Skepticism and Safety

According to John Bowlby’s attachment theory what we seek is safe attachment to an external object.  If we have had a traumatic upbringing this can be difficult for us in two different, complementary ways.  We can be avoidant or anxious.  The avoidant person responds to loss by not caring, the anxious person responds to loss by freaking out and refusing to be comforted.  The avoidant person is responding to the threat of abandonment by not connecting to the external object.  The anxious person is responding to the threat of abuse by an ambivalent struggle; she pushes the external object away at the same time as she realizes she needs it for survival.

Since philosophers are human beings with psychologies it would make sense that pathologies of attachment would permeate the history of philosophy.  An example of this is skepticism.  The skeptic exhibits avoidant attachment; he says the external world is not real.  If the external world is not real it is not threatening.  Or perhaps we could even say to call something real means it can be a real source of danger or safety.  The real just is that which we attach to, and the unreal is that which we refuse to attach to.

If that’s the case arguments against skepticism will be perceived as threats.  Skepticism is a defense mechanism against a world that threatens and disappoints, and a retreat into an internal world that is safe.  The anti-skeptical argument — it is really there, it can really hurt you — will feel terrifying.

Everybody is a skeptic about something.  The philosopher who is a believer when it comes to mathematical truths is still a skeptic when it comes to the contentions at whole foods that echinacea cures colds, or the promise of the internet guru that his meditation method will teach you to walk through walls and win the lottery.  The thinker who is a skeptic about the reality of the external world is a believer about something — his own mind perhaps or certain ineffable feelings of oneness that he is able to access now and then.

If we want to be friends — i.e. if we want to securely attach to each other in the pursuit of our mutual betterment — we should show compassion to one another’s skepticism and one another’s faith.  If we believe or don’t believe it is for a deep-seated emotional reason.  Not so easy to change.


3 thoughts on “Skepticism and Safety

  1. Does skepticism permeate through the history of physics? I mean, they are the ones coming up with this quantum cloud stuff. What’s a guy to do – ignore them and turn to astrology?

    And it feels like a skit from life of Brian to ‘respect’ someones beliefs as they walk into quicksand, with them saying they believe they’ll be fine (or more exactly, quicksand walks into them…). Doesn’t it seem odd that to call ‘danger’ is a lack of respect? Surely an enemy would keep their mouth zipped?

    In terms of respect, I think I give a watered down version of what corporations, using cognitive science, will seed through society. Me, I have some respect for astrology – I wouldn’t, for example, cynically leverage belief for coin while having zero belief in astrology, for example.

    So you’ve talked about skeptics, but what about cynics? I once read a bit I liked about not confusing a skeptic for a cynic as skeptics genuinely care. If a skeptic seems some kind of problem, what does that make of a cynic – ie, the sort who are CEO’s of major corporations that provide your food and shelter stuff?

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