The Great Debate: Deepak Chopra V. Michael Shermer on the Value of Skepticism

By Chopra, Deepak; Shermer, Michael | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Fall 2005 | Go to article overview
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The Great Debate: Deepak Chopra V. Michael Shermer on the Value of Skepticism


Chopra, Deepak, Shermer, Michael, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


Is Skepticism a Negative or a Positive for Science and Humanity?

Gadflies Without a Sting The Downside of Skepticism

DEEPAK CHOPRA, MD, FACP

"There is a field beyond all notions of right and wrong. Come, meet me there."--Rumi

WE LIVE IN A SOCIETY WHERE THE WORST humiliation, apparently, is to be duped. If Skeptic's table of contents reflects the world, we are buried up to our necks in charlatans, pseudo-scientists, scam artists, and the self-deluded. I cannot otherwise explain why being skeptical, without any additional positive contribution, is considered somehow admirable. I dislike skepticism when it sits by the road and shoots down any traveler trying to take a different way. I oppose skepticism when it turns destructive, using disdainful dismissiveness as its chief tactic.

Let me speak personally here as a target of skeptical critiques:

1. I have rarely met a skeptic who didn't use ad hominem attacks.

2. Skeptics generally leap to the conclusion that I am naive, self-deluded, or simply unread in the sciences.

3. Skeptics rarely examine the shaky assumptions of their own position.

4. Skeptics believe that doubt is a positive attribute. (Skeptics in person can be appealing, usually in a kind of quirky misanthropic way, although most come off as self-important petty naysayers who try everyone's patience.)

5. Worst of all, skeptics take pride in defending the status quo and condemn the kind of open-minded inquiry that peers into the unknown.

Some debunking is laudable, and I have no problem with anyone who has punctured some form of charlatanism, but to call skepticism a wholesome, philosophically valid position goes too far. Skepticism is the attitude of doubt, or to dress it up for the dictionary, "the method of suspended judgment, systematic doubt, or criticism characteristic of skeptics." But in my experience skeptics are overreachers. They equate doubt with logical thinking, so that to be unskeptical makes one irrational. The use of words like pseudoscience, magic, superstition, and ignorance bolsters their central claim that only fools and knaves occupy the low ground outside the skeptical tradition. But Keats, Beethoven, and Van Gogh all worked in irrational fields. And the line between religion and science, which skeptics defend like armed guards, isn't so definite as they suppose, given the religious bent of Kepler, Newton, Einstein, and other scientific minds great and small.

At its most credible--here I want to show doubt in the best light--skepticism is the handmaiden of science and the scientific method. In and of itself, skepticism has made no actual contribution to science, just as music reviews in the newspaper make no contribution to the art of composition and book reviewing falls far short of writing books. Because it rides on science's coattails, skepticism lays claim to defeating all manner of fallacies and ignorance when it has done no such thing. Skeptics have not contributed to theories of mathematics or logic in any substantial way, and the chief victory of skepticism--to discredit religious thinking as opposed to scientific thinking--is a battle long ago won.

But skeptics can't wait to fight the battle again, and people like me, who discuss spirituality and science in the same breath, are vehemently accused of the same ignorant tendencies as fundamentalists waiting for Jesus to return tomorrow. So why be skeptical at all? What science has defeated is the great tradition of idealism. This tradition has hundreds of branches, but let's accept the simple dictionary definition: idealism is "a theory that ultimate reality lies in a realm transcending phenomena." By nature most people are idealistic. They accept God and have a will to believe. They are open to experiences beyond their five senses, such as love and beauty. They assume that there is an ultimate Troth.

Idealism thus persists in popular culture, but science has felled it on practically every academic front.

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