Saturday, August 05, 2006

Skeptic in training

The human mind is prone to error and self-deception: we tend to believe in stories that lack evidence, such as urban-legends; we have the strong desire to believe what a strong leader or most people around us believe; and we tend to remember things that never occurred, as our memories are not perfect. The human mind is definitely fallible, and therefore prone to suggestion and manipulation.

Skepticism is a philosophy that attempts to mitigate these weaknesses of the human mind. It holds the belief that absolute knowledge is not achievable and thus one should measure the ‘truth’ of various claims by employing doubt. The goal is not to obtain absolute knowledge, but rather relative knowledge of the world around us. The modern day form of skepticism is popularised by writers such as Carl Sagan and Michael Shermer. The following are what I think are the main characteristics of what it is to be a skeptic. The first three points listed below are from an article written by the historian Richard Carrier.

As a skeptic, one should believe that:

  • The mind is highly prone to deception, self-deception and error. We do not know everything;

  • Thus, inquiry and doubt are essential checks against such deception. We need a method, something outside of the confines of the mind, that can provide some kind of truth that we can work with;

  • Logic and the scientific method seem to be the best methods we have at present that can provide us with some sort of truth that we can work with. This is borne from the belief that truth, or some degree of truth, can be realised through constant testing and scrutiny. We can never reach absolute certainty about anything – rather, we can strive to reach some degree of certainty about any idea that has withstood years of testing;

  • Finally, as skeptics, we must never accept anything as ‘gospel truth’, or label any idea as absolute folly. We must strive, against the temptations of the mind, to find faults with ideas that we find highly attractive or that we strongly agree with. On the other side of the coin we must find some merit with ideas that we find repulsive. In other words, we must constantly challenge the beliefs that we hold. For all we know, we could be wrong, and the best way to find that out is to constantly test our beliefs. This is an extremely difficult exercise, to say the least!

For the conservative Christian, doubt can be seen as an inconvenient burden. For the skeptic, doubt is a virtue. As an old Hungarian proverb states:

“The believer is happy; the doubter is wise”.

What do you think? Is skepticism valid? What are the weaknesses?


marc said...

One of my friends is skeptical about everything. The news, the media - you name it.

I'm not sure I could go through life being so skeptical about everything. It makes it all so shallow and pointless.

Rodolfo said...

Skeptism freed my mind. My creativity and imagination seems to have rediscovered its true nature and evolution when I accepted the fact that I'm skeptic. Not once have I felt shallow or pointless about life since I took on this position. Quite the contrary. The great thing is that I can even be skeptic about science and be okay with it. Is evolution and natural selection the cause of how we got here? Most of the evidence points to that conclusion. But the possibility that a new theory can be postulated in the future is even more exciting. Makes me want to live a little longer to learn of the new findings and controversies.. But if I don't live as long as I'd like then that's okay too because at least I was able to free my mind when I gave myself a chance.

Kevin Parry said...

Marc wrote:
It makes it all so shallow and pointless.

Good point! I think there is a subtle difference between skepticism and cynicism. Skepticism is a method of thought that a person uses to question the validity of various claims. It is a form of critical thinking that we all use everyday (for example, we are naturally skeptical about what politicians and television adverts say). Cynicism, on the other hand, is basically a negative outlook on life and the world. The two are not necessarily the same thing: cynics are probably skeptical, but skeptics are not necessarily cynical.

Rodolfo wrote
The great thing is that I can even be skeptic about science and be okay with it.

Thank you for the comment. For the sake of interesting discussion, can I propose a question? If a skeptic is skeptical about science, evolution, religion and everything in general, then can the skeptic also be skeptical about skepticism?

All the best

ursa smaller said...

I consider skepticism to be my greatest safeguard against living a lemming life, that is, following those who follow those who follow.... questions and doubt led me to break ranks and now I'm free to go where I please.

Francois Tremblay said...

I am against skepticism. It is a complete waste of time. I have argued this with the skeptic blog Two Percent Company (complete assholes, too), and the main thing that emerged was that they have zero understanding of epistemology. They want to believe that they are doing something meaningful when they "test a paranormal claim". I think it's a holdout, like agnosticism.

Rodolfo said...

It depends...I think. If I can identify that skepticism has been detrimental to my health then I should be skeptical of this way of thinking. Being a skeptic to me equals questioning everything and I think that could be a good thing especially when the subject of gods and religion pops up. So far I haven't found any good reason to stop questioning...I would rather be skeptic to the idea that some ghost created man in its image as opposed to simply having blind faith. I cannot find any good reason to believe that some kind of indescribable ghost cares enough to watch every single move I make. Get a new life you silly ghost!

Francois Tremblay said...

"So far I haven't found any good reason to stop questioning..."

The reason is because it is a waste of time.

Rodolfo said...

Maybe so...but for me it's very important that my family and friends know I'm skeptic and they are comfortable with me questioning their beliefs. It took a lot out of me to "come out" this year and so far the response hasn't been as shocking as I imagined it to be. But what gave me the confidence the most was the desire to help break any negative held views that my moderate religious family and friends had of atheists/agnostics/skeptics. They need to know that there are people like me in their family and that they have to make a choice whether to be okay with that or not. I can't think of any good reason why questioning would be a waste of time from my experience. I'll always remember my co-worker's face when for the first time in his life he was confronted with someone asking him "what led you to stop asking questions?" For about ten seconds I could tell he was flustered but as hard as it was for me to see him get offended I knew that it was the right thing to do. My hope is that the encounter will make him re-evaluate his blind faith and make him start questioning again.

marc said...

To be honest isn't asking questions just part of life? No one has to be a 'skeptic' or not. One just needs an enquiring mind.

As a Christian if I stop asking questions about my faith then shoot me because I will have lost something very important.

I think most people put cyniscism and skepticism in the same barrell. Even looking at the online dictionary definitions there is a propensity for just that.

Dar said...

I've found cynicism to be more inherent of religious folk than non-religious. Perhaps that sounds cynical of ME, but I've noticed that strong believers tend to often be close-minded and set in their ways which makes everyone else, well...wrong.

Isn't cynicism just another form of judgement? Open-heartedness and true caring I believe is the key to guarding against cynicism, whether you are religious or not.

It is a wise person who can be skeptical of situations and theories without being cynical of the people involved.

Francois Tremblay said...

You can ask questions all you want, I prefer to find solutions.

marc said...

Isn't cynicism just another form of judgement?

I think it could be a lazy form of judgement by believers and non-believers.

I consider myself open to new ideas but I like everyone have some strong opinions/ideas that may take much moving but that is not to say that they can't be moved.

Francois Tremblay said...

"Isn't cynicism just another form of judgement?"

So what? We all need to make judgments in life in order to advance. I'd rather make correct judgments based on sound premises and not waste my time trying to figure out if ghosts exist or not. There are much more important things to do in life than waste one's time giving credence to obvious nonsense.

Casey Kochmer said...

Interesting. In many aspects points one and four fit firmly in My Taoist belief structure.

Point three is extremly limited, as many tools exist for examination. To limit oneself down to only science, limits what is possible in examination. For instance looking at many truths of eastern philosophy match strangely close to what western science has laid down as the framework of the universe. Yet Western Science and Eastern Philosophy use vastly different tool sets to define this picture.

Point two however, makes no sense from Taoism. Deception is part of life so you have to embrace the deceptions as much as the "truth" heh such an overloaded term in order to understand and ultimately accept yourself.

Peace :)

Rodolfo said...

thanks. I'll do that too along the way also.

Cori said...

Rodolfo wrote (in response to Kevin's question around being skeptical of skeptisism): "It depends...I think. If I can identify that skepticism has been detrimental to my health then I should be skeptical of this way of thinking."

This sounds like Rodolfo is using his own experience as a foundation of truth rather than the method of skeptisism, logic or the scientific method. He is saying, "If I experience something as being detrimental to my health, then I will doubt it or reject it". I think experience is a great way to 'truth' (I use the term very loosely here) and would further agree with Casey that there are so many ways to 'truth' or knowledge or a clearer understanding of reality.

In a comment on one of my blog posts I refer to head knowledge, evidential knowledge, experiential knowledge, heart knowledge, intrinsic knowledge, relational knowledge...

But I guess being a prepared to doubt, question, revisit, reexamine, deconstruct etc can be a very positive excercise, especially when coupled with being prepared to create, affirm, reconstruct, etc. To question but never affirm anything could perhaps lead to nihilism?

tichius said...

Cori ~ excellent statement~ I agree entirely... and atheism goes a step further by attempting to affirm the negative... which is also self-defeating.

The problem with skepticism is that it becames something similar to a grammatical double negative.
It cancels itself out.

"...he doubts not only the institution he denounces, but the doctrine by which he denounces it..." (I have the entire quote on my site, by GK Chesterton).

You have stated "For the conservative Christian, doubt can be seen as an inconvenient burden. For the skeptic doubt is a virtue."

Ironically, doubt is actually a burden for the skeptic, not for the Christian, because, "all denunciation implies a moral doctrine of some kind.(GK Chesterton)"

The Christian has the moral doctrine by which to denounce, the problem for the skeptic is that he or she is infinitely denouncing, with no absolute moral doctrine. You have to have some absolute ground on which to denounce (this is following the laws of logic). It is an incoherent framework. Cori made a profound statement in mentioning Nihilism...

I think your comment about becoming skeptical of skepticism, comes close to where this all logically leads.

(I delt with this issue under "In search or in hiding?, and "continuation" on my blog site.)

Kevin Parry said...

Cori wrote:
This sounds like Rodolfo is using his own experience as a foundation of truth rather than the method of skeptisism, logic or the scientific method

Tichius wrote:
The problem with skepticism is that it becames something similar to a grammatical double negative. It cancels itself out

Although I find skepticism highly attractive, this is exactly the problem that I have with this particular philosophy. This is why I asked the question: “can one be skeptical of skepticism?”

I once saw a quote on a discussion board which said: “Doubt everything!” Although this sounds quite admirable, it is, as Tichius said, self defeating. Moreover, it is practically impossible for anyone to doubt every single thing that they come across: incredible amounts of time and energy will have to be devoted to such an exercise.

Personally, I’ve adopted a form of practical skepticism. I don’t see skepticism as some sort of life philosophy. Rather, I see it as a method of verifying various claims. I don’t doubt everything (I simply don’t have the time). Rather, I rethink and research various aspects of life that (1) seem exceptional in nature, and (2) that potentially have dire implications for me as an individual.

With regards to point 1: if someone claims that they saw a friend at a local shopping centre, I won’t give it much thought. However, if they claim that they saw Elvis, I would employ some doubt. With regards to point 2: if a doctor claims that a few tablets of Vitamin C will help with my flue, I won’t give it much thought. However, if a doctor claimed that a certain expensive medication will help cure a cancerous tumour that I might have, I will take the time and energy to research the effectiveness of this medication. I might even seek a second opinion. This is because, compared to the Vitamin C tablets, more is at stake with regards to the tumour: if the medication does not work I would have wasted a large amount of money, and I could die as a result.

Is practical skepticism the way to go?

marc said...

isn't practical skepticism just being grown up and questioning things you are not sure about...I know I do that with all things, especially in my faith.

We doubt everything, be skepitical of everything but what a redundently boring life we will lead. We will never see beauty and be awestruck because the first thing you will do is doubt that what you are seeing is real.

Sounds like an awfully boring way to go...

Rodolfo said...

I'm not fully an atheist because I believe that deep in me lies inner strength/wisdom/mystery that most people would define as "god" by default because that is the extent of their vocabulary. I'm not fully rational because I do let my emotions get the better of me every now and then. In a lot of ways I think I'm agnostic because I've chosen to keep the questions open because I know no matter how much knowledge I can accumulate in my lifetime I would never accumulate it all. But without a doubt I am sure of this:

I am 100% skeptic when it comes to all religious claims.

marc said...

Isn't skeptic spelt sceptic:¬)

Kevin Parry said...

Marc wrote:
Isn't skeptic spelt sceptic

Depends on whether you use American or British spelling. As far as I know, the ‘k’ version is American; the ‘c’ version is British. In South Africa we use British spelling as the standard for English. So although I’ve tried to use British spelling for other words in my posts, this is the one word for which I’ve used the American version. Why? No reason, really. The ‘k’ version is the most widely used on the net, and well, I feel more comfortable with it.

marc said...

Ah Kevin, I'm english and you must remember we spell things correctly here...its these darn americans who mess with our words!!

Color = colour
Center = Centre

and we have a ground floor and first floor:~)

Kevin Parry said...

Hi marc

What makes it more complicated is that South African English has its own unique words. For example. South Africans refer to traffic lights as ‘robots’ and side-walks as ‘pavements’. I always have to read my posts over a number of times to make sure I include words that any English person - whether from South Africa, Britain or the States - can understand :-)

All the best

marc said...

We have pavenment...I suggest esperanto or Klingon:~) lol!

Mel said...

I agree with rodolfo's last comment. And also think that "practical skepticism" is (or should be) just common sense. We don't need to analyze everything to death. Lighten up, everybody!

mrforthright said...

It sounds, to me, that after the honeymoon period was over and the testings came you were unable to stand. Long dry periods in the Christian life are not uncommon, so it is a good idea to build a good solid foundation of Biblical truth into your life. Why not go out and buy a good systematic theology book, try Wayne Grudem, for example. God wants to build up your mind as well as bless your heart. If you just rely on your feelings you will not stand the trials and temptations of life.
Did you have the support of other Christians? You know, a go it alone Christianity is a myth. You will go cold like a coal fallen out of the fire. When you first get saved God seems very close, like mother and baby, but as He grows us up He will seek to build up your faith during those times He seems distant (though He is not, for He never leaves us, or forsakes us). I think that deep down you still believe. You will never make it as an atheist – you know too much for that absurdity.