Skepticism

Posted by Mike

I know – we can predict how we are likely to respond to statements in the future, but we really can’t know until we get there. I am a skeptic, expect I’ll always be a skeptic, and I think it’s a useful attitude to have. It’s not a fail-safe to prevent being conned, but goes a long way to limit being fooled or to responding naively to what we hear or what we read. The word is derived from the Greek, “skeptikos,” meaning to examine, to consider, to look about. My American Heritage Dictionary defines a skeptic as One who instinctively or habitually doubts, questions, or disagrees with assertions or generally accepted conclusions. The American Heritage definition of “skepticism” tells us that it is The philosophical doctrine that absolute knowledge is impossible and that inquiry must be a process of doubting in order to acquire approximate or relative certainty.

My take on skepticism is that the more concrete and present in the here and now something is, the more we can take whatever we’re considering at face value. The less concrete and objective and the more we are talking about ideas, values, or opinions, the more cautious we need to be in accepting what is offered. I guess I respect a scientific orientation most of all in its approach to certainty. In science, certainty is never achieved, but approximations are; and over time, with refinements, approximations are considered to get closer and closer to “truth” or relative certainty.

Two kinds of information sources irk me particularly, newspaper editorials and religious sermons. They both tend to be polemical , presenting an argument of some sort, and moving to a conclusion (kind of like what I am doing right now!). Both often seem to present themselves as objective – you might say “fair and unbiased” – and yet invariably if you look beyond the surface, a case is made for one side of the argument, and any objections that might be developed are discounted immediately as having no merit. They are intended to be persuasive. My thinking is that if we’re going to have a discussion or consider an issue, let’s look at all sides of the issue, the pros and cons. I don’t see that we get that in either editorials or sermons. Some might well say, “Of course not, you fool! That’s not the purpose of sermons or editorials. The purpose of these avenues of communication are to present a strong case for an idea, a position, a perspective.” I have to grant you that you are right about that. You’re not likely to ever hear a sermon in which the preacher starts out by saying something like, “What I’m about to tell you might not be true. So after I present my case, I’m going to take the opposite position and I want you to voice your perspective, just so we’ll have a fair presentation.” Likewise, the editorial writer is not likely going to say (Let’s say the writer is a Republican), “You know, Obama may be right regarding this issue, but let me tell you the way I see it; and then I’ll review the case for the Administration’s position.”

It’s interesting how in religion and politics, so often with most of us, any effort at being objective is out the window at the start of any kind of thinking or talking process. Let me make one other thing clear. I’m not advocating for a complete “not knowing” position. I do think that we seldom “know” anything for sure, especially when we’re dealing with abstractions or complex events, but we often do need to come to some kind of position on issues. If we didn’t we would forever remain in stasis, never be able to make a decision, and never be able to act. Dealing with realities in the world, it is necessary to act. We do it all the time. And we act on what we see as the best possible choice from (often) a multitude of options, given the information that we have at the time. And the information that we use in making a decision should be as broadly based as possible, to give us as clear a perspective on whatever the issue is that we can get. Do sermons and editorials give us this?

The most famous skeptic in ancient history was Pyrrho, the Greek, who was born about 360 BC. Pyrrho believed that certainty is not attainable and that the wise person will suspend judgment and will seek tranquility rather than truth. He also believed that since no theories can be proved, one is left with the best choice of accepting the myths and conventions of one’s own time and place. There were many other Greek skeptics and schools associated with the skeptics. The Sophists as far back as the fifth century BC were in the main skeptics. Pyrrho’s position regarding accepting the myths and conventions of one’s own time and place might have been a practical and workable solution back in the fourth century BC, but seems a recipe for disaster in the present day, I guess because so many of our conventional ideas seem unworkable, for example, notions such as “The best solution to the drug problem in our country is…” (take your pick here); or “Our system of government is the best in the world. We need to export it and demand its presence everywhere”; or “It’s obvious that (take your pick of religions) is the true religion”; or (generically) “We’re the good guys. The others are the bad guys.”

The scientific method is a systematized approach to seeking truth that is basically skeptical.  It has to do with observation, collecting data, developing hypotheses, and creating experiments to test hypotheses.  Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species provides the reader with a picture of the scientific approach at work in the mind of a brilliant researcher, data collector, and theoretician.  Darwin takes the reader with him from observation, inductive gathering of data, coming to general conclusions, deductive hypothesizing, experimenting to test hypotheses, developing conclusions, and theory construction. Many of Darwin’s examples from the early 1800’s and his detailed descriptions make it clear that the scientific approach was already quite sophisticated in the England of his time, especially in the areas of plant and animal hybridization and breeding and in agricultural land management.

Truth is elusive, likely forever elusive. We humans are a vulnerable and insecure lot, and we always feel safer in the world with knowledge and certainty. It seems to me that we are much better off with cautionary, approximate certainties, with a skeptical approach. It is when we become too firmly convicted that we do stupid things, like start wars, burn heretics at the stake, utilize projection and blame the other guy, become self-righteous and judgmental. I suspect that with some practice we humans can tolerate more uncertainty than we think we can. Were we to see everyone as brothers and sisters, acknowledging and struggling with uncertainty, we would be more compassionate and feel safer in tackling the unknowns together.

“Skepticism, like chastity, should not be relinquished too readily.”      George Santayana (1863-1952)

“When one admits that nothing is certain one must, I think, also admit that some things are much more nearly certain than others.  It is much more nearly certain that we are assembled here tonight than it is that this or that political party is in the right. Certainly there are degrees of certainty, and one should be very careful to emphasize that fact, because otherwise one is landed in an utter skepticism, and complete skepticism would, of couse, be totally barren and completely useless. ”    –  Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), “Am I an Atheist or an Agnostic?”, 1947

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1 Comment

Filed under philosophy, skepticism

One response to “Skepticism

  1. Pingback: Re: Skepticism « - Meanderings in Space and Time -

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