Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Sceptical about... Scepticism

What actually is a sceptic? The Oxford English Dictionary defines a sceptic as “a person inclined to doubt accepted opinions”. You could also say that a sceptic is someone who understands that just because someone says or writes something, it doesn’t mean it’s true. That goes for me as well. You are forbidden from believing anything in this article unless you’ve thought about it first.

I believe that in this increasingly dangerous and confusing world we must examine everything. Nothing is exempt from analysis and critical thought. There are no sacred cows.

However some things don't take a lot of thought. For instance it's pretty easy to show that killing people is wrong, mainly because it's cruel and causes pain and suffering. Surely nobody needs to explain why pain and suffering are bad things that should be avoided if possible.

Nobody really needs to think hard about lying. Almost always lying is a bad thing and we shouldn't do it. Getting drunk and hitting people is bad. Being a racist is bad. Torturing people is bad. Cheating to become President of the USA is a bad thing.

None of these things really deserve a great deal of debate because the issues are fundamentally quite simple.

Then there are the issues where common sense and a little thought are needed, maybe not even full-scale skepticism. If a man approaches you saying he has a magic box that will multiply your money and all you need to do is give him the cash for a little while, well, surely it doesn’t take too much thought? Unfortunately for the filling station manager in Francistown who fell for exactly this a few weeks ago, well, maybe he’d left his brain at home that day.

At the other end of the spectrum there are the genuinely complicated moral and emotional issues like abortion, the death penalty and, dare I say it, the relocation of the Basarwa. I believe that on these issues most people, if they really examine their consciences, will confess that they understand the other side’s viewpoint even if they disagree with it. However the issues are often so complex, so difficult, so loaded with emotion that it's very difficult to be absolutely certain.

I think that the very best weapon we have in thinking these through is the sceptical approach. These issues deserve clear, rational and very careful thought. They are so important that we MUST give them the thought they require, that they demand. Surely if we are to be honest with ourselves we have to think them through for ourselves? The sceptical approach is simple. In my view it all comes down to the rule I mentioned earlier. Just because something has been said or written that doesn't mean it's true.

My biggest complant about the human race is our tendency to behave like sheep. We seem to be programmed to accept whatever someone in authority tells us to believe. Whether it’s a politician, a church leader or Survival International we seem sometimes just to take on their opinions as if they were the direct words of God and not to be challenged.

Despite their complexity surely these issues deserve clear, rational and very careful thought? Surely the best weapon we have in dealing with them is between our ears? Each of us is blessed with the most amazing piece of equipment the world has ever known. No inventor has ever come up with anything as advanced, as clever and as amazing as the human mind and they’re not going to, at least during the lifetime of anyone reading this article. So why don't we use it? It's like being given a Ferrari for Christmas and only ever driving it to the supermarket.

Every last one of us has the capacity to think about what we hear, what we are told and what matters. To make matters even better we live in a country where using our brain is actually encouraged! Remember that there are still a few countries left, like Burma, Turkmenistan and a certain country just a little north of us where using your brain will get you thrown in jail if you're lucky and a shallow grave if you're not. Let’s exploit the freedom we have and think about things, debate things, have heated arguments over a few drinks (not on a Sunday though) and listen to what other people think. And then make up our own minds.

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