Weird Words #7: The Devout Skeptic

Here's a linguistic curiosity: devout skepticism.

These two words are, of course, simple when taken on their own. Their meanings are little changed in the couple of thousand years they have existed for.

devout is an adjective describing the attitude of someone who has made a vow towards the object of the vow

skepticism is a school of Greek philosophy at whose core is the idea that nothing can be known. A skeptic, therefore has a belief: that you can have evidence, and you can create theories based on the evidence, but there is no underlying knowledge corresponding to the evidence and the theory. So you are obliged to use evidence and theory in order to get by on what is a sort of best guess at a description of reality.

Historically, this places the skeptic in opposition to the religious, since the religious asserts that you can have knowledge, that knowledge comes from God, that you can be certain of this knowledge without any evidence.

You might be forgiven for thinking, therefore, that a devout skeptic was one who doubted everything on principle. But a skeptic has neither room nor need for doubt, since he is certain that true, exact or absolute knowledge is unattainable. I'm going to attempt an example:

The religious, or anyone else who thinks that things can be known, might agree with the statement:

"When there is plenty of rain and plenty of sun, the wheat grows tall, so we plant wheat in places where there is plenty of rain and plenty of sun."

This is a statement of knowledge and a related statement of action. The skeptic would view it very differently:

"We have previously observed that plenty of rain and sun coincides with tall wheat, so we will continue to plant wheat where there is plenty of rain and sun until or unless the wheat stops growing tall in such places."

The skeptic assumes that things will change. He assumes that he has not been able to observe everything.

There may be a very fine distinction here, which will look like idle semantics to many, in that many people will assume that the first statement implies the elided thought that "plenty of rain and sun are the dominant factors" – or indeed all manner of other qualifiers.

But the Greek thinkers were very careful with their words for a simple (if highly disciplined) reason. If you say "I know the sun is hot" you are assuming that your listeners realize that "I know" is a short way of saying "I have convincing reasons to suppose". But supposing one of your listeners does not realize this. You will have misled him.

In modern English we do things that would have Greek philosophers tutting into their wine and tortoise soup.

"Isn't the sun hot today, " we thoughtlessly declaim.

This statement assumes the knowledge that there are days when the sun is less hot.

The devout skeptic would be obliged to point out that:

"I am hotter out of doors today than I was yesterday, and I suppose that this is due in some way to the sun, since I am generally cooler when the sun is absent."

Nowadays we find that absurdly picky. But our ability to express ourselves clearly is built on exactly those foundations. We may have elided a lot of assumptions and qualifiers when we say "I know" . . . the problem is that many of us may not have.

To write clear prose, you need to learn to think like the devout skeptic. But to write captivating narration, you need to learn to elide all the qualifiers and assumptions. It is my theory, based on what I have observed writers and storytellers doing, that if you don't know what all the assumptions, qualifiers and implications are, then your authority as a narrator is weakened, and the reader is less captivated.

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