Ideas about scepticism are closely linked to ideas about the certainty or lack of certainty of knowledge. Consider these three alternatives:
Philosophical or Cartesian Skepticism
Like with the expression ‘Knowledge is Power’, this Q is no doubt going to attract students who want to write about Descartes and his ‘method of doubt’ summed up in his famous cogito ergo sum. Descartes was willing to question everything, including his own existence, in an attempt to find those ‘clear and distinct ideas’ which would form the foundation of all human knowledge. His argument goes something like this:
P1. My body is something the existence of which I can doubt.
P2. My mind is something the existence of which I cannot doubt.
Conclusion: Therefore, I am the same as my mind; I am a thinking being.
Descartes claims that this is one absolutely certain piece of knowledge and with this in hand, he argued that the only certain knowledge we can have comes through reason and not the senses.
One of the great problems with this idea of knowledge is Descartes’ belief in the dualism of mind and body; he thought that they were separate entities and so left himself open to the extremely difficult issue of explaining HOW the two entities interact. If the body is physical and made of matter, how can something so non-physical and immaterial as a mind or soul possibly influence it or cause it to do anything? Without a clear answer to this question, Descartes’ explanation of how we make knowledge begins to collapse.
Scientific skepticism is less to do with issues about certainty of knowledge and more to do with the idea of testing knowledge against evidence. This has evolved alongside the ‘scientific method’ ever since Sir Francis Bacon introduced us to its basic principles in the 17th Century: theory, experiment, observation, prediction. Michael Shermer discusses a ‘Baloney Detection Kit’ which uses scientific principles to help us filter out strange beliefs by means of grounding our beliefs in pertinent modes of questioning and in evidence. The project of such skepticism is thereby to distinguish between scientific knowledge (eg. about influence of genes on human behaviour) and pseudoscientific knowledge (eg. about the influence of astrology on human behaviour.) Where scientific skepticism converges with philosophical skepticism is its insistence that scientific knowledge (or theory) is only provisional. Think for example about the theory of dark matter: the theory allows us to make predictions about this strange ‘stuff’ of nature, but we have little evidence to justify any KNOWLEDGE about how this phenomenon works. So we need a combination of better theory and better data to help justify that ‘dark mater’ exists.
A problem with skepticism is to sort out the skeptics from the so called ‘pseudoskeptics’ – those who use scientific language to discredit or refute beliefs but in reality fail to apply the scientific method rigorously. Consider the arguments of Deepak Chopra about consciousness and the afterlife in which he uses language from neuroscience to present his conclusions: "And life is, as he said, it's a process. It's one process. It's perception, cognition, emotions, moods, imagination, insight, intuition, creativity, choice making. These are not the activities of your networks. You orchestrate these activities through your synaptic networks. But if I ask you to imagine the color red or look at the color red, there's no red in your brain. There's just electrical firings." (Quoted in Michael Shermer, who calls this the ‘woo-woo’ approach to explaining beliefs.)
How do we differentiate between scientific skeptics and pseudo skeptics? Read this: ‘On Pseudo-Skepticism A Commentary by Marcello Truzzi’ or this Wikipedia article on pseudoskepticism which summarises Truzzi’s ideas neatly.
This can take two possible forms: either using one’s faith to doubt scientific explanations about the world which manifests itself in questioning the knowledge of science (eg. that the universe began with a ‘big bang’) or having doubts about one’s own faith which manifests itself in questioning the grounds of one’s belief in God as a way of reaching a higher level of faith (eg. the problem of evil – why does God allow evil acts?) While questioning one’s faith can lead to a stronger knowledge of self and purpose in life, bringing empowerment and wellbeing (think of the works of Martin Luther King and Gandhi), the questioning of science can lead to a more dogmatic and narrow minded approach to knowledge bringing great disharmony, bigotry and destruction (think of Galileo’s imprisonment for asserting the truth of the heliocentric theory). In its most extreme form, religious skepticism can lead to the kind of radical ideological hold on faith which leads to terrorism.
Read some of these articles on the positive effects of religious doubt while some of the dangers of religious uncertainty are explored here...
The language we use is so important in these matters. Proper scientific always tries to establish knowledge ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ – the theories of science are provisional and true to a high degree of probability and can be modified when better evidence comes along. Skeptics never ask for knowledge ‘beyond (all possible) doubt’. In science (and philosophy), it’s a good thing to be familiar with the ambiguities of the word ‘proof’.
Consider a real life issue in this light: the problems in Syria in September 2013 after Assad had allegedly used chemical weapons against civilians. The US government was ready to attack because it believed there was proof ‘beyond any reasonable doubt’ that Assad had used chemical weapons. The Russians argued to wait until the it could be proved ‘beyond doubt’ that chemical weapons had indeed been used by Assad.
Usually, when skepticism of any kind asserts that knowledge is true ‘beyond (all possible) doubt’ alarm bells should ring. Read this post by Stephen Law about ‘scales of reasonableness’ to see the difference. What sort of knowledge can BE beyond all possible doubt? In the Syrian case, however, we see that while the US politicians used words that sounded good, it was the Russian President’s caution that actually won out and prevented an all out strike – in spite of his fuzzy request for something that any self-respecting skeptic would never ask for: knowledge beyond (all possible) doubt...