3 04 2014
From The Primordial Sludge To Rational Skepticism
By David Russell-Smith
We live in an unfortunate reality ladies and gentlemen; we live in an unfortunate reality because all the lights were out when we got here. When the first, semi-rational entity, looking something like a man, took his first stride aloft two sturdy legs, reaching with his cognitive powers for his first developed conception of the world around him, he did so with his hands bound, and his eyes blindfolded. He had no tools, not even the slightest hint of a mechanism for processing the raw data provided to him by his evolutionarily granted senses. But in true human spirit, this beast who roamed on two feet was not so easily made modest, he likely pounded his chest, like a child completing a connect the dots puzzle in the local paper, he began to formulate understandings about the world around him, from the patterns it presented him. Some of these stories were wonderful, deep and inspiring, others simple superstition, but all were not far from untrue.
Along went humanity, writing stories that best explained the observations of their senses, the most exciting stories, with the most terrible gods and treacherous titans prevailed across all of civilization. Undoubtedly, in the quest for knowledge, sought as it was through basic pattern seeking and sheer myth, humanity has been mislead far more than it has yelled bingo. It would be untrue however, to assume that all of humanity took so long to develop the tools of reason: Skeptics and doubters began to realize that there were some legitimate ways of assessing observations that were more effective in truth finding than others; methods which produced testable, verifiable results. Needless to say, they were not a popular bunch. How could sextants and mathematics ever hold the grandeur of mythology, and why should anyone entrust their perfect eternity to the likes of these mad new philosophers and scientists.
Despite a fog of irrationality and false pattern seeking which had now become so entrenched across the lands that to stray from it was to risk one’s life, we have somehow immerged as a people who can stand here, under the hum of lecture theater technology, discussing truth, and how to find it. We got here, because of a group of people to whom we are truly in debt; men like Thomas Jefferson, Isaac Newton, Thomas Pain, Voltaire and David Hume. Men who heard the same great tales, forged out of the same fundamental misunderstanding of fact finding, and simply said no. Instead these men demanded something radically reformist to the human consciousness, they demanded evidence for claims to truth.
And so out of the enlightenment came a new wave of reason, empowered by a hardware stocked to the roof with fact finding tools, tools now encapsulated under the rather unimpressive name “the empirical method”. It is through this method, that privately held prejudices world over, have been transformed into publically verifiable truths. Central to this method is the notion that evidence must be presented for a claim for it to have any ontological worth, it is clearly apparent however, that merely demanding evidence is all but meaningless unless one has some understanding of what constitutes evidence.
Even the most simple, observational evidence disseminates itself through populations of people often in argumentative ways, and competing evidences clash like champions in the arena of ideas. It is here that the apt skeptic must not only have empirical training, but philosophical also. The fair haired knight of skepticism, a champion of the 21st century, must be able to recognize when he is being fed tosh for evidence. Take for example the claim that the bible is evidence of god, or that the claims of mother Teresa are evidence of Christianity, these claims must be battered down into the compost by a healthy dose of “oh do stop committing that fallacy if you will.” If you want to be a great skeptic, be scientific, but also be philosophically skilled.