Living the Skeptical Life

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.
— Bertrand Russell

Skeptical Life: Dingbat Question Marks

That uncertainty is an unyielding fact of existence is hardly controversial. It’s in the wisdom of the ages, after all — we’re here today, gone the next, who knows what tomorrow might bring – and it’s enshrined in a renowned scientific principle via Prof. Heisenberg.

That we can’t know anything for sure is partly a consequence of people getting things wrong all the time. Behavioral economists like Daniel Kahneman and Dan Ariely have demonstrated, and rigorously tested, the countless ways in which mental operations we don’t control distort our perceptions and decisions without regard to objective fact. Even something like eyewitness testimony, a popular gold standard for certitude, has been proven fundamentally unreliable when researchers take a closer look. People truly don’t see straight. What we remember, what we sincerely think we’ve seen, what we say we absolutely know, are subject to all manner of distorting influence.

It’s hard to make our way in the world without having confidence in our judgments and choices, however, so we build ourselves elaborate conceptual edifices to provide a basis for conviction. Religion is not least among them, but religion itself is dogged by uncertainty, just like everything else. The gods of ancient Greece and Rome were notorious for a capriciousness that was both mysterious and disastrous for humans. The Christian god is more farsighted but still fails to supply certainty. Faith is Christianity’s first principle, and that inherently makes certitude a second-order effect. Per the book of Hebrews, faith is the “substance of things hoped for.” Belief, not fact, is the true crux of the matter, and the foundation of that belief is itself not comprehensible, as the Bible repeatedly instructs. (“How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!” says the book of Romans. Consider the always-expected but ever-delayed second coming of Christ for the ultimate Christian uncertainty, or just peruse the Book of Job to see God’s incomprehensibility in action.)

Science promises a different order of conviction, privileging fact over faith. But it is still not a perfect lens on reality. On the contrary, it is inherently experimental: Science doesn’t always get it right, and not likely the first time. Conclusions are conclusive only until further study ruthlessly amends them, and still formally tentative even then, in an endless loop. We might know a lot, but in the infinitude of existence there is always more we must know we don’t know. Claiming flawless knowledge is scientistic folly; contingency is the engine of scientific progress.

Nor does science simply establish truth without resistance, as climate change deniers demonstrate. Despite its proven power at comprehending and manipulating the world, science often contradicts what is obvious to our senses, which can make its conclusions hard to accept, especially (for some) on record-cold days.

Skeptical Life: A period, from Hooke's Micrographia

A period, from Hooke’s Micrographia

A more reasonable example is the contradiction between our common experience of solid matter as stable and visibly coherent, and the uneven dimension of particles and energy in motion that deeper study reveals. An instance of that revelation actually helped evolve the scientific method in England via Micrographia: Or Some Physiological Descriptions of Minute Bodies Made by Magnifying Glasses with Observations and Inquiries Thereupon, a 1665 book by Isaac Newton contemporary Robert Hooke. Seeing the real, messy details of objects in his microscopic drawings demonstrated that even the most common physical things are not what they seem, whether bugs or silk, sparks or urinals (yes, he examined samples from urinals). Look closely enough and everything looks different, no matter how firm your belief or clear sighted your eyes.

Just as the messy reality of apparently uniform matter astounded learned people at the birth of modern science, our eyes deceive us no less today. We cannot help but perceive stuff as solid and smooth, just like some of us cannot accept the reality of global warming, whether because of religious belief, financial interests, or the weather outside. The leap from observed to actual truth can be hard, and no one – not just climate deniers — can claim exception from the difficulty. Even knowing the real state of affairs, we more often operate on what seems to be the case than on what really is.

That’s not to say there has been no progress. The sway of ignorance does seem worse the further back you go in history. People appear to have been wrong about – well, about most everything, from the orbit of the planets to the source of disease to just when and where really important events actually happened. But confusion, lazy thinking and bias continue to abound into our present day while our scientific knowledge remains eternally tentative (to the naïve delight of evolution deniers everywhere).

But does technology itself drive delusion? Digital media seems to instantly universalize misdirection, making falsehood all the more terrifying, and worse when it is adopted and spread by politicians, media and others who might have once viewed themselves as responsible gatekeepers. (Worse yet when the same digital media that spreads lies makes truer facts just as accessible, but ignored.) This is not to despair of the self-corrective power of free discussion, but it takes time and attention, which of course are in short supply in the instant communications economy.

If all this makes you feel nauseous and trapped, then severe skepticism might seem the best antidote, or at least a decent prophylactic. It promises pitfalls avoided and provides resistance to the residue of undigested facts, wishful thinking and self-deluding narratives that buries understanding. But skepticism will not make you feel great. The more falseness you discern, the more frightened and depressed you are liable to be. Always presuming people wrong is a burden.

Don’t pretend that this is not arrogance, or that you’re excused if you apply the same standards to yourself (few will believe that anyway). In our culture the mere act of questioning another’s assertions is the very definition of arrogance, overshadowing whatever kindness may actually reside in your gentle soul. While you might have the benefit of being right about everyone else’s wrongness, that very benefit will breed continual disappointment, feeding your own smugness as well as an isolation just as thorough as your doubt.

Can you live a skeptical life without collapsing under the weight of that negative wisdom? Can you buffer the temptation to be always the knowing asshole?

One solution is to suspend disbelief. Treat life like it’s a bit of slipshod fiction and just accept the imprecise and the plain wrong as part of the picture. Ignoring patent untruths and fantasies can challenge a critical mind but work wonders for its mental health. Putting the principle of the thing aside, establishing what’s really true is typically not all that important in daily life. Not trying to establish it absent urgent need can be a kindness to those around you — pick your battles.

In public settings every note of doubt you sound will be amplified and sharpened as it bounces around the room. Truths that seem self-evident to you will feel like glib dismissals, your tentative qualms like condemnations. To those who live in a fog of certainty skepticism is unjustified and offensive, to those never sure of themselves it threatens still more painful uncertainty. Either way, soft pedaling disbelief is essential. Learn to pose hard questions without triggering the panic just beneath the surface, or don’t pose them at all. Combining skepticism with courtesy is not impossible. Being unfailingly polite while believing nothing you are told is the pinnacle of diplomacy, after all.

Regulating your frustration at the inability, or refusal, of others to engage with truth and reality is not just about everyone feeling better. Too thorough a distaste for any hint of folly actually cuts you off from what may still be something of substance or beauty lurking under the vagaries and misconceptions. Because people are not intellectually rigorous does not mean they know nothing of value. Be wary of applying a presumptive implausibility test that blinds you to other perspectives and unexpected meaning. You may yet experience a miracle of transubstantiation, identifying actually good ideas and salvaging them from confusion and a deadening aversion to scrutiny.

If you do suspend your intellectual standards and descend into this particular muddle, however, is there any hope of ever seeing clearly again? Are you abdicating your personal responsibility if you fail to unswervingly advocate for reality?

It might be said that reality can take care of itself. More importantly, the rote questioning of whatever doesn’t conform to your own verities can unfairly bring disrepute to the deeper truths of others – yes, they do exist. Don’t confuse your assumptions with reality, and don’t be certain that your access to true knowledge is that much better than everyone else’s. It’s one thing to be always critical, it’s another to be always right.

Even the most intellectually honest people are subject to biases and defense mechanisms, to over confidence in their own perceptions. It’s nearly impossible not to mistake your particular worldview with what is normal and natural.

Mind the words of behavioral economist Kahneman, who won the Nobel Prize for his work on flawed human judgment: “Except for some effects that I attribute mostly to age, my intuitive thinking is just as prone to overconfidence, extreme predictions, and the planning fallacy as it was before I made a study of these issues. I have improved only in my ability to recognize situations in which errors are likely.”

In other words, the way to the healthiest skepticism is to doubt on – don’t abdicate your responsibility to reality — but still temper your doubt with an even healthier humility. That’s the key to successfully living the skeptical life.

Click for a handy cheat sheet on how we get it wrong, courtesy of Business Insider:

Skeptical Life: 20 Cognitive Biases

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