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The Duality Of Skepticism

For a long while now I’ve been increasingly fascinated by a sort of underlying tension I’ve noticed within skepticism… the community and the movement, in so far as the two can reliably be said to exist, and even the philosophy and set of values. I’ve felt more and more, as I’ve immersed myself deeper into skepticism, that there seem to be two similar but distinct skepticisms, operating in parallel. And I’ve been trying to suss out exactly how to articulate this, what it means, and why we have this tension. Is it as simple as two distinct philosophies that accidentally shared the same word? Is it branching out into different interpretations of a common value? Is it based upon people arriving at a similar set of concepts by differing means and motivations? Am I just imagining it?

And if I’m not imagining it, what can we learn from it, about who we are and where we’re heading?

To try and give a little sketch of what I mean… well, that’s hard. But I started off imagining it as being about difference in motive. I observed a striking difference in the way different skeptics approached different kinds of intellectual problems, and some pretty distinct ways that self-identified skeptics would react to those problems. In conversation, I found that the people who tended to react in one of those ways had very similar motives for their interest in skepticism while the others didn’t, and seemed to be approaching it from a very different place.

That difference, as I initially saw it, was that some of us were coming at it out of the acknowledgment that we’re idiots. Collectively as well as personally. These were mostly folks who, like myself, caught ourselves believing some incredibly silly things at some point in our lives, and our reaction was to build intellectual defenses against that: checks and precautions and brakes and hesitations and pauses and reconsiderations. We were, on a personal level, intimately aware of how irrational and gullible a human being can be, how our own perceptions are not reliable, and skepticism was a reaction, the best possible means we had of coping with the imperfection of a human mind. This was skepticism as an act of intellectual humility.

The other group came from a different approach. They seemed to have an exceptional degree of confidence in their ability to overcome their failings and be rational actors (and also often applied this faith to others as well, as in the case of those who tend towards the libertarian persuasion). I often clashed with these types, and our worldviews seemed very much in conflict. For one thing, the belief that one has managed to overcome irrationality (or ought to aspire towards doing so) and put it behind them directly undermines the goal of working towards the acceptance of irrationality and learning to cope. Can’t fight what you aren’t willing to see. So far as we start to regard ourselves as rational and above the usual mistakes of logical fallacies, cognitive distortion, bias and the influence of the subject position, we stop being careful, we stop checking ourselves, we stop applying skepticism to our own thinking and we start perceiving our irrational beliefs as rational ones. Their’s was skepticism as an act of intellectual confidence.

But I’ve since come to think this original dichotomy I set up wasn’t really all that good. For one thing, it was making enormous assumptions about other people’s motivations which I couldn’t possibly know and distilling a complex range of distinct approaches and values into a really simplistic model. It allowed me to make heuristic predictions about the behaviour and mentality of others based on a clunky, generalized concept (also known as? prejudice), and was way too comfy as an “I’m right, they’re wrong, I’m one of the good ones” attitude to possibly be correct. I just wanted it to be. I was taking limited knowledge and forcing into the little mock-up theory I’d made that allowed me to feel like everyone would be my kind of skeptic if justthey weren’t so foolish. Very very human thing to do that kind of thing, yeah, but also very very silly. And wrong.

You see? I’m an irrational idiot. I use skepticism to cope.

But still, I kept encountering this tension and duality over and over again. There was definitely something going on (this is one of my favourite assertions, because it’s almost always true: something is going on). I didn’t spin the story out of whole cloth just for the sake of temporarily lending myself a sense of vague superiority. I’m not that crazy. My kind of crazy needs material to work from.

I began noticing other generalized dichotomies that seemed to fall along the same blurry line. It seemed partially political, with one camp being left-leaning in a socialist sort of way, the other having the conservative, libertarian streak I mentioned. Some divisions had to do with general areas of interest, with the one exhibiting stronger interest in social issues and things with more observable human consequences like alt-med and theism, and the other tending more strongly towards hard science and “classic” areas of skepticism like aliens, the paranormal, cryptids and such (and often having a not-so-thinly-veiled scorn for soft science, the humanities, and sociology). And some distinctions pertained to issues of diversity, with the one group increasingly interested in the inclusion of diverse voices in the movement with the other regarding this as a distraction without much relevance to the priorities of skepticism, and often associating it with post-modernism (which seems to be seen as the big ultimate bad guy bogeyman in BOTH camps, a trend I’m not too comfortable with myself).

But none of those dichotomies did much to illuminate the real principle at work. They’re each just superficial generalizations based on tendencies, correlations…and inconsistent ones at that… more suggestive of being common consequences of whatever the tension itself was based around. At best it indicated a sort of pattern of “progressive” vs. “traditional” skepticism, but that feels just as inadequate an explanation as anything else (“new wave” vs. “old school”, “liberal” vs. “conservative”, “socially oriented” vs. “phenomenon oriented”. blah blah blah).

Stepping back, though, maybe it’s just an issue of what skepticism actually is?

I’ve remarked before on the nature of “big tents”: groupings, communities and movements that are really only based on certain basic values or questions. I tend to cite skepticism and atheism as touchstones in these arguments, because each are very, very simple premises, and the commonalities and conflicts that emerge mostly just relate to how one goes about expanding or acting upon those premises. Atheism, for instance, doesn’t really mean anything about a person’s beliefs. It just suggests there’s one particular belief they don’t have. So to talk about atheism being “just another religion” or “the worship of science and reason” or “anger at God” or whatever-the-fuck is totally, completely ridiculous.

The fundamental premise of skepticism is simply thinking that critical thought and questioning stuff are good things.

Or maybe not. Maybe it’s not that simple.

Going back to the original perceptions I had, the first thing I noticed in this duality, we’ve really got two principles at play here.

a) The human mind is not rational, perceptions and assumptions are not reliable. We’re fallible, so caution is a good idea, and doubt and hesitation are very, very useful. Particularly if you want to avoid bad things happening.

b) Rationality and reason are good and beneficial. They allow us to make informed decisions. Empirical truth is more or less achievable, through things like controlled experimentation, careful observation, logic and reason. The world is knowable (albeit very difficult to know), and that knowledge is a noble pursuit.

Those two principles have a great deal in common with one another, but they are NOT the same thing. One is attuned awareness of the irrational. The other is dedicated pursuit of the rational. This is where I think we get our tension. We’ve got people who’ve decided to set as a personal priority the pursuit of one of two different principles, and working from and elaborating upon one of two different premises, who’ve arrived at a common point in the middle: skepticism.

Though the two principles are very compatible with one another, the elaborations, conclusions, priorities and values that progress from them are not necessarily so. Also, it does seem a bit tricky for someone to end up placing the same level of personal importance on each. I’m guessing that drives a whole lot of the frustration and conflict we experience in our accidentally shared community and movement. That’s where I (currently) think this duality comes from.

Or I might just be being silly again, failing to properly hesitate and question myself, and am displaying my human fallibility.

Fun, isn’t it?