Equipollence

This is the fourth and final post in a series on skepticism (and Goose Island beers.) The earlier posts can be found here.

One of the hallmarks of Pyrrhonism is arguing equipollent claims. Pyrrhonic skeptics set up opposing philosophical accounts as proof that we are incapable of forming reasonable beliefs. They are always willing to take a contrary position, with the goal of showing that we cannot be firm in any opinion and should therefore suspend judgment. As Montaigne put it:

“If you propose that snow is black, they will argue on the other side that it is white. If you say it is neither one nor other, they will maintain it to be both. If by a certain judgement you say that you cannot tell, they will maintain that you can tell. Nay, if by an affirmative axiom you swear that you stand in some doubt, they will dispute that you doubt not of it, or that you cannot judge or maintain that you are in doubt. And by this extremity of doubt, which staggereth it self, they separate and divide themselves from many opinions, yea from those which divers ways have maintained both the doubt and the ignorance.”

Contrary accounts, with nothing to chose between them, leave us in a state of suspended belief, and therefore άταραξία.

But in The Apology of Raymond Sebond, Montaigne does not restrict himself to openly arguing both sides of any question. Even when he is not explicitly setting up equipollent claims, his overt claims are often undercut by the method of his argument.

At one point, Montaigne derides book learning and the search for knowledge. In part he relies on the quote from Ecclesiastes: “he that acquires knowledge acquires travail and torment.” In context, however, the overt argument against learning seems totally subverted by Montaigne’s delivery. The essay is (at least nominally) a defense of a book by a Catalan philosopher who claimed that man could learn all about God and religion by applying his reason to the world around him. A book that Montaigne had translated himself. And the essay is brimming with quotations from scripture and antiquity. Quotations which Montaigne had, no doubt, learned over a lifetime of diligent study. (And, in many cases, had inscribed on the ceiling of his impressive library.) So on the one hand, he argues that education is actually detrimental, and on the other hand, he relies very heavily on his excellent education to support that claim.

Likewise, Montaigne’s argument against the power of human reason has a strong undercurrent that subverts his overt claim. He sets out to show that man is no more intelligent than any other animal. And, because our faculties are not greater than that of the animals, we have no right to rely upon them. Humans, in short, are simply not that smart. But the next twenty pages are dedicated to showing how very intelligent animals are. (And for Montaigne, twenty pages is a decent chunk of writing; many of his essays are only a couple pages long.) So although his overall point appears to be that human reason is not reliable because it is no greater than that of the animals, the vast majority of his argument is spent on raising our opinion of the intelligence of animals. Again, there is a contradiction that may justify withholding our opinion.

It seems significant that Montaigne is constantly and consciously undercutting his own arguments. I think that it shows that even when he appears to be taking a position, he recognizes that there is always another argument or explanation. And because there is no reason to pick one explanation over the other, the better course is to withhold judgment altogether.

But, to quote Montaigne, “what do I know?”


Beer of the week: Four Star Pils – The name of this beer is a reference to the flag of Chicago, the birthplace of Goose Island Beer Co. Four Star is a pretty golden pilsner with a nice, foamy head. It is a bit if a departure from traditional pilsners, in that the hops are less aromatic and have a little more bite in the back of the throat. It tastes more like the hops of an American IPA (in variety, not quantity) than a Czech pilsner. But it is by no means too strongly hopped, with plenty of malt to balance the flavor. Quite an enjoyable beer.

Reading of the week: The Apology of Raymond Sebond by Michel de Montaigne – It seems that the only copyright free English version is over 400 years old. But it will do for our purposes. This reading describes why the skeptics “desire to be contradicted, thereby to engender doubt and suspence of judgement.” Montaigne maintains that the skeptics oppose dogma by being willing to argue the opposite of any position. But this section has curious subversive tones similar to the ones discussed above. The excerpt is about how the skeptics contend against dogma, which is often simply a product of upbringing and culture. The final lines, though, include an exhortation to “addresse and commit our selves to God.” That exhortation certainly seems to imply some dogmatic belief.

Question for the week: Is it true that everything admits of more than one plausible argument? Is there nothing that we can be sure of?

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