“To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering” – Friedrich Nietzsche
Two nihilists walk into a bar. Here endeth the joke. What does this have to do with skepticism? Well, skepticism is a reasonable stance when it comes to day to day life. If you think your wife is cheating on you, she probably is. You’re not that great. The system is rigged against you. Check. The CIA put a snake in your mailbox. Well, that one’s a little more dubious, but you never know. Have you ever dated a CIA agent? They tend to be both disproportionately vindictive and nefariously creative. One must keep in mind the fine line between skepticism and nihilism. Unless your name happens to be Kerkigaard or Nietzsche, then go with the nihilism and you’ll have philosophers talking about you for centuries, wondering whether you had something to do with the misery the rest of us subsequently experienced.
One thing Nietzsche got right is modernity is in its essence “psychological decadence”. We think of our current state of consciousness as privileged above all others. We are not modest about this. Modesty is for the unwashed masses. That’s why we alternatively love our science or love our religion. We forget that there was originally a point to both. We don’t like being confused and thus we seek refuge in comforting structure, the structure of disbelief or belief. It doesn’t really matter, as long as we can convince ourselves that meaning and purpose are a fundamental force in the universe. But as our access to information expands exponentially in the internet world, we find ourselves washed up on the beach of doubt, wondering what could possibly be true. As Albert Camus said, “The modern mind is in complete disarray. Knowledge has stretched itself to the point where neither the world nor our intelligence can find any foot-hold. It is a fact that we are suffering from nihilism”. Thus, some of us fall back into an abject skepticism.
Sadly, skepticism is the last refuge of the nihilist in a world irritatingly awash in meaning. Meaning is irrelevant to the nihilist as life is a mechanism without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value. Thus the highest purpose of the skeptic can only be to rid us of our delusions and introduce their own emptiness, an epistemological wasteland deep in the desert of the ontological. A skeptic talks about “critical thinking” as faith (belief or agnosticism about those things not encompassed by current wisdom) and regards all forms of inquiry that require an ontological shift as a sign of stupidity. You can find a dozen deconstructions of the inanity of Ancient Aliens, but imbedded in the analysis is fear and nihilism. As Alan Moore said, “Famously, there’s not really anywhere to go after nihilism. It’s not progressing toward anything, it’s a statement of outrage, however brilliant”. And it is outrage that powers skepticism, the notion the there is one epistemology (the current vogue is a reified “science”, due to the credibility it imparts), and that curious inquiries into the puzzling worlds of magic, strange phenomena, and an enchanted universe are largely the province of hucksters and folks trying to sell you something. That’s why it’s so easy to take a modern television show and disabuse the unwary of its inadequacy.
Skeptics argue that they are primarily concerned with the welfare of the unfortunate morons who dare to believe in the improbable, the impossible, and the mysteries of the universe, confident in the fact that their beloved epistemology will illuminate us all. Because things can be hoaxed, because photos can be doctored, because people are needy and emotionally expressive, it threatens a universe of meaning, where the only meaning is that of mechanistic nihilism. Life is meaningless. Your experiences, while clinically interesting are illusions. Modern skepticism is a compassionless negation, casting aside wonder, enchantment, and those aspects of existence that have made humans ask those basic and fundamental unanswerable metaphysical questions posed by Kant, “Who are we? Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? And where can I get a good schnitzel?”
When a skeptic looks at strange phenomena, they see experiences to be debunked, insanity to be identified, illogic to be illuminated, and a devaluation of human experience as experienced, the meaning always made subordinate to a very narrow epistemological approach to reality. What strikes me about most skeptical analyses of anomalistic phenomena is that there is a denigration of the vagaries of human consciousness, and a compassionless arrogance. Now, I would not go so far as to suggest “compassion” as an epistemology, but as Nelson Mandela said, “Our human compassion binds us the one to the other – not in pity or patronizingly, but as human beings who have learnt how to turn our common suffering into hope for the future”.
I consider myself a skeptic, but I love Kant AND Nietzsche – so clearly I refuse to squeeze the blood out of life with “snarling logicality”… I take my philosophical values and ideas the way my one-time pet ferrets took what THEY wanted: from any useful, attractive source. I am a moderately good existentialist and like Camus pretty well and therefore don’t make a habit of letting myself off any “hook” to keep my own comfort. I don’t want to be hornschwoggled by casual nonsense that sloshes around like the soggy rotting bottoms of old wooden boats; but neither do I ever want to throw out an inexplicable experience because I can’t map it by ordinary means. I EXAMINE and EXPERIENCE and find the world a multi-tiered wonder most of the time.
Most of the time. Then I watch the news and wonder if I could make coffee using vodka instead of water….
I just came across an essay by UCLA professor John McCumber which resonates with the argument you’ve put forth:
In paragraphs 8-10 (and elsewhere) McCumber makes the case that UCLA philosopher and chancellor, Raymond Allen developed a formula that equated reason with a narrow (logical positivist) view of science: “The Allen Formula gave universities two things they desperately needed: a quick-and-dirty way to identify ‘incompetents’, and a rationale for their speedy exclusion from academia. Since rationality applies to all human activities, the Formula could be used against professors who…were competent in their own disciplines, but whose views in other fields (such as politics) had not been formulated ‘scientifically’. Moreover, and conveniently, rationality was now a matter of following clear rules that went beyond individual disciplines.”
Later, McCumber writes: “Facts always underdetermine theories, and this requires scientists to choose from an array of alternative theories, under a preference for highest probability. Science thus becomes a series of rational choices. Which meant that by 1951 there was a unified intellectual response to the two pressures: appeals to science fought the domestic subversives, and when science was integrated with rational choice theory it entered the global conflict. The battle was on, and what I call Cold War philosophy began its career, not only in fighting the Cold War of ideas, but in structuring US universities – and US society.”
This rather perverse Cold War view makes reason a concoction of science (of the logical positivist variety) mixed with rational choice theory and stirred vigorously with Occam’s razor. I think it’s worth considering that the skeptic’s epistemology may be, in part, a remnant of Cold War philosophy.