Just Above Sunset Archives
February 8, 2004 - On the importance of being dubious...
Great Doubters and Their Legacy From Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson
Psychologists know there are some self-ascriptions for which human beings
are eternal suckers. The vast majority of people think they have a better-than-average
sense of humor. Most of us fancy we are better drivers than others. And we almost all flatter ourselves that we are independent thinkers who don't accept others' claims without
good proof. We see gullibility everywhere around us but never find it in ourselves. We are skeptics.
We don't owe our modern skepticism just to the Greeks, however. Job and Ecclesiastes have an important place in the history of doubt, and so, incidentally, Hecht argues, does Jesus, both for the episode in Gethsemane and for his despairing last words on the cross. Her story progresses through Cicero, Lucretius, Marcus Aurelius and Sextus Empiricus in Rome. A separate chapter treats the Buddha and skepticism as it developed in Asia. Hinduism, she shows, was developing a skeptical tradition at the same time the Greeks were having their first doubts about religion.
Okay. I'll grant her Buddha, and the rest. But
the Jesus idea doesn't match what I hear from Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.
... the views of some of the doubters she praises became ossified into belief systems in need of more doubt. Sigmund Freud's critique of religion gets him onto Hecht's heroes list, and she also praises communism for the extent to which it provided a focused criticism of religion. Too bad she does not also describe how both Marx and Freud ended up creating dogmas that demanded a religious degree of faith from adherents. Freud may have claimed that a healthy, mature psyche needs to embrace disbelief, but he wasn't about to apply that principle to his own theories.
sometimes rebels get popular, then worshiped, then deified - and then there's a problem.
The same thing happens in music. Rebellious rock-and-roll get so popular
it becomes mainstream, and then you hear it in commercials for mass-produced Japanese cars, or commercials for savings banks.
What does Hecht's book tell us about how to resolve such an issue? Going by the examples she has amassed, we should openly question authority. But which authority? The well-qualified, pro-Kyoto climatologists who blame warming on CO2, or their well-qualified critics? They all have PhDs and teach at major universities. A vote of scientists is little help, since we know scientific majorities have been wrong in the past. But so have scientific minorities.
So if a sober, reliable friend tells you with apparent sincerity that he's been taken aboard a flying saucer, you have a choice: Either accept that flying saucers are real, or accept that your friend is less reliable than you thought. Rationality, Hume thought, demands that we choose the lesser of the two miracles. In most cases, this would have us questioning our sources, from the Old Testament to the National Enquirer to our friends, rather than throwing out what we know about the laws of nature or the likelihood of extraterrestrial visitations.
yes. Consider the source. Always