Thursday, June 2, 2005

A Skeptic's Creed

The whole idea is ridiculous, of course.

I mean, skeptics aren't supposed to believe anything, and a creed is a statement of belief, so there can't really be any such thing as "A Skeptic's Creed", can there?

I'm not so sure - and I don't just mean that as a play on words.

For one thing, I'm not so sure whether and to what extent I can really describe myself as a skeptic. In my professional life as a philosopher, I've written about skepticism, and employed skeptical methods in my exploration of environmental philosophy and environmental policy. More broadly, I am leery of dogmatism in all its forms, but especially where transcendent reality is concerned. But how far does that skepticism
go, and what form does it take? Could it be that I'm not so much a skeptic as I am just a philosopher in the Socratic mode, always asking the next annoying question to deflate the claims of those who think they are wise?

For another, I'm not so sure that skepticism rules out all belief. Jonathan Barnes, in his introduction to a recent edition of Sextus Empiricus' work on skepticism, distinguishes between "urbane" and "rustic" skepticism. I identify strongly with the former, which is a form of skepticism that focuses doubt on the abstract and abstruse claims of speculation, leaving some scope for knowledge about the world of common life and (I assume) public affairs. So, an urbane skeptic can believe all sorts of things, and act on them too, while still being cautious of unwarranted assumptions and dogmatic claims about what really, really is or must be the case about God, or the Forms, or whatever.

For all that I've thought about skepticism, its clear to me that I still have some thinking to do. I intend this blog as a venue in which I can sort through what it means to be a skeptic - though it strikes me as somewhat bizarre to be doing so in such a semi-public manner (assuming that anyone else is actually reading this.)

I started this blog on a whim, after reading about and reacting to the new so-called religion, Universism. The roots of what I'd like to do here run much deeper that this, however.

In the wake of recent developments in American politics, with the rise of the religious right and all sorts of talk about faith and "moral values" in public life, I find myself more and more wondering what the place of a skeptic will be in the United States in the coming years. I find the phrases "the heart of a skeptic" and "the soul of a skeptic" running through my head, calling out for some explanation and defense.

This comes together with my own background, about which I'll say more in some later posting. I've been struggling with my own understanding of what faith and religious life means ever since I turned my back on religion at the age of seventeen. I've largely gotten over the contempt I used to feel, though it always flares up again in the face of some flagrant example of dogmatism or hypocrisy.

Dogmatism is what always gets me, the benighted arrogance of those who will entertain no doubts.

So, here is what I would like to do in this blog:

1. Figure out what I mean when I say that I'm a skeptic, and figure out whether and to what extent I actually am a skeptic.

2. Figure out how doubt and belief intertwine in private and public life.

3. We have to believe something in order to act, and sometimes we have to commit ourselves and act decisively. How is this compatible with consistent, systematic doubt?

4. More deeply, what legitimate role can faith play in democratic deliberation? I don't think everyone has to check their faith at the door in order to play, but no one vision of the divine and the transcendent - or even of the good life - should be allowed to dominate.

5.Examine the legitimacy of skepticism . . .
- as a philosophical method;
- as a possible condition for open, democratic deliberation;
- as a responsible, secular way of life.

6. Examine current events and current politics with a skeptical eye, rooting out dogmatism and unwarranted assumptions wherever they may be.

No comments: