In Defense of Skepticism

Though it would be natural enough to infer from the title of this essay that it will be a polemic against religion, yet it is really not religion that concerns me, even if it is inevitable that the subject of religion will be a part of it. What I wish to defend is skepticism understood in its broadest sense, which arises from a general disinclination to believe.

One of the things that always bemused me when watching The X Files (1993-2002) was the sign over Mulder’s desk that read, “I want to believe.”  And as if to make sure we understood that this attitude was the quintessence of Mulder’s character, it was even included in the title of the 2008 movie based on this series:  The X Files:  I Want to Believe.  Now, this represents more than just being open-minded, in which one is willing to consider it at least possible that there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, and that some of it visits us from time to time.  No, this is much more than that.

Had Mulder’s sign read, “I hope it’s true,” that would have been perfectly understandable.  Alternatively, had his sign read, “I want to know,” that would have been understandable as well, and it would have been an attitude with which Scully would have been in complete agreement.  In that case, the difference would have been between Mulder, who hopes that there are aliens from other planets visiting us in flying saucers, and Scully, who thinks the whole business is just wishful thinking; but in either case, whatever the truth of the matter, they would both want to know it. But Mulder did not want know.  He wanted to believe. What does that mean?

I said this essay would not principally be about religion, but it is necessary for me to note that there is one sense in which I understand wanting to believe, and that is the case with religion. Of course, not all religions have the same attitude toward belief.  It is my understanding that Judaism is not about believing things; it is about doing things.  I have even read that one can be a Jew without believing in God, provided one observes the Sabbath, eats kosher food, wears a yarmulke, and so on.  That may be a rather extreme interpretation of Judaism, to which many may take exception, but the relative importance of doing over believing is probably correct.  At the other extreme are the religions of Christianity and Islam, in which belief is paramount.

Regarding Christianity, children are usually told that good people go to Heaven and bad people go to Hell, because getting children to behave is a difficult challenge, and parents are not averse to using a little superstition to fill in for them when they are not around.  But as one grows older, one learns that belief is the sine qua non of salvation.  Christians may debate whether faith alone is sufficient for salvation, or whether both faith and works are necessary; but in either case, without faith, there is no salvation.

There are two reasons for this.  First, by their very nature, religious beliefs are not acquired by observing the world around us.  The only reassurance people have that there is a God or an afterlife is that from the time they were five years old, they found themselves surrounded by other people who also believed those things.  Therefore, any encounter with disbelief is extremely disconcerting, because it undermines their faith.  Religious belief is a house of cards in which each person’s belief reinforces the beliefs of others. Disbelief is a puff of wind that with so little force can collapse the entire edifice.  It is for this reason that there is so much hostility to the atheist, the infidel, and the apostate.

Second, if the priest is to have power, it is essential that people believe. Whether they sin or not is a relatively minor consideration.  In fact, sin may even conduce to the power of the priest, provided people feel the need to turn to him for forgiveness.  To this end, the doctrine of original sin guarantees that everyone is so sinful from the moment of birth, or even while in the womb, according to St. Augustine, that only by believing that Jesus died for one’s sins can one be saved.  Therefore, the power of the priest is not weakened by sin, but strengthened by it. Disbelief, on the other hand, is a threat to his power, and cannot be tolerated.

So important is this need to have others believe, that those who do not are threatened with eternal damnation.  Unfortunately, since belief is largely involuntary, this can lead to a great deal of stress for those who find themselves unable to believe the teachings of childhood, but are unable to rid themselves of the superstitious fears instilled by such teachings.  They are persuaded by Pascal’s wager that there is not much to lose by believing in God, even if he does not exist; whereas there is a lot to lose by not believing in God when Hell yawns before you. When such a person says, “I want to believe,” that is something I completely understand.

But what does it mean when someone like Mulder wants to believe, even though there is no punishment for not believing?  For some people, like those who dabble in the occult or New Age philosophy, I suppose beliefs must be like delicious morsels, just waiting to be tasted.  As for me, I have never wanted to believe anything in my entire life.  Ultimately, I end up believing something only when the alternatives require more credulity on my part than that about which I might have some initial doubts.  For example, I believe there is an external, physical reality: by nature, because it is instinctive to do so; and philosophically, because I would otherwise have to believe something preposterous, such as Descartes’ evil genius, Berkeley’s God, or the solipsistic hallucinations of my own mind.

And now I arrive, finally, at my skepticism regarding science.  Let me begin with global warming.  I regard the issue of climate change as a complex subject, which, quite frankly, I have no interest in, have not studied, do not intend to, and am content to have no beliefs on the subject whatsoever.  I have a friend who adamantly denies that human beings cause global warming, and, as she has advanced degrees in science, she becomes exasperated with me when I refuse to accept her authority on this matter.  By the same token, there is an equally hostile attitude on the other side of this issue toward those who do not enthusiastically embrace the doctrine of climate change, calling them science-deniers, and comparing them with people who do not believe in evolution.

The point of this comparison is to make people ashamed to confess their doubts on the subject, lest they be lumped in with Christian fundamentalists.  Of course, there is a world of difference between the two, and it goes back to my point about physical objects, which I believe to exist as a kind of default position.  In other words, if it turns out that there is anthropogenic climate change, I will not be surprised, because that will mean that the scientific consensus was correct.  If it turns out that there is no anthropogenic climate change, I will not be surprised, because scientists have been wrong before.  My overall world view will not be affected one way or the other.  With evolution, on the other hand, the matter is quite different.  I would like to say that I believe that life evolved owing to the courses in biology I took in high school and college, along with the half-dozen or so books I have read on the subject since, but that would not be true.  I accepted evolution as true when I first heard about it at the age of eight, mostly for lack of any credible alternatives.  To reject evolution, one must either believe that there is spontaneous generation, in which, for instance, worms spontaneously arise out of the mud; or one must accept some cockamamie nonsense, like that found in the Book of Genesis.  So, unlike the case with global warming, if it turns out that I am wrong about evolution, and that in fact, the world is only six thousand years old, and Adam and Eve are my ancestors, then I might just as well quit thinking altogether, except, perhaps, for trying to figure out how to avoid going to Hell.

An important consideration in my skepticism here is that there is nothing I can do about global warming, even if I were interested in the subject enough to study it.  I could spend the next several years mastering all the mathematics and science needed to evaluate the papers that have been written on the subject, and it would have no practical consequence whatsoever. What the world does or does not do about climate change will not be affected by what I know or merely believe.  Hypothetically, if it were up to me, or if we were taking a vote on the subject, I would, in a manner similar to Pascal’s wager, vote to assume that there is man-made global warming, and institute things like cap-and-trade; for regardless of the truth of the matter, there is more to lose by not doing what needs to be done, than there is by doing something that turns out to be unnecessary.  Unlike Pascal’s wager, however, it would not be necessary that I believe, only that I act.  And whereas beliefs are largely involuntary, our actions are mostly under our control.

Another issue in which one is likely to be castigated for being a science-denier concerns genetically-modified organisms, in particular, the corn that has been modified by Monsanto in order to tolerate Roundup, which is a herbicide.  Here too I am skeptical, but in this case, there is something I can do about it, thus justifying some effort on my part to become knowledgeable on the subject, although not enough, unfortunately, for me to reach any definite conclusion. Nevertheless, I can buy organic corn.  And my ability to avoid this modified corn would be further enhanced were there mandatory labeling of such, but there is a lot of resistance to that, which only makes me suspicious.  At the present time, I will not buy corn unless it is organic, just to be sure.  This is not because I believe that the corn is bad for me, for it may well turn out to be harmless.  But neither do I believe the studies that conclude that this corn and its associated poison are safe, science notwithstanding. Once more this is like Pascal’s wager, only applied to actions rather than beliefs.  I have more to lose by eating Roundup-laced corn should it turn out to be dangerous, than I have to lose by eating organic corn only, even if Roundup turns out to be harmless.

In short, I am perfectly content to be skeptical about science, especially when corporate profits and political power are at stake, and will gladly endure the obloquy of those who find my skepticism in such matters intolerable.  And even when I am forced to act, and must choose to do one thing rather than another, I can remain skeptical while I do so.

Finally, there are certain propositions about which the expression of even a hint of doubt is absolutely forbidden.  Even to bring such subjects up, as something doubted by others, though not oneself, would incur the wrath of the mob.  On these matters, it is prudent to be silent. Fortunately, there is no Hell for having doubts, and one can always be skeptical in private. And this suits me fine, because I do not want to believe.

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7 thoughts on “In Defense of Skepticism

      • What then if I quote a fellow skeptic?
        Crick is credited with discovering DNA as a highly ordered and sophisticated sequence of information at the core of all living things. The truth is in you.

        “An honest man, armed with all the knowledge available to us now, could only state that in some sense, the origin of life appears at the moment to be almost a miracle, so many are the conditions which would have had to have been satisfied to get it going.” –Francis Crick, biochemist and spiritual skeptic, shared the Nobel Prize for discovering the molecular structure of DNA

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        • Actually, it is a pretty weak claim to say that the origin of life or anything else “appears at the moment to be almost a miracle.” Look at the qualifications: “appears,” “at the moment,” and “almost.” In other words, Crick is not saying, “The origin of life was a miracle, and therefore there must be a God.” He is not even saying it is almost a miracle, but only that it appears to be almost a miracle, and only at the moment (it might not appear to be almost that way in the future).

          Being an atheist, I do not believe in miracles, if by “miracle” one means something caused by God that would not have happened naturally. As might be expected, then, I believe that life arose on this planet naturally and without supernatural assistance. But even I could admit, without modifying my atheistic views one whit, that a lot of things, including the origin of life, “appear at the moment to be almost a miracle.”

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          • “I now believe there is a God…I now think it [the evidence] does point to a creative Intelligence almost entirely because of the DNA investigations. What I think the DNA material has done is that it has shown, by the almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements which are needed to produce life, that intelligence must have been involved in getting these extraordinarily diverse elements to work together.” Anthony Flew

            Antony Flew – He was on a level similar to Christopher Hitchens for 50 years prior to Hitch.

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