I have written in the past about the need for skepticism in all walks of life, including faith. More than ever, many today want people to simply submit to authority. The only way to overcome this attitude is to make skepticism a way of life. The philosophy of skepticism has existed for thousands of years and was a major influence on the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, and the rise of Western Democracy. Most of what we have accomplished as a people is due to those who refused to accept the party line. In fact, the more we move away from skepticism, the harder it will be to maintain the achievements that led to our modern culture.
The founder of philosophical skepticism was Pyrro of Elis (fourth century B.C.). Since his works are lost, we know him primarily through Sextus Empiricus (second century A.D). Sextus argued that we should suspend judgment about nearly all beliefs that are not based on what is evident to our own experience or observation. We should especially question any belief based on adherence to philosophical dogma rather than inquiry. It was not that Sextus did not believe in an objective reality or societal norms; rather, he doubted that reality could be known with absolute certainty using reason, science, or mathematics due to the finite knowledge of these fields. There is always something more to know that could change opinions. It is better to approach truth with humility and admit only that this is how things appear to us. While some have argued that this leads to living in constant uncertainty, making life impossible, he held that it is the only way to reach a state of happiness. You question all things until you come to a point of equanimity in which you recognize there are some things you may never know. All people go through the stages of seeking, refuting, and suspension of judgment. In other words, it is a philosophy that is as much about our state of mind as it is about what the world is like.
You can probably see immediately the importance of skepticism to the modern world. Sextus had a direct influence on Michel de Montaigne, David Hume, Rene Descartes, and Blaise Pascal, and through them Isaac Newton, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Thomas Jefferson. Science and reason took enormous leaps because people questioned received dogma. People resisted and overthrew tyrants because they questioned treatment of their subjects and refused to accept what their party told them. We can especially see Sexton’s influence on Fredrich Hegel, whose dialectic involves finding equanimity between two premises (thesis and antithesis) that results in a new position (synthesis). Hegelian dialectics greatly influenced Karl Marx’s dialectical materialism and the views of the modern left. Sadly, many who claim the mantle of these philosophers and scientists have lost sight of their skeptical roots. Too many are demanding that we submit to their authority when questioning orthodoxy was what led to the political, social, and scientific advances that mark our modern culture. It is an open question whether we can survive and continue to advance if we suspend our skepticism.
For example, in the political realm, some have argued that democracy requires an adherence to truth and that fake news and social media tribalism have undermined our institutions. As a result, some have proposed limitations on free speech. This attitude has led to censorship by social media and cancellation of past authors based on their view of the truth. The skeptic, however, asks whose view of truth they are enforcing, and whether this is merely opinion? What if the version of events they are promoting proves incorrect? This frequently happens, such as when much of the media banned as Russian disinformation any mention of Hunter Biden, who now even the New York Times and Washington Post admit was likely involved in corruption. Their earlier denial of what they now admit is true had a dramatic impact on electoral politics. Rather than limiting access to information and opinions, the skeptic argues that it is better to increase access to them, for it is only in reviewing all information that the truth can be determined. If we stop questioning the actions of governments and government officials, we can only revert to tyranny.
The same can be said of science. Some public figures have claimed that questioning them about policy issues is tantamount to questioning science. The skeptic would observe that no science is settled, and in fact the scientific method requires constant review and revision. There are widespread views about many medical issues. This is why getting a second opinion is always recommended. One need only point to products and procedures such as thalidomide, DDT, asbestos, and frontal lobotomies, which were once considered safe by scientists that are now recognized as causing irreparable harm. Attitudes about diet, medicines, and even physics and biology have changed radically just in the past generation. Only by questioning accepted science has there been advancement in technology and medicine. In short, when we shut down questioning science, we end up with stagnation. The scientific method cannot survive without a climate of skepticism and open discussion.
Even on matters of faith, skepticism can be helpful. As I argued last month, questioning statements about faith not only helps keep church people honest; it also helps them to focus on love rather than doctrine. While some may believe that philosophical skepticism is incompatible with faith, which often requires acceptance of authority, in fact I’ve found several of their tenets helpful. First, it forces us to question what we know. We find answers only when we ask for ourselves, not when we simply accept something on the word of other people. Second, skepticism reminds us that we should believe most strongly in what we’ve directly experienced and seen. While I believe in the Second Coming based on authority (the words of Jesus), I have experienced the love of God, the salvation of Christ, and the indwelling Spirit, and I’ve seen miracles and lives radically changed. I ought to believe in and argue for what I know personally above all else. Third, I’ve come to accept that there are many issues about which there are no clear or provable answers. These are the times that we must accept certain issues on faith. In other words, skepticism leads us to a point where we must trust in God. Without a little bit of skepticism, we are more likely to rely on ourselves than to have a pure and sincere faith.
For those who do not question the statements of those in charge or who do so only occasionally, it can seem iconoclastic and shocking to encounter a skeptic. Yet it is precisely because of such skepticism that our society has obtained such a level of freedom, prosperity, technological achievement, and faith-based morality not seen by many other countries. To maintain our current culture, skepticism must become a way of life. Seek, ask, and knock, and then you will know the truth. If you don’t, you will never know true contentment or achievement.
© 2022 J.D. Manders