The Drift toward the Niagara of Skepticism

Many decades ago, when I was a graduate student in philosophy, I discovered I was pretty good at being a skeptic. No matter what assertion was made, I could find reasons for doubting it. “How can you prove that?” I would ask. And when you proved A by basing it on B, I’d challenge you to prove B. And so on ad infinitum. Even Descartes’ presumably undoubted assertion,“I think therefore I am,” could be doubted if I tried hard enough.

I enjoyed playing this game of skepticism. Perhaps I should have dropped philosophy at that point and gone to law school so that I might have become a criminal defense attorney. For a criminal lawyer at trial doesn’t have to prove anything in a positive way; all he has to do is raise doubts in the minds of the jurors. If I had become a criminal lawyer, perhaps today in my old age I could boast about how in my prime I had won acquittals for dozens of thieves, arsonists, rapists, and murderers.

I chose another path. I became a college teacher, not a criminal lawyer. And within a few years, I had abandoned my playful skepticism. I decided there is something very silly and very shallow about skepticism. It was not the attitude of a serious, responsible, grown-up person. It was not an attitude I wished to transmit to my students.

Further, I came to the conclusion that civilization – any civilization, not just our own – has to be based on positive beliefs. The beliefs the civilization holds may be erroneous, but better erroneous beliefs than no beliefs at all. A purely negative civilization, a civilization founded on skepticism, is an impossible thing.

Nowadays I have great fears for the future of our world – the world that used to be called Christendom and is now, after centuries of secularization, called simply the Western world. Why do I have these fears? It may be because I’m an old man, and it is typical of old men in every generation to feel that the world is going to hell. Or it may be because the world really is going to hell.

Our cultural leaders are drifting toward the Niagara of absolute skepticism, and in doing this they are dragging the rest of our society after them. The rest of us hardly know what we are doing, but gradually we too become more and more skeptical. And the foundations of our civilization become more and more infirm.

Annie Edson Taylor, first over the Falls (1901)

Skepticism begins with religious doubts. One begins by doubting the classical doctrines of Christianity. No doubt Jesus was a good man, but how can we believe that he was divine? Or that he was born of a virgin? Or that he rose from the dead? Sooner or later one doubts the very existence of God. However, one doesn’t become an outright atheist, for atheism is inconsistent with the skeptical mood. One is skeptical even of atheism.

One moves on to doubt the truth of what has hitherto been commonsense morality. We can prove by sense evidence that something is red or hot or ten feet long; but how can we prove that something is right or wrong, good or bad? Besides, the rules of morality vary from country to country, from century to century. And isn’t the autonomous individual entitled to create his or her own personal morality?

One then doubts that there is any such thing as historical truth. History is written by the winners. We see slavery as a bad thing; had the slaveholders won the Civil War, we might see it today as an admirable institution.

We don’t live in an objectively real world, skeptics tell us, for there is no such thing. We live in a world of “social constructions.” If Bruce Jenner says he’s a woman, then he’s a woman. If the Obama administration tells every public school in America that boys who “identify” as girls must be allowed to use the girls’ shower, then these ex-boys, even though they are still equipped with male genitalia, must be allowed to use the girls’ shower. It’s a simple matter of fairness – even though the Obama administration seems not to have noticed that fairness is also a social construction, and so in reality fairness is no better than unfairness.

Some of our more culturally advanced progressives have gone so far as to doubt the objectivity of scientific truths; they too, we are told, are nothing more than “constructs.”

Today the average American, especially average Americans of the younger generation, believe many things that are nonsensical. For example: (1) that unborn babies are not human; (2) that it is perfectly natural for two men or two women to have sex with one another; (3) that Bruce Jenner is a woman; (4) that it is a victory for social justice that boys should share bathrooms and showers with girls; (5) that all whites (except for liberal whites) hate blacks; (6) that all Christians (except for nice liberal Christians who don’t really believe in Christianity) hate homosexuals.

If there is no objective truth, we are free to believe whatever we like, including utter nonsense. And if there is no objective truth, those who have power in society are free to impose, either by persuasion or force or fraud, their beliefs and values on everybody else. At the moment liberals happen to control society’s great propaganda outlets – schools and colleges, the news mass media, the entertainment industry – and so the nonsense average Americans believe is liberal nonsense. This pleases skeptics, for the great majority of American skeptics tend to be liberal.

But skepticism, which opens the door for liberal nonsense, also opens the door to quasi-Nazi nonsense too. When the cultural pendulum swings, and cultural rightists get the upper hand over cultural leftists, a skeptical society will have no principled way of objecting when quasi-Nazis impose on the rest of us their glorification of racism and sexism and homophobia.

David Carlin

David Carlin is a retired professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, and the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America.