For a skeptic there are no limits

Skepticism means a critical approach to truth-claims, more or less. This means, properly understood, that when a yahoo springs up jabbering of the Loch Ness monster, a skeptic listens, neither gullible nor dismissive, and either provisionally decides to accept or to reject the claims, whole or in part, or then postpones her judgment until there’s more to judge by.

There are no claims and subjects that are, or should be, off limits to such scrutiny. Loch Ness monsters and psychic surgeons are game; so are politicians spouting threatening numbers and scenarios of doom; so is your most favorite intellectual no matter what she (may even be he) says. So’s your mother; there’s no disrespect in taking what she says seriously. Even whether your beloved has been good to you is amenable to calm skeptical evaluation; even whether or not you should marry Mary or Jane is something skepticism can aid you in. Love is not injured by true sight; or if it is, better so. Emotions are good dice to throw, if dice-throwing is the choice you want, and sometimes it is. This is not a denial of emotion; this is an appeal to not let them, the glandular remains of brute evolution, be what determines your decisions when there are better tools available. Reason is not the death of emotions, except maybe of negative ones like ignorant fear or blind hate; but emotions can all too easily be the death of reason.

There are no claims and subjects, I kindly and fervently repeat, that are off limits to skeptical scrutiny. What the muezzin cries and what the preacher claims are fair game, and unless one is too lazy to be interested, one should home on any extraordinary claim, for simple sweet curiosity’s sake if not for the sake of protecting oneself and one’s fellow (wo)men from conscious and accidental lies and deceptions.

Some may say this is too harsh, too forward: why not let the others believe whatever they want? I am not so dictatorial as to presume I have any business in telling others what they must believe: but that does not mean that once a belief leaves the echoing intracranial hollows of a person it ought to be met with courtesy and acceptance. People can believe whatever they want, but if they speak out, there’s no bad in speaking skeptically and with what courtesy the claims deserve in return; and if someone speaks to propose a law, a common action, something more than the solitary action of a single person, a skeptic worth the name must speak out, because folly is a worse evil than discourtesy, and an unexamined decision is throwing dice with more skulls than hearts. The one thing skeptics ought to stand for is not any particular conclusion, not the nonexistence of Bigfoot, not the vileness of psychic surgeons nor the nonexistence of God, but that there is nothing that should be immune to criticism and examination, no matter how popular or dear it may be. Skepticism properly done is not a hobby; it is a way of life.

There may be a God; there may not. In either case, and with any of the gods ever proclaimed, the implications of the truth are immense. It is cowardice, or then a PR move and thus not very far removed, to say the question is something men ought to not probe into. Maybe the question can’t be answered yet: but that too is a valid conclusion. What is intolerable and wrong is setting the subject apart, and acting as if this is then a good thing. There are always part judgments that can be made. The specific variety of religious claims called Creationism has been skeptically examined, and has been found to be utter unadulterated wish-fulfillment bullshit. The religious claim of the immense kingdoms of David and Solomon has been examined, and is turning towards the conclusion that the said kingdoms never existed — and neither did the Israelites wander for forty years in the desert. Prayer has been examined; it works no better than homeopathy. These conclusions are negatives, and in that there is another important point: the supposed impossibility of proving negatives.

These negatives are just as unprovable as the nonexistence of Bigfoot, or the nonexistence of Nessie, or that of Däniken’s ancient astronauts — philosophically unprovable, maybe, but in a skeptical scientific practical sense one can ruddy well reach a conclusion! (And then change one’s mind if something better comes up — but that does not mean the matter is undecidable, or that vacillation is desirable.) Similarly, the existence of God is a scientific question — to dilute it into something undecidable is to do no better than the conspiracy theorist who assigns such powers and such nebulous properties to his nemesis that it can never be discovered, and even evidence of its manifest nonexistence is only evidence for its immense power. To say the theologian who assigns ever greater self-hiding properties to an already incorporeal God is profound is to say there’s something profound in the Bigfoot-ologist who confidently proclaims the monster has not been discovered because it has mind rays and an UFO. (And there was a skeptic watching. The negative vibrations of an intolerant skeptical mind, you see. And take a leap of faith, sirree!)

There may be truly, genuinely unanswerable questions — but it’s certain any question becomes unanswerable once the skeptics lose heart and turn away. A skeptic that curbs his curiosity, that refuses to engage all he comes across with his jagged nine-foot armblades of skeptical inquiry, is a skeptic that ought not present that as something to be proud of.

It’s often heard skeptics should stay quiet about religion and politics. The reason, apparently, is that these are subjects people take personally and irrationally — as if that is a reason. Believers in homeopathy take their fake medicine personally and irrationally, too, and skeptics don’t desist from talking about the subject. The reason may be more that skeptics themselves are unwilling to extend their examination into those fields of life because they themselves hold unexamined views about them. If so, if a skeptic is content to be an uncritical fool on some subject, be it religion or political affiliation or any other, she is a fool indeed. She knows skepticism leads to understanding, and in understanding there is greater joy and beauty, and more utilitarian benefits, than ever in mysticism or ignorance. To coin a cringeworthy proverb, if ignorance is bliss, then understanding is outright orgasmic.

Skeptics know this; and knowing this, they have no excuse to lean on except timidity. Skepticism is not brute debunking. It is finding out how things really are; it is unweaving the rainbows of reality, and in that unweaving there is more beauty and enchantment than anyone needs. A skeptic is an engineer of truth, and her presence is necessary everywhere, or the wheels of all will be snagged by weeds of unchecked emotion, and broken by rocks of wishful thinking. All human enterprise, that of individuals and that of us all, is an engine of understanding barrelling into the future, into ever higher plateaus, into the land of ever longer, better, richer lives more full of joy and understanding, and skeptics, always curious, never setting limits to themselves, are the only engineers that can keep that sweet wonderful engine running.

Indeed, if there is some spot of trouble, something that is contentious, something that people are touchy about, something that excites the passions and draws emotions, that is exactly where skeptics are needed. The more controversy there is, the more calm heads and rational minds are needed. No good follows from abandoning the field to fools, frauds and puppets of irrational desires.

To repeat, it’s often heard skeptics should stay quiet about religion and politics. That is nonsense. Why should we shut up about the egregious errors of a racist fool if he’s running for office, or tolerate the statistic blindness and emotional lies of another? Why should we benevolently smile at legends of Joseph Smith when we still dare to rip into equivalent conspiracy fairy tales of JFK and Oswald? The reason is not that these subjects are different; the reason is we skeptics are occasionally cowards, more concerned with success and popularity than with what is right and true. We may be better liked, and more successful in spreading a message of the delicious goods of skepticism if we refrain from speaking up about a few subjects few are willing to discuss with calm seriousness — but even in the exultation of victory and acceptance we should remember that we remain incomplete and inferior skeptics as long as we, individually and collectively, refuse to examine something.

And with that sincere but pompous chest-beating… my rant is done. It is an expression of what I believe, and more than I can myself claim to consistently follow. Thank you for reading.

One Response to “For a skeptic there are no limits”

  1. Says:

    Hmm is anyone else encountering problems with the images on this blog loading?

    I’m trying to find out if its a problem on my end or if it’s the blog.

    Any responses would be greatly appreciated.

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