Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Reason, Faith, and the Skeptical Mind

For some reason known only to the dark elder gods of marketing, I regularly get mailings from a magazine called "The Skeptical Inquirer."   As it self-describes, it's a magazine for atheists.  Meaning, it gathers about it the trappings of science and "free-thinking."  It arose, as I understand, from efforts to debunk paranormal thinking late in the last century.  Given most of what they're pitching me, it appears to now be mostly about how stupid religion is and how really smart people--like you, dear potential subscriber!--don't fall for that hoohah.

When the latest mailing came through, promising both a free cup of coffee and an interview with Neal Degrasse-Tyson snarking about faith, I found myself wondering about the relationship between skepticism and rationality.

I tend to carry with me a healthy skepticism about things.  I do not immediately trust what I hear, particularly if something seems exciting or presses a particular button.  Best to hold back, reserve judgment, and give yourself time to reflect before leaping to any conclusions.

Let's use a recent example.  There's a rumbling about something called the EM Drive, a new kind of fuel-less space propulsion, an "impulse engine" right out of Star Trek.  Really.  It seemed a wackadoodle cold-fusion fringe absurdity, but as more tests have been done, there's a slim possibility that may be happening.  And among the folks who follow such things, that creates buzz, because it could mean that interplanetary travel suddenly became a whole bunch easier.  70 days to Mars, for example.

It would be easy to just jump right on that bandwagon, hooting and a-hollerin'.   But for all of the excitement, there's still more experimental work to determine if in fact the inexplicable but replicable results from preliminary tests represent a meaningful finding or are just a repetition of the same error.  I really, really would love it if this was true.  But as of yet, it is not certain.

A healthy analytic skepticism reserves judgment, and seeks more validation.  The pursuit of truth requires the application of doubt.

But it is equally easy to just descend into reflexive rejection, as skepticism becomes an all consuming cynicism.  The goal ceases to be truth, but instead the deconstruction and devaluing of all truth-claims, not reserving judgment, but doubling down on judgment.

And that is a dangerous place for a soul to wander, because it is just as rigid and imprisoning as any other form of absolutism.