Skepticism is a Humble Project, Not a Bold Stance
September 2, 2014
Twenty one years ago this week I walked into my very first teaching assignment: full responsibility for the undergraduate course "Critical Thinking." I was barely older than my students, just 24 years old, a graduate student in Philosophy in my second year of studies. Down the hall from my student office was a door with the name Paul Kurtz still on it, as he had recently retired and remained emeritus in the UB Philosophy department. Most of what I knew of UB's Philosophy dept. before joining it was that Paul Kurtz was a member, a visible leader in worldwide skepticism and a local celebrity, entrepreneur - founder of magazines, a publishing company, and now a Center for Inquiry, located across the street from where I was now studying. At that time I knew little of the modern Humanist movement, but I was fully aware of the Skeptical Inquirer, and knew well I too was a skeptic. I knew too I was an atheist having never grown up in any relgious tradition nor having any belief in a deity. I felt excited to be in the department that had been Kurtz's home for so long, and to be in proximity of celebrity in philosophy.
Critical Thinking appealed to me as my first course teaching because practical logic, the use of well-tested tools for evaluating arguments, seemed to be the best way to undermine a creeping irrationality in the US, where religious fundamentalism had been pushing back against the Enlightenment for more than a decade. Teaching philosophy would become my dream and my life project from then on. Teaching brought out a sense of joy and wonder that nothing else ever could. There is a moment that everyone who teaches knows, where a certain spark of understanding alights in a student's eye. Sometimes it may happen to most of the class, sometimes perhaps just one bright student, maybe none. But we live for that moment. In philosophy, the understanding is not necessarily of some fact, some figure, some key philosopher or passage, but rather the liberation of our nascent ability to reason for ourselves. At the best of times, the student makes a challenging argument, confronts us, makes us realize something new, think differently about something we once thought of in only one way. At the heart of the skeptical project is this openness, this willingness to be challenged, this readiness to be tested, as important for the teacher as for any student.
Teaching taught me mostly everything I know, or think I know, or at least that I appreciate. It has also taught me that skepticism, science, and humanism (which I came to realize was closely aligned with my philosophical viewpoint) are not themselves complete philosophies. They too remain contingent, subject to change, open to interpretation, free of canon or catechism. Each day is a lesson, and the line between student and teacher, when we employ our facilities for reason, is necessarily thin or perhaps even non-existent. Education is an ongoing dialogue, and those of us lucky enough to make it our lives are, at the best of times, continuing our graduate school educations rather than recapitulating them. A decade after my first teaching experience, I was lucky enough to join Paul Kurtz's ongoing project, devoting five years to education and learning outside the academy, before rejoining the academy again. I believe those lines must dissolve too. The modern university, as with the world of non-profits, is under constant threat to its mission. Exploration for the sake of it, without regard to profit, productivity, fame, or other such rewards, this is what the project of skepticism demands. This is why we must continue to look for sea monsters, ETs, and specters just as surely as we must develop and explore arguments and evidence of deities wherever they may be. The project is never complete. When we become rigid, close our eyes and minds to possibilities, and take skepticism as a stance rather than a project or method, we do little more than adopt a belief system just as questionable as any religious one. The best skeptics and humanists are at their core critical thinkers, abiding by logic, and following the evidence where it leads.