Sunday, 8 May 2011

The Poverty of Skepticism

Strange is the world in which skeptics are defined by that which they believe rather than by the route they take to knowledge.

Strange too is a world in which one might take especial pride in being skeptical. Skepticism is a faculty that all adults should possess, but like the ability to tie one's own shoes, public pride in such a skill is suitable only for children. Like most adults, I would say that in so much as I do not accept immediately all claims placed before me, I am skeptical. But I do not want to say by this small boast that my claims have any special merit. Not all have been examined closely and some, having a shape too familiar or pleasing, may have passed beneath notice and settled altogether too comfortably in mind. Others, having a  taste disagreeable to my constitution, might have left me, like the child that refuses the bitter medicine, deficient in some vitamin of thought, at distinct disease in the consonance of my ideas.

If you would offer correction to my malady, think to sugar it well. If we agree too well, be not surprised by my indifference.

If there is one rule that I would live by, it is this: do not make skepticism your only virtue. True, the scientist's mind should not be a place where ideas are sustained beyond their time, lingering boorishly like the last late guest at a dinner party, draining the hosts' last reserves of brandy and goodwill. But equally the scientist's mind should not be a place where ideas go only to die.

The poverty of skepticism as a sole creed is that it is purely destructive.

The gardener who prunes but never plants is master only of a wasteland. Most ideas must weather the early frosts of indifference and so the open mind must be like the fertile earth and sheltered garden, the skeptic a gardener in it. Nurturing the tender shoots, with wisdom and experience trimming back eruptions of the older growth to preserve its vigour, or knowing when the time has come to fell the tree that once provided shade to toil beneath in the summer sun. And now and then he takes the sharp blade and digs deep for the pale and fatal roots of the weeds that are the cost. Ruthlessly to track down every fragment to drag them up and burn them.

Such slow tasks have no end nor can attain but passing likeness of perfection. Yet there, in the garden, blooms a rose. Its mottled stem and bee-beguiling scent no different from the rest, and only the gardener knows that it has seen from bud, to thorn, to flower, a hundred summers and a hundred winters more than he.

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