What is Skepticism?
What is skepticism? Or as the British spell it, “scepticism”. According to the dictionary definition of skepticism, it means:
“An attitude of doubt or a disposition to incredulity either in general or toward a particular object” – Meriam-Webster
Which is true. That is generally how we define skepticism, but it is not the complete picture. Skepticism means more than the attitude of doubt. Skepticism not only refers to an attitude but also a set of beliefs as well. A set of beliefs that changes by context.
Every discipline has their schools of thought. Law has their different views on how to interpret legislatures, finance has their different views on how to manage a portfolio, and marketing has their different views on how to acquire customers. Which means, when someone in those disciplines makes a claim, there is likely another person to doubt them.
Here is where skepticism starts to take on different and slightly varied meanings, meanings outside of the ordinary dictionary definition. Skepticism has different meanings in science, in religion, in philosophy, and in ethics. Not everyone agrees with the views of a particular religion, a particular political claim, or even a particular moral worldview. These disagreements lead to doubts, and those doubts come to be about something specific. And when that happens, we get new varieties of skepticism.
And not only do we see different meanings of skepticism in different disciplines, but we also see skepticism be carried out and used in different ways. Let’s explore these below.
What is Skepticism in Science
Skepticism in science takes on as many forms as there are disciplines. There are sociologists who are skeptics about, that is they doubt the validity or truth of, evolutionary biology; there are neuroscientists who are skeptics about Freudian psychology; and there are even physicists who are skeptics about fields like astrophysics! Skepticism in science can mean many different things.
Take as a starting point, sociology. In sociology, skepticism can come in the form of a blank slate theorist. A blank slate theorist denies the existence of innate human nature, and argues for the extreme view that humans are determined by the environment, especially the social variables of the environment. This debate is sometimes called the nature versus nurture debate. Here, we can say that the blank slate theorist is a skeptic about human nature.
Our second example of skepticism in science is in Psychology. Freudian psychology was quite popular before modern materialist neuroscience came into fruition. But once materialist neuroscience indeed came, many people became doubtful of Freudian psychology. Freudian psychology attributes traits like aggression and impulsiveness to our unconscious minds, and rationality and patience to our super-egos. Freud comes to explain human behavior by these ideas. Yet when neuroscientists analyze the brain, they come to find a picture which is far more nuanced than what Freud portrayed, and so the neuroscientists are quite skeptical of Freud’s ideas. For instance, Freud believed we repressed trauma, yet modern neuroscience research shows not only does trauma damage long-term memory via cortisol releases into the hippocampi, thereby promoting the forgetting of trauma, but things like PTSD seem to suggest the inability to repress trauma; because those who have PTSD have too many triggers that remind them of their trauma. All of this leads to a general skepticism towards Freudian psychology.
Our last example comes from history. In history there are more skeptics than historians. Why? Because history is notoriously riddled with problems of developing accurate narratives. For instance, Livy in “Rise of Rome” has given very fantastical tales about the rise of the roman empire, yet there is scant archaeological evidence to support all the claims made. So, due to lack of empirical evidence, many are skeptics about his views on Roman history.
Skepticism in Religion
Skepticism in religion usually applies to a few general areas. Some of those are people who doubt the texts, people who doubt the justifications for God, and people who doubt the character of God.
When someone is a skeptic about biblical texts, it usually means they doubt the origins or claims of the texts. Often the evidence for the claims of the texts is little to none, or has to rely on very strange ways to interpret the meaning of words. And likewise, when we ask from where the religious texts came, we are often given more word-of-mouth evidence.
But someone can believe in God without reliance upon religious text, which many do! For example, the prime-mover argument is often given as a justification for God. That is, if we accept that everything has a cause, then something must have initiated the chain of causation. To which the religious among us say, “the uncaused cause is God”. This is loosely what is known as the prime-mover argument.
And there is no shortage of skepticism surrounding that argument. Someone people believe that cause is not linear, that it is instead circular: meaning, A caused B, B caused A. Others believe the initial mover does not have to be a God of any sort. Despite the personification of the prime-mover we often see, others believe the prime-mover can be something less personified, like the big bang.
So, skepticism in religion looks slightly different than in science because the belief sets are quite different.
Skepticism in Ethics
One popular form of skepticism in ethics is non-cognitivism. This school of thought believes that moral statements lack reference and truth conditions, and that moral claims are actually unconscious attitudes motivated by desire, pleasure, and etc. In other words, there is no verification for their assertions.
To elaborate, when someone asserts that “stealing is evil,” for the non-cognitivist, the sentence is borderline meaningless. There is no property called “evil,” of which can be verified by conditions in the world. So the sentence ought to be doubted or dubbed false.
Moreover, when people then suggest that the truth or falsehood comes from agreements made between people, the non-cognitivist says there is still no truth conditions to be found inside the head in regards to the statements. And so they relegate the sentence to being caused by a desire or some mental attitude.
Essentially, non-cognitivists are skeptics about how language is used, they have a very specific view on the nature of language and rely on that view for both truth claims and skepticism.
Another example of skepticism in ethics regards innate morality versus constructed morality. As we have seen earlier, some people believe morality comes from agreements between one another. But not everyone who believes in morals likewise believes in this agreement view.
Instead, there are some who believe morality is innate. That is, the brain evolved very specific neural circuitry for moral cognition and behavior. And so, for them, morality is objective, in the realist sense of the word; they can measure it, point to its physical basis, and manipulate it via hormones and electrical signals. For example, prosocial behavior has been linked to things like oxytocin and serotonin releases.
Skepticism in Philosophy
Skepticism in philosophy refers to the forms of skepticism more generally. Whenever we doubt something, there tends to be a particular form or way in which it is carried out, and philosophy is deeply concerned with that. Because these varieties of skepticism can be used in all other varieties of knowledge.
For starters, we have cartesian skepticism. Cartesian skepticism depends on a thought experiment in order to doubt things like empirical knowledge. The cartesian skeptics assert that we cannot know whether we are brains inside of a vat, hallucinating everything, or are indeed in a real world. Only because the hallucination would be so convincing that differentiation between the hallucination and reality is entirely impossible. As a result, the ability to claim things as being true about the world can now be doubted.
Another form of skepticism in philosophy is called academic skepticism. This variety of skepticism accepts that nothing can be known as true, which includes the view that all things are untrue. Academic skeptics believe humans have the inability to form true knowledge due to failed starting points. That is, we all depend on our subjective points of view to make claims, which is already an incomplete picture.
So, the academic skeptic instead accepts degrees of belief, or that something is more plausible and therefore more justifiably believed. That is a slightly different view from the stoics, who instead believed things were true by virtue of their plausibility.
The last example we will discuss for skepticism in philosophy is the munchausen trilemma. This form of skepticism is similar to the academic skeptic, but instead asserts that all forms of justification cannot themselves be justified without appealing to fallacy. In ordinary english, this means:
If John says an apple is red, and we ask John how he knows an apple is red, he will say, “I see it as so”. When we then ask John why seeing something is sufficient reason to believe it as true, John will be forced to say, “I don’t know,” because John cannot say “I see myself seeing red”.
Thus, what the trilemma shows us is that our standards for justification are themselves insufficient for knowledge, and so we can doubt all sorts of knowledge claims that rely on justification for their truthhood.
So, what is skepticism? A tough question to answer. Skepticism comes in many different varieties and can refer to a wide variety of disciplines. A skeptic in psychology might entirely disagree with a skeptic in biology, and a skeptic in finance might entirely agree with a skeptic in economics.
At the very least, we can see the general forms of, or methods used for, skepticism by looking at the basic structures of skepticism found in philosophy. Like when skepticism originates from an argument of hallucination, or an argument from unjustified premises. If we can understand these general forms of skepticism in philosophy, we will have little difficulty understanding skepticism in different disciplines.