As Skeptics have no beliefs, only opinions, what motivates activism? When is it appropriate for a Skeptic to speak out on public matters? Because of the lack of belief, when Skeptics do speak out their motives are sometimes questioned. For example it was said that the Academic Skeptics, in Ancient Greece, would play debate
games, which suggests that the Skeptics themselves had no interest in the outcome of the debates, but rather pursued them only in the enjoyment of a debate. This was a convenient way for philosophers to ignore the progress of Skeptics. However just because Skeptics may lack belief, they are not always unmotivated in their debates.
As pointed out by Peter Suber, Skeptics have traditionally been those who seek truth. The process of seeking truth often requires debates and questioning (which is where the Greek word for Skeptic comes from). From this viewpoint, the debates of the Academic Skeptics were not aimless but with the goal of finding a truth. Even I have mentioned the desire of truth in Skepticism, where I have said a Skeptic’s exploration of the freedom of thought may well indeed find a truth in reality.
If a Skeptic has motivations, are these enough for him or her to take action for the cause? For example, if there was discussion against skeptical debates or the freedom of thought, would this be enough for a Skeptic to speak out? First we must ask: would a Skeptic even believe in such discussions if they ever occurred? The simple answer is no. However, as mentioned by Sextus Empiricus, Skeptics and do act on appearances. I eat food based on the appearance that it keeps me healthy, without actually knowing for sure it is healthy for me (it seems the debate changes every year on the healthiness of butter). Therefore by analogy, Skeptics could speak out if there was something preventing them from pursuing Skepticism, just as Skeptics could eat when it benefits their health.
Now that we have established that Skeptics can speak out, have they done so in history? Pyrrho encouraged Skeptics to adopt the customs of the society in which they live in, regardless of what they were. To the same extent, Sextus Empiricus made the same recommendation after finding no other suggestion of what customs Skeptics should have. However, Socrates was sentenced to death for
corrupting the youth by encouraging them to question the customs of society. In Skepticism, there is no justification which supports Pyrrho over Socrates or visa-versa.
I tend to lean towards Socrates in the support of an open questioning society. When seeking truth, I admit that I could be fallible, so it is of my benefit that others, no matter how different they may be, have the freedom to share their ideas and question my own. I also realize that societies may not evolve towards the truth, but towards their survival over other societies, so a society that can be questioned may be of greater benefit than to the discovery of truth.
Within oncology, it is taken as almost a truism that people die only after they have said their goodbyes to their immediate family, or achieved some life milestone.
When my father had cancer, the cancer specialist told him that he wouldn’t live to see the 4th of July. I am not sure if it was my father’s stubbornness, what the Finnish sometimes call sisu, or the establishment of that milestone, but he did live long enough to see that day. He was actually feeling better that day than he had in a long time; however he died later that day. Months after, I told a doctor of how my father lived longer than predictions, and he told me that he wished doctors would not tell patients their life expectancies. At the time it seemed like he thought my father could have lived even longer, if they had not set the milestone.
I have wondered how this applies to people that do not set such milestones. There have been stories of old
grumpy people who live on to great old ages. These are the people that do not achieve the milestones in their lives and this could be the cause of their grumpiness, but possibly their longevity as well. This idea could be approaching the level of superstition, but could also have a biological basis. A hypothesis could be made that after a major achievement, the sense of accomplishment also gives the sense of giving up, relaxation, or even at times the expectation of death. This sense could have a hormonal basis that could leave the body in a weakened state, especially in illness or old age, which increases the possibility of death.
As far as Skeptics are concerned, the figurehead of longevity that stands out is Pyrrho. Ancient historians report that he lived to an age of 90 years, in age where conservatively life spans on average were 30 years. As a person who never made assertions or judged the goodness or badness in things, he would not have placed significance in milestones, and therefore not set them. I have to wonder if this affected his life span. This lack of judgment is common among all Skeptics, but there is a second way where Skepticism itself affects the setting of milestones.
Skeptics in general were defined by the Ancient Greeks as those who
search. Many Skeptics do indeed search for an absolute truth; which provides an additional difficulty of what is the definition of an absolute truth? With the difficulties in finding an absolute truth, it is not surprising that this skeptical inquiry remains very alive in philosophy today. For many Skeptics, this is a milestone that has lasted longer than biological limits of longevity. I have to wonder for them as well, by setting a milestone that may not be achievable in the near future or ever, would they too have an above-average lifespan?
Skepticism may show up in the most random places! I was watching old episodes of the British comedy and science fiction program, Red Dwarf, where I came across an interesting dialogue in the season 8 episode
Cassandra. In this episode the crew of the spacecraft, named
Red Dwarf, come across a super-powerful computer, named
Cassandra. Cassandra has the ability to predict the future, and in this case, predicts that one of the crew, in this case she says Rimmer, will die. Rimmer, a crew member known for being naïve, doesn’t immediately accept the knowledge from Cassandra and scorns another crew member, Lister, for immediately accepting the prediction to be true. Now the crew’s servant-robot, Kryten, interjects while another crew member, Kochanski, attempts to understand what Kryten is saying.
Mr. Rimmer has a point sir. Your greater knowledge is making you pessimistic, while his ignorance, and almost dole-like naivety, is keeping his mind receptive to a possible solution.
Shut your stupid flat head you.
So you’re saying when you don’t know enough to know that you don’t know enough, there’s no fear holding you back. You can achieve things which people with more brains can’t.
He’s got the power of ignorance.
And with the ignorance he’s got, that makes him one of the most powerful men that has ever lived. Harness your stupidity sir. Employ your witlessness. Use your empty-headed simplistic moron mind and find a solution!
This conversation indeed inspired Rimmer to find a solution. Rimmer discovered that the computer, although can predict the future, made a false assumption (or possibly lied). Cassandra did predict that someone would die and the person was called Rimmer at that moment. However that person was not the Rimmer they suspected, but some other obscure member of Red Dwarf who the real Rimmer was calling by his own name, possibly to deceive the computer.
In this series of events, Kryten placed Rimmer into the position of a Skeptic. Often philosophers required that Skeptics must have an outstanding reason to support their own Skepticism. But in this case, Kryten and Rimmer show that just having a lack of knowledge is enough. This starts off the stage of Skepticism that I identify as
Admission of Unknowing, as simply not knowing is equivalent to giving up the claim of knowing.
The Skeptical position, however obtained, allowed Rimmer to treat knowledge as fallible. He obtained the
freedom of thought, that allowed him to question the given reality and test an alternate reality, which happened to be the correct reality. Surprisingly, this is not unlike how Galileo rejected the knowledge given to him about the universe from the Catholic Church, and discover an alternate view of the universe.
“Recursion is the process of repeating items in a self-similar way.”
We can visualize recursion as Russian Matryoshka dolls. Matryoshka dolls are a set of dolls that fit inside of each other, and in our case we will have them to be nearly identical. So if we make another identical Matryoshka doll to fit inside the others, this is essentially recursion. It is the repeated application of a process. But why am I talking about this?
Recursion is one of the most important aspects of Skepticism. When Socrates said “I know nothing, yet I am wiser than most as I admit that I know nothing” he made a founding statement of Skepticism. Later Metrodorus of Chios expanded upon this by exclaiming that we don’t know if we know nothing. The recursion in this is applying the idea of “not knowing” to the statement of “not knowing”. Sextus Empiricus later applied recursion on matters justifying global doubt (which leads to Skepticism). In short, he described any reason for global doubt must also be doubted for the very same reason, which he likened to a bridge that burns itself after use. The goal of which is to not assert that a reason for doubt is true, but to simply show that it can be used for doubt. The result of these recursions is non-assertion on matters of knowledge and truth.
This type of recursion is not only important to Skepticism, it is also important in some eastern philosophy as explained by Dick Garner in his paper “Skepticism, Ordinary Language and Zen Buddhism” where he talks about the ancient writings of Seng-chao and Chi-tsang. I will use different wording for the sake of simplicity. As described by Chi-tsang through Garner, there are three stages of truth where recursion links the three. In the first stage the lower (ordinary truth) is the laws of nature are real and the higher truth is the laws of nature are not real. At the second stage, the lower truth is the laws of nature are real and not-real at the same time (duality). The second-stage higher truth becomes the laws of nature are neither real nor not-real (non-duality). Having dualities and non-dualities, where in one case two opposing aspects are accepted in an unknown type of coexistence, and in the other case the two opposing aspects are denied leaving room for an unknown third aspect, can be confusing for the unknowns they have imbedded in them. But these unknowns are how Skepticism enters a philosophy. In the third stage the lower truth is where duality and non-duality are real, and the higher truth is where neither duality nor non-duality is real. In the third stage, both the lower truth and higher truth represent situations which are difficult to describe the meaning of in our present languages. Once language is surpassed, the ability to make an assertion about reality through language is also surpassed. This result is a type of silence and lack of assertion, which Pyrrho and Sextus both describe happening to new Skeptics.
Now, according to Garner, the Zen Buddhist way goes beyond assertion and non-assertion, and he includes the statement “for we do not speak without accepting.” In my opinion, because a situation goes beyond ordinary words, it doesn’t mean that it can’t be re-defined and thus still talked about in terms of assertion and non-assertion. Also it may be possible to speak without accepting, just as a beetle may live without having beliefs. But I think the important aspect of both uses of recursion is to achieve a mindset of openness, because the details can be subject to interpretation.
Anaxarchus was a Greek skeptic at the same time Pyrrho lived, and in fact traveled with Alexander the Great the same time Pyrrho did. However Pyrrho became such an influence on Skepticism that it became known as Pyrrhonism for a period and Anaxarchus seems to be only mentioned in passing. For this reason, not much is known about Anaxarchus, but from what is known he adds an interesting contrast from the skeptics who followed Pyrrho.
Following the traditions of Democritus, Anaxarchus is thought to merge Atomism with Skepticism. Atomists believed that everything in the world is made up of little pieces they called atoms. Their definition wasn’t identical with the modern scientific definition of atoms; however atomists originated the term. A justification for skepticism from atomism goes as: if we only observe the sum impressions of atoms, and not directly atoms themselves, then we cannot truly know the nature of reality. The classical saying is trusting impressions from reality is like believing the paintings of a mad man. It should be noted that their actual justification for skepticism isn’t entirely known and modern skeptics do not use this reasoning, but historians generally accept they had heavy skeptical tendencies.
The conclusion of Skepticism is the same conclusion Pyrrho ended with; however there are more similarities among Anaxarchus and Pyrrho. Both philosophers were famous for being happy under any circumstance. Pyrrho’s tale involves Pyrrho undergoing surgery without frowning. Anaxarchus’ tale goes far beyond this as he was said to be indifferent while pounded to death in a mortar for insulting a ruler. They both reached this state by being indifferent to things around them. As skeptics they did not see the inherit good and bad in things, which is thought to allow them to endure pain.
Their indifference in the value of things around them led to two drastically different ways of acting. Pyrrho, without any dogma to tell him how to act, decided to go with the norms of his surrounding society but to detach from wordly affairs, such as politics and wealth (as he observed no value in them). Anaxarchus did the opposite. He was indifferent to the norms of society and flouted them if needed. Deciding not to follow the norms of society, he did what he enjoyed the most, which ended up living lavishly and insulting tyrants if it seemed pleasing. It should be noted, that Anaxarchus was not known for flouting the law or actively deceiving people. Instead Anaxarchus was known for speaking his mind and having the most fun out of life as he could.
The contrasts between Pyrrho and Anaxarchus could have led to their different standings in history. Anaxarchus did not fit the typical profile of a philosopher and did not win over the favor of society. As Pyrrho was subdued and fit the mold of a good citizen, others were more ready to praise him and continue his work (which is what happened with Timon, Aenesidemus, and Sextus Empiricus). The support of Pyrrho could have been out of a societal convenience and avoiding conflict.
Being a modern skeptic, I see no particular justification supporting Pyrrho over Anaxarchus. I think one of the advantages of Skepticism is its ability to allow for contrasting lifestyles. As modern philosophy seems unable to determine the optimal way of living, it is advantageous to have the freedom to choose your own way, which many ways of thinking (including many religions) do not allow. This is why philosophers of many different attitudes, can exist in Skepticism. Ancient skeptics may have chosen one philosopher out of convenience, but I do not think it needs to be that way in modern Skepticism.
Previously I have written about jury duty and conflicts with skeptical uncertainties and doubt. However the United States legal system is attempting to adapt to the possibility of ever-present doubt; or so it seems. One of the examples I mentioned before is that judges instruct jurors not to base their judgment beyond a doubt, however to base judgment beyond a “reasonable” doubt. I discussed how there may not be a beyond a “reasonable” doubt, however here I will talk about two different kinds of pleas that appear in the legal system. In the most black and white, someone accused of an act (the defendant) will either declare themselves guilty or innocent; this is a type of plea. However there are other kinds of pleas that appear in the American legal system, such as “No Contest” and the “Alford Plea.” These pleas may be a legal acceptance that proving innocence or guilt is impossible while allowing the system to function and give punishment as if guilt was actually determined.
In the No Contest plea, a defendant does not declare themselves as innocent or guilty. However the defendant agrees to accept the punishment for whatever he or she may be accused of. The judge presiding over the case must approve this plea; regardless of any evidence showing guilt or innocence. Note that the defendant is not actually shown to be guilty or innocent with a trial and this plea cannot be used as evidence against him or her in future legal cases; despite what Judge Judy may think. In this way the legal system allows someone to be punished for a crime without actually determining if that person committed a crime. This may be an instance where the court admits with its current capabilities that it cannot determine the innocence of the person beyond a doubt however will allow the person to suffer the punishment. There may be more to this which I will discuss at the end.
The Alford Plea is slightly different and is a newer type of plea (named after the first person to use this plea). In this plea a defendant declares themselves as innocent but agrees to accept the punishment of a guilty person. However, unlike the No Contest plea, this plea can be used against him or her, as if it was a guilty plea, in future legal cases. Not all states accept this plea and judges are instructed to approve this plea only if there may be evidence of guilt. However the defendant is not actually tried for his or her crime nor definitively determined to be guilty. This is even more extreme, as the person claims he or she is innocent and it seems the court admits that a trial would not be able to make a solid determination of this innocence, so allows the defendant to suffer the punishment (if willing to do so).
I would think this these two types of pleas be a way for the legal system to accept uncertainty and even “reasonable” uncertainty in their terms without actually dismantling the system. However it may actually be the case where the court simply is trying to save time and costs by eliminating trials. As Albert Alschuler wrote “There could hardly be a clearer violation of due process than sending someone to prison who has neither been found guilty nor admitted his guilt” in his 2003 paper in Cornell Law Review. On the other hand we cannot fully say that the original judges and lawyers where these pleas first appeared were not aware that proving guilt beyond doubt may be a philosophical impossibility. Legal researchers Allison Redlich and Asil Ozdogru wrote, “There is no litmus test to definitively determine who is innocent and who is guilty” in their paper “Alford Pleas in the Age of Innocence.” Even if motivated by other reasons, it may be that an acceptance of doubt in the wider legal system was the only way to allow these pleas to exist. Legal purists may want achieve “innocent until proven guilty” however the legal system seems to be accepting that it could be impossible.
The liar’s paradox is most simply given by the statement: “I am a liar.” The paradox arises when trying to decide if the statement is true or false. If I am a liar, then the statement must be false, so that means I speak the truth. But how could I speak the truth if I just lied about lying? Logically this statement is a contradiction. This can be further applied to any statement where its truth value results in a contradiction. The reason I mention this paradox is because some philosophers think Skepticism relies on liar paradoxes to justify itself. Whenever I read a paper that says Skepticism is self-refuting or self-contradiction, unanimously they are referring to liar’s paradoxes. Even papers which show how Skepticism is justified have to specifically make statements that their arguments do not result in liar’s paradoxes.
Before I get into why the liar’s paradoxes may be associated with Skepticism, I need to make a distinction of what arguments are genuinely used for Skepticism. When philosophers want to show skepticism about a certain topic, they want to show knowledge about it is unprovable or irresolvable. For example, one might think the universe is infinitely large, but a philosopher might want to show that we cannot know for sure or make a definitive statement. This is Skepticism about the size of the universe and the essence of unprovability. In contrast to “I am a liar,” we have “I am unprovable.” Instead of making a statement about truth, a statement of not knowing truth or false is being made. You can circle back on this statement as well, where if the person says he or she is unprovable, the statement must also be unprovable. But alas, there is no contradiction, because the statement already said it is unprovable. And this is also why I insist Skeptics do not need to justify themselves with concrete statements about truth or falseness, but instead just be in a state of unknowing.
If the liar’s paradox is fundamentally different from statements in support of Skepticism (whether right or wrong), why is it still incorrectly associated with Skepticism? It could be a genuine misunderstanding, resulting from the Academic Skeptics. Out of all the Skeptics, the Skeptics of Plato’s Academy were the only ones that were said to deny the existence of knowledge. The liar’s paradox type of contradiction would be, if knowledge doesn’t exist, you cannot know that it doesn’t exist. However no real direct writing from them exists today and Skeptics both before and after them did not make this assertion from all accounts. However a misunderstanding from one philosopher could have been enough to spread throughout the field.
The incorrect association of the liar’s paradox with Skepticism by one philosopher may not be enough to spread throughout the field unless there was a pre-existing desire to do away with Skepticism. This would make it so philosophers could justify their own pre-existing philosophies while conveniently avoiding difficult questions from Skepticism. Once, I was taking a philosophy course in ethics, and one of the teachers said he did not understand why it was taught because we have pre-existing ethics from youth already and therefore nothing could be gained. So the motives could have been less than innocent, to metaphorically sweep the problem of Skepticism under a rug, where the rug is the liar’s paradox.
Luckily, philosophers with some understanding of Skepticism do realize the association of the liar’s paradox is generally absurd and this is helping to change the views on Skepticism. However there is still a long way to go as they still do have to defend against the liar’s paradox. And this can be a problem as philosophical journals sometimes have word limits, so unnecessary defenses can eat into the statements they want to make.
I often read religious and traditional texts to see what subtle philosophies they promote. It is often hard to separate the mythology from the philosophy so the interpretation can be confusing. But every now and then a clearer statement is made which has philosophical implications. Here I will talk about a few cases of how judgment is viewed in religion and tradition and how it compares to Skepticism.
In Christianity, as written in the World English Bible, there is the statement: “Don't judge, and you won't be judged. Don't condemn, and you won't be condemned. Set free, and you will be set free.” This is a clear statement that people should not judge others. The second sentence elaborates even if one feels they have done nothing wrong, they still should not condemn others else they will suffer the same fate. On the traditional side of things, I found the Native American proverb: “Don’t judge a man until you’ve walked two moons in his moccasins.” As the Christian statement, the Native American proverb also comes to the conclusion one should not judge. Although it doesn’t specifically forbid anyone to judge, it challenges those who do to at least experience the life of the person they are judging. Now whether it is possible to experience life truly as another person is debatable, and has the potential to make this traditional statement all encompassing.
In philosophy, Skepticism has promoted a similar concept since around 300 BC (as developed by the philosopher Pyrrho). As a beginning step, Skeptics admit that they do not know what is true. Because of this admission Skeptics do not have a basis to judge the correctness of concepts, ideas, as well as other people. Skeptics call this the suspension of judgment. It is a key concept in Skepticism, and philosophies which attempt to attack Skepticism often aim to uproot this concept. The difference with Skepticism and other uses of suspension of judgment is the Skepticism version applied more widely. But it is interesting that various cultures whether from tradition, philosophy, or religion arrive at a similar concept in specific instances.
If the suspension of judgment is repeated in so many facets, we can suspect something beneficial from this idea. The Christian statement hints at a possible benefit with the words “Set free, and you will be set free.” To understand the context, we must consider spirituality. The benefit of spirituality is that it frees the imagination beyond simple senses. I have talked about the possible benefits of imagination in my manuscript and previous blog entries, which can ease the mind and body of pain that the world might deliver. But what many spiritual believers do is take a step beyond this and use it as a basis to judge others. In this case, spirituality is no longer used to spark imagination but is set as rigid principles, and thus all possible benefits of imagination are lost. So if you set your mind free of judgment, you will be free yourself in terms of imagination.
Aside from spirituality, judging others can have consequences in the community which the Native Americans may have realized. It is possible that when one person judges another in the community, whether right or wrong, it can rouse the suspicions of others against those being judged. The danger in these suspicions is the community may have an increased chance of persecuting and harming those who may have been falsely judged. At worst, the judged person may have been acting in the best interest of the community, however others in the community lacked the ability to understand the judged person’s actions. So to combat these dangers, religions and traditions may have instilled specific statements to combat this, in the form of the suspension of judgment.
In an interesting note, the religious and traditional examples I have mentioned here do not attempt at a detailed justification to do without judgment, instead they are content to make the statement as is. Ultimately this could be a tactic in avoiding the full philosophy of Skepticism which may undermine other concepts in traditions and religions. This may be due to the possibility of justifying suspension of judgment in one instance, could also end up justifying it in other instances. For example, I may say people should not be judged because they may not have been exposed to the same ideas I have, thus are not aware of better options. Then for the same reason, I may also choose not to judge people’s ways of life as well. And their ways of life may cover a lot of things which may be controversial (such as behavior that is against the law). If it becomes acceptable not to obey laws in traditions and religions then those laws are no longer really laws, as laws are meant to be obeyed. In effect, the corresponding religions and traditions may lose their importance within the society as their roles in supply laws are no longer necessary. Also if justifications for suspension of judgment have the ability to expand to other concepts, it becomes more like Skepticism. In this way, religions and traditions may have forgone their justifications in not judging others as an attempt to prevent the full development of Skepticism which would undermine their own dogma.
For this post I am taking a diversion from my normal discussion of Skepticism. I will be talking about a concept in physics which in theory limits our knowledge of the universe. Don’t run away yet! For many people, the mere mention of physics brings thoughts of mind-boggling equations. But I assure you, I will not be using those in this discussion. Instead, I will explain this concept through everyday examples and come to some surprising conclusions.
The particular concept in physics I will talk about is entropy. A very rough definition of entropy is how much disorder there is. Let us imagine we had a jar of green paint. If we stirred the jar with a stick, the paint will remain green. This means that the color state of the jar is very ordered as it always stays green, which is defined as low entropy. Now if we added red paint in the jar, and stirred it, we would get swirls of red and green in many different patterns. Since we have many different patterns (or many different states that can be called “swirl”), our disorder is high, and thus entropy is high! This means swirled paint, when mixing red and green colors, is more likely to happen than having red and green separated, because swirl has more options.
Why is entropy useful and what does it mean in terms of knowledge? Let us go back to the paint example. If you mix red and green paint for a long time, such that the individual red and green particles mix, you will get brown paint. Now the red and green particles can be in many different arrangements, yet on average it will look brown. We can’t tell the difference if one green particle is on the top or bottom, it still looks brown. Because brown paint has many arrangements of particles, it has high entropy. We found out that things with more entropy, such as this brown color in paints, are more likely to happen. This is called the law of maximum entropy. And this means you can bet on seeing brown appearing the most if a kid was randomly mixing paint. Making predictions like this is what science is about, but this also has implications of what we know about our system. Since we can’t tell the difference between the different particle arrangements of the brown color with our eyes, it means we don’t know which exact state the brown color is in and thus we know the least about it. This is why many people define entropy as how much we don’t know about the system. It also means the least known about state is also the most likely to happen! Weird huh? Hundreds of years ago, no one suspected that physics will fundamentally predict that more often than not we will have less knowledge about our system rather than more.
However there is more to this than my explanation. A hard-lined Skeptic would be very suspicious on the definition of the brown color, and why we call it brown. Why can’t we have different types of brown for different particle arrangements? The only reason why we don’t do this is because we average the system into one color. In our case, our eyes average the individual particle colors for us (painters take advantage of this when they use the pointillism technique) to make one color. If we could tell the difference between each arrangement of particles, one brown would not be more likely than the other. But with our eyes we cannot tell the difference, so consciously or unconsciously we are throwing away information about the system. Therefore to make any useful predictions of our system we have to throw away information (or ignore it)! This just gets weirder huh?
As you can imagine the implications of this in terms of Skepticism in science is currently murky. Many scientists have predicted a “heat death” of the universe, where the universe will eventually become so disordered (as the maximum entropy state is most likely) that order required for life could no longer exist. This also means our knowledge of the universe will go to a minimum, which would please the ancient Academic Skeptics. But the problem with that is to have any maximum entropy state you have to throw away information about the universe first (such as averaging it with your eyes). This is the difference between an Academic Skeptic’s I cannot know, so the information is not there, from a Pyrrhonic Skeptic’s I do not know, so without any other choice I cannot use the information. In that case the law of maximum entropy only restates what you assumed in the first place, that is if you initially throw away information you won’t later recover it. This is not a statement about the universe, just a statement on the limits of knowledge which is assumed in the first place. So according to this interpretation the universe seems to be safe from entropy, with the possible exception of black holes and the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, but that is a discussion for another time. What I find interesting is how the law of maximum entropy can make a prediction that the least known state will occur the most, but we often forget it requires us to neglect information first for this theory to offer predictions.
Dealing with physical pain can lead to more long-term damage to the psyche rather than to the body. Even with medicinal pain killers, studies reveal, one’s own thoughts can undo the pain relief of the medicine, such as the belief that the medicine would not work (more can be read here). This gives way to the idea of psychological pain management as opposed medicinal pain management. Researchers have discovered that children can use their imagination to lessen the effects of pain (which can be read here). But it is not only the youth that can take advantage of this. Elderly people with painful arthritis in their hands found relief when they placed their hands in a box and a video screen showed their hands being stretched within the box (you can read more here). This pain relief originally surprised researchers, and despite the arthritis sufferer knowing it was simply an optical illusion, the idea of their own hand moving without pain was enough to relieve their own.
However the ideas of imagining away pain may be much older than the modern discoverers have realized. Pyrrho was an ancient Greek philosopher who founded Pyrrhonic Skepticism around 300 BC. Aside from his skeptical philosophy, he was renowned for his feats of endurance. On the nuisance end of the spectrum, he was said to be perfectly merry while washing farm pigs. While on the horrific pain end of the spectrum, he was said to have endured ancient surgery, lacking anesthetic, without frowning or grimacing once. This is a feat that not even firewalkers dare repeat. Was it an aspect of his skeptical philosophy that allowed him to perform this feat?
It is of my opinion that Pyrrho, being the founder of Pyrrhonic Skepticism, used his imagination to lessen the effects of pain to a tolerable level. As I have outlined in my Stages of Skepticism manuscript, one of the stages of skepticism is “freedom of thought.” Although not immediately apparent to the ancient skeptics, this stage becomes accessible when skeptics suspend their judgment on what is true or not and remove any biasness they may have towards what reality may be. This stage may not be fully attainable, but the removal of biasness allows imagination to thrive as there are no longer forbidden thoughts that my conflict another idea that was previously held true. If imagination is thriving, it allows for more options in pain management. This may be imagining that pain is not bad and should not be frowned upon as Pyrrho may have done. Or this may be imagining that the pain is really not there and something else is entirely different is happening as the youths and the elderly have done in recent scientific studies.
One thing researchers noted was that children were particularly adept at this technique of reducing pain because “they have such fertile imaginations”. As for the elderly, I surmise that being in a society that greatly values the possession of truths and facts for so long they are unable to imagine arthritis without pain, as it is basically an accepted fact that arthritis means pain. So for them it is simply not enough to think about reducing their own pain, they require an optical illusion to stir their imagination. And this hypothesis fits with the study where pain reliever users believed that their medicine would not work, thus ruining any imagination on the subject, and ultimately their pain continued. All in all, these studies ultimately reveal that an active imagination unhindered by rigid truths, or as commonly said “to be young at heart” is a non-medicinal, and sometimes the only, way for pain management.