Who’s afraid of skepticism?
Or: how I learned to relax and embrace uncertainty
Here goes an old joke about skepticism. Two skeptics meet at a convention. One of them says, “Hi, I don’t believe we’ve met.” The other responds: “I don’t believe you don’t believe we met…”
Skeptics have that sort of reputation, or worse. A friend of mine, who has been working for many years on behalf of a group known as New York City Skeptics, tells me that he avoids using “the s-word” in public, because a typical reaction is something along the lines of “ah, those are the people that don’t believe in anything, right?”
In fact, skepticism comes from the Latin scepticus, which itself derives from the Greek skeptikos, meaning “inquiring, reflective.” To be a skeptic, then, means to reflect and inquire about things. A most commendable attitude, I should think!
And yet, it isn’t just the person in the street who is distrustful of skeptics. Many professional philosophers are too! Here is Kant venting his frustration about a particularly vexing (to him) example of skepticism:
“It … remains a scandal of philosophy and universal human reason that the existence of things outside us … should have to be assumed merely on faith, and that if it occurs to anyone to doubt it, we should be unable to answer him with a satisfactory proof.” (Refutation of Idealism, in Critique of Pure Reason)
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