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Skepticism: Arguments For and Against

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Both Sextus Empiricus and St. Augustine of Hippo were influential intellectuals of their time who left an indelible impression in their respective areas of study. While Sextus Empiricus was a philosopher best known for his contributions to the philosophy of skepticism, St. Augustine is today mostly remembered as a religious philosopher. Therefore, the paper looks into Sextus Empiricus’s arguments for skepticism and St. Augustine’s counterarguments to find out which of them carries more weight.

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Sextus Empiricus gives a general outline of what skepticism is all about, defining the goal of a skeptic and the way he arrives at that viewpoint. This task is made difficult because by definition a skeptic does not hold beliefs about how things should be done. From the outset, Sextus argues that skepticism is not a philosophical school with certain beliefs. Instead, it is a skill acquired through practice. A skeptic believes nothing is absolutely true. It does not mean that he believes all forms of knowledge to be false, but involve passing judgment on the knowledge they have. Sextus argues that dogmatists pass such kind of judgment. A skeptic does not judge whether knowledge is wrong or true. What he does is suspending judgment on knowledge. By doing so, the skeptic hopes to achieve ataraxia. It can be described as a peaceful state of mind or intellectual freedom that a skeptic achieves by eliminating worries of having too many unanswered questions on a wide range of intellectual problems. Sextus Empiricus argues that dogmatists experience these kinds of issues because they do not persevere long enough in their quest of knowledge. By quickly arriving at judgments on the information they have, they remain with many undressed questions and problems, which skeptics avoid by simply suspending judgment.

How can judgment be suspended? Sextus provides techniques through which judgment of information can be suspended. He calls them modes and differentiates ten, eight, five and to of them. Generally, a skeptic gathers as much information on both sides of an argument as possible. It shows that skeptics’ lack of strong beliefs about anything is not a result of ignorance but of careful study of all available information on a particular subject. Once a skeptic has studied all the sides of an argument, instead of making a conclusion like a dogmatist, he simply refrains from making any judgment.

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Is it practical to suspend judgment? Can people really live a normal life when they have suspended all beliefs? There is no doubt that it is impossible to live normally without holding any beliefs. Men have to feed themselves, sleep, clothe themselves, find shelter and do many other things to live normally. All these require people to have certain beliefs. While on the surface it may appear that skeptics have no beliefs at all, a careful study of Sextus Empiricus reveals that he was particular in relation to what kind of beliefs a skeptic cannot have and which one they can have. Generally, a skeptic can have beliefs that are not forced upon him by force of reason through a scientific or philosophical enquiry. For example, if a skeptic sleeps, it is not because he believes in scientific reasons given for sleeping, but rather because it is a custom. In summary, skeptics reject beliefs resulting from a scientific or philosophical analysis. Arguments reached through other means can be believed in. For example, belief in God is not arrived at through a scientific enquiry or strength of any arguments. Rather, it is just a custom to believe that God exists. Sextus argues that because of that a skeptic can believe in God. He explicitly says that impiety is bad and piety is good.

This belief in the existence of God does not mean that skeptics see eye to eye with religious thinkers wholly. In the Book 1 of On Free Choice of the Will, St. Augustine together with his interlocutor Evodius discusses the origin of evil in the world in a manner that is decidedly anti-skeptic. Unlike skeptics who prefer not making judgments on the knowledge they have, St. Augustine strongly presents his arguments for his belief that evil exists and that God is not responsible for its existence. He further defends his strong beliefs by arguing that certitude exists. According to St. Augustine, God is benevolent and exceedingly powerful. The world He created is a perfect one. However, there is no denying that evil exists in it. Punishments and pain that many people go through is an enough proof of the existence of evil. Despite St. Augustine’s deep belief that all things in the world are created by God, he does not believe that God created evil too. According to St. Augustine, the latter is a result of a man abusing his God-given free will, which allows man to choose to do good or evil. Unfortunately, humankind has been unable to use free will correctly. Deep passion and desires have made human beings choose evil over good. In particular, St. Augustine argues that human choice of lust over chastity is the root cause of evil. Having seen what evil does to people, one may wonder why God does not do away with it given that He is all-powerful and benevolent. St. Augustine argues that God has decided to let evil remain in the world because it does not affect Him.

In addition, St. Augustine also argues strongly against not holding beliefs as advocated by skeptics. While Sextus Empiricus argues that one cannot be absolutely certain, St. Augustine believes that absolute certainty is a possibility. Given St. Augustine’s deep piousness, it is understandable why he argues strongly that it is possible to have strong beliefs about issues, especially religious one. Moreover, entertaining ideas of skepticism advanced by Sextus Empiricus mean abandoning belief in God’s existence and many other core teachings of Christianity. To Sextus, a skeptic suspends judgment in order to achieve tranquility during one’s living. For St. Augustine, the stakes are much higher in the sense that suspending religious beliefs will lead to eternal damnation.

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