Gullibility and Skepticism
(This article is the first of two in reference to responses to my article, "Know Nothing?." The other article is "To My Skeptical Friends")
I have to admit I am a bit disappointed that more skeptics did not respond to my article, which is really research on the question of why so many people hold what seems to me to be an extreme skeptical or cynical view, to the extent that they say, "nothing can be known for certain," or, "nothing can be proved true."
I do not agree with that view, but I believe there is a much more common and dangerous thing in the world of the intellect: gullibility.
Gullibility and Credulity
H.L. Mencken said, "The costliest of all follies is to believe passionately in the palpably not true. It is the chief occupation of mankind."
I have discussed gullibility and credulity and its prevalence in two other articles, Gullible, and the very first article I posted on Liberty.me, "Why Do Most People Believe What Is Not True?"
It is not necessary to read those articles, but if you're interested in why I believe almost all people are gullible, the articles will explain why. I was once called a misanthrope for that belief. The following reprises my response to that criticism in the article, "Gullible."
"It is not misanthropy, it is an honest and objective observation. Most of humanity is consumed by some absurd superstition (religion), they believe everything their teachers, their authorities, their leaders, and their politicians tell them, they are almost universally racist in their views, they all believe government is necessary and actually solves problems, they love wars and are proud to have their children die in them, they believe their feelings matter, they spend most of their lives seeking meaningless pleasures and are entertained by idiots or 'athletes' and think they are important. Most are always in some kind of trouble and never figure out it is because everything they believe is not true and it is their superstitious beliefs and baseless credulity that determines all their choices."
There is another thing Mencken wrote I agree with:
"The average man never really thinks from end to end of his life. The mental activity of such people is only a mouthing of cliches. What they mistake for thought is simply a repetition of what they have heard. My guess is that well over 80 percent of the human race goes through life without having a single original thought."
It is only necessary to listen to people talk to know what they believe, what they think, and what they value is what they have learned from others, from their teachers, their favorite authorities, or what they have read. None of them ever have an original thought, and none them ever question anything they have learned and accepted.
Every individual has their own mind and is required by their nature to use their mind to learn all they possibly can and to think as well as they can possibly think in order to make the choices their nature requires to live happily and successfully in this world.
The reliance on any authority, experts, teachers, or anyone else who claims to know what is true, without question of reserve, is the very kind of credulity that causes people to believe the absurd. It is an attempt to bypass the requirement of one's own nature to use their own mind to learn and understand what is right and true.
It has nothing to do with learning from others. Learning from others means coming to one's own rational understanding of something that has been explained in rational terms based on observable facts and comprehendible principles. Almost all we know is learned in this way, because we do not live long enough or have the resources for discovering everything ourselves. But it must be learning, not accepting and not credulity.
True learning, in fact, requires being totally skeptical about any claim by anyone about that which cannot be made clear to one's own understanding by means of rational explanation. It means never "accepting" or "believing" any proposition on the basis of authority or expertise, (or worse, on the basis of one's feelings, whims, fears, or desires).
Most importantly, every individual must learn to think for himself. It does not matter if one's thinking leads to conclusions already discovered by others; what matters is that those conclusions are one's own. If one makes mistakes, one is in a position to correct them, because he will know how he arrived at those mistakes. If all of one's views are based on what others have said or taught, he has no way of correcting the wrong thinking, because he does not know what it is.
If all of one's thoughts and beliefs are nothing but repeating what others think and have taught them, one can never know if their own thinking is correct or not.
True Skepticism Is Embracing Objective Truth
Skepticism is necessary not because knowledge is doubtful, but because true knowledge is both possible and necessary and allowing oneself to have their minds filled with superstitious and fallacious nonsense will actually interfere with learning what is true.
(Note:) Please see the article, "Knowledge," for a brief introduction to epistemology, concepts, propositions, and truth. It's very brief, but if you wish to comment on this article, understanding these basic concepts will make it easier.)
Because an individual is a rational volitional being, he must make his own choices and must use his own mind and his own knowledge to make those choices. Since he and he alone is responsible for his choices he must never surrender his own ability to think and know to any irrationality, either the authority of someone else's mind or the influence of his own irrational emotions and desires.
It is objective reality that determines what is true and the rational human mind is the only thing that is capable of discovering and identifying the nature of that world, and it is that knowledge that is necessary for a human being to live successfully. If rational knowledge were not possible, human life would not be possible.
Skepticism About Objective Knowledge Actually Gullibility
Human beings are not born skeptical. You might say human beings are born gullible. Most children believe everything they are taught, and since they are usually taught by people who love them and would not intentionally deceive them, there is nothing wrong with that gullibility. It will not be long in most children's experience before some expectation or belief is disappointed or dramatically falsified. The nice looking buzzing fuzzy creature stings.
One learns to be skeptical, skeptical of first impressions, of what one is taught, and of what others say, at first from experience. That learned skepticism is itself a kind of knowledge, knowledge that something is only true if one knows why it is true. True skepticism is built on one's conviction they can know the difference between truth and falsehood, and that it is always the truth that is the cure for credulity and superstition. One knows what is false because one knows what is true, and a thing is false because it contradicts the truth.
What is wrong with radical skepticism is that it denies one can know the truth, but if one cannot know the truth, one cannot know what is false either. Knowing what is false is knowledge.
I have no idea what the radical skeptics think certain knowledge is.
Certainty does not mean omniscience. It does not mean infallibility. Certainty means knowing what one does know, based on objective evidence within the context of that to which the knowledge pertains. It means one has examined all available evidence and it all supports the knowledge and no evidence exists that contradicts the knowledge. It usually means, when something is known, denying or doubting it contradicts all supporting evidence as well as all related knowledge.
Most knowledge is simple and absolute. The cat is either in the closet or it isn't. Looking in the closet provides absolute knowledge of which it is. This is no doubt what Da Vinci had in mind when he said, "to see is to know."
Everything that ever had to be done that required knowledge to do is proof of of that knowledge. Every blood transfusion ever performed is proof of knowledge about the circulatory system and the nature of blood. Sending men to the moon was proof of the enormous amount of knowledge that was necessary to accomplish that mission. Every trip taken by any human being made possible by any of the man-made means of travel from ships to airplanes is proof of the knowledge necessary to produce those methods of transportation.
There is almost nothing in modern life in Western Civilization that would exist or be possible without heaps of knowledge, from coffee-makers to cell-phones.
Every actual technological achievement is not just probable, it is absolute. We know with absolute certainty that heavier than air human fight is possible, that antibiotics cure many infectious diseases, that the atom can be used to produce usable energy by fission (already done) and fusion (if it can ever be controlled). We know geo-stationary satellites are possible (though it was doubted when Arthur C. Clarke first described it.) We know anesthesia and painless surgery are possible (though the knowledge was fought against when first proposed) Almost everything we do every day would be impossible without the knowledge that made the things we use possible from electricity to air-conditioning.
None of these examples would be possible without certain knowledge. "But human knowledge is always limited, it is never perfectly precise, and nothing can be known to be 100% true," the skeptic says. Human knowledge is limited because human beings are neither omniscient or infallible but that does not mean they have knowledge of nothing or that everything is a mistake. Even when knowledge is limited by the nature of what is known, when absolute precision is impossible, knowledge that a parameter must fall within known limits is in fact certain knowledge. I do not know what, "100% true," means. If a proposition is true, it is true. If it is 99.9999% true, it is then .0001% false, and the proposition itself is false.
One thing is certain, nothing of value has ever been produced and nothing of import has ever been discovered by means of doubt, ignorance, skepticism, or cynicism.