But what a fool believes he sees
No wise man has the power to reason away
What seems to be
Is always better than nothing
– What a Fool Believes, Michael McDonald & Kenny Loggins
There have been some interesting comments in the last couple of days on relating to faith and belief. Coincidentally, yesterday I ran across the new 2008 The World Question Center question, “WHAT HAVE YOU CHANGED YOUR MIND ABOUT? WHY?“
Most of what I’ve read so far has actually be pretty disappointing, with some people clearly not wanting to admit they’ve changed their mind at all about anything important. However, I was a bit intrigued by the answer from Rupert Sheldrake, who I admit I’ve never heard of. However, he’s apparently smart enough for someone to have felt that he may have changed his mind about something important. Whoever he is, he seems to be something of a cynic; probably not the sort to expect to liven up a party. His answer begins,
I used to think of skepticism as a primary intellectual virtue, whose goal was truth. I have changed my mind. I now see it as a weapon.
Well, alrighty then. Kind of makes you sorry you asked. He then credits this revelation to the Creationists:
Creationists opened my eyes. They use the techniques of critical thinking to expose weaknesses in the evidence for natural selection, gaps in the fossil record and problems with evolutionary theory. Is this because they are seeking truth? No. They believe they already know the truth. Skepticism is a weapon to defend their beliefs by attacking their opponents.
He rather fair-handedly points to the use of skepticism as a form of counter-argument in business, religion (of course), and even science. Although he does seem, as I’ve said, to be a rather dour fellow, I would tend to agree with him that skepticism is not usually objective. But then, I don’t see how it really could be. If someone came to you with a new, rather remarkable scientific discovery, most people would tend to respond either positively (“cool! let’s see if we can do it again!”) or negatively (“that doesn’t seem right, you’d better double-check your math”). And, I don’t see a problem with either one. The scientific process would seem to benefit from testing by both sides.
In practice, the goal of skepticism is not the discovery of truth, but the exposure of other people’s errors. It plays a useful role in science, religion, scholarship, and common sense. But we need to remember that it is a weapon serving belief or self-interest; we need to be skeptical of skeptics. The more militant the skeptic, the stronger the belief.
Here, we must be careful. is there only one goal of skepticism? I don’t think so; certainly the discovery of truth could be a goal of skepticism, along with showing error. If we don’t try to expose errors, then we certainly have no interest in the truth (this is perhaps a bigger problem than insincere skeptics). The Apostle Paul, in 1 Corinthians, even mentions the positive side of quarrels, as serving to show who is indeed correct. Again, without the challenge of thinkers who disagree, error would continue.
In many instances, however, I think Mr. Sheldrake is correct. Some playing the role of skeptics may have no interest in truth, but rather are trying to obfuscate the truth. We must indeed be skeptical of the motivation of skeptics, however be willing to engage even an insincere skepticism when it serves the purpose of testing that which is held as truth. Only a fool (tying this back to the opening lyrics) fails to entertain challenges to his position.