Day 16: On Being a Skeptic

Today marks the two weeks benchmark of this blog, which is great, because the last time I wrote a blog I didn’t get pass even the first week benchmark. Today, I want to reflect on a comment about which I have been concerned lately: “You are having an identity crisis.” This comment came as a surprise because I never thought, even for one second, that I was having a problem with my own ability to identify myself vis-a-vis the social context in which I live. A mid-life crisis may be, since it’s getting harder and harder to visualize my life after my PhD in this economy, but I do know who I am and what I would like to do for the time that I have left in the world.

I am thankful for the ability to read.

It makes me realize that many great people in the past also share with me the notion of a good life, and how I live one. I don’t see citing others’ philosophical ideas as plagiarism or an evidence of not having my own sense of originality. So, I think what got my colleague to think that I am in the middle of my identity crisis is the fact that I constantly quote other people when I want to justify my action. But, does that mean that I no longer have my identity? Does that mean that I am compromising my true identity, and therefore authenticity, by simply copying other people ideas in order to live by?

Quite the opposite, I wholehearted believe that the only reason why we even go to school at all is to learn from the mistakes of others. Many skeptics would reject out right the notion that you can learn anything from anyone, simply because they do not believe in the replicability, let alone recursivity, of a certain experiential knowledge. Just to be clear, we are not talking about mathematics, geometry, or natural sciences, which are fields of study that are based on specific laws governing phenomenological world (e.g., law of gravity), but ideas of individuals who have tried to discover the most elementary form of our being.

My take here is: why stumble and fall on your own when you can learn from other people’s experience? True. Not everyone will have the same experience of a certain thing. It’s almost like watching a movie, say, The Matrix, which is one of those movies that I love to death. But guess what, so many of my friends also hate it to death. Just because I like it doesn’t mean that it’s a good movie, or that everyone will also like it as well. So, in the way, we learn from what other people have to say about things, and then in order to make what we learn applicable to our life we have to consistently exercise our sense of critical thinking, productive skepticism, and constructive argumentation. In this example, I may learn from others that The Matrix is more than just an action movie featuring Keanu Reeves, but a cinematic reinterpretation of Cartesian philosophy. It’s actually pretty cool to learn afterwards that many things in The Matrix are direct references to the Bible (e.g., Neo as “the One”), existentialism (i.e., the fact that there’s no purpose in life and the Oneness that Neo believes to possess is just another version of what has already been programmed to exist to give a false sense of hope), the creationism (i.e., the existence of “the architect”) and so on. I feel as though there should be another blog’s post just on how I feel about The Matrix.

I know, understand, and see the point of being a skeptic, and I think to a degree there is a merit to being a skeptic, but what’s the point of being a skeptic just for the sake of being one? My feeling is that many people tend to mistake the idea of being skeptic as such — “I am a skeptic because I want to show the world how smart I am through my ability to question everything around me.” I’d like to call such skepticism an unhealthy version it (it is still skepticism, but it is just not the kind of skepticism whose quality I would ever aspire to possess). To me, being skeptic is only good for you as long as it helps me to, as Michel de Montaigne once said, “gauge the true worth of anything by its usefulness and appropriateness” to my life. So, I won’t go around being an annoying skeptic just to prove to others that I have a brain — simply because gaining acceptance from others (in this case, that I have a brain) is not and will never be something that I would ever consider useful let alone appropriate (as if I have so much time in life to waste?) What’s the kind of thing that I would consider useful and appropriate? This, I’d like to resort to the greatest of all (and my personal hero) Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believes that there are so many things in life that we somehow are forced to believe that they are both useful and appropriate to possess, such as a nice car, a new cellphone, a glittering jewelry, and so on. To Rousseau (and another one of my heros Henry David Thoreau) a good life doesn’t require that many things. We need much fewer materialistic items than we think. The reason why we tend to think that we need much more than we do need is simply because someone else in the position of power tell us so.

I believe that thoughts are like these objects. There are thoughts and ideas that the privileges and elites are trying to make us believe that unless we know them we don’t belong to the society. Most of these thoughts are obfuscating, hyper-complex, deeply abstract, and far from being useful. I don’t consider thinking about these thoughts a helpful exercise, and therefore worth exercising my skepticism to get to the bottom of it. So, the first challenge is to identify which thoughts are helpful to be skeptic about, and which thoughts are not.

That said, as many colleagues of mine have pointed out  lately, there are always a glimpse of both existentialism and romanticism in just about everything I have said and written about lately. That’s not wrong, and it has to do with my recent discovery of the French poet Charles Baudelaire (whose writings I have been learning through an awesome online course called The Modern and the Postmodern by Professor Michael Roth of Wesleyan University). I am only skeptical about things only insofar as it gives me the pleasure of being able to comprehend the complex world around me for the sake of comprehending it. This may sound as though I am contradicting myself here as I just wrote earlier that I only want to be skeptical about things that are useful and appropriate to me. This is exactly the point. I have a feeling (as opposed to think — I want to emphasize that it’s more my emotion speaking here) that what prevents us from being a healthy skeptic is simply because we have been inculcated to think too much about the end goal and the consequence, i.e., “what is useful needs to have a practical purpose that materialize.” I think such way of thinking only diminish our quality of being a full being. Why can’t we make the enjoyment of things around us something of practical purposes that also make life worth living and exploring?

To sum up, I think we shall take everything that we believe we truly need both seriously and with intensity because by doing so we are directly exercise our innate ability to respect, comprehend, and process practical lessons learned through the experience and wisdom of other people. However, we shouldn’t just take it at face value, we shall allow our ability to dig deeper beyond the surface of things to help us see through the superficial facade that others have put up to protect themselves from having to reveal their undesirable inauthenticity to the world — but this doesn’t have to be done on purpose, as the purpose of life should simply be to appreciate the existence of things around us as they are without an absolute goal of trying to change it.

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