Skepticism: What it is and Why it's Important
Updated: May 12, 2022
“Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.” ~Voltaire
‘Skepticism is the first milestone along the road of philosophy’. I had read this line somewhere online many months ago, never imagining just how big of a part something as profound as this would play in my life. Now keep in mind, it’s easy to go down the rabbit hole into a topic like this but I’m going to try keeping it succinct. First, we’ll explore what I’m referring to by ‘skepticism’, given the traditional meaning of the world as well as my own understanding of it. Then, I’ll address how it plays a role in our lives today and why it’s important for each of us to cultivate it. Let’s begin.
What is Skepticism?
On the surface, the sound of someone being described as a ‘skeptic’ is typically associated with a few generalisations that stem from the dictionary definition of the word. The definition goes something like: ‘A skeptic is a person who does not believe something is true unless they see evidence.’ In plain English, this definition doesn’t raise too many eyebrows. But in the field of philosophy, it’s not an exaggeration to say that this makes for somewhat of an oversimplifcation. This is because skeptics are doubters, who take any and every claim to the truth as a matter for debate. To some extent, we’re all skeptics. We rely on doubt and consistent behaviour to find out who to confide in, what our emotional and physical trigger points are, whether the next new and trendy FAD is worth trying out, and also whether to trust our mind or our senses.
The degree to which each one of us is a skeptic, greatly differs of course. It depends on our way of thinking, and more importantly, everything we’ve experienced to this day that has resulted in what we call our persona, our self. So it’s not just a matter of showing evidence. It’s more about how that evidence aligns with our way of thinking, our morals and beliefs. Simply put, the evidence for a claim might be present, but it’s still possible to question it to see whether or not that evidence stands firmly under all circumstances. It’s important for me to mention that skepticism is not the same as curiosity. Curiosity is simply the desire to know something, and that’s it; it stops there. You want to know something? Sweet, you go and learn or find out about it and then you’re ready to move on to the next thing you’d like to know. Skepticism involves wanting to know something, and questioning whether or not you need to believe it before making a decision. Curiosity does not necessarily include skepticism, but skepticism most often does include curiosity.
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Now based on this, you might be thinking that a skeptic sounds like someone who would stop at no length to go on and question each and every bit of information he/she comes across in life. An extreme example can be taken of the Greek philosopher Socrates and the French philosopher René Descartes. The latter being one of the forefathers of skepticism, particularly in relation to its role in epistemology, i.e. the study of nature, origin and human knowledge. Socrates on the other hand was renowned for being incredibly annoying to talk to. He would question everything, justifying his behaviour by claiming that he knows nothing and is eager to learn more. Socrates would ask you to define something, like a table for example. You might say: "A table is a furniture object with 1 or more legs that has a flat surface you can place other smaller items on for eating or work purposes." But then, Socrates would point to a chair or a stool, saying that "it’s possible for these to fit that definition as well, would that make them the same as a table?"
Yeah....he was not the best conversationalist, but was widely regarded as the wisest man of his time.
Skepticism in Today’s World
In 2022, going extreme with skepticism is not advocated for. Socrates may have been the wisest man of his time, but he also had plenty of time to go around nibbling at his townsfolk’s brains. We on the other hand, have plenty of things to grab our attention that the ancient philosophers didn’t. Things that don’t necessarily include sipping on wine and watching gladiator battles all day. But even then, a healthy amount of skepticism can be a useful trait to have, especially in today’s world given the amount of information and content available.
Everywhere you look, you’re gonna see some form of information about something. Any field you can think of, has both experts who’ve learned from study and experience about it, as well as pseudo experts who trust wiki sites and reddit forums as their sole source of information. Does this mean we trust only the former experts and not the latter? No. Is it possible for those reddit forums to contain information shared by an expert to help a pseudo expert learn more about the field? Yes. Is it possible for the opposite to happen? Yes. Can I know for sure what’s true based off one reading? No. Can I question it in this manner and test multiple sources of news to get a better understanding? Yes.
Open up any news site and look at the language they use. More often than not, news articles are written cleverly in a way to influence us to buy into what they’re talking about. They use trigger words that appeal to our emotions, to incite positive moods like happiness, pride, inspiration and love; as well as negative emotions such as envy, sorrow, lust and anger. When carried by these emotions, it’s easy to believe these articles on the surface and accept whatever’s written to be true. The result? A skewed and narrow assumption of a topic that we may know very little about, but one that we share word with our friends and family to assert the fact that we are informed, and keep a tab on the events taking place in our world. Only up until we’re standing amongst a group of people, one of whom happens to be an expert in the field we read that news about, who can’t help but correct us in our assumption, knowing there’s more to the story than that.
Even social media sites like Instagram and Facebook have become mediums for sharing information that is so easily accessible, it’s often taken up on face value without feeling the need to question it. Now all it takes is a simple headline about a murder in a country or a terrorist attack in a country for us to make up our minds that one particular sub group of people in the world are just, horrible in nature. Without knowing their circumstances, their intentions and what made them act in that manner, we make a judgment for better or worse, that ends up slowly affecting how we view our society.
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Once again, this doesn’t mean we should go on and cross-check each and every article or news piece we see. Trivial news pieces that don’t have the potential to influence our morals and beliefs about the world, don’t require examining to this extent, because believing or not believing in it won’t affect our life in any meaningful way. For example, I recently read an article about a man living in a small apartment in London who got a tattoo of Freddie Mercury on his lower back after watching Bohemian Rhapsody. Whether I choose to believe in this piece of news or not, is likely not going to affect the way I think or feel towards people in general, not unless I despise Queen and their music from the bottom of my heart, which I don’t. However, a news article about something like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, or about our politicians’ corrupt behaviour, or even something in our day to day lives such as hearing about people gossiping about us, or an acquaintance of ours telling us that our partner is cheating on us, is more likely to affect our mood and way of thinking.
When we take a moment to ask, ‘is this true?’ how do I know it’s true?, we’re putting our own ability to rationalise and understand to the test by choosing what to accept and what not to. As a result, we will inevitably come to the conclusion that is: nothing is absolute and change is constant. It doesn’t matter how much we read about a particular topic, it’s impossible to know everything about it. We can read 10, 20 articles about Russia’s invasion, we could watch 4-5 YouTube videos about it too, but we still don’t know for absolutely certainty, what made Russia invade Ukraine. Most of what we would come across, would in fact be speculation. Even if the president of Russia publicly makes his intentions clear, we don’t know what he’s thinking and whether he’s lying or telling the truth. And so, by choosing not to blindly believe what’s happened on face value, we acknowledge that we may not be well-versed enough to speak on this topic.
Similarly, we might hear about someone cheating in a relationship and instantly assume that the cheater is at fault. However, taking a moment to stop and question what motivated the cheater to do so, may reveal some truths about the relationship that weren’t mentioned before. It may not justify the act of cheating, but it may help us become more empathetic towards the people involved, especially if they’re close to us.
Why Skepticism is Helpful
Skepticism has changed the way I look at this world. Any superstitions that guided my underlying beliefs have been eliminated. I no longer condone or partake in behavior that has no purpose. I like to find the cause of things, as many things as I can. If something has a reason behind it, I want to know what that reason is and will question it until I am satisfied. I’m also happy to accept not being able to understand the reason behind something, knowing that at least there still exists a driving factor regardless of my understanding. I also believe in a ‘live and let live’ approach to society. I am not concerned with how people carry themselves, what they believe in, what they consider to be true. It’s not in my control to change them and nor do I want to. The moment they decide to instil their beliefs on me, that’s where the skepticism will kick in. Not with the intention to spite the person or to blatantly disregard what they believe to be true, but only if our thoughts and values clash with one another and I simply, need to know more, to question more before making up my mind.
We are often put in positions where someone above us in the social or professional hierarchy gives us advice or tells us what to do. Many of us take such an individual’s advice, not heeding to consider why we are doing what they told us to do. The fact that they are above us, would probably mean that they’re right in their actions, or so we think. By questioning what their advice is and seeking to know where it’s coming from, we are giving ourselves some value as well. The value to make sound judgments and think on our own, based on all the knowledge and experience we’ve accummulated. If it makes sense, we’ll go ahead with what they asked us to do. If not, we question, and question more. If they indeed are right, they should be able to provide a valid reasoning behind their instructions. If not, then we know how to proceed.
We all have that one person in our lives we know of who we associate as a ‘yes person’. Someone who agrees to pretty much everything you say and do. It’s exhausting to speak to someone like this, because you know for a fact you won’t get any constructive or critical feedback from them. You might make a serious mistake in your life and they might still tell you to your face that you were right in your actions, only to ensure they’re in your good graces. If your skepticism kicks in, you’ll be able to discern that they’re not being genuine, and that it’s probably not worth speaking to them all the time. Alternatively, the conversations we have with individuals who speak their mind are a lot more enjoyable, because we can often assume they’re being transparent with us. Constructive and critical feedback is essential for us to recognise our shortcomings and get better. A little bit of conflict never hurts anyone.
Skepticism can also help us become more resistent to being manipulated by someone else. The essence of manipulation requires the person in question to believe. Believe in the manipulator’s words, actions, gestures and promises. Sometimes it’s not all that obvious, and we might fall for something that can have serious consequences for us. Manipulators thrive on people who choose to only see the good in people. They target the gullible and innocent, knowing that they won’t question or find gaps in the argument. They also target the desperate, who they appeal to with fancy promises about getting wealthy or finding love. Either through the next Cryptocurrency to invest in or the next dating app that’ll make your life better.
By wearing a skeptic lens, we approach these individuals with a mindset that accepts the fact that they might have good, or bad intentions. There is certainly good out there, but not to the scale that we like to think. Question, and question further. Anyone who is lying to you, or trying to get in your head and manipulate you will not like it. Because the more we ask them to explain, the more they have to justify themselves, to extend their lies, which is far from easy.
I’ve found that by adopting skepticism in my day to day living, I’ve been able to hold lesser opinions, and care lesser about worldly issues that don’t concern me. I don’t engage in conversations about topics that I don’t know about, and when I find topics that I do know about, I go in accepting the possibility that my ideas might be wrong, and that I’m open to have my mind changed. Skepticism has allowed me to find my own ideas, morals and values, and has helped reinforce them by questioning their validity and finding out whether or not I should believe in them. If I find a rational enough answer to the claim, I know what to do.
We spend so much of our time looking outwards, and not nearly enough looking inwards. When we start looking inside of us, and questioning everything we know, questioning everything we see and hear; that’s when it begins.
That’s when we find ourselves, and become more confident in knowing our place in this world.
Check out this podcast episode for the Ideas & More show on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.