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On being a skeptic

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.The Associated Press
Wednesday, April 26, 2017 11:30 am

I downloaded four mystery novels in the same series to enjoy during my vacation in Texas. Before the vacation was over, I had gone through three of them. I wanted to save the fourth for the plane ride home, so I decided to reread an old favorite. I chose Mortimer Adler's "Six Great Ideas," and I had forgotten just how good it is. I highly recommend it for those who are caught up in the fevered exchanges of today's highly charged political environment and wish to back off and get reacquainted with their sanity.

In the book, Adler explores the difference between objective and subjective truth and objective and subjective good. He also notes the difference between objective and subjective beauty, which is a much harder case to make. No, beauty is not truly just "in the eye of the beholder," but it's a hard concept to get your head around. (Goodness, beauty and truth are the ideas we judge by. The second half of the book is devoted to liberty, equality and justice, the ideas we live by, but that's a whole other conversation.)

Especially helpful is Adler's exploration of what philosophers have told us about what we know, can know and think we know. He divides our perceptions of reality into four categories, going from the most to least reliable: Strong knowledge, weak knowledge, strong opinion, weak opinion.

I can't link to the passage in the book, and I don't feel like typing that much, so allow me to do a little paraphrasing.

In the strong knowledge category are those things we can't argue about because they are self-evident truths that are indisputable. "All triangles have three sides," for example, is not a self-evident truth because it tells us nothing we don't know; a triangle is, by definition, three-sided. A self-evident truth is "No triangle can have a diagonal" because we can understand it using our knowledge of what triangles  and diagonals are. "No part can be greater than the whole" is perhaps the best example of a self-evident truth.

At the other extreme are weak opinions, things we should not argue about because  they  are merely matters of personal taste. I like the food I like, and you like the clothes you wear, and there is no objective reason we have to give for it. I do not have to provide a justification for my likes and desires, and I have no reason to question yours. I once had someone leave a comment to a blog post to the effect that anybody who liked the "Bob & Tom" radio show (a sin to which I had confessed) was an idiot. Fine, pal, that says far more about you than about me.

In between are "weak knowledge" and "strong opinion," the things we can and should argue profitably about, because here we have judgments that are neither arbitrary nor voluntary, judgments we have rational grounds for adopting, "judgments the probability of which we can appraise in light of all the evidence available at the moment and in light of the best thinking we can do — the best analysis and interpretation we can make of that evidence, again at the moment." Here, I will do a little more typing:

At the moment! The future holds in store the possibility of additional or improved evidence and amplified or rectified reasoning. That fact, as we have seen, places such judgments in the realm of doubt. They have the knowledge of opinion because they may turn out to be false rather than true, but they also have the aspect of knowledge because, at the moment, we have no reason to doubt them. They are beyond reasonable doubt, but not beyond the shadow of a doubt, from which they cannot escape because they have a future.

(Weak knowledge and strong opinion have a future because they are subject to change. Strong opinion, being a matter of certitude, and weak opinion, being a matter of taste, do not have a future; there is no changing them.)

Those matters of weak knowledge and strong opinion should be argued about, but respectfully and with a sense of our own fallibility. We are both applying the best reason we can to the best available evidence, and each of us might be right or wrong. I might present some evidence that changes your mind, and you might apply some better reasoning that changes mine. We are both at once teachers and students. Thus is the path of sensible, rational argument that advances our understanding of the world and ability to make useful judgments about it.

But that's not how we approach it, is it? Almost everything we write about in our blog posts, editorials and social media offerings are matters with a future because our understanding of them is subject to change based on better evidence and reasoning: Global climate change, what President Trump did or might do, whether welfare is good or bad and how much of it is too great or too small, border control, the morality of abortion, the ordering of economic systems. We should approach them all with caution and each other with respect.

But we trend to treat them all as matters of certitude about which no reasonable argument can be made and each other as lost causes if we don't buy in. You think this or that about climate change, you're an idiot. You think this or that about President Trump, and you're a moron. I go to the sites that support my prejudices, and you go to yours, and heaven forbid we should even consider a contrary opinion. We revel in our confirmation biases and wallow in epistemic closure. I know what I know, and that is all I need to know. If you don't know that, too, just go away, please.

We have lost the ability to be skeptical, to take nothing at face value, to consider the possibility that there is better evidence or a better way to reason that might change our minds. We are neither teachers nor students but preachers, thundering from the pulpit to the true believers and scorning the doubters who dare to question orthodoxy.

The job of the skeptic is never done. I wrote a long time ago that the older I become the fewer things I am certain of, but I am close to being absolutely certain of them. I still believe that to be true. But even if I get to the point of enlightenment at which I am almost absolutely certain of just one thing, I hope I am still able to wonder, about that one thing, what if . . .?

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