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.
Suppose there are three of us — you, me and some fella named Jake. And suppose you flip a coin and then cover it with your hand so neither neither Jake nor I can see whether it came up heads or tails. Then you very carefully show just Jake the result — which we will assume was heads — and you ask us both to announce simultaneously what we believe the result to be.
Now, of course Jake knows what that the coin came up heads, but I don’t, so I just make some guess. And on the count of three, and just by dumb luck, suppose that both Jake and I announce simultaneously that we believe the same thing — that the coin came up heads.
Now, it’s common in situations like this to say that both Jake and I are “right”, because we both believe that the coin came up heads, and the observable fact of the matter is that the coin did, indeed, come up heads. But is this really accurate? Am I really “right”, or at least “right” in the same way that Jake is right?
I don’t think so. I think these are two radically different ways of “being right”, and I also think that when we use the same word to describe them we risk causing confusion in the minds of listeners who haven’t yet taken the time to think these things through. And having done this sort of thinking ourselves, I think we have the opportunity to accept the responsibility for inviting others to do so too, and a good way to do this is to use two different terms for these two different kinds of belief, one grounded in direct observation of facts, and the other floating on a gust of luck, either wholly, or in some cases, only partly.
But what term to use for the latter? I’m open to suggestions, of course, but I’ve recently started using truth-lucky.