Skepticism May Be Harmful or Fatal if Swallowed

November 23rd, 2005 by Steve Pavlina

Skepticism means to use doubt and disbelief as tools for understanding reality, with the hope that the resulting insights will allow one to behave intelligently.  Skepticism originally came about as a form of opposition to dogma.  The general idea behind skepticism is to avoid swallowing foolish beliefs.

That’s all well and good, but today it’s common to see the practice of skepticism stretched far beyond religious and spiritual matters.  If skepticism can help you avoid falling prey to religious dogma, perhaps it will work in other areas too.  And to some degree, it does.  Skepticism is good for avoiding business scams, for instance.

There is a risk with skepticism, however, and that is the risk of swallowing it.  When you swallow skepticism, you turn its gaze inward — upon yourself.  You attempt to use doubt and disbelief as tools for self-understanding.  What am I capable of?  Can I really do that?  Would I look foolish if I tried?

Big mistake.

Many people are so concerned with the possibility of doing something foolish that they swallow the tool of skepticism, thinking that it will make their behavior more intelligent and their actions more successful.  Unfortunately, in this environment skepticism has the opposite effect.  Swallowing skepticism will curtail the intellectual resources you have available and actually make you less intelligent.

For the rest of this article, when I use the terms “skepticism” or “skeptic,” I’m referring to somoene who has swallowed this tool and is using it as a means for self-understanding.

Skepticism Is Harmful.

Skeptics mistakenly assume that their thoughts are merely passive observations and that therefore thoughts of doubt about themselves can only yield positive information — they fail to recognize that thoughts also have a creative component, so that skepticism will actually install negative information.  To harbor thoughts of fear and doubt is to install fear and doubt.  To harbor thoughts of success is to create success.  The skeptic does not understand this, but the wise person does.

Skeptics are smart enough to avoid betting $10 to win $20 when the odds of success are only 20%.  That’s just being smart.  However, they also avoid betting $10 to make $1000 when the odds of success are only 20%.  That’s utterly foolish, especially if you’re free to make this bet again and again and even reinvest your winnings.  Furthermore, skeptics don’t understand that their own fear and doubt is what makes the odds of success only 20%, totally oblivious to the fact that having greater faith in themselves will raise the odds to 40% or more.

Skeptics are unwilling to suffer being the fool, but in doing so, they behave most foolishly because they miss too many opportunities.  Eventually it breaks their heart to see the people they regard as fools pass them by.  And this can drive skeptics deeper into fear and self-doubt and eventually loneliness.

The skeptic sees other people fail and says to himself, “Glad I avoided that.”  But he should also be looking at the missed successes and saying, “Shame I avoided that.”

Beyond Skepticism

How does an intelligent person function?

The intelligent person recognizes that there is a component to all success which is self-created.  The intelligent person resolves not to abuse this power by creating fear and doubt.  To do so would be unwise.

Skepticism is like slashing your car’s tires to prevent one of them from going flat.  Then you notice the tires have been slashed and conclude that it makes more sense to stay home than to drive a crippled vehicle.

Intelligent people understand that fear and doubt will only cripple them, never help them.  Fear and doubt are not necessary to avoid pitfalls.  It is the wrong tool for the job, just as a knife is the wrong tool for the job of inflating a tire.  If you are going to drive your car, you should do so with inflated tires.  If you get a flat tire, it’s not the end of the world.  Simply replace the tire and keep going.  A skeptic mistakenly believes that one flat tire is the end of the world, so driving is something that must be avoided entirely.  Hence, the skeptic stays home with what is safe and comfortable, but the wise person embraces risk as a way to capitalize on opportunity.

The tools of intelligent people are courage and common sense.  In order to know what is or isn’t possible, they find out for themselves by taking direct action.  Often that leads to failure, which produces greater self-knowledge, allowing wiser choices to be made in the future… not from a place of fear and doubt but from a place of understanding.  The intelligent person understands that there is a creative component to thought, so when taking action it is important to align those thoughts to create success instead of creating fear and doubt.

The wise person turns skepticism against itself, using doubt as a weapon against doubt.  They literally doubt their doubts.  They are skeptical about their skepticism.  And while their skepticism, fear, and doubt run around in circles, they take action and find out what is or isn’t possible through direct experience and common sense.

The skeptic thinks that it would be disastrous to take a risk and experience failure.  The intelligent person knows this is simply a necessary step on the path to success.  The skeptic views failure as a wall never to be crossed, whereas the intelligent person sees failure as a stepping stone that must fall under one’s boot in order to proceed to the next one.

The skeptic sees risky endeavors as resulting in either success or failure, as if the two were polar opposites.  The intelligent person knows that failure is part of the process of success, and that both lie in the same direction, opposite cowardice.

Skeptics avoid success because they avoid failure, but in so doing they guarantee ultimate failure by failing to summon the courage to act.  Intelligent people experience greater success because they build their courage to allow them to take action in spite of fear.

The skeptic says, “Let’s see if this will work.”  The intelligent person says, “Let’s see this work.”

Skepticism is a useful tool to use for letting go of dogma and developing a more open mind, but after that it must be discarded in favor of better tools.  Use skepticism as a knife to cut away false beliefs, but remember to set it down once the blade has reached your own flesh — that is the point where you must discard skepticism and begin using the tool of courage.


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