Without skepticism we might never have invented the umbrella, or the compass. After all, commonsense observations about storm-clouds and your best friend’s sense of direction make the tools of precaution and measurement possible.
The spirit of curiosity and doubt probably explains many inventions that have made human life more bearable, the world more manageable—at least more intelligible—ranging from telescopes that tell us about the far flung corners of the uncornered universe and microscopes that tell us there are biological realities we can’t see at all without assistance.
There is a common misunderstanding that “skepticism” is something new, a turn of mind that took shape during the Enlightenment after the long dark sleep of religion and superstition. Even well-educated women and men sometimes think this way, usually pointing to the religious texts and creation stories of our literary infancy as proof that doubt is a skill that evolved over time. These same people know that while human discovery is a recent story, human intelligence has been around for a long time and that we would not have got very far in the world without doubt. Just as something in the primal slime saw its future on dry land, someone in a cave must have imagined a happy life in a semi-detached in Wantage or a split-level in Teaneck.
But to be fair to our predecessors. Ancient creation stories weren’t based on stupidity but on early attempts to reconcile the existence of the seen world with known patterns of causation: if shoes are made and human beings are, in some sense, made, then the world must have come to be in a similar fashion. It doesn’t really matter whether you call it creation or “generation.” The important thing is that human beings asked the question “What caused this?” and then invented the stories that answered it. We still do, only our stories are better because our observations are different and the causes are better understood. Frightful thought: doubt leads both to Genesis and to Steven Hawking.
The Big Questions are often Why questions: Why something rather than nothing? Why this universe and not some differently arranged one? Why intelligent life as opposed to mere bacterial or not-quite-so intelligent animal life? Some early skeptics doubted the existence of the natural world, a question still considered au courant in Descartes day. Even the ancients who did not doubt everything, most particularly the reliability of knowledge, could doubt that the world of the senses provided insight into the real world–recall those Eleatic philosophers like Thales and Heraclitus, for example, who seemed to believe that what we get is not what we see. I am still enthralled by Democritus’ ideas about the nature of the unseen atom, of stoic ideas about creation and conflagration, and Lucretius’ willingness to turn some of it into—of all things—a poem.
Some questions are Why not questions. Why not a thousand inhabited planets in this galaxy? Why, since we can imagine a better universe, a more efficient planet, even a better designed species, are we not living in it, on it, not, in fact, It? But both why and why not questions have something in common: they want to know why things are the way they are and not some other way. The ability to figure out the way things are gives us science. The ability to create models of existence that differ from the way things are experienced gives us art and technology. The two capacities are not so much two sides of a coin as two strands in a rather tightly woven rope of human reason and imagination. Remember Donne’s poem, “I am a little world made cunningly.” Well, take out the bit about sin and salvation and you’ll see that he just about has it right.
The idea that a household warmed by skepticism and science are the best models for leading a good and fulfilling life is not just untrue for people who see life as more than the “exercise” of reason. It should also be true for people who value skepticism.
That is why I am troubled by the recently issued Affirmations of the New Skepticism authored by the founder of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, Paul Kurtz.
I suppose the place to start with these “affirmations” is that they read like the creeds they are intended to supplant. The Apostle’s and the Nicene Creed begin with the phrase “Credo,” “I believe,” and then go on to posit such events as the creation of the world by God, the eternal generation of Jesus as the only son of the God, the salvation of the world through a crucifixion, and the eternal “progression” of the Holy Spirit through some undefined process, stuck on to the end. I am pretty sure most Christians who say these words don’t begin to understand them, because if they did they would not say them.
But the Affirmations of the New Skepticism are gobbledygook of an equally pedantic nature, worse perhaps because while the Nicene Creed says preposterous things eloquently, the Affirmations say nothing in particular rather badly.
In the first place, they are statements of a position toward reality, hence “postulates.” What does it mean to say (Article 1) “We believe in the possibility of discovering reliable human knowledge.” Except that it doesn’t work as a postulate either: “Human knowledge is possible” is as insightful as saying “Water is wet,” and to say “We believe water is wet….” is—well you get the idea. Beyond this, one has to question whether the sentence means anything at all: would the headline “Reliable Human Knowledge Discovered” be more significant than the headline “Human Knowledge Discovered.” The point of course is that knowledge, unless we are speaking of metaphysics, which is not, I think, the agenda here, is of particular things and processes. Unless this sentence is directed against Sextus Empiricus, it doesn’t mean much to claim to be able to discover “knowledge.”
The Affirmations are a quilt of equally badly thought out triticisms. With apologies to the Tampa Tribune columnist who once japed a political writer with the following parody (badly paraphrased), on Gilbert and Sullivan,
“It’s obvious, it’s obvious, he’s positing the obvious: He tells us what we always knew in terms so flat, it’s all review–in glaring generalities and uninspired banalities.”
So banal that it is hard to imagine the audience for this creed.
The worst bit of the Affirmations is not the sense but the syntax: they ask for skepticism to be “extended to all areas of human endeavor—science, everyday life, law, religion, and the paranormal.” Mercifully, lawn-mowing has not been included.
Syntactical short-cutting asks us to imagine these “areas of endeavor” as of one sort, when (a) they are a laundry list of uncategorized nouns, into which science has crept as an area recommended for scientific inquiry; (b) might not be susceptible to “scientific inquiry” to the same degree, in the same way, or at all, and (c) are not really what the author wants to say. What he wants to say is that smart people need to make smart choices about certain activities and that skepticism is a useful tool to achieve smartness. Despite the cloudy phrasing, the Affirmations “believe in clarity rather than obfuscation, lucidity in the place of confusion and linguistic definitions to overcome vagueness or ambiguity.” Personally, I prefer Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia to mud, but call me picky.
The remainder of the Affirmations is an effusion of treacle, if treacle can be inconsistent. “We do not reject any claim to knowledge prior to inquiry.” It has, as a professor of mine once said, “an air of philosophy about it,” textbook possibilism. But surely a coherent skepticism rejects all sorts of things out of hand, including claims about patchwork elephants and Guanilo’s perfect island.
Unsurprising, then, that only a few affirmations down the list, the author rejects out of hand “mythologies of salvation whether based on ancient fears or current messianic illusions unsubstantiated by corroborative empirical grounds.” Not sure how one can reject a messianic illusion on the basis of investigation before the empirical, corroborative ground one is standing on is trembling at the Rapture, but I look forward to the experience. Again syntax is the enemy, as salvation becomes not a matter –a doctrine–to which doubt can be applied but a system springing from “ancient fears” and “messianic illusions.” That is a tough characterization to overcome through dispassionate investigation.
My last criticism actually extends to the whole thought-process behind the Affirmations. The solipsisms and phrasal potholes reveal a mind already narrowed to believe that instead of the two woven strands of why and why not science is really a whip to be used to beat the past: “We believe in inquiry rather than authority, reason in the place of tradition.” The euphony of chiasmus has always been the enemy of sound reason: How for instance would we create a legal or constitutional system on inquiry rather than tradition? If the methods of science do not possess authority beyond the heuristic value of inquiry, on what grounds do we defend the method? Or do the Affirmations mean to say authority and tradition only when speaking of religion, which is an important source of legal tradition and even legal reasoning? Is the author distinguishing between the authority of dogma, as distinct from the soundness of a proposition and a conclusion based on experiment?
“Clarity rather than obfuscation?” Before trusting too much in these proposals, readers should at least insist that the Affirmations reflect the clarity of thought they extol.
This narrow vision at its narrowest sees human happiness, essentially, as a celebration of the world technology can erect “to alleviate suffering, reduce pain, and ameliorate and enhance human happiness.” Skepticism, in other words, does not extend to the evil that science can perpetrate, the questionable benefits technology has achieved by injuring the planet for short term gain, the ethical irresolution science and skepticism wreak when the humane is equated with the merely human. Even following the logic of the sixth affirmation (”We ask for facts, not supposition, experimental evidence, not anecdotal hearsay or conjecture, logical inference and deduction, not faith or intuition”) there would be plenty of reason to reject the idea that science is the source “of all worthwhile inquiry about the world and that it can be enlisted to solve problems, neutralize animosities, compromise [sic] hatred and negotiate differences” (article 3). Frankly, faith, intuition and good intentions have done at least as much to ameliorate hatred as science. Technology has killed more of the naked than it has ever clothed.
There is no profound sense in this bombastic paean to the skeptical muse, in other words, that the mere affirmation of science and skepticism falls dismally short of a coherent humanist vision of the past and its connectedness to the future. The author seems to have some sense of the limits of these proposals in the last affirmation, where he writes, “We are not negative skeptics, naysayers, debunkers, cynics, or nihilists.”
There is nothing “new” about this New Skepticism. It is more of the same old debunking and ghost-busting that sees Jesus, Bigfoot, Muhammad and the Amityville Haunt as stars of the same carnival sideshow. And that is the affirmation that deserves the most skeptical review possible.