On Radical Skepticism, Friendship, and Truth

W.J. Astore

My dad was a skeptic. He taught me the saying, never believe anything you read, and only half of what you see. Sound advice in this heavily propagandized world of ours.

Despite my dad’s skepticism, I eventually earned a doctorate in history and wrote books in which I pretended to know what was going on in the past. Or, that’s the way my dad would have put it. To my claims he would sometimes say, “Were you there, Charlie?” In other words, if you weren’t a direct witness to the event in question, how can you say what really happened? In fact, even if you did witness it, are you sure of what you saw or heard or sensed? Our senses can be unreliable for all sorts of reasons, such as fatigue, bias, distractions, and so on.

How do we know what we know? Can we ascertain truth? “Truth — what is truth?” Pontius Pilate asked Christ. Small wonder that so many people seek truth through religion when there’s so little of it available in non-religious realms. (Of course, religion operates on faith, not on truth per se, though those who believe see faith as a way to truth, perhaps as a form of truth.)

I think the most “true” thing in my life, the thing I doubt least of all, is the love of my closest friends and family. Once again, my dad had something to say here. He believed that you’d be lucky to have a handful of friends in your life who truly cared about you, who’d be there for you no matter what, who’d take a bullet for you, as my dad put it. And, let’s face it: not many Facebook “friends” fit my dad’s definition here!

So, I suppose my dad taught me to question received “truths” and also to ponder what real friendship is all about. The latter shouldn’t be easy; it’s not a trivial matter of clicking “friend” on a social media site. Friends are there for you, my dad explained, they are sympathetic, they are sacrificial, because in some sense they love you.

Which leads me back to Christ, friend of humanity, who was sympathetic to our human plight in all its zaniness and sordidness and who nevertheless sacrificed himself for us. How many of us think of Christ as the Ultimate Friend? For that’s what he was and is, if you believe in him.

I was raised Catholic by my dad (my mom didn’t go to church, but that’s another story). My dad, the radical skeptic, had faith in the Church and in Christ. I have no faith in the Church, sadly, but I do have faith in Christ and his teachings, which to me show us a path toward the truth in the form of a better life, a more compassionate and generous one.

Today, we find ourselves immersed in a matrix of lies, or “alternative truths” if you prefer. My dad had, I think, the way out. He taught me not to believe too easily, not to be glib, even as he showed me through his own example what living a life of value was about.

Be radically skeptical, yes. But believe in what is right; seek truth and recognize its demands on you. (Truth is rarely easy, especially truth about oneself.) And then manifest it as best you can.

It’s a tall order, dad, and I still have a long way to go. We all do, for it’s really all about the quest, not the destination. Seek and ye shall find are words that comfort me. Surely I heard them first standing next to my dad in church, listening to the gospel, the good news, the teachings of Christ.

But no man, no church, no entity has a monopoly on truth. It can be found in other religions and outside of religion. It can be found within and without. All I know — or think I know — is that it won’t be easy. But what of value is?

My dad as a young man, looking, always looking

25 thoughts on “On Radical Skepticism, Friendship, and Truth

  1. Martin J. Brill, my 7th Grade American History teacher, taught that while it may not be necessary to question everything, you should be prepared to question anything. Also, that Faith is not a substitute for Fact, and that the world is filled with fools and desperadoes and you’ve got to watch your back.
    As for friends, they are people who will always tell you the Truth, or what they believe to be true, without regard to your feelings. No warm and fuzzy, no platitudes, no banking on prayer which is either (1) asking the Laws of Nature to be overturned on your behalf or (2) telling your God a mistake has been made.
    Truth is neither situational nor fluid, nor is it the sole province of any religious cult or political party. People who speak of telling “their truth” should be avoided at all cost.

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    1. I dunno, Bill. I don’t think truth is always monolithic. For instance, a few months back, in this forum, there was a discussion of the causes of WWI. It can be said that the cause was the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, and that’s true, as far as it goes. But there are a dozen underlying factors that contributed to that flashpoint, so “truth” can be nuanced and have multiple facets.

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  2. In my 20s, I believed ‘truth is an unexposed lie’. Nearing 50, I have come to believe truth is the line Solzhenitsyn wrote about, but more than the heart. Instead it’s the integration of head & heart, mind & emotion, etc that can form something more than either, and could be likened to a soul. On one side is what I know to be false and on the other what I would like to believe is true, but only about myself, which is all I can ever truly appreciate and share.

    This is not only the line between good & evil-I have also found liberty & authority, freedom & slavery, collaboration & control by this line; this line is where I direct my skepticism, which seems to work well, but change is the only constant in the universe (I once read), and if I am not evolving I feel that death is stalking me.

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  3. Good post, yes Friends are all well and good to share, and not be alone in this Life, but I find being alone as something very much different. In Nature and my communing with my Telescope with the Universe as much more soulful and profound for me. Like now during the Golden Hour of Equinox where light is so much more richer… I can’t get enough of it! The beautiful Blue Marble!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Solitude can be a good thing and periods of mental solitude are a must for contemplation, or any deeper or more critical thinking for that matter.
      That said, loneliness is a terrible suffering for any human being.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Truth can be simple; it may also be complex and nuanced. “Truth,” in a historical sense, usually evolves over time as we discover more about the past — as we uncover new facts and look at them in fresh ways as well, perhaps seeing new patterns.

    Perhaps it’s like looking at an oil painting. Get too close to the painting and you see paint smears; the scene blurs; you’re literally too close to the action. Back off, get some distance, and the scene emerges.

    Being present at the making of history doesn’t mean you’ll understand its meaning, its “truth.” Sometimes, distance is a good thing, whether that’s physical or temporal or mental.

    I guess that’s my response to my dad’s challenge of “Were you there, Charlie?”

    Liked by 2 people

    1. So true. (if you will pardon my use of the term)
      Two brothers-in-law and one brother “were there” in Viet Nam. They definitely have 3 different truths of “there”.
      My brothers time was illuminated for him by varied reading and, (tip of hat to P. Astore’s comments), a great deal of solitary camping. With time I believe he came to fairly deep understandings of patterns, to use your phrase. These understandings did not bring him peace.
      I will leave it with a quote from Nietzsche in a letter to his sister.
      “If you wish to strive for peace of soul and happiness. then believe; if you wish to be a disciple of truth, then inquire.”
      Or if one prefers, substitute be a sceptic for inquire.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Yes, one’s definition of truth often depends on one’s point of view. As illustration, I’d use the movie, Vantage Point, wherein the assassination attempt on a President is described by various people on the scene and behind the scenes. Each has his or her own version of the truth, and all versions are accurate, as far as each person knows. But if the history of the incident were to be recorded based on any one of those witness statements, it would NOT be accurate.

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  5. I have watched many times the landing of Perseverance on Mars. It was truly Shock and Awe. I had watched a program on how the idea for Perseverance was put into action by tens of thousands of architects, engineers, manufacturers and then all the fine points of assembly and testing to make certain it would work as conceived.

    Did Mars have life, does it still have life?? Whatever the answers are, it should not take away from how fragile life on earth is. Natural events in the past before humans had the power of mass extinctions. The earth always recovered. Today, we have humans who are causing extinctions and poisoning the planet.

    Unfortunately, this monumental achievement of Perseverance was given limited air time on our Corporate for Profit News Media. Not enough drama, I guess.

    A few years ago the concept of TOE (Theory of Everything) was popular in Science. Just when Astrophysics seems to have answered complex questions, something new throws a wrench into it. The more we know, the more realize we do not know.

    Our human historical truth is a series of cascading events piling up on each other. There is no two plus two equals four. There always is an unknown additive to the equation at the time.

    As an Agnostic, it is understandable many people would rely on religion. All the answers are in the bible, etc. When in doubt invoke the supernatural. As young person in Catholic grade school the idea of Bad things happening to Good people and the reverse was answered with smoke and mirrors about God has Plan and we are too small to see it.

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  6. I understand there’s a tree in the forest, towering above all around it, consuming resources required by other components of the ecosystem, and ignoring it’s continuing growth could destroy life itself. It must come down, and it will because it has no roots, but silence is the mother of the stillness that allows reflection, and ultimately, awareness.

    If a tree falls in the forest, and I’m not there to hear it, I won’t need to know, neither will anyone else, and it can become a cautionary rumor for curious minds.

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  7. Excellent essay on truth WJA. I applaud your courage to bring in faith and religion into the mix. I used to say that faith is for the intellectually compromised, and the last resort of the intelligent. I am not so sure of that any more. The recent victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan was mainly due to faith in their cause.

    When I was riding out of Afghanistan with the mujihideen in late October of 1987 we were packed into stake sided truck. We only traveled at night and we were going through the mountains on the border with Pakistan. It was so cold I thought I was going to die. I had lost 50 pounds due to amebic dysentery and had no body fat. The mujahideen got out to pray just before dawn. As I watched them I also prayed to Allah to be merciful and let me survive the trip into Pakistan. Within a minute I was warm and stayed that way! That is a truth hard to convey or to believe.

    The study of truth is epistemology and it gets very weird like most philosophy as one goes deeper. My take is that there are absolute truths only in mathematics and at that only in the most basic of mathematics. As one goes into physics the truth is good to four decimal places, chemistry two decimal places, and anything more complex than that is not computable. Truth is an asymptotic curve; as one goes farther out the line approaches but never reaches a certain value. As Ludwig Wittgenstein said about a concept he was talking about to his students who wanted to know if it was true in the absolute sense ‘It’s true enough’.

    Truth is like the holy grail, it can never be found but through hard work and diligent searching one can get ‘close enough’.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. There is a lot of experimental evidence in the study of perception that there is no such thing as objective truth that is true for all observers.

    So if truth is relative, what does that mean?

    I think it means that what a person claims is true may tell you more about the person than what the person is seeing. There is a story about a king who wanted to know what people in the world were like. He chose a minister who was known for his judgmental attitude to do the survey. The minister came back and reported that people were self-absorbed, greedy, cruel and evil. The king felt quite sad. Then one of his counselors suggested that he send someone else to do the survey. This time the king chose a minister who was known for his compassion. The minister returned and reported that people were kind, caring for others and while they often struggled and made mistakes they were on the whole good people.

    Facts are facts. Truth is what we make of those facts and the truth we create is an indication of who we are. When we perceive with the heart of Christ then we see the truth that eveyone is Christ. Or, as I heard Ram Dass say, “Everyone is God in drag.”

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  9. Bill, I have been racking my brains trying to think of a respectful way of expressing my point of view on the subject in discussion. I thought today I’d give it a shot for better or worse.

    I do not think that looking to religion(s) for the truth is productive. All religions are man made. Their books and texts written by superstitious men in pre-enlightenment times. (With nary a woman author – maybe why most religious texts are so horrifically misogynistic.) All religions contain some truth – and a lot of untruths and mythology. And all suffer from the plight of reluctance to change their “truths” upon discovery of new facts and evidence as times goes by. And of course they all proffer to know the real truth – even though all their “truths” differ widely. Skeptical enquiry and rational thought is frowned upon.

    And of course you know that believing in something on faith is merely believing in something based on no evidence. One can believe is any old ridiculous dross with no evidence. As many religious devotees do.

    It is for these reasons I believe that it is not wise to look for truth in faith and religion. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I expressed just such sentiments to my brother when he joined a fanatical Baptist sect (cult?) about 40 years ago. He claimed that ONLY his group knew the truth about….everything. Needless to say, my observations went over like a lead balloon, with no effect whatsoever.

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    2. I agree with you, Dennis, in part. Organized religions — all the hierarchy, the ritual, the exclusivity — don’t really interest me. For example, the Catholic Church used to teach there’s no salvation outside the church, which strikes me, ironically perhaps, as unchristian.

      But, if we think of Jesus as a great moral teacher and exemplar, a philosopher and humanist, and we consider the Gospel and his parables, I for one find much “truth” in them. But I’m not about to foist them on others as THE truth.

      Put differently, I don’t think you have to accept Christ as your Lord and personal savior to profit from his teachings and his sacrificial example. I’d also say belief should never be blind and unquestioning.

      Liked by 2 people

    3. Please take your time to study about Islam and you will find the truth and Quran is revealed by God and promised to protect it. Nobody can or ever changed, added or subtracted anything.
      So is all the original religious books like the bible or Tourat etc. Only that the later is corrupted or changed either deliberately or through translational transmissions by those entrusted with.

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    1. With much trepidation I am going to give it one more attempt at Truth.

      I believe there are real truths that are unalterable. The speed of light for example. Some one may say that the speed of light is much slower in the sun where a photon in the core takes 8 minutes to travel 5 inches. In 8 minutes that same photon at the surface could get all the way to Earth – 93 million miles. That core photon is still travelling at the speed of light but it is bouncing off a very densely packed core of nuclei; sort of like a billiard ball trying to get out of a room filled with other balls.

      It seems people have a hard time interpreting when a truth is ‘hard’ or ‘soft’. I have heard people say all truth is relative. This is obviously not the case for the vast majority of truths. We accept ‘hard’ truths every day without even thinking about them. We accept the ‘hard’ truth that if we are working on the roof of our house we had better watch our step or we will fall to the ground. The ‘hard’ truth of gravity will become evident if we get careless up there.

      Another conflation I hear all the time is faith and trust. Faith is as Mr. Merwood stated above is believing in something with no evidence. Trust is believing in something with as much evidence as is available. For example, I trust the brakes on my car will stop the car when I apply the brake pedal. I have this trust because I have my brakes inspected every year by a mechanic, I check the fluid level in the master brake cylinder every time I change oil, and I am very aware of the travel of my brake pedal when I step on it. Faith would be the opposite: no regular service checks, etc.

      As I related above, there are times when one is so powerless in a situation so dire that only Faith will do. I like to think of faith as a bank account, I try not to go into it too often, but when I do, I want a large quantity of it.

      Truth is holy and one should pursue it like the Holy Grail. The truth will not set you free, but it will lead you to the door that opens to freedom. One must still have the courage, the trust and even the faith to open the door and step through it.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Can I say it’s complicated? 🙂

        Let’s take abortion, for an easy example. (Yes, that’s a joke.)

        According to the Catholic Church, the truth is that life begins at conception. Abortion, therefore, is murder. Sinful. End of story.

        Obviously, not all accept this as truth. Legal opinions differ. Is it “murder” only after the fetus is viable outside the womb? Or after the first trimester? Or possibly never, if the mother decides she doesn’t want to carry the fetus to term?

        What is “truth,” here? We might call on medical science, ethics and morality, privacy and autonomy, the legal system, e.g. the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and religion. I’d add we must always consider the life of the mother. What about rape, incest, major birth defects, and so on?

        Another layer of complexity: why do other nations, and other cultures, have different “truths” about abortion? Shouldn’t we as humans all agree on this? We can’t, we don’t, and we probably shouldn’t.

        There is no one “truth” here, nor should we seek to impose one.

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