In this paper I will argue that skepticism is one of the prerequisites of the contemporary progress as it helped modern science to succeed in many different spheres. My argument has two premises. First, I will argue that skepticism, if applied in the process of scientific research, improves the quality of the results and conclusions obtained during the study. Second, I will assert that skepticism leads to expansion of scientific research spheres that may result in important discoveries and appearance of new sciences. My conclusion is that without skepticism the modern science would not reach the current stage of development.
The modern world is created via doubt and negation that are the key features of skepticism. The most obvious illustration to this argument can be taken from the human ideas about the universe and its structure. In ancient times, different civilizations had various theories about the way the universe is built. Some, for example, believed that the Earth stood on the backs of the elephants that, in their turn, stood on the great turtle. Without doubting and thus without denying this idea scientists would never come to the conclusion that the Earth is a globe that rotates around the Sun, and later modern astronomers would not offer the Big Bang theory, and so on. Therefore, skepticism offered the basis for any type of the scientific progress and became the force that has managed to drastically change the human society.
To analyze why skepticism played such an important role in the scientific progress, it is necessary to pay more attention to defining this notion. Skepticism is a complex concept that cannot be fully described with a single definition. However, in almost all cases, philosophers agree that skepticism “involves doubt or at least reluctance to commit” (Greco, 2011). It is obvious that today, in the age of individualism, having personal opinion about different things and unwillingness to blindly follow somebody else’s instructions are treated as beneficial features, but, nevertheless, skepticism has not acquired totally positive image. Such attitude is rooted in the previous epochs of human development, especially in the Middle Ages, when asking to prove certain religious or political dogmas with evidence would be considered heresy or treason. However, in the eighteenth century, the European philosophic thought retuned to ancient ideas about skepticism and began to use it quite frequently. Usually skepticism is divided into three broad categories – philosophical, religious and scientific skepticism. Pyrrho of Elis and some other ancient scholars were at the roots of philosophical skepticism that is based on the idea of reaching wisdom through denying even obvious facts and searching for their true evidence and proof. Later their arguments were developed by Al-Ghazali in Arabic world and several centuries later by Descartes and other prominent scholars of the Age of Enlightenment. Religious skepticism refers to expressing doubts concerning certain religious theories, beliefs or claims. This approach should not be understood as the negation of religion. It is rather a process of finding real (in most cases historic and archeological) evidence to key religious events or figures. Scientific skepticism is quite close to the previous two types in terms of basic characteristics, but it is applied by scientists as the leading method for their researches. Finding evidence for everything they argue and checking the feasibility of any statement done by others is the main feature of scientific skepticism. All the above-mentioned types of skepticism played a very important role in the process of the scientific development. Philosophical skepticism offered relative constructive methodology and religious skepticism enabled scientists and researchers to escape from the limitations of theological dogmas.
Skepticism allowed scholars and philosophers to improve the quality of the scientific thought and thus enabled researchers to obtain better results in various spheres of knowledge. Descartes (n.d.) writes, “I was convinced of the necessity of undertaking once in my life to rid myself of all the opinions I had adopted, and of commencing anew the work of building from the foundation, if I desired to establish a firm and abiding superstructure in the sciences.” He argues that the lack of skepticism in his life led him to accepting many different false ideas that negatively influenced his outlook, the ability to judge things and make proper evaluations. Descartes states that it is necessary to use skepticism wisely and “deal with each belief individually” (Descartes, n.d.). The implementation of such careful and smart skepticism in the process of investigation can have a beneficial impact on the reliability of the conclusions made by the scientists.
However, some philosophers believe that skepticism can bring positive results in the scientific sphere only when the outcomes are related to theoretical aspects of the study as “the activities of ordinary life are sufficient to dispel skeptical doubt” (Greco, 2011). It may be also true that skepticism is able to lead scientists into the infinite circle of disbelief. This objection can be illustrated by an imaginative dialogue between the researcher and his skeptic self. The scientist makes an assumption and the skeptic asks why he thinks so. The former offers arguments and the latter inquires why the researcher believes these arguments to be true. It is obvious that this dialogue could be endless and, as a result, it is not productive.
These ideas concerning the negative influence of skepticism on the process of scientific research often hyperbolize the scale of doubt that makes scientists search the evidence of the existing facts or deny the established theories to build new ones. This approach cannot be applied to the realistic methods of research that are actually used in the laboratories. Moreover, the empiric method that results from skeptic approach to the facts and theories cannot question the obtained conclusions indefinitely. These objections can be, to a certain extent, denied with the help of their own instruments as the validity of skepticism as a valuable scientific tool can be also proved by the above-mentioned thesis about the ability of actual reality to dispel skeptic doubts. However, in this case, it should be applied to the stage where healthy skepticism turns into illogic and endless searches of truth.
Skepticism is especially significant for the scientific development due to its enormous “side effect”. Skeptic approach to the existing facts greatly expands the scope of scientific researches and makes scientists focus their attention on the spheres that did not seem “interesting” from the scientific perspective earlier. For example, at the beginning of his career, Wilhelm Röntgen aimed at proving that the methods of work with crystals did not give proper results and thus the information obtained with the help of these methods could not be considered reliable. His skepticism concerning this aspect allowed him to discover X-rays that, in fact, were not the main sphere of his research. This example illustrates the ability of skepticism as both scientific and philosophic method to make the scientists look beyond the established frames. The unwillingness to accept certain information may not only lead to discoveries, as mentioned above, but also result in expanding the sphere of using some particular scientific method. Before the twentieth century, linguistics remained rather closed sphere of knowledge without strong links to other disciplines, but searching for new sources of evidence scientists borrowed some methods from psychology and, as a result, a new branch of science that is called psycholinguistics appeared. Such expansions are, in many cases, repercussions of scientific skepticism.
However, the broadening of a scientific research can be seen as a negative factor. Dispersing of attention does not allow scientists to achieve impressive breakthrough in their particular sphere. Moreover, this expansion, resulting from skeptic desire to prove even the facts that seem quite reliable, may divert researchers’ attention from really important things. The research can be slowed down by unnecessary inclusion of irrelevant additional inquiries.
These objections are not groundless, but, despite insignificant drawbacks of this expansion, it brings a number of positive effects. First of all, skepticism stimulates constant refinement of the scientific process. Kenyon (2011) writes, “No matter how often skeptic’s concerns are pushed back, they inevitably pop back up with renewed intensity”. In other words, skepticism “is a discipline fit to purify the mind of prejudice and render it all the more apt, when the time comes, to believe and to act wisely” that cannot be considered negative in any aspect of the scientific research (Le Morvan, 2011).
In conclusion, skepticism, due to the wide range of its valuable qualities, facilitated the rapid development of modern science and created the basis for many important discoveries that changed the human society. This approach, in any of its forms, allows scientists to receive more reliable results in the process of their investigations as they do not blindly accept what was achieved before them. In addition, skepticism may significantly expand the frames of the research process that may lead to remarkable “side effect” discoveries and even open new fields of science. Therefore, skeptic approach, if used wisely, makes a crucial contribution to the development of humanity.