On Avoiding Skepticism

Like a lion and gazelle, intellectuals and skeptics find themselves with different motives and interests; amidst the savannah of ideas, intellectuals flee with the greatest of haste which they can muster, from the ferocious skeptical lion. Nothing more terrifying can be fathomed by an intellectual, namely: a self-aware and educated skeptic who knows precisely how to defeat those who hold arbitrary worldviews.

Of course, not all intellectuals are incapable of defending against skepticism, nor do all intellectuals ignore the challenges which skepticism presents. Some understand entirely the nature of skepticism. In other words, it might be more genuine for us to instead suppose there is a range of responses taken by intellectuals when confronted by skepticism, and only some intellectuals take haste when skepticism appears.

After having published my book on the topic, “Knowing Nothing,” the kinds of responses which I have generally seen are as follows: those who understand and react accordingly, those who become frantic and panic, and those who understand and fail to react. Of those common responses, I think the frantic thinker is most problematic, but we shall consider each with respect to the avoidance of skepticism.

Those who understand skepticism and integrate it. They seem most self-aware and almost never avoid skepticism. I have found they often recognize their own arbitrariness, and as a result, avoid being caught in a loop of non-awareness when someone disagrees with them. To me, such a response seems to likewise be the most mature response, as they have seemingly made peace with their own inability to obtain epistemic certainty. In the face of skeptical threats, they have the calmness of a verteran soldier.

Those who dismiss or, worse yet,  provide a wall of gish-galloped counter arguments, are nothing like those who accept and integrate skepticism, however. They are, in my mind, deficient in the intellectual maturity which skepticism demands of us; unable to handle their own epistemic uncertainty. We can break them down into two subcategories for clarity, and because they have motivated much of the primary premise behind this essay: namely, to not dismiss skepticism because you fail to see it’s utility, worth, or logic.

Those who outright dismiss skepticism do so for poor reasons. As said, they in some cases fail to see the worth, the logic, or the utility in skepticism. They cannot see why, for example, it is useful to accept as arbitrary all assertions put forward by others and themselves. Which is a fair position insofar as they are inexperienced with the consequences of skepticism, yet, nonetheless, unfair insofar as it is unable to negate skepticism outright. My saying that I fail to see the utility in math does not therefore entail I ought to dismiss math. So, to dismiss skepticism because one cannot see the utility provided is  poor reasoning, I believe. And furthermore, how is one to see the utility in something when they simply dismiss it? A craftsman who has spent many hours with their tools surely finds more utility from said tools than a novice who refuses to gain more than a few hours of experience with said tools.

Those who, on the other hand, not only dismiss skepticism, but likewise do so with the vigor of a duck splashing in water are another thing entirely. This group appears to me as the most intellectually immature group. They cannot in any capacity entertain the possibility of epistemic uncertainty; no space within their head can be found for doubt of any sort. It is as if, in the face of a lion, they just run circles in hopes that the lion becomes annoyed and gives up. This group will utter one arbitrary point after another, with at times the greatest self-conviction to be found amongst men. If time permits, they eventually grasp some sense of the trilemma; but until time permits, they avoid any sort of skepticism. A most delusional strategy.

Those who, lastly, understand skepticism entirely and still reject it, not for any reason of a sort, are also common amongst the demographic. Bertrand Russel has said that anyone who uses skepticism in their worldview cannot be taken seriously, though I cannot recall which of his books I read that in. He is not alone in that sentiment. Other philosophers and intellectuals alike believe skepticism has no place in the realm of assertions. And these philosophers also understand the educational utility which can be provided by skepticism, among other things. So it seems they are dismissing skepticism not for reasons like usefulness or logical validity. No, it seems to be something entirely different. And although they would likely not agree with me here, I believe this group dismisses skepticism for psychological reasons: reasons to do with self-perception and self-worth.

What intellectual would want to accept that all their intellectualizing, all their ideas, and all their model constructing is entirely arbitrary? What intellectual would want to reject the realist worldview, wherein the cold, disciplined armchair academic can discover the truths inside the world by solving nature’s puzzles? To me, acceptance of skepticism, acceptance of their own arbitrariness, would have to entail a cultural devaluation of who they are; because the act of developing models and explanations matters far less than doing things. In other words, their primary task, their primary craft, becomes devalued.

Within the worldview of skepticism, whether we say a monkey spirit or gravity made a banana fall from a tree does not matter; only because each are equally arbitrary explanations, and so what would be more important is that the banana indeed fell: not the intellectual models used to explain the falling. Thus, from that consequent alone, I believe there are indeed a sub-group of intellectuals who avoid skepticism because they derive their self-worth and sense of self from being able to provide others with fancy abstract models of the world; and to call those fancy models arbitrary, or to say they are as valid as our monkey model, would be nothing short of an insult to their esteem at least, or bear an entire existential crisis to them at most.

I should conclude then. There are many among us who attempt to avoid skepticism. They dismiss it, they fail to understand it, and they belittle it. But in all those cases, no serious threat is posed to skepticism. And likewise, many of those cases involve exchanges which say more about the avoider of skepticism than the skeptic. To avoid skepticism is very much like a gazelle trying to avoid a lion. Certainly, the gazelle can go their entire life avoiding a lion, and certainly a gazelle can escape a conflict with a lion by splashing like a duck; however, the gazelle will always have lions in their lives. And for me, I would rather be a gazelle which makes peace with that fact, and perhaps even integrate that fact into my philosophy of life.

Do not avoid skepticism for reasons of convenience.

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Ideasinhat is a business development analyst and longtime reader of academic literature. He writes books and essays on science and philosophy, and posts them to this website. The essays, as with the books, cover topics from psychology, philosophy, and cognitive science to economics, politics, and law.

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