Although I see myself as a skeptic, I’ve never liked that term. It always has a taint of disparagement, and I always feel like I need to explain it, or make jokes like “Don’t worry, it doesn’t seem to be very contagious.” It often seems to be used like a synonym for disagreeable, or party-pooper, stuffy, stodgy, closed-minded, old coot, etc.
For me, skepticism is quite the opposite of all that. To my view the word skepticism is more like a synonym for curiosity — an urge to push past my current knowledge and understanding of the world. As I see it, to be a skeptic is nothing like being closed minded. On the contrary, it means to open one’s mind to alternatives, to free oneself from excessively rigid or mindless ideological over-commitments, and to stubbornly refuse to clutter up one’s own nervous system with a tangle of complicated, contradictory, and unnecessary opinions — what we might call belief pollution.
But that doesn’t mean I have no beliefs or opinions, of course. In fact, I seem to have so many of these that I’ve even created this blog as a place to document them. But my blog isn’t just a place for me to put my opinions. As I experience it, writing is actually a better way to think, and the process of a writing a blog post is also the process of formulating, scrutinizing, testing, reformulating, re-scrutinizing, revising, and in general indulging my often relentless curiosity regarding the way my own mind works.
In this way I am skeptical of even my own beliefs.
One of my favorite problem-solving or solution-finding heuristics was articulated by Nobel Laureate Herbert A. Simon as follows:
“…solving a problem simply means representing it so as to make its solution transparent.” — Herbert A Simon, The Sciences of the Artificial.
To the extent that understanding a problem and representing it are more or less the same thing, and taking luck into account, I think Simon’s core principle can be reasonably and more colloquially paraphrased as:
Unless we get lucky, we cannot hope to solve a problem if we don’t understand it.
I’m not a conspiracy theorist because I understand that a conspiracy is just a gang of fools who share the control delusion that they’ve actually got things all figured out and under control. And a conspiracy theorist is just another fool who shares that same control delusion, even though he or she is not actually a member of the gang of wannabe conspirators.
The world is just not that simple. Although I do think it’s true that some people really do have more executive influence than others — at least temporarily and in certain situations — I think really anybody or any group of anybodies who seriously thinks that they’re running things, and especially anybody who agrees with them on that point — is disconnected from reality.
But that’s just my opinion, for now, and until I see a good reason to change it. But enough about me already. What do you think? I’d really like to know.
This post is the first of a series I am starting with an eye toward developing an essay on a topic I’m calling (for now) Rational Centrism. I am making these notes public in order to invite feedback from anyone who might have some to offer. If you have such feedback, I invite you to post your comments below, or send them to me privately via my Contact tab.
Although one of my goals for this project is to clarify and elaborate what I mean by this term, for now I believe I have enough of a high-level understanding to have allowed me to write a number of blog posts that either illustrate or relate in some relevant way to at least my current, nascent understanding of Rational Centrism.
Which brings us to the following disclaimer:
You should know that as I begin this project I am nothing like an expert on its core topic, if the word topic is even appropriate. At this point, and for all I know, the term Rational Centrism may turn out to be nothing more than an evocative neologism, more ribbon than gift, so to speak. And aside from mulling the idea over in my mind for some time, jotting down a few notes here and there, and maybe writing a few blog posts that strike me as illustrative of the concept in some way, I would have to classify myself as a rank beginner with respect to this field of inquiry (if field of inquiry isn’t too strong a term for it). All of which is to say that if you’ve come to these notes with hopes of learning from someone who actually understands in some depth what he’s writing about, you’ve come to the wrong place. On the other hand, if this term does evoke something in you — at least a curiosity about what Rational Centrism might be — or especially if you already know what it is and wish to share your own knowledge and experience with me, well, then you have come to the right place!
One way or another I’m eager to know what you have to say about it.