Living without certainty
How, then, should one describe mature adult cognition from a point of view of philosophical epistemology? What are the factors that allow one to respect other people’s views and emotions even if one takes them to be mistaken or misplaced, and what kind of an attitude best supports the quest for improving one’s own views? It is best to begin with identifying what does not support such an attitude. It seems that the psychological studies show that overt attachment to the truth of one’s own views is not a characteristic of mature thinking. If one simply assumes oneself to be right or dogmatically takes some authority to be right, this of course does not inspire respect for other people’s views. However, it is crucial to stress that unrestricted relativism by no means supports the inquiry and research, analysis and curiosity about other people’s views that is necessary to mature beyond such a state. The example about the political debate that requires some general principles (such as non-violence) also shows that integration should not be identified with unrestricted relativism.
This suggests that a mature adult attitude to one’s own knowledge and cognition should rather be described as one in which one is not so certain about the truth of one’s own beliefs and eager to compel others to accept them as well. However, this should be combined with the attitude of striving for reasonable views that incorporate a wealth of information and yet are open to the possibility that new, more accurate views can be found. Such new views might well transcend the conflicts and perhaps apparent contradictions that one might encounter in one’s inquiries in a way resembling the example of the debate about the colour of oranges. In this way, one is not trapped by simplified dichotomies (“the orange has to be either yellow or red!”) but is free to see the possibility of a more refined cognitive structure that goes beyond them (“oh, it is orange”).
Although uncertainty, fallibilism, and probabilism are prominently featured in contemporary epistemological discussion as well, one way to analyse adult mature cognition from the point of view of philosophical epistemology would be to look how it resembles theories in these trends of philosophical epistemology. However, in order to avoid technicalities and to connect the discussion to themes about how one should live and act, as in the examples about integration, a mature adult way of thinking can briefly be compared to ancient Pyrrhonian skepticism, for which Sextus Empiricus (trans. 2000) is the best source.24 In the following, we shall consider such skepticism to see if we can elicit some similarities to a mature adult way of thinking in developmental psychology.
A general guideline for a Pyrrhonian skeptic is to investigate (Greek skepsis means “study”, “investigation”, “scrutiny”) how things seem to be and even to argue about them and compare arguments presented for competing views. However, a Pyrrhonian skeptic claims to live by appearances, which means not being attached to a specific, unchangeable view about how things are. This means that a Pyrrhonian skeptic can very well take something to be the case: if I am a Pyrrhonian skeptic, I can take it to be the case that the soup offered to me now is hot because it seems to me to be so. If I turn the shower on and the warm water has been cut for the day, I can take it to be the case that the water is cold because it seems to me to be so. However, such a skeptic suspends judgment with respect to whether this is the stable nature of things and avoids statements like “the soup is by nature hot”, “water is by nature cold”. Compared to the temperatures measured on the surface of the sun, my soup is not hot at all, and for a polar bear (or even to a Finn who swims in Finnish lakes in the summer) my shower would be quite warm. However, this is not epistemological relativism: the claims are compatible with it being true that the soup has a certain measured or measurable temperature (say +55°C) and that the water in my shower has one as well (say, +30°C), and that there are some standards of how to measure the temperature and so on that apply to all the cases. Yet, this does not imply claims like “soup is by nature hot and feels hot to all observers in all circumstances” or “water is by nature cold and feels cold to all observers”.
Living by appearances, i.e., living on the basis of how things seem to be, Sextus Empiricus (trans. 2000) claims, gives the Pyrrhonian skeptic the space to welcome new appearances — “now things seem different” — without disturbances in the tranquil state of the skeptic’s mind. He also claims that such an attitude is necessary to maintain tranquillity through long periods of time.
It is important to stress that even the Pyrrhonian skeptic is committed to searching for the truth. If we suppose that the truth cannot be found, or that there are all kinds of undefinable standards for what knowledge is, such an attitude does not inspire us to cultivate our understanding of the world. Yet the kind of attitude that can be found in a Pyrrhonian skeptic underlines that cognitive maturity is not equivalent to being knowledgeable about particular facts. Although there is nothing wrong with remembering facts, maturity seems to be associated with a comprehensive viewpoint that allows one to see how different things go together. This also constitutes an important difference between cognitive maturity as described in modem cognitive developmental psychology and Pyrrhonian skepticism. Although committed to inquiry (skepsis) into how things are, Pyrrhonian skepticism is not especially focused on the quest for understanding comprehensive wholes.