Skip to content

An Interview with Professor Henrik Lagerlund on Middle Ages to Computer Age (Part Two)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2020/05/15


Professor Henrik Lagerlund is a Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Stockholm University. He discusses: skepticism in the Middle Ages; skepticissm’s survival into the Computer Age; first traces of skepticism in history; skepticism and the natural order; the opposite of skepticism; Middle Ages as the focus for the upcoming books; common organizational values oriented around skepticism; traditional religious sentiments and skepticism; and seminal contributors to skeptical thought. 

Keywords: Henrik Lagerlund, James Randi, Middle Ages, Pyrrhonism, skepticism.

An Interview with Professor Henrik Lagerlund on Middle Ages to Computer Age: Professor, Philosophy, Stockholm University (Part Two)[1],[2]

*Please see the footnotes, bibliography, and citation style listing after the interview.*

1. Scott Douglas Jacobsen: How did skepticism not disappear in the Middle Ages? 

Professor Henrik Lagerlund: It was for a long time assumed that skepticism was not present in the Middle Ages. This view was mostly due to the fact that scholars were almost only looking at the 13th century and the time around Thomas Aquinas, which was called High Scholasticism. It was dominated by the influence of Aristotle and Avicenna, neither of whom have a skeptical bone in their bodies and both of them are perpetual optimists when it comes to our ability to acquire knowledge about the external world. Philosophy radically changed in the late 13th and early 14th centuries. Something scholars have only recent come to appreciate as they look at 14th century thinking. There is a different attitude to Aristotle as an authority  and new themes started to dominate the main philosophical debates. One such theme was the return or perhaps emergence of epistemology. Due to some sharp criticism of Aristotelian metaphysics, epistemological themes and questions started to appear. There was also the emergence of a new skeptical argument, that is, the hypothesis of God as a deceiver. The mere possibility of a deceiving God threaten the justification of any knowledge of the external world. The argument had a profound influence on philosophy. It is a similar argument to the one used by Descartes of an evil demon in the first meditation.

Skepticism in the form of Academic skepticism remained throughout the Middle Ages because of Cicero’s Academica and Augustine’s Against the Academics. These works were both read to a varying degree throughout the whole Middle Ages. There was also some knowledge of Pyrrhonism and Sextus Empiricus. His famous work Outlines of Pyrrhonism was translated from its original Greek to Latin in the late 13th century. It is still unclear why it was translated and what influence it had on Latin philosophy.

Of course, if one thinks of the Middle Ages as mainly Christian or religious thinking then it might seem strange that skepticism existed at all. As Augustine teaches us and as Bayle repeats, doubt is incompatible with faith in God, but medeival though is so much more that theology. It is a great melting pot of old and new ideas out of which the seeds of modern thought and science emerge.

2. Jacobsen: Why did skepticism continue to have adherents? How was this important for the survival of skeptical thought from the ancient world to the Computer Age? 

Lagerlund: This is a great and difficult question to answer. In some sense skepticism is omnipresent throughout the history of philosophy and will always show its ugly head as soon as we start to ask for the justifications or evidence for our beliefs about the world. This can be clearly seen in the Middle Ages, since while philosophy was dominated by the realist metaphysics of Aristotle, skepticism played no role and knowledge was not a huge concern, but as soon as that metaphysics began to be question epistemology and issues surrounding knowledge, scientific or otherwise, became a concern. It is also then that we see skepticism return.

In contemporary philosophy epistemology is to some extent held hostage by a very general argument saying that if we don’t know that skepticism is false, then we seem to know very little. The question becomes to show that skepticism is false or don’t really hold sway over us. One way out is to lower our constraints on knowledge or the conditions under which we can be said to have knowledge.

Skepticism also lives on as part of the scientific method. I discuss this in the last chapter of the book.

I am also sure there is an evolutionary explanation why we humans so easily are skeptical towards new things. It is probably good for our survival and have contributed to our success as a species. It is a problem for knowledge acquisition, however. Too much skepticism becomes a hindrance for new knowledge, but on the other hand too little and we risk accepting false beliefs. We need to balance skepticism to live a good life.

3.Jacobsen: What were some of the first traces of skepticism in history?

Lagerlund: Perhaps the first trace is found already in Plato and his earlier dialogues, which is thought to preserve and reflect the thoughts of Socrates. Socrates are portrayed there as someone who never holds a position of his own but questions the beliefs and thoughts of others. This is the so-called Socratic method. Another aspect is what is expressed in the Apology as Socrates intellectual humility, that is, the phrase that he only knows that he does not know anything.

There are thought among the Cyrenaic and the Cynics in Ancient times that contain aspects of skepticism as well. Both these philosophies have their origin in students of Socrates. Obviously, so do the Academics, since Academic skepticism originated in the school Plato founded. However, the only ancient school or philosophy that called itself skeptic was the Pyrrhonian. It is from them that we derive the word, skeptic. The Greek skeptikos means to inquire or to seek. So, the skeptics are seekers of the truth.

4. Jacobsen: Also, when you think about skepticism, how does this come to mesh with the overarching picture of the world of the natural and cause-and-effect, and no divine inspiration or powers behind the universe? No magic, no governor anywhere, no true mystery except within humans’ comprehension limitations, and human problems often caused by human beings and not by the gods. 

Lagerlund: For certain, I don’t think that there are any absolutes, but instead that we humans have to make our way in life with what is more or less probable. If you follow Hume’s thinking on this we can never know anything with certainty about the natural world, but we can with various methods, scientific or otherwise, come to hold beliefs, that even though they are fallible, have a lot of evidence behind them. This is also his argument against religious beliefs and miracles. There is little evidence for the existence of God or for miracles and it makes little sense to put your faith in things that are so improbable even though one cannot prove that they are false.

I think there is plenty of magic in the world without assuming supernatural beings. The magic of love and emotional attachments between human beings are mystical and wonderous to behold. The intricate workings of nature is equally mysterious although not supernatural. Skepticism is important at keeping at bay lies and religions that seek to profit on and delude us. I think religion is fascinating as a human phenomenon – despite the fact that I am not religious myself I have spent most of my adult life studying a period where the Cristian and Islamic religions dominated the life of all people. That should tell you that it deeply fascinates me. I also have great respect for religious people, even though I don’t share their religion and I know how much evil religion has brought to the world, which does not take away the good that it also brings to many peoples lives.

5. Jacobsen: What would seem like the appropriate opposite, by definition and practice, of skepticism?

Lagerlund: I would take dogmatism to be the opposite of skepticism in the sense that Sextus does – dogmatism of any kind. Contemporary skepticism, at least, non-philosophical skepticism does not seems to think so, however, since most such skepticism takes it starting point from some form of dogmatic belief. In that way skepticism nowadays is often used to defend some form of dogmatism. Skepticism then becomes doubt or an argument against a rival dogmatic belief and is often used on both sides. They have failed to learn the lesson of Ancient skepticism.

In the last chapter of my book, I distinguish between science skepticism and skepticism towards a scientific consensus. Science skepticism is divided into that kind of skepticism that we see in skeptical societies that use science to argue against pseudo-science, UFO’s etc., and the one we find within science itself as part of the scientific method. Skepticism towards a scientific consensus is on the other hand skepticism that is directed at a scientific consensus like human made climate change or the vaccines (that is, the Anti-Vaxxer movement). These kinds of skepticism all take their origin in some kind of dogmatism, that is, either science or something else. The combination of these can be very intricate and sometimes hard to spot. I have lately, at least before the Covid-19 crisis started, been fascinated with the Heartland Institutes promotion of the German teenager Naomi Seibt, who is promoted as an Anti-Greta Thunberg. I was watching the Youtube video the Heartland Institute put up on their website. She was arguing for a skeptical attitude towards human made climate change and that the human contribution of CO2 to the atmosphere is not responsible for the average rise in temperature that  that we have been able to measure. What was fascinating to me was that she was arguing like a science skeptic while she was really a skeptic of scientific consensus. She was pretending to have the science on her side while she was really a skeptic towards science. It is a propaganda trick that is not easily spotted by the non-informed layperson. Putting these words in the mouth of a seemingly innocent teenager ads to the power of the performance.

6. Jacobsen: You have a focus on the Middle Ages. Why select this for a significant portion of the research for yourself? How will the upcoming book be covering this?

Lagerlund: I have always had a fascination with medieval times. As a child I naturally read Lord of the Rings, but more so I was drawn to the philosophy of the time when I was a student in Uppsala and Helsinki. It was the incredible advancements in logic that was made then that interested me, and the fact that when I started there were still lots to do for a young scholar and there were relatively few working in the field. It has changed a lot in 20 years. Research on medieval philosophy is now becoming more like other areas of the history of philosophy and many more young people are interested in it, although it is still not the case that philosophy department’s hire medievalists in the same rate as they would hire someone working in Ancient or Early Modern philosophy. It probably still suffers from the prejudice that it is mainly religious philosophy.

The forthcoming book on skepticism include three chapters on medieval discussions of skepticism, which is unprecedented in the writing on skepticism. All previous histories of skepticism ignore the Middle Ages. I hope the readers when they see the whole history presented, like it is in the book, will appreciate that and I also think it greatly illuminates the history of skepticism to include the middle ages.

7. Jacobsen: Skepticism can be seen institutionalized in organizations including the Center for Inquiry, Skeptical Inquirer, and so on. Many in the humanist or other movements will adhere to the principles. Sometimes, they will shift away from skepticism towards a tinge of faith because of the preferability of particular beliefs or attitudes to their sensibilities, but, by and large, the emphasis will be skepticism. Why are some arrangements and communities of common values more skeptic oriented than not?

Lagerlund: The skepticism you talk about here I call science skepticism in the book and it is identified by its strong adherence to science and its skepticism, doubt and negative arguments, towards what they deem as pseudo-science. These societies see themselves as gatekeepers of science and the last line of defense against charlatans and those that promote and profit on unjustified and false theories in the name of science. Many of these group play an important role in education and keeping away the worst pseudo-science. Perhaps you remember the magician James Randi who made a career out of exposing frauds promoting all kinds of paranormal phenomena. I am old enough to remember his TV shows. I think for many he is still the definition of a skeptic. One problem today is that it is so easy to promote conspiracy theories and false views through social media. The Flat Earth Society has greatly benefitted from this. It seems bigger than ever; although its beliefs are so obviously false. I think a healthy skeptical attitude is more important than ever. A problem is that if you are too skeptical you will most likely miss out on some knowledge. It is here that I think Hume is very important and his emphasis on how skepticism can mediate our human reason and in that way help guide us on our quest for truth and knowledge.

8. Jacobsen: Can traditional religious sentiments and beliefs mix with a skeptical view of the world? If so, in what sense, and if not, why not?

Lagerlund: Historically, skepticism has been used as an argument for religion and a so-called fideistic viewpoints, that is, the view that reason has no sway over faith. Skepticism is then used to show that reason is unable to reject or justify faith or religious belief in any way. In that sense you cannot give an argument for faith – a belief in God is irrational. It has been argued that this was how Montaigne used skepticism to justify Catholicism, since there is no argument or reason to justify believing in either Catholicism or Calvinism the suggestion is that we must remain in the belief system we already have. Skepticism is then being used as an argument for conservatism.

There are also arguments in history that skepticism construed as doubt is the death of religious faith. As soon as doubt creeps into a belief in a God that belief is destroyed.

9. Jacobsen: Who have been some of the seminal contributors to the history of skeptical thought – either as an attitude or as a formal set of principles, processes, and methodologies (e.g., scientific methodology)?

Lagerlund: Well, there are many, but an obvious one is the introduction of skepticism and Pyrrhonian philosophy, which is the first and perhaps only sustained effort to develop skepticism as a way of life. Pyrrhonism is an attempt to live skepticism and the attitude of the skeptic is meant to lead the practitioner to a better life of tranquility and happiness. It was debated and mostly rejected as impossible throughout the history of philosophy mainly because it advised its practitioners to have no beliefs about the world. The criticism was that this is impossible. Beliefs are essential to our life and to the possibility of acting at all. Hume’s criticism is perhaps the most famous, but the idea was rejected already by the Stoics and by Augustine. It is, however, a fascinating idea at practicing skepticism.

There are many arguments that should be mentioned, but the introduction of God as a deceiver and the evil demon argument is of course especially spectacular. An important use of skepticism can be found in the 17th century when it was introduced, by Gassendi and others, as part of the scientific method. This is an aspect of skepticism the lives on in science today. Pierre Bayle is of central importance for all developments of philosophy in the 18th century, but he is often ignored. He was an important critique of Descartes and as such released external world skepticism on 18th century philosophy pushing it towards idealism. One of my favorite philosophers is David Hume. The way he uses skepticism to reign in reason is important. In the 20th century I am a great fan of Soul Kripke’s meaning skepticism; very original, but there is a special place in my heart for John Buridan and his insight that fallibilism can be used as an anti-skeptical position. This has been unknown before and instead Charles Sanders Peirce has been credited with that idea.

10. Jacobsen: What were some of the interesting developments in skepticism within the Middle Ages?

Lagerlund: The Middle Ages play an important role in the history of skepticism. Early on doubt becomes associated with skepticism. Something it did not really have in Ancient times, but which will never leave it after the Middle Ages. Another very important aspect is of course the introduction of the deceiving God-hypothesis, which will develop into Descartes’ evil demon-hypothesis. It is in the 14th century through this argument that external work skepticism is introduced into philosophy. The other already mentioned aspect of medieval skepticism is Buridan’s introduction of fallibilism. He uses it explicitly as an anti-skeptical position, which is completely new in philosophy and is our prevalent way of dealing with skepticism today. These three aspects make the Middle Ages one of the most important period in the history of skepticism. Something that has not been appreciated before.

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] Professor, Philosophy, Stockholm University.

[2] Individual Publication Date: May 15, 2020:; Full Issue Publication Date: May 1, 2020:


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


© Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing 2012-Present. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All interviewees and authors co-copyright their material and may disseminate for their independent purposes.

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: