Metaphysics and happiness: What you think you know can hurt you and others

In his On Free Choice of the Will, Augustine says (paraphrasing) that the root of all evil is not money or anything else. The root of all evil is simply desiring after things over which you have no control.

Augustine was obviously influenced by Stoicism.

Of course, he ends up arguing that true happiness can only be found through faith in the eternal and unchanging, which is God.

But a more consistent avoidance of things over which you don’t have any control would include freedom from the desire to know things that are beyond our grasp — things like the nature/existence of God, the immortality of the soul, and the reality of free will (to pull a list from Kant).

What is appealing to me about Pyrrhonian Skepticism (the best articulation of which is probably found in Sextus Empiricus’s Outlines of Skepticism) is that it represents a more consistent version of Stoicism. If happiness is to be found in the avoidance of desire for things over which we have no control, and certainty is a form of control, then we should refrain from believing in things about which we are uncertain.

The reason that strongly affirming claims about the nature of reality is that you expose yourself to sources of doubt. For any claim (the existence of the Judeo-Christian God, for example), it is possible to make an equally compelling case both for and against. Given the impossibility of certainty, choosing to believe either that there is a God, or that there is not a God means exposing your believe to constant threat. It also results in all manner of pernicious behaviors as you strive to continually affirm your belief to yourself and others despite the fact that you could quite easily be wrong.

Think about the damage caused most recently by believers of the QAnon conspiracy theory.

For the ancient Skeptics, the goal was ataraxia, or freedom from mental disturbance. The greatest tool for them was reason, which makes it possible to rigorously evaluate any and all truth claims. If a claim was found certain (i.e. irrational to believe otherwise), then believe would be affirmed. Inevitably, however, the result is a suspension of belief because it would be impossible to be certain either about a particular claim or it’s opposite.

With belief suspended, the Skeptics could return to ‘common life’ (borrowing an expression from Hume) of family, friends, institutions, etc in a way that could be fully enjoyed and appreciated without the burden of metaphysical commitments and the toxic relationships that clinging to uncertain sets of belief would otherwise have.