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Skepticism: A Double-Edged Sword? A Philosophical View

Blinded by the truth by Lorraine Daley

After a long day of working as a slave/intern at a prestigious university on the other side of the country, I came home to my summer sublet, plopped down on my rented bed and called my mother. The usual small-talk ensued, recounting my long day of data coding and having to walk miles in the humidity due to my car-less summer situation. With every day that passes, I feel tremendously more educated, skilled, tired and accomplished; so why do I feel so utterly dumb and fraudulent sometimes? I blame my mom (and, mom, if you’re reading this, I promise this will turn out to be a compliment if you just keep reading instead of gasping from shock while instantaneously shooting me an angry text message).

My mother and I have a genuinely supportive and balanced relationship. We share an abundantly inquisitive and ever-questioning nature, but where I primarily defer to science for explanations, she will often rest within faith. I am not necessarily referring to religion, although that can be regarded within this context. What I am talking about here is the on-going battle between skeptics (question everything) versus believers (accept some unexplainable things and move on). This conversation betwixt my mother and me somehow moved towards discussing clutter in the home or workspace. She was quick to reference Feng Shui and how firmly she believes that she cannot be happy in an area where the furniture, colors and light are not arranged to her liking. Being the skeptic, I started to laugh it off and retorted with, “Are you sure it’s Feng Shui and not just the idea that you’re an interior designer that designates your happiness with a place?” I tried bestowing upon her the pseudo-science of Feng Shui and even though she listened to me earnestly, her response was something along the lines of, “Well, whatever, Feng Shui or not, I know that when my place is arranged just so, I am much happier. And if my place is cluttered, my mind is cluttered.” I stopped arguing. Why would I argue with her on that, when she has already decided it is so, and if it makes her happy? Why should I try to show my mother that her happiness more than likely stems from some other causal nature? I was satisfied that my mom was able to find a way for her to analogize her happiness via Feng Shui if that’s what makes her feel good. Besides, I cannot earnestly say that I disagree with her.

Here’s where my belief-system comes out to play: I believe we must choose our battles. We must know when to question and when to stop questioning. I believe the question we really need answered is to decide our ultimate desire: Truth or Happiness? I refer to the two as being mutually exclusive because if either are “ultimates”, it appears to me we cannot have both. If we yearn for Truth, then we risk never being truly happy, because we will not be pleased by every answer we seek; with every Truth comes beauty and/or despair. If our ultimate desire is Happiness, we risk not ever knowing the Truth because we might rather turn a blind eye to answers that may not please us. Who hasn’t heard the phrase “ignorance is bliss?” What do you think? Given the choice between happiness or truth, what would you choose (although I am quite certain of most of your answers considering the biased reader sample of this site)? Do you think we can truly have both?

I am proud of my skepticism and I doubt I will ever stop questioning, but I have begun to know when it is best to hang up the critic’s coat and when to leave it on. If the end result of some pseudo-scientific claim is seeing a loved-one’s smiling face, I don’t understand why I would try to take that away from them. If their specific belief isn’t hurting anyone–and that essentially could be the vital argument against beliefs–I would rather shut my mouth and respectfully bask in their faith-driven happiness; perhaps even share that faith and enjoy the quiet repose it brings with it.

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19 Responses to “Skepticism: A Double-Edged Sword? A Philosophical View”

  • Is it totally nerdy of me to reference the movie “Contact” with Jodi Foster and Matthew McConaughey here? My favorite part of the movie was when they exchanged this dialogue:

    ELLIE
    Occam’s Razor, you ever heard of it?
    PALMER
    Hackem’s Razor, sounds like some slasher movie.
    ELLIE
    No, Occam’s Razor, it’s a basic scientific principle. And it says, all things being equal, the simplest explanation tends to be the right one.
    PALMER
    Make sense to me.
    ELLIE
    Alright. So what’s more likely (Joss puts his jacket around Ellie), thank you…
    PALMER
    You’re welcome.
    ELLIE
    …An all powerful and mysterious God created the Universe, and then decided not to give any proof of his existence, or that he simply doesn’t exist at all, and that we created him so that we didn’t have to feel so small and alone?
    PALMER
    I don’t know. I couldn’t imagine living in a world where God didn’t exist. I wouldn’t want to.
    ELLIE
    How do you know you’re not deluding yourself? As for me, I’d need proof.
    PALMER
    Proof. Did you love your father?
    ELLIE
    Huh?
    PALMER
    Your Dad, did you love him?
    ELLIE
    Yes, very much.
    PALMER
    Prove it.

    • Are you kidding? Carl Sagan is a hero in these circles. Ever read “Demon-Haunted World”? It’s a skeptic’s bible.

      But, I’d like to “translate” your quote, if I may, because I think that it is easily interpreted differently by each of us and an important point might be lost. For example, I could easily imagine someone very logically-oriented argue that Ellie could “prove” (we don’t use that word in science, so I have tough time w/it!) that she loves her father by sacrificing her life to save his or some other selfless gesture. Such an argument, though, misses the point and spoils the poetry.

      You may have meant something different, but what it means to me:

      The bottom line is that the existence of God is, in the end, a philosophical question and not one that can be answered empirically. It is not a testable hypothesis, so while we may correctly follow a train of logic to the conclusion that there is no god, we must, at some point, accept that we have made at least one assumption (leap of faith), no matter how reasonable that assumption is. That means there is a possibility that the assumption is wrong. So, we can say that we are reasonably certain there is no god, but to assert that we know for certain and/or that others are irrational morons for making a different assumption (and coming to a different conclusion) is arrogance.

      In fact, this is true for ALL knowledge. I think I smell a blog post coming on… Thanks for the inspiration!

      • “So, we can say that we are reasonably certain there is no god, but to assert that we know for certain and/or that others are irrational morons for making a different assumption (and coming to a different conclusion) is arrogance.”

        If we say that we are “reasonably certain”, than we haven’t made a leap of faith, by definition. By entertaining the possibility that you might be wrong, pending evidence, you’re taking a completely different philosophical position than a faith based thinker. The person who thinks that they know that there is a god based on their feelings, lack of curiosity, or flawed logic is not thinking critically. This doesn’t make them an irrational moron, it just means that they are assuming that they can know things that they can’t possibly know.

        All points of view are not equal. This is not true of the god question, and it is not true of most other kinds of knowledge. If you think you can fly unassisted in the earth’s atmosphere, you are just plain wrong.

      • Seth, this is one of those arguments I was trying to avoid, so I’m not going down that road. I hope you understand.

      • Erin McMichael:

        My intent with that Contact quote was definitely not to argue God versus Godless Universe; perhaps I should have clarified. I felt that the scene in that film was a lovely interpretation of two people with two completely different theoretical backgrounds that approached a semblance of an understanding of when it’s okay (and often appropriate) to “just shut the f–k up” for a minute and enjoy one another.

      • Barbara, I appreciate that you want to avoid a particular argument. That’s fine.

        However, you’ve made a statement about my state of being. You are claiming that I have made a leap of faith. I do not think this is true. Avoiding the argument, in this case, therefore amounts to continuing to believe things about another person that may not be true, over their protests, with no interest in determining whether your beliefs are true. I would grant that your position “everyone makes leaps of faith” is a faith based position, but I submit for your consideration that what is true of you may not be true of other people.

  • Zella Johnson:

    Wow Erin, that was amazing and made me cry. So proud of you ! You blow my mind !

    xoxo

    Aunt Zella

  • I’ve come to the conclusion that some people are just not wired to be happy without some sort of belief system grounded in faith in an external source of power and support.
    My ex is one such person. I despised her for years for not seeing what I saw, but now I understand that my skepticism was frightening to her and caused her a great deal of pain.
    I thought I was offering freedom, but it was simply too much for her to handle.

  • believe we must choose our battles. We must know when to question and when to stop questioning.

    In terms of others yes. Its a judgement call – how important is it that I get them to see the truth of the matter at this point of time or ever. I imagine if your mother was gravely ill and taking homeopathy, you’d push harder. On a personal level, I hope to never stop questioning myself and my assumptions – this requires discipline and is one of the things that I think denotes a Skeptic as opposed to someone who is just Skeptical.

    Truth or Happiness? I refer to the two as being mutually exclusive because if either are “ultimates”, it appears to me we cannot have both. If we yearn for Truth, then we risk never being truly happy, because we will not be pleased by every answer we seek; with every Truth comes beauty and/or despair.

    To me the truth or the search for truth/reality using the scientific method is one of discovery, its a process, its not an endpoint, a target. Likewise Happiness is not an endpoint, a thing to be discovered obtained, its an emotion and like all emotions, ebbs and flows with events and reactions in our lives.

  • Great post, Erin. I agree that we need to weigh the pros and cons when refuting believers’ views. My family believes in a handful of pseudo-scientific claims and while I do discuss them sometimes, I feel that it is better to be available when they start questioning instead of perpetually assaulting their beliefs.

    My personal stance is that ignorance leads to be groundless, which in turn leads to passive living and unhappiness. I yearn to obtain all the truth I can and having knowledge about actuality fills me with joy because it gives me direction. Certainly there are truths that are painful, offensive, and even depressing, but I would rather know these truths and accommodate them in my life than be blind to how things are and act ineffectively and irrationally. In my experience seeking truth breeds happiness, and being true to my self that is the approach I take.

  • Erin,

    I have to echo, great post. I think that your last paragraph hit the nail on the head. I distinguish between harmful woo and harmless woo (and that’s an awfully difficult thing to do). If you go around arguing with everyone against their harmless woo, well…it’s certainly not the way to win friends.

    There’s a limited amount of time in the day, and there’s some seriously dangerous woo out there. Directly arguing against what people believe rarely works to change their minds, anyway, but an indirect route, gently questioning claims, providing rational explanations, and weeding out the harmless woo in your own life might work better.

    As to your mom and clutter, she is undoubtedly right in her belief that she is happier with things arranged just so and the feng shui simply provides a tidy explanation of that. She could just as easily say she finds she thinks more clearly when her space is organized as it provides an outward example of her inner existence. Or maybe using feng shui allows her the opportunity to redecorate and get a little dopamine rush in doing so. :-)

  • Alex Swan:

    A good thinking post, Erin.

    I have a situation where my wife, my older sister, and myself all are skeptic in nature (more so my wife and I), but my family (that is, my step-dad, my mom, and my little sister) all is strongly rooted in religion and faith. It’s a newer experience for all of them, but I find it difficult to discuss anything that might clash with their views, so I rarely discuss things with them at all, unlike Dylan. However, I constantly ask them if they are well and happy, and the answer is usually yes. Although I may not share their beliefs and worldviews, I am more concerned with their wellbeing than why my little sister goes to Christian camp or whatever.

    So I agree with your sentiment that it is better to pick battles than to fight all of them. On the Daily Show last night, the guest, who wrote a book about Hannibal (of Carthage), suggested at the end of the interview “Hannibal knew how to win battles but never won the war” regarding Hannibal’s reluctance to take Rome when it was open to him. You can try to win all the battles, but at the end of the day, have you won the war? I doubt it.

  • BmoreKarl:

    French Philosopher Gabrielle Marceaux postulated: “I find my self in being – through no effort of my own.” How you react to that truth will largely dictate your level of happiness.

    Please forgive the paraphrasing, and if anyone has access to Marceaux’s writings, I would appreciate a URL.

  • John Cooper:

    The question, “Given the choice between happiness or truth, what would you choose?” seems to present a false dichotomy between happiness and truth. I think happiness is mostly an emotional state that happens despite the information available. So damn the torpedos— I pick both!

    What I liked about the article, and the comments, is that it hints that beliefs are often used to explain behaviors that we would probably have anyway, with or without those beliefs. The Feng Shui conversation is a good example.

    • beliefs are often used to explain behaviors that we would probably have anyway

      Agreed. Humans tend to overestimate the influence of internal/dispositional factors and underestimate external/situational factors in determining behavior. This is so strong and basic, it’s called “The Fundamental Attribution Error”.