The Death of Skepticism

Skepticism is dying. Or at the very least, its definition is changing. A skeptic used to be a critical thinker, full of doubt, and wary of popular opinions. Now, “skeptics” form a fashionable clique. Skepticism used to be a methodology – a way of thinking. Now, it’s a particular set of beliefs. I will refer to this distinction as “pop-skepticism” versus “proper skepticism”, because I am biased.

First, let me describe my idea of proper skepticism. It’s an overall approach to knowledge. Humans are constantly bombarded with information, and it’s difficult to discern truth from falsehood. We receive contradictory information. Our peers tell us one thing, while our elders tell us another. The news media says one thing; alternative media says something different. Our senses tell us one thing, but our minds believe the opposite. Without a method of sorting through all this information, discerning the truth is like gambling – you might get lucky, but chances are, you’re betting wrong.

Proper skepticism approaches this problem from a clear standpoint: don’t believe anything unless you’re given overwhelming reason. Assume propositions are false or unknown by default. Only hold beliefs which withstand being put through an intellectual meat-grinder, and even then, keep open the possibility of being wrong. In short: doubt. Doubt yourself, your peers, the experts, the media, and any proposition which you ever come across (even if you read it on the internet). Notice, this kind of skepticism posits nothing about the world; it’s about how we think.

Contrast this with pop-skepticism. Calling yourself a “skeptic” today usually means you identify with particular beliefs, primarily Atheism, Physicalism, and Empiricism. Pop-skeptics would agree with most of the following:

I. There is nothing supernatural – no gods, angels, or ghosts. Believing in such things is superstition.

II. The physical world is all that exists; to believe in non-physical existence is either fanciful or incoherent.

III. Science is the ultimate method of discerning truth. If a proposition does not have physical evidence and data, or if it is not falsifiable, it should be rejected.

IV. Every intellectual study is ultimately secondary to (and reducible to) Physics. Implying causality outside of Physics is akin to belief in magic or sorcery.

V. Religious thinking is primitive, and it may be a sign of schizophrenia or schizotypalism.

Notice how these propositions are twofold. Physicalism isn’t merely a conclusion – suggesting non-physical existence is superstition. Pop-skeptics don’t simply lack belief in god, they think theism is equivalent to belief in the Flying Spaghetti Monster. They don’t believe in spiritualism, and if you do, there might be something wrong with your brain. Disagreement with scientific consensus isn’t just wrong – it’s irrational. See the pattern? Each statement about the world is coupled with “and if you disagree, it’s because you’re intellectually primitive.”

A great example of this is the so-called “Brights movement”, supported by big names like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. They’ve tried to rename their intellectual movement. Adherents are called “brights”. And those who disagree – well, I guess they aren’t so bright. It’s a clever way to disparage and dismiss anyone who disagrees with their particular worldview.

While proper skeptics can be atheists, they do not see theists as crazy or naive. Anyone who is sufficiently skeptical – who’s actually done difficult research – must respect opposing beliefs. With almost no exceptions, any worldview can be rigorously defended if you look hard enough. Even wild religious arguments can be well-reasoned. If you think all Mormons are crazy, you aren’t skeptical enough. If you think believing in a non-material consciousness is naive, it’s only a reflection of your own naivety. Of course, I don’t say this pejoratively. I mean, quite literally, if you can’t respect Buddhist arguments about consciousness, it’s because you don’t understand them.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying all these ideas are true. I am saying they are well-reasoned and subtle, and any sincere truth-seeker must grapple with them.This usually means going beyond the popular mainstream arguments, which tend to be crappy and ill-reasoned. Rejecting poor arguments or strawmen is not an intellectual accomplishment. If you’ve dismissed Islam, but only understand a simplistic version of the worldview, you’ve made a critical error. It’s like saying, “I don’t believe in god because I don’t believe in magic genies.” You’ve successfully defeated an argument which nobody makes. And I can almost guarantee, any proper skeptic who seeks out strong counter-arguments will find them.

Proper skepticism leaves no room for arrogant, uninformed dismissal of contrary propositions. Discernment is the tool of the skeptic, not dismissal. For example, do you believe in broom-riding witches? Before you answer, be honest with yourself: have you done the research? Have you thought about it? Have you any experience? Or, does such a belief so deeply contradict your worldview, you dismiss it out-of-hand. When you overcome knee-jerk dismissal and seek out the best arguments and explanations, you might be surprised what you come across. Seemingly juvenile myths might have a more interesting story than you think.

Another weakness with pop-skepticism is the enormous amount of trust in the scientific process. Yes, the scientific method is great for a lot of things, but it is not a panacea. There are enormous holes and flaws within science and the peer-review process. Biases, inaccuracies, limitations, and scandals permeate all scientific work. But, these shortcomings are hard to see unless your default position is skepticism.

Proper skeptics are necessarily suspicious of authority, whether it is papal authority or academic authority. Blindly believing a scientist is no different from blindly believing a priest – it’s outsourcing your critical thinking. You, not the expert scientists, not your peers, not the clergy, are the final decision-maker regarding your beliefs. Truth-seeking is ultimately a solo journey which must scrutinize everybody, regardless of their credentialing.

I believe pop-skepticism is nearly the opposite of proper skepticism, not because of any conclusions, but because of the methodology. True skepticism is not about science or peer-review; it is about doubt. Unless you doubt yourself, you will never have a clear understanding of other people’s point of view. In other words, you will be stuck in a state of naive ignorance. Few things are a liberating and terrifying as realizing you don’t know what you’re talking about – and neither does the expert you were listening to.