The Value of Healthy Skepticism
“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.”—Bertrand Russell
I opened up Facebook on December 19, 2011, and gasped. A friend of mine had posted a story that Jon Bon Jovi had been found dead of a heart attack.
Although it took me less than two minutes to figure out that the story was false, I watched people re-post, tweet, and report on the news for hours.
Intelligence doesn’t inoculate you against gullibility. Smart people fall victim to questionable beliefs, ideas, conspiracy theories, and hoaxes all the time. Oddly enough, Scientologists aren’t typically simpletons, and many of the individuals who lost millions of dollars to Bernie Madoff were educated masters of industry.
Why do people believe crazy things? Here are just a couple suggestions:
- Family or cultural origin predisposes people towards easily accepting certain facts.
- People want to believe what confirms their worldviews or prejudices.
- It’s easier to accept an idea you hear often.
- People often default to belief when confronted by an “expert” or someone more educated.
- Sometimes the excitement of hearing (and potentially passing on) sensational information trumps the scrutiny the information deserves.
No matter the reason, no one’s immune to believing outlandish things.
Jesus and Skepticism
I believe Jesus reinforces the value of skepticism in the first chapter of John’s gospel. We see Philip dragging Nathanael to meet this new messiah. Nathanael is greeted by Jesus in a overly familiar and complementary way, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!”
Nathanael naturally says, “How do you know me?”
To which Jesus replies, “Before Phillip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.”
“Rabbi, You are the Son of God; You are the King of Israel,” responds Nathanael.
Jesus looks at him and says, “Because I said I saw you under a fig tree, do you believe? You will see greater things than these.”
This exchange always makes me smile. Did Jesus want Nathanael to believe in him? Of course he did. At the expense of his reasoning facilities? I don’t think so. Anyone could have told Jesus where Nathanael was passed it off as “revelation.” Despite the fact that this was revelation, Jesus still chides him for his gullibility. This speaks volumes for how we are to value our ability to question and reason.
Don’t Be Ashamed to Question
Skepticism isn’t the opposite of belief. It is the foundation upon which a citadel of belief is built. Never shirk your intellectual responsibilities when it comes to what you believe to be true. There’s nothing wrong or morbid about questioning things; never let anyone tell you differently. Skepticism is the method a healthy mind uses to come to conclusions. It is the first step on the road towards unfettered thinking.
And don’t just question the information that comes from without. Question the things you think as well. Sometimes our reasoning facilities are betrayed by assuming our own presuppositions, beliefs, and ideas are completely accurate. Be as willing to roast your own sacred cows as you are anyone else’s. It is the only path towards intellectual honesty and real humility.
The Spanish writer, poet, and philosopher Miguel de Unamuno said this,
The skeptic does not mean him who doubts, but him who investigates or researches, as opposed to him who asserts and thinks that he has found.