Can Ancient Skepticism Solve Our Modern Problems?
Someday historians might call our present age the age of opinions. While once only the statements of a small number of opinion leaders resonated with the public, today we are accompanied by a constant noise of opinions from all quarters. The development of the Internet and the rise of various social media have made expressing an opinion a social phenomenon.
The postmodern individual inherently has opinions. From early childhood, we learn to develop instant opinions on various topics. This is seen as even more important than simply learning from the facts, which Google has apparently rendered unnecessary as it is. In the age of social media, opinions have become commonplace. From restaurant, concert and product ratings to anything on the news agenda, the opinion of the anonymous crowd matters. Particularly sharp opinions tend to reach many more followers, whether it is among the avant-garde, the general public, or the many supporters or detractors of any issue.
What modern demagogues stole from ancient Greece
Political debates on television work in a similar way. Much like with social media, it’s all about expressing calculated opinions on a variety of complex topics in the hopes of convincing the right part of the public to agree. Even the written press is not immune to these forced opinions. It has become increasingly difficult to distinguish between comments and news. For example, the influential German magazine Der Spiegel simultaneously uses labels like “analytical” and “opinionated” for its newsletter “Die Lage”.
It is perhaps not surprising then that journalists use their creative freedom to embellish facts, aligning them with their opinions – or those of their readers. The case of Claas Relotius – an award-winning Der Spiegel journalist fired for fabricating material in his “large-scale” articles – is the paradigmatic example of this distressing state of being.
The tyranny of opinion
Opinions help us understand reality. They become the ground on which individuals build their perceptions and experiences of life. Thus, opinions become a part of our psyche. The existence of divergent opinions becomes impertinence, causing psychological suffering by implicitly violating our sense of self. Despite all the power it wields, opinion forming is not a rational process. Sometimes it can be rather obscure. The history of ideas deals with these questions; However, more often than not the best we can do is come up with educated guesses about the internal black box processes that are the human mind.
Nonetheless, one thing is for sure to say: When an opinion is formed and becomes part of our psyche, our mind will work at full speed to defend that opinion against conflicting notions, arguments and, if applicable, the whole of. reality itself.
This is where one of the serious societal problems of our time lies. The constant demand for opinions on an ever-increasing number of subjects makes us vulnerable. Divergent opinions or, worse, explicit criticisms have a negative effect on individuals. In a polarized and hysterical society, this translates into a hurt feelings heuristic: statements, messages, movies, books, and behaviors are instinctively scanned for potential attacks on one’s own opinions and evaluated accordingly.
This does not only apply to individuals but also to groups that come together through shared opinions. Such groups might bring relief to those who are now able to adopt opinions without much effort and thus become immune to potential and exhausting feelings of self-doubt. When certain correlations between shared opinions occur, the group may evolve into a community of faith. Now people can only change their minds if they are willing to risk not only psychological disturbance but also the total loss of their community. At the societal level, this creates an extremely strong polarizing effect. At this point, having opinions is no longer just a privilege, it has become a civic duty.
Within this framework lies a serious risk for the psychological and physical well-being of the postmodern personality and for social coexistence as a whole. Does the growing need for mental health counseling or sounding warnings in classrooms somehow relate to this tyranny of having an opinion?
Peace of mind
What to do ? According to the majority of ancient philosophers, personal happiness is first and foremost the result of one’s own psychological state of mind. Terms such as “ataraxia” (epicureanism, skepticism) and “apathy” (stoicism) can be roughly translated as “peace of mind”. This serenity is supposed to allow the individual to endure life with all its ups and downs. Although we cannot change the world, we can change how we feel about it.
Skeptics were already aware of the potential drawbacks of forming and maintaining opinions. They believed that there could be no peace of mind when one is constantly torn between differing opinions without being able to make a decision. Philosophers like Pyrrho and Sextus Empiricus believed that the world is such a complex entity that true knowledge is impossible in the first place. So, there could be no true opinion no matter how much one tried to form it rationally.
How the Romans reacted to disasters
Knowing this, the most prudent position for any philosopher would be total abstention from opinions whatsoever – time. Ancient sources tell us that Pyrrho was so still that he calmly approached the ox-carts head-on and refused to change lanes because of vicious dogs.
Obviously, this particular form of skepticism cannot be a model for us today – even in ancient times only a select group of charismatic individuals made a living from its teachings. In fact, Pyrrho’s students put him out of harm’s way on the streets. Another important difference from ancient times is modern science. At the time, many questions could not be answered definitively due to a lack of appropriate technology and experimentation. This is certainly not the case today, which means that some modification of skeptical thinking seems necessary.
For example, the existence of cells is no longer a mere opinion but an empirical fact. If we refuse to follow the path of solipsism which completely challenges objective reality, overwhelming empirical evidence need not be classified as abstention from opinion. This mainly concerns the natural sciences, although here too the definitive empirical evidence does not apply to all complex theories, which, therefore, should be treated as opinions.
When it comes to human behavior, empirical evidence often only applies to the existence of specific individuals and self-perceived actions. The causes of these actions are not definitively identified due to the complex nature of reality. This is why all declarative systems concerning cultural matters, as opposed to natural matters, are empirically infeasible. Therefore, almost all political, economic or social positions are only well-argued opinions. Without empirical verifiability, there can be no clear decision as to whether such an opinion is wrong or right.
This basic undecidability is complemented by the fact that humans tend to be insufficiently informed in most areas, making it impossible to form a well-founded opinion. Indeed, it seems strange to constantly demand opinions from people on subjects that they often don’t know the basics of. Examples are easy to find: Many climate skeptics are as ill-informed about the physics of weather events as opponents of genetically modified foods are about the genetics and functions of DNA.
In economics, the breadth of the spectrum of normative opinions seems to correlate negatively with basic knowledge of the discipline. Even experts are often mistaken because of the mind-boggling complexity of the most basic systems. In his delivered, “Expert political judgment: how good is it?” How do we know? Philip Tetlock showed that experts generally gave worse predictions than random respondents.
In this regard, abstention from opinion seems to be an appropriate way to keep the peace of mind and have a clear view of the world and the impacts of opinions on interpersonal relationships. Abstention from opinion could be a valuable antidote to the polarization of postmodern society. Postmodern skeptics should be able to prioritize building inclusive communities by focusing on empirical evidence without dogmatically accepting opinion as the ultimate truth and waging war on all who think differently.
That an individual suffers is an empirical fact. To help, no advice is needed. History, however, has shown us how many people must have suffered because of a (difference) of opinions.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Fair Observer.