Imagine the following scene: There is a stream of water that stretches as far across as the eye can see. In one direction there is a perilous waterfall, and in the other, dangerous rocks. You are compelled to cross it – staying on the safety of land is not an option.
The stream seems calm on the surface, but you can clearly see people being swept away by an undercurrent which seems to run in different directions as people cross the stream. Some people are being swept over the waterfall while some are floating in the other direction uncontrollably until they smash up against the jagged rocks. But looking straight ahead, you find what appear to be some safe stones leading to the bank on the other side of the stream, and some people have found a way to reach those stones one-by-one, as they progress across. You aren’t sure what awaits you on the other bank, but you know you can’t remain at the one you’re on. You have to cross.
The most important concern you have right now is how to cross safely. It seems that there are ways that work, and ways that don’t. You aren’t sure what to do, but you have to figure it out.
You contemplate this for a while, and then an idea occurs to you… you need a *method* of crossing. You realize that you can track the undercurrents by watching people float across, and in doing so, you can swim in the right direction to the next safe stone. In this way, you can progress across the stream indefinitely without being swept away in either direction.
As you cross, you find people discussing how to safely navigate the stream. The voices are more numerous than you can count, each seeming to have their own idea of where the safest place in that stream is.
- A lady is waste deep in the water. She is drifting toward the waterfall and confidently assures you that the water will always steer you in the right direction. She decides that if the water steers you over the side, then that’s the right place to go.
- A man swims furiously toward the jagged rocks, screaming that the waterfall is terribly dangerous and the best way to avoid it is to cling on to one of the razor sharp rocks. He insists that the jagged stones are the right place to be.
- A man stands on one of the safe stones. He got there by closing his eyes and jumping, and suggests you do the same. He invites you to join him on his safe stone, declaring it the only good place to stand.
- A woman floating by tells you that it doesn’t matter – the stones and the water, the waterfall and the rocks, are all equally safe, and that everything will be alright no matter what you do.
A cacophony of other voices join in, each of them standing in a location they consider safest, insisting that where they stand is the right place, and all those who stand elsewhere have made a grave error.
The one thing you notice about all of the people you encounter is that they all seem to endorse where they stand at that moment, even those who have occasionally moved. None of them seem to be concerned with how they got there, or how (or if) they will take the next step. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of them are convinced that where they are currently positioned is the only right place to be, and that being anywhere else either means certain doom, or is a complete waste of time. They all appear to be planting their metaphorical flag in the spot where they are, and they banter incessantly about which place is the right place to be. Even the few who agree with each other seem to be standing on different stones.
Meanwhile, you track the currents. You step in the water and swim in just the right direction to get to the next safe stone. You look back and observe you last stone you were on… you watch as the water rises over it… you realize that it wasn’t safe to begin with, and you are grateful that you didn’t stay there. You realize that if the safety of the last stone was illusory, perhaps the safety of this one is as well. You track the currents. You swim to the next stone. You remain in motion. You progress.
Then you look back and notice that many of the people who were bantering about the correctness of their position have been swept away by the changing currents and water level, either over the waterfall, or into the deadly rocks. You continue moving forward to safer stones, as those left behind continue insisting how correct their position is.
Those of who regard ideas as vitally important typically form an “intellectual self-identity”, and all too often it is based on where we currently stand. People who don’t believe in a god or gods call themselves atheists. Those who believe in a disinterested god call themselves deists. Those who believe in a particular god identify themselves as followers of that particular god. People identify as conservatives, liberals, anarchists, pagans, tea partiers, communists, libertarians, racial supremacists, feminists, objectivists, capitalists, fundamentalists, etc…, generally identifying with whatever ideology they’ve arrived at via whatever method of arriving at ideas they’ve chosen to use.
Our self-identity is important. It not only serves to distill our philosophic priorities in our own minds, it also helps us identify our intellectual allies and adversaries, and serves as a useful summary for informing others about how we see the world.
For most of my life, I struggled to articulate my own intellectual identity. I was raised as a fundamentalist Christian and enthusiastically embraced that identity until around my 18th birthday, at which time I became a follower of Ayn Rand and Objectivism. This lasted a few years until I began to discover some chinks in her armor, at which time I began to call myself an objectivist (with a lower-case “o”), meaning I had my own philosophy which was informed primarily by her ideas. Over time I began to realize that I didn’t need to associate myself with anyone’s philosophy even peripherally, and I relinquished any identifier, but I was discontent with any attempt at describing what I believed.
I was an atheist, but that didn’t describe my belief system at all – it was a mere feature of my belief set, no different than believing that water is wet, hardly relevant enough to hang my identity on. Of course, there were always those who believed that atheism defined me. It was a position I could never understand, and nothing aggravated me more than when I would be lumped in with others who held beliefs radically different from my own, merely because we shared a common disbelief.
Over the years, I decided that the best way to identify myself was by my current method of arriving at beliefs. I couldn’t think of any “ist” word, so I chose the clunky description “Advocate of Reason, Opponent of Faith”. It seemed to work, but it had one serious problem – everyone believes that their beliefs are reasonable, and few people recognize the difference between the concept “reasonable” and the philosophic process of reason (non-contradictory identification). To many, my identifier seemed arrogant, as though I believed my beliefs were reasonable and all other beliefs were foolish and misguided.
And there was something else about it that bothered me – I do not now, nor have I ever, felt any shift in my methods during my lifetime. In other words, the way I discover what is real and what is fantasy doesn’t seem any different to me now than it did at any other point in my life, including while I was a fundamentalist.
Is it possible that my actual intellectual identity has never changed? That I’ve always been the same “ist”? Is there a unifying theme I can finally hang my identity on?
Sometime during my 41st year, I discovered the “missing link” between what I started out as, what I became, and what I am today (and what I may become in the future). I realized that I am now, and have always been, a Rational Skeptic. This moniker unifies the theme of a lifetime of changing beliefs systems, and it finally allows me to identify with my true intellectual allies.
The term “Rational Skeptic” is different not only in specific identification, but also in kind. It’s not just a different way to identify oneself, it is a different brand of identification altogether. It does not identify what one believes, it identifies how one arrives at beliefs.
This is vitally important. The very fact of identifying this way liberates me from the dubious task of *defending the rock on which I currently stand* and frees me up to *always seek a better rock to which I can swim*.
After all, if there’s one thing I’ve learned throughout my life, it is that no matter how convinced I am right now that what I currently believe about the nature of life is true, in 5 years I may be convinced of something entirely different. How, then, can I justify a relentless defense of the rock on which I currently stand? How can I possibly justify saying “Well, I was wrong that time and that time and that time and that time… but I’ve got it all figured out now!” How can I justify doing *exactly as dogmatists do*?
Moreover, this identification allows me to find kindred spirits among those who hold other ideologies. Rational Skeptics can be found among the ranks of all ideologies, as accurate knowledge requires reason plus information. Inaccurate or incomplete information will result in errant conclusions, even if the person drawing those conclusions holds reason as a primary absolute.
For example, take a young boy who believes the bible is the inerrant word of god (yes, I’m speaking of myself here). As a child, every authority figure in my life agreed on one thing – that the bible was written by god, and that every word in it was true and accurate. My parents, who I (like everyone else) was born programmed to trust implicitly, not only assured me of this, but invested significant amounts of time and energy to ensure it was reinforced over and over.
Additionally, I was force-fed bogus science designed to counteract any exposure I may have to real scientific discoveries which contradicted biblical mythology.
This testimony, the false science, the absence of critical examination, and the investments my parents made on a routine basis, constituted powerful, extremely compelling evidence to my 12 year old mind. Of course I didn’t understand the dynamics of what was going on at the time, but it was that evidence that compelled me to believe everything I was taught. I went where the evidence led, no different than I do today.
The same story could be told about every belief set I’ve embraced during my life. And the theme has always been the same – go where the evidence leads. Revise the belief set when compelled to do so by new discoveries. Relinquish beliefs that have been shown to be errant. Rinse and repeat.
The opposite of Rational Skepticism is dogmatism, but notice that neither term describes any particular belief set. Both Rational Skeptics and dogmatists can be found across the spectrum of ideologies, and it isn’t very difficult to distinguish between them – Rational Skeptics of all ideologies tend to enjoy discussing beliefs and holding their belief set up for examination against competing belief sets via discussion or debate. Dogmatists tend to do the exact opposite – they feel no need to examine the belief set they hold, no desire to subject it to scrutiny or critical examination, no need to reassess how they arrived at it. Indeed, they tend to react with anger and scorn at any suggestion that they should do so. They will hear no arguments in support of propositions which conflict with their cherished beliefs. They are content to remain on whatever stone they happen to be standing on right this moment.
This is why I have more respect, and feel more kinship, with a Fundamentalist Christian who tells me that the evidence compels them to their beliefs than the atheist who does nothing but sit back and mock theists. I have more respect for a feminist who cares enough about the quality of their own views to sit down and discuss the issue than one who is content to lump all non-feminists into the same misogynist pot. I have more respect for a Young Earth Creationist who, like my young self, holds that view because they evidence for it seems overwhelming but is not afraid to examine new evidence than someone who believes in evolution simply as a default position because that’s what they see on TV.
More and more I find myself trying to convince people – particularly those in the atheist community – that one’s *belief system* is far more important an issue than ones *belief set*. The former drives the latter, and if Rational Skeptics of all stripes and colors would begin identifying themselves that way, I am convinced that it would make for much more productive dialogue, much more powerful intellectual alliances, and much more useful community.