Flip over the benign, earnest, honourable figure that is the “lover of wisdom”, and you’ll find her darker doppelganger: the loather of ignorance. The beautiful quest for truth has always gone hand in hand with the dirtier work of demolishing untruth. Though surely an essential part of the philosophical process, it’s also what makes philosophy so threatening to some. With philosophy being increasingly promoted as a benign teacher of “critical thinking” skills, it’s perhaps time the destructive force of philosophy found an unashamed champion. That man is Robert Todd Carroll.
Carroll is a philosopher and a skeptic, whose Skeptic’s Dictionary and Guide to the New Millennium is testimony to his devotion to exposing woolly thinking, pseudo-science and downright fraud. It’s a mammoth work, published at the moment only on the internet, where everything from acupuncture to Uri Geller is coolly and fairly ripped to shreds. Carroll is good on pithy put-downs. “I have always been fascinated and puzzled by the attraction to Uri Geller. I suppose this is because nearly every one of our household spoons is bent and what I’d like to see is someone who can straighten them out.” Or “A friend of mine scoffs at scientific studies about the carcinogenic effects of passive smoke, but he believes Nostradamus predicted Hitler’s rise to power.” But asides like these are just the dressing. In reality, he is an extremely thorough, rational dissector of popular opinion, displaying a combination of common-sense and sharp reason that Hume would approve of.
Take acupuncture for example. His is not a knee-jerk criticism of a dubious but fashionable therapy. Rather, he rightly points out that acupuncture is not about sticking needles into muscles. It’s a metaphysical theory about the flow of Chi “in order to balance yin and yang, two opposite forces in the body.” Once we realise this, we can see that we can empirically test the curative properties of sticking needles into muscles, and that there may be biological mechanisms which respond to such stimulation in a beneficial way. This has nothing whatsoever to do with the untestable claims about Chi. In being skeptical about acupuncture, therefore, Carroll is not dismissing outright the possibility that its practice can be beneficial. He’s just clearing up what this success would add up to.
Carroll is not only a skeptic: he’s also a philosopher. The distinction is usually drawn between “philosophical” and “ordinary” skepticism. Ordinary skepticism concerns particular claims to truth, such as the Tarot reader’s claims to know the future or the economist’s claims to be able to predict next month’s interest rates. It’s a general wariness and a desire not to take anything purely on trust. Philosophical skepticism, on the other hand, casts doubt not on particular truth claims, but rather on the very possibility of truth and knowledge at all. So although Carroll is a skeptic and a philosopher, is he a philosophical skeptic?
“I consider myself a philosophical skeptic. I do not believe absolute truth or absolute certainty is possible in empirical or metaphysical matters. I believe a priori truths [such as those of mathematics or geometry] are truths by definition and agreement, not discovery. I believe all grounds for any dogmatic philosophy can be undermined by skeptical arguments.”
Although he is thus a skeptic in both senses of the word, he doesn’t think philosophical and ordinary skepticism entail each other. “Philosophical skepticism entails the notion that any particular claim is doubtful in the sense that it cannot be known to be absolutely certain. Philosophical skepticism does not entail the notion that any particular claim is doubtful in the sense that the evidence against it is greater than the evidence for it,” which is precisely what ordinary skepticism, and the dictionary, is all about.
If there isn’t a logical link between them, may there be a psychological one? “My experience with philosophical skeptics is that there is no consistent attraction to ordinary skepticism. Tertullian, Kierkegaard and William James seem to have used their theological skepticism as a justification for believing as their hearts led them, regardless of argument or evidence for or against belief in God or an afterlife. Why some of us say ‘Why not believe?’ and some of us say ‘Why believe?’ when there is no compelling argument or evidence for belief may be a question for psychology, but I don’t think there is any essential psychological link between philosophical and ordinary skepticism.”
This response seems important, because it would seem to suggest that the skeptic is as much lead by her dispositions as her hard-headed rationality. Carroll, like the good skeptic he is, has considered this possibility, but rejected it.
“I have at times in the past felt this to be the case myself. However, it hardly seems to be a matter of disposition which would explain why both the skeptical believer and non-believer won’t jump off a skyscraper simply because one can’t know with absolute certainty that the result will be fatal. Why does the believer in things supernatural and occult reject the criteria usually adhered to for establishing reasonable belief in just those areas? I suppose you could say that the non-believer has a disposition towards consistency and the believer has a disposition towards inconsistency.”
Carroll has to be respected for his intellectual and public honesty. He’s not interested in tempering his language or style to win more converts. His final comments confirm this impression. When asked what the most significant thing people are not nearly skeptical enough about is, he replies.
“Religion. It is distressing to get letter after letter from people who cannot find any meaning in their lives if they do not have a belief in God and an afterlife. Many of the letters also indicate a belief that one must choose between God and Science. Many misunderstand the nature of Science and say they choose God because Science cannot answer all their questions or explain everything to their satisfaction. They prefer certainty and hope even if based on little more than self-delusion and wishful thinking.”