Skeptical of skepticism5 min read

Something I seem to be seeing more of recently is Skepticism: these days it seems fashionable to call oneself a ‘skeptic’. (I’m using a ‘k’ rather than a ‘c’ just because I can. I don’t think either one is more correct than the other, although I’m open to corrections…) Recently, the StackExchange network launched a Q&A website especially for skeptics. This is a quote about what the site is all about, from their FAQ:

It’s really easy to fool people, and it’s really easy to fool yourself, and if you use these skeptical ideas, you find out what the truth is. The whole idea of skepticism and science is to find out what’s most likely to be true, and what’s most likely not to be true.

That’s the goal: to not fool ourselves, and that’s where the real power of skepticism is. That’s why it bugs me when people think it’s a negative thing — it’s not! It’s the most positive thing we have. It is the search for the real, objective truth.

Now that all seems fair enough, doesn’t it? I get fed up of newspapers like the Daily Mail regularly printing stories which take scientific reports out of context and use them to ‘prove’ things they really shouldn’t. I also applaud the efforts of the site (and others such as Snopes) to debunk various commonly-held (or even less commonly-held) myths or popular beliefs.

All this is good stuff, and I am very much in favour of this. I keep an eye on the Skepticism StackExchange site and may contribute from time to time.

However, as you would imagine, there is a “but” here. There are a couple of things that worry me about this trend towards skepticism.

The first thing is, it can devolve into a group of people backslapping each other about how clever they are. I think one of the fundamental tendencies in human nature is to believe that “we” are right and “they” are wrong. There have been thousands and millions examples of this throughout human history – everyone does it to an extent. I do it! I like to believe that I am ‘right’ about certain things… my choice of music, my style of programming… etc. I think people naturally divide themselves, to an extent.

Now what I worry about with ‘skepticism’ as a sort of ideology is that it becomes a way of differentiating the intelligent, non-biased people with those poor morons who struggle through with the crumbs of intellect they have been given. And the problem is, I think this is fundamentally wrong: I don’t think people, in general, are morons. It’s just another form of intellectual elitism, snobbery if you will. I’m not going to dwell on this though, because it’s not my main issue with skepticism.

My main issue with skepticism as an ideology is that it’s misapplied. I often come across skeptics when debating religion – I would say many (if not all) atheists would define themselves as skeptics. The problem is, I think this is trying to fit the square peg of skepticism into the round hold of worldviews: The only way you can do it is if the peg is far too small for the hole. In this case, I think skepticism is insufficient.

Let me elaborate on this a bit further. I believe that science (science and skepticism being closely linked) is a fantastic tool for understanding the world. However, I do believe that science is not a sufficient tool for understanding the world as a whole, as human beings perceive it.

So, for example, science can answer the question ‘why does this apple drop when I release it from a height of 1m’. Science cannot answer the question, ‘would you like an apple now?’ In short, I think science – and skepticism – fails at providing a teleological explanations. Science works at the level of cause and effect, the level of the building blocks of the universe… it has no human knowledge. It’s not suppose to either, humans do not make for reproducible experiments as such!

Now I don’t think I’ve said anything here which is too controversial, probably most scientists would agree. None of this is a problem.

The problem comes when people try and apply to skepticism to other areas of life – namely, religion. I think the view of many skeptics is that religious people are essentially gullible fools who believe things because they are not skeptical. If they’d just turn the same skepticism on their religion that they use for other religions, they’d stop believing. In other words, if you are skeptical, you cannot believe in any religion… skepticism and faith are mutually exclusive.

As I said before, I think this is trying to fit skepticism to a task which it is not up to: I believe that, as a Christian, my faith is fully rational and justified by the available evidence. But let me put it another way.

All of us, every day, believe things in order to function which we can’t prove. I believe that there is an “I”, that is, that this grouping of chemicals and elements which forms my body actually exists as a coherent “me”. I can’t prove it. I believe it. Consequently I believe that a teleological explanation such as “I’m going to make a cup of tea because I’m thirsty” is true, the universe isn’t just all blind cause and effect. I believe in science, that the universe is understandable. This is unprovable. I believe in love, and compassion, and humility, and kindness as good qualities – these are unprovable and, perhaps even arbitrary. I don’t want to get into a discussion here about these things but I just wanted to provide some examples of the kinds of things most people are generally not skeptical about.

The point of all this is, skepticism seems to be waved as a badge by those who don’t believe in any kind of religion. But at the same time, I think it is applied inconsistently: people are not skeptical of their skepticism. I think some things are genuinely beyond the remit of being skeptical to the point of requiring scientific proof. There are more ways of finding truth in the world than scientific experiment.

In a nutshell, my worry is that people are using the skepticism label as a way of confirming their own prejudices. This goes back to my first point: it’s human nature. This is only a problem because skepticism makes it seem valid, even if it isn’t.

I think everyone could use a little more humility and realise that we, as human beings, are fallible and can be wrong … even if we are skeptical. We need to realise that skepticism isn’t the ultimate answer to the question of life, the universe, and everything.

And, on that Douglas Adams reference, I will finish this slightly rambling and incoherent stream of thoughts…

4 thoughts on “Skeptical of skepticism

  1. The OED has a fair amount to say on the spelling. The gist is that sceptic is the accepted spelling in Britain and the Commonwealth, whereas skeptic is used in the USA.

  2. Thanks for clarifying. I always think ‘sceptic’ looks a little too much like ‘septic’ for my liking, I can’t think of many words beginning with ‘sc’ which have that hard ‘c’ kind of sound. Maybe in my next post I’ll spell it with the ‘c’ though, just to go crazy! 😉

  3. I was thinking this morning, that the default position on religious belief must be agnosticism/not really sure as taking either a theist or atheist position require a degree of certainty. Coincidence or what?!

    (Also thinking that to only use the empirical method to answer every question is a bit like only owning a hammer – every problem starts looking like a nail. But that’s another story…)

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