When you hear the word skeptic or skepticism, what comes to mind is a person that constantly has a negative position or doubt to certain claims. The true meaning of skepticism is a powerful term or branch of epistemology; it is an aid to evaluate claims in a critical manner by reasoning in a logical way to verify if a knowledge claim is true and reliable. Then a person that is skeptic is “just looking” at things to evaluate and start the processes of the application of reasoning and critical thinking to consider the validation of the claims. There are certain limits of skepticism that make skepticism unreliable.
Richard Popkin, a historian of skepticism, states, “academic skepticism is referred to in such a way as it was developed in the Platonic Academy in the third century B.C. and was developed from the Socratic observation” (Popkin, 2003, par. 18).
Whereas religious people can be skeptical, they do not reflect true skepticism as they merely reject a particular set of opinions, because those opinions contradict the views that they already have. Schellenberg states, “It is true that references to omnipotence, omniscience and so on operate as ultimizing references within a personal frame of reference, but what we have when all is said and done is still only the ultimate person” (Schellenberg, 2007, p. 60).
Skepticism has existed for a long time and dates back to the ancient Greek thought. A skeptic is a person who doubts all opinions accepted as true. Therefore, skepticism refers to the act of doubting on all accepted opinions. Skepticism has been the central idea to many systems of knowledge, including the modern science and the Buddhism. Skepticism is a useful quality when one moves through reality.
All skeptics have some body of knowledge that they believe to be accurate. They have this body of knowledge in order to use it as a reference for judging where a particular opinion or belief measures up to their body of knowledge. This is problematic to a certain extent, because it reflects a limit of skepticism. Despite the fact that all skeptics have a certain body of knowledge, it does not automatically mean that the body of knowledge that they have is always the correct or the accurate one. This is especially because certain bodies of knowledge change because of environmental or time changes. Therefore, what a skeptic considers as true may not be so, hence it may lead him or her to make erroneous decisions or choices as he used it as a measure for decision or choice taking (Popkin, 2011).
Religious people can be skeptical, but they merely reject a particular set of opinions, because those opinions challenge the views that they already have. For instance, creationists never agree with the Darwinian evolution, because it contradicts their belief that God created the earth and all that is in it. However, a true skeptic constantly questions his or her own basic beliefs and opinions. Moreover, this is not something that a religious person can do, because religion forbids believers from casting doubt to the religious issues, otherwise when he or she does so, it is highly likely that it will lead to a crisis of faith. It is rational that when one wants to make a decision about a particular issue, he or she should question all opinions and options, because by engaging in the questioning process, one can find the limits of intellectual knowledge. This helps to free the mind from unnecessary issues that might obscure the clarity of purpose. However, becoming overly skeptical limits the ability of a person to learn new issues or issues that he does not know. This is because a skeptic will put everything to doubt even those things that have been proven scientifically true (Schellenberg, 2007).
Significance of limits of Skepticism
Scientific skepticism is an ideal one, which gives us understanding of the limits of skepticism. In the real world, scientists, just like many other people, blindly accept certain hosts of opinion and beliefs due to the assumption that other scientists or researchers verified them. A scientist can suspend much of his or her doubt when he or she is indoctrinated to the reality of the particular field of study he or she is in. This is because scientists always have too many materials to deal with. In fact, when dealing with those materials, they cannot exactly or accurately tell whether reality follows the theory stipulated in every circumstance. This is an important limit of skepticism, because it can never dismiss an anomalous event completely. Skepticism can only state.
Skepticism also has the aspect of quantity and quality of doubt. This occurs in the sense that the quantity and quality of doubt is always subjective. Every person has his or her own way of casting doubt on a particular issue and the amount and quality of the doubt is always dependent on a particular person due to the fact that judgments can be made based on experience, knowledge, and lack of knowledge among other things. The level of proof that people need to accept or refute certain beliefs, assertions, deductions or opinions, is an opinion or assertion in itself. This makes skepticism subjective similarly to the beliefs or opinions that skepticism seeks to validate or refute. With this knowledge, it is imperative to state that skepticism is not the high scientific precision tool that many skeptics use. Rather, it can be seen as a rule, which is used to regulate the behavior taking all issues as they are or for granted. It is obvious that proof must be provided before people can accept it to revise their worldview or set of beliefs. This should be applied fairly across all fields. However, scientists demand certain amounts of corroborating evidences (that are almost impossible to be provided) in order to agree with those facts. On the other hand, they demand little for issues that fit within their belief systems or theories. This presents a significant limit of skepticism. Moreover, despite the fact that it is normal to have a strong bias or inclination to one’s worldview, opinion or belief, in logical terms this should be absent from the process of skepticism in order to make valuable and concrete judgments (Popkin, 2011).
Evidence of the limits of Skepticism
Doubt, which is a major concept of skepticism, can be self-fulfilling. The quantum physics posits that the observer’s mind usually has an effect on the issue that is observed. This means that people find themselves in positions where what they see is not what they believe, but believing is seeing. Most people tend to believe in certain things even before they see those things. This is characteristic of instances where the greater participation of the mind is required, such as in issues like spirituality, psychology, psychic issues and health issues among others. This brings up another limit of skepticism, which might be counterproductive, because earlier beliefs influence what one wants to be true especially in the highly subjective areas. This means that skepticism must always be used with caution. The limit of skepticism is used to justify the beliefs that individuals once hold to be true and make it appear to be in support of their belief. When this occurs, people use skepticism to cover up for their fears, insecurity and the beliefs they have concerning the unpredictability, uncontrollability and indefinability of the reality that exists (Kirkman, 2002).
Another limit that has been tied to skepticism is the fact that skepticism relies only on the empirical and, to some extent, ignores critical thinking. In this respect, it is significant to state that skepticism and its reliance on empirical data makes it short of addressing certain issues. Empirical data cannot always explain everything, and this is where critical thinking arises (Schill, 2008, p. 136). Skepticism involves the provision of evidence for something to be considered valid, true or accurate. However, in subjective and prescriptive issues, the use of critical thinking is required, as opposed to the use of empirical data, in the explanation of certain issues. Therefore, when carrying out a scope of inquiry, skepticism is presented as biased as it restricts the use of critical thinking in explaining certain phenomena. For instance, questions about the existence of God are meaningless and cannot be investigated, there is no empirical data to support that. However, certain decisions made in the name of God ought to be challenged. This scenario presents a limit of skepticism, because its reliance on empirical data makes it ignore certain significant issues that must be challenged and explained even in the absence of evidence. This means that skepticism is biased in handling issues that require critical thinking. Prescriptive issues are always ethical or moral issues in nature. For instance, when questioning about issues such as homosexuality and lesbianism, the decisions of right or wrong is broken down to issues of value judgment. In this scenario, judgments and opinions cannot be measured using empirical data but through critical thinking (Schill, 2008).
Manifestation of the Limits of Skepticism
Skepticism does not help in making progress when used alone as it is based on rejecting the irrational. This does not offer a reliable way to progress. Skepticism requires combination with rationality in order to produce progress. One cannot just reject the things that seem to be irrational, and not engage in the irrational and progress. In fact, when looking at skepticism, it is difficult to state under which criteria a person categorizes the irrational from the rational. Skepticism creates a loophole for people to use their own subjective feelings or beliefs to make judgments about certain concepts. There is not laid down rules with respect to what is considered rational or irrational. Skeptics formulate their own view of what is rational and use that view to judge that which they see. If it does not concur with their view, then they consider it irrational. Skeptics heavily depend on evidence as a way of making judgments and choices. However, not all things can be proven using the evidence. One important issue arises: whenever one has more evidence than a skeptic person does, yet the evidence is being used to prove the rational from irrational, does it mean that a skeptic will agree to that? This shows a limitation of skepticism because it can be used to justify one’s position even when one is not rational or correct (Meidan, 2004, p.40).
Skepticism prevent learning from happening. As stated, a skeptic person relies on evidence as a way of changing his view on something. There are certain cases that exist as true, though do not contain much evidence. For instance, a person who is not a skeptic can reveal certain important information to a skeptic. However, when presenting the information, he might not have enough evidence, yet the information is true. Here, it is likely that the skeptic will refute the information as true, until he gets enough evidence to discredit his or her position. This prevents people from learning and becomes problematic.
Another limit of skepticism can be explained through the aspect of knowledge. Godfrey-Smith says, “Empiricism has often shown a surprising willingness to throw in the towel on the issue of external world skepticism” (Godfrey-Smith, 2009, p.20). Skepticism is heavily based on the empirical data. It is not rational to limit accepted knowledge to the empirically demonstrated knowledge alone. Equally, it is not rational to reject information that has been empirically proven. This is where skepticism lays its foundation. The limit of skepticism is seen where skeptics apply critical inquiry to all fields of knowledge, but fail to understand that there are aspects of life that cannot be examined through empirical or scientific evaluation. Therefore, when skeptics fail to understand this, they fail to understand the concepts of life (Godfrey-Smith, 2009, p.20).
While skepticism is an important aspect when making decisions and choices, it is also limited. Skepticism helps people avoid making mistakes. However, skepticism has several limitations most of which originate from the fact that skepticism relies heavily on empirical evidence. Skepticism can prevent learning or make people fail to make important decisions or choices, when these decisions and choices must be made, just because skeptics want to examine everything. Therefore, skepticism has several limitations that make it unreliable.