Carneades (c 213 - 128 B.C.)
By Richard E. Noble
Carneades was a Skeptic and a one time head of Plato’s New Academy. Carneades was born in Cyrene, Cyrenaica - now a part of what we know as Libya. He went blind in his old age and is said to have lived until about eighty-five years of age. He wasn’t much of a believer in the clothes make the man theory. He dressed negligently - I understand that to mean he was a slob. He wasn’t much for MacDonald’s either. It is also claimed that he never accepted a dinner invitation; he was always too busy - thinking. Even when he fed himself at home he had problems. He concentrated so greatly on what he was thinking that he had trouble finding his mouth with his hands. It is said that some of his friends had to move his arms for him. He did a lot of thinking but not much writing - if he did write anything nobody has been able to find it. Most of what we know of Carnaedes comes to us via Sextus Empericus and Cicero.
He went to Rome in about 156 B.C. to try and get Athens out from a fine that had been imposed. While he was there he decided to give a couple of lectures. In his first lecture he expounded the views of Aristotle and Plato on justice. In his second lecture he refuted, with equal vigor, all that he had said in his first lecture. His point was to show that no matter what point of view you have it isn’t warranted.* To argue both sides of any argument was a Carnaedesian trademark.
Carnaedes believed that exact truth was undiscernible. As humans we can only approximate a probable truth. Even our sense experiences are lacking and can only supply us with approximation and probabilities. He precedes David Hume in his skeptical analysis of causes and causation.
In theology he challenged the credibility of the concept of God or the Gods. He argued that the powers and activities assigned to divine beings are not consistent with their being changeless and eternal; that the evils in the universe are not consistent with divine providence; that the occurrence of accidental designs, for example, a rock that has the form of a head, invalidates the argument that a design implies a designer; that no clear boundary can be drawn between what is divine and what is not divine; Consensus gentium* (consensus - accepted knowledge) “Everybody believes in God therefore God must exist.” Carnaedes said the existence of atheists and nations that we know nothing about disprove the notion that something is true because everybody believes it. Also belief may be universal but remain incorrect. A personal God need not be necessary to have created the universe and the things within it - nature could have formed them herself. If God is both infinite and unlimited, he would fill the universe but be unable to move. A God that would be incapable of movement would be limited. Therefore an unlimited, infinite God is impossible. God is defined as virtuous and perfect. Virtue implies overcoming both pain and danger and only for a being who can suffer or be destroyed are there pains and dangers. Neither suffering nor destructibility is consistent with perfection. God can not be both virtuous and perfect. If God is provident how can He allow so many men to use their reason faultily and in a way injurious to themselves and others? Moreover if He allows weaknesses and misery in the universe - whether intentionally or unintentionally - He is at fault, since intentional or unintentional neglect are both faults.
Carnaedes not only precedes Hume with regards to causation but Sartre with regards to free will. The will may be caused but it is caused by itself and moves by virtue of its own nature. Events precede a man’s action, but do not force him to act. A man’s will always has the last move.* Carnaedes obviously forgot to ask from whence this free will came and at what point in a human’s existence was it incorporated - do babies have it, do adolescents have it; do teenagers have it; do monkey and cats and dogs have it?
In general he taught that: Correct information about reality is impossible; truth does not exist, only degrees of probability; probability is the only guide to life; some beliefs can be rated as more probable than others; the higher that probability, the greater the chances of our belief being acted upon correctly; the more probable our belief, the more we should tend to accept it Bottom line - one does not need objective truth to act but only a probable understanding.
I don’t know, I guess - he’s probably right, I suppose.
1 History of Western philosophy, by Bertrand Russell - pp. 236.
2 Dictionary of the History of Ideas
3 Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Paul Edwards, editor, vol. 1 & 2.
4 Dictionary of Philosophy, by Peter A. Angeles - Skepticism.