Skepticism: What Does It Mean to Be Skeptical?

Posted on Apr 4, 2013 in Featured, Words | 0 comments

Skepticism: What Does It Mean to Be Skeptical?


The word Skepticism comes from the greek word “skeptikoi”, which means seekers or inquirers.

The dictionary definition for skepticism gives us:
1) An inclination to doubt or question claims.
2) The method of suspended judgment or systematic doubt.

This would be adequate in most cases, but for the purposes of this site it is necessary to clarify exactly what skepticism is taken to mean.

Skepticism vs. Cynicism

1) Inclination to doubt or question claims.
2) Method of suspended judgment or
systematic doubt.

An important distinction is to contrast skepticism with cynicism. Being skeptical is not to suggest the same as being cynical. The goal of cynicism would be to find the fault, or to seemingly always conclude that everything is wrong no matter what. This is not the case with skepticism. Instead, the point of skepticism is not to find the fault but to find the truth in something. 

Humans, more specifically human brains, are naturally prone to both creating and believing in falsehoods. Optical illusions show how quickly human brains involuntarily make incorrect assumptions and hold onto these as truth even when obviously proven wrong! It’s also obvious humans willfully propagate and maintain falsities. This is precisely the reason skepticism is required. If the possibility of human error is not acknowledged then we are either being ignorant or dishonest.

There must be absolute truth and skepticism does not deny this. Skepticism is really just a humble way to realize that humans are limited and capable of error. We wouldn’t need skepticism if we knew all the answers already, but we don’t.

Skeptic does not mean him who doubts, but him who investigates or researches as opposed to him who asserts and thinks that he has found.

[Miguel de Unamuno, "Essays and Soliloquies," 1924]

Religion: The Opposite of Skepticism?

Believing beyond a doubt without evidence, for example in the case of a religion, could be considered the opposite of skepticism. It’s interesting because most religions are ingrained with the understanding that humans are very capable of making mistakes, yet rely on the fact that a human absolutely did not make an error in their revelations. Even if the claim is that God said it and God is incapable of error, how can it be assumed that a human didn’t hallucinate, lie, or simply make up a good story when God supposedly inspired or revealed the truth to them?


Think of being skeptical like a scientist probing and questioning a hypothesis in order to come to a higher degree of certainty of the truth. If scientists were cynical they would never even attempt to launch a rocket into space. But scientists have to be skeptical in order to make sure that they have understood how to launch a rocket into space so that in the end they can launch it with a high degree of confidence that it will work. They don’t absolutely know for sure it won’t work, but they are certain enough that launching it makes sense. And that’s the great thing about science, we see this idea work all the time. If scientists weren’t skeptical we would still be using bloodletting to cure diseases.
Actually the real problem is we don’t know how much we don’t know. Scientists have discovered that not only is the universe expanding, but it is expanding at an accelerated rate. At some point all other galaxies will be moving away from us faster than the speed of light. This means that scientists of the future will look into the sky and only see our milky way galaxy, and they will falsely conclude that the universe only consists of our galaxy. If that could be the case of scientists of the future, what could we possibly be missing now? We might not know if our understanding of gravity is 100% correct – in fact scientists recently questioned our understanding of gravity to account for the effects of dark matter, to no avail – but we still launch rockets using calculations that rely on our understanding of gravity because it works for us.

Bad Authority

The worse part is without skepticism you also run the risk of operating under bad authority. It takes skepticism to realize and deny the whims of an evil tyrant. As a blind sheep you could end up following anybody, good or bad. Examples of this could be Nazism or even Scientology more recently. Lack of skepticism had to have played a large part in these crazy belief systems gaining so many followers. The famous scientist Carl Sagan has a great quote concerning this:

“Science is more than a body of knowledge, it’s a way of thinking; a way of skeptically interrogating the universe. If we are not able to ask skeptical questions – to be skeptical of those in authority, then we’re up for grabs.”

–Carl Sagan


Photos (in order of use):
“James Randi” by Terabyte at de.wikipedia [CC-BY-SA-2.0-de, GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], from Wikimedia Commons
“Skeptical Lama” by lamazone [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

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