35 On Scepticism, Sceptics, and Technocracy
Sextus Empiricus (Roman Readings Ⅲ)
We are gradually approaching the center of my current philosophy. The analyses of it, so to say its theoretical foundation, is provided by Sextus Empiricus and his principle of Isosthenia. Such a word—should you use it further, no one would understand it, and no knows of it. Even the English dictionary contains no entry for it. The German lexicon of philosophical terminology does, certainly. You’ll understand it more clearly shortly, at least I hope so.
Sextus lived in the second century of the Christian era in Rome, Athens, and Egypt. Three books of him are extant: the Outlines of Pyrrhonism, to which my own writings frequently refer; Against the Professors (originally Against the Mathematicians) and Against the Dogmatists (originally Against the Philosophers, by which he meant the Stoics).1 He wrote in Greek, though his works are more broadly known through Latin transmission. Rome was bilingual: above all among the intellectuals, who were required to speak and read in Greek. Egypt had for ages belonged to the greater Greek empire, the dominion over which was assumed by the Romans. I say “assumed” because it isn’t entirely clear whether it was more an implosion than a conquering (similar to the present-day decline of the eastern empire). Of the facts of Sextus’ biography we only know that he was probably a physician.
His philosophical opponents were the Stoics, whom he denounced with the epithet of Dogmatist and whose intellectualism he fought equally intellectually with linguistic-logical isosthenia. In contrast to the peripatetics, those followers of Aristotle (which would be described as natural scientists in modern times) who calculated everything with precision (they even knew how deep the rays of the sun penetrated into seawater), the Stoics confined themselves to ethics (ie, how one ought to live), logic, rhetoric, and linguistic analysis (ie, grammar). In these areas they laid claim (and indeed quite dogmatically) to sovereignty of interpretation and assertion of truth.
Sextus attempted to disperse their philosophical positions, and render them ineffective, through isosthenias. He demonstrated, for example, that time exists, and yet that it also cannot exist. Likewise he writes on truth, child-rearing, gods, causes, the body, movement, etc. Also on “whether the Skeptics are dogmatic,” “on the apportionment of a word into meanings,” “Whether there is a technique for living,” “Whether things exist which can be taught” (naturally, and naturally not) and so on.
I introduce here a concrete example for how time cannot exist. It is worthwhile to consider these arguments and attain some clarity on them:
“For if there is time, it is either limited or unlimited; but it is neither limited, as we will establish, nor unlimited, as we will teach; therefore time is not anything. For if time is limited, there was once a time when there was not time, and there will at some point be a time when there will not be time. But it is absurd either that there has once been a time when there was not time, or that there will at some point be a time when there will not be time; for “there has once been” and “there will be,” as I said before, express different times. So time is not limited. Then again, nor is it unlimited. For there is some part of it that is past, and another that is future. Each of these times, then, either is or is not. And if it is not, right away time is limited, and if it is limited, the original impasse remains—that there has once been a time when there was not time, and that there will be a time when there will not be time. But if each on them is—I mean, both the past and the future time—they will be in the present. But if they are in the present, both the past and the future will turn out to be in the present time. But it is absurd to say that the past and the future are conceived in terms on the present time. So time is not unlimited either. But if it is conceived neither as limited nor as unlimited, it is not at all“.2
In such a way Sextus enumerates—alone in this chapter, which is one of many—eight further proofs that time exists and that it does not exist.3
His demonstrations often end with the recommendation that one should in such cases abstain from forming an opinion, and make no determination one way or the other:
„It is possible to give still more arguments, but in order not to lengthen our account, let it just be added that while the arguments give pause to the Skeptics, “obviousness,” too, makes them uncomfortable. Consequently, insofar as it is a matter of what is said by the Dogmatists, we join neither side but instead suspend judgment about location“.4
Everything thus dissolves into equivalencies, with which the Swiss philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend founded, almost two thousand years later, his “anything goes” philosophy. This does not however mean that anything is possible, for example in politics or morals. It means that this principle is only valid case by case and that generalizable truths must be sought, and in Lyodard’s positive version of argument, thence found.
We are living, at least in matters of morals and thought, not in a senseless chaos, but rather we must contend with one another as human beings—we’re not mere animals—again and again, case by case; videlicet, we must communicate with one another.
The founder of the Skeptic discipline, who insinuated himself like a bacterium into Plato’s Academy and spread from the second century BCE (more on that later), was Pyrrhon of Elis (360–270BCE). We thus refer to the Pyrrhonic Skepticism.
Diogenes Laertius describes Pyrrhon as a somewhat dotty, shy, even misanthropic man, for whom nothing mattered and who studiously maintained no opinion on any question. Truth is not discernible, everything dissolves into relativities. What for one person is close, is for the other distant; for one difficult, the other easy; right—wrong, beautiful—ugly, just—unjust, happy—unhappy: if one thinks long enough about these terms—that is, over years or even centuries—one always finds, again and again, confirmation of the one, and then the other. The principle of “case-by-case” was introduced by Paul Feyerabend—even isosthenias themselves are not valid always and forever, but only contingently. Sometimes yes, sometimes no.
Folk poetry reveals quite clearly the ancient Skeptic posture, as in the tale of Buridan’s Donkey. This animal, in its indecisiveness truly a donkey, stands before two large haystacks and doesn’t know how to decide which to eat. In the end he starves to death.
Sextus himself did not maintain a wholly and irrevocably dogmatic position. His recommendation, how then one ought to go about one’s life, was: with equivalent [isosthenias] one should not take sides, but rather abstain. However, with necessary decisions one ought to hold to tradition and furthermore abide by the laws and conventions of the surroundings.
Nietzsche found, somewhat indirectly, the following answer to the problem of the isosthenian dichotomy and polar opposites such as human–animal or (in his case) rather humanity–power. Who has power decides egoistically and obstinately, only according to his own sense. He may accept no isosthenias, nor be possessed of any scruples or indecisivenesses. In any event he reached this position of power through strength, force, and decisiveness.
Power with Nietzsche is thus worth pursuing, for only power hinders the passivity of a (feeble) adaptation, a need to belong, or even self-abandonment. The mighty alone decide on the weal and woe, even of others, and all of this without morals, cognizance of any responsibility, or the scruples of a Skeptic. These last are a weakness.
In socio-linguistics as well as action theory such as Luhmann’s the question of how one comes to make a decision, thus the Theory of Decision-Making, is of great and even crucial significance. What induces a person to act in some, or specifically this, manner; every action is always antecedent to a conscious (governed by the intellect) or unconscious (governed bodily-biologically) decision. Here we no longer concern ourselves with domination or power, but rather only with daily life. Later we shall likely investigate power and control strategies.
Indecision in this theory is probably the worst-case outcome—wholly inconceivable, that one cannot make a decision. You make a decision, I make a decision, we see that we manage to get along. According to Luhmann’s theory this concerns the daily lives not only of individuals, but also entire societal groups, classes, and populations. Even when many decisions are made unconsciously and perhaps genetically—or, according to the maxims of the theory of learning—predetermined.
Likewise for Freud, the inability to decide was a negative trait. It was the typical symptom of neurosis. The followers of the Skeptic school are thus all of them neurotics. As neurotics are, according to Freud, furthermore bi- or pansexual per se, you now have the typical profile of one of our neurotic contemporaries before you.
In the theory of science such an approach would be problematized, even rejected, as a pathologification or even psychiatricification of a problem, an opinion, or a personal position. The problem of truth cannot be solved in such a manner, that one declares the other as sick or mentally incompetent. Even Hitler or other dictators were not restrained by such methods, rather the opposite. The English psychiatrist Ronald D. Laing, in his conception of schizophrenia, even regarded such people as “normal.”
Another step further. From doubt over the (futile) search for a decision to (illegitimate) dominion and power by means of machines and technical knowledge.
If we imagine that we have action theory numeralized—that is, digitized and made readable and controllable by machines—then we see how far the control and governing mechanisms of the technologists, a technocratically oriented elite societal group, has already progressed. We denote this process, somewhat euphemistically, “social engineering.”
To be able to exert influence over the decisions of large population groups seems ever more to be the primary objective of political decision-making processes. Not information or transparency, but rather disinformation, obfuscation, and lies dominate the morals of our time, ie morals that are fundamentally determined by economic imperatives. These also influence statistical calculations, truth-finding, art, interpersonal or intermechanical communication.
Whether such apparatus might whisper in Obama’s ear, how he might acquit himself when sitting across from a Putin or a Merkel? The Americans, in any case, certainly have their own population deep in the grip of input-output-controls, like the rats in the famous Skinner Experiment. We need only consider the culture industry or American economic imperialism, spread over the whole world (equivalent to the American Empire) with all the attendant cultural collateral damage.
Let us assume, that the Microsoft, Facebook, or Google Empire were to collapse, and already the half the world that depends on it is plunged into a new Dark Ages and collapses in turn. What would happen, if we were to miss the updates and new contrivances of our computers or communications apparatus? Bad enough when we have neglected for too long to shut down Windows XP. For all of my books sold on German Amazon I receive a receipt from headquarters in Seattle, Washington. I am even obliged to obtain an American tax ID number.
In the last 30 years there has been no further noteworthy unrest among the American population. Even the financial collapse [of 2008], which drove so many people into ruin, seems not to have any lasting consequences. All was patiently borne thanks to the help of the distraction-machines.
The debate over technocracy was for many years, even decades (even Horkheimer and Adorno confronted it) under the political banner of critiquing capitalism. If the goal of capitalism be money, maximizing returns, then technical products—above all ongoing innovations—are its best guarantors (I exclude for the moment the social problems of the sort like under-paying and alienation). Now, however, the maxims of innovation have developed over time towards autonomy, as if in Goethe’s poem, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” The tendency towards autonomy, as well as self-correction in machines appears no longer capable of halting. Self-governing and -perfecting machines are conceivable in some Utopian dimension, likewise the manner in which the entire system of a technocracy continuously perfects itself, further inoculates itself and approaches true autonomy. Who would stop it? Or how? Above all the profit-maximization’s twin, advertising, the limitless empire of which likewise seems unstoppable. Advertisements for advertising are highly effective.
4.On Transparency and Participation
Karl Otto Apel (1922–2017) placed amidst this perplexity a new emphasis, along with Jürgen Habermas, on the maxim of “anything goes” (which, as we have said, only really applies to the powerful), as well as the struggles for power and domination. He refers to these as his “ultimate justification,” to which everything returns, the a priori of a communication society.
We live—whether as philosophers of science, lovers, politicians, doctors, the deaf or blind, parents—in a communication society (of speaking animals I might add). Although here I must again emphasize, that the animal condition is, for me, the antithesis of the easily domitable machine-condition of human beings, with all the good and bad consequences. Even mathematicians, psychologists, theologians, fathers, mothers, sex partners, etc.—we are always driven to speak, to converse, to understand, to find a language of understanding. Even now.
About what? We may leave that question open at this point in the discussion and need not concern ourselves so much with it. Nevertheless, that our encounter can even become a relationship, desire, a lifelong love and partnership: this requires speech, speaking, and the ability to speak. And with this we would arrive at another of my favorite topics: how to speak in order to that one is understood? (See Blog Nr. 5, “On Understanding and Speaking Proficiency.”)
Naturally there appear at this stage all manner of windy fellow-travelers, sophists, opportunists, pettifoggers, demagogues, know-it-alls of the utmost erudition, or even so-called scholars and experts, who destroy by means of a convincing isosthenic argumentation all our humanistic views, who can and will subject everything to questioning and doubt.
But life is a chaotic, dynamic system (you note the terms to which I hold, by the bounds of which I limit myself) of multiplicity, disagreement, and perpetual change; where we must make do for ourselves as if in heaven, sometimes also in hell. I name this situation the pluriverse. Gods and angels and devils and human beings are appointed to us, to help us find our way, to trace its path, wherever fate may (as it always does) eventually lead us.
If the concepts of freedom and self-determination are important to us, then in such a system transparency, openness, and tolerance fundamental maxims. Even vis-à-vis the technocrats. Skinner’s literary vision “Futurum Ⅱ,” in which he lays out his behaviorist ideas (he is the All Father of technocracy) in the manner of science fiction, is thoroughly fascinating, humanitarian, and convincing. But this requires further discussion.
In our current present and near future, we will have to ask all the more insistently: what are you doing with me? What am I doing with you? What do you seek in my world, and you in mine? Why are you necessary in my life?
If we cannot resolve the problem of transparency, or no longer perceive it as a problem, then we shall become things: machines that receive their instructions from others, even without our noticing it, and—this is the great humanitarian promise of this new power (I have no doubt of it)—we will even find ourselves happy that it is so!
Is that enough?
I am, because I have become a machine controlled by others. I am, because I have ensconced myself within an electronic computer-world, and can communicate more than enough here, even in excess of my capacities.
I am, because my interests in contact, desire, happiness, preservation of self and species are all more than satisfied through machines.
I am, because I exist alone, because I can exist alone.
I love you, because you have become a machine and I can be a machine with you. I can mail you “I love you.” But you don’t notice it, don’t want to notice it. Nor I. Where, then, is the problem?
1Both of these latter were originally under the same title, Against the Mathematicians. The two original titles given here derive from the German-language introduction to Sextus Empiricus in Christian Breker: Einführender Kommentar zu Sextus Empiricus’ “Grundriss der pyrrhonischen Skepsis”. Universitätspublikation Universität Mainz, Mainz 2011, 5–11.Ed.
2English translation from Sextus Empilicus, Against the Physicists, translated and edited by Richard Bett. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012, 189–91. The argument here is flawed and refuted by a simple example: the sets of positive integers and negative integers are both infinite, but do not overlap.Ed.
3Further analysis and criticism of Sextus’ arguments may be found in Susanne Bobzien, “Sextus on Time: Notes on Sceptical Method and Doxographical Transmission” in Algra and Ierodiakonou (eds.), Sextus Empiricus and Ancient Physics. Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press, 2013.Ed.
4Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrronism, Translated, with Introduction and Commentary, by Benson Mates. Oxford University Press, New York Oxford 1996, 1961.Ed.