Pyrrhonism

Pyrrhonism can be seen as a non-dogmatic form of scepticism, and was apparently inspired by the mystic philosopher Pyrrho of Elis. Pyrrhonists advocated suspending judgment about the reality of things – particularly on absolute value judgments (whether something is really good or bad, etc).

Withholding assent or dissent on such matters – living without rigid beliefs – was said to lead to tranquility of mind (“ataraxia”). Thus, Pyrrhonists and other philosophical Sceptics had a “soteriological” outlook (aiming towards liberation from suffering) – see my remarks about the soteriological aspects of RAW’s output.

Dogmatism

The relatively liberal press is the “FAKE NEWS MEDIA”, according to the Orange Despot, who often displays an aggressive form of dogmatism that seems impervious to evidence and reason.

In ancient Greece, dogmatism didn’t have such a bad reputation. It was no doubt seen as simply taking a stand of belief based on relatively little evidence. Pyrrhonists could see two kinds of dogmatism: fixed belief and rigid disbelief (eg dogmatic ‘scepticism’), and they distanced themselves from this by suspending both belief and disbelief with a “maybe, let’s see…”.

Functioning without beliefs

“I don’t believe anything, but I have many suspicions.”
– Robert Anton Wilson

I regard belief as a form of brain damage.
– Robert Anton Wilson


How can you live without belief? One way, which RAW recommended, is to frame things overtly in terms of your own experience. For example:

Instead of asserting: “CNN IS FAKE NEWS!”,

you go with: “That particular claim on CNN seems wrong to me”.

Note that the second statement isn’t a belief or proposition – it’s a report of a person’s experience.

The Pyrrhonists did something similar to this by making a distinction between belief and “appearance”. In the above example, the second statement would be seen as the appearance. Unlike the first statement (“CNN IS FAKE NEWS!”) it’s not a belief-based assertion about an observer-independent matter of fact.

Appearances, or experiential reports, when explicitly expressed as such, aren’t the kind of utterances that can be judged true or false by ‘objective’ standards. They thus avoid controversy from the outset, since they’re not the kind of claims that can be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. But that doesn’t mean they can’t contain useful information.

The challenge, of course, is to make appearance-based communication (and thought) a habit, while excluding belief-based forms. How can you do this on an ongoing basis while living an active participatory life? The Pyrrhonists already addressed this issue:

“Holding to the appearances, then, we live without beliefs but in accord with the ordinary regimen of life, since we cannot be wholly inactive.”
– Sextus Empiricus

The physician Sextus Empiricus provided what’s regarded as the most comprehensive account of the Pyrrhonian philosophy. By “the ordinary regimen of life”, Sextus indicated four areas, which translate into modern life as:- the natural faculties we’re born with, the unavoidable compulsions of appetites and states of mind, the laws and social customs we’re obliged to follow, and the requirement for making a living and/or occupying your time.

The Pyrrhonists’ aim was ataraxia (not being disturbed) by matters of belief. These matters were distinguished from those forced upon us (sickness, poverty, etc), in which unpleasantness can’t be prevented (although it can be lessened in terms of what we believe – or rather don’t believe – about it).

Robert Anton Wilson & Pyrrhonism

I don’t recall RAW referencing Pyrrho in his writings or talks (although he may well have done). But when searching for such references, I found this nice description (by Erik Davis) of RAW’s philosophical vision as “a kind of psychedelicized Pyrrhonian skepticism”.

 

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