Skepticism is widely believed to be a trait of educated and sophisticated intellectuals. Yet the word is used in a variety of ways, many of them contradictory. Let’s delve into the history of skepticism and how it both helps and limits our thinking.
A Brief History of Skepticism
The ancient Greek philosophers were the first to use the term ”skepticism.” The first acknowledge Skeptic was Pyrrho of Elis (365-275 BC), who asserted that nothing can be known for certain. This was a militant form of skepticism that has little to do with the way the word is used in contemporary parlance.
The Enlightenment period also produced several notable skeptics, such as David Hume (1711-1776), who believed that the notion of cause and effect could not be proven. In other words, just because we witness a pebble being thrown into a pond and then a ripple in the water doesn’t necessarily mean that the pebble is the cause of the ripple.
Another philosopher whose views can be called skeptical was George Berkeley, commonly known as Bishop Berkeley (1685-1753). He was known as an idealist, in the sense that we can only be sure of our ideas of the world, not what the world really is. Hence, we should be skeptical of everything our senses tell us, as we have no way of knowing that this is real in any objective way.
This is only a brief summary of a few well known skeptics in the history of philosophy. We could also bring in countless other individuals and schools, including Buddhism (especially Zen, which dispenses with dogma and encourages us to only pay attention to the present moment), Taoism, and many other Western philosophers of the last few centuries. However, my goal with this article is not to present a thorough history of skepticism, but to explore how our understanding of it has drastically changed in recent years.
The Impracticality of Skepticism
If you consider the history of skepticism, even the extremely abbreviated version of it referred to above, you will note a common feature of classical skeptics. They were skeptical of ”everything” –including the evidence of our senses. A skeptic worth his or her salt traditionally questions absolutely everything and trusts nothing.
This point of view is a difficult one to live with and it presents many obvious difficulties. For one thing, by placing everything in the category of unknowable it arguably renders all inquiries pointless. Why bother to consider the big questions of existence if nothing is knowable?
The field of philosophy that deals with knowledge is epistemology. Skeptics deal with epistemology by being comprehensive agnostics. The word agnosticism literally means absence of knowledge, not just about God but about everything.
A popular anecdote (at least among students of philosophy) concerns an argument between the aforementioned Bishop Berkeley and the writer Samuel Johnson on the issue of whether we can believe the evidence of our senses. Supposedly, Johnson struck a large stone with his foot, claiming “I refute it thus” (referring to Berkeley’s idealistic skepticism of matter).
While it’s arguable if this demonstration truly constitutes a persuasive argument, it does point out a legitimate issue. Namely, that a position of complete skepticism puts us at odds with the entire everyday world. In other words, it’s not very practical.
How Modern Rationalists Turned Skepticism on its Head
We have looked at classical skepticism and how its refusal to take anything at face value can be problematic when living in the so-called real world. However, this is not a problem for modern skeptics, as they are far more selective than their predecessors when it comes to what they question.
There’s probably no better place to look if you want an idea of what modern skeptics are like than Skeptic Magazine and its website. The site’s stated mission is “Examining extraordinary claims & promoting science.”
A typical representative of this point of view is Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic Magazine, who has give a couple of popular TED Talks on the subject. For example, in his talk, “Why People Believe Weird Things,” he sets out to debunk various “weird” beliefs in things like the paranormal and UFOs.
What’s interesting about Shermer’s brand of skepticism is that it not only differs from the traditional variety but in an important manner outright contradicts it. For Shermer and his fellow believers in what might be called scientism are the very opposite of idealists such as Bishop Berkeley. Rather than doubt the evidence provided by the material world, they ask us to believe it unquestioningly.
It’s also quite telling that Shermer dismisses non-mainstream beliefs with the decidedly unscientific term “weird.” There is a clear attempt at ridiculing and intimidating people into feeling intellectually inferior if they believe in something that doesn’t pass the rigors of the modern scientific establishment. But what exactly does this have to do with skepticism?
Are Modern Skeptics Pseudo Skeptics?
As we have seen, modern skeptics are certainly not skeptics across the board. They believe quite fervently in anything that has been “proven” by “science.” I put these words in quotes because such terms can never be as precise as they pretend to be. The constant evolution of scientific theories, as well as the significant (but often ignored or downplayed) disagreements among scientists on many issues is enough to make one ”skeptical” of the myth of a monolithic Truth that has been established by a demigod known as Science.
The key point here is that modern day skeptics tend to place an almost religious like faith in the information provided by their senses. However, even this faith is dwarfed by their belief in nebulous terms such as logic, rationality and science. In actuality, this turns out to be a faith in currently popular theories. In comparison with skeptics of earlier ages, there are good reasons to consider modern skeptics pseudo-skeptics. This is ironic, given that these modern day would-be skeptics are fond of throwing around terms such as “pseudoscience” to anything that doesn’t meet their narrow criteria of truth.
Let’s take a closer look at why something as apparently rock-solid as science turns out to be anything but when we move beyond superficial definitions.
The Rise and Decline of the Scientific Method
According to the Oxford Dictionary, the scientific method can be defined as:
“A method or procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.”
Although many of the principles of modern science date back at least as far as the ancient Greeks -Aristotle in particular- the particular way of looking at the world wasn’t systematized until around the time of the Enlightenment and peaked in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
What devotees of the scientific method usually ignore is that many of their most cherished assumptions began to unravel with the latest discoveries of quantum physics, which has largely disproven the notion of a materialistic, quantifiable, objective universe.
This is not the place to go into detail about the complexities of quantum physics. However, anyone who has even a basic exposure to the theories of physicists such as Niels Bohr or Werner Heisenberg (famous for the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which states that it’s impossible to simultaneously know the position and momentum of a particle) can see that this branch of physics undermines almost everything that scientists had taken for granted for centuries.
One of the most revolutionary theories to come out of quantum physics is Many Worlds Theory, which initially sounds like something out of a science fiction novel. Many-Worlds Theory, which was first proposed by American physicist Hugh Everett, postulates that every time there are multiple possible outcomes for an event, parallel universes are created. In each of these universes, a different outcome occurs. While this is, so far, only a theory, the fact that many trained scientists take Many-Worlds Theory seriously tells us a great deal about where science is heading!
A famous example of how Many Worlds theory can work is illustrated in the well known thought experiment of Schrodinger’s Cat, conceived by Austrian Erwin Schrodinger. In this experiment, an imaginary cat is in danger of being killed by a radioactive gas. Schrodinger claimed that the cat is, in a sense, both dead and alive, depending on a random outcome. While some may object that Schrodinger’s Cat is more of a philosophical question than a scientific experiment, it’s another example of how leading edge physics is moving in the direction of metaphysics. Others have gone even further, equating quantum physics with spirituality and mysticism. Books such as The Dancing Wu Li Masters, by Gary Zukav and The Holographic Universe, by Michael Talbot argue that the latest discoveries in quantum physics have implications that are consistent with mysticism.
We can see how such quantum inquiries undermine the basis for the scientific method as conceived by 18th, 19th and 20th century materialists. The latter, after all, relies on a Newtonian, atomistic universe where there is only one truth, not an infinite number of them.
From the standpoint of this article, what’s interesting about quantum physics is that it actually brings us full circle –back to the roots of skepticism. One of the implications of quantum physics is that matter and the physical world isn’t actually “real” at all -at least not the way we have traditionally assumed it to be. This returns us not to the materialistic skepticism of Skeptic Magazine, but to the truer skepticism of Hume and Berkeley, as well as their many predecessors.
This isn’t to say that the science of the future will result in a philosophy of skepticism. More likely, there will be more connections made between science, philosophy and spirituality. However, philosophers mystics and spiritual teachers have always taught people to be skeptical of the world as it appears to be. One of the most famous examples of this is the metaphor used by Plato, where he likens the world of our senses to watching shadows on the wall of a cave. A contemporary metaphor that has similar implications is that we are living in the “matrix.”
Postmodernism: Another Manifestation of True Skepticism?
In a very different way, postmodernism is another force that is bringing us back to the skepticism of earlier ages. While postmodernism, almost by definition, is extremely difficult to define, it is characterized by a radical subjectivism and a belief that everything is open to interpretation.
A postmodernist, for example, might argue that a work of literature or even a philosophical doctrine has no objective or universal meaning. Its meaning depends on the conditioning, psychology, state of mind (and countless other variables) of the reader or observer. This brings to mind the Observer Effect in physics, which states that the fact of observing a phenomenon will cause a change.
Postmodernism is naturally skeptical of any single way of explaining or defining anything.
Reconciling Skepticism With Aristotle
Some fear that both postmodernism and interpretations of quantum physics such as Many Worlds Theory essentially turn our reality into a chaotic, unknowable place, perhaps something out of Alice and Wonderland. To those who worship the rational mind, including our modern pseudo-skeptics, it’s an unforgivable sin to declare the world unknowable, irrational and, worst of all, magical.
But this skeptical way of looking at the world doesn’t have to reduce ”everything” to chaos. Even if there are “many worlds,” that doesn’t mean they all exist simultaneously, at the same time and ”in the same respects” (keep that phrase in mind as you read the following passages). In fact, there may actually be a way to reconcile the most farfetched implications of quantum physics with Aristotle’s Law of Non-contradiction.
There are several versions of this law. In different passages in his Metaphysics, Aristotle states:
“It is impossible for the same thing to belong and not to belong at the same time to the same thing and in the same respect.”
“Opposite assertions cannot be true at the same time.”
Aristotle’s Metaphysics is extremely complex and can, ironically, be interpreted in many ways. However, this law, along with the Law of Identity, which states, “each thing is the same with itself and different from another” can be seen as forming the bedrock of Western civilization.
How can such apparently logical metaphysical laws be reconciled with outlandish theories of mysticism, multiple worlds or postmodernist relativism? We must go back to Aristotle’s qualification when he says ”…in the same respect.” This is quite vague and, once again, open to interpretation, but it’s also helpful. Although Aristotle was probably not thinking about multiple worlds (though who knows?) when he said this, we can apply it here.
For even if there are infinite truths, worlds and possibilities and no singular, objective reality, each of these is still distinct and valid within certain parameters.
We might use the analogy of a game, whether it be football (European or American), baseball or chess. In a game of chess, for instance, it’s perfectly valid to say that ”a bishop can only move diagonally.” This is not an objective truth, in that it has no meaning outside the rules of chess. However, it ”is” objectively true in every game of chess that conforms to the traditional rules.
So, applying Aristotle’s Law of Non-contradiction, we might say “every piece in a game must move according to the rules agreed upon by the players for the duration of the game.” This does not necessarily imply that there is only one game -only that each game imposes its own reality on the players while its being played.
Some people have created new variations of chess. There are also countless other games that use different pieces and have completely different rules. We might compare each game to a world or dimension. It gets more complicated when you have different worlds interacting with one another. This might account for the apparent chaos of the postmodern age -it’s getting increasingly difficult for people to agree which world or game we’re supposed to be playing.
The Future of Skepticism
Let’s conclude this survey of skepticism by considering what the future is likely to bring. My main focus thus far has been contrasting the traditional, more comprehensive skepticism of philosophers from ancient times to the 18th century with the pseudo-skepticism of contemporary materialists.
Though we can be influenced by the ideas and theories of ages past, we can never return to them. Society and knowledge are constantly evolving and the same is true of philosophical theories. If quantum physics undermines the simplistic materialism of modern skeptics, it also ultimately subverts even the idealism of Plato or the intellectual skepticism of Bishop Berkeley.
Plato, for example, cautioned against taking the material world literally, as he saw it as a mere reflection of the higher world of ideas or forms. Yet such a neat classification cannot survey something like Many-Worlds Theory, where the possibilities are literally limitless. Plato naively believed in things like a perfect, utopian society (which he describes in The Republic). A more quantum approach to politics would probably more closely resemble what the late Robert Nozick described in Anarchy, State and Utopia, where many different types of political and social arrangements co-exist.
Similarly, the skepticism of Berkeley and Hume is a kind of disembodied philosophy that never gets beyond mental conjecture. This is why Samuel Johnson was provoked into introducing something as concrete as a rock to bring Berkeley back down to earth. Today’s quantum physicists, while they enjoy creating thought experiments like Schrodinger’s Cat, are also busy in the laboratory actually proving that their theories have a scientific basis.
The skepticism of the future is likely to morph into something that is distinct from either religious or scientific dogmatism. It is more likely to become a playful form of skepticism that incorporates the postmodern notion that truth can have many interpretations.