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.
“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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