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.