This article was first published in volume 14 of the 'Skeptical Intelligencer', 2011, pp.10-14.
Unlike classical scepticism, modern popular scepticism assumes that the material world - reality - exists (though we are part of it), even though we can only know that world through the medium of our senses, and that as our observations of the world accumulate we come closer to knowing and understanding the nature of the 'real world'. New knowledge may confirm our explanations or understanding of the world, but also drives the search for 'better explanations', explanations that account for the sum total of our existing knowledge. This characterises our psychological development as individuals and the way most of us go about our everyday business: we are all 'seekers after truth'. It also characterises the scientific method. Hence there is nothing essentially different about how scientists approach their work and how we are all able to successfully conduct our daily life. Yet we tend to perceive scientists and their activities as separate from that of the rest of society and some people afford them special derision for claiming that they are discovering the truth or reality of our material world, rather than their own version of it. I suggest that this may have something to do with the power and dominance that scientists have in our society and the need by others to oppose that power.
When human beings first looked up at the sky on a clear night they would have seen, of course, thousands of points of light, most of which we now call stars or galaxies. They would have wondered what these points of light were, and one of the things they would immediately observe is that they vary in brightness from clear to very faint. They would have been curious about this and would have asked why this was so. They would want to explain what they observed.
What explanations would these people have come up with? Bright stars are bigger than faint ones or they are nearer to us, or both. These explanations would be the most obvious to the observers and find most agreement amongst them. Why would that be so? Because they are consistent with what those people had already learned about their world: nearer objects and bigger objects, in general, tend to appear brighter.
Let us allow our ancestors to continue their nocturnal explorations. As they continued to gaze at the stars they would soon realise that everything was moving across the sky. How would they explain that? As simply as possible in terms of what they already knew. Either the stars orbited around the Earth or the Earth itself rotated. They would also observe that a handful of 'stars' moved in rather eccentric ways. They called these objects 'planets'; they would continue observing them and they would attempt to explain their motion from their existing knowledge and understanding, eventually concluding that the planets, including the Earth, orbited the Sun.
To achieve all this and much more, it is important that there were people around who had the motivation and the curiosity to observe everything about the world. They must also have had the motivation to wonder, to ask questions about what they observed and to search for answers and explanations. Moreover, they must have attempted, whenever possible, to base those explanations upon what they already knew and understood about the world and only to infer the existence of other, unobserved entities and processes when there was no alternative. Finally it was necessary that they kept observing - collecting more and more evidence - and checking whether the evidence was consistent with existing explanations and, if not, amending these so that they were consistent with the evidence.
There is also something more fundamental behind all of this. Our ancestors would at an early stage have been implicitly aware that what each of them saw when they looked up at the night sky was also seen by everyone else with intact vision. And another thing they would quickly surmise was that the external world existed when they were not around to experience it. For one thing the night sky would still be there the next time they looked, and for another, many things that did disappear would reappear later - viz. the Sun, the Moon, the stars and other heavenly bodies. Also when they weren't attending to it, other people evidently were:
Ug to Umph: 'Did you see the Moon last night, Ug?'. Umph to Ug: 'No, Ug, I was too busy sharpening my flint stones'. Ug to Umph: 'I saw it. It's getting smaller again!'
Was the Moon in fact as Ug described it? Perhaps he was dreaming, or lying or getting confused with the previous night's sighting. If Umph had such doubts he could ask other people who were also star-gazing that night. Like everyone else, Umph had learned he could have more confidence in 'a statement of fact' about the world if other observers corroborated it.
Now these ways of understanding and explaining the world did not simply operate for the purposes of gazing at the night sky. They applied to all daily activities. Our ancestors would come to understand that some things that they saw, heard, smelt, tasted and touched, such as the thoughts in their head or the dreams they had when they were asleep, were experienced by no one else, but that most of what, to them, existed in their external world was experienced by other people also. Indeed if they did see or hear something that was denied by everyone else, they would doubt its existence and believe instead that they were probably mistaken in some way.
Thus, in general they would understand that the material world existed independently of them: there was such a thing as 'external reality'. Indeed, had our ancestors behaved in the main according to other principles it would often have been at the expense of their very survival. Instead of this, they were 'seekers of the truth' about their world, and the best means of doing this would be by the process outlined earlier, namely continually observing the world, gathering more and more information - knowledge - about it, sharing it, and attempting whenever possible to explain and predict it on the basis of what they already knew and understood. And this applies to human behaviour to this day.
'Isn't all of this far too idealistic?' you may say. Isn't it the case that people think and behave much of the time in irrational ways? What about religious beliefs and practices, political ideologies, supernatural ideas, superstitions, prejudice, and intuitive thinking? All of these refer to significant ways in which people think about the world and explain and predict what happens in it, but in many ways they are not underpinned by the assumptions and rules outlined in the previous paragraph. My point is that most of us are competent to think and behave in the manner described. We do so implicitly much of the time and this is to our advantage, but there are occasions, for example where we rely on 'intuition', when it may not offer us the best way of dealing with a situation.
We left our ancestors still gazing in wonderment at the sky and arriving at the point of realising that one aspect of reality is that the Earth is part of what they came to call 'the solar system'. Thus, this process of making observations, explaining what is observed, and putting the explanations to the test continued down the centuries. For example, we now know that there are in the universe billions of stars that cluster in billions of galaxies and, most recently, that many stars have their own planetary systems.
Now, before people ever reached the point of even establishing the existence of our solar system, important changes had been taking place. The pivotal and most far-reaching of these was that the observations that were being made became more and more detailed. This process accelerated when the means of making the observations became increasingly sophisticated, notably by the construction of telescopes that became ever more powerful (and, for observing small things, microscopes). It is this increasing accumulation of knowledge about the world that drives the search for 'better' explanations.
The second development inevitably follows from the above. The means of arriving at the explanations to account for the expanding body of evidence became increasingly complex, requiring not just everyday reasoning and logic but highly sophisticated mathematics. The same applies to the explanations themselves.
There is another inevitable development. To begin with, like our friends Ug and Umph, nearly everyone could gaze at the sky and understand that the varying brightness of the stars might be due to their size, distance or both, observe their movement and wonder whether they were orbiting the Earth or whether the Earth itself was rotating, and so on. However, most people would not have the time to pursue this activity in any great depth. Like Umph (Ug appears to be more fortunate in this respect) they would have more pressing demands on their time, such as ensuring they had enough food to survive. Likewise, as the explanations for what was happening in the world became increasingly complex, fewer and fewer people would have the ability and the knowledge to devise them, fully understand them, and engage in the painstaking task of evaluating their validity. (In passing it may be noted that certain spheres of scientific enquiry, such as astronomy, palaeontology and ornithology, attract many 'amateur scientists'. Their activities characteristically involve a great deal of observation and the collecting of information rather than providing explanations to account for the information gathered.)
Accordingly, these activities gradually came to be confined to a smaller proportion of the population (the descendants of Ug maybe), particularly as the spheres of knowledge became more and more specialised. Thus we see the gradual rise of an important minority, a group of people in our community whose activities we call 'science' and whom we call 'scientists'.
There is yet another significant development to note. The explanations and theories offered by scientists became not only less obvious to most people but also sometimes even at odds with their everyday experience and understanding of the world ('common sense'). For example, at least until relatively recently, the daily experience of most people did not immediately suggest that the Earth on which they lived was a sphere that rotated on its axis and orbited the Sun. In fact it would seem to people (because it was consistent with their everyday understanding) to be more likely that the Earth is flat and stationary: if it were round and spinning, surely we would feel it?
There is much more. Surely objects differing in weight fall to the ground at different speeds? What about a massive object made of solid steel that's put to sea? Surely it would immediately sink to the seabed? As for such an object being able to leave the ground and stay in the air, until relatively recently no one would ever have given this a thought! In the time scale of the history of our species, only the equivalent of a second ago have we become able to have a conversation with another person beyond a short distance. Before then, the notion would have been incomprehensible to any person.
All of this seems to contradict what I said earlier, namely that the means that people - not just scientists - have adopted for establishing 'reality' is to attempt to explain their world from their existing knowledge and understanding. It appears that there is a gaping chasm between everyday 'common-sense' ways of thinking about the world and the scientific method.
This apparent contradiction may be resolved as follows. Any theory must explain, or be consistent with, as much of the knowledge and information that is available at any time. Now the body of information that science has to account for is far greater than that available to us in our everyday life. Consequently it is not always immediately obvious to us why we should accept what scientists say is likely to be true, especially when this contradicts ideas and beliefs that have stood us in good stead as we go about our daily business. Even so, through the dissemination of scientific knowledge generally and its everyday applications, we have all indeed come to view our world in ways that go beyond what would in previous times have been sufficient for our basic requirements. For instance, nowadays many of us are able to have the experience of long-distance travel, likewise to see for ourselves photographs of the Earth from satellites and spaceships that confirm to us that it is indeed a rotating sphere. Moreover, for human beings in the modern world to function effectively, one requirement is the constant movement of people and commodities between places as far apart as the planet allows. For this to happen, with all of the benefits it bestows upon us, we cannot afford to believe that the Earth is flat and at some stage in our travels we risk falling over the edge. Similarly we would be restricted in what we could achieve in our lives if we continued to believe that a heavy metal object could not float on the sea or travel vast distances in the sky. The belief that it is possible to converse with another person beyond a short distance is not something that would have had any relevance to our ancestor's survival. But now, even as children, we soon learn that this is an everyday reality and brings us many advantages. Indeed it does sometimes have survival value, as on those unfortunate occasions when we have to telephone the emergency services.
Even so, scientific claims continue to contradict our everyday experience, viz.: that we can deduce the chemical composition of stars - something that the philosopher Auguste Comte (The Positive Philosophy, 1842) predicted would never be possible; that an object with mass warps both space and time around it; that a solid object like a brick consists almost entirely of empty space; and that before it is observed, a subatomic particle may be in more than one place at the same time, or indeed everywhere.
Such claims are the inevitable consequence of the relentless accumulation of knowledge about our world and the efforts of scientists to account for all that is known, but not the consequence of their adopting methods of thinking that are particularly unusual or different from everyday methods. Nevertheless it is certainly true that scientific enquiry demands that the methods prescribed be rigorously applied and other ways of thinking that are common in everyday life - religious, supernatural, superstitious, prejudicial, and so on - be rejected. That our knowledge of our world advanced so slowly through centuries can be seen to result from a failure to do this and even now, these impediments are at times in evidence.
From all I have said it would appear that scientists are an elite group who claim the expertise and the knowledge to inform us of important truths about the world we live in, about ourselves, about how we originated and what is our place in the Universe, what is its likely destiny, and very importantly what isn't true about all these things. This claim to be able to interpret on our behalf our world, our lives, our experiences, what is best for us, what is wrong with us when we are ill in mind and body, what the remedies are, and so on is a claim to power. And scientists now are very powerful.
Consider the following. I say to you that I believe in the Big Bang theory of the origin of the Universe. I also believe in the theory of evolution by natural selection. In both cases I have done my best to understand what these theories are saying and how they have been derived and tested and I have found nothing that contradicts my very limited knowledge of relevant matters. Nevertheless I have to admit that what really persuades me to accept them is the fact that the overwhelming consensus amongst scientists is that in general terms they are almost certainly correct. It is also clear to me that many other people think in the same way as me. So, you might say that for most of us, science is a matter of faith; we put our trust in the scientists as individuals and we trust in the validity of their observations and their methods of interpreting them.
One may want to add to this that scientists have power with accountability. The world community of scientists is large enough to ensure that, through the process of constantly putting theories and explanations to the test, eventually the ones that are most likely to be valid will be the accepted ones, while those that fail are discredited and discarded.
How can we be confident about the above assertion? This is not a question I shall address directly here. For present purposes I am making the case that there is nothing so special about science that it has to be treated as something different from the rest of human activity or that unique criticisms apply to those thus engaged. I am particularly interested in why some people are so keen to doubt the claim that scientific enquiry progresses towards a better understanding of reality.
As I have stated we all assume that there is a material reality that exists independently of us and is present when we are not around to observe it. As we grow up we observe more and more of the world - directly, or indirectly from others. We make the reasonable assumption that the more we observe of the world the closer we are to discovering 'the truth' about it - what is real and what isn't. Unless what we learn about the world contradicts what we previously understood about it - how we have explained it - we tend to hold on to our explanations; otherwise increasing knowledge forces us to search for better explanations, those that account for the sum total of our existing knowledge. Thus our explanations of our everyday world are not, if we think about them carefully, just like pieces of flotsam, tossed here and there, willy-nilly, by the winds and tides of social convention, attitudes and fashions. Any movement is in response to increasing knowledge; and although as a result we may leave some of our ideas and beliefs behind us, we carry our knowledge with us, or at least we should do.
I am talking now not just of 'science' but of everyday life. Much of the time we are all trying to establish what 'the truth' is: what is reality. Implicitly or explicitly we are constantly asking ourselves and others questions: 'Has the postman been yet?; 'How much have I in my bank account?'; 'Has Joe Bloggs left his wife?'; 'What is that curious noise my car is making?'; 'Is crime on the increase in my area?' and so on. And we set about seeking answers to our questions.
Now, have you ever been to Madagascar? No? Are you seriously concerned about whether it really exists? Maybe if you're a philosopher you are, but the rest of us are happy to accept that it does, even though we have never been near the place. Others have. They bring back pictures and films of it and geographers put it on every map that you see. The best sense that I can make of all this is that there is indeed an island called Madagascar off the east coast of Africa. It's 'reality'.
We constantly rely on other people for information, including answers to our questions, when they have greater knowledge than we do and, in that sense, are in a position of 'power' vis à vis ourselves. If I want to know if Joe Bloggs has left his wife I ask those who have seen him recently. If I want to know what's wrong with my car I consult a car mechanic, if it's my boiler I'll ask a plumber, if it's my electricity supply, an electrician, and so on. Many people earn their living by seeking or communicating 'the truth' in areas in which they have more knowledge than most: teachers, journalists, policemen, lawyers, doctors and allied professionals, estate agents (oh yes!), and historians, to name but a few. Of course we do not say they must therefore always be right. We have the reasonable belief that they are better able than us to establish the truth and that what they tell us is likely to be 'closer to reality' than what 'non-experts' say and indeed it may be, for all intents and purposes, 'reality'. If those with superior knowledge on some matter disagree amongst themselves (as they often do) we don't assume they are all correct; we ask, 'Who is right and who is wrong?' If, say an electrician tells me that the fault with my boiler lies in my water system and, having already consulted a plumber, I am satisfied that this is not so, I disagree with him on the assumption that his knowledge of my boiler is incomplete or faulty in some way. This was indeed the case on one occasion I have in mind when, eventually, a 'second opinion' electrician detected and rectified the problem.
There is nothing deeply philosophical about this little domestic drama; I did not feel it relevant to engage the first electrician in a discourse about the meaning of reality. He was wrong and the plumber and second electrician were right (at some cost, I may say, to our household finances!).
We can ask interesting questions about whether ultimately there is a material world that would still exist if we were not present. We can acknowledge that we only ever experience that world through our senses and ask if there is a reality that therefore escapes us. There are people whom we deem to be out of touch with reality because something in the way their nervous system is structured or functions is different from 'the normal brain', and then ask how we know that 'the normal brain' is itself 'in touch with reality'. We can ask if we are like virtual reality machines (as when we are dreaming), 'reality out there' being an illusion, and if so, how we would know. We can be aware of how different societies and communities have differing ideas and beliefs about 'the real world' and ask important questions about our own interpretations about 'the real world'. Classical scepticism would ask these questions but they are not usually the concern of modern, popular scepticism.
What the latter should and, in fact, does acknowledge is that many so-called 'factual' questions that are posed about human behaviour and experience are indeed loaded with cultural and socio-historical assumptions and would not be asked, or would be expressed differently, in other societies or at other times, past and future, in our own society. For example, recently I have been asked, 'Can hypnosis make you do things against your will?' The most sensible response to this kind of question is to deconstruct it and try to understand how people come to ask it in the first place, an exercise that would probably fill an entire book. Similar questions and statements from my recent professional work are: 'Is ADHD a genetic disease?'; 'Cognitive therapy for chronic fatigue syndrome'; and any sentence containing the expression 'autistic spectrum disorder'. It is concerning these kinds of issues that what I have said about science and objective reality becomes untenable and which require a sceptical analysis (see also Brian Robinson's review of Aping Mankind in this issue).
In summary, popular scepticism assumes that there is such a thing as objective reality and we are able to move closer to understanding and explaining it by acquiring more information about it and making logical deductions from what we learn. This applies to each individual as he or she grows and matures and it applies to the way we go about our daily business, pursue our interests, carry on our work, and so on. It applies to science as well. Hence there is nothing essential about science and scientists that is discontinuous with everyday life. Why then the urge to challenge the idea that scientists endeavour to discover the truth about our material world? I think part of it may relate to what I said earlier about scientists now being a very powerful elite. Inevitably, people will want to oppose that power and they will do so for good reasons and bad. This becomes very obvious with matters that are of profound relevance to our beliefs about the origins of life and the universe itself, and thus impinge on matters of religion and personal philosophy. But more of that at another time.