April 1, 2009

The View from the Skeptic Tank

Are you a skeptic? Before you answer that, let me tell you that, in my opinion, most people who call themselves skeptics are frauds.

You see, a skeptic is someone who doubts, probes and questions. Skeptics don’t accept commonly held beliefs just because they are popular, sound good, or tend to confirm a position they’ve already taken. A true skeptic continues to question and reexamine positions including, and I would say especially, their own.

On the other hand, most self-proclaimed skeptics I know of have long ago staked out their position, and exercise their “skepticism” only against those with whom they already disagree. In my mind, that makes them “cynics”, not “skeptics”.

I consider myself an unabashed skeptic. As I continually reexamine my own positions, I find them constantly changing. I think that’s a good thing. The journey towards truth needs frequent course corrections. If we can’t point to a continual process of change in our own belief system, then either we’ve stopped on our journey, or arrogantly assume we’ve arrived.

Just a few days ago, I wrote my first post: Introducing “Faith for Thinkers”. As I skeptically reread what I wrote, I realized I needed to make a few corrections to that article.

I originally spoke of the wall between science and faith, and said that the wall didn’t need to exist. Actually, most walls serve a good purpose. They delineate borders, ensure privacy, protect us from the elements, keep rivers from overflowing their banks, and maintain proper boundaries in relationships.

And I believe there are valid reasons for some proper lines of demarcation between the realms of science and faith. Many of the faith/science conflicts can be traced to attempts to go outside the boundaries of the discipline – whether it’s scientists arrogantly proclaiming the non-existence of God, or the church arrogantly proclaiming the flatness of the earth. Stephen Jay Gould called this delineation between faith and science the principle of “non-overlapping magisteria”. This is a concept which has aroused the ire of both believers and scientists – believers who think their worldview should overlap everything, and scientist who think faith doesn’t deserve a magisterium (authority to teach) at all. While I don't fully agree with Gould, I sometimes think that being fired upon by both sides is a pretty indication that you've hit on at least an element of truth. I’ll be writing more about this in my next post, Why is the water boiling?.

So I acknowledge that the existence of boundaries or walls between science and faith isn't necessarily a bad thing. The problem is the assumption that whatever is not on “our” side of the wall is “the enemy”. We fear, discount, or malign whatever is on the other side. We cross over to try to claim territory on the other side of the wall for our side. We deem anyone who claims to operate on both sides of the wall either deluded or a traitor. And the war escalates.

Is it possible that if we put down our weapons long enough to engage in constructive dialog, that maybe we’ll finally realize that faith and science aren’t enemies, but allies? As one "caught in the crossfire", that's the conclusion I've come to. And if you find that hard to accept, let me encourage you to give a little self-directed skepticism a try.

It'll be good for you.

- Phil

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for helping me see that I'm a skeptic.