Category Archives: skepticism

Ship of Fools?

Posted by Mike

It was Sarah Palin, then Donald Trump, Michele Bachman, Rick Perry, Herman Cain. How could any reasonably intelligent person actually think any of these people

Childe Hassam Flags on the Waldorf detail Amon Carter Museum.jpgwould make (or would have made) a satisfactory President? Is this country filled with ignorant people who are unable to discriminate competence? The remaining candidates, thank goodness, all have some credibility, and hopefully some might make adequate Presidents. I have no complaints about people who might be supporting Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, John Huntsman, or Mitt Romney, though I wouldn’t agree with any of them regarding their choice of candidate.

The answer to my question above is two-fold. First, I don’t think this country is filled with ignorant people. The people I interact with every day, at work, at the grocery, at home, seem very bright and competent. And I think that people in general, in this country, are very bright and competent, at least in the areas of their expertise. But secondly, I think the problem is that in some areas – and I think politics and religion are the two prime suspects – we just don’t learn to discriminate very well, to put on our “thinking caps” and apply reason and logic, seek information, and perhaps more than anything else, be willing to challenge accepted notions. I fault religion with having the most influence in this area. Religious beliefs and doctrines are handed down from one generation to another and there is a generally unexpressed assumption that these basic beliefs are not to be challenged, that somehow, just because a belief, doctrine, or institution has survived essentially the same for 200 or 500 or a thousand or two thousand years it is sacrosanct and not to be challenged. I’ll just bore you with one issue I have with our religious beliefs. One denomination on its website reports that, “Our beliefs all stem from a full commitment to the authority of the Bible as the inerrant, infallible Word of God.” If you think like these folks, no challenge is possible. I wonder what they say to the occasional questioning teenager who wonders, “What makes it inerrant and infallible?” In my opinion there is no satisfactory answer to that question. My guess is that such questioning if it ever occurs is squelched, but I really don’t know as I don’t run in those circles.

We haven’t really learned, in this country, to question authority, to challenge accepted notions and the status quo. It’s been to our disadvantage continually, since the formation of our nation, and it’s remarkable that we have preserved to the extent that we have , our democratic processes given this lack. I’ll grant that there have been and are countervailing forces that have encouraged independent thinking and challenges to the status quo, from Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers to Occupy Wall Street, but they have tended to be a “weak force.” The “strong force” has always been the maintenance of the status quo. One example: It took almost 100 years for the full effect of Lincoln’s emancipation of the slaves to be effectively brought into being. Equality for African-Americans was delayed in the American South for years by supposedly “well meaning” whites who were unwilling to grant equality for all Americans. Oh – and did the churches speak out against this travesty?

It’s threatening and scary for our cherished assumptions and beliefs to be challenged, but adaptation to a changing world requires openness to that process. And it’s even more important now with the extraordinary effects of the internet and global interconnectedness as well as the increasing rapidity of innovation in technology and its effects throughout the world. Oh – we’re not a Ship of Fools or we would not have survived as well as we have. We do need to assess our foolishnesses from time to time, and this is one of those times.

1 Comment

Filed under Christianity, philosophy, Politics, skepticism, Uncategorized

Weekly Report: The Dope…the Dupe

Posted by Mike

Leon hot air balloon festival 2010.jpgMarch 3: The headline on Time’s frontpage today is “Yes, America is in Decline/No America is Still No. 1.” I never hear anyone ask “Why?”  so I’m asking it; and suggesting that we’d be a lot better off if we weren’t. It might get us off our grandiose high horse of believing that we are the savior of the world. It’s interesting that we’ve been proved so wrong so many times before, but that doesn’t stop belief. Changing firmly held beliefs may require some kind of full frontal confrontation to get people to wake up. Unfortunately, that kind of confrontation generally brings with it a lot of pain.

I find some decision-making rather mysterious. I know, we weigh the pros and cons, look at the possible/probable outcomes, and then make the best, the most rational decision we can make. But what about the emotional factors? And doesn’t the process get quite muddied up with multiple factors, especially when the decision is important and the tipping point can’t easily be got at? Of course we do the best we can with what (brain power, good sense, advice from others) we’ve got. I made a big decision recently regarding major surgery that is not absolutely indicated. As far as I’m concerned the decision is made and I’m going ahead with it; but I need to be aware that there’s a part of me that’s going to be questioning the decision at least to some extent even when they wheel me into the operating room. There are people who are so obsessive that they are unable to make decisions; the bigger the decision is, the harder it is for them. We’re not perfect; we’re fallible. If we need help in sorting out the issues, we need to ask for it. I have a hard time doing that: related to childhood isolation and inability to ask for anything back then. In the work I do I daily make decisions that affect the lives of individuals and families. I do the best I can with the evidence I have available. The evidence isn’t perfect and in some cases there is a degree of subjectivity that must be allowed in or a decision can’t be made. An obsessive-compulsive would never be able to do that job. I’ve learned to make a decision and then forget about it. Fortunately, there are avenues of appeal available if the recipient disagrees. So in general, make the decision, and then let it go; subject to revision if significant new evidence arises and presses for a hearing; but don’t obsessively review afterwards. Life is too demanding, challenging, wonderful and present to be overly tied up by the past like that.

March 4: I woke up unable to sleep last night and happened upon Gus Van Sant’s first full length film, Mala Noche. It’s about events in a brief period of a young male convenience store clerk’s life, in the skid row district of Portland. It’s filmed like the cinema noir pictures of the late ‘30’s in black and white, and the lives of the people it follows is just as bleak. What comes to me as the important overall message for me from the film is that as secure, comfortable middle class Americans, most of us don’t have a clue as to what it’s like to lead the kind of hand-to-mouth kind of existence lots of people experience in this country. That awareness should lead us to a kind of humility, nonjudgmentalness, and a generosity not only of funds but of spirit to those less fortunate. I often make it to the first level , the awareness part, but never seem to make it to the second level of thinking/feeling/acting described above.

Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and write pungent essays in my head. Most of the time I’ve forgotten them by the time I awaken in the morning. Seldom do I later write anything down. When I do try to, it seems that maybe what I thought was so clever and insightful at 2 a.m. wasn’t. I do remember thinking last night about following the news of the conflict in the Middle East. Every morning one of the first things I do is bring up the New York Times on my laptop and go to the Lede blog, updating us on the latest events. Currently of course, the Lede is following events in Libya closely. As I’m reading the updates sometimes I feel like I want to will progress on the insurgents’ part. I expect this desire to be able to “will” a change in circumstances or events is not uncommon. We know it’s not possible, but we want something (that we have no control over) to be so so much, that we would like to be able to will it to be so. Fortunately most of us are sufficiently reality-based to know that’s just fantasy. Occasionally people cross the line. We call them delusional, and they don’t do very well in the long run; reality catches up with them.

March 7: What happened to the 5th and the 6th? They must not have happened. I can’t tell you…but why, why can’t I just let go of my beef with organized religion? For example, the other day coming home I passed a fancy dentist’s office near here, and would you believe, they have this massive statue of Jesus in front of the building, on a granite pedestal, engraved with the writing, “He is our Salvation.” Who do they think they are? Why is it necessary for believers to include the rest of us in their scenario. What if I don’t believe that he is my salvation? I guess from their point of view all of society is included under the umbrella or penumbra of the man from Nazarath. It would be impossible, I guess, for a Christian to say something like, “I believe Jesus is my salvation, but that isn’t necessarily the case for you.” I see that that wouldn’t work; it’s got to be inclusive. It does seem to me, however, given that attitude that a measure of self-righteousness, yea even of judgmentalism toward us poor nonbelievers might just be present. The position of knowing, and “knowing” that the others don’t, seems to be rather arrogant. Of course, you could turn it around on me and wonder if I might just be exhibiting some of those very same uncomely attitudes. You might be right. I do think, though, that I am open to saying you believe what you want to and I’ll believe what I want to and we’re both going to be at least somewhat wrong – but we need to be nonjudgmental about each other. I have more about this topic later, and I’ll just give you a preview: There are mainstream Christians out there who believe in Predestination!

The wisdom of the generations is fragile, but that which we preserve and value must be based upon observation and experience, not on myth reflecting out unconscious defensive predilections

Leave a comment

Filed under Consciousness, Dreams, philosophy, skepticism, Uncategorized

Glenn Beck: The Influencer

Posted by Mike

I don’t like to use the term evil, because it’s more of an emotional classification than reflecting objective reality, but I’ll use it in reference to Glenn Beck and the false and socially disruptive vitriol that he sends out over the airwaves. I always avoid listening to and watching him as well as the other radical news commentators, but decided that I would attempt to sift through some of his TV and radio clips and do a critique. Prior to that decision I watched several minutes of his show on different days this past week. In just those few minutes he was significantly distorting in his usual prim schoolmasterly manner the consequences of the current spontaneous opposition to President Mubarek of Egypt. On the first clip Beck was predicting that if Mubarek of Egypt were successfully ousted there would be a domino effect of radical Islamic revolutions all across North Africa, throughout the Asian subcontinent and on to Indonesia. On the next day he was focusing only on the Middle East, again predicting disastrous outcomes throughout the entire region should the current uprising in Egypt be successful. Towards the end of the week he showed several film clips of Mohamed ElBaradei speaking to the media in Cairo regarding the uprising. Beck focused on ElBaradei’s use of the term “social justice,” insinuating that the term masked a hidden Islamic imperialist intention and thus implying that this man who is a Nobel prize winner had concealed, nefarious motives for his courageous actions last week in Cairo.

Glenn Beck talks to his listeners as if they are completely ignorant and dependent upon him, the expert, coming across as a not very good eighth grade civics teacher instructing his students. His use of insinuation is especially disturbing. In the example above, he does not come right out and say that Mohamed ElBaradei is a radical Islamist, but he strongly implies it, and his audience is clearly expected to “get” his implications. Socialists and communists are very bad guys in Beck’s eyes, and he is currently mixing them in with the Muslim Brotherhood “radical Islamists,” who Beck says have as a goal the establishment of an Islamic “Caliphate” throughout the world. On one of his broadcasts last week he actually tried to tie the “communist” Weatherman Underground movement of the 1960’s to the current upheavals in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East.

On January 31st, on his television broadcast, Beck said, “This is about world domination,” and predicted that in the future the Eastern hemisphere would consist of three powers: a Muslim Caliphate, China (which would have incorporated much of Southeast Asia, including Australia), and Russia (which would have taken over much of northeastern Europe). During his radio broadcast of February 3rd, Beck said “We’re talking about the end of the Western way of life, if we don’t pay attention.” He went on the elucidate three principal ideas that are guiding his current focus:  1. “Groups from the hard core socialist and communist left and extreme Islam will work together because they are both a common enemy of Israel and the Jew”; 2. Groups from the hard core socialist and communist left and extreme Islam will work together because they are the common enemy of Capitalism and the Western way of life”; 3. Groups from the hard core socialist and communist left and extreme Islam will work together because they are both ostracized from power and the mainstream in most of the world.” All of these assertions are complete nonsense, assertions that would not be supported by any expert in international affairs.

I assume the notions Glenn Beck puts out on the radio and television airwaves are influencing a great many people in the United States. He distorts facts. He makes insinuations that are clearly not supported by facts, which should be questioned by anyone who has even a modest command of history and who follows the news in the print media. He supports divisiveness within the nation, based upon false information. He creates fear in his listeners, fear of the other person who might be different in physical make-up, language and speech, in dress, in customs, in religion. He is a fearmonger, who encourages a fearful, xenophobic, isolationist and embattled world view in his listeners, an affront to the American flag.

America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.              –    Abraham Lincoln


3 Comments

Filed under skepticism, values

I’m Just Saying…! Part Two

Posted by Mike

You probably thought I’d never get around to it – Part Two, I mean. But maybe no one’s listening, or reading anyway. “Is there anyone out there?” Sort of like SETI. A lot of money was funneled into that project. Maybe they’re still listening. Fortunately we get by-products from a lot of scientific research, serendipitous findings that can turn out to be more important than the initial research goal. We individuals, groups, and cultures do some silly things – only later are we aware of how ridiculous they were. Silly of course means frivolous; I guess I’m not using an appropriate term for SETI.

Just to remind you, in Part One I was talking about the strong need people seem to have for the religious, and that people who have all the answers regarding life provided to them from their religion tend to feel much safer and secure in our uncertain world, as opposed to those who don’t have all of the answers and consequently must live with uncertainty and tentativeness.

I mentioned in my previous posting that I’ve been listening to the interviews by Robert Wright of pundits in the fields of science and religion [http://meaningoflife.tv/]. http://www.newamerica.net/people/robert_wrightIt’s an eclectic group and includes firm believers and skeptics. Wright prepped himself well for every interview and doesn’t waste time, but quickly focuses on the significant issues that the interviewees have elaborated upon in their writings. I also sense that Wright has his own agenda that he seems to push with every interview. What I see – and you might see it differently – is that Wright is looking for agreement with a basic thesis of his, and that is that man must have purpose and meaning in his life which can only come through belief that purpose and meaning is inherent in the universe by virtue of the participation of God or an equivalent “unseen other.” In other words, he sees the universe as not just existing without necessarily any purpose or meaning, that there needs to be some other something that makes sense of it all, and that enables us humans to make sense of our lives. It seems clear that he is talking about God, but it may be that he conceptualizes the maker of meaning to be not clearly identifiable. He’s a good interviewer; he pushes his guests toward the direction of his interests and goals, but tends to withhold a clear perspective of what his own beliefs are. To me, he clearly wants there to be God or something out there, or in here, or everywhere – to make sense of the universe and also to make sense and provide meaning to our own lives.

Whether or not I’ve clearly described Wright’s position, where I’m heading is this: A lot of people, and I think this is clearly true of a great many Americans, think/feel/believe that to have purpose and meaning in life we need to have that “unknown other” that we call God out there creating and managing things in some way or they see life as having no meaning or purpose. Wright pretty much puts it like that. And I guess I’m wondering if we can find and have meaning and purpose without God and without things like an afterlife. Consider the following scenario – what we can anticipate will happen to Earth long after you and I have gone: The earth has been formed and has been rotating around the sun for billions of years. The rotation and movement of the earth is slowing gradually and the sun will eventually use up all of the hydrogen that it contains. At some point billions of years from now perhaps, the sun will let out a final gasp, will send out massive heat that will singe the earth thoroughly and then will itself become a cold dwarf star incapable of providing the light and heat necessary for life as we know it. This is one of the possible scenarios. There are others, but none that are optimistic for life on Earth forever. Oh, there is one optimistic scenario: and that is that by the time of the final conflagration, humans will have found of way to travel to other solar systems that are younger and can then resettle in a new and suitable environment.

Having written the above paragraph, I’m thinking, “What am I doing?” I actually want people to be optimistic about life, to believe that there is purpose and meaning to our lives as individuals – and to think that there is purpose and meaning to Earth itself! And I’m only suggesting the likely end of Earth to make a point, which is that if there’s nothing left of Earth or of the solar system in a couple of billion years what will the purpose and meaning of it all have been?

Where am I heading with all of this? Basically it’s about the purpose and meaning of life; that we know people find purpose and meaning if they have a creator and active God, but can we also find purpose and meaning separate from God, with the scenario of an end to life on Earth? I hope you know the answer already. Clearly, it’s “Of course! There’s purpose and meaning all around us.” We just have to look; it’s right there in all of living things, animal and plant. I’m quite certain that if it’s good enough for them, it’s also quite good enough for us. And purpose that is only for a lifetime or for generations, that has a beginning and an end, is meaningful in itself.

to be continued in Part Three.

“One can get in the habit of not thinking as a defense, of not perceiving and not considering what are his perceptions and feelings about life, in order to avoid what is painful.”

“Where are we going and how do we get there is something we always are working on. I’ll never turn down help from anyone.”

“Life is really simple, but we don’t let ourselves have it.”

– Elvin Simrad

2 Comments

Filed under philosophy, religion, science, skepticism, Uncategorized

I’m Just Saying…! Part One

Posted by Mike

June 7, 2009: So this doctor I work with asked me if I am an agnostic or an atheist. Obviously the question didn’t just come up out of the blue; I set it up by what I had said before – but as this conversation occurred several days ago, it so happens that I have completely forgotten how I had done so. You’ve noticed that I’ve referred to her as “this doctor.” Of course that’s not by accident either. That’s right. I’m trying to impress you. Like I know a doctor sort of thing. Yes remarkably I’m a doctor too – but not a real doctor. A PhD who doesn’t teach or do research – what kind of doctor is that? In any case I hesitated before responding – finally said something like You know I don’t like labels – and told her basically that I wasn’t sure what I was – but didn’t think that the labels helped or tell the whole story. After all, when you start categorizing things, you begin to leave a lot of things out. Abstractions are always like that; once you start doing that a lot of important things are left on the cutting room floor that are forever after ignored – to our peril, I say. Not that we don’t have to do it at times. When we talk or write or think we just can’t always deal with the objective and concrete and all the details – or the subjective for that matter – we have to summarize and categorize.  But sometimes – especially with important matters – we need to step back and look at where we’re coming from – maybe go back to the cutting room and take a careful look at what we’ve left out and what’s lying around on the floor that might be important!

I hope you know a little what I’m talking about because clarity obviously isn’t my first priority right now – although to tell the truth, I’m not sure what is. There I go – lying again; but I shouldn’t feel bad about it; we all do it; whether or not it’s part of human nature I don’t know – but we do it. It’s like we’re all sculptors – and in a conversation – if it’s really serious – we cut and chip and sand and smooth – until we get what we want. What we end up with may reflect what we think is really real – or it we may end up with what we think we want the other person to hear. It sounds narcissistic and manipulative and dishonest, doesn’t it? You tell me; aren’t we like that – at least some of the time – maybe a lot of the time. Deep down people are really so vulnerable; we want to be right; we want to be liked. These are really very big orders – and we can’t get either one cheaply, though one of our major problems – as individuals and in society in general – is that we generally try to.

So I told her that I think people have a strong need for the religious – I guess I was just vamping to give myself time; if you’re really thoughtful you don’t generally want to talk about these kinds of issues right away with just anyone – unless of course you’re sure about it.  My son is sure – or at least he seems sure. I see a lot of people who talk and act like they’re sure – but you know I just don’t trust them. Most of them are like the categorizers that I was talking about earlier. They’ve got it all figured out; actually what’s  happened is that someone else has told them what to believe and they have bought it  – hook, line, and sinker. It’s really much easier that way – you don’t have to sort out the difficult issues; you don’t have to live with uncertainty – or tentativeness; you don’t really have to think about it anymore; you can relax – because you know. You however probably know by now that I think that’s a lot of bunk. But despite all of that, I do understand it. Being human ain’t easy – so to speak. Let me correct that somewhat; actually, behaving or doing is fairly easy; it’s the meaning that’s the problem – the big picture: what’s it all about; is it okay to waterboard people who get in our way? is it all right to inject bad guys in prison with poison to kill them? is it right to have our young men halfway around the world who are killing and getting killed by people who don’t want us in their country – young men who are going to return home and have lots and lots of problems because they will begin to question why they went there in the first place – what were they doing? And why were they so naïve to believe everything they were told by their elders, whom they were taught and believed at the time that they could trust?

I’ve done it again – and I’d like to apologize; I’ve made this political – and I really didn’t intend to – but things happen sometimes – sort of like they’re out of our control. But then what I’m saying is that I’m out of my control; so that doesn’t sound so good does it? And then again maybe that’s just the way we humans are – at least that’s my take on it right now. And the truth is that my intention wasn’t to make a political statement, but my intention WAS to make a religious statement. So okay – maybe the young man needs to either put up or shut up! When I said that I think that people have a strong need for the religious maybe I meant a strong need for the spiritual. We’re using abstractions again – and clearly we’re in troubled waters; but I’ll try to explain what I’m trying to talk about. I mean that we humans – as I said before – are deep down really very vulnerable and insecure and fragile. Some of you may say that that’s just not true about  you. I admire your confidence, but nevertheless tend to think that it is true. Those people who don’t see it that way just take a little longer to reach that conclusion. That’s a belief, not a fact; I haven’t done any research on it, and obviously can’t say for sure. It’s just one of those things that we all think we “know” for sure – based on our own experience. For some such matters, we can really be dead wrong – and our  thinking never gets corrected. People just tolerate our aberrant notions, never really confront us – and we end up always being in lala land about whatever the issue is. Likely happens to most of us about some things. Most of us have generous friends who allow us our eccentricities in thinking. That’s nice, but perhaps more reality checks would help us all to be more in better touch with what’s really out there and  what’s really happening. 

But yes, I do think that we humans have a strong need for the spiritual. Most of us, if we were fortunate, grew up with somebody or somebodies who served as parents for us. Whatever their failings they provided some nurturance and protection when we were young. We felt relatively safe and secure. As grown-ups, we don’t have them any more. It’s up to us alone – and it’s pretty scary being out here by ourselves. We need security. Obviously we get security in lots of ways – some of which aren’t conducive to health and long life – but several important ones are through community, through our beliefs, and especially through our religious beliefs – and from the “spiritual” aspects of our personal or corporate behavior or practice.

I’m just saying….

“To believe in something is a necessary psychological function. Ignorance is intolerable. There are many theories, but it still remains to be seen what the facts are.”

“What you believe and what you know are different things, and it’s important to keep them separated.”

“The only happiness and security there is, is facing life as it comes and dealing with the realities.”

 –  Elvin Semrad

Leave a comment

Filed under Consciousness, philosophy, Psychology, skepticism, values

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

1 Comment

Filed under philosophy, skepticism