The Curious Case of Agreeable Skepticism

September 27, 2016
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The word skeptic conjures a host of images. A dour atheist shitting on the miracles and mysteries of the world. A perpetual party pooper that seeks to constantly rain on life’s parade with a shit storm of exposition about why what you believe is wrong, all the while asserting that what they believe is right. I do not sanction this sort of malicious and opinionated brand of skepticism. It goes full circle into dogmatism and allows no room for inquiry.

What I call for is the congenial, good-natured and reasonable sort of skepticism that was championed by men like philosopher David Hume. Hume lived during the Scottish enlightenment between the time of 1711-1776. He is arguably one of the most influential philosophers of the Western world and his brand of philosophical inquiry – one focused on natural, inductive and empirical skepticism – brought about a new way of investigating what we believe to be true and a new way of interrogating the universe in philosophy. A way that can help us live a more open, curious and thoughtful life.

What is skepticism?

If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things. – Descartes

The philosophical idea of skepticism was presented long ago by the ancient Greeks and Romans. Men like Phyrro of Elis (360 – 270 B.C.) and Sextus Empiricus (160 – 210 B.C.)  thought that we should live in a state of suspended belief about truth claims and called for a life of perpetual inquiry.

Skepticism saw a resurgence during the late Renaissance with philosophers and scientists like Descartes, Pascal and Montaigne. These men adopted the skeptical viewpoint that they knew nothing for certain as a starting point for their inquiries into the world and developed their influential sciences and philosophies from those humble beginnings.

What skepticism suggest is that that none of our beliefs about things can ever be sufficiently justified in a way that would constitute true, objective knowledge as we are limited by fallibility of our perceptual understanding and experience of the world. As such, we should not come to fully trust our view of the universe, and our place in it, without constant inquiry into it.

Skepticism is also believing that there is no subject too sacred for rational, reasoned inquiry and that no thing is beyond the suspension of judgment regarding the truth of it.

Skepticism applied in a personal measure to one’s life is the act of questioning things. Of living a life of suspended belief about all things that you have come to assume and constantly putting to question the things that you believe when new evidence arrives that hinders or supports that belief. It is about entertaining and engaging the beliefs and opinions of others, especially as they are contrary to your own, to approach a fuller and deeper understanding of the world.

Why skepticism?

Because belief in something should only be a temporary stop on the journey to truly understanding something. Our beliefs should be malleable things that can be constantly shaped by new information, new truths and new understandings. Belief is never a universal truth. It is a personal truth. Our truth. The one that helps us approach the lives we desire. It is a thing that is true to us in the moment and, should we come across new knowledge that should rightfully steer us in another direction of belief, we should be willing to change course instantly and move in that direction – because that is what life demands of us. Not a stubborn adherence to wrong ideas that were handed down to us and that we think support us, but a willingness to rebuild ourselves when faced with new information that approaches a more reasonable truth.

Every answer that we get from our inquiry into the truth is a revelation of new questions. There is no stopping. No coming to an absolute truth about what we should believe because their should always be that rub of doubt causing a slight discomfort – like a grain of sand rubbing in our shoes – making us uncomfortable with how we arrived at that truth and causing us to doubt whether if we have enough information to be entirely certain of our claim.

We should strive to be in a constant state of suspended belief and eternal inquiry, because once we start fully accepting the things we believe as truth and we cease inquiry into them, we risk being wrong in a way that limits our experiences. We risk becoming dogmatic, inflexible and slaves to uninvestigated beliefs that were come upon by sheer, experiential accident.

So, if we can not be certain of the truth, what should we believe and how should we act?

The short answers is, we believe and act with a semblance of faith. An affective sort of faith that insists upon a tiny leap of existential confidence. We are to have faith in the rigor and exhaustiveness of our search for evidences for our beliefs and, when we truly believe we have approached something of an impartial, albeit incomplete, understanding of these beliefs, we put our faith in our perceptual understanding and we say, this is the truth, for me and for now. But we never put it down and say that truth was found and no longer needs to be looked after.

We should handle our truths and beliefs like possessions that we may one day outgrow; as though they are things we can discard when we are doing the mental housekeeping of personal reflection and deeper reasoning. We return to our truths and beliefs and we rearrange them, aligning them with new evidences we have to support or deny them, and we remain unattached if they must be discarded for new beliefs that are better supported by the new experiences and evidences we have.

Beliefs are all just borrowed things anyway – incomplete possessions pasted together through the shavings and clippings of others ideas that we have come into contact with – and when we are done with the ones we have borrowed in favor of the ones we have created ourselves we should rejoice in the giving back of them, because now we have something that is truly ours. A truth that is true for us, as that is the deepest we can approach the objectivity of knowledge.

But even within our perpetual doubt we should always act from the best available evidence we have at the time regarding what we believe to be true. We should absolutely believe things after we have reasoned well about them, but we should never insist that we have found an absolute truth that is true for all people. Beliefs about things are to be had, but never to be trusted.

And we must always remember to temper the strength of our doubt with the voracity of the claims being made. More extraordinary claims or beliefs will require more extraordinary proofs.

As Hume said,  “A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence.”

What does this mean? It means we needn’t spend our days constantly doubting that the sun will rise tomorrow. We have sufficient evidence to support the belief that it will rise based upon the inductive evidence that it has done so for as long as we have been alive.

The beliefs that we should constantly choose to doubt and investigate though are the ones that do not carry such obvious evidence. A belief of religious superiority? A belief of political authority? A belief of racial inferiority? A belief of gender or sexual orientation inferiority?  These are the things that must be constantly scrutinized, because they are beliefs derived from limited personal experience and are usually second-hand things given to us by friends and family. Those things are not to be trusted without deep investigation as to why they are true.

Summary

A life of skepticism is not a sentence of pessimism or a license to believe nothing. We can have our fun. We can love. We can watch in appreciation the beauty of a languid sunrise. We can love our gods and we can argue over our beliefs as though they are things that can be supported through argument and logic. But we must never come to think that we hold some inalienable truth that grants us any certainty that what we think, what we feel and what we believe, is the truth about how the world actually is and that our truths should be true for everyone else. The perspectives of the world are too varied. So we work an agreeable sort of skepticism – we keep our minds and hearts open but we question everything because everything deserves to be questioned.  

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