Wednesday, January 6, 2016

On Skepticism, Humility and Empathy

One may not easily see a logical connection between the skeptical mind and the humble or loving one; bold egotistical “gadflies” like Christopher Hitchens seems to be the picture many Americans have of the skeptical or irreligious mind.  But I would argue that skepticism when genuine and not superficial leads towards modesty in all things and even compassion.
Skepticism is the philosophy that states there is no such thing as absolute knowledge.  Nothing is certain for even the epistemological methods that verify certain “certain truths” are prone to error – the erroneous capacity (or capacity for error) in both the senses and our reasoning faculties.  A true adherent of the skeptical tradition proclaims first and foremost to be in a position of ignorance – as is the whole human race but he observes himself to be in the position first for human beings first view the world from their own experience before they compare it to others.  In a sense Socrates is the first Skeptic.  When a Skeptic reflects that he views what he once viewed right as wrong he acknowledges that now what he views right could be equally wrong – he could even be wrong about his past view of things being incorrect. 
The Skeptic then will come to realize that certainty leads towards a type of viciousness in people, both in remembering times when he contradicted his skepticism by his impassioned certainty (even in arguing for the certainty of skepticism) and in seeing such “smoky-mindedness” in others who care more for arguing for their understanding of the truth than finding it.  Like a vain man who instead of seeing that his horse is healthy and fit sees fit to parade it amongst others as the most beautiful and virtuous of riding beasts, even when only the vestiges of the creature’s former glory remain.  We often wish to argue and speak amongst others not to know the truth, but to proclaim it, as if we are great proclaimers of it and people should admire us for being so wise as to decide the truth or decipher it when no other was fit to do so.  For if others were fit to speak the truth, why would we not listen and hope to learn rather than speak and learn nothing? 
True, when we speak we can impart what we perceive as knowledge to others, but, as I’ve said, if we truly wanted to know, rather than have the appearance of knowing, wouldn’t we listen rather than speak?  For teaching, true we must speak, but I think at-times we forget that to learn in a radical sense is to accept or gain something that one did not have before – and this cannot happen simply through one person speaking to another.  For if I do nothing but speak and say, “look, there is a horse there.”  Would the person who is my companion learn anything if they do not turn their head to observe if there truly is a horse?  Can they learn anything if they do not use their own senses?  No.  And I would argue that just as the man can never learn if there is a horse unless they see its form or hear its neigh (ignoring all Matrix theories of “is there really a horse?”) a man can never truly learn unless he uses his own mind.  Therefore, if our main task at hand is not to know the truth but to impart the truths (potential truths) we’ve come across in our travels through life, we must not “tell” the truth but “ask” it. 
For when we came to “know” our truths, we did not come to know them by stating them and then believing them uncritically, but by asking a question and seeking to know the answer.  If this is true for ourselves, why should we think it otherwise for others?  We come to know things not by being told them, for this form of “knowledge” is especially prone to error and can only be verified by the process of asking questions and seeking answers that roughly approximates our scientific method.  Socrates then, though he ironically had Greek Philosophy move away from pure metaphysics and towards questions of ethics, is a practitioner of a model of inquiry which should be deemed the essence of scientific inquiry – far-more so than any uncritical mind who accepts now “obvious” truths of Helio-centrism or gravity on good faith. 
We come even to be more compassionate and empathetic through Skepticism, for we realize that we were once in error and could very-well be in error now.  We see others stumbling through life and we pity them for we know they did not ask to be as they are; for we see ourselves and if we are honest with our faults recognize they are there and we did not ask that they exist.  We know that mistakes and mis-steps (or what is perceived as such; for also to be a Skeptic would be to question if what society considers a lack of success or prosperity is truly so, and what society labels the “good life” is truly the ideal life to live and work towards) are inevitable and in our modesty strive to impart good things for their own sake rather than exercise our vanity unto others or stimulate our Egos through fame, sex, wealth or other ways that the Cynics among others criticize. 
In a way the Ancient Cynics could be known as the Negative Utilitarians and Anti-Egoists of their time (as well as the Epicureans and Stoics somewhat); seeking to tell others that the good life is not what one has but simply what one is spared from, and for the Cynics the ultimate thing to be spared of in this life is the psychological and social burdens that bourgeois existence and the pre-occupation with ownership, vanity and the opinions of others brings.  For I think the Cynics realized most people (even most philosophers) don’t want to know the truth but want to preach “their truth” and in their insecure vanity be confirmed that their truth is highly-esteemed or accepted by others – it is then the ultimate form of meekness and arrogance, always being frightened to ask but always being brazen enough to pretend to know.  People take solace in knowledge that what they think is what others think, even if this provides no utility to them and if anything prevents them from knowing the truth by preventing them from seeking it; for as I earlier alluded to, one can never know the truth unless one first turns around and looks for it.  However, the Cynics unfortunately (for they do I feel have wisdom to extol) do not follow this Socratic method of teaching through questioning (as the Platonic dialogues seem to do) and are known for their badgering and berating of others to have them “learn” the nature of their errors and reform their ways.  In this sense, to the extent the Cynics “taught” in this manner they are equivocal to the dogmatism of the Christian faith in “teaching” the flock of the world by telling them of God’s existence and the sanctity of the Church. 
Though this is certainly no absolute principal (for if Skepticism teaches us anything it is that there are no absolute truths) in general those who tell do not know.  Those who ask may find out if they are honest in their pursuit and wish to truly find what “is” rather than to propound what they find to be the case.  That is, the Skeptics chastise Platonists, Aristotelians and Epicureans alike for once being youthful and vigorous seekers of truth, but once they have come across what is at a time for them convincing, they stop asking questions and dedicate their lives to being proclaimers of the “truth.”  But those who proclaim the truth in a sense do not know it – as I’ve already said.  Only those who ask it may know it and to see if they do we must ask as they do.  Or rather, we must always seek the truth rather than in ignorance claim to state it.
Skepticism is something that unfortunately due-to both the dogmatisms of religion and politics and the vanity and anxiety of humans to “know” is a seldom exalted or highly acclaimed virtue.  But from being afraid of not knowing, of being different or from not having one’s Ego validated from being confirmed in knowing one prevents themselves not only from knowledge but from the grace, humility and compassion that comes from the earnestness of philosophy.  The genuine desire to know rather than to be validated in one’s knowledge and to ask rather than be told.  In asking we simultaneously are humble enough to recognize we do not know and confident enough to believe we are capable of finding means to become closer to the truth but perhaps never entirely reaching her shores.  Though there are illusions of humility portrayed much of the world is arrogant and though there are pretentions towards confidence much of the world is insecure to be different, judged or not accepted.  Philosophy, particularly skepticism, is the only facet in which one harmoniously and truly practices both rather than being a pretender either to appeal to others or to one’s own Ego and vanity.

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