Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Positive, Practical Skepticism

Out With the Bad Air - In With the Good Air


I am a philosophical skeptic, which is not common today, I understand, but you have to start somewhere. Sometimes that involves taking a look at the arguments once used to dismiss something and re-evaluating them in light of new information or in light of the context of the time when bad arguments might have seemed convincing. There was a time when appeals to "intuitive obviousness" and "immediately evident" were common among philosophers. Mostly, these are now seen as errors. Mostly...

For example, the theists desperately want to define atheism as another dogmatic belief with no better founding than any other (especially their) ideological or epistemological stance. This so that subtle and not so subtle errors and difficulties can be imposed upon the thinking of atheists. Atheists today, however, are redefining themselves in terms of "lack of belief" rather than " belief in lack" (much less "knowledge of lack"). The old arguments based on theistic definitions of atheism do not hold up so well in the face of "lack of belief." The epistemological quagmire has been avoided, much to the consternation of the theist. Much energy is spent by theists attempting to impose old definitional traps and irrelevant errors onto atheists. Perhaps this is because they realize we have solved the errors and to recognize that will decimate the unsupported nonsense that props up their baseless theism...

Similarly, dogmatists (those who imagine they have certainty and the really true truth) seek to define doubt as denial, and if defined that way, serious problems arise for skepticism. If, however, you understand that doubt is not denial, then those issues and seeming contradictions vanish like the illusory chimera they always were. With doubt not being denial, one can be skeptical of skepticism and it is not a contradiction. Instead we end up with an infinite series of meta-levels of uncertainty - which is skepticism. This is not some terrible infinite regression. Don't flee in abject terror yet. Instead it is a constant state of uncertainty - of permanent inquiry. This is not as terrifying as it seems. True, we don't get to claim we "know" with "certainty,"  We do, however, get to keep learning...

What's profoundly interesting about this is that it is arrived at critically, rather than by some baseless affirmation. Skepticism is the only philosophy to do this.

Positive Skepticism


People often see skepticism as a negative thing, a negation, but it isn't.

Skepticism is a careful nurturing of doubt, of that tiny but vital, necessary room and capacity for growth, change, learning, and inquiry. Without it, we stagnate, wither, and our grey matter hardens. Without it we mentally and emotionally stop. Without it we stultify, are frozen in place, intellectually dead, left merely waiting for our organs to fail.

Skepticism is positive in ways mere affirmation cannot even begin to fathom or approach.

Here's what I see as the big issue with a dogmatist's (like theists) understandings of skepticism. A claim is made (or affirmed), and that affirmation, that "Yes!," becomes the baseline for evaluating anything else said on the subject. It's a little like your opponent seizing sente in a game of chess, of making you react to them rather than playing your own game. The result is that they end up controlling the game and you are left helplessly following the events as they play out. The skeptic's game is the game of unending inquiry, of learning and exploration. I see no reason to play the dogmatist's game.

The result is that one can deny a dogmatic claim, and that would be a denial. X, not-X - you get the idea. But to doubt the claim is not necessarily a denial in that it refers not so much to the claim as it does to the knowledge-state of the person considering it. The claimant wants it to be about the claim. Whereas, with knowledge claims, we are actually talking about the knowledge-state of the "knower." And here's the interesting thing about knowledge states: one can know X, one can know the negation of X, or one can not-know either. This translates directly over to the error that atheism is the denial of God:

The logical contradictions of (belief in God) is not (belief in not-God).
The logical contradiction of (belief in God) is not-(belief in God).
See how in one we are talking about God, and in the other we are talking about belief-state?

Traditionally, critiques of atheism have been based on the assumption that atheists are making a knowledge claim about the existence of God. And atheists have reacted, helplessly following the events on the chessboard, as if this were true. Hence we have the rise of agnosticism as an "intermediate" state between theism and atheism, but it isn't a single straight line: "theism-agnosticism-atheism." We are talking about different subject matters: God vs knowledge. This, with atheism being defined as "lack of belief" is changing now.

Doubt is Not Denial


I think something similar has happened with skepticism. Sextus Empiricus (yes, that was really his name), in "Outlines of Pyrrhonism," lists the skeptical tropes, many of which are a little dated by today's standards. But most, if not all, refer not to reality, but to the reliability of our apprehension of reality. Skepticism does not deny reality (indeed skepticism is a realist philosophy, assuming there is a reality we can be mistaken about), but rather illustrates, and with seemingly good reason, our fallibility. So skepticism is not denial of reality, it is doubt of our infallibility. Doubt is not denial. If someone wants to form the proposition "We are infallible!" and assert it as an affirmation - and then claim we are "denying" that, then I will be only to happy to guffaw at them for being so presumptuous as to use a mere trick of language to present our rational caution as some sort of negation. That same presumption is shown everyday in the theists who disingenuously claims that atheism is necessarily a denial of their affirmation.

Warning - Hard-Hat Zone: There seems to be a problem where people equate propositions about a thing with the thing itself. This, I think, bears further exploration. Is it possible to doubt or deny a proposition without doubting or denying the content of the proposition? Hard question. There do seem to be implications of seizing sente by crafting an affirmation, and there seems to be an assumption that this is somehow a legitimate exercise. Perhaps we will find, eventually, that truth and falsity are purely analytic ideas, tricks of the language, and do not map onto reality like we think they do. Maybe truth-values in logic have a hidden, perhaps normative, content...

The Rhetoric of Rhetoric


We live in a marketplace of ideas in which expressions of confidence, the more confident the better, are seen as positive, regardless of whether or not there are actually reasons for having such confidence. Screaming fanatics are given credit for "the strength of their convictions." We have ridiculous soundbites like "stick to your guns" and "don't ever let them change you." This is not only absurd, but counterproductive to advancing any subject matter. When ranting opponents are counted as authorities, how do we approach the delicate, speculative task of critical inquiry. "Yes" or "No" is simply not good enough. We need to address the whys of it, and we need to adapt a mentality that thinks in terms of more than just "Yes!" or "No!"

The point of an argument is not to win. The point of an argument is to learn, to explore, to tease some signal from the noise.

Imagine, if you will, a dog chained to its stake. It has been the victim of consistent abuse and now reacts to anything new reflexively, fearfully, snarling, growling, snapping at anything and everything that comes along. New ideas seem strange, threatening, frightening, evoking a visceral reaction rather than a considered, contemplative one. So, when you have a new idea before you, how will you react? Will you be that dog?

Mere rhetoric is a snarling, snapping dog, jealously guarding its turf against perceived threats, real or imagined.

Practical Skepticism


Is it not infinitely practical to be able to adapt one's view and understanding? Is it not a practical measure to rigorously maintain that capacity - to avoid harening of the grey matter? Isn't that capacity a practical necessity of learning, growth, flexibility and change? People say, "What is the benefit of doubt?" Well what is the benefit of learning that building a bridge that other way didn't work, so let's try it a new way, incoporating new ideas instead of sticking faithfully to past biases and expecting better results the next time? What is the benefit of experimenting with new explanations when the old explanations fail to provide us with predictive power? God may be a comforting delusion for some, but as an explanatory device, it lacks any practical application. Is there a practical benefit in seeing illness as caused by microbes rather than demons? It would seem there is, but without skepticism, that moment of doubt, we'd still be shaking rattles and kissing beads, praying that the demons would stop possessing the sick.

There seems to be all-pervading, and seemingly, unshakable opinion out there that if you don't affirm something with absolute conviction, you can't work with or build on it, hence the strange conclusion that skepticism is sterile and unproductive and leads to a state of stasis. But that's simply not true. I think that is an expression of belief/delusion bias. Have you never entertained an idea and built on it, seeing where it leads? When doing this, did you necessarily have to deny the capacity to throw out the original idea if it didn't lead anywhere or if you found another that led farther faster?

Skepticism is painted, quite erroneously, as a negative, impractical, sophistical process, but the opposite is actually the case. Skepticism is the capacity to learn, to grow, to explore, to inquire. It this respect it is positive, forward looking, and conducive to adaptation, versatility, and change. And adaptivity is infinitely practical. What could possibly be more practical than being able to adapt to reality?

It is affirmations, assumptions of truth and certainty, that are negative, that are impractical, despite the trick of language involved (the sente of positive connotation). It is affirmations that hold us back, stop us in our tracks, end our investigations, and impose stagnation upon us. Do not define yourself in terms of what you think you "know." Define yourself as an inquirer, an explorer, a delver. Eschew certainty. Keep the grey matter loose and flexible. Be a lifetime learner...

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