A Skeptical Companion

As an attitude, skepticism is primarily a negative one, distancing one from the faiths that are common to others. Yet human beings as a whole have a hard time remaining skeptical of everything. All too often skepticism is a selective license to cast scorn upon authorities one does not want while placing oneself as an authority for life, and while skeptical attitudes as a whole are appropriate in some circumstances, they merely empty one’s life and mind and belief system of clutter rather than putting anything useful or worthwhile in their place. As such, they are only half of the story, albeit the easier half to accomplish. It is, after all, far more easy to heap scorn upon logical contradictions and straw men than it is to create a positive ideal worthy of respect and admiration. It is far easier to destroy than to build up, and yet ultimately both are necessary for a worthwhile life or an enduring society.

I am certainly no stranger to skepticism myself, as I spend a great deal of time and effort engaged in what may be politely termed works of criticism [1]. The noble purpose of criticism, to the extent that it is noble, is that a sharp and perceptive look will like acid burn away that which is of poor quality and leave behind what is good. The level of negativity of the critic is, in a manner of speaking, akin to the molarity (concentration) or specific variety of an acid. Someone who is only mildly critical might be a low molarity of acetic or carbonic acid, while an intensely sharp and critical person might be a high molarity of nitric or hydrochloric or sulfuric acid. At times, we may curb our natural tendencies towards criticism to avoid causing harm to others, for there is no need to subject a close friend or a vulnerable child to the level of critique that is appropriate for a corrupt authority. In so doing, whatever our natural bent towards being skeptical of others, we recognize that as an approach it may or may not be appropriate on a moral level in different circumstances, and that it represents one approach of one many in our lives rather than the foundation on which our lives rest. We can, after all, build upon a foundation of solid rock, but not upon an open vat of corrosive acid.

Skepticism, if we indulge in it to too large of a degree, can be an immensely destructive attitude, and one we have to be somewhat careful of. It is far too easy to indulge in an attitude of contempt for others while being indulgent of our own follies, which can threaten to make us the worst kind of hypocrites. On the other hand, too acerbic an approach can corrode our own good feelings, making it difficult to show love and tenderness with ourselves and with those close to us, leaving us rather isolated because we are too misanthropic and too cynical to be close to anyone. There is much in our lives and much in our world that is worthy of criticism. There are many authorities who are corrupt, many people who are complacent in their errors and in their follies, but this is only part of the story. There are also many broken who need to be comforted and bound up and healed, and a skeptical approach that lacks a sense of humanity ultimately does not help to make our world less troubled and less damaged. Knowing the difference between when it is necessary to cut and when it is necessary to stitch or bind is a matter of considerable wisdom and understanding, and not the sort of insight that comes easily. It is common, to the point of cliché, for people to comment on the lack of wisdom in having only a hammer in one’s tool box and treating everything like a nail, but a skeptic possesses a different type of folly, that of only having a saw or scissors or rapier in one’s tool box and treating everything as something to be cut and sliced and chopped down to size, when there are a lot of other necessary tasks in life as well. This is true no matter how much fun it is to chop something down to its proper size, it must be admitted.

Much of the time, at least as far as organized skepticism is concerned, skepticism is the outer directed face of a worldview that professes some sort of belief in the validity of the contemporary naturalistic worldview. Others, for example, possess an equally ferocious skepticism of science itself, leading them to support all kinds of wacky forms of “alternative” medicine and thought that derive their popularity from being opposed to the mainstream. In truth, science itself is a worthwhile and valid realm of human inquiry, subject to the limits of its applicability (because it is properly limited to what is testable and observable, which is a limited and bounded realm within the larger field of existence). Yet when people who subject other valid realms of human inquiry to withering criticism but place science as the foundation of their own worldview, such a perversion and corruption of what is good (if, like everything else human, limited) opens up science itself to being rejected for its perversions rather than recognized as something good that people screw up just like they screw up everything else. Ironically, many who view science as containing the positive articles of faith that go along with a generally critical attitude of everything outside of that arbitrary worldview do as much harm (if not more) to a general societal respect for science than those they savagely critique. Often skeptics, by virtue of their own extreme and selective and self-serving approach to criticism, lose credibility even in those areas where their criticism is merited, because they cannot be trusted to be just or fair.

Ultimately, skepticism is a means to an end and not an end to itself. Our aim ought to be to reject what is false and to hold on to what is true and good. The acid tests we subject our faith to, and the faiths of others, is not to hold ourselves up as superior beings to the irrational masses, but rather to lay down an enduring foundation that can serve the best interests of humanity at large. We are not to be all vinegar (much less stronger acids), but rather we are to be like a fine Italian or vinaigrette dressing, with a mixture of oil and vinegar, seasoned with spices to taste. We are to temper our sharp wit with tenderness and gentleness, to temper our fierce sense of justice with mercy and understanding. To the extent that we criticize, it is with an aim of provoking reformation or a recognition of error on the part of others, and to the extent that we refrain from criticizing, it is with an aim of restoration and peace. May we all be better at finding that balance, and in placing our skeptical tendencies in their proper place and use them in the proper means for the proper ends. This is, like everything else, far easier said than done.

[1] This includes criticism of several and sometimes related varieties, including:

Reviews:

See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/05/13/book-review-if-the-foundations-be-destroyed/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/05/09/book-review-heavenly-bills/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/06/30/album-review-for-me-its-you/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/06/28/concert-review-mosby-06-26-2014-st-helens-oregon-columbia-view-amphitheater/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/03/28/panem-et-circenses/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/03/24/how-can-we-save-the-world-when-we-cannot-even-save-ourselves/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/06/20/common-core-and-the-politics-of-math-education/

See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/05/08/why-arent-they-in-the-rock-roll-hall-of-fame-phil-collins/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/07/02/yacht-rock-or-the-incestuousness-of-cultural-elites/

See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/06/12/fables-of-the-construction/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/06/07/gospel-minus-gospel/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/09/14/an-explanation-of-the-recent-drop-in-posts/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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