Have you heard of the famous parable “The Blind Men and the Elephant”? Six blind men attempt to figure out an unfamiliar animal. Each man touches a different part of the animal and makes a claim of certainty. The man touching the trunk declares the animal a snake. The man touching the ears declares it to be some sort of fan. The man touching the tusks says it is a spear, and so on. Each man arrives at his own conclusion, but doesn’t realize he’s missing some information. More importantly, none of them question their perception and inference.
But how do any of us know what we know? How often do we stop to ask ourselves that? Without getting into the nitty-gritty of philosophical skepticism and its branches, here’s a simplification of it: skepticism is critical thinking. It’s a process of asking questions about presented claims, rather than assuming truth at face value. Skepticism isn’t doubting just to doubt, but is a method of investigation. The Greek word skeptic means “to inquire.” Having a skeptical attitude means being open-minded, flexible, and curious.
When we perceive a challenge or threat and anxiety pounces, we tend to cling to our manufactured certainty rather than loosening the grip. Getting into the habit of asking questions, refining the types of questions asked, and reminding oneself that “I am likely working with limited information” allows a person to be open-minded and less injured in the event that a belief or position is challenged or refuted. This type of thinking also works as a way to deal with things like negative self-talk and interpretations of the behaviors of others.
Even if you agree with something, have an inclination or fondness toward something, or something “feels” inexplicably right, it’s important to keep room for new information and change.
Here are some questions to include in your thoughtful doubting process:
- How plausible is this claim?
- What is the evidence for and against this claim?
- What are the sources of evidence?
- Are those sources credible?
- What makes those sources credible or not?
- What is the context?
- What biases are involved, including mine?
- What else might I need to understand?
Overthinking, especially in anxious moments, can be paralyzing. How can asking all of these questions help? Part of developing a skeptical attitude is moving through your questioning process and becoming comfortable with a conclusion that you come to. How do you know when you have enough information to stop analyzing and take action? That’s up to you. Within this process of logic, there are gaps, and those gaps are often filled with faith. You take the leaps that you’re comfortable with.
If new, surprising, or challenging claims pop up in your world (regardless of if they come from yourself or someone else), you’ll have a practical way to stay calm, assess the claim, and respond as best you can. But who am I to make these claims for a skeptical attitude? Don’t take my word for it, try it out for yourself.