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Posts Tagged ‘truth’

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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On “Becoming” A Skeptic – Must I Lose My Empathy?

When I was asked to contribute to Woo Fighters, I accepted with enthusiasm but was also quite nervous about what such a position exactly entailed. As a budding clinical psychologist I have studied the importance of empathy and genuineness in establishing a growth-promoting, therapeutic relationship with others. I have honed these skills through my daily interactions and found that discussing perspectives openly (no matter how irrational they appear to be) is generally beneficial to my understanding of others and facilitative to communication and understanding. My layman, stereotyping understanding of skeptics – as those who staunchly refute all claims without a clear scientific grounding, closed-minded to ways of knowing outside their scientism – proved to be a source of anxiety in the days following my agreement to be a Woo Fighters contributor. I felt that becoming a skeptic could threaten my genuine self: the ability to participate as a promoter of critical thinking and reasoning appealed to me, but I didn’t want to become a pessimistic, oft-to-criticize, belief-bashing tyrant in order to take part.

In hopes to slow the descent of my slippery-slope reasoning, I sought information from skeptic community advocates about what being a skeptic meant. As anticipated, I found a number of different definitions (see Barbara Drescher’s recent post for more), two of which struck a chord with me:

The true meaning of the word skepticism has nothing to do with doubt, disbelief, or negativity. Skepticism is the process of applying reason and critical thinking to determine validity. It’s the process of finding a supported conclusion, not the justification of a preconceived conclusion. (Brian Dunning, Skeptoid)

Skepticism is an honest search for knowledge. It is an approach to claims akin to the scientific method. It is a powerful and positive methodology (a collection of methods of inquiry) that is used to evaluate claims and make decisions. It is used to search for the (provisional) truth in matters and to make decisions that are based on sound reasoning, logic, and evidence. Skepticism is based on a simple method: doubt and inquiry. The idea is to neither initially accept claims nor dismiss them; it’s about questioning them and testing them for validity. Only after inquiry does a skeptic take a stance on an issue. (John Jackson, UK Skeptics)

To my relief, I found the contemporary definitions of skepticism are much in line with the empathetic, open perspectives I hold in high regard. More astoundingly, I found skepticism was very complimentary to my preexisting methodology of evaluating claims in academia, daily life, and other avenues. I realized that my genuineness is not threatened by being skeptical; on the contrary, the usage of critical thinking and reason that I have utilized most of my life is skepticism – I was just unaware of it by this name.

An integral aspect of skepticism is doubting or withholding judgment, which should not be done negatively (or positively for that matter) since such a stance would bias the pursuit of truth. The fact is that one can be skeptical while simultaneously being open to the views of others. In fact, in order to arrive at objective truth one must evaluate all angles of a concept without filtering arguments based on preexisting beliefs, underlying motives, and defensive self biases. I believe the most effective way to gain this position is through empathy, striving to understand the perspective of another to comprehend their supporting evidence for their beliefs. If one can accurately view an issue from the opposition’s side along with their own on a level field, then the grounding for evaluation of claims is better informed and the skeptic can more efficiently pursue truth.

It is unfortunate that skeptics are generalized as being harsh, cold dissenters in the way I categorized them before doing some research on the topic. As in other fields no single member is representative of the whole and this is obvious through a shallow search into the internet skeptic community. My experience of “becoming” a skeptic exemplifies why skepticism is a vital process for those who seek truth in actuality – only through gathering evidence about skepticism and its community did I realize how wrong my preconceptions were, which motivated me to change my perspective. Those who are apprehensive of adopting skepticism for fear of losing their empathy and openness are most likely misinformed about the foundations and focus of the process, which can easily be alleviated through a little research from an open and empathetic viewpoint.

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