Tuesday, April 28, 2009

On Skepticism and Doubt...

"There are no privileged a priori substantive truths. This eliminates the sacred from the world (of history and science, at least). All facts and all observers are equal (in that what is claimed to be fact should be tested to see if it can be supported). There are no privileged Sources or Affirmations, and all of them can be queried. In inquiry, all facts and features are separable: it is always proper to inquire whether combinations could not be other than what has previously been supposed. In other words, the world does not arrive as a package deal- which is the customary manner in which it appears in traditional cultures (and in both strong political ideologies and religions)-but piecemal."

In his book 'Why People Believe Weird Things', Michael Shermer writes that 'skepticism or debunking often receives the bad rap reserved for activities-like garbage disposal-that absolutely must be done for a safe and sane life, but seem either unglamorous or unworthy of overt celebration".
What does it mean to be a skeptic? Why should anyone ever be attracted to such an obviously cynical sounding word? Why define yourself by a negative word, that implies what you don't believe, as opposed to defining yourself by a positive, by what you do believe?

Skepticism comes from the Greek word 'skeptikos', which means "look about, consider, observe"
We are all skeptics in some way, we see it in almost every aspect of our lives. Carl Sagan wrote:

"We encounter it every day. When we buy a used car, if we are the least bit wise we will exert some residual skeptical powers -- whatever our education has left to us. You could say, "Here's an honest-looking fellow. I'll just take whatever he offers me." Or you might say, "Well, I've heard that occasionally there are small deceptions involved in the sale of a used car, perhaps inadvertent on the part of the salesperson," and then you do something. You kick the tires, you open the doors, you look under the hood. (You might go through the motions even if you don't know what is supposed
to be under the hood, or you might bring a mechanically inclined friend.) You know that some skepticism is required, and you understand why. It's upsetting that you might have to disagree with the used-car
salesman or ask him questions that he is reluctant to answer. There is at least a small degree of interpersonal confrontation involved in the purchase of a used car and nobody claims it is especially pleasant. But there is a good reason for it -- because if you don't exercise some
minimal skepticism, if you have an absolutely untrammeled credulity, there is probably some price you will have to pay later. Then you'll wish you had made a small investment of skepticism early."

Pascal wrote that humans are 'thinking reeds.' Both gloriously unique, and uniquely vulnerable. Our thinking can lead to destruction and brutality as often as it can lead to kindness and enlightenment. The ability to sort out good ideas from bad ones, fallacious arguments from the sound ones, does not come naturally or easily to us. It is something that as with anything in life, is developed. One must commit oneself to Socrates' famous declaration that "“The unexamined life is not worth living."

A thirst for knowledge, and a hunger for truth is that which should drive every human being. Too often we shy away from conversations with friends and family whenever they turn to 'serious' topics or philosophical disputes. We would much rather walk away from a conversation with someone who may lead you to question your own underlying assumptions and viewpoints, than take the Socratic approach and meet the challenge head on.

Skepticism gets a bad rap because of the impression that no matter how necessary it may be, it can only be regarded as a negative removal of false claims. This is not necessarily so. Skepticism is not a position to hold, but a provisional approach to claims. It is the application of reason to any and all ideas. It is a method, not a position. It is an invaluable tool that every man should have in his utility belt. Proper skepticism weeds out bad ideas and lets the good ones flourish, if they've withstood critical examination. This world is replete with men all too willing to take advantage of a believing public. Life is full of uncertainty and questions, and our nature drives us to seek out those answers. The problem lies in the fact that there will always be men all too willing to claim to posses truth and knowledge that you too can possess, if only you pay a hefty fee.

"For example, take a fashionable fad, channeling. It has for its
fundamental premise, as does spiritualism, that when we die we don't
exactly disappear, that some part of us continues. That part, we are told,
can reenter the bodies of human and other beings in the future, and so
death loses much of its sting for us personally. What is more, we have an
opportunity, if the channeling contentions are true, to make contact with
loved ones who have died.
Speaking personally, I would be delighted if reincarnation were real. I
lost my parents, both of them, in the past few years, and I would love to
have a little conversation with them, to tell them what the kids are
doing, make sure everything is all right wherever it is they are. That
touches something very deep. But at the same time, precisely for that
reason, I know that there are people who will try to take advantage of
the vulnerabilities of the bereaved. The spiritualists and the channelers
better have a compelling case.

...Now, let's reconsider channeling. There is a woman in the State of
Washington who claims to make contact with a 35,000-year-old
somebody, "Ramtha" -- she, by the way, speaks English very well with
what sounds to me to be an Indian accent. Suppose we had Ramtha here
and just suppose Ramtha is cooperative. We could ask some questions:
How do we know that Ramtha lived 35,000 years ago? Who is keeping
track of the intervening millennia? How does it come to be exactly
35,000 years? That's a very round number. Thirty-five thousand plus or
minus what? What were things like 35,000 years ago? What was the
climate? Where on Earth did Ramtha live? (I know he speaks English
with an Indian accent, but where was that?) What does Ramtha eat?
(Archaeologists know something about what people ate back then.) We
would have a real opportunity to find out if his claims are true. If this
were really somebody from 35,000 years ago, you could learn a lot about
35,000 years ago. So, one way or another, either Ramtha really is 35,000
years old, in which case we discover something about that period --
that's before the Wisconsin Ice Age, an interesting time -- or he's a phony
and he'll slip up. What are the indigenous languages, what is the social
structure, who else does Ramtha live with -- children, grandchildren --
what's the life cycle, the infant mortality, what clothes does he wear,
what's his life expectancy, what are the weapons, plants, and animals?
Tell us. Instead, what we hear are the most banal homilies,
indistinguishable from those that alleged UFO occupants tell the poor
humans who claim to have been abducted by them."

Skepticism then is the tool that we must all learn to use in order to live an intellectually healthy life.
At its core, it is a very simple thing to do. When someone makes any sort of fantastic claim, we are the ones who say "That's nice, prove it. Or at the very least, show me the evidence".
And how then should we examine evidence? How do we weed out plausible explanations apart from 'non-answers'? Through the method of science. Science, at its core is the gathering of data to formulate and test naturalistic explanations for natural phenomena.

"A claim becomes factual when it is confirmed to such an extent it would be reasonable to offer temporary agreement. But all facts in science are provisional and subject to challenge, and therefore skepticism is a method leading to provisional conclusions. Some claims, such as water dowsing, ESP, and creationism, have been tested (and failed the tests) often enough that we can provisionally conclude that they are not valid. Other claims, such as hypnosis, the origins of language, and black holes, have been tested but results are inconclusive so we must continue formulating and testing hypotheses and theories until we can reach a provisional conclusion."

Science will never find any sort of 'ultimate truth'. Science deals with the natural world, and it is confined by the empirical and testable world. And that is fine. Science may not be the ultimate begetter of truth, but it doesn't need to be.

' All our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike — and yet it is the most precious thing we have.' —Albert Einstein

Science alone isn't enough however. One must also develop a hunger for truth and knowledge that will lead you to follow the evidence wherever it may lead, no matter how uncomfortable it may make you.
Philosophy then is is that area which all men ought to take an interest in. It is all to common for many people to be put off by Philosophy, thinking it nothing more than 'masturbation of the mind', or mindless wordplay. Yet philosophy is much more than that, it isn't petty quibbling over the meaning of words, but rather it is the search for the foundation of reality itself. From Metaphysics, to Ethics, philosophy seeks to find the very foundations of the even the most basic of our assumptions.

Why should we love philosophy? Because, as Bertrand Russel said: "The value of philosophy is, in fact, to be sought largely in its very uncertainty. The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the cooperation or consent of his deliberate reason. To such a man the world tends to become definite, finite, obvious; common objects rouse no questions, and unfamiliar possibilities are contemptuously rejected. As soon as we begin to philosophize, on the contrary, we find that even the most everyday things lead to problems to which only very incomplete answers can be given. Philosophy , though unable to tell us with certainty what is the true answer to all the doubts which it raises, is able to suggest many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom. Thus, while diminishing our feeling of certainty as to what things are, it greatly increases our knowledge as to what they may be; it removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never travelled into the region of liberating doubt, and it keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect.

Apart from its utility in showing unsuspected possibilities, philosophy has a value-perhaps its chief value- through the greatness of the objects which it contemplates, and the freedom from narrow and personal aims resulting from this contemplation. The life of the instinctive man is shut up within the circle of his private interests: Family and friends may be included, but the outer world is not regarded except as it may help or hinder what comes within the circle of instinctive wishes. In such a life there is something feverish and confined, in comparison with which the philosophic life is calm and free. The private world of instinctive interests is a small one, set in the midst of a great and powerful world which must, sooner or later, lay our private world in ruins. Unless we can so enlarge our interests as to include the whole outer world, we remain like a garrison in a beleagured fortress, knowing that the enemy prevents escape and that ultimate surrender is inevitable. In such a life there is no peace, but a constant strife between the insistence of desire and the powerlessness of will. In one way or another, if our life is to be great and free, we must escape this prison and this strife."

At the very heart of philosophy is the ability of human beings to question the most basic dogmas of their times. At the heart of it then, is skepticism, that healthy skepticism that lies firmly in the middle between 'anything goes' gullibility, and 'nothing is to be believed' cynicism.

"Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blind-folded fear."

So then, whenever anyone makes any sort of fantastic claim, and wants you to believe as they do, it is our duty to make sure that their most basic assumptions are firmly established. If they are not, then, as David Hume said, 'toss it to the flames'. Whenever someone tells you, for example, that you should buy into Horoscopes and Astrology, one should make sure that their conclusions are based on a solid foundations. The question one ought to ask then is 'What evidence is there that the gravitational pull of any star or constellation has any effect whatsoever on a person's personality, as well as somehow indicate how his future will pan out. Why for example, is the gravitational pull of Jupiter on a human baby such a strong indicator of what kind of person he will be, when for example, the gravitational pull of a doctor at the time of birth is much stronger on the baby, than the planet itself, given its incredible distance away. If someone makes any kind of truth claim, they ought to be prepared to defend said claim against any possible criticism. As of yet, I've never received an adequate answer to my question to astrologers.

The number of fantastic and outlandish claims in the world are numerous, and one simply cannot take the time to study them all. Yet the simple spirit of doubting, of questioning, and of proportioning your beliefs only to what the evidence suggests, is available to us all.

With the rise of the information age, there are also numerous resources to consult instantly to try to verify a great portion of these claims.

One of these is the Skeptic's Dictionary

Yet another great resource is the Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural

In the end, the only people we can trust is ourselves.
Why should we take anything anyone says as true?

We shouldn't.

Cogita Tute-Think for yourself.

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