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Friday, March 25, 2011

How to be a Skeptic

This blog is (mostly) about being a skeptic, so I guess it's high time I explained what that means.  It's really simple though.  In fact, it's so simple that most of this article will actually be devoted to raising awareness of the anti-skeptic tendencies inherent to many religions.  So, without further ado, I present to you the simple, one-step method for becoming a skeptic.

If you are ever confused and/or doubful, ask a question.

This is all it takes to be a skeptic.  And it is an entirely reasonable practice.  After all, if you are confused, what better way to un-confuse yourself than to ask for clarification?  And if you are doubtful, isn't it far more satisfying to have your doubts answered than to sweep them under the rug?  Questioning things is also a great way to implement self-correction, which is the primary reason that skepticism is so useful.  If your current beliefs are false, you won't fix them by ignoring confusion and doubt.

And yet, most religions go out of their way not just to reject skepticism, but to combat it.  It was strange to me, because skepticism is so completely acceptable in virtually every other aspect of our lives.  This is especially apparent to me as a physicist because of how wholehartedly science embraces skepticism as a tool for self-correction.  And seeing as I was confused by this discrepancy, there was only one thing for me to do.  I was confused, and I am a skeptic, and so I asked "Why?"

Alas, the answer I found is a topic for another article.  For now, I am going to highlight some of the difficulties I faced in pursuing that question.  There were, of course, the social difficulties, consisting of the taboo on skepticism towards religion and on atheism in general.  But there were other difficulties I noticed, features inherent to religious systems and independent of the personalities and societies in which they resided.  These are features which specifically work against skepticism, and so they are features we must overcome if we wish to answer our doubts and dispel our confusion.

I plan to devote at least two separate articles to faith as it is used in religious matters.  Simply put, religious faith is the antithesis of skepticism.  Faith answers the skeptic's questions by simply telling him to stop being skeptical.  Faith tells you not to doubt, or to ignore your doubts when they arise.  This is evident in the "crisis of faith" that many believers will go through.  The "answer" religion provides is the exact opposite of the skeptic's method.  The skeptic's response is to pursue his doubts through questions until they are satisfied or until he has rejected the notions which were called into doubt. Religion's response is to have more faith.  This "solution" amounts to ignoring your doubts (and perhaps even asserting that it is morally wrong to have them).  The notion of faith functions specifically to halt questions.  Rather than answering your doubts, faith merely tells you to stop having them.

Mysticism is another one of those things I plan to devote a separate article to.  In short, mysticism is the practice of glorifying ignorance.  People often assert that science takes the wonder out of things.  Insofar as this means that science has allowed us to stop wondering about things and start understanding them, then my response is a resounding "good riddance."  I would much rather understand the world around me and use that understanding to better our situation than to marvel at how mysterious everything is.  Just think of how many people have asked why God allowed [insert terrible event here], only to be told that God works in mysterious ways.  The whole point of asking why was to seek understanding, and yet the "answer" mysticism provides does nothing to address this point.  Remember, the skeptic's response to confusion is to pursue clarification.  Mysticism's response is to glorify your confused state. 

Notions of inerrancy abound in religions.  Many religions have some sort of sacred or holy text which is often held to be the inerrant word of the chosen deity.  One of skepticism's primary functions is to serve as a method for self-correction.  Doubt should cause you to re-examine your beliefs in order to weed out falsehoods.  Yet once a set of claims is deemed inerrant, there is no longer a need (in the mind of the believer) to bother with self-correction.  Once inerrancy has been accepted, doubts can no longer be taken seriously.  And this, of course, poses problems for skepticism.

So the next time you come across these barriers, be on your guard.  When someone tells you to just have faith, that God is mysterious, or that the Bible/Koran/Necronomicon/Whatever is inerrant, recognize these responses as what they are.  They are not genuine answers.  They do not seek to honestly address the skeptic's doubts, nor to dispel his confusion.  Rather, they function to deter people from applying skepticism in the first place.  It is the kind of thing that will not stand in science or philosophy or politics, and yet it is exactly the type of response religions give all the time.  If this strikes you as odd, question it.

1 comment:

  1. I'm looking forward to your article on mysticism. As an amateur mystic myself, I think the Wikipedia article sums it up pretty well, it even includes some valid esoteric references.

    Yes, and like David Bohm I think there is a relationship between energy and consciousness. This is the answer to what are the other dimensions in string theory. They are levels of the world devoted to abstract ideas, concrete information and emotion, or better said, so they are interpreted, utilized and expressed by our brain in the limited waking consciousness. In this dimension a charge of energy makes us jump, in another dimension it may act upon us as a sudden new thought or desire.

    One needs way too advanced science and technology to follow the mystics. Mystics went far, because they cheated, they went on the exploratory path light-packed, equipped only with subjective senses, not tools for objective measurement. Thus a scientist must become a mystic himself, if he wants to make use of the fellow mystics' findings.