Tuesday, December 11, 2012

What do skeptics believe in?

When my fellow skeptics or I interact with believers, we are almost always asked the question: “Well if you do not believe in x, what do you value or believe in?” For some reason, people assume our answer will be: “Nothing. I do not appreciate anything or believe that there is anything interesting left to say about life.”  Since this stereotype is as popular as it is inaccurate, I decided to outline my own response in this post.  If you are a skeptic and also have a blog, I recommend you take the time out of your day to sketch out your own response.

I believe in the negative value of philosophy.
While philosophy may not give us knowledge, it provides plenty of wisdom.  This wisdom helps us realize how worthless many popular fetishes and activities really are.  This realization comes about through philosophy’s insistence that we need to think deeply about things like God, free-will, and right and wrong.  Since contemporary culture consists almost entirely of quick and shallow answers, philosophy’s contrary way of thinking helps us see through its vanities quite easily.

After fetishes like reality TV shows, celebrity gossip, chain restaurants, and New Age self-help nonsense are all cleared away, we can prioritize those things that are left.  Since I started doing this, I have accomplished things ranging from learning how to cook better to studying abroad in Russia for a semester.  I have also read a book a week (on average) for over ten years.  You would be surprised what you can do in the extra time you have from not watching so much television.

The “negative” value of philosophy will become even more important in the United States (and the world for that matter) as its population becomes increasingly nonreligious.  Philosopher Richard Taylor outlined this need in his book, Metaphysics.

When religion can make no headway, in the mind of the skeptic, ideology came sometimes offer some sort of satisfaction to much the same need.  Thus many persons spend their lives in a sandcastle, a daydream, in which every answer to every metaphysical question decorates its many mansions.  The whole thing is the creation of their brains, or even worse, of their needs—it is an empty dream, for nothing has been created except illusions (Taylor, 5).  

These beliefs, such as New Age philosophies and reality TV shows, are just as shallow as the traditional beliefs systems they are replacing. Like Richard Taylor, I believe this becomes apparent when we study philosophy.  

quotes by Socrates
Since Socrates, philosophy has been about tearing down destructive aspects of Western culture.

I believe that the cosmos is wonderful without making stuff up about it.
Since I was a child, stars and planets have filled my imagination. I had posters of the planets all over my walls and read encyclopedias to learn everything I could about space. The beauty and size of the cosmos blew my young mind and induced a feeling of great awe. Since this time, I have never had these feelings replicated by anything else.

Despite what many New Age'rs and creationists think, understanding the science which underlies the workings of the universe does not undermine my cosmic awe. On the contrary! Science lead me to the profound truth that we are all connected “to each other, biologically. To the earth, chemically. To the rest of the universe atomically.”

This shows that one does not need to turn to astrology or our tarot cards to feel the majesty of the universe. In fact, celestial courts are quite tame in comparison to the true wonders of space. The beauty and power of pulsars and quasars is wilder than anything dreamed up by an ancient soothsayer.  Like other space geeks, I’m rocked to my very core by the images and data retrieved by the Hubble telescope. Its images put any man made piece of art to shame. 

I believe if this sort of information was available in the past, almost all great works of art would be popularizations of science. Can you imagine a universe where Leonardo Da Vinci would have seen these pictures? I think he would have given up his other works and spent the rest of his days working on telescopes, painting palace ceilings with black holes and galaxies, and running the first ever Florence Astronomical Society.

I believe that critical thinking can be learned
When I was a teenager, I believed in all sorts of weird things. This stemmed from me never going past surface level depth in traditional religion. Unlike many Americans, I was never taught the Bible or theology, but a moot Christianity. In 8th grade, I began exploring the marketplace of ideas. For a while, I was what could have been described as a New Age'r. I routinely visited pagan chat rooms and read material on occult.

As I grew older, my education began to get in the way of my belief in weird things. In particularly, reading Michael Shermer. By 2008, I could no longer separate the way I thought in oceanography and symbolic logic from my everyday thinking.  Critical thinking had infected my mental faculties, which induced my first real intellectual crisis.  This soon changed as I started to explore skepticism through the internet.  I came to love the works of James Randi and other skeptics.

The way they used logic and scientific thinking to explain psychics, UFO’s, and big foot struck me as a potent way of viewing the world.  By applying these logical and scientific rules of thumb, I started to notice the nonsense on tv almost immediately. Things like political and pseudo-scientific scams became transparent and I no longer fell under their sway.  I officially began to forsake comforting fantasy for clear thinking and reality.

Despite the alarming beliefs of most Americans, I believe that critical thinking can be taught. I and the countless other members of the skeptic movement are proof.  Our demand for belief has greatly enhanced our lives. Clear thinking gave me and other skeptics a greater appreciation of reality. As Carl Sagan once said, “it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.”

Concluding thoughts:
In conclusion, I and many other skeptics believe a lot of things, such as the value of philosophy, the beauty of the cosmos, and that critical thinking can be learned.  If you want to know what else I believe, I recommend you read through the other posts on this blog or read through Carl Sagan’s classic, Demon Haunted World.

1 comment:

  1. I've just read this - despite having an interpretation of reality which very different to your own. I feel sympathy for skeptics, who place all their reliance on the scientific rational view of the physical universe - because it is as you say; an awesome reality. I quite understand the fact that it impresses you so much! But, is it the whole of reality, hardly! Rather it is but one expression of it. Just as each human is but one expression of life.

    I'm in my seventies. When I was a young child, I had a moment, when looking at the stars in the night sky, I wondered what all this meant. How did it come about etc? I've spent the rest of my life pondering the question of existence. So I understand how impressive the universe can seem. But, impressive as it is, understanding how it functions in scientific materialistic terms, is only taking one small step towards knowing what reality, in total is. As well as the physical perception of the universe, there is the mystery of the consciousness which perceives it!
    To take the perception of the physical universe, coming through the physical organs of sense, as fundamental reality, is putting the cart before the horse - so to speak! Sensory perception is something that our consciousness does. As I see it, it's like interpreting the pictures on the TV screen to be primary reality, or like being in a dream and thinking that this is fundamental reality. I know those are weak analogy's but I'm sure you see what I mean.

    If we contemplate words like: Space. Time. or Infinity. We get a sense of the majesty of our existence in this universe. But, we also have questions, as to how the universe can be infinite.

    Those, like yourself, who take the Carl Sagan view. Rely on Reason to perceive and explain existence. It's an understandable viewpoint to adopt. But it only scratches the surface of Reality as a whole.
    Is there any evidence to support this expanded view of Reality. Of course there is! But, it is rendered invisible by the strength of belief to the contrary.