Sunday, December 27, 2009

On Being Skeptical

“Skepticism” can signify a tendency to doubt, a devotion to critical inquiry, or a certain popular movement advocating scientific and critical thinking against magical and pseudo-scientific thinking. There is something of all three in the writer of this weblog.

Skeptical Hippo

The word “skeptical,” along with its relatives “skeptic” and “skepticism,” belongs to the set of words that have found their way from the vernacular of an ancient language into the jargon of philosophers, and from there back into the vernacular of modern languages, with shifts of sense occurring at each turn. In classical Greek, the noun σκέψις (skepsis), as glossed by Liddell and Scott (see bibliographical note below), bears the sense of “examination, speculation, consideration” and “inquiry into, speculation on,” while the adjective σκεπτικός (skeptikos) has the sense of “thoughtful, reflective.” The word only took on a sense recognizably close to its modern one in consequence of its being adopted by certain philosophers who made the raising of doubts their primary occupation—the original “skeptics” of ancient Greece.

It is difficult to say much about the ancient skeptics without getting involved in thorny problems of interpretation. (Anyone interested in reading more about them may consult the articles in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.) I will add only this much about them, that in applying the word “skeptical” (or rather its Greek antecedent) to themselves they meant to describe themselves as inquiring, but they have become better known by their doubting, and it is the latter trait that has primarily been understood by the word in its popular use ever since. The river-dwelling quadruped shown above may not be convinced of this, but the image macro as a whole supports my point.

Lately there has arisen a popular movement that has restored to the word “skeptic” something of its original positive sense. A skeptic in this sense is a proponent and practitioner of critical thinking and of the application of scientific method to extraordinary claims. The term “extraordinary claims,” made popular by Carl Sagan’s famous saying, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” is not exactly a technical one, but as it is used by skeptics of this stripe, it seems to have a somewhat specialized meaning. My understanding is that it signifies claims that are contrary to well-founded scientific conclusions or to extensive common experience, such as those concerning ghosts, extraterrestrial visitors, creationism, much so-called alternative medicine, and so on.

On this understanding, a skeptic is not, per se, someone who finds these claims incredible, but someone whose estimate of them is based on a critical and scientific examination of the evidence. It just happens that in the vast majority of instances, such examination leads to the conclusion that the claims are unfounded. The Web site of the Skeptics’ Society puts the matter thus:
Skepticism is a provisional approach to claims. It is the application of reason to any and all ideas — no sacred cows allowed. In other words, skepticism is a method, not a position. Ideally, skeptics do not go into an investigation closed to the possibility that a phenomenon might be real or that a claim might be true. When we say we are “skeptical,” we mean that we must see compelling evidence before we believe.

In describing myself as a “skeptical Jew,” I had several meanings in mind. First, like the skeptics of the Skeptics’ Society, I am a proponent of critical thinking and scientific rationality, and an opponent of superstition and pseudo-science. So I am at least a fellow-traveler of the skeptical movement. Second, even before I had much idea of what critical thinking or scientific method was, I was devoted to the critical examination of important claims and assumptions. So I am in that respect a skeptic by natural disposition. And third, I am a skeptical, both in the special sense of applying critical reason and in the popular sense of being doubtful, where theistic and eschatological claims, such as those of Judaism, are concerned. I expect to exhibit something of my skepticism in each of these respects in my future posts in this blog. The third respect, though, is the one that I expect to get the most exercise.

Bibliographical note

“Liddell and Scott”: Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek–English Lexicon, revised and augmented throughout by Sir Henry Stuart Jones with the assistance of Roderick McKenzie (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1940); on line at the Perseus Digital Library. From this hefty work of reference two abridgements were derived, one of about half the size of the original and the other somewhat smaller than that. The three are known to students of classics as “Big Liddell” (the name is stressed on the first syllable), “Middle Liddell,” and “Little Liddell.”

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  1. Are skeptical and critical inquiries the same thing or do the two terms refer to different processes?

  2. Well, one difference that I see is that only an examination of the assertions, arguments, and other intellectual productions of human beings can be called "critical," while the term "skeptical" can be applied to an examination either of such productions or of the subjects of them. For instance, suppose that someone has undergone so-called hypnotic regression and thinks that it has made her recollect experiences of a past life. (I tangled with someone who professed this sort of thing on a Web message board once.) A critical examination of this person's claims may turn up very little of interest: it may be that she has no interesting arguments to make, but can only insist on the veracity of her experiences. But a skeptical inquiry would take account not only of this person's arguments but of the practice of "regression" itself and of the psychological dispositions that make some people credulous about this kind of rubbish. This sort of inquiry might turn up a great deal of interest in such a case.

    So, in short (though I did not think of the matter this way when I started writing this reply!), I think that skeptical inquiry is applied science while critical inquiry is applied logic ("logic" broadly defined -- another topic!). There is a lot of overlap: indeed, I don't think that one can effectively do either one without doing something of the other. But in concept I think that they are distinct.

  3. It seems to me that a skeptic could never really accept the basic tenets of religious faith. If you need evidence for a thing, but the limits of human senses and/or knowledge preclude perceiving the evidence, then you might reject the possibility that something is true not because it is false but because you lack the faculties to know if it is true.

    This is of course a long-running problem in the philosophy of science, i.e., how to know whether knowledge is actually cumulative or only cumulative within the borders of a paradigm that may be itself wrong (i.e., Kuhn). But God takes things to another level in the sense that if you take seriously the idea that God is eternally beyond all human abilities to measure, etc., then by definition you can't be sure that the lack of evidence of God's existence is evidence that God doesn't exist.

    This is my problem, and my starting point: How do I know that believing in God is wrong? How do I know that I don't need to follow halacha?

  4. RR, I have been working on a reply to your comment, but the matter itself is causing me a lot of trouble. I don't know if you are acquainted with William James's lecture "The Will to Believe" (a revolting and misleading title, in my opinion, though it is a pithy phrase). I kept feeling that I would have to expound it in order to reply to what you say in your first paragraph. I will try to do that in a post at some point. For now, I will just say this: I suspect that putting the possibility of religious faith in terms of beliefs or proposed beliefs for which there is no evidence or insufficient evidence seems to me to skew the issue at the get-go. All atheistic skeptics present the issue this way, and I suspect (I'm using that verb again because I don't yet have a persuasive account of these matters) that once you accept that version of it, you have given the game away to them. If religious belief is not to be made out as mere foolishness or superstition then it seems to me that it must be made out to be "without evidence" not in the sense of lacking it but in the sense of being the kind of thing to which the very concept of evidence is logically irrelevant, as it is irrelevant to walking or loving or singing, say.

  5. I'll have to check out that essay...