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Evangelical Skepticism: Pursuing Your Right To Be Wrong

Michael Shermer speaks with the energy and passion of an ... so it's not too ... to learn that he used to be one. What is ... is that he has made a ... turn in his approac

Michael Shermer speaks with the energy and passion of
an evangelist, so it's not too surprising to learn that he
used to be one. What is surprising is that he has made
a 180-degree turn in his approach to belief. As a
college student at Pepperdine University, he knocked on doors to spread the word of the gospel to
anyone who would listen. Now he preaches the power
of skepticism in the true sense of the word.

Like a war hero who becomes an anti-war activist, this
turnaround is both curious and inspiring. His story
underscores the complexity of the concept of belief and
our need to hold on to some form of validation.

Shermer is the publisher of Skeptic Magazine. He is
quick to point out that what many people think of as
skepticism is really cynicism. Being skeptical has
nothing to do with being a grumpy curmudgeon who
discounts any idea that disrupts his world view. It is
less a position and more an approach using science and

Skeptics are open to looking into anything and
everything, but are reluctant to latch on to theories
without sufficient evidence to back them up. Skeptics
don't sit around trashing the ideas of others--that
would be a waste of thinking time. Instead, they
luxuriate in the opportunity to further explore
interesting notions.

The motto of the Skeptics Society and Skeptic
Magazine is a statement made by the 17th-century
Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza:
"I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to
bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand

This is a fabulous approach to life, even though it may
require more patience than most of us can muster. If
we can't count on any absolute truths and we don't
want to get bogged down by the muddy thinking of
relativism, we've got to do our best to establish what
Shermer calls "provisional" truths. He uses the
word "provisional" a lot to refer to those pretty good
truths and almost universal ideas we tend to think of as
fairly consistent. Is infanticide bad? Yes, almost
always. There could be, in some cultures and in some
specific circumstances, ethical reasons to justify
infanticide, but we recognize that those are few and
far between. Provisional ethics allows for continued
discussion and exploration in a way that a black and
white view never will.

Shermer was in town recently to talk about the third
book in his trilogy on the power of belief: The Science
of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Share,
Care and Follow the Golden Rule. He offered compelling
theories and groundbreaking scientific results regarding
the evolution of human ethics. Thanks to magnetic
resonance imaging, we can now see what's
going on in the brain while we perform certain tasks. It
turns out that the pleasure centers of our brain "light
up" when we engage in activities that are cooperative-
sharing, being generous, helping others. Just as though
we were eating our favorite comfort foods, getting a
massage, or making love, our brains register this
activity as highly pleasurable. There is (some) reason
to believe that cooperation has evolved as a highly
prized survival skill, and thus we are "rewarded" by
feeling good about it.

Engaging in competitive activities--trying to beat a
rival, striving to gain control--shows up in an entirely
different area of the brain. Of course, this is also a
very important survival skill, but it tends to come with
its own tangible rewards--more food, more wealth, the
mate of your choice, etc.

I'm still waiting for research on highly competitive
individuals. Do their brains light up in the pleasure zone
when they win? Is there some sort of shift that
happens? What about sociopaths? Do their pleasure
centers flare when they lie, cheat, steal, or harm

There's just no end to thinking when you view the
world with a healthy dose of skepticism. Socrates
observed that the only thing he knew for sure is that
he knew nothing. Sticklers are all too happy to point
out that this, in fact, suggests that he knows that
nothing exists, knows that he knows this, knows that
he knows that he knows this, ad nauseum. By the
same token, if you are skeptical about everything, you
must be skeptical of your own skepticism! Just when
you think you've got something figured out, it's time to
be skeptical again.

This isn't the mainstream approach to thinking. We
tend to like having ideas we can hang on to. We
choose a couple of stable concepts, tie up a hammock
and swing there contentedly.

That's one way to live.

Another way is to hang that hammock on a couple of
sturdy ideas, sway there a bit, and then go off and find
another place to swing. It's a lot more work, but you
cover a lot more territory in the process. Your
intellectual journey may be arduous but infinitely

Because there are limitations in scientific investigation and plenty of mysteries remaining, the Skeptics keep in mind the words of Albert Einstein:
"All our science, measured against reality, is primitive
and childlike--and yet it is the most precious thing we

Einstein believed in the power of the unknown and
reveled in the right to figure things out as best we
can. He valued imagination over knowledge, but
persisted in searching for evidence that what we dream
can be described and reported scientifically.

Skeptics are cautious believers. They hope for
magnificenceArticle Submission, they dream of infinite truths and they
doggedly pursue their right to be wrong. They are
forever moving their hammocks and testing untried

And they are downright evangelical about it.

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Maya Talisman Frost is a mind masseuse. Her work has inspired thinkers in over 80 countries. She serves up a satisfying blend of clarity, comfort and comic relief in her free weekly ezine, the Friday Mind Massage. To subscribe, visit today!

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