July 16, 2013

A Skeptic Embraces the Inevitability of Being Wrong

The Wrong Version
The Wrong Version (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
You can find the introduction to this series on skepticism here if you missed it.

A Skeptic Embraces the Inevitability of Being Wrong

It is often said that nobody enjoys being wrong; however, the awareness that one may be wrong is an important part of skepticism. Humans are fallible, and we may be wrong about anything, even those notions which we hold dear. The skeptic goes out of his or her way to remember this fundamental truth: I might be wrong.

The skeptic is not only aware of the possibility of being wrong; he or she embraces the inevitability of being wrong and uses it as a way to remain grounded, humble, and vigilant. Recognizing that we will be wrong helps us remain connected to the process of critical inquiry. We test ourselves and our assumptions. We look for errors in our thinking, expect to find them, and seek to correct them. Instead of feigning knowledge, we acknowledge the gaps and uncertainties.

Far from being a source of discouragement or despair, the inevitability of being wrong is a key part of what drives the skeptic and what makes skepticism and critical inquiry possible. This is because the skeptic applies skepticism and critical inquiry to his or her own beliefs as well as the beliefs of others.

I'd like to suggest that the single-best way to sort the genuine skeptics from those merely playing skeptic is that real skeptics are willing and able to apply skepticism and critical inquiry to their own beliefs. They do not allow their world views to become dogmatic, and they guard against this by going out of their way to assess their own beliefs.

An atheist can certainly be skeptical of religious belief and only religious belief. But we would not properly characterize such a person as a skeptic. We might say that he or she is skeptical on matters of religion, but we would recognize that he or she is not operating as a skeptic across the board. An atheist who is skeptical of someone else's political ideology but not his or her own is similarly not operating as a skeptic.

Once the skeptic realizes that all of us typically arrive at beliefs for emotional rather than rational reasons, the importance of thinking critically about our own beliefs becomes evident. We cannot always prevent errors, but we can recognize and correct them if we are willing to learn and invest the energy in doing so. The skeptic commits himself or herself to this process.

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