Should I be skeptical about skepticism? That’s an interesting notion. But after pondering the question as a good skeptic would, I’ve decided that skepticism should continue to blossom in me. And, hopefully, the world, which would be a better place with more of it.
So I’ve got to respectfully disagree with an essay that a Church of the Churchless visitor recently pointed me toward: “The Death of Skepticism.” The author, Steve Pavlina, does his best to make a convincing argument that we should be as skeptical about skepticism as we are, say, about a claim that the moon is made out of green cheese.
But I’m not convinced. The main problem with Pavlina’s piece is that he doesn’t understand what skepticism is all about. He says that skeptics are closed, while non-skeptics are open. He also says that skeptics believe in objectivity, while non-skeptics believe in subjectivity.
That’s simplistic. And wrong. Peter Suber, a philosophy professor at Earlham College, gets it right in his essay on “Classical Skepticism.” Here’s some of what he has to say in his introduction to the subject
Compared to non-skeptical philosophical positions, skepticism is very simple. It is easy to understand, although it is commonly confused with things it is not.
Skepticism in religion, for example, is not atheism. It is not even agnosticism. No genuine skeptic ever doubts or denies or disbelieves any theory, any hypothesis, or any belief. In fact, this is the only obstacle to a clear understanding of skepticism: we think we already know what it is and we are wrong.
To skeptics, this unfounded pretense to knowledge is itself an example of the greatest sin they know, which is variously called rashness, conceit, pride, dogmatism, presumption, and culpable ignorance.
To the Greeks "skepticism" meant inquiry, and a skeptic was an inquirer. The skeptics so named themselves because the essence of their position was not doubt or denial or disbelief, but continual inquiry.
They did not believe in the reality of a god, for example, but neither did they deny it. Nor did they even say that nobody could ever know for certain one way or the other, as agnostics do. Skeptics said instead, "I personally do not know at the moment but I am trying to find out."
The differences between this and atheism, agnosticism, and indifference have led to confusion.
All three components of the skeptics' statement are important. (1) They speak only for themselves and confess only their own ignorance. (2) They speak only for the present and do not claim that their ignorance is inescapable. They do not say that knowledge is impossible for themselves or for others. (3) And they always add that despite their own present ignorance they are inquiring for the truth of the matter.
They have not given up; they are optimistic —or at least hopeful —or at least undefeated —or at least unrelenting.
Right on, Dr. Suber. You’ve expressed my own skeptical attitude much better than I could. You’ve strengthened my conviction that skepticism is the wisest position we can take toward ourselves and the world. Skeptics are humble truth-seeking optimists, not grumpy nay-sayers.
I respect Steve Pavlina’s belief in the power of subjectivity. He’s convinced that “I’ll see it when I believe it” is a more accurate representation of how the cosmos operates than “I’ll believe it when I see it.”
Pavlina is trying to use the power of intention to manifest a million dollars for each person taking part in the experiment. I wish them luck. So far the participants have subjectively estimated that, on average, an additional $592 has come each person’s way. Not bad. Also, not a million dollars.
On the whole, the observable universe seems to be tilted much more in the direction of objectivity than subjectivity. The dependability and universality of the laws of nature testify to that conclusion. Humans can think and believe what they want. That’s the special blessing (and curse) of Homo sapiens.
However, for the time being my personal opinion is that truth is what it is, not what we may want it to be. I may very well end up changing my mind, because that’s what skeptics frequently do. Skepticism is at the other end of the philosophical spectrum from dogmatism, which suits me just fine.
I’ll end with another quote from Suber that resonates with my skeptical soul (see continuation to this post).
From "Classical Skepticism" by Peter Suber
For she [the skeptic] realizes that all firm beliefs are believed to be true even if they are false. As Peirce put it, "we think each of our beliefs to be true, and, indeed, it is a mere tautology to say so." She worries, in short, that certainty is a sign of foolishness.
She realizes, or fears, that after a lapse, no matter how much easier or more tranquil her life would become, and no matter how many truths she would finally affirm, she would not be able to tell the difference between a true belief and a false belief if the beliefs were her own and firmly fixed.
Once fixed, a belief will use itself to interpret the evidence, color her judgment, and structure (or filter) the rest of her experience, even if the belief is false or incomplete. Others may be able to tell which of our fixed beliefs are false, but to the believer they are by definition truths no longer open, or at least no longer easy, to question.
In short, certitude cures doubt, not ignorance. And with doubt conquered, ignorance is invincible.
So skeptics dread attaining mere certitude or conviction, fearing it will (or could) mask its falsehood behind their enthusiasm. The possibility of error is not overcome by merely psychological conviction; it is hidden and buried by it. The skeptic wants to know the truth with certainty. She wants to stop being a skeptic, but does not want to believe blindly.
Unlike the drunkard who knows that drinking solves no problems, but reconciles one to them unsolved, the skeptic fears to become satisfied with second-best. She wants to put an end to her skepticism in such a way that the dreaded possibility of error is rooted out, known to be conquered, and answered with finality, not simply submerged and forgotten or made to seem innocuous.
As Benson Mates put it, "we do not want merely to 'get over' [skepticism], whether by a natural deterioration or by some sort of therapy or 'treatment'. On the contrary, we require a more or less rational explanation of exactly where and how the skeptical train of thought goes wrong."
The person in whom doubt is suppressed rather than answered makes the worst sort of dogmatist. The person who disregards the possibility of error or downplays its threat is the most heedless of the challenge of skepticism, the least humble in conviction, and perhaps the most blind to possibilities of disaster —and as W.K. Clifford would add, the most immoral, the most heedless of the moral consequences of credulity.