The Limits of Critical Inquiry

Critical thinking is a good thing, but the fact of the matter is most of the thinking we do is rather un-critical. We might behave skeptically towards claims we view as extraordinary or pseudo-scientific, but a majority of the beliefs we hold are never examined with the same level of scrutiny. This is rather necessary, as the foundations of our beliefs are rather tricky, if not impossible, to pin down (as anybody who has ever dealt with an inquisitive child can probably attest to). To borrow a term from W. V. Quine, our worldviews are probably best described as a coherent web of belief. Those things that we hold true are judged to be true on the merit of how well they coincide with the other beliefs that we hold[1].

However, it’s unclear how coherent these webs of belief actually are. We know that people often hold contradictory beliefs (e.g. certain scientific and religious beliefs, or certain emotional and rational beliefs), and because of this, we tend to avoid examination of those beliefs that are tangled up in the middle of the web [2]. The result is that it’s easy to critically examine new concepts that press up against the boundaries of the web (though not everybody does), but it’s a lot more difficult to critically examine those beliefs that are at the heart of our system of beliefs.

One such belief is that we are fundamentally good and rational agents, and that if put in a situation where we were asked to harm another individual, we would refuse. Of course, anybody who’s familiar with the historical Milgram experiment knows, this isn’t necessarily the case. I’ve always found the experiment to be interesting, and was quite happy to stumble across a more modern recreation of the experiment on YouTube. The experiment was re-created for the BBC documentary How Violent Are You?

To get a better understanding of the experiment, you can watch the following videos:
Milgram’s Obedience to Authority Experiment 2009 1/3
Milgram’s Obedience to Authority Experiment 2009 2/3
Milgram’s Obedience to Authority Experiment 2009 3/3

The successful reproduction of Milgram’s famous experiment shows how unlikely it is that the original test was biased, or the results coincidental. The exact same test yields similar results time and again.

The Milgram experiment, and various similar experiments prove that we are not necessarily in complete control of our ability to reason through every situation — despite what we would like to believe. I think this is an important lesson for skeptics. It re-enforces the idea that skepticism is a method; not a worldview that imbues all of our thoughts and ideas with the Truth. It also reminds us that nobody has a primarily skeptical worldview, regardless of critical they believe themselves to be.

[1] This isn’t to imply that all truth is relative; merely that our concept of truth is not a foundational one.
[2] This isn’t always a bad thing. In order for us to be able to function, we must always have faith in certain beliefs. For example, that the ground will still be there when we put our foot down to take our next step.

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  • Mitchell Gerskup

    Mitchell Gerskup recently graduated from the University of Toronto with a degree in Economics and Philosophy. An avid atheist and skeptic, he has served as the President of the University of Toronto Secular Alliance, helping to promote science, reason and critical thinking around Toronto. He also volunteers with the Centre for Inquiry’s Ontario branch, and currently sits on the CFI’s Committee for the Advancement of Scientific Skepticism. Mitchell is also an accomplished competitive debater, having debated all across Canada. In addition to issues of economics and philosophy, Mitchell is interested in the fields of science and technology.