Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Questioning Everything

The better a school or professor is, the better they train their students to question everything.

This came from Scott Alexander here, but it is really a truism of our intellectual culture. It is the mantra of our higher education: question, question, question.

Is that, as believers of many sorts would argue, the root of the modern problem? Are we anxious, depressed, alienated, and obsessed with politics because we don't believe enough? And do we believe so little because we have gotten so good at questioning?

I was born with a skeptical turn of mind and in my youth fell madly for the sort of science that specialized in debunking whatever people used to believe. My heroes were bold opponents of the status quo: Galileo, Giordano Bruno, Thomas Paine, Darwin, Richard Feynman, Lynn Margulis, Martin Gardner, Carl Sagan.

Years ago I reached a state of believing very little, and I am no longer so impressed by skepticism. The whole culture of debunking, "destroying," "smashing," and whatever else people do on the internet and late-night television leaves me cold. To anyone with a modern education, debunking is too easy; we can all think of a hundred reasons why anything might not be true. The challenge, given what we know and how we have been taught, is to believe in anything. I am not thinking of fools who believe what Trump says or what pours from left-wing sociology departments; I mean things one can believe in without being a fool. My current heroes are people who have absorbed all that modern skepticism has to offer but still maintain positive commitments: Learned Hand and the rest of the Pragmatists, Rainer Maria Rilke, Barack Obama.

Questioning everything should be the first step in finding one's own way in life, not the final stage.

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