The Value of Skepticism

When we look at the whole of human history, there is no doubt that we can find a plethora of beliefs that were held by a majority which proved themselves to be false upon closer inspection.  I think here of some very obvious examples: that the Sun went round the Earth, that illnesses could be relieved by bloodletting, or that enslaving another human being was a moral action.  In recent history, claims of paranormal or supernatural experience, dubious claims of alternative medicine, or even simple things like a fear of going into the basement, should give us pause to wonder if the beliefs on which we are taking our actions are reasonably true.  I doubt very seriously that any reasonable person wants to take an action that is unjustified, and I am sure you are in agreement when I say that we want to believe things because we have our own reasons for believing them, rather than accepting those ideas that are passed on to us by our social environment without critical analysis.

The best way to accomplish these two goals is to apply critical thinking and skepticism to all claims put forth.  Here I think of the 17th Century French philosopher René Descartes, who brought about a revival in skepticism when he sought to establish truths in life that were indubitable; that is, ideas that could not be doubted.  Though I think in practice we need not subscribe to a form of radical skepticism that would leave us in a state of complete lack of knowledge (a state of epistemological darkness), I think the best way to ascertain truth is to withhold assenting to a claim until we have been presented with supporting arguments or evidence that we consider sufficient.

This question of sufficiency is a tough one to answer, as it relies on a subjective view of what constitutes as good evidence, and the grey area between certain knowledge and complete lack of knowledge leaves a lot of room for each of us to determine what is sufficient for us to believe.  Still, I think there are tools we can use to prevent ourselves from being deceived by other people and our own internal biases and psychological make-up.

Namely, I think understanding what constitutes good science and what constitutes good reason will allow us to separate the wheat from the chaff.  When assessing arguments, it is important to be able to identify logical fallacies and poor evidence.  If we can use these tools to determine what arguments are good and what arguments are poor, we can proportion our beliefs to the evidence and reason that warrants such a belief.  By doing so, we can be relatively confident that our beliefs are our own, that they are reasonably true, and that any action we take based on those beliefs is justified and rational.


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