Theory of Change Podcast With Matthew Sheffield
An ancient Greek philosophical tradition is surprisingly relevant in today's world of instant information

An ancient Greek philosophical tradition is surprisingly relevant in today's world of instant information

Philosopher Richard Bett discusses how many internet 'skeptics' are doing the exact opposite of what they imagine

History, as the old saying goes, repeats itself. There are many reasons why, but one of them is that philosophy is actually far more important than many people may realize.

We live during a time in which search engines and AI have made it so that anyone has access to information on any field of human knowledge. But having knowledge available to you does not mean you understand it.

Where we think knowledge originates impacts our ability to perceive the world. And we can't make sound conclusions about reality if our process of thinking is unsound. Unfortunately, a lot of people have broken epistemologies and as a result they practice a counterfeit form of skepticism in which they question everyone--except for themselves.

Believe it or not, our current moment in which everyone claims to know everything about the world has some commonalities with the intellectual climate of ancient Greece. Then as now, lots of people called themselves experts on biology, astronomy, medicine, and a whole lot more—and many of their theories were simply incorrect.

During a times of uncertainty, learning how to distinguish between ignorance and skepticism is a tremendous skill to develop.

In this episode, we're featuring Richard Bett, a professor of philosophy at Johns Hopkins University and the author of a number of books on Greco-Roman skepticism, including "How to Keep an Open Mind: An Ancient Guide to Thinking Like a Skeptic," which is an edited translation of the works of Sextus Empiricus, one of the most famous members of the ancient Skeptic traditions.

The deep conversations we bring you about politics, religion, technology, and media take great time and care to produce. Your subscriptions make Theory of Change possible and we’re very grateful for your help. If you’re not a member, please join today on Substack or Patreon to get full access.



MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: Welcome to Theory of Change, Richard.

RICHARD BETT: Thanks very much.

SHEFFIELD: So I think a lot of the history that we're going to be talking about here today, it may be unfamiliar to a lot of people because, unfortunately, most universities and high schools do not require students to learn about ancient philosophy.

So let's maybe start the discussion here with Socrates and the Sophists. Who were they and what were they about?

BETT: Okay, well, so, the Sophists were a group of well, higher educators in some sense. They were the first people who taught grown men, it was only men in those days, and they taught beyond the kinds of basic subjects that you might learn just as a normal member of society. And they taught effective public speaking.

But they also had a number of what you might call theoretical interests, especially about the nature of human society, often the origins of human society. And so in many ways, I think you can think of them as a kind of early kind of social scientist.

And yeah, they are clearly interested in being able to make an effective case on either side of an argument. And thinking about opposing sides of arguments. That's an important part of what the Sophists are about.

Socrates is around the same time. This is the late 400s BCE. And possibly stretching a little beyond that, which is a period before Plato. And Plato had a lot of opposition to the Sophists, but yes [00:04:00] Socrates was engaged in a lot of discussion of what things are good, what a good human life might be like, and so for him, a lot of discussion of a variety of different points of view. That was also part of what he was up to.

Socrates seems to have been suspicious of the Sophists in certain respects, but he also had some things in common with them, I think it's fair to say.

SHEFFIELD: Okay. And the signature form of discussion that Socrates engaged in is now known as Socratic dialogue. Tell us what that was.

BETT: Well, I mean, this is as presented by Plato, mostly. And we have other sources of information about Socrates, but Plato's by far the most compelling. And in his version, it's questioning people about their assumptions, especially their assumptions about how a human life ought to be lived. What a good human life would be like.

And, yeah, as we see it in many of the dialogues with Plato, it involves getting people to see that they don't really know about the things they claim to know about. And it seems like that's a kind of starting point for search for, better answers than one had before.

Now Socrates in many of Plato's dialogues makes clear he doesn't know the answers to these things either. But he's interested in getting people into a in an attempt to figure that out. And so yeah, it's a kind of painstaking inquiry which more often than not leads to Inconclusive results but at least you've cleared away some kind of mistaken ideas that you might have had beforehand.

That seems to be the method as depicted in much of what Plato gives us about Socrates.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, and a lot of people had seen value in that type of instruction ever since that point.

BETT: Sure.

SHEFFIELD: And now, a lot of people who are [00:06:00] professors in a variety of fields be engaged in that themselves, right?

BETT: That's right. I mean, that's always my attempt is to pose questions rather than, just lecturing. And with a larger class, you have to do some lecturing. But yeah, with a small seminar, it's great if you can, if most of what comes out of your mouth is a question, and getting the students talking and maybe getting them to reconsider some ideas that they were attached to before.

So yeah, the Socratic method is much applauded. It's not always so easy to actually enact unless you're dealing with a small group.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, but I guess in a sense you could say that it's sort of an attempt to begin reasoning to come to higher, more well-formed conclusions about the world.

BETT: That sounds right.

SHEFFIELD: And ourselves. So that was the framework.

But not everybody, of course, who was a contemporary of Socrates was fond of that type of inquiry. And as most people probably know, Socrates was sentenced to death for impiety, as he was alleged to be promoting unbelief and irreligion among the young men, right?

BETT: Well, well, supposedly new kinds of divinity. It's different from the standardly recognized ones; that's the charge. But then yeah as it goes on in detail in the description it turns out some people think he doesn't believe in gods at all.

SHEFFIELD: Before we get into sort of the rub of the charge against him, I think it's worth discussing a little bit how in polytheism, ethics and religion are not necessarily intertwined as they are in modern-day monotheism, right?

BETT: That's right. Yeah. I mean, it's not that there's no kind of directives that you might think you get from the gods, but yeah, there's certainly no, there's no moral code that's written down in some equivalent of the [00:08:00] Bible, that there is no equivalent to the Bible. There are things you better not do against the gods; you better not get on the wrong side of them. But that has nothing much to do with how you treat your fellow human beings in society.

I mean, of course, there are very highly developed ethical codes, but yeah, the connection between those and Greek religion was pretty loose, certainly.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, and I think if you look at a lot of other polytheistic traditions around the world, that seems to generally be the case with a lot of them.

BETT: I think that's right. Yeah.

SHEFFIELD: Maybe some exception on ancient Egyptian religion, depending on what time period you're looking at, but maybe that's a little--

BETT: I'll take your word for that. I can't speak with authority about that.

SHEFFIELD: Okay, so Socrates, though, he was accused of saying that he had within him what he called a daemon or people might nowadays pronounce a “demon” if they're British. And Americans, we, we would say, I don't know, a “dai-mone” probably, I guess. But this inner sort of soul or conscience of his, and he believed that that was the source of how he knew what was right. And that was not what some people agreed with or wanted to hear.

BETT: Right. Yeah, I mean, it was not, it didn't speak to him all that often, but yes it gave him guidance on certain occasions as he understood it. And yeah, that, I mean, that seems to have been the source of the notion that he had nonstandard religious ideas or one of the sources anyway.

So yeah, I mean, he took it quite seriously, as far as we can tell, according to Plato. Plato's version, it only ever told him not to do things that he was, considering doing. In another version, the author Xenophon, sometimes it told him to do things in a positive sense.

But yeah, there was, it's not clear how it worked. I mean, was it a voice? Was it just a sort of a beep? (laughter) Who knows? But yeah, it was some [00:10:00] sort of guidance that he interpreted as having a divine origin. But yes, it was a voice, an inner voice that spoke to him in some way or another. And yeah, he was quite serious about it, but yes, that it, it seems likely that was, and there's several places in Plato more or less say that that was one of the origins of this charge of impiety or believing in nonstandard religious ideas.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Yeah. And somebody who lived around the same time as Socrates doesn't appear to have any sort of connection, as far as we know. We don't know a lot about him, was another philosopher named Pyrrho.

BETT: Yeah, a few generations later, but yeah.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, I mean, yeah, so, but I mean in terms of like, we don't know what he thought about Socrates, generally speaking. So give us a background on who Pyrrho was and how his ideas sort of became dormant after and then were revived multiple times.

BETT: Right. Yeah. Okay. So Pyrrho yes, as I said, two or three generations later than Socrates, probably. And yeah he is the origin of the school of skepticism known as Pyrrhonism and yeah we are told that he went he was contemporary with Alexander the Great, and he went on Alexander's expedition to India and there encountered some Indian philosophers we don't know who they were, but they're just called "naked wise men" in the source that we're given on this, and supposedly came back from India with a philosophy that we now call skepticism.

Now, I mean, the exact nature of Pyrrho's ideas is very hard to pin down given the lack of evidence. But in the later Pyrrhonism tradition, which, yeah, as you said, there's a gap. He had some immediate followers, and then the Pyrrhonist tradition, appealing to Pyrrho, was not started until the first century BCE, and then lasted for a few centuries after that.

The one author in the Pyrrhonist tradition who has written extensive works that have survived, is a guy named Sextus Empiricus. And for him, [00:12:00] skepticism consists in suspending judgment. So you don't lay down the law about anything. You don't claim to have figured out the ultimate truth of things. Instead you contemplate all the opposing views on things and come to suspension of judgment because they all have equal credibility to you. And that is supposed to produce tranquility.

And yeah, some version of those ideas or related ideas seems to have been what Pyrrho put forward. But exactly how similar is not so clear. But in any case, Pyrrho's ideas served as inspiration for some people later in antiquity who picked up that general strand of thought and promoted a philosophy making suspension of judgment central. So that's sort of a very short thumbnail sketch of one strand of Greek Skepticism. Now I should say another strand was in Plato's Academy, and they did explicitly appeal to Socrates as a kind of forerunner.

But yeah, as you say, there’s no evidence to connect Pyrrho with Socrates, and I'm trying to remember if his disciple Timon wrote about quite a few other philosophers, mostly in a scathing negative way. I'm trying to remember if he ever refers to Socrates, but I'm sorry, I cannot remember right now, and I'd have to go do some research to figure it out.

But in any case, yeah, there's no reason to think Pyrrho was identified himself as a follower of Socrates or a follower of anyone else for that reason, except for that matter, except perhaps these Indian thinkers that he encountered on his expedition with Alexander.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. I remember reading a long time ago a book about Sophists, and there was some discussion that perhaps there was some connections between sort of pre-Hindu thought in that tradition, those traditions as well, but it's not, it's so poorly documented, it's really hard to say so, okay, so, but, and I guess one of the other sort of And this is an interesting parallel, I think, between the ancient [00:14:00] Greco Roman world and today is that in those days, the realm of human knowledge was much smaller, and so places like the Academy or places like the various houses, the Pythagoreans and other schools of thought, they dealt with enormous breadth of the subjects that they talked about.

So, and we're talking here kind of, we're going to be focusing, moving the focus to Pyrrho and Sextus, but in the case of Sextus Empiricus, he was part of-- the Empirical school was primarily a medical school of thought.

BETT: That's right.

SHEFFIELD: And so, but on the other hand, like when you look at the Academy founded by Plato and Aristotle’s Lyceum as well, and the Pythagoreans, they were doing things on mathematics, they were doing things on history, they were doing things on astronomy.

And here's where I think it's interesting as a parallel to the present day, because we're now at this moment in human history where knowledge has actually collapsed back in on itself in a sense. Because of the creation of search engines, anyone can actually get true information and begin forming ideas about any particular subject because of the internet. You don't have to have a background in astrophysics or surgery to begin looking at these topics.

And so in that sense, I think it's a really fascinating development that really is kind of, unparalleled in except for at that very moment that we're talking about here with the ancient skeptic environment. What's your thought on that?

BETT: I'm not quite sure I see the parallel here.

SHEFFIELD: In other words, anybody can sort of make a foray into a field of knowledge now.

BETT: Oh, I see.

SHEFFIELD: So the parallel that I would say between these ancient times that we're talking about here and the present day is that in both [00:16:00] cases, people are able to venture into fields of knowledge with which they had no direct experience and are able to begin forming conclusions.

And in the same way, there were a lot of really stupid and terrible ideas about how things worked in the ancient world. And we're now kind of seeing that again, during COVID, everybody was an expert in biochemistry and public health, and in the same way that Aristotle thought he knew how women thought and--

BETT: Right. Yeah. I hadn't thought of that parallel, but as you describe it, I see the point. Yeah, yeah, that's right.

SHEFFIELD: And there's that phrase of, I think it was Karl Marx, that history repeats, first as tragedy and then as farce. Whether that of course is only once or twice, he's playing off Hegel there. But it is, I think it is the case that a lot of good ideas or modes of thinking also kind of have analogs in bad forms of thinking.

And we're seeing that nowadays, especially with people like Joe Rogan and others who are practicing what I call the “Zombie Socratic Method,” where they're using the tools of knowledge to destroy knowledge. Would you agree with that?

BETT: That sounds like a good way of describing it, yeah. I mean the interest in truth in some quarters just seems to have disappeared.

SHEFFIELD: But speaking of Rogan though, the approach that he and a lot of his sort of imitators both more and less intellectually gifted, I feel like with them, they've kind of exposed the sort of the limits of the value of skepticism, especially when you lop off the latter part of the argument, which is this is skepticism about things which you cannot really know. And that they've extended it to say, no, this is about everything. And so therefore you can question everyone except for yourself. “Do your own research.”

BETT: Right. Well, well, do your own research. That's [00:18:00] a very limited kind of skepticism, because, again, I mean, from the ancient perspective, skepticism is suspending judgment. And so, yeah, if you're suspending judgment about some ideas but not others, that doesn't really amount to skepticism. And if anything, that's the opposite. That's jumping to conclusions. I mean, doing your own research sounds fine, but being aware of competing points of view, being sensitive to the evidence, that's a crucial element in a genuine kind of open-minded attitude.

And yeah, that's not what I see in the kinds of thinkers that you're talking about. It seems like they reject a whole lot of stuff and then unreflectively accept a lot of other stuff. And so, yeah, I mean, as I said, I mean, I don't think a full blooded skepticism is really viable today, but what the lesson that we can get out of it is the willingness to be open to opposing positions and willingness to admit that you might be wrong or that you might be able to learn some more.

And yeah, that's the kind of thing that I don't see in the kind of dogmatic positions that the kind of thinkers you're talking about seem to adopt. So yeah, I mean, I think skepticism does have limitations, but the positions that you're talking about are not truly skeptical. If anything after a certain point, they're exactly the opposite.

SHEFFIELD: And this is where the idea of skepticism and ignorance have, they do have a certain similarity in one sense, right?

BETT: Well, sure. I mean, a skeptic would not claim to know things. I mean, that's, that's another way of putting the suspension of judgment that's central to skepticism. It's not that they think it's impossible, that, I mean, that would be a definite view in itself, but they don't think they've figured anything out, for sure.

And so the thing that I think we can get out of that is the notion of keeping an open mind. I mean, maybe they push it too far. But yeah, the skeptic certainly [00:20:00] would claim to be ignorant of the kinds of topics on which they suspend judgment. That's pretty much a just sort of repeating the same point twice.

SHEFFIELD: Well, and it's also that so I mean, you have dedicated a lot of your career to sort of explaining and examining the ideas of ancient Greco Roman skepticism. You wrote a book called How to Keep an Open Mind, which I think it's very relevant to what we're talking about here. Give the audience a little summary of what your book is.

BETT: Sure. Yeah. Well, and so it's mostly translations from, of selections from Sextus Empiricus to sort of give a basic flavor of what his skepticism is like. But I chose the title because I think that's the kind of lesson that you can get out of it today that's still very much relevant for our times.

And I mean, it's not an exact, I mean, that's not exactly just following what Sextus says, because as I say, I mean, I think maybe he pushes the suspension of judgment line too far. Suspension of judgment is the root to this attitude of tranquility. And so, he doesn't actually want to discover anything.

What he wants to do is keep on balancing opposing ideas so that he's always in this state of suspension. But, I mean, I think we, we do actually know some things about the world. I mean, as you said, that in the ancient world, much less was actually known.

And we, there's a lot of things we don't know, sure, but there's a lot of things we do. And so I think for us, whatever it was, whatever was the case in the ancient world for us suspension of judgment across the board is not really a realistic goal even if you would want it, which is another question too. But I think generally speaking, the idea of being aware of and alert to opposing points of view which is central to Sextus’s method, that's very much something that I think we can value and learn from today.

And so yeah, that's why I called it [00:22:00] Keeping an Open Mind, even though in a sense, Sextus himself is not exactly open-minded, because he's got this sort of definite program of, maintaining his suspension of judgment. But yeah, if you take the sort of, the parts of his outlook that still have relevance today, keeping an open mind and being alert to alternatives—doesn't mean you never come to conclusions, but whatever conclusions you do come to, you should be prepared to revise in light of new evidence.

That’s what I would think is a good empirical method to go back to that term again. And, yeah, as you said, there's a connection between the medical empirical school and the Pyrrhonists. They weren't all the same people, but a number of them were the same people.

And yeah, Sextus Empiricus was, I mean, his title is because he was a member of the Empirical medical school himself. And yeah, the Empiricists thought that, I mean, they believed in cures for diseases and, they believed in medical procedures, but it was all based on experience. What had been seen, shown to work, it was not based on any, theory about the underlying workings of the body is just based on what procedures have been effective.

And that kind of broadly empirical method, that's what I think you can get from skepticism. Without buying into 100% of what Sextus says, which I don't think is realistic for us today.

SHEFFIELD: Well, and I think it's, I mean, maybe in fairness to him, that given that he was engaged apparently in some sort of medical practice he did, it seemed, to have beliefs that there were things that actually were true.

BETT: Well, well, sure. Yeah, that's right.

SHEFFIELD: No, I mean, he did not advocate this as an across-the-board thing.

BETT: No, no, I mean, exactly. Suspension of judgment is about the real nature of things. And in your ordinary life, you go by what he calls the appearances. And so, things strike you in certain ways, and that is enough for your practical decisions.

And I think, yeah, the medical Empiricists’ experience of what procedures work and what procedures don't work, [00:24:00] that would all come under the heading of appearance for him.

The Empiricists, like the Pyrrhonists, didn't claim to penetrate beyond the appearances to some sort of theory, ultimate theory of how things function. In the case of the Empiricists, how the human body functioned, in the case of the Pyrrhonists, much broader views about the nature of the world. So yeah, there's plenty of resources for practical purposes and that applies to medicine just as much as it applies to regular life.

So yeah, I mean, Galen, the doctor Galen says that the Empiricist's attitude to medicine is like the Pyrrhonist's attitude to life as a whole. And it's that broadly empirical method that I think is the common ground.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, and just to go back to the present moment, in the present moment now, a lot of, there's this misbegotten term called the culture war. And I think it's very inaccurate, because really, we're seeing with this widespread active weaponized ignorance, we're in a crisis of epistemology, right?

BETT: That sounds fair. Yep. Sure.

SHEFFIELD: And I mean, in the sense that how you understand where knowledge comes from, how it can be found, these are the critical questions of this moment, because now we're the world in which we live was kind of created by people who believed in empiricism and empirical reasoning. But they created a world in which also there were people they didn't bother to convince of these ideas.

And we were talking before the recording here that, I see that there was, that we're kind of living in a post-Christian world, we’re kind of reliving a lot of the crises that engulfed Islam in the 1970s, 80s, 90s, in which you had a populace who had no real contact with modernity and they were suddenly [00:26:00] kind of forced into that world by virtue of the world changing so drastically. And it became very enraging to a lot of people and we're seeing that continually nowadays, and I think it's important for people to get that. I mean, is that something you've thought about or written much about recently?

BETT: I don't, I haven't written about it but that, I mean, that seems like a good description of our times. And yeah, I mean, in universities, we try to push back against that and teach people ways of discovering things and, ways of reasoning. But that's a relatively small segment of the population that's going to be exposed to that. So, yeah.

SHEFFIELD: Do you think though that that there is kind of an underappreciation for the thinking, the thought processes that created modernity? Like John Maynard Keynes, he's known for talking about how dead economists rule people, but actually the phrase before that is more accurate, and I'm just going to read it here so he said, “the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right, and when they are wrong are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else.”

What's your take, you want to riff on that?

BETT: Well, I mean, I'm not sure. I mean, maybe it depends which ideas we're talking about. But yeah, I mean, the ideas that have been around before certainly percolate without people realizing them. That's certainly true. But, yeah, I mean, one might wish some ideas had more impact than they actually do.

And others perhaps less. So, yeah, I think it's sort of two edged. I'm not sure if I'd go along entirely with that quote of Keynes.

SHEFFIELD: Do you see that kind of turning around [00:28:00] though, that people who do have a better understanding of sound thinking are beginning to realize, look, we've got to explain this stuff to people?

BETT: I think there's in universities, at least in my experience, there's a realization that, yeah, this is a real issue. Whether how much effect that can have across society? That's another question. I'm much less optimistic about that, but I mean at my university just a few years ago, there was this institute founded that it's kind of political science, psychology, sociology, designed to kind of investigate the foundations of democracy and what we can do to make it more robust.

And a lot of really interesting things have been hired in for that institute. But yeah, how far that's going to impact the broader society remains to be seen. And yeah, at the very least it would take a long time to make any kind of difference. So yeah, I mean, I'm, there are certainly people who realize that the importance of this how far change can be affected and how quickly.

If at all that's another question.

SHEFFIELD: Would you agree then that we do kind of have segment, a minority segment that is kind of, at war with modernity? Do you think that's an adequate expression of what we're talking about here?

BETT: Yep, that's a fair way to put it, I think.

SHEFFIELD: And how do you think Donald Trump sort of fits into that?

BETT: Well, I mean, he's a symptom of it, but he's also had quite a lot to do with pushing it along, I think. Yeah, I mean, I mean, I have touched on these things a little bit, I suppose, in sort of thinking about this theme of open mindedness.

And yeah, I mean, I wrote a paper that, that kind of explored this a little bit in around 2014. And yeah, I remember giving it, presenting it a few years later, and I thought, oh my god I can't imagine I wrote this before Donald Trump made appearance on the national stage, but now what I'm saying is so much truer than I could have imagined at the time.

SHEFFIELD: So [00:30:00] Specifically, like, what were you saying there?

BETT: Well, that I mean, this general idea that open mindedness is the message that you can get from Sextus, and that's something that has some value, and there are powerful forces pushing against that and yeah, they were already there before Trump came along, but I think, Trump has been a big sort of magnet and, or a big force making it much more prominent in society more broadly. Or just make it more obvious, perhaps, I mean, maybe it was happening anyway. Well, it was happening anyway. So, yeah, so I think he's both a symptom and a cause, I would say. And that's not an original idea.

SHEFFIELD: Sure. Now, what about outside the United States? Do you think there are similar trends?

BETT: There's some of the same things. Yeah, I mean, it, it was no accident that I mean, I'm from Britain, as you can probably figure out the vote on Brexit in the UK happened in the right around the same time when Trump was running for president. And I think that's, some of the same phenomena are involved there as well.

A lot of English people seem to be regretting that decision now. So yeah, I think there, there are elements of it elsewhere. And yeah, I mean, there are far right movements in Germany. I mean, I'm not a political theorist or scientist, but yeah, from my reading of the news, my sense is, yeah, it may be in a particularly extreme form in the United States, but it's certainly, there are parallels a lot of other places in the world and, well, and including, as you said, I mean, Islamic fundamentalism was a kind of precursor in, in many other countries.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, and related to that, I think also is that when you look at the work of Or at least when I've looked at the work of a lot of present day fundamentalist religious apologists, they kind of are using the tools of skepticism to question things like biological evolution or question things like the age of the earth and, and say things like, well, you weren't there.

When the earth the oceans evolved, [00:32:00] form. You weren't there when life was coming out of the sea. So how do you know that that happened? And so therefore we can, we have this other narrative here, which says that, hey, God made everything in seven days.

And so therefore, let's suspend our judgment here. We could be just as right.

BETT: Yeah, well, and I mean, the answer to that is study some science and I mean, the trouble is to be able to respond to that effectively, you've got to actually understand the mechanisms of evolution, which of course we don't understand 100%. That's what science is like. But I think we understand quite a bit.

But to get to that, and I'm no biologist, but you need to really get into detail. And that's where this kind of attitude falls short, I think. But yeah, again I mean, teaching people the full details of the theory of evolution, that's not something that is going to happen in a widespread fashion.

So yeah, I mean, it's tough that the appeal of that kind of easy answer is quite understandable, given the difficulty of actually responding effectively to that kind of pseudo skeptical challenge, I would call it. Yeah.

SHEFFIELD: Well, and yeah, and the idea behind, the other idea behind skepticism is that you come to that suspension of belief only if these ideas can seem remotely plausible.

BETT: That's right.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. You have to interrogate the ideas first.

BETT: Yeah, exactly.

SHEFFIELD: And if they cannot survive scrutiny, then you do not suspend.

BETT: Yeah, that's right. And in fact, the word skeptikos in Greek means inquirer. So, I mean, that's what Sextus says is, these other people, they think they figured out the nature of the world and, well, and some of them think they figured out that's impossible. Well, I'm not either. I'm still inquiring. I'm still investigating.

And that involves, yeah, looking at all the opposing points of view. Now, as I say, I mean, I think Sextus has a too rigid [00:34:00] attitude himself that's always going to lead to suspension of judgment. But the idea of examining opposing points of view, examining the evidence on either side, that's something that is painstaking, difficult, long process and that's what serious discovery is like. And so, yeah, I mean, the scientific attitude and the skeptical attitude have quite a bit in common.

And any good scientist has a measure of skepticism about their own theories, meaning a willingness to go where the evidence leads, which might involve reformulating your own ideas and well, not just in science. I mean, any good thinker in any subject will have that willingness to revise their opinions in light of new information.

And that, yeah, that's not what you see with these right-wing movements, as far as I can tell.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And I think that part's relevant, if we jump further ahead in history after sort of the end of antiquity when some of these French philosophers began sort of rediscovering the work of Sextus and kind of, the, I mean, when you look at the history, like, it was this idea that, because again, it's like these ideas people forget how knowledge works and how you can form it, over time. It seems like this is a lesson humanity has to learn over and over.

And so, with the beginning of the Enlightenment quote unquote Sextus's work played a major role in that.

BETT: That's right. Yeah, and yeah, I mean, and new movements of skepticism came along there, but then at that point, skepticism became a much more theoretical attitude.

And it was accompanied, but I mean, Descartes is the person who's usually thought to really put skepticism on the map in the early modern period. But Descartes was also a very serious scientist and a very serious inquirer. So yeah, I think that connection is a real one.

And yeah, Sextus was forgotten about, [00:36:00] largely not 100%, there was a medieval Latin translation of some of him. But he largely dropped out of sight for at least a thousand years after the end of antiquity and until 1500s, 1600s. Montaigne, a little earlier than Descartes, is aware of him.

And Montaigne's an interesting sort of skeptical thinker. Most not so much on scientific questions. But yeah, I think that connection is a real one.

SHEFFIELD: Let's get into Montaigne for a second here because it's also, the ideas that he was applying it to with regard to religion.

And knowledge of, the ultimate nature of reality and things like that and what knowledge is, those kind of became the basis of kind of a lot of the works in favor of religious toleration by John Locke and of course, David Hume basically used those ideas as well to really make the case that, look, you cannot prove these things that you say you believe.

And that the idea of trying to describe a philosophy, as he famously said, the idea of deriving ought from is. Right, you can't do that.

BETT: Right, yeah. And so he, yeah, he's, well, as you say he's one of a longish tradition there. I mean, you've covered a couple of centuries with that list of names.

And yeah that, those are important figures in the modern enlightenment, broadly speaking. And yeah, I, Hume didn't, I think, fully understand Pyrrhonism, but yeah, he certainly echoes a lot of its key moves.

But yeah, I mean, speaking of religion, I mean, Sextus already had the notion suspend judgment about whether there are any gods doesn't mean you shouldn't go through the religious practices like any normal person would in those days.

But yeah, as for the ultimate questions, what are gods really like? As with everything else, there are a whole bunch of opposing opinions and [00:38:00] that's what should lead you to suspension of judgment.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, and I think what's kind of interesting to me is that when you look at Hume or Thomas Hobbes or, let's say Edward Gibbon, These you know, Scottish enlightenment philosophers, as they're commonly called now, in a lot of ways they were creating a conservative tradition that was based on skepticism and that tradition has basically been thrown into the trash can by today's reactionaries.

BETT: That's a good point. Yeah, I mean, conservatism, yeah, I mean, originally what that means is being reluctant to change things. And because, radical change can lead to all kinds of consequences you didn't expect. And, that that's a reasonable point of view.

And, yeah, it has quite a bit in common with this kind of broadly empirical attitude that we've been talking about in different periods. And, yeah, that, that's. I mean, people may call themselves conservatives today, but that is nothing to do with that original notion of conservatism.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, that is a really important point because, the, these, movements pushing Trumpism or, from national in France or, some of these other groups or, what's his name?

Victor Orbán, in Hungary, or Vladimir Putin in Russia. These are not conservative traditions that we're dealing with here, and it's a grave mistake by people who, teach mainstream philosophy or political theory or engage in journalism. They shouldn't call it conservative.

BETT: Right, and I think this is, yeah, I mean, just in regular politics, I mean, there's been a radical shift just in the last 10, maybe 15, 20 years. I mean, it used to be there were actual conservatives. Around in, in, in the national political [00:40:00] discourse and I mean, I didn't necessarily like everything they, they put forward but, that it was a serious point of view.

And now it's very hard. I mean, you can see, you can find one or two, like in the op ed. pages of the Washington Post or something. But in terms of actual politics in Washington, it's disappeared. And it's a radical shift. And yeah, not a comfortable one, I think.

SHEFFIELD: To the extent that people are aware of some of these ancient Greco Roman ideas like the concept of skepticism or like what they think the Sophists said, or what they think the Cynics said or whoever, I think it's kind of distorted.

But you're a professor of ancient political thought. Do you think people generally, to the extent they're aware of these ideas at all, do they have a good impression in your view? Or what do you think?

BETT: Well, I mean, the word skeptic is out there in ordinary language. And, in normal discourse it means, a skeptic is someone who's inclined to be doubtful about things. Someone who is not going to accept nothing without a good deal of persuasion.

That has something genuinely in common with the skeptical outlook in the ancient world. And same thing with Stoic. I mean, Stoicism was a very specific and detailed philosophy. And, yeah, Stoic in ordinary language means putting up with things and to maybe to an extreme again, that's a real element in the Stoic philosophy.

So, I mean, just the normal kind of usages of some of these terms do answer to the ancient forms of thought to some extent, but to get really clear on it, you'd have to read the material and look at it in more detail.

So, yeah, I mean, it's not a

SHEFFIELD: You don't have a lot of quibbles with it.

BETT: Well, there isn't a complete misunderstanding as far as I can see. Yeah, I think that that's fair enough.


SHEFFIELD: Okay. Well, so I guess maybe let's [00:42:00] get further into your How to Keep an Open Mind--

BETT: Okay.

SHEFFIELD: Book here a bit here.

BETT: Yeah.

SHEFFIELD: One of the key points that you make in how to keep an open mind is that skepticism or the skeptical posture is an ability. And that's something that Sextus says--

BETT: That's right,

SHEFFIELD: Rather extensively. Let's maybe talk about that as well.

BETT: Sure.

SHEFFIELD: What does he mean by that?

BETT: Yeah. So, so it's not a, it's not a theory. It's not a conclusion. It's not a set of statements. Skepticism is a practice. And so yeah, it's an ability to produce suspension of judgment.

And so it's an activity. And yeah, the ability is being very good at lining up opposing ideas, opposing arguments, imposing impressions, imposing theories in such a way that they have this kind of equal force on either side, which leads you to suspension of judgment. And yeah, with the result of tranquility, as he says.

So yeah, and so yeah, skepticism is a way of life. It's not just a sort of intellectual posture. Although it is that too. So yeah, as a skeptic you go about looking for opposing opinions, opposing ideas, and that's what will generate or maintain your suspension of judgment. And, yeah, as I said, in ordinary life, you go by the way things appear, but you don't abandon your generally skeptical attitude towards ultimate questions about how things really are.

And so, yeah, it's not, I mean, in, in modern philosophy, skepticism is often thought of as this sort of purely ivory tower kind of thing, where, it's something you could, and in fact, I mean, David Hume says he can discuss skepticism in his study, but when he goes out into the world, well, he forgets all that stuff. That's, it becomes irrelevant.

Well, that's not the ancient attitude at all. For Sextus, [00:44:00] skepticism is something that you maintain in your ordinary life and it's a way of improving your life as far as he's concerned. And yeah, I mean, as I've said I don't think we can follow that entirely these days, but yeah for him, it's an attitude that pervades your life and makes, improves your life as far as he's concerned.

Because yeah, you stop worrying about things that you otherwise would be worried about and that's a very important benefit as far as he's concerned.

SHEFFIELD: Mm hmm. Well, and the proper way of practicing it as well, like that's also part of the ability, which is the--

BETT: That's right, yeah, I mean there's--

SHEFFIELD: You cannot arrive at suspension of disbelief until you have completed the process.

BETT: Suspension of belief, not disbelief.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, that's right. I'm sorry, I'm sorry. Suspension of belief. Yeah. I'm sorry.

Yeah, that is the end point of a process. It's several steps before that.

BETT: That's right, yeah. So it's a technique that you need to develop and, Sextus writings are endless. And it's kind of overwhelming to go through them all, but they're all, I mean, they're examples of doing this on one topic after another.

And so, yeah, I mean, he has, he has certain sort of recurring moves that he makes but yeah, it's clearly a technique that he thinks you have to develop, and yeah, it'll certainly take time. And yeah, not everyone, not everyone has it.

And maybe that's okay as far as he's concerned. But he and his friends find this to be an improvement in their lives, and I mean, his attitude in his writing seems to be, you might like to try it too. Maybe you'll find the same thing. Yeah, so that's the general idea.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, well, and sometimes I think people have, there's that colloquial phrase, don't have a mind so open that your brain falls out.

BETT: Yeah, that, that's right. And, I mean,[00:46:00] Yeah, in Sextus's case, yeah, I'm not quite, I'm not sure I'd use quite that same metaphor, but the effect in some ways is maybe the same, which is he's always aiming for suspension of judgment, and he thinks he's very good at it. And yeah, as I've said, I mean, I think that that's an unrealistic goal for us today.

And, I mean, someone who does have an open mind where ideas go in and come in and go out. I mean, that's not going to be in a very effective, a very productive member of society, probably. And so, yeah, again, the thing I think you can learn from Sextus, well Not buying into him 100% is the notion of being alert to new sources of evidence.

But I'm not a practicing skeptic myself. What I think is valuable about it is, yeah being alert to new sources of evidence. And yeah, being willing to come to conclusions sometimes. And, deciding that the evidence supports a certain conclusion.

But. Again always being willing to revise your views in light of new information and not being closed off to the possibility of changing your view. Yeah. And that's what I think is missing in a lot of these movements that we've been talking about today.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, now so I am interested, when you've taught this material to students are there some students who kind of resist this mode of thinking?

BETT: Some of them will say, well, this just goes too far, and this is ridiculous. And, to a point I'll say, well, yeah, I agree. From our point of view it does go too far because, yeah, as I've said I mean, I think we do actually know some things about how things are in the world. And in, in those days as you said, I mean, the knowledge base was just way more limited.

And so, in those days, it was possible, it was reasonable to suspend judgment about a lot more things than it is now. Not that there aren't a lot of things even today that we can and probably should. It probably should suspend judgment about. So yeah, I mean, that, that's one reaction I get.[00:48:00]

Another reaction is often, well, this is just not a basis for making serious decisions about things. And there's something to that again. I mean, yeah, as I said, you, according to Sextus, you live your life based on the appearances. And that, that doesn't give you any very sort of, full developed, fully developed structure of fully developed basis for deciding things.

You go with how things strike you, but maybe that's more realistic than some people would like to think. I mean, yeah, I mean, in that respect, maybe I am more sympathetic to skepticism and personally, yeah, I tend to try to avoid rigid theories of what one ought to do and be just sort of sensitive to how it strikes me at the time.

So yeah, I mean, those are two sort of common, of those who find it, not so appealing. Those are two sort of common reactions that I get from students. But a lot of times people do think, find it quite attractive. And, by comparison with, studying Plato, whether all these elaborate views that no one.

today would believe for a second. Sextus seems like, a much more appealing form of thought. So yeah, it often goes over quite well at least until you get into the details where it gets kind of mind numbing with all the theories being juxtaposed with one another and led to suspension of judgment.

But yeah, I mean, Sextus's best known work outlines a Pyrrhonism, especially the first part of it is. Quite intuitive and not too technical and so that that's what I usually teach and that's what mostly is in this book how to keep an open mind.

SHEFFIELD: All right, well and then now in terms of the contemporaries of the Pyrrhonists, there's not too much that we know of what they were thought of, but there's some, right? So, I mean, what was the response?

BETT: Well, we're talking about several centuries. I mean, the view that Sextus finds most important [00:50:00] to kind of combat, to attack is the Stoics. Well, and actually that's true in the Academic side of skepticism as well. Cicero has the same kind of attitude.

So Stoicism was the most dominant non-Skeptical philosophy broadly speaking in the period of Pyrrhonism and yeah, I mean, the Stoics had this very highly developed view. I mean, it's very interesting.

And yeah, we have some writings from Roman Stoics: Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, the emperor. But the original development of the view in the Greek Hellenistic period, we only have reports and fragments, but there's enough there, I think, to be able to reconstruct it fairly well.

So yeah, the Stoics thought that there was a divine providential being that controlled everything. They thought that everything was fated by this divine providential being. They thought that, I mean, they had an ideal of the wise person who understands the nature of the world and has achieved various human virtues.

And that true wisdom is almost impossible to attain, but you can work towards it, and some people are closer to it than others. So the ideal of the wise person is understood to be almost never actually achieved, but that it still can be valuable as an ideal. And some people will get closer to it than others, and Stoicism is designed to help you move along that path.

And so, yeah, there's a whole lot of complicated ideas about the nature of the world, about the place of human beings in the world. Stoics had a lot of complicated views and logic as well. It's a highly developed, intricate philosophy. And this is the view that Sextus finds that he's most inclined to combat, although he talks about a lot of other ones too.

Another view that was around at the same time is Epicureanism. And that's interesting because they share the same practical goal as the Pyrrhonists, that is, freedom from disturbance, ataraxia is the Greek word. But they thought [00:52:00] you could get it, not by suspended judgment, but by coming to understand how things really are.

And in their case, their view of how things really are is the world consists of atoms and void, and if you understand the atomic theory, then you will not be bothered by all kinds of worries that religious people are worried by, that is of divine punishment and divine wrath if you do something that displeases the gods, all that's just fiction as far as they're concerned.

There's a question whether the Epicureans actually did believe in gods at all, but if they did, they were beings that had no concern about human life whatsoever, and so you don't have to worry about them. And so that gives you freedom from disturbance. So, yeah, Sextus talks about Epicureans sometimes, but yeah, Stoics are the ones he's most concerned to rebut and show the limitations of their views.

And yeah, those are two sort of main alternatives to skepticism in the period when skepticism was active.

SHEFFIELD: And in terms of, like, the responses that they had, though, to--

BETT: Well, okay, so, yeah, a common, yeah, a common objection to Pyrrhonism, or actually skepticism of the academic tradition as well, is nobody can live like this.

If you suspend judgment about everything, then you have no basis for decisions. And, yeah, as I said, I mean, Sextus is well aware of that charge, and he answers it by saying, sure we can, we just follow appearances, without committing ourselves to the real nature of things.

But yeah, the, both the Stoics and the Epicureans, I think, would say, well, no, you to have any sort of serious basis for deciding on what to do, you do need to have some understanding of the nature of things, and so that, that's a fake answer.

But, yeah, I mean, to my mind, I mean, Sextus has quite a strong position there.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, and it's an interesting point that you make there because I think that sort of accusation [00:54:00] against the skeptical posture, that's really kind of what is going on right now with this reactionary right wing that we are seeing worldwide with Trump and others.

They want people to be forced into the idea that you have to understand that the world is according to what the Bible says. And if you don't accept the nature of how we see things, well, then you're evil.

BETT: Yeah, no, right. I mean, there's a kind of yearning for certainty, perhaps. And, yeah, a perception that, contemporary culture has abandoned certainties and yeah, so that could be a perception of there being too much skepticism, perhaps. So yeah, I think that's a fair point. Yeah.

SHEFFIELD: Now, and I guess, I think overall though, as we discussed, this the revolution of empiricism in the Enlightenment revival of Sextus's work and it created a foundation for a lot of technological and religious and political progress, both for toleration and for scientific inquiry.

BETT: Yeah.

SHEFFIELD: But it does seem like a lot of people haven't really-- they appreciated these ideas nowadays and some of that, a lot of that does have to do with education, and I think, I mean, what's, like, to me, I feel like that's why there is so much resistance among these reactionary types like Ron DeSantis, to, try to ban--

BETT: Right.

SHEFFIELD: Various teaching of things. Do you see any sort of concordance there with some of these ancient criticisms, or what's your response to that?

BETT: Well, I mean, Epicureans were not trying to sort of impose a view across society. I mean, the, they were, small groups of people themselves.

So in that sense, I wouldn't see a parallel. But, I mean, the general frame of thought, perhaps, is similar, yeah, I mean, the feeling that something, you've [00:56:00] got to stick with some ideas no matter what.

And, yeah, I mean, the idea of an ancient philosophical school is, you make a certain set of commitments to one of these views or the other and you stick with them. I mean, not everyone did that. Some, I mean, some people occasionally would change schools. But yeah, in that sense, I do see sort of a parallel with this kind of yearning for certainty.

SHEFFIELD: Even if it's certainty that they know is wrong or might be incorrect. No, I'm saying in the modern day. In other words, like, for instance, like we've seen with I mean, just the cavalcade of information of biology and history and paleontology showing that the world wasn't made in seven days and is not six thousand years old.

So, the people who hold these views in the present day, they know that they're discredited, but they want to continue to believe them because, there is a fear of uncertainty with a lot of us, right?

BETT: Sure. Yeah, that's right. And so, and I mean, I think Sextus himself tends to suggest the kind of default position of human beings is towards dogmatism. And he's presenting his philosophy as a kind of recipe for getting away from that. So, yeah, I think that's right.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, well, so, I mean, ultimately, though, I mean, for people who do have those perspectives, like, I think they view the suspension of belief not as a place of enlightenment, but as a place of fear.

And let's maybe end on that point. How does Sextus, and how would you, make the case that, look, not being 100% sure of the world, that's actually a good thing.

BETT: Well. Yeah, I mean, it can be scary. So, yeah, I mean, I mean, they're not responding to nothing. But maybe it depends on different [00:58:00] temperaments of different people, but I mean, one temperament that I think there needs to be a lot of in society is willingness to reconsider your ideas.

But yeah, it comes with risks. There's no question about that. And I mean, in my own profession in universities. I mean, people embarking on new research projects, I mean, who knows if you might not know how well they're going to succeed. And that's risky and in all kinds of ways.

I mean, it might be risky for your career, so it might make you nervous in all kinds of other ways. So, yeah, I mean, that's a response to a real phenomenon, but some difficult things are good to confront for the sake of the outcomes that result.

And yeah, I mean, as I've tried to emphasize all through this, I mean, the lesson I think we can get from Sextus is the notion of being sensitive to new evidence, to being willing to reconsider your ideas. And that's how discovery gets made.

And it's never a final decision for all time. But that's how intellectual progress occurs. And that can only be good for society in the long run.

But for the practitioner of inquiry, that can be uncomfortable sometimes. But there are uncomfortable things in life that are nonetheless worthwhile.

SHEFFIELD: Well, and I guess maybe in the personal level, though, he does say that he does go pretty extensively, that when you believe that you know everything and the nature of things, and what constitutes all good behavior, that that actually is incredibly stressful.

BETT: Well, that's right. I mean, it's especially what he focuses on especially is beliefs about some things really being good and other things really being bad. So, sort of value decisions.

And yeah, his notion is, well, you're, if that's your idea, that some things are really, really [01:00:00] good and other things really, really bad, well, then you're going to be obsessed about getting or keeping the good things and avoiding the bad things.

I mean, I think that's one of the less convincing parts of his view. I mean, sometimes it, in some contexts it makes sense. In other contexts, it makes less sense. But the, but I mean, but his, his attitude is getting away from that and that will give you tranquility. Well, again, sometimes yes, sometimes no, perhaps.

And so, yeah, I mean, that's another part where I think maybe I wouldn't agree with Sextus entirely because, yeah, I mean, I think the notion that it's uncomfortable, uncertainty is uncomfortable. I think that's a real thing. And what I would say is, well, Yeah, it is, but deal with it because the, the benefits of having that mindset broadly distributed across society is potentially very great.

SHEFFIELD: Well, and I guess this is kind of a thing he may have in common with the Epicureans is that he's saying that if you become obsessed with attaining or obtaining that which you believe is really good and avoiding that which you believe is horrible, your life circumstances are never going to be such that that's always going to happen for you.

BETT: Sure.

SHEFFIELD: If you believe that this thing is the sine qua non of your life.

BETT: Yeah.

SHEFFIELD: And you can't get it, in a sense, accepting your circumstances, maybe that's an Epicurean mode of thought.

BETT: No I think that's right. That's one of the key things that he wants to get away from. And to that extent, I think he has a point.

But yeah, uncertainty has discomforts of its own, but that's the thing that I'm saying, well, too bad deal with it. Because the alternatives are more problematic. And that's been a major theme of what we've been talking about today, I think.

SHEFFIELD: All right. Well, do you have any parting thoughts on the topic here to leave the audience with?

BETT: Well, I mean, I think we've covered a lot of ground. But yes, I'm [01:02:00] all for keeping an open mind, and I hope as many people as possible are the same way. But yeah, keeping an open mind doesn't mean not believing anything whatsoever. Checking your beliefs every so often and making sure they still seem right would be part of the program.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, and keeping an open mind includes doubting yourself.

BETT: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, that's right. But not to the point of paralysis.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Okay. Awesome. All right, well, we've been speaking today with Richard Bett and he is a philosophy professor at Johns Hopkins University and also the author of the book, How to Keep an Open Mind.

Thanks for being here, Richard.

BETT: Thanks very much. I enjoyed it.

SHEFFIELD: All right, so that is the program for today. I appreciate everybody for joining us, and you can get more if you go to theoryofchange.show. All of the episodes have video, audio, and transcript, and you can access them all if you are a paid subscribing member, and so I do encourage you to go to theoryofchange.show, and you can subscribe on Patreon or on Substack, whichever one you prefer, and I appreciate that very much. Thanks a lot. I'll see you next time.

Theory of Change Podcast With Matthew Sheffield
Lots of people want to change the world. But how does change happen? Join Matthew Sheffield and his guests as they explore larger trends and intersections in politics, religion, technology, and media.