Skeptic “Ataraxia”

Skeptic “Ataraxia”

We like the feeling of certainty. It gives us confidence and a sense of safety. Mathematics, geometry and logic give us a taste of certainty. We get another taste from the well tested results of scientific investigation. However, the world as we experience it is full of probability, chance, uncertainty and mystery. We are surrounded by what is doubtful, and this makes us anxious.

The goal of ancient skepticism is to produce a state of ‘ataraxia’ or ‘freedom of mind’ in the souls of its practitioners. It is not about eliminating doubt, but eliminating the cause of the mental distress people experience when doubts assail their minds. This cause contains a desire for the certainty of knowledge coupled with a belief that such knowledge is possible. A practical skeptic accepts the inherent uncertainty of most of our opinions and ceases to imagine that beneath the turbulent surface of experiences and events, reason, science or a mystical/religious vision can reveal an unchanging Reality or Absolute Truth.

How do we benefit by accepting a basic human ignorance? The reason is pragmatic. We benefit by releasing debilitating mental agitation. What, then, is the connection between the skeptic’s ‘ataraxia’ and ‘freedom of mind’? I must confess here that I have taken some liberties by translating ‘ataraxia’ as ‘freedom of mind.’ It literally means ‘painlessness’. The skeptic notices that people have a tendency to entertain ideas that bring them painful feelings, and that doubts are often among these ideas. The goal of a skeptic is to ‘suspend’ belief on doubtful matters that cause mental distress. These doubtful matters cause distress because they cannot be settled rationally.

Another way to translate ‘ataraxia’ is ‘peace of mind.’ The painless existence advocated by the skeptics for practical reasons does not extend to all pains, and certainly not physical pains directly experienced as distressing. I do not wonder if my tooth hurts and try to build up a convincing case that it does. I do not ask myself whether the pain is bad in itself, even if the pain is occasioned in a good cause, like dental health. So the skeptic’s painlessness has more to do with mental than with physical pains, and not even with all mental pains and pleasures. I expect that an ancient skeptic would be sad if a friend died, or elated on winning the lottery. This cannot be the sort of peace of mind involved in skeptic ‘ataraxia.’

The skeptic is trying to relieve us of distressing thoughts that disturb our peace of mind. What sort of ‘peace of mind’ are we talking about? Let’s call it ‘intellectual peace of mind’. The ancient skeptic is trying to relieve us of a particular type of mental pain. This pain is caused by the type of interminable intellectual debates so beloved by serious philosophers. One is so anxious not to miss the truth that the quest for the truth itself breaks up one’s peace of mind in a continual striving after what, in the end, is more a matter of conviction than a matter of proof.

Where knowledge is unavailable, we can only make a choice. The skeptic chooses not to choose in cases where there are no clear conclusions and opposing positions continue to be asserted even while everyone knows they cannot all be true. On my account, this turns skeptical peace of mind into freedom of mind. What is freedom of mind? It is the ability to think any thought that it is possible to think, without limits, without taboos, without constrictions. Not taking a final stand on the philosophical debates mentioned above, the skeptic is free to follow all lines of argument in a playful fashion. Taken in the right spirit, philosophical discussions are fun, insightful and thrilling, since it is a thrill to follow surprising ideas wherever they may lead. Good philosophical discussion is a genuine form of investigation. However, when the spirit of seriousness enters a philosophical discussion, the going gets competitive and philosophy becomes a game of refuting and temporarily silencing one’s opponents.

One of the best things that Hegel ever said was ‘Tarry with the negative.’ By the ‘negative’ he meant one-sided and false theories. Yet the ‘negative’ is never entirely false, and thus inhabiting such a position is a worthwhile exercise, even if, eventually, it would cramp one’s style. It is easier for a skeptic to tarry with the negative than a believer in truth and knowledge, since knowledge is the end of thinking and questioning. Skeptics are free to explore the world of thought in a way that those who are bound by knowledge and the search for knowledge are not.

Thus the ataraxia sought by the ancient skeptic is the painlessness that comes from rightly understanding the nature of philosophical (or theological) argument. This peace of mind is really a type of mental freedom. It is a peace that comes from finding no walls surrounding one’s thoughts; a peace that comes from the realization that we can try on the possibilities of the human spirit without conforming to the dominant shapes of the day.

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13 Comments.

  1. Jeff,
    Very interesting, but for almost everyone, unattainable. Most people work which produces a spectrum of anxiety producing doubt beyond their control. They are made to understand by their bosses the knowledge or product she is looking for is possible and real. Doctors, scientists, businessmen, philosophers, even politicians, occasionally, have duties to find solutions to the unknown, under highly competitive situations, and when a solution’s existence is in doubt, to get as close as possible to it.
    Even people retired and without the distress of need for production, often immerse themselves in exactly those questions which they know have no certainty of ever being answered. The questions can cause considerable mental uneasiness, but it keeps them in closer touch with life than unending halcyon days.
    Finally, what about world peace? I doubt if there is any knowledgable person who believes world peace is possible in our life times. Should we walk away from striving for it and sit back and have chummy conversations about it?

  2. michael reidy

    Good post Jeff, comprehensive within the natural limits of the form, succinct without abruptness.

    Can one be calm and dispassionate and yet hold to a view? At the level of contestation it is a castle waiting for the invention of gunpowder. At the meta-level a view about views is a sustainable strategy. My lexicon gives a meaning for ‘sophia’ as ‘perfect scientific knowledge’ and ‘wisdom’. These meanings are only in conflict if you regard them as referring to the same level. Plato might have felt that geometry was a paradigm for comprehensive knowledge but he could also hold that it was merely a salient example of formal knowledge; real knowledge was of ‘the one, the true and the good’. This is the Riemann resistant nous.

  3. Ralph,

    I think the bottom idea of the skeptic ataraxia is to not have excess, unnecessary, or unwanted worry. Certainly the retired would turn their minds to less substantial issues, but it is as the skeptics would have wanted it. Their way is not towards finding an end, but with being at peace with the journey, as I understand it. It is not that they never want to have to find the answers to difficult problems and situations as doctors et cetera would. They only acknowledge the freedom of mind to do away with unwanted stress without necessarily eliminating the stressor.

    And surely, stress and worry about world peace would be welcome and enjoyed by those pursuing it? Not all stress is bad, only that which we do not want.

  4. Hi Jeff,
    I hope this doesn’t engender an “oh no, not him again” from you.
    For the last 4 or 5 days I’ve been mulling over this post of yours. Though I very much like the way you’ve presented your subject I find myself even more at odds with some of the things you say.
    “The skeptic is trying to relieve us of distressing thoughts that disturb our peace of mind.”
    This doesn’t sound like we’re talking about engagements between two parties such as Wittgenstein and Popper, (in this case, of course, the ferociousness was unilateral going from W to P.) I wonder exactly to what degree “distressing thoughts” are acceptable. None? That’s impossible. There must be some fine line between Wittgenstein and none which divides acceptability of mental distress. Say you’re to the left of the line, leaning toward W, assuming one agrees with the skeptic’s view on this, how does one put herself to right? Therapy?
    Okay, enough silliness. What’s wrong with having your heart increasing its pace, getting red faced, somewhat flustered and maybe even a bit incoherent? It sounds like what you describe is a call for us to be really nice to one another which I’m afraid leaves out a slab of reality.
    “ However, the world as we experience it is full of probability, chance, uncertainty and mystery. We are surrounded by what is doubtful, and this makes us anxious.”
    But is this bad for us? It’s gotten us this far up the evolutionary scale. Perhaps it’s something we need. Jeff, as you said in your piece people seem to entertain ideas that are mentally painful. What you’re depicting might be a genetic trait, for why do we do it otherwise? There has to be a payback. No one goes around hitting their heads against a wall without some serious reasons.
    “Taken in the right spirit, philosophical discussions are fun, insightful and thrilling, since it is a thrill to follow surprising ideas wherever they may lead.”
    This sounds nice, relaxing and dull.

  5. Shall I give you my secret recipe for ataraxia? I found it in Socrates’ renunciation of the investigation of things en tois ergois and confining himself to examining things en tois logois. Following Socrates, I leave to scientists the first field of investigation. The knowledge scientists gain comes piecemeal, accumulatively, and the certainty that comes with it is always provisional. Of course the medical researcher is eager and anxious to discover the cause of and cure for cancer, but the uncertainty involved in the process is not of the mind-troubling variety.

    On the other hand, the philosopher examining things en tois logois, finds that while s/he cannot have the kind of knowledge proper to the scientist, yet s/he can build ideal worlds that lend meaning and value to the things that surround us. These ideal worlds can claim no objectivity or truth; hence two such worlds are not mutually exclusive, one being true the other must be false as in the case of conflicting scientific hypotheses.

    When philosophy gives up the vain dream of reaching final, absolute truth about things and sees itself as a creatively imaginative interpretation of things, then “philosophical discussions are fun, insightful and thrilling, since it is a thrill to follow surprising ideas wherever they may lead.” When “philosophy becomes a game of refuting and temporarily silencing one’s opponents”, it is deluded about its true nature and yields nothing but contention and falsehood.

    I found my ataraxia in pursuing philosophy as confessedly mythologizing, as, strictly speaking, a species of poetry.

    D. R. Khashaba

  6. From the Author: Thanks again for the acute commentary. A number of things to add come to my mind. The first is that skeptic ataraxia does nothing to help us out of real doubts about the future. It doesn’t help us with existential angst. It doesn’t help us against physical or emotional pain. The pain it relieves us of is a purely philosophical pain. It is the pain at never arriving at the final truth without giving up the search altogether.

    Aristotle says that the person who contemplates knowledge is happier than the person who is still inquiring after it. The skeptic is just one of those inquirers whose criteria for knowledge are particularly high. However, should the seeker finally find the truth, I hope even the skeptic would be honest enough to accept it. There is just no knowing whether this is possible in advance. Skepticism is about living life out in the open.

  7. Yes, its all in our minds, if we think of positive things, we see life in a positive way too, and even with defeats, we embrace it whole heartedly

  8. Gunterlee Gunter

    in my own personal opinion it seems like an atarexic person is somebody who knows how to live ain the now. not worrying about the future and not dwelling on the past somebody who expresses how they feel when they feel it and not worrying about it later it seems to me we should all be striveing to accomplish this state of being

  9. Ataraxia is like a runners high. Ataraxia is a by-product, not a thing to be sought after. Mental freedom and peace of mind is not the point (or should not be IMO).

    The pain for an individual comes from uncertainty in the form of obstacles to achieving something. There is both the doubt of not achieving goals and the self doubt about why they cannot achieve them (are they not ‘good’ enough). The best way through this is the embracement of not knowing. The internalization and coming to terms with not knowing is when ataraxia occurs. In that moment habits of thought starts to break down. Open-mindedness starts to blossom. Deep internalization of knowing you don’t know is liberating. It liberates one to seek believable paths that would previously have been closed. The peace of mind occurs but that is only a by-product.

    Power comes from radical openness in inquiry to the causes of obstacles or problems. The skeptics knowing they don’t know is the thing that unlocks true openness. Operating this way time after time increases the probability of achieving that which one seeks.

  10. I was just browsing the meaning of Ataraxia, when i happen to see your blog, well i see what do we mean by the word, but there is only one thought that came to me, skeptic by the very defintion is someone who is confused, he’s in a perpetual state of mental flux, then how can such state be painless, wont it be just the opposite?

  11. On second thought (third, fourth?) I really like what Aaron Seymour said about ataraxia being like runner’s high. This would also answer Shikha’s question. Yes skepticism is may be confusing, and yes it leaves one in a state of mental flux, but this doesn’t have to imply that the experience is painful. Or rather, it doesn’t have to imply that is *painless*. Runner’s high can only be achieved after forcing yourself beyond the point of pain, and through determination (and, well, constant running) to reach another state that may even complement the pains of running.

    If I understand Aaron correctly, then the mental equivalent is pushing yourself until you can be both skeptic, and accepting of this skepticism. Although, I think my explanation is crude version of Aaron’s, and I think he explained it much better.

  12. Second try, much shorter:
    I’m excited by this article. Though generally ignorant, I’ve been searching for something to believe. For instance Deism and to hell with theism. I will be doing some serious investigation of skepticism. Thank You for this great article!

  13. Ataraxia is like kicking down the door of doubt, knowing very well that there are no truths on the other side.
    imo

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