Scepticism(or Skepticism for our American readers) is often seen simply as doubt. For those that are desperate for a simplistic definition of scepticism, reasoned and reasonable doubt might be more suitable than just doubt on its own.
Please note, a simplistic definition is rarely going to cover the inner workings and, whilst is a good starting point, to understand a topic in more detail I’d spend more time reading about the topic than looking for a simplification.
Doubting Everything – is That Reasonable?
Someone who automatically doubts everything isn’t a sceptic, they are (probably) a cynic.
There are a few definitions of cynicism to consider. Please note, I am not referring to ancient cynicism.
…refers to an attitude or mindset characterized by distrust or doubt about the apparent motives of others.Cynicism (mind.help)
…a tendency to disbelieve others’ righteousness, morality, sincerity, honesty and ethical values.Cynicism (mind.help)
…refers to a negative appraisal of human nature – a belief that self-interest is the ultimate motive guiding human behaviorStavrova, O., & Ehlebracht, D. (2019). The Cynical Genius Illusion: Exploring and Debunking Lay Beliefs About Cynicism and Competence. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 45(2), 254–269. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167218783195
Due to the general low or negative appraisal of human nature, the mindset of distrust for others’ motivations, thinking others are not sincere and general disbelief of “others’ righteousness, morality, sincerity, honesty and ethical values” we can summarise that the cynic is one that is extremely doubtful of anything anyone else says as a standard.
A Cynic vs a Sceptic
It could be said that a cynic is, in part, extremely sceptical. They are perhaps not being a good sceptic or applying good scepticism but are sceptical in the sense that they doubt. There could be some crossover in the general attitudes of a cynic and sceptic, as in, you might doubt everything someone is saying in a given context, but the difference here would be the starting point.
Consider a conversation where someone is presenting an idea or claim to you.
Starting Points of Scepticism and Cynicism
The cynic starts with doubt(simplified from the above), that doubt might not be so certain as to think everything you are hearing is false, but you’re firmly in the doubting it is true. You’ll doubt the evidence or justification is valid. You’ll doubt the person is being unbiased, which is ironic as there is an anchoring bias of doubt within you.
The sceptic, on the other hand, will take time to listen and understand what is being said. Even in situations where they have heard it before and concluded it false, they will try and overcome their bias and listen anew, though in cases where it’s clearly a misinformed parrot, they might forgo being a good sceptic.
We can see how the sceptic and the cynic can look the same from the outside at times, especially in specific conversations. The key difference is the internal process and starting point.
The cynic starts with a negative attitude and requires a lot to be convinced. You would have to overcome their bias first and then chip away with the topic.
Whereas the sceptic starts with a neutral, or as neutral as humanly possible, attitude and can be swayed with good argumentation and/or evidence. They are likely aware of their biases and are trying not to let them get in the way.
The cynic’s doubts are focused externally and almost universally (at least within specific areas of discussion/discovery but often broader than that).
Whereas the sceptic’s doubts look inwards as well as externally and thus they will consider they might be wrong, might be misinformed or have misunderstood something and be looking for the truth.
Is it always rational to doubt everything all the time?
To answer the question, “Is it always rational to doubt everything all the time?” If you don’t have any justification, especially in the context, then you have not reasoned and therefore are not acting rationally. If I tell you my name and you don’t believe me because you think that is being a good sceptic, that isn’t acting rationally. So no, doubting everything all the time is rarely rational. It can be understandable, but if you don’t try and overcome that doubt and reason your way through whether you should actually be doubting then one is not acting rationally.
Sceptics won’t always end up at the same conclusion as each other. So if two sceptics disagree, that doesn’t make one “not a sceptic” but there are those that identify as sceptics that perhaps would better be classed as cynics.
If you notice someone that seems to be a cynic rather than a sceptic, they may also be a pseudosceptic
Pseudoscepticism and Pseudosceptics
A pseudosceptic, in its most basic form, could be described as one that wears the badge of sceptic without applying good scepticism, however, this is also a philosophical position that appears to be scepticism or scientific scepticism but is, in fact, a form of dogmatism.
Dogmatism is the tendency to lay down principles that are undeniably true. The most common form folks will be aware of is within religious fundamentalism, but we can see this in other areas too, for example in science this can be referred to as Scientism.
Pseudoscepticism is not necessarily related to Scientism, but you might find many who identify as sceptics on social media that don’t apply good scepticism also being Scientistic.
By scientistic I mean demonstrating the qualities of one that adheres to Scientism.
Folks very rarely admit to adhering to Scientism so it is usually an external judgment.
Scientism is the dogmatic view that science is at least the best if not only way to uncover the truth(s) about our world and reality.
It’s not simply thinking it is the best for most situations, but a dogmatic adherence to this, ignoring the fact there are some things science can’t answer and almost deifying and worshipping science and the scientific method.
This behaviour can lead to a form of denialism and folks are often met with cynicism for any claim where scientific evidence (or in some cases ‘absolute proof’) is not or can not be provided.
Denialism could be described as extreme cynicism. It’s not just doubting a claim it is outright denying it.
The difference could be explained simply as, the cynic starts from doubt and outright doubts a proposition is true, whereas a denialist starts from the attitude that something is false. Not only that, but the denialist is in denial of a proposition that is supported by a large majority of scientific or historical evidence.
So, it could be said that a denialist is one who is outright denying evidenced reality.
Cynics, Denialists and Conspiracy Theories
Cynics and denialists can often end up becoming conspiracy theorists and the like. The mistrust for others, especially governments, corporations, organised groups and the like can lead one down a path of “what-iffing” till you’re actually convinced some of these stories are true.
In the sceptic community, we would usually think of a denialist as something like a flat earther ignoring the science of the shape of the earth, a YEC ignoring the age of the earth, or even Holocaust deniers and such.
But, within the sceptic community, there are denialists too. One of the most common forms of denialism you will see is folks denying any definition exists or is correct other than the lack of belief definition of atheism. They will ignore the multiple sources of current and historical definitions you can provide and desperately cling to the erroneous belief that there is only one definition of atheism.
Some go so far as to invent conspiracy theories that all the dictionary companies were bought by theists in the 80s to change the definition of atheism.
Other forms of denialism you might find in the sceptic community are denying the benefit of philosophy, Jesus mythicism, ignoring the rules of logic, or even considering that scepticism is more than just doubt.
And I’m sure you’re aware of many more, but I’ve spent a lot of time describing what scepticism isn’t and not much discussing what it is.
I started by saying reasoned/reasonable doubt, but there is more to it than that.
There are various forms of scepticism but instead of addressing each, I will try and group the qualities of scepticism together in a simple overview, and provide more in-depth articles and videos for anyone interested in knowing more.
Scepticism is an important part of critical thinking and our search for knowledge and justified beliefs. It is not simply doubting others but doubting what you believe too.
The term ‘scepticism’ refers to a family of views, each of which denies that some term of positive epistemic appraisal applies to our beliefScepticism – Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy
It isn’t just the doubt though, it is the reason for the doubt. The idea is to question what you believe and why you believe it.
In other words, how strong is your justification for this belief? Have you spent much time researching the for and against this belief? And when you’re presented with an alternate point of view, taking the time to fully understand this view instead of allowing a cognitive bias to just dismiss it instantly.
And that’s another thing scepticism is used for, being aware of our own biases, as well as those of others, and doing what we can to break down our biases so that we can be sure to judge something as objectively as possible.
There are some extreme forms of scepticism like Academic and Pyrrhonian Scepticism, and they are not really useful in the quest for justified beliefs and knowledge, though they can be a useful exercise in peeling back the layers of all your long-held beliefs.
Scepticism and Questions
Scepticism is ultimately about asking the right questions of yourself and having epistemic humility.
When and where did you learn this?
Who taught it to you?
What did they gain from teaching it to you?
What do you lose if you’re wrong?
Are you sure they are the right authority/authorities to trust?
What if the person I am talking to actually does know more than me on this topic (even if I am qualified in it)?
What are the logical entailments of your position?
Is this something you perceive regularly or is it a memory of an anecdote from 20 years ago?
What would convince you this was false?
What would convince you this was true?
Can this be proved true or false or will I have to be satisfied with a high degree of justification?
Does this belief contradict any of your other beliefs?
Is this belief coherent?
Do you fully understand what is being said/proposed/I believe etc?
Are you using the right method of investigation?
Do you just believe this because others who are like you believe it?
Are you afraid that the in-group will reject you if you disagree with them?
What biases might I have in place that might be swaying my opinion?
And so many other questions need to be asked of yourself to be a good sceptic.
And that can be pretty exhausting too, so I accept that we should be pragmatic in applying this level of scepticism.
Pragmatic Application of Scepticism
If the thing is not important, has no major impact on your life and does not interest you then perhaps you can save your energy for an alternative topic where you can apply your scepticism.
Too Much Scepticism
If you use scepticism for everything, all the time, you’ll end up in a form of decision paralysis.
If you use scepticism too extremely, much the same could happen or at its worst send you to a delusion where you’re crossing a busy motorway where you don’t believe any of the cars are there or that you’ll be hurt.
Not Enough Scepticism
Don’t apply scepticism in the right places or often enough, and you’ll be too certain in your positions. Your overconfidence in your ability and knowledge will lead you to assume others are wrong before you’ve even listened to them.
Scepticism as a Virtue
This is why scepticism should also be treated as a virtue, not over or underused or applied too extremely lest it becomes a vice.
Whilst a virtue is typically thought of as a behaviour showing high moral standards and we wouldn’t necessarily think of things like scepticism or critical thinking that way, you can also argue the effects of good scepticism would entail the best possible conclusions and thus would be worth thinking of it in this light.
Virtues are behaviours that need to be balanced to be “just right’. The sweet spot is a virtue, but too much or too little could be a vice.
Consider how courage or bravery are virtuous. You see someone getting mugged by a single person and you step in to save them, you’re being brave.
If you run away, you’re acting cowardly.
If there are actually 5 muggers with weapons and you step in, you’re being stupid.
With scepticism, too much becomes cynicism or denialism. Or even an extreme version of scepticism like Pyrrhonian or Academic could be considered vice-like.
Not enough scepticism could lead to gullibility or credulity. In the event of not enough scepticism being focused inwardly, this can often result in what is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect.
A Few Notes on Scepticism
Scepticism doesn’t result in sceptics all thinking the same thing. We all have different lives, experiences, knowledge and so on. Therefore we can be presented the same information, apply a good level of critical thinking and end up with different conclusions.
This doesn’t mean one of those people were not sceptics. This is something that I have found interesting. The word sceptic has become somewhat synonymous with atheist/non-theist, and an almost dogmatic view of certain beliefs.
Whilst I believe no gods exist, I don’t think that belief makes me a sceptic, nor do I think anyone that believes differently is or is not a sceptic.
Scepticism is part of the method to get to the conclusion, it is the journey, not the destination. Yes, there might be some things all sceptics agree on, and as time goes on there may be an increased agreement, but any sceptic that concludes someone else is not a sceptic simply by fiat of disagreement is not applying good scepticism themselves.
Whilst this wasn’t an in-depth overview of scepticism by any stretch of the imagination, I hope it has helped explain some of the nuance between different positions, some of the common misunderstandings, and serves as a reminder that scepticism is not only an external thing, but an internal.
Whilst doubt is a core component of scepticism, reducing it to being just doubt doesn’t serve to fully understand it. Omni-directional reasoned and balanced doubt is an oversimplification that serves to better understand scepticism.
Scepticism is a large topic, there are a lot of articles, videos, encyclopedia entries and the like on the topic, and below is a selection that I think would be beneficial to check out.
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