Skepticism

In our modern age we are presented with a rapid amount of information that humanity has never been subjected too.  Just on our phones we can get news alerts as a story is unfolding, communicate with our friends from hundreds of miles away, view media sources from all over the world, just in a few seconds between T.V. commercials. This unprecedented amount of information for us to take in has a variety of consequences, namely that information we are given may easily be fabricated, or altered, or even worse, disconnects us from what is really happening.

Take the example of the news. Just using a modern smartphone I can not only check the local news, the national news (which is not a new thing thanks to the utility of newspapers) but I can check the news from any country around the world as it’s happening. There is a certain rush for news nowadays that makes one skeptical of its validity, meaning it might have been so rushed to get out there that we don’t entirely know what’s accurate. Often enough, journalists will keep a story as vague as possible early on, and then develop the story in further editions as more details come in. But even then facts may be skewed.

Besides the news, there’s always people that are skeptical about a variety of things. Two most things in today’s society is skepticism over the government, and science/religion. So many people today won’t trust a word the government says, just the very idea leaves a dirty taste in their mouth, making them think whatever officials say is a lie. Just as many mystics are skeptical of science, and many scientific men are skeptical of mysticism. The theories of evolution and global warming instantly come to mind, as prominent debates between the religious and the scientific continue to rage on.

Skepticism goes even further. You can not trust the word of an individual because of some wrong piece of information they had given you in the past, or simply because you don’t like them. Teachers, friends, family, ect, are all on the table for skepticism. Even further than this, there are those among society that are the epistemological skeptics, those that believe all sensory data is an illusion, that the phenomena is not to be trusted no matter what! You can be skeptical of not only local events, but of reality itself! Oh what a life that is!

There is a multitude of problems with these attitudes toward life. I shall begin with the easy one: epistemology. I’ll say this, how can one actually live like a skeptic? When walking down the street you cannot simply avoid lifting your leg to step on a curb, even though you may reason with yourself that “My sensory data has deceived me before, the image of this curb may simply be another falsification, a misinterpretation!” It’s all good and dandy to say that to yourself, but I guarantee if you act on that thought, and instead of lifting your leg to step on to the curb you simply walk into it, I’m willing to bet that you will trip on the curb. Yes you can argue that the curb metaphysically may not exist, but in all pragmatic sense our sensory data is fairly accurate. For even as the philosopher Epicurus once said:

If you fight against all your sensations, you will have no standard to which to refer, and thus no means of judging even those sensations which you claim are false.

Now that’s out of the way, I can discuss the more pragmatic skepticism. First of all, a decent amount of skepticism is healthy to any individual. In fact we need it to survive. If we blindly trusted every single word that someone said to us, we’d end up running off a cliff in the mad frenzy thinking we could fly. Humans are both naturally curious and naturally skeptical. But as it turns out we cannot fly. Many times when someone makes a claim we have the ability to shake our head and say ‘No’. In fact this is how new scientific discoveries are made, but what a terrible life when someone rejects every single proposition made by someone else. You force yourself to mistrust the government, science, religion, friends, family, society, and mankind as a whole. In the end you begin to mistrust yourself. And, to go off on a tangent, this is my main problem with Nietzsche.

Nietzsche
 

Friedrich Nietzsche is a famous, yet highly controversial, German philosopher.

 

 

Here is a man who not only condemns religion, but is equally as skeptical to the realm of science and rationalism! What is left when both those are eliminated? Despite what anyone may defend, at that point it is mere opinion, a trust in the self and nothing else. And that is a very dangerous thing. One can read the quiet despair in his work, the contempt for every person that came before him and an only dim optimism for those that come after. It is not healthy to believe you are the only intelligent person that ever lived, which in many cases, is what extreme skepticism leads to.

Of course, many times people do lie, the same with science and religion. But one cannot simply live in skepticism, this attitude leads to an extreme nihilism. Which unfortunately today we do seem to be entering another age of nihilism, which more than anything, scares the living hell out of me. Certain things in life must be taken for a given. For instance I cannot go on a boat and call into the question the entire science behind buoyancy and sailing, simply on the grounds that it may all be false. I simply lay trust in the idea that those are a given. If not, the joke that people wear tin foil hats to protect from mind reading becomes increasingly relevant. But apparently even the validity of that can be called into question.

The hardest part comes now, of where to draw the line of what is given and what is to be under scrutiny. This is no easy answer. If the government says that event ‘A’ happened, I cannot simply tell myself that it’s all preposterous. The most simple answer is to merely accept it, not canonize it, until further evidence of event ‘A’ comes to light. Or make a judgement given the data presented on past events. Meaning if the government said events ‘B’ ‘C’  and ‘D’ happened, when they were later thoroughly proved wrong, then there are grounds for skeptical behaviour. Even then skepticism will still be reduced to a mere feeling, seeing how some are more naturally to question the government than others, or because of people’s political beliefs they will only question a government they already decided they disagree with. If not, the joke that people wear tin foil hats to protect from mind reading becomes increasingly relevant. But apparently even the validity of that can be called into question. In short, it is difficult where to draw a line, if possible at all, without reducing to feeling. And, if skepticism is to be reduced to how certain bits of information make us feel, then it is useful to call into question how the partiality towards feelings are created. What an awful subject.

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28 thoughts on “Skepticism

  1. This is very relevant. I think that another thing that makes modern skepticism so commonplace is that finding the evidence for or against a claim has become more difficult. There is so much information to dig through that it’s much easier just to pick a side and stick with it. This is why so many Republicans will only watch Fox News, or so many Democrats avoid it like the plague. We are pulled in so many directions that there just isn’t enough time to really do all the research in order to validate all of the claims that we hear on a regular basis.

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    • If anything, finding evidence for or against a claim is easy as can be. The internet provides news from the US, UK, Israel, al Jazeera, and elsewhere. What takes some effort is digging through the different outlets, organizing the information, and reaching a conclusion. Like you say, It’s not easy, but it’s better than staying on Fox or MSNBC and nodding along.

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    • I very much am. To me it’s one of those problems in philosophy which really isn’t a problem at all, albeit despite how incredibly interesting it is. I do believe there is an objective reality we can perceive, and for the longest time I was a Kantian. I believed that we merely interpreted the objective reality (Noumena) and was only aware of our interpretation (Phenomena). I liked to think that what we perceive may not be exactly accurate, but no matte what there had to be a “Thing in itself” for us to perceive anything at all. But anyway now I am much more interested in Bertrand Russell’s theory of Logical Atomism, as to me it seems much more relevant and practical.

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  2. A noble effort to describe scepticism, but too narrowly defined. I am a sceptic. I have certain personal philosophies I live by: one: trust no one. Two: expect the worst, you’ll never be disappointed. Three: fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me. Four: a thing is what it is unless I can make it something else. OK, that’s the hard core of it. I “soften” this with self-empowerment, taking full responsibility for all aspects of my own life without expectations from anyone else, common sense and all of that is wrapped up in humility and compassion – that to me being the key aspect of life as a sceptic. I expect nothing, I trust nothing: that’s freedom. According to my view, a life is a gift designed to be given back – and the one who “wins” is the one who manages to die having achieved a high state of dispossession. Scepticism, properly understood, is a state of detachment from all those things considered so important, whether that be material wealth, fame, family, friendships or even physical health. It has nothing to do with not trusting one’s physical senses! I’m a kayaker and I’ve heard so many people warn me of the dangers of it. But handled properly a kayak is actually a very safe, convenient, efficient, clean, quiet, fast mode of water transportation. I may have been sceptical of such transportation at the outset decades ago, but with experience that changed. Scepticism, properly understood is necessary to self-empowerment. Misunderstood, yes it can give way to all the silly ideas you mention.

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    • To be fair, given all the information that you did, it sounds to me that your philosophy is much more closely related to the stoic school. All that sort of detached, amoral indifference seems to be more stoic in nature. Perhaps we both have different understandings of the meanings of these terms.

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  3. I’m a nihilist. A wikipedia nihilist, to be fair (I’m not even as qualified to talk about philosophy as the often joked about “guy who took philosophy 101 and now thinks he knows everything” person!) but I still feel as though I fall under that category. I literally fell into the information by accident after being accused of being a nihilist and getting all defensive about not being one, and then found myself relating to more of it than I expected.

    But it’s not because I doubt the existence of everything; it’s not because I think everyone is lying to me. I just don’t believe that there is a reason for all of this. There was no reason I was born, no reason I survived this long, no reason I’ll die. I suppose it’s more an extension of atheism, one devoid of any notions of spirituality or alternate explanations for existence beyond random chance.

    I mean, it’s all there. I believe that everything I perceive is real, and I’m actually far too trusting of other people when it comes to my social interactions. I just don’t think there’s any meaning to any of it beyond whatever meaning we have arbitrarily assigned to it.

    I’m sure I’m not really giving you any new information. You seem far, far more well-read than I am (or likely will ever be) and you’re most definitely talking about a different definition of nihilism than the one I have for myself. Be it a broader one, or a more specific one. I’m also probably making some logically fallacious statements here that I’m entirely unaware of. Again, I’m not as well-read as I’d like to be. Or really even enough to comment here, maybe.

    But anyways, your post was an interesting read and I do believe that in denying EVERYTHING: refusing to believe anyone, on any side, anywhere, regardless of evidence… I mean, it’s probably wrong. Not, like, morally. It’s just probably actually incorrect and I might even go as far as calling it ignorance, even if it’s coming from a different mentality than the kind of ignorance it’s easy to be disgusted by.

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    • No need to put yourself down, you have a pretty good grasp of what Nihilism means. I think everyone sort of goes through a nihilist phase at one point or another, but in some cases it sticks with people. The problem is though, that this is happening on a mass scale

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  4. Whether you are a skeptic, stoic or have some other way of thinking, at the base of any of these feelings is what we developed while growing up, from parents, siblings, school, friends, etc. How we were treated, how we felt about ourselves or our surroundings and how we experienced the changes in life whether the good or bad. I believe experience is still the best teacher. It points the way.

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  5. It was Santayana who coined the term “animal faith” to describe the animal, ancestral cognitive bedrock of our trust in the security and navigability of our everyday environments. While I’m not a Santayanan (that might be a neologism — you’re welcome), the role of “trust” in affirming trustable stabilities amidst the flux of our experience is also in Plato’s _Republic_. There are differences in the worlds of Plato and Santayana, though. Skepticism, ancient skepticism, was about the consequences of logic; modern skepticism is about the untrustworthiness of the senses, and the cognitive supplements and biases of the mind (a la Hume).

    Kant responds, as you know, to Hume; Nietzsche, believe it or not, was a Kantian. The post-Kantian tradition generally attempted either to surmount the gulf between the noumenal and phenomenal via some means, or else abandoned the noumenal as a projection of our phenomenal framework, which was seen as inescapable — so Nietzsche, “We cannot see around our own corner.” Nietzsche, however, never seemed entirely consistent. He did seem to hanker after one of the reigning scientific theories that posited that the world consisted of spatially overlapping non-extended force-points in perpetual flux, seemed to hanker after it as descriptively true in some sense, though his general take on scientific representations was that they were simply an ascetical impulse to deny certain cognitive elements that were not about “truth”, although he didn’t think this could be done, as the idea of “truth” is part of our cognitive framework, which did not evolve to detect truth, but to allow us to survive and thrive, so that lies that are useful for this end are expected to be part of such a cognitive setup: so, “truth is a useless fiction”. This didn’t mean that he thought poorly of science, only that he didn’t think that science was delivering “truth”. As far as I can tell, he thought that science was only delivering representations that gave us power. Biology and Anthropology were, not surprisingly, very important for Nietzsche.

    So was religion, however. Given that all knowledge is anthropomorphic, for Nietzsche –even the most basic category of “same & other” or “one and two” comes out of the way that the world resists the agency of the organism; thus, the organism learns to think “self” (unity) and “other” (secundity)– he thought that we should learn to understand how to make humanity thrive, how to make our powers flourish; he was not a nihilist. He thought that nihilism was a major problem for the flourishing of people, for this expansion of powers. The expansion of our powers requires giving them a certain form by which they can expand, and by which communities can cultivate this expansion. Religion, for Nietzsche, was an anthropological, rather than a theological phenomenon. His poetic take on Apollo (rational/phenomenal, the realm of form and being) and Dionysius (irrational, the Heraclitean-flux-as-truly-primitive) does approach a poetic theology of sorts, though it is really an anthropological projection, an anthropo-cosmological portrait. I remember Nietzsche saying that community required “gods of the hearth” and heroes to coordinate a people into a common shape, dispose them to a common ethos, bind them in a common dance, with an “anti-liberal” “will to tradition” that binds one across generations. There is singing in _Zarathustra_ that binds people together; the dance requires Apollo, requires religion, basically. Nietzsche thought that the rites of religion made people “human”, both the weak souls, and that even the “overing people” (id est, the “Supermen”) were in need of “formulas” for when their spirits were unable to artistically compose. This artistic impulse doesn’t happen the way that Nietzsche really wanted it to; he privileged Dionysius over Apollo…too much. Many people in the West today, especially people who come from Evangelical Protestant backgrounds (and _especially_ atheists who come _out of_ said backgrounds), think that religion is about believing in certain propositions and invisible objects. That is not the heart of religion.

    Forgive me for the long and rambling comment. Keep reading (though I hope you get past Bertrand R. soon ;-p ), and keep writing!

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    • Well said. Whenever I read Nietzsche I’m struck by the disparity between people’s characterization of him as a hopeless nihilist and my own reading of him as a deeply committed humanist. From what I can tell, he didn’t harbor antipathy for science; he merely wanted to ensure that science was utilized for humanistic purposes, i.e., to provide for our happiness.

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  6. Very interesting post. I am wondering – what do you think of the world / experience as being constructed of exchanges of information? As in, there is not any one “thing” but a relationship existing between two or more things, or collections of things which cannot be measured per se, only evaluated for subjective quality by the consciousness experiencing that relationship. In such a scenario, nihilism – based as it seems to be on extreme materialism – appears almost like a non-concept, or the absurd belief that life is meaningless when it’s the exchange of information – i.e. within good feeling relationship – that’s the point of the whole enterprise. In fact, the driving force of evolution itself.

    I spent a lot of time with Australian Aboriginal people. You won’t find their philosophy in a book but dang! They’re onto some stuff O.o

    I don’t think we’re heading into extreme nihilism (I used to worry about this but not anymore). Certainly there’s the tendency among some groups but check out Vermeulen and van der Akker’s work on metamodernism. There’s only so much structure a human being can withstand.

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  7. Philosophy is always an incomplete system that contains flaws. We may, like to good bishop Berkeley, argue that some rock in our path is merely an illusion, a construct of our mental processes. On the other hand we may, like Samuel Boswell, strike the imaginary rock and break our foot, thus refuting the good bishop. Where does our eternal spirit reside, the pineal gland perhaps? Des Cartes constructed the problem and we are either followers of his thinking or we are not. Does man really have a soul or is it a construction of the mind?

    One individual who replied that she does not trust anyone is fudging a bit. If you walk down the sidewalk you are trusting that some one who is driving a car will not run off the road and hit you. If you drive down the street you are trusting the other cars will not hit you. You trust that others will stop for stop signs or red lights. You trust that when you go to the store for groceries that you will not be poisoned. The world is full of trusting type actions. It is an everyday occurrence. You trust that the electricity you buy will be delivered 24/7, every day of the year. I see no point to skepticism, it has no validity or usefulness. It is one thing not to trust a politician but quite another to not trust a friend.

    It has been argued that we developed language for the specific reason of ensuring the cooperations of others. For all those lessor animals who have no language as we do, grooming often provides the glue that holds the group together. You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours has its basis in grooming. It is reciprocation and cooperation. We do not think that highly of cooperation but yet is forms the basis of group interaction. I don’t need to be a Kantian or a Hegelian to understand that. I am a behaviorist and I understand all too well that there are no guarantees in life. If I know the reinforcement schedule I can predict the behavior but habit does not mean you do everything thing the same way all the time.

    I look to philosophies as one of many explanations of life and living. That is what science, religion, and philosophy does, attempt to explain life to the rational individual who wants an explanation. Ah, but there’s the rub. The average individual really doesn’t want an explanation unless it becomes necessary. The average individual lives on autopilot most of the time. A few of us, as one can see in reading this blog, like to think, like to ask questions and speculate about existence. We seek knowledge over banal opinion. Belief is nice but I do not believe two plus two is equal to four, I know it. Knowledge gives us a frame of reference that constantly changes as our store of knowledge changes. Philosophy gives us a perspective to that frame of reference. But the beauty of philosophy is that I do not need to stick to only one perspective, I can move from one to the other when it seems necessary to understand much.

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  8. What you say is a sort of manifesto for common sense. In a way we have to trust in people and institutions, unless that trust is obviously abused, because trust is the basis of human social life without which we are nothing. At the same time we have to temper that trust with wisdom and compassion. We all lie sometimes, both to protect ourselves and also that which is precious to us (indeed, if the neuroscientists are to be believed, much of what passes for reality is a form of self-deception), and it is a recognition of such that makes human relations bearable. Having said that, there is no doubt that the great leaps in human understanding come from those who are searingly honest, often at great personal cost.

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  9. what are your thoughts of some movies that promotes epistemological concepts, namely, the matrix?
    Or how about the movie Lucy, which claims that humans only use 10% of their brain. If you’re able to use the other 90% too, you’re able to do anything that you want as you had freed yourself from the ‘matrix’ of sensory faculties. (im not sure if this has anything to do with epistemology but the concept that sensory data can only be used to determine 10% of what reality is sounds pretty much close).

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  10. Radical philosophical skepticism (in the sense of the Cartesian Daemon) is not really considered a serious challenge to philosophers of epistemology anymore. Modern colloquial “Skeptics”, in the form of a Michael Shermer or Ben Radford, adhere to a philosophical position known as methodological naturalism, informed by the philosophical work of Karl Popper (such things as inferential falsification came from him). This position makes them more like scientists, than Cartesians. Every science has its own methodologies and standards of evidence, and there are some very good grounds for why these methodologies exist, and why you’d want to set different standards of evidence for, say, Physics as opposed to History.

    So, it seems to me, throwing your hands up and declaring defeat before having done at least a little study, is premature despair at best… laziness at worst.

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  11. Very interesting. Boy, I would be extremely happy if I could figure out how to follow this blog. Nietzsche was not a proponent of nihilism. He simply suggested, as you are suggesting, that it was a possible outcome, and if I remember correctly, he believed that could be due to what he perceived as the death of God right? I need to brush up. Great post.

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  12. What a wonderfully true article. Ok, granted, it’s also horribly true, but I’m glad that you’re speaking truth at all. Many people just feed into it instead of talking about it. The cause of the current direction, I believe, is the recent multiple exposures of things we would have called (and DID call) conspiracy theories back just ten or fifteen years ago being proven true, and the stronger and stronger evidence that the media does nothing but twist things and lie to us. It is causing a huge amount of distrust in the world and skepticism is on the rise. I really enjoyed reading your article, which really took the philosophical approach!

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