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The Sceptical Art of Inquiry

By Fiona Robertson.  

I read today that the ancient Greek word for ‘inquiry’ is skepsis, hence the word sceptical. Sceptical philosophers, from around the world in both ancient and modern times, have doubted our ability to know, either partially or completely. Their view is some variant of the idea that we can’t know anything for certain, and we can’t even know that we can’t know anything for certain.

We inevitably come to inquiry with a knowing or belief that feels certain. In fact, we don’t usually call it a belief. We don’t generally say, “I believe that I’m not good enough”, but rather state it as a fact: “I’m not good enough”. There often comes a point in a session when a slight crack appears in the certainty, and we begin to entertain the possibility that what we thought we knew for certain may not, after all, be the case. Even though the belief in question has been painful, there’s a kind of security in the certainty, so it can be disorientating to open up to the possibility that maybe we don’t know what we thought we knew. There’s often a sense of fear – if I’m not this, then what? Or the realisation that we may have spent many years trying to solve an issue only to discover that it’s not the issue we thought it was. Inevitably, we end up feeling emotions or sensations that the belief or knowing has somehow shielded us from.

In a session, I once had an image of seeing the outline of an island through a telescope from on board a boat. I saw that I was seeing the hint of the possibility that maybe what I thought was the case wasn’t. And even in reducing the certainty to 95% (rather than the full 100%), there was some relief in my system. Even in asking the questions – including questions like, “how do I know that?” or “what’s telling me that?” we open up to the possibility of uncertainty, that maybe we don’t know for sure. 

For the ancient sceptics, the idea was that having an experience of not knowing led to the possibility of calm, which feels deeply familiar from our perspective. It’s good to know people have been inquiring in this way for thousands of years.

To read more about Fiona Robertson, click here.