The Hyper-Skeptic Problem

Posted by on October 20, 2012 in Featured, Science, Thoughts | 9 comments

Since I started jotting down my ideas three years ago, I have only ever had one purpose, and that was to make people think more about their ideas, their conceptions and misconceptions. This stems from an observation I have made about society today, and it scares me. I have noticed that people are making decisions based on their “gut feelings”, that politicians and businesses are using our emotions to persuade us into buying this product or that ideology, and these decisions can turn out to be bad. From the willfully ignorant to the disenfranchised, people are simply not thinking about the ideas they are presented with in any kind of logical manner. It’s happening here in Australia, and even more so in the United States of America.

This is nothing new, however. Religions and politicians have fed people lies and promises for centuries, all with a hope to control people better. A society consisting of the ignorant is a society that is easier to control. This is not some Big Brother scenario where governments and religious leaders are conspiring against the people to make us soma-sucking zombies, this comes from historical observations based on what past leaders have done. The time has come, however, that we need to be an intelligent society, one that can see past the veil of ignorance presented to us and make decisions based on what we as a species have learned, rather than what we simply feel should be true.

Science, reason, rationality and logic all play a part in this process. Of course being human would mean nothing without emotions and feelings, but we should make not our decisions about the universe from there. And of course, there is a healthy dose of skepticism.

For me, atheism stems from observation of our natural universe. Obviously I can’t make a lot of these observations directly; I can’t stare up at the universe and see the Horsehead Nebula from my backyard, yet I’ve seen the photos from deep space courtesy of the Hubble Telescope; I can’t watch as a cell divides and multiplies inside a human body, but courtesy of the tools we now have in medicine and science, I can; I can’t know by my observations what happens as particles smash into each other and become new particles, but thanks to the Large Hadron Collider I can see the results. The universe is stranger than we can ever imagine, and yet it makes sense on a level that religious explanations can never hold a candle to.

One thing that set me on this path was my skepticism. Once upon a time I was willing to believe all I had been told; This was called childhood. As I grew older I learned about the way people manipulate information to suit their own needs; This was my adolescence. As a man of forty, I now have a very good idea of how much we are told is worthy of being called “truth”, and how much seems dubious from the outset; This is an adult brain with a healthy dose of skeptical inquiry.

Having said that, it is possible to be hyper-skeptical, to not believe anything we are told. This may help to free one’s enslaved mind from religion, but it is not very useful. At some point, when the information given on a topic is consistent, logical, rational, empirical, falsifiable, and repeatable, that is when our skepticism should give rise to acceptance of information as fact. Hyper-skeptical thought is like sitting in the corner with your fingers in your ears saying “I can’t hear you, I can’t hear you.” Without incoming information, a mind stagnates, and without accepting certain “truths” as factual, there is nothing from which to build an understanding of the universe.

Hyper-skeptical viewpoints give rise to conspiracy theories, paranoid delusions, and, surprisingly enough, misinformation. The hyper-skeptical mind will not accept facts, much in the same way a religious mind cannot accept facts. The hyper-skeptic is so deeply entrenched in the idea of “not believing in anything” that the world becomes a huge bully, just trying to feed them falsehoods in order to make them “part of the system”.

It’s difficult to know how someone can arrive at a hyper-skeptical viewpoint. Could it be that there is no way to “know” anything, as all information is presented from information from another human mind (which could also be a delusional mind)? Added to this is the concept of “irreducible complexity”, one where a person may look at a situation, and step-by-step, ask questions that are increasingly out of the realm or scope of the original question or statement. Bill O’Reilly is famous for such questions, able to flippantly throw aside all claims by asking “But how did it get there?” when talking of unrelated topics such as tides.

The main point here is a concept known as “reasonable doubt”. It is an evidentiary concept, used both in courts of law (“A standard of proof that must be surpassed to convict an accused in a criminal proceeding”) and in scientific discovery (where enough evidence is presented that doubt is diminished beyond consideration). It is the standard of evidence to which we must hold all claims in order to evaluate their efficacy. For instance, if a person claims that the earth is flat and the sun goes around the earth on a daily basis, what experiments could we do to prove this true or false? We could watch the movement of the stars relative to the earth, and as Eratosthenes was able to discover base on observation of shadows, we could deduce that the earth actually goes around the sun, and the earth is in fact a spheroid. (Eratosthenes, the 3rd Century BCE mathematician actually deduced the circumference of the earth to within kilometres by his observations of the earth and the shadows cast by the sun in various locations around the Greek Empire. And no, it wasn’t Christopher Columbus who discovered the earth was round.)

But how does this constitute proof? The fact that this is unchanging, a constant, and is an empirically repeatable experiment gives rise to enough reason to be beyond doubt. Add to that, the fact we can see  the curvature of the earth from satellites, and that the earth has been observed from the moon, the evidence compounds into a “fact” over time.

The claim by theists that “God exists, and you can’t disprove this” flies in the face of observation, evidence and facts. The aim here is not to disprove a claim, for there are innumerable claims that could be made (“My cat is actually a dragon”, “The moon tastes like butterscotch”, “Jesus is alive and talks to me in my bathroom”.) We can be skeptical of these claims since there is no evidence to support them. This is where atheism comes from. It’s not a denial of evidence, for there is none, it is the healthy questioning and the demand for evidence for any claim made.

In a sense, strong theists and biblical/Koranic literalists are just like hyper-skeptics, but for one thing; The belief in a doctrine as presented in holy books through indoctrination. All else is up for grabs. If it’s not in the book, it can’t be true. However, if one takes these books to task and applies the same level of scrutiny to them that we would the flat-earth claim, they are left without a leg to stand upon, and crumble at the first whiff of evidence to the contrary. This is not hyper-skepticism, this is reasonable inquiry.

What is most interesting about both hyper-skeptics and literalist believers is the degree of inconsistency they apply to their views of the world. The line of questioning comes from a level of inquiry that debases all knowledge, for there is always another question to be asked, which raises more questions, which again raise questions, and so on ad absurdum. It’s impossible to counter this kind of questioning, for without all knowledge in the universe, the person answering will eventually come to a point where they have to say “I don’t know”. This is when the hyper-skeptic and the theist will claim victory, saying that if that particular question can’t be answered, then all answers are equally up for grabs. Yet they will not apply the same level of scrutiny to the things they take for granted every day, such as technological and medical advances.

The inclusion of “feelings” into the equation further muddies the water of rational inquiry. Thinking from “the gut” is the reason so many can be set on the wrong path to begin with. If someone “feels something is true”, then they have already decided that this “is true”, when in fact, as we all know, “the gut” can be the stupidest voice in our bodies. Yet we still see people depending upon their intuition when it comes to questions of the universe, and answers about the society we live in. Again, to hark back to the brilliant essay “Greetings from Idiot America” by Charles P Pierce:

In the place of expertise, we have elevated the Gut, and the Gut is a moron, as anyone who has ever tossed a golf club, punched a wall, or kicked an errant lawn mower knows. We occasionally dress up the Gut by calling it “common sense.” The president’s former advisor on medical ethics regularly refers to the “yuck factor.” The Gut is common. It is democratic. It is the roiling repository of dark and ancient fears. Worst of all, the Gut is faith-based.

We can no more trust our intuitions blindly than we can any claim made without evidence. And yet so many hyper-skeptics go along with their gut feeling, the feeling that something is “just not quite right”. Of course this is most likely coming from a stance of not fully understanding the question, rather than a real reason to distrust facts.

Hyper-skepticism is just as bad as religious literalism, and in some cases worse; While denying accepted facts due to irreducibly  complex sets of questions, and making claims that the truth “can’t be known”, our wheels start spinning on the spot, and no progress can be made from here.

A healthy skeptical mindset allows for “proofs” as presented by evidence. From these “proofs” we can decide our “facts”. Without these base knowledge sets, and by denying them, we come into any conversations in the guise of infants. This is no way to move forward. Imagine if we had to describe to every person who uses a computer the entire lineage of information technology, right back to the harnessing of electricity, before they would believe that a computer actually works. What kind of world would it be if, before a person drove a car for the first time, that they had to know the entire history of transportation? Where do we draw the line?

Hyper-skepticism is skeptical inquiry gone off-the-rails, and becomes a pseudo-intellectual form of denial.

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  1. I have to say that I agree.  Having been a philosophy major and been very interested in epistemology  . . . and the role that philosophy and critical thinking play in everyday life.  There is a balance to be found.  Being hyper-critical about everything means that, basically, getting out of bed in the morning might be difficult.  Will sun rise today?  Will gravity work today?  Obviously, those are extremes; but they do show my point rather well.We all have to accept some things as true and move forward as if they are.  For instance, I haven’t proven that evolution is a valid scientific theory – nor could I, nor do I really want to.  I do some research, find others that are knowledgeable, read something about them and the theory, and make an educated decision about what I *know.* To what degree I need to have support and being able to justify this decision varies.  Hyper-skepticism is no better than unfounded belief; they are extremes on the same continuum.

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    • Words of wisdom from somebody the Evil Roman Catholic Church detests: a person with a brain who can THINK.

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  2. Well-thought, Martin. I’m reminded of Russell’s Teapot concerning both hyper-skepticism with unending questions and True Belief with the same. I know a few hyper-skeptics and this is a useful way to help me examine my own motivations as well, on topics where closely held ideological views may be involved. It’s interesting that the same processes may be used to both believe and deny as mirror images of each other, and this is useful to consider in proposed and ongoing de-biasing programs, as recently discussed by Massimo Pigliucci and Julia Galef on episode #68 of the Rationally Speaking podcast.

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  3. This reminds me a lot of Carl Sagan’s comment about how open-mindedness and skepticism “are in some tension” but if you give in to either one wholly you are lost.

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  4. I imagine that hyper-skepticism in some cases maybe caused by watching The Matrix too many times.

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  5. As with the wheel of politics, where the policies of the extreme right and the extreme left eventually meet and become indistinguishable in their savage treatment of those they should be serving, the hyper-skeptic and literalist become indistinguishable by their absolute conviction that they are right and everyone else wrong.

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  6. Well done Martin.  I can’t help but think of true philosophical skepticism when you write about hyper skepticism.  This type of mindset is unsustainable as eventually the holder would believe nothing.  It is quite possible to be too skeptical.  The point you make about reasonable doubt and following evidence are a key part to a healthy skeptical life.  Too often, these things are forgotten.

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  7. Thank you for stimulating my brain with this bright and observant post.

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  8. This is a fantastic web site.  Good sparkling user interface and nice informative blogs. I will be coming back soon, thanks for the great blog.

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