Skeptics in the Media: Gadflies Without a Sting
There is a field beyond all notions of right and wrong. Come, meet me there. – Rumi
We live in a society where the worst humiliation, apparently, is to be duped. If Skeptic magazine’s table of contents reflects the world, we are buried up to our necks in charlatans, pseudoscientists, scam artists, and the self-deluded.
I cannot otherwise explain why being skeptical, without any additional positive contribution, is considered somehow admirable. I dislike skepticism when it sits by the road and shoots down any traveler trying to take a different way. I oppose skepticism when it turns destructive, using disdainful dismissiveness as its chief tactic.
Let me speak personally here as a target of skeptical critiques:
I have rarely met a skeptic who didn’t use ad hominem attacks.
1. Skeptics generally leap to the conclusion that I am naive, self-deluded, or simply unread in the sciences.
2. Skeptics rarely examine the shaky assumptions of their own position.
3. Skeptics believe that doubt is a positive attribute. (Skeptics in person can be appealing, usually in a kind of quirky misanthropic way, although most come off as self-important petty naysayers who try everyone’s patience.)
4. Worst of all, skeptics take pride in defending the status quo and condemn the kind of open-minded inquiry that peers into the unknown.
Some debunking is laudable, and I have no problem with anyone who has punctured some form of charlatanism, but to call skepticism a wholesome, philosophically valid position goes too far. Skepticism is the attitude of doubt, or to dress it up for the dictionary, “the method of suspended judgment, systematic doubt, or criticism characteristic of skeptics.” But in my experience skeptics are overreachers. They equate doubt with logical thinking, so that to be unskeptical makes one irrational. The use of words like pseudoscience, magic, superstition, and ignorance bolsters their central claim that only fools and knaves occupy the low ground outside the skeptical tradition. But Keats, Beethoven, and Van Gogh all worked in irrational fields. And the line between religion and science, which skeptics defend like armed guards, isn’t so definite as they suppose, given the religious bent of Kepler, Newton, Einstein, and other scientific minds great and small.
At its most credible – here I want to show doubt in the best light – skepticism is the handmaiden of science and the scientific method. In and of itself, skepticism has made no actual contribution to science, just as music reviews in the newspaper make no contribution to the art of composition and book reviewing falls far short of writing books. Because it rides on science’s coattails, skepticism lays claim to defeating all manner of fallacies and ignorance when it has done no such thing. Skeptics have not contributed to theories of mathematics or logic in any substantial way, and the chief victory of skepticism — to discredit religious thinking as opposed to scientific thinking — is a battle long ago won.
But skeptics can’t wait to fight the battle again, and people like me, who discuss spirituality and science in the same breath, are vehemently accused of the same ignorant tendencies as fundamentalists waiting for Jesus to return tomorrow. So why be skeptical at all? What science has defeated is the great tradition of idealism. This tradition has hundreds of branches, but let’s accept the simple dictionary definition: idealism is “a theory that ultimate reality lies in a realm transcending phenomena.” By nature most people are idealistic. They accept God and have a will to believe. They are open to experiences beyond their five senses, such as love and beauty. They assume that there is an ultimate Truth.
Idealism thus persists in popular culture, but science has felled it on practically every academic front. To be honest, the assault was stunning, and victory was based on the simplest tactic. “Show me what you can prove, not what you believe.” Using experimental proof as its standard, science sent idealism scurrying in baffled confusion. Darwin defeated teleology, the age-old principle that Nature has a goal and purposeful design. Materialism relegated God to an unprovable hypothesis, along with everything associated with the numinous, such as the soul, the afterlife, and religious inspiration. Philosophy scrambled to shed Plato and Hegel and become scientific through the efforts of G. E. Moore and Wittgenstein, later morphing into the work of Austin and the ordinary language school of British philosophy.
Idealism failed to strike back. True, the French philosopher Henri Bergson, who theorized about an invisible life force or “elan vital,” won the Nobel Prize in 1926, but that was for literature, a stark acknowledgment that any theory about invisible realities deserved to be considered imaginary, or at best a matter of faith.
To say that the victory of science was the victory of skepticism is misleading, however. If science had been merely skeptical, it would have merely replaced belief with disbelief. This it didn’t do; science gave new grounds for knowledge that belief couldn’t match. To disdainfully dismiss any immaterial phenomenon, as skeptics do, actually betrays the scientific method, which allows any hypothesis into argument in an open-minded tolerance for the next ridiculous speculation that may turn out to be true.
Skeptics defend the necessity to keep science and religion in their own proper place. Imagine a man walking into a room, and the skeptic who is there to vet his credentials says, “Well, I see you believe in God, but you also do good science, so come on in. Just don’t mix the two.” It disturbs me that the man being vetted could be Albert Einstein, Wolfgang Pauli, or Erwin Schrodinger. Asking a great mind to separate faith and science asks too much, and I think it asks too much of lesser minds, too. Why not try to see if the schism can be repaired?
Science emerged from the Copernican revolution as the winner, the new paradigm, to use Thomas Kuhn’s famous term. But science is wrong if it believes it is the last paradigm or the only one that deserves credence. The nature of new paradigms, as Kuhn wrote, is that they explain more than the previous paradigm. Thermodynamics tells us more about heat than the medieval concept of phlogiston. Modern science explains a lot and keeps explaining more. But outside the fence one still perceives a host of inexplicable mysteries, and once it becomes respectable to approach them again, when God, consciousness, metaphysics, cosmic evolution, and meta-biology rid themselves of the taint of idealism, the next paradigm will emerge. It may happen through super-string theory or cyber theory or a field as yet unnamed.
If anyone doubts that these enigmas exist, please Google any term I’ve used here. Delve into the anthropic principle, Rupert Sheldrake’s morphogenetic fields, Susan Blackmore’s books on consciousness, current neurological theory as represented by Humberto Maturana’s and Francisco Varela’s The Tree of Knowledge, along with more imaginative but to me still insightful books by Lyall Watson. You will find countless sites and articles on the current state of speculative thought. If you are certain that I, or anyone like me, is a fool or a knave, keep searching until you find a writer you feel you can trust.
If you feel that nobody can be trusted, then keep your allegiance to skepticism, and enjoy its attitude of self-reinforced doubt.
Go to The Power of Positive Skepticism – A Reply to Deepak Chopra, by Michael Shermer, below.