Christians would like us to believe that doubt and skepticism are dangerous. But they’re superpowers, ways of making you a better human, not a worse one.
Over the last few weeks, we’ve talked about doubt, fundamentalism, and problems using words. I want to tie it together and talk about why doubt is safer, healthier, and better for your teeth (two truths and a lie).
I have two main reasons for saying a posture of doubt should be preferred: the limitations of explanations and the fallibility of human reasoning.
Limitations of explanations
One of my mottos is, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” (George Box). You might easily say, “All explanations are wrong,” but what does this mean?
An explanation is an attempt to describe something about the world in a way you can make sense of, even though the real world is overwhelmingly complex and impossible to understand fully.
The problem is that explanations have to simplify the world, which means you lose something in the process, making it “wrong” somehow. At the same time, we can’t live without these simplifications.
Communicators like Neil deGrasse Tyson and the late Carl Sagan face this tension in their presentation of science.
This tension even shows up in how we interact with others. How can you truly, deeply know someone when they’re constantly changing, growing, and aging? The best you can do is have a working model of who they are and continuously update it as time passes.
What to do?
Flaws in human reasoning
The more we learn about cognitive biases, prejudice, and the unreliability of memory, the more we should be suspicious of all human reasoning, especially our own. (Philosophers call this dynamic “Fallibilism.”)
And yet we find ourselves in a world where the pressure is on us to be overly confident. If we express uncertainty, people see us as fence-sitters, cowards unwilling to commit. Christianity taught us to have and crave certainty, especially about the most important issues.
What to do?
Tying it together
This is where skepticism comes in. If you hold an appropriately skeptical attitude, you can recognize the limits of explanations and human reasoning and allow yourself to take in new information. Being skeptical doesn’t mean you disbelieve everything you hear. Rather, it raises your standard of evidence. People don’t get to claim something is true without something to back it up. People don’t get to demand that you form an opinion when you’re not ready to.
So embrace skepticism! Embrace uncertainty! It’s part of being a clearer thinker.
- For a helpful video on the challenges of science communication, see We’re Lying to You…And We’ll Do it Again – YouTube
- For more on Fallibilism, see Epistemology for modern Skeptics: II, Fallibilism as an approach to knowledge | by Philosophy as a Way of Life | Medium