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Skepticism in Western philosophy, is the attitude of doubting knowledge claims set forth in various areas. Skeptics have challenged the adequacy or reliability of these claims by asking what principles they are based upon or what they actually establish. They have questioned whether some such claims really are, as alleged, indubitable or necessarily true, and they have challenged the purported rational grounds of accepted assumptions. In everyday life, practically everyone is skeptical about some knowledge claims; but philosophical skeptics have doubted the possibility of any knowledge beyond that of the contents of directly felt experience. The original Greek meaning of skeptikos was “an inquirer,” someone who was unsatisfied and still looking for truth.



From ancient times onward skeptics have developed arguments to undermine the contentions of dogmatic philosophers, scientists, and theologians. The skeptical arguments and their employment against various forms of dogmatism have played an important role in shaping both the problems and the solutions offered in the course of Western philosophy. As ancient philosophy and science developed, doubts arose about various basic, widely accepted beliefs about the world. In ancient times, skeptics challenged the claims of Plato and Aristotle and their followers, as well as those of the Stoics; and during the Renaissance similar challenges were raised against the claims of Scholasticism and Calvinism. In the 17th century, skeptics attacked Cartesianism (the system established by the French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes) along with other theories that attempted to justify the scientific revolution initiated by Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo. Later, a skeptical offensive was leveled against the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant and then against the philosophical idealist Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and his followers. David Hume is an influential skeptic who questioned religious belief that was supported by evidence.

Skepticism, especially since the Enlightenment, has come to mean disbelief — primarily religious disbelief — and the skeptic has often been likened to the village atheist.

Belief is unconscious, disbelief is conscious

Some studies suggest that belief is an unconscious processes, in contrast to disbelief which requires concious consideration which can override the unconscious believing processes. Based on this, skepticism more cognitively taxing than unquestioning belief.

"The data suggest that readers must expend strategic effort to reject the information they acquire from literary narratives."

— Richard Gerrig [1]

"Analytic processing inhibits these intuitions, which in turn discourages religious belief"

— Ara Norenzayan [2]

Even if disbelief requires concious consideration, it does not necessarily make it a choice. Our conscious thinking is guided by criteria that are selected unconsciously.

Nietzsche also observed that suspension of judgement is difficult and people jump to conclusions. He pointed out this may confer a survival advantage.

"Whoever, for example, could not discern the "like" often enough with regard to food, and with regard to animals dangerous to him, whoever, therefore, deduced too slowly, or was too circumspect in his deductions, had smaller probability of survival than he who in all similar cases immediately divined the equality. [...] In itself every high degree of circumspection in conclusions, every sceptical inclination, is a great danger to life. No living being might have been preserved unless the contrary inclination — to affirm rather than suspend judgment, to mistake and fabricate rather than wait, to assent rather than deny, to decide rather than be in the right — had been cultivated with extraordinary assiduity. — The course of logical thought and reasoning in our modern brain corresponds to a process and struggle of impulses, which singly and in themselves are all very illogical and unjust; we experience usually only the result of the struggle, so rapidly and secretly does this primitive mechanism now operate in us."

Friedrich Nietzsche

One example in which this effect may be observed is the tendency of people to imagining phenomena are caused by intelligent agents.

Uncertainty is uncomfortable

Uncertainty, which is a possible outcome of skepticism, can be an uncomfortable experience. People are included to avoid this by choosing to believe a comfortable fiction.

"The state of uncertainty is psychologically uncomfortable for humans and motives individuals to engage in actions and behaviors to reduce uncertainty, thus gaining predictability. [3]"

"Uncertainty is an uncomfortable position. But certainty is an absurd one."

— Voltaire

"First principle: any explanation is better than none. Because it is fundamentally just our desire to be rid of an unpleasant uncertainty, we are not very particular about how we get rid of it: the first interpretation that explains the unknown in familiar terms feels so good that one "accepts it as true.""

Friedrich Nietzsche

Some have argued that people seek for uncertainty and it is not always a negative experience. [3]

Extreme skepticism

Extreme skepticism is a niche philosophical position of adopting extreme doubt of all knowledge. Proponents fundamentally doubt the reliability of their senses, memory and cognition, which in turn implies the impossibility of belief in anything. This view tends towards perpetual indecision. Since it is impossible to maintain behaviour that is consistent with the view for very long, it is generally not considered a credible philosophical position and is rejected by most philosophers. Mainstream skeptics are willing to provisionally accept good evidence (Evidentialism) and, unlike extreme skeptics, do not insist on perfect evidence.

"Whether your scepticism be as absolute and sincere as you pretend, we shall learn by and by, when the company breaks up: we shall then see, whether you go out at the door or the window; and whether you really doubt if your body has gravity, or can be injured by its fall; according to popular opinion, derived from our fallacious senses, and more fallacious experience. [4]"

The view can be traced back to the Greek school of Pyrrhonism. Extreme skepticism is similar to solipsism. Arguably, skeptical extremism is self-refuting [5] or at least self-undermining since it claims that knowledge is impossible. Some apologists make general statements that all skeptics are share this extreme view but this is usually a strawman argument.

Key ideas of skepticism


  1. [1]
  2. [2]
  3. 3.0 3.1 Patric R. Spence, Encyclopedia of Crisis Management, Volume 1, 2013
  4. David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, 1854
  5. [3]

See also

External links

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