‘Skeptic’ is a powerful word, laden by our modern culture with many linguistic connotations both positive and negative, and it has a long history, going back to classical Greece. But skepticism in the sense of a approach to systematic doubt has been around for thousands of years.
It’s a nice, simple, short word, much better known than such obscure terms as Zetetic and Eupraxopher, and that at it’s modern complementary sense means simply a smart thinker, in the sense of ‘being skeptical’ about something.
Scientific skepticism, the sort I practice, is the most systematic modern incarnation of that idea, a form of intellectual Kevlar that borrows from scientific method, formal and informal reasoning, and derives its philosophical underpinnings from a number of different schools of thought, particularly those of scientific realism and surprise, surprise… scientific skepticism.
There are a lot of different and often mutually clashing definitions for a skeptic, but my current favorite (and I do vacillate from time to time…) could be summed up as “someone who advocates science, reason, and reality, and who in thought, word and/or deed engages in a seeking after truth, and where necessary and possible, the scrutiny and exposure of falsehoods.”
Note that last of the first items mentioned in that definition – reality – for reality is absolutely essential for science to work.
This is why I find it amusing when the more extreme woo-meisters claim that science shows that reality is an illusion and therefore doesn’t exist – science may indeed demonstrate that the nature of reality is not how it appears to be, the proper usage of the term ‘illusion,’ but that isn’t logically the same as saying that science shows it doesn’t exist.
I should point out that an illusion is a very real thing, else we could never experience one from time to time through (misleading but real) physical perception, and a perception of something that doesn’t exist is not an illusion, but an hallucination…
No reality = No way for science to work = No way to coherently prove that reality doesn’t exist using science.
Because science is a means of objectively describing and explaining facts about reality by testing claims against that reality and discovering the best possible answer, and you can’t objectively discover or explain facts if no objective facts exist, and if everything in reality is totally subjective, then you cannot in any conceivable way objectively show this to be true.
Truth requires an underlying reality to exist, or nothing is true and therefore nothing can be false, for the very concept of falsehood requires truth in order to exist…
…and therefore if nothing is true, then it cannot possibly be true that anything is false. Does your head hurt yet? Mine does.
I am not a radical skeptic of all knowledge for I find it to be logically unjustified, such as the frequent claim by extreme postmodernists that nothing can be known unless it is certain and self-evident, and since nothing can be known with certainty, we cannot know anything, that knowledge is no more than mere opinion.
This is itself a factual claim to knowledge, about knowledge, and indeed, a double claim about knowledge that we have to know something absolutely in order to say we know it at all and that therefore nothing can ever be known.
So anybody’s views and beliefs are as good as any others’ and neither facts nor truth really exist…
Really? That raises my figurative hackles a wee bit, so I have a few pointed questions to ask about this assertion…
How do they know this? How can they claim to know this unless they know it absolutely? What universally acceptable, self-evident principle is this claim based on? And how can they make this claim if they don’t have any absolute grounding, their own paradoxical gold standard, to justify it?
Postmodernists don’t like science because of its use of reductionist methods, despite their evident usefulness and power in explaining components of nature before we integrate them into the whole. Fair enough, though I argue that to build a complex machine, you have the understand the parts and know how they fit together before you can assemble them into a working mechanism. That, and I find the views of postmodernists equally reductionist in their perception of science, looking only at it’s separate parts (fields and specializations) without seeing the whole enterprise as the communal and overall thoroughly holistic effort it is.
Any philosophy than denies the existence of facts cannot be used to evaluate or critique them, any more than religious ideologies can be used to legitimately critique evolutionary science. So while postmodernism is perhaps useful for literature and art, it is misapplied when this is attempted on any enterprise which is designed from the bottom up to find, describe, and explain facts.
I find the views of some classical Greek philosophies, particularly those of the Skeptikoi and Epicureans, interesting, but dealing with them in this post in enough detail would make it too long, and I’ve rambled enough. That’ll have to wait…
I find that there is value in suspending judgment on a matter until sufficient evidence is obtained, to hold things as uncertain when it is not or cannot be, and the peace of mind that that brings a definite plus. Even with the definition of modern skeptics I gave above, there is a wide leeway in the way that self-identified members of the skeptical community, which is far more than a monolithic movement, think as individuals. I think that this is a huge advantage since it fosters unity through freshness and diversity of thought among those who count themselves part of it.
Is there any such thing as a True Skeptic™ practicing True Skepticism©?
To me personally, those exist mostly in the minds of those ideologues who abuse the term to refer to themselves favorably and who also frequently append the prefix “pseudo-” to the word to describe their critics out of resentment. Fnord.
- What it Means to be a Skeptic (randi.org)
- Who are these Skeptics? And do they matter? (newstatesman.com)