The Three Faces of Skepticism
Rather than go into a single definition of what modern skepticism is, already done in great detail here by Sharon Hill, I’d like to discuss those aspects, those faces, that make it up.
What are those faces of skepticism? There are three of them, and they are…
One: skepticism is a set of values, both intellectual and ethical: Skepticism favors intellectual honesty, sincerity, integrity, and a high value on the truth of whatever matter we look into. We have little patience with those who deceive, save those ‘honest liars,’ professional conjurors who are forthright about their trade. To skeptics, those who defraud, harm, or control others are fair game for skeptical scrutiny and critiquing. In my view, innocent believers are deserving of compassion. It’s the willing deceivers who exploit them who bear the brunt of our attention and our ire. Skepticism accepts and respects the limits of human perception, understanding and reasoning. It tells us that “I don’t know,” is a better answer to a question than an answer that isn’t even worthy of being wrong. If a skeptic is in error or is knowingly dishonest, he will be corrected or exposed by others who are not. Whatever your personal inclinations, if you are not honest in your work, other skeptics will be, and you will be found out.
Two: Skepticism is a set of methods, a way of evaluating arguments and evidence to determine the likely truth-status of claims. These are the methods of science, empiricism, and rational inquiry. Skepticism lets us know when someone’s trying to put us on, or putting others on, and that’s the first step to exposing them. Skepticism lets us distinguish sound claims from unsound and good argument from bad. It lets us know, when we are careful, when our prejudices are being pandered to, giving us the first line of defense against fraud and chicanery. These methods assume scientific literacy, scientific thinking, and an understanding of how we deceive ourselves and others through biases and motivated reasoning.
Three: The values and methods of skepticism assume a particular approach to reality. It assumes that there is such a thing as truth. It assumes the world is comprehensible and that it is possible to tell truth from falsehood. Moreover, it assumes that the world is real, regardless of the nature of that reality, it exists, and must for anything at all to be meaningfully true, false, or even possible. It assumes that the methods of science, empiricism, and rational inquiry are valid, useful, and powerful ways of knowing reality. It assumes in its methods that solid, reliable and effective ways of knowing are preferable to those that not only lead to error, but are neither self-correcting nor concerned with the actual truth of a matter. While it doesn’t necessarily assume philosophical naturalism, it does assume naturalistic methods, and so eschews resorting to unobservable or unfalsifiable ‘explanations’ for phenomena. But it has no trouble investigating anything that is knowably real and open to objective inquiry.
These are the three faces, the three aspects, of skepticism, and together they form the core of my understanding of the modern skeptical enterprise as a whole.