Saturday, September 4, 2010

Skeptical Thoughts

Let’s talk about skepticism. I just read a very interesting and informative blog post by the lovely Greta Christina (I assume she’s lovely; I don’t know what she looks like) on the subject, and it has inspired me to pen some thoughts of my own on the matter. Off we go!

I’m a skeptic about a lot of things. I didn’t used to be, though. I’ve always been pretty gullible (up until my last few years of college, when I finally started examining things for myself instead of buying into whatever authority told me). I’m probably still too trusting; I tend to believe anything my friends tell me without question, and it’s only after I walk away from the situation that I can do a more thorough analysis of what was said. Perhaps that’s the kicker here… I’ll come back to that. Anyway, doubting what strangers tell me or what the media touts as irrefutable truth or whathaveyou is a very important to me as an atheist. Why? Because that’s kind of the basis of everything I don’t believe.

I came to atheism because I developed a skeptical eye. For years I was a devout Catholic, taking as truth anything a priest, youth minister, or slightly more knowledgeable student told me. There wasn’t any reason to question things. But all of that changed when I started my studies in the field of philosophy. And as I began to learn more about skepticism, and the important role it plays in every area of critical thought, I found it harder and harder to ignore the growing philosophical problems with my own belief system. As Greta Christina notes, “My skepticism is what helped me see my denial in the first place.” I faced a similar revelation; learning how to think critically and privilege evidence over feeling is what ultimately allowed me to realize how deluded I was and stop believing everything people told me. Just like Neo in my (for now) favorite film The Matrix, I suddenly awoke from the simulation. I grew skeptical of not only the beliefs I’d been fed for years, but also the very fabric of reality itself. I was, for a brief time, a real-world skeptic. Is this moment, this now, really real? Is it really happening? Or are we all just hooked into machines, being tortured by Cartesian demons in Platonic caves? An unanswerable question. Regardless of the solution, it doesn’t do much for us to fixate on that conundrum; we have lives to live, and whether the world is real or not doesn’t change the fact that we experience real pleasure and real pain.

Apologies, I seem to have digressed.

Skepticism is important because it’s healthy, mentally. Delusion isn’t good for our minds. It’s like junk food. Skeptical, critical thought is to the brain what a regimen of healthy, natural foods is to the body, in my opinion. Remaining skeptical about the claims of others allows us to constantly utilize that all-important function of our minds, the function that differentiates us from the other creatures of this world: advanced rational thought.

But it isn’t always easy. Emotion can play a big role in the proceedings. Remember earlier, when I mentioned believing what my friends tell me without hesitation? I think this important enough to warrant deeper examination. There are two reasons why we believe things without evidence: because it’s easy, or because we want to. Oftentimes these reasons overlap. I think that when a friend or trusted individual approaches us with an idea, we’re far more likely to believe it without question because we already hold one piece of evidence in favor of the proposition: the person’s credibility. And we count that as something that supports whatever they said, no matter what the idea was. Perhaps this is the essence of the matter… see, that would explain why people follow authority figures at all!

Let me try to put this succinctly: if I trust someone, and that person tells me something, I tend to believe the person because I count the person’s credibility as evidence in favor of whatever proposition they’ve laid out. But that’s faulty logic! The proposition should be held up on its own evidence, not on circumstantial evidence. For after all, if that same friend went to stranger and gave the same proposition, what evidence would the stranger have for believing it? None. And what counts as evidence for one person should count as evidence for everyone.

This is getting confusing. I don’t really know where I’m headed with all of this; I suppose I’ve just been rambling, and I guess there’s nothing wrong with that. I hope my musings haven’t been too uninteresting. I’ll leave you with this final rebuttal to my above point: skepticism is important, but overusing it can lead to trouble. During my (very) brief stint as a real-world skeptic, I suddenly found that things that normally brought me enjoyment no longer did so. It was difficult and uncomfortable. Ultimately I found that it wasn’t worth worrying about, and that I should move on to more immediate concerns. Similarly, being skeptical of everything anyone tells us, be they friend or foe, is no way to live life. It’s tantamount to being completely suspicious of everyone’s motives. And while reason is an important tool in our mental toolbox, so too is trust. Sometimes we have to make certain logical allowances in order to live happy, productive lives. I don’t see trusting friends and family is a particularly dangerous game… but a little skepticism once in a while doesn’t hurt either.

1 comment:

  1. Greta's talk at the 2010 Secular Student Alliance conference is worth watching...