Skepticism

(sort of) Random Thoughts at 4am

So, I’ve been a very bad Skepchick lately. Well, really, since TAM. Consider this my penance and pledge to try to contribute more regularly to the site. I don’t have a lot of free time right now, but I’d like to get into the habit of writing something–anything–daily, and hopefully that will result in more Skepchick posts.

I’m currently working another overtime night shift stint at the nuclear plant with a crew of 5 coworkers, each of which I’ve logged many work hours with, and we’re all quite close, as far as working relationships go. We span a variety of worldviews, and I’m really enjoying the great philosophical and theological discussions we’ve been having. Because there is a baseline of history and respect between us, we are able to dig into some usually touchy topics without offending each other, and it’s great to be challenged.

Our human knee-jerk reaction to these challenges is to hunker down behind our own assumptions and spew out supporting facts without really considering the question. Uncertainty is uncomfortable to most of us, so we tend to cling to our particular understanding of reality in the face of contradictory information. I feel these impulses as much as the next person, but I try to be aware when I’m doing it, and make a conscious effort to embrace the uncertainty and truly consider new information. When I do that, I find myself rethinking my assumptions, making new connections, and usually coming out of it with a better understanding of the topic. I find it very rewarding.

Most people seem to think of certainty as a virtue. I couldn’t disagree more. I can’t say it better than PZ Myers did awhile back:

It is unassailable certainty in their positions that allowed good Christians to march people of another religion into ovens at bayonet point; that allowed good Christians to hang widowed old women for witchcraft; that led to wars and genocide over trivial matters of theology, like the degree of god-nature in Jesus’ existence; that allows racists and homophobes to declare a significant portion of our population to be second-class citizens; that encouraged priests to appease imaginary beings by burning babies; that led to monsters cutting the living hearts out of their neighbors so that the sun might rise. Let’s leave certainty to the oleaginous evangelists, the jingoistic war mongers, and the other con artists selling us bogus solutions to imaginary problems. A little uncertainty, a little willingness to accept that deeper knowledge might change our minds, is a good thing.

And that, to me, is true skepticism. It’s something that must be practiced, because I don’t think it comes naturally to most of us. We want to know, and we want to believe that we do know, but at the end of the day, anything we think we know could be contradicted by new evidence, and we have to be open to that if we are to exemplify true intellectual honesty.

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17 Comments

  1. That’s a hell of a good article, carr2d2.

    I think what traps me sometimes is when, time after time, a particular truth I hold to be reasonably certain is questioned without evidence. I very quickly go through the mental machinations of evaluating their argument, dismiss it, and add that to the certainty factor of that particular idea.

    It’s worth remembering from time to time that even long held ideas may someday be shown to be false.

    There may be a god. I sure do doubt it, though.

  2. “I’m currently working another overtime night shift stint at the nuclear plant with a crew of 5 coworkers”

    I forgot to add, what you need are business hammocks. Unless donuts, and the possibility of more donuts, are adequate.

    Ref: The Simpsons, You Only Move Twice

  3. I have the exact same thing at work (but it’s just the 3 of us) and I couldn’t agree more. When people (particularly my co-workers) challenge my ideas, I learn more. I learn a lot more by talking with people that disagree with me than to people that agree with me. I think as we continue to hone the skill of uncertainty, being uncertain gets more fun. At least that’s what I’ve found.

  4. Kudos to you and P Z Myers.

    I certainly agree that skepticism is a state of mind that is hard to keep at times and must be practiced. For some reason, it seems to me that it isn’t an entirely “natural” way for humans to think. I don’t understand why that is, though. Humans seem to love “certainty,” which is demonstrably comforting yet illusory.

    Anyone?

  5. This quote by Martin Schwartz in his essay “The Importance of Stupidity in Scientific Research” has really summed up my philosophy on pretty much everything as of late:

    “Focusing on important questions puts us in the awkward position of being ignorant… The more comfortable we become with being stupid, the deeper we will wade into the unknown and the more likely we are to make big discoveries.

  6. Good essay; good points.

    Certainty in our selves (and others) should always be approached skeptically. The time when one feels one is absolutely certain about something is the time to triple check it.

    Mind you, some things have been checked enough that certainty is a pretty solid floor to stand on. Certainty about the theory of evolution, in general terms, is certainly a fairly solid piece of certain ground to stand on.

    Odd that you quoted PZ though. I’ve the impression that he’s one of the most certain skeptics on the Internet. I cannot recall seeing him question or express even a smidgen of doubt over any of his own occasionally rather extremist opinions and/or assumptions.

  7. @SicPreFix: There is a big difference between privately examining an issue critically (with all the uncertainty alluded to in the above essay), and publicly outlining your conclusion (based on that initial examination). PZ’s blog is not a dialogue (nor should it necessarily be) – it is a forum for his thoughts and ideas. I see no incompatibility at all.

  8. Very well said. I’m new to skepticism and so one of my biggest ongoing stuggles is to accept uncertainty. I have been known to make up answers to things simply to feel more clarified about something (even though i know that is wrong to do). It isn’t easy for the brain to just accept that there’s some things that can’t really be proven (such as the existance of God) so i can see why some people choose to believe even though i do not believe in God myself.

  9. As a know-it-all smarty pants, I love that rush I get when I realise that I have to re-think a long-cherished belief, when I see that I could have been all wrong, or even that there is a whole new way of looking at something. It’s like mental skydiving.
    Uncertainty is unbalancing and can be thrilling as you try to figure it all out. Certainty is boring and leads nowhere exciting. Freud (I think) said that the life unexamined isn’t worth living. What’s the point of this lovely brain if I’m not going to use it?

  10. @QuestionAuthority: I think it all stems from the cognitive dissonance produced by uncertainty. It is a state that makes us so uncomfortable, we will do anything to resolve it. So certainty makes us feel good about ourselves, accuracy be damned.

    BTW, I am a big fan of PZ and that quote is awsome. Good on ya’ carr2d2. Love your moniker, too.

    @PeacheeKeen: Hate to be a stickler, but that quote is attributed to Socrates (though there’s some uncertainty he even existed). Freud said “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”

  11. Hmmm, server outage ate my comment. I swear, it was brilliant and insightful! Or… not…

    My hypothesis is that those who claim to be certain very loudly are, deep down, terribly uncertain and afraid that they will be shown up, disproved, or made to look dumb. Uncertainty, and admittance of uncertainty, is a much more comfortable place to be. You know that the world doesn’t end, and your reputation isn’t shattered, if it turns out that you are wrong. And I think it’s just more fun to be uncertain and learn new things, rather than to have a static picture of the world.

  12. @Melinda:
    It isn’t easy for the brain to just accept that there’s some things that can’t really be proven (such as the existance of God) so i can see why some people choose to believe even though i do not believe in God myself.

    The one thing that baffles me most is that existence of “a higher power” is considered the default, and that somehow it requires an extra leap of faith to move to the position that it doesn’t, even though the premise is clearly flawed.

    I think it’s a hard one to shed, and the reason so many people have a hard time to let go of the concept of god. It’s the mental click you have to make in order to become an atheist. But I suppose you can only do it if you’re willing to acknowledge the uncertainty of your new position, although once you do, you also see the uncertainty is just as big on the other side of the fence, you had just ignored it up until then.

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