The progress of civilizations owes as much to the skeptical spirit as it does the speculative spirit. But in few do these qualities commingle in balanced and complimentary form.
Too often one finds that the skeptic permits of no possibility which does not explicitly or implicitly conform with a given and established model, which is hardly different in stern heart than the conservative dogmas which so emasculated the creative minds of antiquity. Typically, the model of the universe to which the obtuse skeptic adheres even to the brink of irrationality is materialistic, in the cold sense of the term. It holds doggedly to modes of causality as would be sacrosanct in the Church of Reason. These modes of causality are invariably linear, wherein all effects proceed from causes which are spatially proximate or linked thereto. Further, all connections or associations which are not causal are either accidental or peripherally causal.
I feel the cold barrel hard against my own teeth, so having aimed this gun. Now let me get my head out of the way.
This kind of strict and established model–as I have generically sketched it out–is both powerful and useful. Yet it is but a representation of what we have been for centuries trying to understand; and by following the lines, contours and logic implied by it, we have launched spacecraft and cured disease. Yet we cannot say with certainty that other modes of causality, which would either subsume or compliment our present models, do not exist. We simply do not know, and so we go with the best which we have got.
Yet there may be radically different structures and forms of understanding by which we may grasp being. Where the dogmatic kind of skeptic is obstinate to the point of stultifying the progress of knowledge is when he dismisses other descriptions of the universe before even having given a full or sufficient hearing to the matter. Too quickly the skeptic dismisses a description as pseudoscience or quack science. As a result, there are areas of our ignorance which professional scientists ignore in order to avoid career suicide.
Such taboo areas include such things as dreams (when analyzed in a non-traditional or established mode), telepathy, prescience, etc. Hell, I get nervous even mentioning them, though my professional reputation has little to do with my opinions on these matters.
Let me clarify. We should be skeptical of claims which fall into contradiction with our hard-earned understanding of the universe. But we should not be so skeptical as to rule out other possibilities. Furthermore, we should not give credence or put any kind of serious weight on alternative explanations until they have been sufficiently beat to hell. Too much depends on our definition of the word knowledge for us to fuzzy-up its pretty little edges.
The error is when we reject claims prematurely, and thereby contribute to an epistemological culture which bars potential understanding, a culture which knows so much that it understands but little.
My final merit I refuse you, I refuse putting from me what I really am,
Encompass worlds, but never try to encompass me,
I crowd your sleekest and best by simply looking toward you.
Writing and talk do not prove me,
I carry the plenum of proof and every thing else in my face,
With the hush of my lips I wholly confound the skeptic. –Whitman
As honest intellectuals, we should be open to a great variety of proposition, prejudiced as little as possible. When a proposition is proposed, we ought to find the best means to test it, and let no proposition by which does not pass. But where no test can be sufficiently designed or conceived, we must not simply rule out the proposition. Nor should we commit the graver error: letting it pass for knowledge.
It is upon this word–knowledge–and the preservation thereof, that the skeptic should keep his or her focus. We need a stout definition and criterion. What we do not need is the skeptic ruling out all other modes of inquiry before they even get to the point of making a claim upon truth or knowledge. Let, I say, the mind be free to play.
Now I have devoted the bulk of my remarks to skepticism, though the skeptic is a minority class. Far fewer people are skeptical than are speculative. The few we have therefore play a profounder role. The skeptic guards what is sacred to the intellectual: knowledge and the pursuit thereof. The skeptic preserves the conditions by which we may rightly call knowledge divine.
Speculative minds make leaps of logic that make the most lethargic of mothers wince and worry. The most talented among the speculative minds appear almost to fly unaided; and were it not for the skeptics, too many would take it that they did fly. Yet aided by the criticism of skeptics, we have learned how in fact to fly.
But like the skeptic who sometimes refuses too much on the basis of an assumed knowledge where in fact there is none, the speculative mind out of a similar vanity claims knowledge far too quickly. Thus the speculative mind is at least as guilty for creating an environment which is hostile to creative thinking and investigation. Every time a thinker disrespects what the word knowledge means, he or she ignores the importance the definition of that word has in landing astronauts safely and in the healing of sick children; he or she thus helps to create a hostile climate wherein speculative investigation is mocked ever more harshly.
Speculative minds should make their leaps of logic, but they have a profound responsibility: in a secular culture, the meaning of the word knowledge as based on the criteria of science is nothing short of sacred. And this it is for reasons more justified than even the most subtle of speculations.
Let us then seek to find this balance in ourselves: that we would make room for the speculative mode, but become the fiercest of skeptics when anyone would dare to approach knowledge and make a claim on the sacred ground of Truth.