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Skepticism and the Nature of the Mind

A more empirically based understanding of the somewhat elusive nature of the mind can help the skeptical community comprehend and influence popular beliefs.

Writers and readers of the Skeptical Inquirer and of the broader skeptical community spend a great deal of their time critiquing ideas they know to be false—superstitious, supernatural, fundamentalist, metaphysical or religious, conspiratorial, magical, impossible, and irrational. In doing so, however, skeptics may unwittingly advance a view of the mind as a rational agent shining the light of evidence upon the dark shadow of superstition so as to send it scurrying to the closet of once-coveted oddities. Sadly, this is rarely the case, since each human mind stubbornly insists upon an unreason unique to itself but with qualities common to all. In fact, that is why the scientific method constitutes such a precious exercise in discovering often shocking truths that minds alone were typically not able to unearth and which, for many minds, seem to conflict with personal or cultural values.

I argue that the scientific evidence about the functioning of our mentalities suggests that they have so many illusionary qualities of their own that unreason is more fundamental to the human constitution than reason (this does not mean that reason is not important or that we are not capable of reasoning). Humans’ need for meaning often competes successfully against a need to secure tangible evidence for and against views that comfort them.

The research of social psychological scientist Jonathan Haidt (2012) has tended to support the idea of David Hume (1739) that our “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions,” in contradistinction with the Platonist or Rationalist idea of reason in the control seat. Thus, the research indicates that when we as skeptics look for evidence to demolish another’s po sition, it is because that is something we are each good at doing and science is good at doing. However, we tend to be very poor at demolishing our own ideas, being aware of our own biases, and looking for evidence contradicting our cherished assumptions.

Science is without doubt our best means of discovering the truth. However, we must not forget that truths are also very personal. Many of the truths that we seek to tear apart likely fill a life with meaning. A friend of mine who runs a punk rock label in Chicago fills his shelves with books on supposed ancient truths that have become allegedly suppressed in our modern culture. While they are likely unable to find empirical support, I do notice how they fill my friend’s life with a profound sense of magical power, wonder, mystery, and rebellion against a world he views as excessively preoccupied with materialist and consumerist values that seem cold and vacuous to him. As a skeptic, I walk past his library in his home seriously and perhaps a little too prudishly concerned for his welfare, but as a friend I am very aware of the richness this magical thinking brings to his life and of the interesting conversations it inspires in us both. I do not accept any of the myths found within his tomes, but I admit to sharing with him the hope of a wiser, more moral and philosophical future married in perfect balance with its scientific tradition, as represented by the beloved Vulcan Star Trek character Spock.

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Biological Race and the Problem of Human Diversity Skepticism and the Nature of the Mind The Mote in Thy Brother’s Eye Searching for the Yowie, the Down Under Bigfoot ...and much more.
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