Skepticism, Belief, Doubt, & Evidence – Values of the Wise

image by John Hain

We all believe some things without sufficient (or, perhaps “good”) evidence to support the belief. It is often innocuous—”My son is going to win his game this Saturday!”, or “Our financial problems will get better, don’t worry, honey”, or “Go Pats!”. However, belief without evidence is highly questionable.

My wife is a firm believer in Jesus Christ, the Holy Ghost, and all that. I would say she is in the top 5% of believers for how well she researches Scripture, thinks things through, and is willing to part from Catholic Church orthodoxy. So I can respect her—especially since her beliefs are not rigid or outrageous.

I’m not terribly sure if she is a devout believer in God because she was raised by a mother who was very church-oriented, or because she needs that security and comfort and guidance in her life, or because God exists and does indeed have a relationship with her. I will probably never know.

Be that as it may, it is true (in my opinion) that a lot of religious believers believe without sufficient evidence. And, I think they need to ask themselves if faith is enough to carry the day. If it is enough, then great. But I would assume in about 80% of cases, people “go out on an intellectual limb” with their religious beliefs, their faith in unseen and unconfirmed spiritual phenomena, and that could lead to a fall that really hurts someday.


However, I do want to say that it’s not appropriate for a person to be totally devoid of emotion, or faith, or beliefs that are “gut instincts” and “just feel right.” To do so would be to take absolutely no risks with their belief system. We have to believe in some things, to some degree, that are not 100.00% sure in order to make it through a typical day. That those drivers are going to stop when our light turns green, for example. Or that we are not going to be raped, murdered, made destitute, get into a life-changing accident, or be destroyed by a nuclear blast… Or that goodness is better than greed, that love is risky but worth it, or that creative endeavors will turn out well in the end (according to our unique calculus for risk vs. reward when creating art).

As to believing, seeing, being moved … poetry is a case in point. A skillful poet writing in an area we are primed to “feel deeply about can bring us to reach certain conclusions that are beyond what the raw/intellectual evidence merits. This is, in part, because of the beauty of the wording, imagery, or concepts a poet describes. I know I have been moved to tears by many songs and movies, and occasionally a poem strikes deeply into my heart.

It is good to be inspired! All that we experience/sense with our five senses is not all there is to the universe. Some things are indeed transcendental—be it nature-inspired, or some value such as truth, beauty, goodness, justice, love, etc.


Indeed, a life without beauty would be drab and insipid indeed. No one wants to live like an android.

But remember, one can experience a hell of a lot of beauty, and gain a lot of insight, and even get a hold of some degree of wisdom without firmly believing in all that much. Probably in that order….

Indeed, we need to leave room for wonder; for a sense that there is much that we just simply don’t know. To have some kind of hope without going so far as to have one’s mind twisted by emotionally appealing things that don’t hold water.


My thesis is:

Belief in some research finding, orthodoxy, ideology, etc. should, by and large, be apportioned based on what the balance of solid, dispassionately-perceived evidence indicates.


It’s no coincidence that I’m thinking about this on the day after the 2022 midterm elections. In this article, one can see the fact that “The New York Times recently examined statements made by Republican candidates in all 50 states to track how skepticism of the 2020 election had permeated the Republican Party, despite the lack of evidence of any widespread voter fraud. The analysis identified more than 370 candidates who cast doubt in some way on the 2020 election.”

The facts based on the evidence are that, as the Times put it, “Joe Biden won 7 million more votes and 74 more electors than Mr. Trump did in the last presidential election. Judges across the nation rejected attempts by Mr. Trump and his allies to dispute the results.”

Link to the article

“Most election skeptics sowed doubt,” The Times indicates, “by suggesting, sometimes again and again, that there were irregularities or unresolved questions about the way the election was conducted, or by saying that further investigation was needed.”

The upshot: “Of those skeptics in the Times analysis, more than half have won their races, according to results so far, and most of them were elected to House seats.”


The GOP must change, Vox maintains


This is a very scary thing, indeed. But the way I feel about the modern Republican Party and millions of Americans who I consider to be terribly extreme, not well-informed, very emotional, and not unwilling to use violence to get their political ideological goals met aside, there is something to be learned here when it comes to how evidence should undergird belief.

Think about it: the number of things conservatives, neo-cons, neo-fascists, white supremacists, election deniers, conspiracy buffs, ideological extremists, and right-wing terrorists belief that are not supported by sufficient evidence in favor of the belief is astonishing.

Yes, the Republican Party is almost Orwellian now, and with folks like Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, Joe McCarthy, J. Edgar Hoover, Richard Nixon, George W. Bush, Donald Trump, Alex Jones, and Steve Bannon playing very significant roles in said Party over the last 75 years, it is easy to see how so many Americans have for decades been bamboozled, tricked, manipulated, disinformed, cowed, and hornswoggled into believing some untrue—and at times looney and repugnant—stuff.

Stuff that does not comport with a very positive, humane, humanistic, even Christian set of aspirations and values. Certainly not stuff that we fought and died in wars for (well, The Confederacy aside…).


illustrative NPR story called How the Republican Party came to believe in conspiracy theories and election denialism


George H. Smith said the following quite brilliantly:

Reason and faith are opposites; two mutually exclusive terms; there is no reconciliation or common ground. Faith is belief without, or in spite of, reason.


So, yes, I do tend to think that religious believers and right-wing political extremists and die-hard conservatives tend to believe a lot that is hokum, bogus, false, unprovable, unsubstantiated, incorrect, and wrong-headed. Some of the stuff they are into is downright pernicious, even dangerous.

But the other 60% of Americans (and 85% of developed/democratic nations) believe false things—things not supported by a preponderance of well-vetted evidence—as well.

Cognitive biases are critically important to know about, so here is a ridiculously detailed and complete list, in case you’re not very familiar with them. The upshot is that we all have ways our brains are gullible, mistaken about facts we feel sure about, jump to conclusions, prejudge, act to hastily, etc. etc.

And, the opposite seems true: if you are against a belief, you can justify it pretty easily (the brain has “subconscious” aspects to it, and arrives at conclusions extremely quickly). George Will put it this way:

“Someone who is determined to disbelieve something can manage to disregard an Everest of evidence for it.”



The best way to avoid bias and false belief is to doubt, use proper skepticism, accept that you don’t know everything, tolerate ambiguity, and face facts you don’t feel great about.


Americans have very little understanding and empathy for those on the other side of the political/cultural/ideological spectrum, study shows


In sum, I think that we are in a place in American society nowadays where the stakes are really very high when it comes to people believing things that just cannot be substantiated by neutral, value-free, proper evidence. In fact, one definition of facts is “properly justified true belief”.

If you want to believe in something because it makes you feel good, that is fine. I do that to some degree myself. I know that the rational power of the human brain is not infallible, and so there are things that, as Helen Keller would say, can be seen not with the eyes, but with the heart. Perhaps some of the highest aspirational, most transcendent, most beautiful things cannot exactly be perceived and “known” with the “largely-cognitive centers of the brain.”

But remember: the human prefrontal cortex is very powerful, and should be put to maximum use. This requires some training—like any other mental faculty worth developing. We are not born being excellent decision-makers, perceivers of truth, or scientists.

In fact, science is a method of trying to harness the power of the brain while not falling victim to some of the pitfalls and foibles that plague it. It’s not perfect….but why? The answer: because it is a tool in the hands of human beings, and since we are so damned fallible, we often get science wrong. Even Isaac Newton, brilliant and impactful as he was, believed in religion big-time, and also liked astrology and alchemy. Yep, you read that right.


blog about skepticism, doubt, and truth


So the wise counsel us to really think things through. And to consider the incredibly deep and expansive human intellectual powers to be like a horse that can take us far, but which can be wild, unruly, and headstrong, as well!

The wise try to avoid making obvious, predictable, typical, damaging decisions in life. And this certainly includes believing in things for which there is not sufficient warrant (that is, reason to believe; compelling evidence).


And now I will share a number of quotations about skepticism, evidence, belief, facts, truth, etc. I think help to illustrate and bolster my points (and you are invited to search The Wisdom Archive here on Values of the to find more [for free, and ad-free!]):


“The experience of doubt in a heterogeneous, cosmopolitan world is a bit like being lost in a forest, unendingly beckoned by a thousand possible routes. …The initial horror of being lost utterly disappears when you come to believe fully that there is no town out there, beyond the forest, to which you are headed.” ~ Jennifer Michael Hecht

“Skepticism is the chastity of the intellect, and it is shameful to surrender it too soon or to the first comer; there is nobility in preserving it coolly and proudly through long youth, until at last, in the ripeness of instinct and discretion, it can be safely exchanged for fidelity and happiness. ” ~ George Santayana

“Do not allow yourselves to be deceived: great minds are skeptical.” ~ Friedrich Nietzsche

Over time we acquire a lot of information, and from it we create a set of assumptions about the way things are— beliefs about what is true and not true if we come across a statement that clashes with this body of already-acquired information, we tend to greet it with skepticism because it conflicts with all this other information that we have come to trust. ~ Copthorne Macdonald


“I genuinely believe that the American republic as a system of government, built on a fabric of certain political norms and social trust, is deeply imperiled for the first time in my lifetime.” ~ David Michael Green

“Learn from science that you must doubt the experts. As a matter of fact, I can also define science another way: Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.” ~ Richard P. Feynman

“Skepticism is not the tedious insistence that “you can’t be certain of anything in this world”; it is not merely excessive caution in the face of the necessity to believe. Rather, skepticism reflects deep structural truths about our faculties for knowing—particularly, the relationship between evidence and fact. Our reasons for belief can be alarmingly removed from what we believe in.” ~ Colin McGinn


Scientific thinking favors humility over pride, doubt over certainty, curiosity over closure.” ~ Adam Grant

“The fact that people have religious experiences is interesting from the psychological point of view, but it does not in any way imply that there is such a thing as religious knowledge…Unless he can formulate this ‘knowledge’ in propositions that are empirically verifiable, we may be sure that he is deceiving himself.” ~ A. J. Ayer


What’s up with the Republicans? Have they no sense that their policies have sent the country hurtling down the road to ruin? Are they so divorced from reality that in their delusionary state they honestly believe that we need more of their tax cuts for the rich and their other forms of plutocratic irresponsibility — the very things that got us into this deplorable state? ~ Bob Hebert


“In layperson’s terms, critical thinking consists of seeing both sides of an issue, being open to new evidence that disconfirms your ideas, reasoning dispassionately, demanding that claims be backed by evidence, deducing and inferring conclusions from available facts, solving problems, and so forth.” ~ Daniel T. Willingham

“Sometimes, I think the whole disaster with the Trump presidency is because of a breakdown in intellectual virtue, a breakdown in America’s inability to face evidence clearly, to pay due respect to the concrete contours of reality. These intellectual virtues may seem elitist, but once a country tolerates dishonesty, incuriosity, and intellectual laziness, everything else falls apart.” ~ David Brooks

“When considering the truth of a proposition, one is either engaged in an honest appraisal of the evidence and logical arguments, or one isn’t. Religion is one area of our lives where people imagine that some other standard of intellectual integrity applies.” ~ Sam Harris

Within our system of government, every American has a right and a duty to help shape the future course of the United States. Thoughtful criticism and close scrutiny of all government officials by the press and the public are an important part of our democratic society. Now as in our past, only the understanding and involvement of the people through full and open debate can help to avoid serious mistakes and assure the continued dignity and safety of the nation. ~ Jimmy Carter



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