What You Should Think About Skepticism

November 24, 2007

“Just think of the tragedy of teaching children not to doubt.”

–Clarence Darrow

By the time the ancient Greeks took to formalizing thoughts on belief, they also managed to formalize thinking on doubt. An influential thinker from Elis named Pyrrho managed to witness firsthand many conquests of Alexander the Great. Some might argue that this association caused later scholars to place undue emphasis on Pyrrho’s legacy. Yet it was at least worthy of some note.

The man wrote no great philosophical work, but as with Socrates his students would boast of their association and labor to recall Pyrrho in his own words. This leads to historical accounts that blend earnest recollection with distortions meant to serve the agenda of philosophers promoting their own ideas. Still, it seems clear that the heart of Pyrrho’s teachings was that uncertainty is sound and right in ways that certainty cannot be.

His aim has been characterized as “emotional tranquility,” and he advocated suspension of belief. To him an ideal state of mind, given the term ataraxia, involved having no beliefs. Of course there is an amusing contradiction here. How does one pursue this ideal of having no beliefs without holding the belief that it is an ideal state of mind?

One account mocks Pyrrho as requiring the constant attention of handlers to prevent him from walking off cliffs or stepping in front of horsecarts due to an inability place stock in his own perceptions. In reality the man was almost certainly more reasonable. If his teachings were not as severe as the most extreme account, then they too may be thought of as a reasonable response to the problems of argumentative acrimony and divisive conflict.

In a world where life could be taken at the whim of a leader, flexibility in belief offers some survival value. In a world where political disagreements may tear a society apart, flexibility in belief may insulate an individual from the anxiety and pain of being an active partisan. Yet there seems to have been more to Pyrrho’s teachings than this. He laid the foundation for recognizing just how loosely beliefs may be anchored in reality.

From the ancient past to the modern world, this complex relationship has been the subject of much discourse. Robert Nozick was never shy about considering “brain in a vat” scenarios. Since all we know of the universe comes to us through our perceptions, there is no way to establish with absolute metaphysical certainty that our experiences are not part of some simulation that eclipses an underlying reality in which the individual is actually a brain in some alien stimulation and life support system.

It is fair to argue that what we know, and even beliefs about what we are, follow from the imperfect results of perception and analysis. Our senses and our minds can “play tricks on us,” leading to beliefs that depart considerably from what is real. Yet this sort of thinking can be taken too far. I favor use of the phrase “skeptics’ infinite regress” to describe this phenomenon in which a retreat from the very prospect of useful knowledge is fueled by contemplation of possibilities that are supported chiefly by appeals to the limitations of evidence . . . as opposed to something like evidence itself.

Walking off cliffs or into traffic because we doubt the reality of those phenomena seems as sure to be foolish as the term “foolish” is sure to be meaningful. I believe the greatest extremes of skepticism can rightly be pigeonholed as philosophical novelties rather than essential insights. Yet the broader phenomenon is clearly not useless. Just as an inability to believe would be crippling, so too would be an inability to doubt.

Belief and doubt are both fundamental phenomena that shape the way thinking beings relate to the world around them. The ultimate value of this thinking is heavily influenced by the degree to which belief and doubt are used to seek truth (or the degree to which they are used to avoid it.) For example, someone with a deep emotional connection to a particular political perspective on scientific question may level doubt at even the most rational analysis while eagerly offering up belief whenever it provides an opportunity to confirm a predisposition.

To use the term “skeptic” while engaged in irrational defense of a long-held viewpoint is somewhat misleading. This behavior is less an exercise of true skepticism as it is an exhibition of passionate belief. Mainstream perspectives on the 9/11 attacks, global warming, evolutionary biology, etc. are met with a great deal of “skepticism” but very little of the judicious manifestations of doubt that comes with real skeptical thought. Zealous adherence to contradictory beliefs masquerades as much more reasonable than it actually is.

The best application of skepticism is not in challenging beliefs one opposes, but instead in challenging beliefs one holds dear. A modern day skeptic does not cower behind a wall of media carefully selected to reinforce a single ideological perspective. Rather, the exercise of skepticism in our times involves reaching out to a diverse assortment of sources in the careful search for the genuine insights people with different opinions might possess. Faith in falsehoods follows from fixation on the findings of one faction.

You do not need to feel every individual raindrop to know that a storm is wet. Yet you also should not believe it is raining just because someone pissing on your leg tells you that it is so. To my personal chagrin, contemporary philosophical literature seems to trend toward novelties like the “brain in a vat” scenario more than it delivers practical wisdom like the appropriate uses of, and limits on, skepticism as practiced by a functional human being.

It can be argued that disengaging from reality has its uses. While subjected to torture, clinging to fantasy may be useful as a survival mechanism. Embracing it as a form of entertainment may also be satisfying. In times of great emotional distress, it can be argued that belief that could not withstand skepticism is a more desirable alternative than accepting great loss or crumbling in the face of great peril. Yet for any situation where measured philosophical discourse is appropriate, it seems clearcut that nothing offers better outcomes than making the best possible effort to engage with reality.

The limits of perception and cogitation provide us all with good reason to question our own beliefs. That so many of our beliefs are filtered through many others’ perceptions and cogitations make this sort of questioning all the more worthwhile. It is the true skeptic who seeks out the best challenges while constantly learning from encounters with unexpected information. There are also terms for people who wallow in a single group’s orthodoxy and self-congratulations, but to me it seems misleading when they call themselves “skeptics.”