The Price Of Everything And The Value Of Nothing

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2018-11-03 13:00:00-04:00 No comments

Milton Glaser once said:

Everyone always talks about confidence and believing in what you do. I remember once going to a class in Kundalini yoga where the teacher said that, spirituality speaking, if you believed that you had achieved enlightenment you have merely arrived at your limitation. I think that is also true in a more practical sense. Deeply held beliefs of any kind prevent you from being open to experience, which is why I find all firmly held ideological positions questionable. It makes me nervous when someone believes too deeply or too much. I think that being sceptical and questioning all deeply held beliefs is essential. Of course we must know the difference between scepticism and cynicism because cynicism is as much a restriction of one's openness to the world as passionate belief is.

It's that last sentence that I find most important. Much of the distrust I see manifested at things like vaccines or the news media is not skepticism. It's not grounded in any kind of good faith about the underlying question — the sort of thing epitomized by Sir Karl Popper when he described his ideal of intellectual aspiration thus: "I may be wrong and you may be right, and between us we may find the truth."

When Robert Anton Wilson wrote, in all caps no less, "I DO NOT BELIEVE ANYTHING," I had to laugh. Of course he believes in something; it's just a question of what and how. Total skepticism is impossible, and would probably shade over into cynicism long before you ever got there anyway. If he's trying that hard to convince me he doesn't believe in anything, it's because he wants very badly not to be seen as someone's fool. But we're all someone's fool someday. How we bounce back from that is what matters more.

Deeply held beliefs are human fuel, whether or not we like it. The question is not whether or not we should have them; we have them no matter what. It's how we should regard them and in what light. Most particularly, how we regard our own deeply held beliefs, because frequently the only way to examine them is to bring other people into the picture and have them help us do that job. It's difficult, maybe ultimately impossible, for a person to be entirely their own teacher in this regard. But many of us draw a line somewhere inside ourselves, and mark off a certain set of things as being outside of examination, because we identify with those beliefs — in the sense that we construct our identity out of such things — and feel that without them we don't have much of anything. Most of us do this, so I don't know that it's practical to try and root it out entirely. Rather, the trick is to find as many ways as we can to limit the damage it does, collectively.

I always got annoyed when people would attack the scientific worldview for being as dogmatic as religion, or some variant of that. Annoyed because they were typically being made by someone who wasn't drawing a distinction between dogmatism and the sensible (and powerful) re-use of long-established precedent. People can be dogmatic in the way they apply science, and that's a perfectly valid critique of the people in question. But that's not a failure of science as a discipline in the abstract. A lot of the folks taking this particular potshot are not ultimately interested in how scientific practice could be made freer of personal prejudice and chicanery. They're looking for a way to say, "See? I told you science wasn't all that and a bag of baked Lay's." Nowhere is science obliged to appease nihilists and cynics, the better to clean its own house.

The difference between a skeptic and a cynic is motives. A skeptic's main motive is the preservation of the path to the truth; a cynic's main motive is preservation of self.

Tags: Karl Popper Milton Glaser Robert Anton Wilson belief skepticism