Why We Must Always Be Skeptical
Why does skepticism matter? Not just in science, or history, or other academic pursuits where rigorous devotion to the truth is crucial. Why does skepticism matter in everyday life?
When I write about atheism -- especially when I write about how the religion hypothesis has no good evidence supporting it and is almost certainly not true -- there's a response I get surprisingly often: "What difference does it make whether it's true? Religion makes people happy. It gives people comfort in troubling times. It offers a sense of purpose and meaning. It lets people tolerate the idea of death without being paralyzed with terror. Why try to take that away from people? If it's useful, who cares whether it's true?"
My typical response to this... well, my first response is always dumbstruck head-scratching. To me, the idea that the truth matters is self-evident, and it seems bizarre to have to defend it in debate. And I am truly baffled by what people even mean when they say they believe something without necessarily thinking it's true. ("You keep using that word 'believe.' I do not think it means what you think it means.") But when my head-scratching is over, my typical response has been to write high-minded defenses of the philosophical and indeed ethical necessity of prioritizing the truth over our imaginings about it. Coupled with passionate love letters to the universe that would make Carl Sagan blush.
Today, I'm going in a different direction. Today, I want to talk about the uses of skepticism in everyday life. I want to talk about how skepticism -- prioritizing good evidence and critical thinking over ideology and preconception, which includes declining to accept propositions without good evidence, and letting go of conclusions when the evidence doesn't support them -- can make our lives happier, healthier and more richly satisfying. I want to talk about the real challenges that a skeptical approach to everyday life can present... and why the rewards make those challenges so worthwhile.
I want to talk about skepticism as a discipline.
(And since I'm writing here about skeptical rigor, I'll be rigorous myself, and say right off the bat: This piece is very anecdotal. I'm writing largely about my own experiences, and my observations of other people. It's not as if I have double-blinded, peer-reviewed, replicated research showing that a skeptical life is a more satisfying life. In fact, there is research showing that a few very specific kinds of self-delusion, such as having a somewhat higher opinion of yourself than is strictly warranted, are essential to mental health. A topic for another piece.)
See, here's the thing. Lots of people who defend religious faith, who defend believing in God or the supernatural with no good evidence, insist they only ever do this with religion. When it comes to everyday life -- health and money, work and love, what car to buy and what food to eat and what city to live in -- of course they base their decisions on good evidence. Of course they don't believe whatever they're told or whatever appeals to them. Of course they're willing to let go of ideas when a mountain of evidence contradicts them.
But I know -- from my own experience, and from what I've seen -- that this is simply not the case. I know that it's not so easy to believe whatever you find comforting in some cases... and then question, or challenge, or let go of your beliefs in others.
Skepticism does not come naturally to the human mind. The human mind is very deeply wired to believe what it already believes, and what it wants to believe. The habit of questioning whether the things we believe are true? The habit of letting go of beliefs we're attached to when the evidence contradicts them? These are not easy habits to come by. They take practice. And they take discipline.