The Consequences of Conflating Questioning with Disbelief, Critical Thinking with (In)decision
Skepticism has been conflated with disbelief and died as a result. The skeptic is not someone who dismisses everything he or she is told (outright), for the true skeptic is skeptical of even his or her capacity to dismiss. And the skeptic is not the cynic, who has stopped questioning and taken on assumptions like “there is no truth” or “everyone is lying.” Rather, the skeptic is the individual who asks questions for the sake of the truth, not just for the sake of deconstructing it (though determining the truth entails deconstructing false truths). Furthermore, the skeptic questions his or her own standard by which truth is determined, not because there is no right standard, but because standards require perpetual refining. “The mode” through which the skeptic asks questions is different from the cynic (though do note that the individual who shifts between modes and fails to understand skepticism properly is someone who will struggle to convince others when he or she is genuine). Lastly, to be skeptical is not the same as being untrusting; to be skeptical is to be aware that the truth is hard to fight for and know.
Why has skepticism died? For good reason. Imagine the following: a man tells us he was abused by his father. How could we not believe him? Perhaps because we don’t want to believe him? Furthermore, how could we believe him (is there evidence beyond the claim)? Perhaps because we want to believe him, but who are we to rightly believe or disbelieve? It seems we are not in a place to do either: at most, we can let the account “wash over us.” But if we don’t believe him, aren’t we horrid? But if we do believe him, aren’t we making a judgment before we’ve investigated all the evidence?
His face is bruised — isn’t that evidence enough? Perhaps, though he might have hit himself to make his account more convincing, hoping to hurt his innocent father’s life. But isn’t that a little far-fetched? Perhaps, but perhaps the man knows that the thought is “far-fetched” and hopes to use that to his advantage. Again, we’re not in a place to agree or disagree — but how can we look the man in the eyes and tell him, “I don’t know if you’re telling the truth” (which is to say, “I’m not in a place to believe you or disbelieve you,” which sounds like disbelief). Hasn’t he gone through enough? We might be the only person who could listen and provide him the support he needs. But, again, on what grounds can we believe him? After all, our only basis for belief is a desire not to hurt his feelings. But don’t feelings matter? Hasn’t he been through enough? Don’t we know what it’s like to tell people our story and not be believed? Do we know what it’s like to suffer and then be doubted by those in whom we placed our hope? Can we not extend him “the benefit of the doubt?” Is he not a human being? Or do we lack humanity?
What should we do? Is there any good answer? We didn’t ask for this, to be in this situation. To be around people is to never know what we’ll find ourselves in. “Pinned down.” Better to be alone, perhaps. Better to atomize…To think critically, we must risk being “inhuman,”; to be human, we might forgo the skepticism we require to think.
If thinking doesn’t cause existential uncertainty and suffering, we probably aren’t thinking hard enough. Arguably, the only certainty achieved in thinking is certainty of uncertainty. We can never “step out of the whole” of the world and view it like God; therefore, we can never know, for sure, that everything we think is actually the case. There is always the possibility that we are wrong. This isn’t to say that we can never think true things, only that we can never completely verify things as true; in line with the thought of Gödel, we can never know for certain “the truth as true.” If we say, “This happened at this time and place,” we assume the validity of time, space, and our understanding of the constructs; if we say, “Daniel crossed the road,” we assume “road” is a valid construct and not “atoms” and/or “an abyss.” Perhaps it is, perhaps it isn’t — the point is only that we cannot say for “certain” (though we can speak with “confidence,” as discussed in The Conflict of Mind). This isn’t to assert “we know nothing,” but that we can’t know or not know that “we know nothing.” We could be standing in truth and never see it; we could search forever for what we study.
Often, thanks to the method, when it comes to matters classified under “science,” we don’t feel much “existential anxiety,” precisely because we have enough “confidence” to function without much thought (rightly or wrongly). However, when it comes to other matters, such as stories, personal accounts, the arts, etc., it is harder for our sense of certainty to eclipse our uncertainty, making it more difficult to think that uncertainty isn’t present. Hence, it is much more difficult to avoid existential uncertainty, which can make us hesitant to engage in deep thinking about these subjects. (Please note that if society as a whole is moving in the direction of the atomized and is more abstract due to a loss of “givens,” this would be for the society to head in a direct of more thinking, not less.)
Where there is a lack of existential uncertainty yet there is thinking, there is likely a lack of deep, critical thinking (which means the presence of thinking may correlate with anxiety, an emotion which can make totalitarianism appealing). It cannot be said that this is always the case, but if we are thinking about a matter and don’t feel existential uncertainty over it, we should be skeptical of ourselves: it is very possible that we are holding pre-existing biases and are inclined to believe a certain way. Not necessarily, but possibly. And at the very least, this self-skepticism and inescapable “possibly” should make us uncomfortable. Which brings us back to our situation…
We cannot step into “a mode” of considering the man’s story false without risking association with someone who mistreats others. And yet to critically think, we must take all sides into account, which suggests that we cannot critically think without risking how people think of us. Furthermore, we must risk our self-image: we must wrestle with the possibility of seeing ourselves as a person who “victimizes victims.” This is terrifying, as it should be unless we lack empathy for the (possible) victim.
We cannot step into a mode in which we consider our parent’s Christianity “possibly false” without risking being associated with someone who “abandons Christ”; we cannot consider the perspective of Republicans without entering the possibility of being seen as someone who doesn’t care about the poor; we cannot consider the perspective of Democrats without perhaps being judged by business owners as disregarding their hard work — the list goes on. We must suffer to think, for we must at least bear the risk of rejection, and bearing a risk entails suffering. Thinking entails existential consequences, and where thinking lacks existential uncertainty, thinking should be questioned, which invites thinking, then more thinking, then more…(to think is to risk).
If our ideas about a circumstance do not risk suffering and being misunderstood, we should be skeptical of ourselves, for it is very possible we are not thinking deeply. And if we ever get to the place where we don’t feel the possibility of being misunderstood, we should be cautious: we may have stopped thinking deeply altogether. But how can we know?
(Once we start thinking and enter “the philosophical consciousness” discussed by Livingston on Hume, we can never know when we’ve thought enough.)
Skepticism is not disbelief. When the terms are conflated, to be skeptical about a story is to be seen as not believing it, and when that story entails victims, for us to possibly be skeptical is for us to be seen as ignoring the hardships that others have suffered and that we have been spared. It is indeed monstrous to outright ignore the hardships that others have faced, but it is not monstrous to question whether those accounts are valid (though it is perhaps best to do this verbally, but mentally, considering the likelihood of misunderstanding). Rather, it is responsible (yes?), but in a society where disbelief and skepticism are conflated, it easily isn’t perceived as such.
In a society that doesn’t conflate skepticism and disbelief, the person who waits for evidence before accepting the account of the man is not someone who others readily accuse of evil. Rather, the person acts rationally. However, in this same society, the person who, on the other hand, automatically disbelieves the man is someone who acts irrationally: for one to believe or disbelieve a story before evidence is problematic. However, in the society where skepticism and disbelief are seen as the same thing, to be skeptical of a story (before evidence) is to not believe in the story, and as a result judgment without evidence can become the norm. And in such a society, it is probable that evidence will become less prominent and that eventually the role of evidence will be highly unclear.
Skepticism is the road to both belief and disbelief, not just disbelief. Without it, there cannot be belief or disbelief, agreement or disagreement — or so on. In this sense, as used in this paper, “skepticism” can be used interchangeably with “critical thinking,” and it is just as dangerous to conflate “critical thinking” with “disbelief” as it is to do so with “skepticism.” It is very possible that this conflation has contributed greatly to the loss of critical thinking in our society today, as everyone seems to acknowledge, yet couldn’t possibly acknowledge fully if critical thinking is indeed lacking. (To live in the world is hard.)
To question something doesn’t mean we don’t believe in it, for questioning is how we justify both beliefs and disbeliefs. If in fear of disbelief we never question what we think, our thinking has no basis: it is weak, and it cannot even provide us with liberty from anxiety (and yet we may resist questioning our beliefs precisely to avoid anxiety, suggesting that when “thoughtlessness” is lost there might be no going back). But don’t we all know this? Don’t we all know we must question what we believe to justify it? So why don’t we? Well, it’s because it would be heatless to question the abused man; it would destroy our family to question Christianity; it could destroy our friend circle to consider Conservatism…
And so on.
Skepticism and critical thinking risk our worlds. We could be seen as heartless, cruel, insensitive, inconsiderate, ungrateful, as siding with the enemy, as failing to stop bad things from happening — every possible accusation.
Thinking has a psychological and emotional cost, and if we think, we must pay up. But to know we don’t think, we must think, so perhaps it is easier to keep ourselves from thinking in the first place and just “go with the flow?” Do not be critical. Accept. Be vulnerable to “the banality of evil.” Why not? (Don’t answer that.)
Is there a way to avoid all this? Yes, “thoughtlessness.”
(The world is strange.)
There is easily a part of us which wants “skepticism” and “disbelief” to be conflated, for we would then be justified in our lack of suffering-causing-thinking. And what do we gain by being skeptical in a society that conflates disbelief with skepticism (a conflation that is perhaps accelerated by technology)? Perhaps we critically think, but no one thinks we do, and we are seen as destroying lives. Why question? If the man turns out really to have been abused, couldn’t we be seen as a terrible person for the rest of our lives? How is this risk rational? Well, it’s “nonrational” (as discussed throughout O.G. Rose). Sure, but who cares?
Where “disbelief” and “skepticism” are conflated, being rational can become irrational. We gain little from it except a true view of the world (which we can share with few). And so we can gain little sense that our true view is true (and so little freedom from existential uncertainty). And to truly think entails experiencing existential suffering. How could it ever be rational to undergo these things, seeing that those around us won’t likely grasp our view? Is not thinking social suicide?
Alright, but what is critical thinking, exactly? How is the skeptic to speak to others? How is the skeptic to think? There are still questions to be answered, questions that will be taken up in “On Critical Thinking,” “Assuming the Best,” “Learning to Speak” — papers that, ultimately, are about why we no longer listen to one another. (Hearing invites thinking.)
As critical thinking vanishes, critical thinking can become irrational. Already, in a way, in its structure, critical thinking entails irrationality (let alone as it socially dries up), and this is because critical thinking entails existential uncertainty (in critical thinking, there must be a sort of “opening up” to that which could cause existential anxiety). How is it ever rational to put ourselves through this? It likely isn’t (there’s the rub, the irony), and yet it could still be good, for knowing the truth is good and sets one free. Or does it? Perhaps not in a society where “disbelief” and “skepticism” are conflated — perhaps truth is imprisonment? There, the irrationalism of critical thinking might prove too great to overcome, for it is too irrational to combat rationally. The more critical thinking is lost, the more irrationality becomes thoughtful, and as critical thinking becomes irrational, the thoughtful may stop critically thinking.
In conclusion, with Belonging Again in mind, we must think to be justified to believe or disbelieve, and that means we might have conflated “skepticism” and “disbelief” precisely to restore “thoughtlessness” after Modernity destroyed societal “givens.” We must return to (something like) a state of “thoughtlessness” to existentially stabilize ourselves, and using “a sleight of hand” on ourselves through ethics seems like a subtle move. We might be policing ourselves “for the right reasons” not to think, which could be a subconscious effort to return to the “givens” and “thoughtlessness” we have lost. Having forsaken Hegel’s Science of Logic, we seem to have no other option — but that is another topic for another time.
What am I saying? Well, that we have perhaps “killed skepticism” for good reason, ironically, in an effort to restore the “thoughtlessness” that without we are existentially overwhelmed. Similarly, perhaps the turn to “intuition,” emotions, and the “gut” are manifestation of this very effort (risking “autonomous nonrationality”). Problematically, “thoughtlessness” is when we are vulnerable to “the banality of evil” and can end up in Nazism, though “existential anxiety” can lead us into totalitarianism as well. Are we doomed? Now that “trust as living” is mostly gone and we must live according to “trust as giving,” which is existentially demanding, is there hope? Or is hope dead like skepticism? Is there hope to hope?
Belonging Again: An Explanation (Part I)
Belonging Again: An Explanation (Part I) - Kindle edition by Rose, O.G.. Download it once and read it on your Kindle…