Buddhism and (Pyrrhonist) Skepticism


I’ve repeatedly written on Pyrrhonism. Today, I want to connect some dots with Buddhism.  First, let’s lay the ground work with some quick summaries.

Pyrrhonism is a way of life that recognizes we have…

  1. Impressions (involuntary experiences like sights, spontaneous thoughts, feelings)
  2. Beliefs about impressions (like good/bad, real/unreal, worthy of seeking)

By suspending #2 (epoche) we achieve tranquility.

Buddhism is a way of life that recognizes the ubiquity of suffering and pins its cause on attachment to desire (with special attention to the self as a critical nexus of desire). It then urges non-attachment as the way out of suffering.

Pyrrhonism and Buddhism can illuminate each other, and this may not be a coincidence, as there seems to be a historical connection here.  While outside of the scope of this article, those who’d like to learn more about Pyrrhonism, the historical connection, what went wrong, and even how it sheds light on Buddhism, I highly recommend this book, freely available online.

In what follows, I will look at key points of Buddhism through a Pyrrhonist lens. Be warned, this is highly speculative.

The Ten Modes

Let’s start with the challenge: epoche ain’t easy.  So — much like the Buddhists have meditation — Pyrrhonists had practices to help them suspend beliefs. The most famous of these (perhaps the only one that has come down to us) is from Sextus Empiricus, and is called The 10 Modes:

  1. The same impressions are not produced by the same objects owing to the differences in animals.
  2. The same impressions are not produced by the same objects owing to the differences among human beings.
  3. The same impressions are not produced by the same objects owing to the differences among the senses.
  4. Owing to the “circumstances, conditions or dispositions,” the same objects appear different. The same temperature, as established by instrument, feels very different after an extended period of cold winter weather than after mild weather in the autumn. Time appears slow when young and fast as aging proceeds. Honey tastes sweet to most but bitter to someone with jaundice. A person with influenza will feel cold and shiver even though she is hot with a fever.
  5. Based on positions, distances, and locations; for owing to each of these the same objects appear different.” The same tower appears rectangular at close distance and round from far away. The moon looks like a perfect sphere to the human eye, yet cratered from the view of a telescope.
  6. We deduce that since no object strikes us entirely by itself, but along with something else, it may perhaps be possible to say what the mixture compounded out of the external object and the thing perceived with it is like, but we would not be able to say what the external object is like by itself.
  7. Based, as we said, on the quantity and constitution of the underlying objects, meaning generally by “constitution” the manner of composition. So, for example, goat horn appears black when intact and appears white when ground up. Snow appears white when frozen and translucent as a liquid.
  8. Since all things appear relative, we will suspend judgement about what things exist absolutely and really existent. Do things which exist “differentially” as opposed to those things that have a distinct existence of their own, differ from relative things or not? If they do not differ, then they too are relative; but if they differ, then, since everything which differs is relative to something…, things which exist absolutely are relative.
  9. Based on constancy or rarity of occurrence. The sun is more amazing than a comet, but because we see and feel the warmth of the sun daily and the comet rarely, the latter commands our attention.
  10. There is a Tenth Mode, which is mainly concerned with Ethics, being based on rules of conduct, habits, laws, legendary beliefs, and dogmatic conceptions.

Now let’s tackle a problem. Sextus discusses how different objects produce different impressions, but if we’re suspending all beliefs about impressions, then shouldn’t we suspend the belief that an object was behind an impression? I’m not saying we assert that an object isn’t behind them, we simply suspend that belief.  So why does Sextus refer to an object?  I suspect it’s because these modes are for those who may believe in these objects, and thus by presupposing them, he can then undermine them by examination.

Now let’s focus on some of the most relevant modes and tie them to Buddhism.

2. The same impressions are not produced by the same objects owing to the differences among human beings.

Since happiness or sorrow is an impression, we can focus on how different things seem to produce different impressions (joy, sorrow) in people. This can be a reminder that it’s not the (purported) objects that bring happiness, but rather our reactions to them (beliefs about them).  In short, happiness comes from within, so detach from worldly objects and take the inward turn.

3. The same impressions are not produced by the same objects owing to the differences among the senses.

4. Owing to the “circumstances, conditions or dispositions,” the same objects appear different.

5. “Based on positions, distances, and locations; for owing to each of these the same objects appear different.”

Here’s impermanence, but on a micro scale. Whereas typical interpretations of Buddhism talk about macro impermanence, this focuses on the impermanence that faces us in every second — the experiential flux. Let’s clarify with an example of a new car.  The traditional view of impermanence is that it will eventually lose its new car smell, break down, etc… Yet the Pyrrhonist view of impermanence states that our experience of the car changes every moment.  One second it looks one way, then it looks different from another angle.

So if I bought the car because I love the body style, what does that mean given how its appearance keeps shifting (and I can’t even see the body when I’m inside the car)? When I desire this new car, what am I desiring, given there’s nothing stable to hold on to?  If I say “the actual car causing the impressions”, then I’m claiming a substance ontology — something underlying my impressions.  I don’t experience this “actual car” — it’s an abstraction.  So I’m desiring an abstraction. So what I desire is mental, and thwarted desire is pain.  Further, trying to cling to this abstraction causes stress and pain.

So if I can abandon this believe in this mental abstraction, would I still desire this car?

This substance ontology casts light on Buddhism’s claim of “no-self”, and a good thing too.  See, Buddhism talks about things not having a “self”.  Yes things; it’s not just that we don’t have a self, it’s everything.  This seems curious, as does the claim that the lack of self-hood in things pains us.  Yet the view from the Pyrrhonist vantage point clarifies this so it makes sense.

Just as we infer a substance behind things, so we infer a substance behind our impressions, actions and so on.  This substance is what we call “our self”, and it is central as a hub of desire — which is why Buddhism focuses a lot on this.

Here’s 2 components of types of suffering that makes the Pyrrhonist connection clear:

  • The anxiety or stress of trying to hold onto things that are constantly changing.
  • A basic unsatisfactoriness pervading all forms of existence, because all forms of life are changing, impermanent and without any inner core or substance.

So one key point that gets short shrift in Buddhism is the exposition that all desires are of an abstraction, for only when that is understood is the lack of self-hood of objects seen to be relevant to why we suffer. Without this piece, Buddhist teachings on this point seem perplexing.

6. “We deduce that since no object strikes us entirely by itself, but along with something else […]

8. “Since all things appear relative, we will suspend judgement about what things exist absolutely and really existent.

This is another angle that attacks substance ontology from the perspective of independence.  Again, Buddhism teaches of the dependence of things, but this teaching covers the usual ground of one thing coming into existence because of another (e.g.: I am only alive because of the food I eat, etc…).  Yet if we think of an experiential gestalt (e.g.: I see the car because the background is distinct, my mood affects how I feel about certain events, etc…), then we get a much different view of what dependence means and what lack of an independent self means in this context.

Conclusion/Shift in Focus

One day, I may undertake a more detailed reading of Buddhism with a Pyrrhonist lens.  In particular, it’s interesting to see what emerges when replacing non-attachment with epoche, attachment/clinging with beliefs, self/identity with substance, and a sensibility that applies everything to the flux of experience/impressions. For now though, I offer the following:

  1. Buddhism is a way of life designed to relieve suffering by suspending beliefs about desire (the seed of suffering), as these beliefs give desire its power.
  2. Desire is of abstract entities that we invest with reality via substance ontology.
  3. Buddhist claims are relative to moment-to-moment experiences rather than grand macro events.
  4. Buddhist teachings and practices (like meditation) are designed to help us see through substance ontology and hence undermine the foundation of desire.
  5. Buddhism attacks all substance ontology, not just our personal identity, but the latter is the most significant (pain-causing) substance we believe in, so it gets special attention.
  6. Buddhism’s apparently contradictory statements such as not X, neither X nor not X, etc… are not logical claims, but ways of showing how to achieve epoche by showing the beliefs we should NOT hold, without asserting beliefs we should hold.
  7. The Middle Way is the suspension of belief and not some kind of Golden Mean.
  8. Skhandas are not about self-hood, but categories of experience that we analyze to suspend beliefs about all substance ontology.
  9. Buddhism’s Fetter of Views/Clinging to Views is not just about metaphysics, but all views.  Further, this teaching isn’t about us avoiding a pitfall, but another way of looking at the fundamental practice for liberation. 

9 thoughts on “Buddhism and (Pyrrhonist) Skepticism

  1. “Buddhist claims are relative to moment-to-moment experiences”

    I am not sure If i understand correctly…Buddha’s teachings were heavily focused on grand/macro/life-long nature of one’s existence. They are not momentary. The whole concept of karma is about a grand scheme of things.

    And, Noble Eightfold Path is about conditioning and transforming one’s self…a long process, not momentary in any sense. It is about becoming….like immature person becoming mature. Once you become (nirvana), there is end-of-suffering.

    Without becoming, one cannot “be” solely using one’s thinking/mind or practices. You can but only momentarily, and it is often not sustainable, or fully genuine/real. Karma is as karma does.

    1. Thank you for reading and for your comment!

      I was just speculating as to what a Pyrrhonist-informed Buddhism could look like. I was not claiming this was what Buddhism was about.

      Does looking and practicing at Buddhism this way confer benefits? I think it does. Could something like this have been what the Buddha intended? Beats me 🙂

      Also, if one looks at Buddhism as a path of self-transformation, hasn’t one just reinforced belief in the self that Buddhism decries? Could one develop an attachment to the path or to this “purified” self? As far as attachments go, I think this is far healthier than what we normally have, so even this is an improvement, but still…

      It’s times like these that the “instant enlightenment” views start to become compelling.

      1. “instant enlightenment” for me is like superstitions and magic 🙂 .

        Buddha’s core teaching is about suffering (aka “human condition”), which is basically “one’s delusional identification with self”. So Buddha accepts there is suffering (“self”), but it is something thats not real, one can transcend it.

        4 Noble truths is a process where 3/4’ths of the time you basically contemplate/understand what this self/suffering is all about. You get to a point (transformed) where you undoubtedly see there is no self (marks the end of suffering).

        There is no danger of developing attachment to “path”, as path itself is all about losing attachments, letting go. Unlimited freedom, boundless joy, go with that state. We cannot jump to no-self right away…it will dawn on its own.

        I believe we can take inspiration from Pyrrhonist-informed Buddhism or any other practice, the bottom line is to fully understand suffering/self (aka “wisdom”), and transcend it. I would also look at 4th truth for some ideas for practice.

        Its like a human is born and immediately he starts his identification. He forgets its all his world, his home, his own. He can arrange and shape it any way he likes. He can create his own heaven. All other humans are but his own self (emotionally speaking). He is the king, the god, the father, the son. Karma is all about this, creating/shaping one’s own world.

      2. I should have distanced myself from enlightenment as an absolute and used degrees of enlightenment. So is it possible to make significant improvements instantly? I think it is, but I think it’s more likely that one would have to work gradually at it.

        If one is really following the path, can one be attached to it? Maybe not, and this lends another interesting reading on the Fetters of Views (addressed to monks who got attached to views about what they thought was the path?). On the other hand, I think people can be attached to what they think is the path and that type of clinging can be very dangerous. False path or not, Ego has hijacked the spiritual quest, and so it’s useful to address that on its own terms.

      3. Some insights (as opposed to enlightenment) can be instant, out of the blue, and their impact mind-shattering. They often end-up creating strong mind ripples, this event can be mistakenly identified with enlightenment, or nirvana itself.

        Even for such instant improvement or change, one’s mind and state has to already be aligned, ready to receive. In other words, it is not random. Karma is as real as life and death, its effects can be very subtle, meta-mind.

        Enlightenment, or nirvana, cannot be instant as that would imply there is no karmic effects. It is not a linear process either. For example, some practices certainly give more progress than others. Costs of ignorance is not linear either.

        Like life requires sustenance, one’s enlightenment/nirvana requires its own kind of sustenance (karma, dharma).

        The idea is to become it, be it, rather than actively “trying to sustain” (= duality, which is not true nirvana). To become something, we need a process, a progression, transformation. This goes back to my first comment.

        Agree, getting attached (“maya”) to path is a real danger. It is said buddha fought it till last stages. I think if we stick with self/suffering, we should be OK. You observe it long enough (awareness), you will come unglued and know everything there is to know.

  2. How do you address the core paradox of Buddhism, which is that a desire to be free of desires is itself a desire? Perhaps you have written about this already and can point me to an article?

    Also, if we free ourselves of all desire, don’t we simply do nothing?

    1. There are actually several ways to address this. I blogged about one way here:

      But there are others.

      The first depends on how you define the key problem in Buddhism. If it’s clinging to desire that’s the problem, then there’s no paradox in not clinging to a desire to stop clinging to a desire. If it is desire in general, then there still may not be a problem if (1) this desire vanishes upon accomplishment or (2) this desire [being more in our hands] isn’t subject to the same problems as other desires or (3) having some desires isn’t a problem or (4) that it’s intense desire [thirst or tanha in Buddhism] that’s the problem or (5) Buddhism isn’t all or nothing, so that to the extent that we reduce desires, we find greater happiness, so that we shouldn’t worry about whether we eradicated all desires, and this sort of worry itself may be the kind of mindset we’re fighting. And of course you can combine the above views 🙂

      I lean more towards the clinging view myself.

      As for freeing ourselves of all desire, do we do nothing? Well, if the problem is clinging to desire, rather than desire itself, then we’re good. Also, on some of the interpretations above, we’re still good.

      There’s another question here… If I simply do things habitually, like living so that there’s no desire in my consciousness, is there a latent desire? That question would be answered if something arises to challenge this life.

      Your question is an excellent one, and something quite a few people struggle with.

      1. Yes, I like that explanation, and I’m happy to go with version (5) above 🙂
        Does Buddhism differentiate between, say, the desire to eat a cake, and the desire to read a book? The first might bring transient joy followed by suffering. The second might bring joy, not suffering.

      2. Buddhism may; I think it’s less about what’s desired and more about how it’s desired. How clingy is this desire? This depends on the individual as different people have different agendas and self-images that would effect this desire

        For instance, people who obsess over weight and health may find the desire to eat cake deeply troubling, and indulging could lead to cycles of recrimination. Likewise, people who pride themselves on being intellectuals may find reading a book to be a tense, self-conscious affair, more about accumulating knowledge to prop up that self image.

        On the other hand, those who can simply pursue these desires without all these complications should be in pretty good shape, provided they don’t suffer deeply if they are thwarted (and the potential for suffering if thwarted also leads to the potential for worry depending on how likely one is to get the thing desired).

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