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Our Kind of Skepticism

Dr. Trevor in Evenings with the Skeptics: Free Discussion on Free thinkers, pp. 34-5.

I come lastly to a third type of intellect, in which Twofold Truth presents itself in a moderate and altogether commendable shape; in which the disparity is not so much antagonistic as complementary, and the result of its functions is not disunion and hostility so much as a broad comprehensive solidarity. For our purpose we may call intellects of this class ‘dual-sighted’ or ‘two- eyed.’ … This ‘double-sighted man’ is by no means the synonym of the nickname common in Puritan history, ‘Mr. Facing-both-ways.’ It rather implies the possession of faculties which enable the observer to see every object in the solid, substantial manner, in the full relief, and with the true perspective that pertain essentially to all double vision. It is the instinctive power and tendency to discern a specific object or a given truth not merely as it is in itself or in one of its prima facie aspects, but in its completeness as a whole and relatively to all its surroundings. We see this quality in the artist who simultaneously with the perception of an object also sees all its different phases as well as its relations to surrounding objects; or again in the general who apprehends by a single glance of his mental vision all the characteristics, bad as well as good, of a given position or military movement. So the philosophers I speak of catch every truth or doctrine, not in its simple and uniform, but in its complex biform or multiform aspect. They are men to whom every affirmation suggests, if only as a possibility, a negative; who intuitively meet every dogmatic pronouncement with an objection, just as a painter infers shadow from light. These are the men who in my judgment have rendered the best service to the progress of knowledge by their comprehensive vision, their cautious Skeptical attitude, their fearless criticism. …

Twofold vision is a frequent if not inseparable concomitant of Skepticism. Nor can we say that this combination of thorough search with caution is needless in the domain of religious speculation. We must remember that there are questions so closely allied with man’s highest interests that for that reason alone no assertion respecting them, no matter what its nature, is likely to be accepted as final by a thoughtful mind. The questions, e.g. of man’s origin and destiny, the origin of the universe, &c. are continually recurring problems which like uneasy ghosts refuse to be laid. In such cases of inherent difficulty the assertion of a dogmatic judgment by means of a creed imparts but little definitive assurance. The assertion may be provisional and imperfect — possibly the outcome of an inferior state of knowledge — but the problems themselves are eternal. Assent may be yielded as a matter of faith, but the question as an object of demonstration may not be a whit nearer solution. No sooner are the words spoken, the dogma avouched, than the after-process of reflection sets in. Thinkers of this kind treat their creeds like a ruminating animal treats its food. It is again masticated and once more swallowed, perhaps both processes being more than once repeated, before final deglutition and assimilation take place, if indeed they ever do. So on the heels of creeds and dogmas pronouncing authoritatively on all the great matters of human concernment, treads, if not doubt, yet inquisitiveness and curiosity, an eagerness to scan what is beyond human vision.

Nor again does this Skeptical retrospection necessarily imply a disbelief of the dogmas to which it is directed; it may even coexist with an undoubting conviction of their truth. Just as we find men who evince the utmost resolution in all the practical matters of life, but whose determinations are followed by misgiving and a kind of theoretical uncertainty, so in speculation the assertion of an undoubted deliberately formed opinion may be accompanied or followed by after-criticism, which is no more than the spontaneous discharge of intellectual energy. Guicciardini, e.g. an essentially ‘double-sighted’ man, tells us that all his most important actions, even when performed with the utmost deliberation, were invariably followed by a sort of repentance and retrospective criticism. The attitude of such men to asserted truth seems to be of this kind. Knowing by experience the infinite possibilities that beset all declared truth, they are apt to say of certain convictions, ‘I believe this and will continue to believe it,’ and yet suppose the other should be the truth. The reason is that in all subjects in which pros and cons are nearly balanced the deliberate adoption of one alternative does not annihilate the grounds of the other. The uncertainty banished from the subject still continues to exist in the object. Perhaps the discarded alternative will present itself to the consciousness in a more winning guise than before. It may appeal ad misericordiam, as a rejected conclusion when the grounds of such rejection were admittedly not overpowering. Thus the native hue of conviction as well as ‘resolution’ may be ‘sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,’ and, if I may be allowed a further paraphrase, it may happen that

Determinations of great pith and moment,
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the outward semblance of belief.

A singular feature in some minds of this class is that their doubt is frequently caused not by a defect but by an excess of demonstration. They are repelled by what seems to them an abnormal and unnatural amount of proof. They are dazed and half blinded by the glare of sunshine. Men of this type are met in every department of thought where elaborate ratiocination and recondite speculation are as a rule necessary precursors to the formation of conviction. I have known, e.g. men in my own profession who invariably regard with suspicion a diagnosis in which all the conditions are unmistakably plain and obvious. They instinctively ask, May there not be some hidden cause, some obscure but most important symptom, that I have overlooked? The problem seems too easy, the conclusion too glaringly obvious, to be acceptable. We observe the same characteristic in lawyers, detectives, and others conversant with criminal procedure, and accustomed to disentangle long and intricate chains of evidence. Present to a man of this character a case of extreme simplicity, in which every part of the evidence is marked by undeniable cogency, and he is immediately offended. It is too clear and unmistakable to be natural. He does not perceive the obscure intimations, the indirect hints, on the elucidation of which he especially prides himself. With the cessation of perplexity ceases also his personal interest. Such men seem to value truth not by its plainness but by its obscurity, just as hieroglyphic and similar inscriptions are estimated by the difficulty of their
decipherment. …

The energizing principle in such characters is in the inverse ratio of their reflective power. Profound meditation on what is simple, obvious, and direct has an obscuring and distrustful effect. No doubt the tendency is much more common in speculation than in action. The directness of a belief or conviction, while it equally deters him who thinks ‘too precisely on the event,’ has not that imperative, urgent character that an obvious duty presents. There is more scope for delay and reiterated consideration; in other words, for the indulgence of the thinker’s favourite passion.