Category Archives: Skepticism

Skepticism and the Meaning of Life

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, July 28, 2016.)

I received a correspondence from a reader who wonders about “the triumph of judgment over spontaneity as we emerge from childhood into adulthood and the consequent obstacle it poses for living in psychic comfort.” In other words, she worries about how to reconcile “a naturally felt purposefulness and zest for life against an intellectual sense of life’s essential pointlessness and its indifference to human concerns that give rise to the recognition of absurdity.” The only consolation she experiences is with her grandchildren “as they go about engaging the world with perfect unmediated wonder, boundless energy, and demands for attention.”

I too have felt this tension. When I watch the delight my young granddaughter takes in looking at every flower and insect, when I sense the innocent eyes through which she sees the world, I am saddened beyond words. Like any adult, I know the ugliness of the world that waits to trample on that innocence. I clearly see the contrast between childlike wonder and the pessimistic conclusions about the nature of reality that mature reasoners often draw. Given this tension, how do we carry on without accepting some silly supernaturalism?

There are a number of strategies we might adopt here. We might follow Viktor Frankl (Man’s Search for Meaning) and conclude that the problem of life is not learning to live with its absurdity—since we can’t know for sure that it is absurd—but to learn to live not being sure if life is meaningful or not. Or we might follow a philosopher like E. D. Klemke’s (Summary of E.D. Klemke’s “Living Without Appeal“) who held that we can find subjective meaning in an objectively meaningless world by responding positively to its beauty. As Klemke put it: “if I can so respond and can thereby transform an external and fatal event into a moment of conscious insight and significance, then I shall go down without hope or appeal yet passionately triumphant and with joy.”[i]

Still, I agree with my reader that no amount of intellectual reflection ever fully dispels our deepest existential concerns. For the movement of time spoils even those things that make us happy and which, for the moment, give our lives purpose. This passage of time haunts us; that perpetual perishing which diminishes our joy by its intrusion into the present. This radical impermanence, and our consciousness of it reminds us that our own demise rushes toward us as the present recedes away. The awareness of our impending doom is a constant companion capable of poisoning our momentary happiness, leading in turn to the inevitable realization that it not just we who may die, but our children, and their children, and all children, and, in the end, all of reality as well.

Reaching the limits of the intellect’s power to dissuade our existential fears, perhaps we can be comforted by an exuberant affirmation of the meaning found in life’s activities. Any serious student of philosophy is struck by the stark contrast between the somber tone of our philosophical musings, and the joy we feel through our immersion in the world of the senses. In the mountains and oceans we see, in the walks we take and the meals we eat, in the joy we find in physical play and philosophical talk, and in the warmth we feel when surrounded by those that love us and whom we love, there we don’t so much find meaning as transcend the need for it. At those times life is sufficient unto itself. When we laugh and play and love, all the misery of the world momentarily vanishes. We hardly give meaning a thought. And if thought brings existential anguish back again—perhaps we can and should think less. In short, we live deeper than we can think.

But is living with less thinking a realistic antidote? Can we live this way after reflectivity has become interwoven into our natures? Can we live constantly in motion, so that troubling thoughts do not disturb? No, we cannot suppress our most important questions indefinitely. For after laughing and playing and loving, thought returns. Why is happiness so fleeting? Why must we suffer and die? Why do we all meet tragic ends? What if all is for naught? We cannot avoid our questions for long; eventually, we drop our guard and they return.

But even if we could avoid our deepest questions, should we? I don’t think so. Our questions bring forth the deep reservoir of our inner life that is often hidden from normal viewing, and our curiosity and inquisitiveness ennoble us, differentiating us from less conscious beings. Our thinking may not make us happy, but it nourishes a deep interior life. However much we love the world of body and sense, thought is our salient feature. We should not repress it. And, since we cannot and should not evade our questions, the prescription to find meaning in activity only partially satisfies. No matter what we think or do, our questions remain.

Nothing then completely silences all our doubts and soothes all our worries—not the limited meaning life offers us, not the knowledge of a purpose, not the promise of hope, not the engagement in activity. How then do we proceed? We must accept something of our present life lest resentment cause us to curse it. Yet, at the same time, we must reject the present or nothing will improve. This creative tension acknowledges the limitations of reality as a starting point while rebelling against its shortcomings. It involves working to mold, create, and increase meaning. We don’t know that reality will progress, but if we partially accept our present reality, if we dream of a future without limits and struggle to bring it about, we may increase the meaning in our lives and in the world.

Yet for now, we are forced to live with uncertainty and angst, as a testimony to our intellectual honesty and emotional integrity. Unlike those who adopt blind faith, we scorn the facile resolutions of the cowardly. And if we must die, we will die as free people who did not yield to the forces that seek to destroy them from the moment of their birth. Those are the forces we seek to defeat, but which have not yet been defeated. In the meantime, we should relish the limited joy and meaning life offers, work to eliminate human limitations and suppress negative thoughts as best we can. This is no solution, only a way to live.


[i] Klemke, “Living Without Appeal: An Affirmative Philosophy of Life,” 194

The Beauty of Skepticism

The biologist and paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002) was one of the most prolific and widely read authors of popular science in the twentieth century. (Links to a few of his books can be found below.) In addition to authoring or editing more than twenty books, he penned the foreword to Michael Shermer’s 1997 book, Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time. That foreword is a clear and concise statement of the value of skepticism.

Gould begins by noting that the intellectual and moral need for skepticism arises because “Our patterns of thought and action lead to destruction and brutality as often as to kindness and enlightenment. In short, humans are capable of heartrending nobility and unspeakable horror. How then to save ourselves from violent crusades, witch trials, inquisitions, enslavement, genocides, and holocausts? To do so we need both morality and rationality. For without reason

“we will lose out to the frightening forces of irrationality, romanticism, uncompromising “true” belief, and the apparent resulting inevitability of mob action. Reason … is also our potential salvation from the vicious and precipitous mass action that rule by emotionalism always seems to entail. Skepticism is the agent of reason against organized irrationalism–and is therefore one of the keys to human social and civil decency.”2

Reason is our most powerful instrument to combat irrationality in all its forms—psychics, young-earth creationists, faith healers, holocaust and climate change deniers, Ayn Rand cultists, vaccination avoiders and all the other pseudosciences and superstitions of our time. As Gould says: “Our best weapons come from the arsenals of basic scientific procedures–for nothing can beat the basic experimental technique of the double-blind procedure and the fundamental observational methods of statistical analysis.”3 The application of elementary scientific tools easily defeats almost all modern irrationalism.

Why then skepticism’s bad reputation? Perhaps because it is thought of as a debunking, nihilistic activity. Skeptics seem to take away the magical and mysterious explanations that we so enjoy. But skepticism does more than debunk—it offers a better, alternative explanation rooted in reason and evidence. As Gould concludes: “The alternative model is rationality itself tied to moral decency—the most powerful joint instrument for good that our planet has ever known.”4

I miss Gould’s voice.

The Mismeasure of Man (Revised & Expanded)

The Structure of Evolutionary Theory

The Book of Life: An Illustrated History of the Evolution of Life on Earth (Second Edition)

Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life

Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History

1. Michael Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time, (New York: Henry Holt & Co. 1997) ix.
2. Michael Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time, (New York: Henry Holt & Co. 1997) x.
3. Michael Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time, (New York: Henry Holt & Co. 1997) xi.
4. Michael Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time, (New York: Henry Holt & Co. 1997) xii.

On Belief and Skepticism

My very bright youngest daughter told me about a matrix in which our home state of Washington ranked 49th out of the 50 states on some educational matrix. Naturally I was skeptical, since the American south ranks lowest on virtually every educational measurement, and most other measures of well-being. Of course I didn’t tell my daughter I didn’t believe her, but that I would be very surprised if Washington ranked so low in some such matrix. It turns out that my daughter was correct and here is the source:

“Washington is the nation’s No. 1 STEM economy and has the highest concentration of STEM jobs in the United States. Yet, the state ranks 49th out of 50 states in the mismatch between the skills required for available jobs and individuals with those skills.”

In retrospect what I should have said was “since you are very bright and read a lot and since there are so many different measurements that can be taken there is probably some measurement by which any given state ranks first in the middle or last.” Perhaps I expressed too much confidence that I was correct. (Interestingly though, this measurement says more about how many high tech jobs there are in the Seattle area than anything about the state’s specific educational shortcomings.)

Still skepticism is important in a world in which people are so credulous—it is the basis of critical thinking. I can’t accept something someone says because I like or even love them. Claims stand and fall on the evidence. In this case, if you have background beliefs about the education in the US, you will know that on virtually any measurement regarding education states in the American south will be near the bottom. (They will be near the top on measures of violent crime, divorce, and church attendance.) Without a healthy skepticism we will believe virtually anything, ignoring our obligation to only believe things for which there is good evidence. And that’s because our ideas affect other people. So the reason I am a skeptic is not because I want to irritate people. I am a skeptic because I want to know what’s true. I have a truth fetish. If we don’t care about the truth we become credulous, encouraging others to lie to us with impunity. So many of the world’s troubles are caused by lying, and believing the lies told to us.