“skeptic (n.) member of an ancient Greek school that doubted the possibility of real knowledge, noun use of adjective meaning ‘inquiring, reflective,’ related to skeptesthai ‘to reflect, look, view.’” (Online etymology dictionary)
I have considered myself a skeptic, in the sense just outlined above, ever since I abandoned belief in UFOs and the paranormal when I was a teenager. In fact, I write this a few days before attending as a speaker the annual meeting of CICAP, the “Comitato Italiano per il Controllo delle Affermazioni sulle Pseudoscienze” — the Italian Committee for the Investigation of Claims of the Pseudosciences.
Skeptics in the sense of “scientific skepticism,” have a bad reputation with the general public. A friend of mine often tells me that when he tries to explain to his neighbors about scientific skepticism he gets something along the lines of, “ah, the skeptics, those are the cynical people who don’t believe in anything, right?” No, profoundly wrong, in fact. As philosopher Miguel de Unamuno explained:
“Skeptic does not mean him who doubts, but him who investigates or researches as opposed to him who asserts and thinks that he has found.” (Essays and Soliloquies, 1924)
That has always been the way I tried — sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing — to comport myself as a scientific skeptic.
But “skepticism” also has a (apparently, as we shall see) very different meaning, in the context of Hellenistic philosophy. It refers to two distinct schools of thought that were interested in the same goal of all practical philosophers of the time: to figure out how to live a eudaimonic life, a flourishing life for a human being. The two schools in question are Pyrrhonism and Academic Skepticism, the latter also known as the New Academy. I will refer to this latter type interchangeably as “ethical” or Socratic skepticism, or as New Skepticism (or Neoskepticism).
The major difference between Pyrrhonian and New Skeptics is that the first group suspended judgment about all “non-evident matters,” on the grounds that are sensorial perception and beliefs are unreliable. The New Skeptics, by contrast, thought that absolute, or certain knowledge is not possible for human beings, but that we nevertheless can hold (lightly) to a number of…