Limits of Skepticism

by Mike O’Day

In light of the podcast launching on iTunes, as well as some upcoming changes to the format, I thought I’d look inward for this week’s blog posting.

I’ve been calling myself an Atheist for about 18 months now and a Skeptic for slightly longer.

I remember the overwhelming feelings of doubt and insecurity as I voluntarily walked away from everything I considered sacred. It was a big, scary step at the time, though now it seems paltry and laughable. That’s personal growth for you.

I remember being nervous about ‘coming out’ as a non-believer because I was afraid I’d be confronted with an argument so airtight that I’d be forced to limp back across the line amidst the shaking heads and folded arms of my former community. But that’s where Skepticism saved the day.

Skepticism is one of my favorite things in the entire world because it is, in it’s own way, perfect. It’s perfect in the way that Natural Selection is perfect. Natural Selection is arguably inevitable in our universe. As long as there is change, and there always will be change, then Natural Selection is at work. It allows for every conceivable variant, outcome, intrusion and side effect. It even allows for the inconceivable versions. If you’re not totally familiar with the ins and outs of it all, it’s basically the idea that the things which exist today are the things which survived yesterday. Everything very easily could have turned out differently, but didn’t. There is no divine plan necessary, no intent, no secret will or destiny. If nothing had survived the dinosaurs meteor, then would look very different today if it had managed to come back at all. It has a failure rate of 99% when it comes to creating new life, which is what you’d expect from uncontrolled, random events affecting the evolution of life. The principles of Natural Selection can be seen in everyday life outside of biology. From the way the Market decides what is valuable to the way society polices it’s own behavior, the things which exist today are the things which were best suited to their environment at the time of their existence. Natural Selection is my second favorite thing.

Skepticism works on much the same self-correcting level. It certainly calls bullshit more often than most things, but it also never claims perfect knowledge. (Unlike some of those often on the receiving end of the Skeptic.) Skepticism allows for human emotions and ulterior motives to cloud the truth because ultimately it calls bullshit on itself when needed. It’s okay to be an imperfect Skeptic because the rest of the community won’t stand for it. You can interpret data incorrectly and so can 99% of others, but the number won’t add up correctly in the end and eventually someone will catch it or things will forever not make sense. Newton’s gravitational laws worked fine until we dealt with planets and light, then Einstein improved on them.

A dogmatic, religious approach would not only yield no new information but would actually hinder new discoveries. Imagine our current world without the aid of the theory of relativity. Imagine a world without space travel, without the internet, without any of the advances that we never even knew we could have.

Skepticism is self-correcting. It constantly seeks to prove itself wrong, it constantly checks what it thinks it knows. Not just double check or triple check, but thanks to the community of Thinkers, it essentially never stops checking itself. Nothings is too sacred to question, nothing is too valuable to be tossed for something better. There is no knowledge that exists that did not come from the application of skepticism in spite of the stigma applied to the word by some True Believers.

Skepticism taught me how to question Alien Abductions, Ghost Stories, Alternative Medicine and life in general. I learned that very rarely are things as they seem, and most people don’t really know what they’re talking about, including myself. Accurate information has become a valuable commodity. Learning Critical Thinking is perhaps the most valuable life skill I have ever acquired.

Religion hardly stood a chance as anecdotal evidence, unfounded supernatural claims and faulty reasoning evaporated before the bulldozing power of logic and reason.

But there is a catch. Humans are incapable of ever being truly skeptical. No matter how certain one feels about a conclusion, the answer is hardly ever definite. There is always another doubt, another question, another stone unturned. There are limits to human knowledge and this is where pseudoscience lays its stakes and sets up camp: the Unknown.

Since there is always another scenario imaginable, regardless of how unlikely, no answer can ever be all encompassing. Yes, Newton’s Laws worked until we found the realm where they were insufficient. Evolution works extraordinarily well to explain the natural world but perhaps someday we’ll find a way that it too proves insufficient. It’s possible that an all natural perspective of the world will someday fall flat on it’s face before the bulldozing power of logic and reason. If that day ever comes, I will be happy to welcome any such change as long as it can be shown to be true beyond reasonable doubt.

The limits of Skepticism are real, but it doesn’t automatically mean that everything on the other side of said limit is on equal footing with any and all current explanations. All explanations are subject to the same level of scrutiny, and much like Natural Selection, only the good ones survive. It’s possible that the God Hypothesis has simply appeared ahead of the evidence that will prove it, but until that day, there is little need to pay any attention to it.

I don’t feel any doubt about Atheism anymore, my Skepticism has reassured me.

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