Skepticism for the pragmatic apophatic

One of the many subcultures one finds  on the internet are small crowds of science and technology fanatics who label themselves skeptics.  Despite the skeptic’s self-image as a person who is liberated from the shackles of doctrine and dogma, there are a many questionable ideological themes running through these communities.  For many of them, science and technology are always good.  Religion, spirituality, superstition and myth are always bad.  Healing alternatives to Western medicine (drugs and surgery) are scams, shams, superstition and charlatanism. All GM food, vaccines, drugs and new technologies are good and precautionary concerns are empty-headed fearmongering.  Widespread human experiences that are difficult to explain are delusion, but research to discover the mechanisms behind such experiences is ludicrous.

You get the picture.   It seems the modern skeptic is very often a person who is made so uncomfortable by the unknown that even musing about what might lie beyond our current scientific paradigm is thought worthy of contempt and ridicule.   It’s very chic among self-labelled skeptics to make much of the fallibility of human recollection, cognitive bias and imperfect reasoning – provided it’s everybody else’s:  a skeptic among skeptics is thought to be well defended against such cognitive frailties.

When did this shower of hostile, condescending, dogmatic cynics take over the philosophical tradition of skepticism?

For the record, I have no beef with the skeptical community’s central tenets of empiricism, materialism, critical thinking, atheism, fascination with scientific discovery or any other description by which they might sum up their own world view.  I only think their criticism is often much too outward looking.

One would think the first unsubstantiated convictions on the chopping block for an honest skeptic would be her own.  Any critic of bad ideas ought to be able to find a lifetime of questionable beliefs with which to preoccupy herself without ever having to look beyond the confines of her own mysterious and convoluted mind.   The task is never ending: unsubstantiated convictions crop up like weeds even in the most vigorously tended human psyche.

It is certainly the case that a person with a passionate devotion to scientific enquiry will have a much better grasp of the functioning of the material world than your average bear, provided her passion for science translates into actually reading reputable material on the subject.  However, keeping current with the latest studies in a handful of interesting fields is not a defense against irrational beliefs on subjects outside these areas of interest, and is no defense at all against susceptibility to cognitive bias, propaganda and misinformation.

In keeping with the notion that we must learn to love ourselves before we can love another, the apophatic skeptic seeks to discover and eliminate the fallacies clogging up her own mind before turning her sights on anyone else, all the while recognizing that her task will never be complete.  Ideally, the recognition that it is not only everybody else that can’t get their facts straight, but also herself,  would lead to criticisms that are measured, compassionate and tactful.

A quick perusal of my past posts is enough to reveal I haven’t been weeding, to say the least.  Starting now, I’m going to spend more time thinking about my own wacky misconceptions and less time hollering about everybody else’s.  I might also unsubscribe to a few of the snarkier blogs on my RSS feed and start shopping around for blogs that offer more dispassionate and intelligent commentary.

Blog recommendations are more than welcome.  My interests are peaceful progressive activism, civil liberties, politics, biology, physics, psychology, transition culture, literature and laughter.  There are a lot of blogs going down the drain today, so don’t hold back or I’ll have to start reading the mainstream news (*spits on the ground*).


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6 Responses to “Skepticism for the pragmatic apophatic”

  1. Richard Says:

    Subscribe to Robert Popper, he of The Timewaster’s Letters. It’s great for a lot of things, but nothing more outstanding than his revealing of the best bits of Archbishop Gilbert Deya.

    I already told you about David Mitchell. He is the sort of skeptic, I think, you’re trying to avoid; but he is very funny so I don’t mind.

    There’s Graham Linehan who wrote Father Ted:

    And, if I may say so, when I can be bothered, me:

  2. Richard Says:

    Did I say Deya was outstanding? I just Googled him. The child trafficking baby smuggling evangelist seems less funny now.

  3. apophaticattic Says:

    Why, thank you Richard. Of course you are on my feed, but you’ve been starving me lately! What’s the matter – too much real writing work? I enjoy Linehan’s blog immensely. Deya is a miserable excuse for a human being. Popper’s blog is still amusing, though. Mitchell is not the kind of skeptic I’m thinking of, really, and he’s damn funny besides. I’m thinking of the type of folks you will meet if you pop into a “skeptics” discussion forum and suggest that garlic has antibiotic and anti-viral properties, or bring up the time you saw inexplicable colored lights zooming around in the sky. (In the latter case, I’ll bet you a cheese and pickle sandwich the first thing they do is explain it for you. Very “skeptical”.)

  4. Richard Says:

    I see. The thing is, I like to think of myself as sceptical, but many who claim that I find to be cynical more than anything else. True scepticism is rare. I must update my blog. More from uncle Percy’s memoirs I think.

  5. Richard Says:

    Do you subscribe to the TED talks? Right up your alley.

  6. apophaticattic Says:

    Totally agree. Wampus too. I’m skeptical of all propositions that are not directly supported by substantial, repeatable, clear empirical evidence, whereas many self-called skeptics prefer to jump to conclusions that are compatible with their preconceived ideas.

    I check out the TED talks once in a while. good stuff there.

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