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Skeptical Zeteticism

Recently, we’ve taken a detailed look at our everyday gullibility and our susceptibility to error and illusion. The shortcomings we have discovered prove we are poor judges, on the whole, and so in order to operate as effectively as possible in this unjust universe, we need techniques to aid us. In this post, we will start with a little something I call sceptical zeteticism (but not very well after a few beers).

Mind prisons

If we have learnt only one thing from our exploration of justice, it should be that we are rarely in a position to have full confidence in any evaluation that we make – that is to say, to hold concrete convictions. In Human, all too Human Nietzsche writes:

“Conviction is the belief that in some point of knowledge one possesses absolute truth. Such a belief presumes, then, that absolute truths exist; likewise, that the perfect methods for arriving at them have been found; finally, that every man who has convictions makes use of these perfect methods.”

Obviously, it is difficult to have any degree of confidence that these conditions of epistemological perfection are present in any given situation. That being the case, Nietzsche asks, are not convictions “vastly overrated?”

It is true that a passionately held conviction, even an erroneous one, can be a source of immense strength, but assuming we are prepared to forgo beatific smiles whilst being burned at the stake, are convictions not just as often prisons for the mind?

Consider an individual who holds the unfortunate conviction that they are useless and inept, having had this impression implanted in them through terrible parenting. Unless and until this idea is resisted and overcome, a life of achievement may remain out of reach. This principle holds for most of us: walls (limiting convictions) must often be broken down to discover our full potential.

Therefore, we should retain a healthy skepticism towards life – and our own convictions. Sticking to your guns is lauded as a virtue in our society but stubbornly hanging on to ideas that are open to doubt is the root of bigotry. There is a word for a person who never admits they are wrong – politician. By contrast, there is a word for the justifiable act of changing your mind – learning.

Maybe Logic

The mystic, Robert Anton Wilson, provided a technique for constructive skepticism which he called Maybe Logic. Maybe logic involves never “regarding any model or map of the universe with total 100% belief or total 100% denial”. All matters are to be evaluated on the basis of probabilities rather than absolutes. Wilson claimed in his book Cosmic Trigger: Volume 1 "not to believe anything", since "belief is the death of intelligence".

Like Nietzsche, Wilson advocated zeteticism – the scientific approach of proceeding by inquiry. Every ‘fact’ is merely a hypothesis on trial and can be refuted or further developed in the course of time. So, where there can be any doubt (and that is going to be the vast majority of situations), don’t say yes and don’t say no. Say maybe. Or, for the courageous, how about: I don’t know. At a push, one might conjecture: it seems to be the case that… or perhaps to the best of my knowledge

You get the idea. Suspend judgement. Seek out more data. Be sceptical. Be zetetic.

The obvious price of this approach is that ‘The Truth’, if it exists, is forever tantalisingly out of reach. Even as we strive towards it, it recedes from our grasp.

But then perhaps the Truth is forever inaccessible anyway.

Like perfection, it is an ideal to be strived for but never realised.

Maybe there are only degrees of truth.

And maybe some truths are more useful than others.

Next post: More on surviving and thriving in an unjust universe

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