Skepticism is blind to itself

Skeptics are finding skepticism hard to take serious lately.

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Take The Spectator’s recent parody of Richard Dawkins, for instance. In an article named The bizarre – and costly – cult of Richard Dawkins, Andrew Brown lists the Dawkins Foundation’s shrewd segmentation of his followers. Donations start with $85 a month and allow you discounts on Dawkins merchandise. For $5,000 a year you can attend an event where he speaks. But only for $100,000 or more can you see the man face-to-face yourself. After reproducing more than a few overly enthusiastic tweets – ‘You’ve changed my life and my entire world’ – Brown’s conclusion is straightforward:

At this point it is obvious to everyone except the participants that what we have here is a religion without the good bits.

The larger point here is not the fundraising methodology of an increasingly fringe personality. It is that no one – nil, not a single person – can escape religion. Even hardcore atheists end up with religious zeal. It is quite easy to avoid organized, official religion of course. Just don’t show up at church. But no one is able to not believe. Those who profess to be able to are just subscribing to an alternative set of beliefs. They are rejecting certain dogmas on the basis of their own unproven assumptions. They are deconstructing other people’s faith while remaining blind to their own faith.

Luc Ferry describes this intrinsic contradiction of hardcore skepticism brilliantly. A major French philosopher and atheist himself, Ferry does not spare blows.

The materialist says, for example, that we are not free, but he is certain of declaring it freely, without any external constraint… He declares that we are a product of our history, but he continues to invite us to liberate ourselves, transform it, start a revolution if possible! … In other words, the materialist defends profound philosophical theses, but always for others, never for himself. He always reintroduces transcendence, freedom, a project, an ideal, because he can’t not regard himself as not free and driven by values above nature and history. (his italics) [1]

That this contradiction exists is remarkable. One would never guess it, given some skeptics’ dogmatism and rhetoric of reason. But it is there, obvious to anyone but themselves and impressionable teenagers. Ferry continues:

But it cannot end there: criticism cannot be valid just for others… Critical thinking needs to critique itself, something which modern philosophers are just beginning to realize, but which Nietzsche and the great materialists paradoxically refuse to do. [They] do wonders when it comes to bursting the metaphysical and religious bubbles … but when it comes to themselves, nothing can be done…. Their lucidity is remarkable when it comes to others, but when it comes to self-reflection, it remains blind. [2]

To believe or not to believe, that is not the question. The question, instead, is: what to believe?

René Breuel

[1] Luc Ferry, Vivere con Filosofia [A Brief History of Thought] (Milan: Garzanti, 2007), 215.

[2] Ibid., 228.

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