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February 8, 2004 - On the importance of being dubious...

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The Great Doubters and Their Legacy From Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson
Jennifer Michael Hecht.  HarperSanFrancisco.  551 pages $27.95

Reviewed in The Washington Post by Denis Dutton, Sunday, February 1, 2004; (Page BW 4) click
here for the review.  The Post tells me this Denis Dutton teaches philosophy at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand.  He is a founder of the New Zealand Skeptics. 

Yes, you can insert your New Zealand jokes here, regarding sheep or Peter Jackson and his hobbit movies filmed there.  Yes, that's where the lesbian homoerotic "Xena: Warrior Princess" was filmed too.  A country founded by Congregationalists.  What a place! 

Anyway, it is clear Dutton is aroused:


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. 

Jennifer Michael Hecht's historical survey of doubt shows how fallible this self-image is: Skeptical thinking is in fact so rare a trait one wonders how it got started at all. 


Good point!

Apparently Hecht starts out with the pre-Socratic philosophers of Greece, the guys that came up with odd conclusions: Thales thought everything was made of water; Anaximenes chose air.  But Hecht likes them because of their "desire to find explanations that did not depend on the authority of a priestly class, sacred texts or mythological traditions."

Yep, rebels.  Just like Jesus. 

Say what?  


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. 

Then it seems Hecht does a review of woman skeptics - from Hypatia, torn to pieces by a Christian mob in 415 AD - to Emily Dickinson and the "fearless Margaret Sanger." 

But here's Duttons serious caveat regarding this Hecht book -


... 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.


Yep, 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. 

But much of the book seems to be about religious skepticism, not automobile sales.  So what kind of skepticism is useful today?  

It may be true that these days the power and prestige once vested in religion now belong to science.  Dutton points out that Montaigne thought that disagreements among scientists showed that science was as much a cultural construction as religion, and ought therefore to be treated with skepticism.  That makes sense to me. 

If so, how does one deal with scientific disputes, like those about global warming?  


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.


Yep, a problem. 

Trust your instincts?  

Dutton thinks so:


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.


Ah yes.  Consider the source.  Always good advice. 

Dutton does say it is clear from Hecht's history that religions have a knack for drawing vast, cosmic conclusions from scattered and marginal evidence, such as the dreams of seers or reports from ancient, uncorroborated texts.  Religious believers form in-groups of people who think alike and validate one another's beliefs.  Many believers are suckers for prophets of doom and are prone to witch-hunting to persecute apostates.  Their passionate convictions mix weak facts with strong emotions.  And through it all, each believer, no matter how fanatical, is certain of being an independent thinker. 

Aren't we all?  

Dutton claims Marxism used elements from this pattern, as have minor belief systems such as homeopathy and Freudianism.  You can see aspects of it among political true believers from both left and right.  Today, environmentalism is his pick as "the best candidate for a belief system needing dollops of the kind of doubt formerly applied to religion.  Like most traditional religions, environmentalism can do a power of good.  But watch out for the dodgy data and the hysterical insistence that, unless we repent and change our ways, we and our children are doomed."

Oh heck, we're all doomed anyway.  But I doubt that.