one needs to be an insider before understanding the inner truth or hidden meanings of their teachings. Again, that would be a case of knowing about them, but of not having episteme.

1.5 The sceptic’s method is inherently dialectical. For being inquisitive and dubitative implies a certain eagerness to engage with counter arguments in pursuit of refining the method as well as improving any results it may yield.

1.5.1 Dialectic is not equivalent to dialogue. The latter is an exchange of views. Whereas the former constitutes a collaborative attempt at attaining episteme. Those engaging in dialectic do not do so out of an interest to persuade the other side about the correctness of their views. Rather, they put forward propositions in an attempt to evaluate their validity. For the dialectician, “losing the argument” is actually a win. They have been liberated from a certain falsehood.

2 Science is a sceptical field of endeavour. Its task is to gather evidence in support of a certain hypothesis about how things stand. Verified hypotheses form broader theories, which themselves can describe states of affairs in objective terms.

2.1 The scientist hypothesises and then verifies or reconsiders based on criteria of necessity, sufficiency, and propriety.

2.2 The scientist qua scientist can only become dogmatic if they lose their self awareness with regard to the role of science.

2.2.1 When a certain scientist expresses an opinion based on insufficient evidence or speculative assumptions, any fault does not lie with science, but only with the scientist.

2.3 The scientist’s scepticism is contingent on their commitment to the modes of scepticism. An understanding of what may lead one to suspend ultimate judgement and continue further research instead.

3 Scepticism is concerned with removing prejudice from the method of inquiry. The sceptic does not deny a given truth for the sake of denying. Rather they engage with the [pro]position in an effort to evaluate its necessity, sufficiency, and propriety for the case under examination.

3.1 Progress in science and/or applied methods is achieved by [tacitly] holding that the given state of knowledge can be broadened or further refined. While this may be dismissed as a pedantic exercise, it is necessary for expanding one’s understanding of things.

3.2 Without scepticism, even in cases where it is implicit, there would come a point of saturation and stagnation. The claim of not needing to research something that is already known can become dogmatic if it hampers efforts at trying new approaches at attaining episteme. That is even more so for claims about things that remain open to interpretation and are, therefore, subject to contradiction.

3.3 Scepticism is the prerequisite to pragmatism. The latter is the disposition of understanding things as they are, for what they are—pragmata. That implies having to deal with objective magnitudes that cannot be moulded into one’s own world view. Any hypothesis, theory, or ultimate claim is derived from engagement with pragmata.

3.4 The sceptic cannot create a perfect and complete model that explains everything in advance. Such idealism would presume certainty about the fundamentals of knowledge and learning. It would also postulate a system of thought that is essentially closed; a finished article.

3.4.1 The sceptic’s starting point is to examine whether there are reasons to maintain a certain [pro]position open to further refinements. That involves inquiry into the various factors of the case to assess the completeness of the argument at hand.

3.5 Based on continuous research, the sceptic arrives at the abstract structure of their arguments in favour of withholding ultimate judgement and continuing with inquiry. Such abstract structure is the philosophical foundation of scepticism, which consists of a series of arguments about the reasons pointing to the need for remaining inquisitive, dubitative, and dialectical.

3.6 The arguments for scepticism can be referred to as “modes”, “tropes”, “positions”, or any other term that denotes a certain stance towards things and a way of approaching a research programme. According to Sextus Empiricus,1 the ten modes of scepticism as formulated by Aenesidimus of Knossos are:

That are these: the first, based on the variety of animals; the second, on the differences in human beings; the third, on the different structures of the organs of sense; the fourth, on the circumstantial conditions; the fifth, on positions and intervals and locations; the sixth, on intermixtures; the seventh, on the quantities and formations of the underlying objects; the eight, on the fact of relativity; the ninth, on the frequency or rarity of occurrence; the tenth, on the disciplines and customs and laws, the legendary beliefs and the dogmatic convictions. This order, however, we adopt without prejudice.

As superordinate to these there stand three modes—based on the subject who judges, that on the object judged, and that based on both. (p.27)

4 Where the ten modes fall short is on failing to ground scepticism beyond the empirical domain. All ten modes are essentially a way of suggesting that the world is in flux, including us as observers, and therefore we cannot know for certain what the constants are.

4.1 A firm commitment to the ten modes must rule out the possibility of identity. We cannot tell whether some change occurs if we do not have an idea of what the opposite of change is.

4.2 It seems pointless to argue that everything changes and then hold that this very argument remains constant. A sceptic can consistently identify with their own views, which points to the constancy of something.

4.3 If something defies the general rule, the task of the sceptic is to examine whether it is the exception or the rule that is flawed. The latter has to be the case where there is a multitude of exceptions with differences in degree and category between them. On such occasions, the rule has to be dismissed as inadequate.

4.4 The ten modes do not capture objects of thought, ideas. These do not only concern ideas about the world, such as abstractions of patterns, but also ideas about ideas, or else orders of abstraction and the structure thereof.

4.4.1 Take, for example, the argument for the differences in human beings. While there is proof that no two humans exhibit the exact same DNA structures, we can still trace patterns among humans—commonalities in the multitude of instantiations—to arrive at an understanding of what a “human being” generally is. The notion of a “human being” is an abstraction from things themselves, yet very much consistent with them. It is an object of thought that renders possible the very claim that there are differences between humans. A constant against which one may observe differentiations.

4.4.2 To propound arguments for difference one must be in a position to discern constants that distinguish one entity from another, one state of being from another, and so on. Furthermore, one must be able to grasp differences of degree and category, such as two apples having a slightly different taste, or an apple and a human differing in fundamental ways.

4.5 Whether it is a matter of degree or category, difference as such remains constant. It is never conflated with likeness, just as a constant is not mistaken for a variable. Again, this points at the presence of a certain benchmark against which objective claims may be propounded. It suggests that objects of thought can remain immutable, especially towards themselves. Absolute relativity is self contradicting.

5 A reformulation of Aenesidimus’ theory would have to ground scepticism on three separate grounds: (1) empirical, (2) epistemological, (3) metaphysical. The original theory fails to account for the distinction between objects of sense and thought. It does not provide sufficient scope for critically examining instantiations and abstractions with a high degree of complexity.

5.1 Starting with the empirical domain, the ten modes can be reformulated as one: the mode of instantiation. This pertains to how instances of an abstraction are identified in the world, both relative to the form they extend, and in juxtaposition or relation to other presences.

5.1.1 An instance is a presence that partakes of the qualities of a higher order abstraction. An instance extends the abstract in the sense that in addition to the common qualities, it substantiates specific ones that distinguish it both from the abstraction as well as other instances.

5.1.2 An example is in order. The breeds German Shepherd, Labrador Retriever, and Rottweiler are extensions of the more abstract presence of dog. Each is a subset of the latter. Yet each subset is itself an object of thought. The idea of a breed is a generalisation based on patterns identified in individual specimens. All breeds are the same animal by virtue of sharing the same generic qualities of dog. All breeds differ from each other due to the fact that each extends dog in different ways. Moreover, each individual dog that belongs to a certain breed will still exhibit unique characteristics that render it unique among the multitude of dogs of the same breed.

5.1.3 The same holds in the transition from a superordinate to a subordinate order of abstraction, from the more general to the more specific. The mode of instantiation applies throughout.

5.2 Even though we refer to orders of abstraction, the domain remains the empirical. The way one can arrive at a general concept is by observing patterns. Patterns are immanent to things. If items A, B, C each exhibit, among others, features x, y, z, then it follows that the array x, y, z is a commonality of theirs. The commonality can thus be considered superordinate to A, B, C and described in its own terms as containing the array x, y, z. Properties unique to each instance are to be treated as the factors of differentiation between the instances; the qualities that render them unique. The following formalisation describes as much:

A [a, b, x, y, z]
B [c, d, x, y, z]
C [e, f, x, y, z]

foo [x, y, z]

foo
    A [a, b]
    B [c, d]
    C [e, f]

5.3 The mode of instantiation encompasses the ten modes of Aenesidimus while enriching them with a bifurcated understanding of objects of sense and of thought as distinct from each other. Indeed, this distinction is a prerequisite to rescuing the ten modes from self contradiction. Without accounting for objects of thought, it is impossible to have a full understanding of our grasp of the objective world, such as through the observation of patterns, the construction of orders of abstraction, and the presence of identities therein.

6 Episteme derives from direct experience with the world in accordance with a method that guarantees the objectivity of results in a necessarily predictable fashion. The method must provide for the adequacy of findings in describing a certain phenomenon and in capturing its full extent. There is, nonetheless, a third criterion, which is the propriety of the method as such: whether the research programme is designed to reveal the objective truth rather than obfuscate it.

6.1 The problématique about method introduces us to the second mode of scepticism: the mode of contextualisation. It refers to the specificity of facts in relation to the state of affairs in which they are made manifest.

6.2 Experience with the world does not happen in a vacuum. Whatever is being researched exists in a context, in a certain set of relations with its environing whole. Its own phenomenality is as much contingent on its inner workings as well as any exogenous forces that apply to it.

6.2.1 Human behaviour can serve as an argument in point. A research programme can focus on the actions of agents and patients, examining them as such. Whatever findings are valid insofar as they describe the actions in a narrow sense. For a more holistic analysis, the programme must encompass other magnitudes, such as the social and cultural backgrounds of the situational agents/patients, the historical, economic, or political triggers to their actions, as well as the biological, neurological, or other forces pertaining to [human] nature that anyhow frame or otherwise determine the behaviour. In the absence of such contextualisation, the research programme can only offer an account of a decontextualised, largely simplified, version of the phenomena; one that is likely to be incomplete or even misleading, especially if generalisations are drawn therefrom.

6.3 Contextualisation in conjunction with an understanding of the abstract structure (orders of abstraction and the structure thereof) is a prerequisite to identifying phenomena of an emergent sort; phenomena that are only realisable under certain sets of relations between the facts of the case.

6.4 A holistic research programme applies the mode of contextualisation in an effort to appreciate the constitution of the case at hand. To find the immediate as well as emergent factors contributing to the unfolding phenomena. That would begin to satisfy the method’s criterion of propriety.

7 The abstract structure reveals a metaphysical domain for grounding scepticism. Each order is distinct from its sub- or super- ordinates in terms of the qualities germane to it. What applies to a certain order of abstraction may not hold true for others.

7.1 The difference between a form and its instances is one of category or substance. The former cannot be reduced to the latter while remaining constant. Drawing from the previous formalisation, foo [x, y, z] cannot become the same as A [a, b, x, y, z] for that would entail attaining new properties, namely, the array a, b.

7.1.1 What holds true for an instance will not apply in fullness to its form or to other instances of the same form. Each instance qua instance exists as a unique extension of the abstraction, where its qualities are not shared by the higher order. If the qualities where found in the form, then these would also have to be shared among the other instances, which would render impossible the distinction between the instances and the form.

7.2 The presence of orders of abstraction suggests that a system of forms and instances will consist of a multitude of levels with rules that are of a general or universal sort as well as rules or characteristics that are local or even unique to certain instances.

7.2.1 Recall the aforementioned formalisation:

A [a, b, x, y, z]
B [c, d, x, y, z]
C [e, f, x, y, z]

foo [x, y, z]

foo
    A [a, b]
    B [c, d]
    C [e, f]

The instances A, B, C are distinct from each other because each has certain unique properties. Yet they are similar enough to qualify as extensions of a form foo. We see that foo does not encompass the factors of differentiation among its instances. It does not have the qualities a, b, c, d, e, f for these are not common among the instances. It can only be considered as having the commonalities among the multitude. Otherwise, the distinction between the form and the instances would be false, for foo would be yet another instance, albeit with more qualities than the others. Consider the following:

A [a, b, x, y, z]
B [c, d, x, y, z]
C [e, f, x, y, z]
foo [a, b, c, d, e, f, x, y, z]

baz [x, y, z]

baz
    A [a, b]
    B [c, d]
    C [e, f]
    foo [a, b, c, d, e, f]

7.2.2 What is true for a two level structure holds for a multitude of levels. The inference to be drawn is that what is known for one must be explicitly documented as such. Inquiry into the specifics or the broader magnitudes might reveal aspects of the truth that were obscured from that method.

7.3 With such metaphysics we arrive at the mode of application. It concerns the validity of [pro]positions based on their scope relevant to the abstract structure of what is being studied.

7.3.1 The mode of application is, among others, a pragmatic counter-argument to the regress ad infinitum thesis. It does not matter that something derives, suggests, or otherwise relates to something else, which itself hints at another relation and so on in perpetuity. Only in the theoretical case of acquiring absolute certainty would one need to wrestle with infinite regress. In practice, what we are dealing with are orders of abstraction from immediate sense impression to formal thought about it, and then from abstraction and modelling to the formulation of general rules about objectivity.

7.3.2 It does not matter if, say, cause and effect regress infinitely. If pushing an object with enough force always sets it in motion under the right circumstances, one can be certain that for that very level or in that very constitution of the case, the cause and the effect are identifiable.

8 The mode of application is the most abstract of the three modes of scepticism suggested herein. It provides the metaphysical underpinnings to an epistemology that contextualises and treats in its fullness a certain case. The two support the empirical case for remaining sceptical about the specifics—the very instantiation—of what is being studied.

9 Scepticism is a pragmatic and holistic disposition towards knowledge and learning.

  1. Empiricus, S. (1990). Outlines of Pyrrhonism. Prometheus Books, Amherst, New York. ^

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Protesilaos Stavrou

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