Here I am, ranging through human experience, subjecting beliefs and assumptions to the acid of doubt. But what standard should I apply when I scrutinize beliefs and assumptions? On what basis should I say this belief is faulty, but that belief is all right?
And then: To what end am I doing all this?
In the broader, mainstream skeptical community, the answer to the first two questions is clear and, apparently, straightforward: scientific research is the gold standard. We must bring our beliefs and assumptions about the natural world - including our own, all-natural hearts and minds - to the test of rigorous, "objective" scientific testing. Only that way can we sort out fact from fantasy.
Consider this, from the "Skeptic's Manifesto," an extended excerpt from Michael Shermer's book, Why People Believe Weird Things, posted on the website of The Skeptics Society
Modern skepticism is embodied in the scientific method, that involves gathering data to formulate and test naturalistic explanations for natural phenomena. A claim becomes factual when it is confirmed to such an extent it would be reasonable to offer temporary agreement. But all facts in science are provisional and subject to challenge, and therefore skepticism is a method leading to provisional conclusions.This is okay, as far as it goes, but it strikes me as still too narrow, too prone to slip into a kind of dogmatic, naturalistic orthodoxy on the model of positivism: there's science, and there's hooey . . . and there's no middle ground. This seems to rule out in advance any possibility of a critical engagement with the questions of ethics, political theory, epistemology (including philosophy of science), and other domains of human experience that is not based on the blithe assumption of their reducibility to or "consilience" with physics . . . and with naturalistic metaphysics.
I would suggest instead - taking a cue from both European phenomenology and American pragmatism - that the natural sciences are themselves a (very significant) part of a broader human enterprise: critical intersubjective inquiry.
This is my gold standard: critical inquiry in all domains of human experience, where claims are supported by reasoned argument, where claims and arguments together are offered up to the scrutiny of others. This is science in an older, broader sense, akin to the German term Wissenschaft, which encompasses both nature and culture.
I'll have to develop this further, but I would insist that the question of the relationship between the natural sciences and the "human sciences" is itself open to inquiry. I freely acknowledge the importance and the power of the natural sciences, and the authority of the community of scientific inquiry in addressing questions of how nature works. I relish the work of mainstream skeptics in debunking myth and distortion in that domain.
However, I am unwilling to assume consilience, unwilling to assume that ethics, for example, or political theory must ultimately bow to physics, or even to evolutionary biology. This is not to say the two modes of inquiry - roughly, the "two cultures" identified by C.P. Snow - are entirely independent of one another. It is to say that the relationship between them is problematic, and we should keep our options open. If anything, the two modes of inquiry intertwine in all sorts of curious ways, each by turns supporting and undermining the claims of the other.
Then there's the question of the purpose of all this. Why engage in this kind of inquiry at all, where every assumption is thrown open to scrutiny?
In a recent post to Skepticblog, Brian Dunning (a.k.a. the Skeptoid), took to task a blogger who had criticized him on some point or other. Dunning withheld the details, it would seem, to keep all this from getting personal. However, he seemed to think the criticism was misguided and overblown and, worse, that it would do real harm to "the skeptical movement." He writes:
I liken the drivers of the critical thinking movement to paddlers in a giant canoe. Some are more influential and paddle hard, others less so. But we’re all paddling. Every little bit helps. We’re paddling because what we’re doing is important and we believe in it. I welcome everyone who comes aboard to help, no matter the size of their paddle.He goes on to recount another instance in which he was critical of something that happened at a meeting of skeptics, but pursued his criticism quietly, by direct communication with the people involved. He discovered that his misgivings were based on a factual error regarding the circumstances of the alleged occurrence, and the problem was resolved. Writes Dunning: "We’re still paddling in step."
So it’s frustrating for me when I see people who represent themselves as paddlers, but really all they’re doing is disparaging those who actually do paddle. Oh, occasionally they may stick their paddle into the water and steer or give a little push or two, but every time they stop to lambaste the contributors, they’re dead weight; and when they shout to other boats what horrible paddlers their shipmates are, they are actively counterproductive.
Leaving aside the disturbing imagery of "climb[ing] on board," closing ranks, and [walking] in [lock-]step, what I picked up on is the idea that everyone should be paddling in the same direction, toward some goal.
Okay. What's the goal?
As it turns out, the goal of the "skeptical movement" is fairly narrow: to debunk pseudoscience, mysticism, and other kinds of junk knowledge, and to spread critical thinking and foster better understanding of scientific inquiry and its results.
Again, that's all great, as far as it goes. But then, to what end are we doing these things?
Two possibilities spring to mind. One comes from Aristotle, for whom all the arts and sciences, and every form of inquiry, aimed for the same thing: a good human life in a vibrant and stable political society. The other possibility is a more current idea, Aristotle's vision writ large: the project of human civilization.
But then, why assume that as the goal? Why assume agreement on what constitutes "human civilization," or even "a good life"?
We'll have to look into that.