Penny Mawdsley thinks about... Being a Sceptic

The other day I came across a quaint little book, In Search of Truth, by Abel J. Jones (1945). This advocated that intending philosophers should undertake a thorough self-examination before embarking on any serious contemplation. It was essential to start by “knowing oneself”. The idea was that by tackling a series of rigorous questions the disciplined thinker’s mind could be cleared (altogether?) of the raft of prejudices and assumptions accrued from infancy onwards. Critical enquiry, the author contended, could begin only when these had been exposed, recognised for what they are, acknowledged, confronted and ditched.

I have always admired people who can readily pick up on a specious argument. Such people seem to possess naturally suspicious minds, predisposed to doubt. They are not always comfortable to be with. You make some mild remark and they jump on you like a ton of bricks. You can never second-guess them. They are seldom swayed by popular opinion – even fashionably “educated” opinion – when making up their minds where they stand on this or that. These folk are able to absorb and flush out the weakness of an argument in a jiffy, and can frame a coherent and confident riposte in the time their slower-witted companions are merely taking it in. My honest self-appraisal, much to my disappointment, leads me to conclude that my attitude to life is not anything like as questioning as it could – or should – be. Reluctantly I conclude that I am not a natural sceptic.

It surely can’t be good to be taken for a sucker - and conversely, a sceptical approach to life and the world would seem to be worth cultivating if it is possible to do so.. I’d like to know for sure whether the key to the “default to doubt” is a symptom of high intelligence, a temperamental inclination, a fine balance of the two - or something which anyone can nurture, possibly even in adult life? Further, if one is prone to question and to doubt in one sphere of life or field of knowledge, can one learn to transfer this approach to another?

Assuming one can train oneself to question assumptions at every turn, is there be a price to pay? I suspect that at the least one might lose friends and have a difficult time at parties. Could I really live without some basic “convictions” (presumably a full-blooded sceptic is always ready to rethink positions about everything – even contingency and openmindedness)? Would I always be willing to let go of arguments beyond the point at which I could logically defend them? Emotions, loyalties and identity can all too easily get in the way of clear thinking, I fear, and can cloud arguments, especially when one is stressed or tired.

Socrates may well have observed that “All I know is that I know nothing”, but this pure scepticism seems to me to be sterile, unproductive and leads nowhere. If you are sceptical about everything you have to be sceptical about your own scepticism – ultimately and unhelpfully you find yourself on the solipsist’s path, doubting whether it is possible to have any knowledge of the external world outside the mind.

There is clearly a tension between the theoretical ways we acquire knowledge (by inductive and deductive reasoning and the empirical method) and the actual manner in which we form, maintain and pass on ideas about the world, which is far more complex. While we know to beware of the bias of so-called experts and authority figures, and to understand the limitations and provisional nature of all sources of information that we acquire we must equally cautious about relying on our own experience. Can we trust our own deepest motivations in pursuing the search for truth? We are all prone to bias arising not only from the limitations of our perception but also of our social and cultural identity. Indeed, and most concerning of all, perhaps, is the possibility that our species has actually evolved in such a way that we find it easier to form beliefs than to criticise them, it being useful for group survival.

The most that I personally can hope for is to develop my own “lite” version of scepticism – to try at least to sharpen up my critical faculties to cope better with the challenges of everyday life: To be more fully aware of media tactics, political propaganda and unscientific claims made about food, medicines, therapies, new technologies would be a start. To become more reliably informed in such areas without at the same time lazily dismissing anomalous views based on too rigid a conception of scientific method would be my aim. Cynical though I maybe about my motivation I’m certainly prepared to try to become more open-minded – and sceptical in my daily life.


Penny is currently Chair of Sea of Faith


Robert Pike said...

I expect that there are many sources of scepticism but here are two:

The first arises from a desire to understand ourselves and the world in which we live. Carl Jung commented that we have a deep need to achieve integration both within our inner world and with our outer world. The awareness of a lack of harmony that comes when received understandings don't make sense is very uncomfortable for those who value thought. Questioning then becomes a search for truth or at least a better understanding. It is inseparable from one's own inner development. Philosophising begins in adolescence and probably belongs there. I think most people work out their ideas sufficiently by the end of their teenage years that they can then leave angst behind and get on with life. I wonder whether philosphers are adolescents who have got stuck! They just carry one being irritable like grumpy old men (or women) before their time! Penny, do you really want to be a sceptic or even a philosopher?

Another source of scepticism seems to me to lie in a fear of being committed to one's group or family. The Anneagram describes one of its personality types - "The Watcher" - as one who remains on the edge of things, looking in, afraid to take the plunge in case identity is lost. Identity is carved out by being different - here I stand, I can do no other! It goes well with the unresolved angst of adolescence. If you are critical of everyone it is unlikely that you will make many friends. Most people seem to me not to worry too much about the strange ideas of the other members of their group for belonging is more desireable than sitting out the dance on the edge of all the fun.

Being a theologian is not the same as being a philosopher. A theologian in the RC Church is required not to follow truth wherever it leads but to defend and expound the faith and to be an Authority in the group. The philosopher, on the other hand, must follow the path that leads to a greater understanding wherever that path may lead. Usually it leads outside and beyond the groups of one's youth.

Robert Pike
SoF member

Anonymous said...

The term "scepticism" is unfortunate as it conjours up the idea of carping and negative comments typical of the adolescent - as Robert Pike rightly points out. The sceptic refuses to believe when the facts do not fit her predudices. Perhaps the worst case of a sceptic is Agent Mulder in the "X" files. Every week she is confronted with ghosts and aliens but still she won't believe! It's obvious to the viewer that they exist (in the X files universe anyway) so why is she such a recalcitrant unbeliever? The sceptic seems to be just as dogmatic and narrow-minded as the fundamentalist. S/he is not a fair-minded thinker.

However, I don't think that is what Penny has in mind. She is talking about scepticism in the sense of "critical thinking". A critical thinker is someone who is concerned that her ideas are true/valid/practicable so it is important to question and evaluate one's own believes however cherished they may be.

The way a critical thinker (or sceptic) evaluates a belief is to ask "What facts, if true, would make me give up this belief?" S/he then actively goes about looking for disconfirming evidendence. S/he tries to knock-down and falsify her own beliefs - before anyone else does. Failure to find falsifying evidence, or reasons, means that her beliefs are good enough for now. That's about as strong as a belief can be.

Far from being an atavistic adolescent state of mind, philosophy is a mature attempt to systematically question and falsify our taken-for-granted beliefs. Ironically, the two systems that Robert Pike mentions, Jungian psychology and the Anneagram, are both examples of pseudo-science. They are ideas that are carefully designed to resist criticism for there is no evidence that would ever count against them. Perhaps Robert Pike should be a little more sceptical himself!

Rodney Codd

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