Scepticism is an attitude and a philosophy that should be a central principle for every thinking human being. In reality most people are astonishingly incurious, close minded and happy to adopt a comforting policy of intellectual protectionism.
Many people who consider themselves to be open minded are in-fact frustratingly unwilling to question and re-examine their own ideals, beliefs and prejudices. If ever they are insecure in their mode of thinking they tend to respond, not with renewed scepticism and reconsideration, but with a visceral hatred, resentment and bitterness towards those who think differently. This allows them to paper over the cracks of insecurity spreading across their fragile ego and intellect.
For example, to be fully and inflexibly committed to a political or social ideology is to eschew scepticism in favour of an easy intellectual life in which there are far fewer questions to ponder and agonise over, and little likelihood of ever having to swallow one’s pride and change one’s mind. This mode of thinking is destructive in the minds of the ruling class and the immeasurably influential intelligentsia because they will seek to impose their ideas on society even if all the evidence shows that they are bound to fail or cause harm. A sceptic cannot be an ideologue; an ideologue cannot be a sceptic.
To maintain independence of mind one must uphold a constant state of inquisitiveness and a generally questioning attitude towards all opinions, beliefs, knowledge and any information stated as a fact. Doubt is a key defence against conformism and the temptations of ideology which shackles the mind. The pursuit of knowledge and information must be underpinned by intellectual caution and systematic doubt. Any beliefs, ideas or principles obtained in the process should be subject to continuous testing and supported by evidence.
An absence of scepticism is dangerous in the minds of the masses because corrupt ideology and false knowledge spreads rapidly through unquestioning, naïve minds. This problem is rife in modern society for many reasons- the inadequacies of our education system; the need of many to fill a spiritual and intellectual vacancy in the absence of religious belief; the decline of reading as a pursuit; the omnipresence of the state; the saturation of our senses by the media (to name but a few factors)- there seems to be an epidemic of people who do not have the ability to think independently.
This allows conventional wisdom to take hold and become widely accepted as absolute truth. It allows groupthink to enrapture vast swathes of the idealistic, the naïve and the eager spiritual nomads seeking a purpose. The absence of scepticism makes the masses far easier to control. For a society to be free the people must show scepticism about power so that when the state insists that it must force us to do x “for our own good” or must expand its power because it is “in our interest“, it will be questioned and scrutinised and, if necessary, constrained.
The only thing we can truly be certain of is our own ignorance. Our minds are open to manipulation and vulnerable to false knowledge and enticing but wrongheaded ideas. We crave certainty, but certainty can lead us into intellectual cul de sacs.
Scepticism is a virtue. We must always, in the words of the great David Hume, exercise a “degree of doubt, and caution, and modesty, which, in all kinds of scrutiny and decision, ought for ever to accompany a just reasoner.”
The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty