‘Skepticism’ is a loaded term these days, associated as it is with the typical Dawkins-type “skeptical atheist”. We all know the type: the cynic who hides behind authoritative-sounding terms like “science” and “skepticism” to justify bigotry.
The conflation of skepticism with cynicism has always bothered me; the two are in no way the same. They can, however, appear similar at first glance, so it’s time for some disambiguation.
Amy Roth’s Skepticism 101 article is a good place to begin for a basic definition. Skepticism is one moment in the scientific method, the moment of evaluating the legitimacy of hypotheses: its function is to verify truth. If we were to get philosophical, we could say skepticism is a position of radical doubt – we know for certain there is a possibility that any given claim is wrong. Roth points out that cynicism and skepticism are not the same, but cynicism isn’t the topic of the article, so she doesn’t elaborate. Let’s pick up where she left off – what is cynicism?
Starting from simple dictionary definitions, a cynic distrusts altruism and morality, locating ulterior motives behind anything with such a label. Such definitions are correct, but what interests us right now is the underlying logic: what is the elementary logical procedure that results in such distrust? The task is to find the common denominator shared by all examples of cynicism. We can say the express goal of the cynical position is to cut through false appearances and perceive things as they ‘really are’ – this is true of all versions of cynicism, whether it’s doubt about a supposedly selfless act, distrust in the true function of an organized religion, or the belief that anything which can’t be quantified in scientific-sounding language is irrelevant. At first glance, this goal may seem innocuous, but when compared to skepticism, problems become obvious quickly.
The first problem is that of approach. On a first pass, it seems like skepticism and cynicism both cast doubt. But cynicism is secretly an exercise in certainty, not doubt. Think about it for a moment: the cynical approach might cast doubt on things, but only because it makes the assumption that there is some hard truth beneath ‘false’ appearances. There is a similar assumption at work in skepticism, of course, but the skeptic assumes certainty only in the possibility of doubt. Cynicism sneaks in a positive claim; skepticism asserts a negative claim.
The difference is subtle but profound, and it leads to significant divergence upon further consideration. The skeptic applies the principles of scientific inquiry to everything, including the assumption that there is some kind of hard truth beneath false appearances. This kind of investigation cannot be thought from the cynical position. The cynic cannot understand that the appearances shrouding a hidden truth are necessary for grasping that truth – and even more, that sometimes truth lies in ‘false’ appearances.
Take polite speech, for example. When I meet a stranger, he says “Hi, how are you?” Of course he doesn’t care, it’s just an empty phrase – the cynics are at least right about that in many cases. But in another sense, it’s not just a hypocritical gesture. The stranger really doesn’t care about me and just wants to move on without being rude, but the very fact he’s willing to make that gesture creates a silent pact of mutual recognition. If we have some basis to infer that people are in some way selfish animals under a thin veil of politeness, then we have equal basis to infer the opposite: are we not also chained to the laws of public decorum beneath the veil of egotist self-interest? We can’t properly understand such practices of politeness without acknowledging the fact that the ‘false’ pretense of politeness has a truth of its own. The stranger’s politeness is a lie concealing his self-interest. And yet, day after day he continually acts polite out of habit – although a lie, the polite facade takes on a life of its own, generates its own truth. This truth is empirically measurable and observable, since his actions (acting polite) influence his surroundings.
From this perspective, a further distinction between cynicism and skepticism can be made. Skepticism, as a part of the scientific method, is a materialist procedure, whereas cynicism is an exercise in empiricism. The definitions of and relation between ‘materialism’ and ’empiricism’ is a very old, very hotly contested topic. What concerns us here is pretty simple, however.
The premise of empiricism is that the ultimate truth resides in existence: measurable, quantifiable, observable objects are the site of truth. The premise of materialism is that empirical reality (the totality of all that can be experienced and measured) is structured by principles that don’t exist as objects within reality.
To understand what this means, let’s take a brief detour through history. Modern science is materialist, not empiricist – science requires empirical proof through measurement and experience, but its practice is not limited to existing objects. After all, since the advent of Newtonian physics, science has been able to verify empirical proof of things that are non-empirical (that don’t exist, strictly speaking). Newton, the laws of gravity guy: “objects in motion tend to stay in motion”, yada yada. Consider: the laws of physics are definitely real, but they’re not objects. You can’t pick up a chunk of gravity, or a piece of time, and put it under a microscope. You can examine the effect thermal energy has on matter, but you can’t apprehend ‘pure’ thermal energy itself.
Put simply, whether something ‘exists’ and whether something is ‘real’ are different questions. The laws of physics are non-empirical (inexistent), but they are nonetheless real; they exert measurable, quantifiable effects upon empirical reality.
This formula should sound familiar. Recall the earlier example of politeness. The cynical position, allegedly ‘realistic’, discerns the truth of the polite man’s behavior in his ulterior motives, dismissing his facade. The cynic completely misses the obvious fact that the stranger’s facade structures his actual behavior, whereas his secret inner desires do not. In the same way, summarizing our universe as a collection of objects that exist without accounting for the immaterial principles that structure it misses the truth and falls flat under skeptical scrutiny.
The cynic believes only things that exist are real, and that existing objects are the root cause underlying all appearances and ideas. As such, the cynic is quite literally pre-modern; a relic of the past, unable to grasp modern science and the laws of physics (let alone the newfangled stuff like quantum mechanics). The cynic can think of things that exist, but not the virtual principles that structure all that exists.
Let’s go ahead and put that into perspective. From the cynical perspective, the laws of physics, as virtual patterns and not existing objects, should be dismissed as false and misleading illusions that proceed from actually-existing objects. Cynicism thus falls short of even internal consistency. This is obviously absurd and in contradiction with verifiable fact: it is demonstrable that the universe is organized according to immaterial principles (the laws of physics) which exert actual, observable, measurable effects, and that without such principles, there would be no universe to observe.
Whereas the cynical position is incapable of internal consistency, scientific rigor, and distinguishing between what is real and what exists, the skeptic must readily confront that distinction and continually verify the integrity of scientific findings.
The difference is discernible at the social level, too. The strident feminist, the transgender woman – these people exist for the cynics, but they’re not real. The strident feminist is ‘really’ just a bitch, or just hates men; the trans woman is ‘really’ just crazy. The social cynic is necessarily a bigot: the short-circuit between what is real and what exists (that is, the assumption that the two are the same) necessarily leads to invalid conclusions about a person or social group’s inner nature. Just as in the polite stranger example, the cynic misses that the truth resides not in what a given social group ‘really is’ deep down inside, but in the real social practices of that group. The point is quite straightforward when put in a familiar example: the racist believes that some biological feature like skin color determines a given ethnic group’s behaviors, whereas the skeptic understands that social practices in fact define ethnic categories.
The cynical position lays claim to many things, like materialism, science, and skepticism. These claim are fundamentally false. Furthermore, since cynicism locates ultimate truth in existence, it necessarily propagates bigotry and is in fact the basis of any kind of bigotry. Misogyny and racism, for example, always designate certain properties of existence (specifically, the body, skin color, etc) as the site of truth: whatever women think they are or appear to be, they’re really weak, needy, emotional, or whatever else.
The skeptic can calmly accept these empirical or bodily differences and shrug them off with placid ease. Such differences exist, but they aren’t what structures the whole of a social group or even the whole of an individual. The fact that ethnic differences exist is not the cause of racism – the cynical trap to be avoided here is to take the existence of these differences as our starting point and try to deduce a social structuring principle (racism) from there. If we instead observe the development of ethnic difference over time, we discover that some structuring principle (racism) exerts effects upon them. Social conflicts get mapped onto ethnic differences, which are subject to constant change – Italian and Irish Americans not too long ago weren’t considered ‘white’, but that has since changed. This is the properly skeptical, scientific procedure, and it is how my boyfriend and I overcome the culture of racism and misogyny we were born into: I don’t map conflicts and tension between us onto his ethnic features, and he doesn’t map them onto my sexual features. In reality, our ethnic and sexual differences are actual while the concept of our relationship is virtual. But in our everyday experience we effectively treat each other like perfect equals, stars in our own romance drama, while our actual differences are something we treat as abstract. This reversal occurs because the way we imagine ourselves structures how we actually treat and perceive each other.
The truth is, we are all empirically different from each other but virtually the same. Our actual differences not are a source of conflict but solidarity and celebration when we elevate equality to a structuring principle – the ‘mere’ appearance of equality begins to generate actual equality by structuring the social fabric.
This article draws extensively from two sources without explicit reference:
- I make heavy use of the notion of “the reality of the virtual” developed by Gilles Deleuze, a French philosopher who died around 20 years ago.
- I draw more generally from the Ljubljana school of theoretical psychoanalysis. Specifically, from the works of contemporary philosophers Alenka Zupančič and Slavoj Žižek.