Welcome to another instalment of quick-fire philosophy! Every Friday we take a brief look at the life and thought of an important philosopher from history, and I offer a few reflections on their ideas. Today we’re looking at Sextus Empiricus, a Roman Sceptic philosopher who lived around 160-210 CE.
Who Was He?
We know almost nothing about the life and background of Sextus Empiricus. All of our knowledge of the man comes to us through the writings of his that have survived from the Roman era, in particular the eleven volume work entitled Arguments against the Dogmatists and Mathematicians and also Outlines of Scepticism, which is the main source we have for learning about what the Sceptics believed.
What’s the Big Idea?
The doctrine of the Sceptics centres around one key principle; that we cannot assert the truth of any proposition with any more confidence that we can assert the truth of a statement that directly contradicts it. Another related idea is that our knowledge of reality is always mediated by the bodily senses, so we are unable to prove things are one way rather than another.
The word ‘sceptic’ is of course still in common usage in the English-speaking world, and has retained much of the same meaning.
It seems to me that the key matter, when it comes to Scepticism, is understanding the difference between subjective and objective truth. If there really is a world that exists independent of experience, then we would have to say it exists objectively, and has certain characteristics that are real regardless of what we might speculate about them. Many modern scientists would argue this is the case.
Considering objectivity also brings up the question of the existence of God, because there is a strong argument that says moral judgments, such as what is good or evil, are only possible if God exists. While I understand this position, my argument would be that good and evil are ideas that always exist in the mind of a subject, whether that subject is a human being or a personal God. God can always change His mind about what is good and evil, so they do not have objective existence.
The position of Sceptics such as Sextus Empiricus has been criticised because we all seem to make value judgments as an inescapable part of life. So to argue that we can say nothing with certainty seems to contradict everyday human experience. Nevertheless, Scepticism brings into focus a matter at the heart of both philosophy and theology – the very existence of truth itself.
In next week’s philosophy post we’ll be looking at the thought of Plotinus, and his ideas about what constitutes the human person. If you don’t want to miss future posts, please consider subscribing. Thank you for reading!