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…
- Impressions (involuntary experiences like sights, spontaneous thoughts, feelings)
- 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:
- The same impressions are not produced by the same objects owing to the differences in animals.
- The same impressions are not produced by the same objects owing to the differences among human beings.
- The same impressions are not produced by the same objects owing to the differences among the senses.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- Desire is of abstract entities that we invest with reality via substance ontology.
- Buddhist claims are relative to moment-to-moment experiences rather than grand macro events.
- Buddhist teachings and practices (like meditation) are designed to help us see through substance ontology and hence undermine the foundation of desire.
- 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.
- 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.
- The Middle Way is the suspension of belief and not some kind of Golden Mean.
- Skhandas are not about self-hood, but categories of experience that we analyze to suspend beliefs about all substance ontology.
- 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.