Home > Montaigne M., Philosophy > Was Montaigne right to be a skeptic?

Was Montaigne right to be a skeptic?

For my senior thesis in college, I wrote on scientific realism—roughly, the view that our best current theories are approximately true. This was a mistake from which I still have not extricated myself, but every so often it pays dividends. Most recently, this came in reading Michel de Montaigne’s “Apology for Raymond Sebond”, the longest piece in his Essays. (In my edition, the Everyman’s Library edition of his Complete Works, the Apology comes to 170 pages.) Montaigne (1533-1592), in defending a general skepticism, offers an argument that is remarkably similar to an argument prevalent in the scientific realism literature today. I have my doubts as to the contemporary cogency of that argument. But in Montaigne’s day, I think it was devastating—more devastating, in fact, than Montaigne allows.

The argument in question now goes by the name pessimistic meta-induction (PMI). Its classic statement is in Larry Laudan’s “A Confutation of Convergent Realism” (available here). Laudan, in response to those philosophers who think that scientific realism is the only hypothesis that adequately explains the success of science, adduces a long list of theories that were once successful, but have since been rejected. Clearly, he claims, their success must not have been the result of their approximate truth, since they were not approximately true. Moreover, if rejection seems to be the fate of the successful theories of the past, on what grounds can we treat our current theories as immune to the same fate? What breaks the induction from the fate of past theories to that of current theories?

There are plenty of ways a realist might respond to this argument, but that is not my concern here, at least not yet. Rather, I am interested in the version of this argument given by Montaigne, and in the question whether he was right to make that argument. Here is what he writes:

The sky and the stars have been moving for three thousand years; everybody had so believed, until it occurred to Cleanthes of Samos, or (according to Theophrastus) to Nicetas of Syracuse, to maintain that it was the earth that moved, through the oblique circle of the Zodiac, turning about its axis; and in our day Copernicus has grounded this doctrine so well that he uses it very systematically for all astronomical deductions. What are we to get out of that, unless that we should not bother which of the two is so? And who knows whether a third opinion, a thousand years from now, will not overthrow the preceding two? (521)

This example is precisely the sort of example that the proponent of PMI offers: formerly, people believed one option, now they believe another—what is to say that in the future they will not believe some as yet unknown third? And, indeed, Montaigne had to wait only 300 years (and change), not a thousand, for Einstein to say that neither the earth nor the sun moves absolutely, but only relative to a reference frame—pick the right frame and one can easily say the sun moves while they earth stands still. My philosophy of physics friends tell me that Einsteinian relativity does not yet sit comfortably with quantum mechanics—is a fourth option around the corner? But I am getting ahead of myself, am moving too much into the present.

For what I really want to know is whether Montaigne, in the 1580s, was right to be a skeptic, and whether this argument offered persuasive grounds. I believe he was. Here is Montaigne’s practical proposal that results from this argument:

Thus when some new doctrine is offered to us, we have great occasion to distrust it, and to consider that before it was produced its opposite was in vogue; and, as it was overthrown by this one, there may arise in the future a third invention that will likewise smash the second. (521)

There is something of an obvious response to this advice, and it is one way that I am tempted to respond to PMI: all of this talk of the past is idle, what matters is whether we have good reason now. If the reasons offered in favor of some view are sufficiently good, should we not believe it? What does it matter that the reasons offered for past views were not good? If we have good reason to believe the view on offer, then we have good reason to think there will not arise a third invention.

This problem arises for Montaigne in part because he does not, or at least not here (he does elsewhere in the essay), consider the reasons given in favor of the theory. Rather, we are simply offered the theory, and since people have been offering false theories for so long, we should not expect any different of the new.  This seems to be too superficial, to eschew the use of one’s own reason to assess the reasons given. In fact I don’t think Montaigne overlooks this (he says elsewhere that we should not accept any hypothesis unless reason places it above its rivals), but the objection still requires a response.

The response Montaigne can give is, I think, this. The reasons we have been offered in the past led only to confusion and instability, and the reasons we are given now, while different in content, are not different in kind. That is, you are offering the same sorts of reasons today as were offered us in the past. Even if your reasons are better than those of the past, our history of failure tells us that we are highly fallible reasoners—else we would never have been taken in by those old views with their poor reasons. So, grant that your reasons appear better—what confidence can that give me that they actually are better? What possible reason could I have to think that you are or I am or anyone else is a competent judge?

So long as the reasons used to support our views remains of the same kind, Montaigne’s argument is cogent and powerful. He was right to be a skeptic. Of course, one can argue that, with what is called the scientific revolution, things changed. We started offering new sorts of reasons, and this eliminated the instability, such that now we can be realists about our best current theories. Laudan’s PMI aims precisely to undermine this optimism, to show that instability has not diminished since the 16th century. Perhaps he is right, perhaps not. That is a live debate. But as far as Montaigne goes, I do think that skepticism was the right position for him to take, for he had an argument that could take on all comers.

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Addendum

I forgot, in my initial post, to explain why Montaigne’s skeptical argument is more devastating than he allows. The reason for this is that it applies equally to religion, a possibility that Montaigne does not explore. The closest he comes is in the following passage:

O God, what an obligation do we not have to the benignity of our sovereign creator for having freed our belief from the folly of those vagabond and arbitrary devotions, and having based it on the eternal foundation of his holy word. (531)

Montaigne has all the material for a skeptical argument of the same sort as before: look at how many “vagabond and arbitrary” devotions humanity has subjected itself to, and how many were believed to have an “eternal foundation”—why should Christianity be any different. But Montaigne, in characteristic fashion, places his Christianity above doubt: he applies his doubt relentlessly to the earthly, but not to the eternal. There is no reasoned justification of this limitation of the power of his argument. Hence it is more devastating than Montaigne allows. It is tempting to wonder whether Montaigne did not know this, and was simply prudent in not challenging the church, but that is pure speculation, and may be combatted even without invoking powerful skeptical tools.

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