I’ve realized recently that the term ‘skepticism’ seems to refer only to those who hold a negative position on something. A global warming skeptic doesn’t believe global warming is happening. There are societies of skeptics that work to fight pseudoscientific belief and do not believe in ghosts, telepathy, psychics, astrology, magic or anything of the sort. Somehow, skeptics have become the ones who reply with “that is false” when someone else posits something as true.
However, the philosophical school of skepticism believes that certain knowledge is impossible to have. This definition is one that I wholeheartedly appreciate and believe should be the only definition of skepticism.
Sometimes, the wisest, smartest thing to say is “I don’t know.” Humans don’t like uncertainty, we don’t like the unknown. One of the greatest horror writers of all time, H.P. Lovecraft famously said “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” When faced with a lack of information, we tend to take the position that makes more sense to us, filling in emotionality for reason, rather than acknowledge the fact that an answer cannot be known.
The problem with this is that an individual’s opinion on what seems to make sense at the time is not a logical basis to come up with an answer. It makes a certain amount of sense that the Earth is the center of the solar system, all it takes is to look up and see everything seemingly moving around us. While it made sense at the time, it didn’t take long for people to start to question that belief.
Had a more neutral position been taken in the first place, the idea of a heliocentric solar system would not have been taken so harshly and require decades of effort and pain to become considered as truth. Those in power took a position and clung to it with such fervor that they stunted the growth of the collective intellect.
The same can be said for evolution. Had early man simply shrugged his shoulders, said “I don’t know yet,” and moved on when trying to figure out where the tremendous diversity of life had come from, tremendous advances could have been made in the field of biology.
Almost 200 years after Charles Darwin’s voyage on the HMS Beagle, creationism is still being taught to children by religious fundamentalists. There are students today who learn about evolution only because they are forced to and do not take any of it seriously. One famous creationist, Duane Gish, even spoke at Bellevue College, using the most absurd logic to back up his position. Had mankind had the presence of mind to simply say “I don’t know” when faced with questions far beyond our pay grade, our progression as a species be far, far smoother than it is now.
When faced with an unknowable question, we by habit come to a decision. Whatever position makes the most sense at the time is what we stick to, often reacting violently when faced with an opposing view. People do not like being wrong. Time and again, I’ve seen people cling to an incorrect assumption even when faced with overwhelming evidence just so they don’t have to admit that they were wrong. By not taking a position, individuals can prevent this from happening to them in the first place.
In all aspects of academia and in day to day life, people are coming to spurious conclusions that are nothing more than halfway-educated guesses and cling to them as if their lives depended on it. There is not much in life that is certain, and the more that people accept and learn to live with the uncertainty, the less friction will be generated when the truth becomes known, if ever. If the truth of a matter can’t be known and people take positions, the only thing that will result is unending conflict.
True skepticism has a practical benefit, it saves time and energy and gets people to consider the fundamental nature of knowledge. In addition, to me skepticism is beautiful. The unknown may be scary on a primal level but scary things are also exciting, many people love a good mystery. Understanding that certain questions cannot be answered is an affirmation that there will always be mystery in the universe. There will always be things we cannot know and the quest for understanding is only a Sisyphean task that can never be complete.
It’s heartwarming to know that humankind will never stop striving for knowledge even in the face of great adversity.