Forums Forums Answering Skeptics and Debunking Cynics original definition of a skeptic

last updated by Pam B 18 years ago
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    On another thread we have been debating, sort of, what skeptic means. Synchronously (LOL), today Michael Shermer’s Sci Am column appeared and it was on the original definition of the term skeptic. It is a worthwhile read so I am pasting it here:

    An inquiry into the original meaning of the word “skeptic”


    Poets often express deep insights into human nature with far less
    verbiage than scientists. Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man, for
    example, is filled with pithy observations on the dualistic tensions of
    the human condition:

    Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
    A Being darkly wise, and rudely great:
    With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side,
    With too much weakness for the Stoic’s pride,
    He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest,
    In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast,
    In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
    Born but to die, and reasoning but to err.

    Pope has packed a lot into this refrain, but the final clause is an
    important challenge to science: Is all our reasoning for naught, to end
    only in error? Such fear haunts us in our quest for understanding,
    and it is precisely why skepticism is a virtue. We must always be on
    guard against errors in our reasoning. Eternal vigilance is the
    watchword not just of freedom but of thought. That is the very
    nature of skepticism.

    To my considerable chagrin, it was five years into the editing and
    publishing of Skeptic magazine before I realized I had never
    bothered to define the word or even examined how others had used
    it. Then Stephen Jay Gould, in the foreword to my book Why
    People Believe Weird Things, mentioned that it comes from the
    Greek skeptikos, for “thoughtful.” Etymologically, in fact, its Latin
    derivative is scepticus, for “inquiring” or “reflective.” Further
    variations in the ancient Greek include “watchman” or “mark to aim
    at.” Hence, skepticism is thoughtful and reflective inquiry. To be
    skeptical is to aim toward a goal of critical thinking. Skeptics are the
    watchmen of reasoning errors, the Ralph Naders of bad ideas.

    This is a far cry from modern misconceptions of the word as
    meaning “cynical” or “nihilistic,” although a consideration of the
    word’s history gives some insight into why its original definition has
    shifted. The Oxford English Dictionary offers this as its first
    definition of “sceptic”: “one who, like Pyrrho and his followers in
    Greek antiquity, doubts the possibility of real knowledge of any
    kind; one who holds that there are no adequate grounds for
    certainty as to the truth of any proposition whatever.” This may be
    true in philosophy, but not in science. There are more than adequate
    grounds for the probability of the truth of propositions–if we
    substitute “probability” for “certainty,” because there are no
    incontrovertible facts in science if fact is a belief held with 100
    percent certitude.

    Superstring theory may be
    uncertain, but heliocentrism is not.
    Whether the history of life is best
    described by gradualism or
    punctuated equilibrium may still be
    in dispute, but the fact that life has
    evolved is not. The difference is
    one of probabilities, and this is
    reflected in a second usage of “sceptic”: “one who doubts the
    validity of what claims to be knowledge in some particular
    department of inquiry.” Okay, so we don’t doubt everything, just
    some things–particularly those lacking in evidence and logic.
    Unfortunately, it is also true that some skeptics fall into a third usage
    of the word: “one who is habitually inclined rather to doubt than to
    believe any assertion or apparent fact that comes before him; a
    person of sceptical temper.” Why some people are, by
    temperament, more skeptical than others is a subject for another
    essay. But suffice it to say that the reverse is also true–some folks
    are, by temperament, habitually inclined to believe rather than to
    doubt any assertion. Neither extreme is healthy.

    Perhaps the closest fit to what we equate with a skeptical or
    scientific attitude is a fourth meaning: “a seeker after truth; an
    inquirer who has not yet arrived at definite convictions.” Skepticism
    is not “seek and ye shall find”–a classic case of what is called the
    confirmation bias–but “seek and keep an open mind.” What does it
    mean to have an open mind? It is to find the essential balance
    between orthodoxy and heresy, between a total commitment to the
    status quo and the blind pursuit of new ideas.

    Pam B

    I don’t disagree with a word he says in this essay. (I wish the rest of what he writes agreed with this essay too, but THAT’s for another thread!) But I would like to ask him to define “evidence.”

    Too often, I am mistaken for touting my beliefs as facts. This isn’t the case. I will never say that I am 100% sure that psi exists, or that life exists after death; neither am I 100% sure that it is a fact that we can communicate with those people IF they are still around in some form. But I *believe* very strongly that those things are true. I won’t be arrogant enough to tell someone else that they are undeniable facts.

    For me, the “evidence” is sufficient. For someone else, perhaps it’s not. You can be a “believer” and be a skeptic too, still questioning, still reflecting, always listening and open to hear ideas and evidence of truth.

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