Skepticism as Curiosity

Little boy looking at the ground through a magnifying glass

Image found here.

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.



Without Luck, We Cannot Hope To Solve A Problem If We Don’t Understand It

Light bulb

Image found here.

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.