The important difference between scepticism and cynicism

In reactions to recent posts, where I have attacked a certain kind of snotty, nihilistic attitude of mind which I feel is dominant in western culture right now, I have found some who have mistaken my intentions. Some responders think I am attacking all doubt, and therefore calling for a reversion to a reactionary gullibility. Nothing could be further from the truth.

However, in the course of some discussion a useful distinction has arisen, which requires further exploration. It has become clear that what I have been attacking is a certain kind of doubting, a form of cynicism. However, some responders have accused me of attacking scepticism, which is a very different frame of mind altogether.

Many responders spend a lot of time defending scepticism as a healthy product of enlightenment thinking, something which goes hand in hand with liberalism and and open society. Such arguments are preaching to the converted. I don’t need persuaded of this.

Having said that, the distinction between cynicism and scepticism is welcome, and it seems to me that most of us go about the world conflating these two things.

To be a sceptic is to remain open to alternative possibilities. To be a cynic is to close oneself off to most possibilities.

The cynic uses doubt to claim a certainty about life’s outcomes. If one always suspects the worst in life, one is never disappointed. However, there is hypocrisy in this position, because to expect the worst is still to expect something. The cynic might claim that she is not actually expecting anything, merely avoiding any expectation of the good. However, there really is no such thing as expecting nothing.

Jean Paul Sartre would have called this bad faith. You are lying to yourself. If one avoids expecting positive outcomes at all times, one is by definition expecting the worst.

Eventually, you train your mind to expect negativity so much, that it becomes an affront to end up with a positive outcome, and you begin to resent those who do not share your outlook.

Of course, cynics will deny this furiously, as they are very much identified with their fatalism, believing themselves to have risen above the naivety and callowness of ordinary people.

This is another conceit of the cynic: that of claiming special insight, a superior understanding of the world, by exorcising from their minds any hope or positive ambition.

Again, the cynic tells herself this fatalism and arrogance is a form discipline, a kind of scepticism. In reality it is a lazy, ill-considered renunciation of the imagination. For the cynic, all that can be expected is doom, betrayal and narcissism. One’s fellow man cannot be relied upon. Humanity is the worst of nature, in disguise.

Sceptics, however, are indeed disciplined. They are, like scientists, able to entertain multiple possibilities, while avoiding the grief and loss involved with investing in one particular outcome. Life is a series of hypothesises. The sceptic lives with doubt, but that doubt is a means to an end, a tool, by which the sceptic achieves the spiritual release of living in a state of constant potential.

Like the cynics, sceptics do not expect the best, they are free from the perils of idealism. This also frees them from the dangers of Utopianism and political ideology. The sceptic has made peace with the ragged edges of humanity, the complexities of people’s common frailties.

However, unlike the cynic, the sceptic never rules out the pleasant surprises of human tenderness and empathy, the spontaneous shows of brotherly love, which are common in times of crises.

The cynic’s stance is one of limited intelligence. Because the cynic finds a rigid certainty in her bleak world-view. She would rather sacrifice the surprise charity of common goodwill, reducing it to Freudian motivations, in order to salvage the stability and control that living negativity gives her.

The sceptic, rather, lives like an artist, on the edges of the possible, in a beautiful anxiety. Doubt is not an ideology, to which reality must bow; it is a method of thinking, similar to that of a samurai warrior.

To live as a sceptic is to live fluidly, to live in a prepared state, like a kind of meditative contemplation. The discipline of the sceptic is one of reining in the imagination, rather than cutting it off completely.

Unfortunately for the cynic, only the worst kinds of possibilities are entertained. Doubt itself becomes a god to be worshipped, ironically becoming a dogmatic fatalism. To aggressively hold to the claim that ‘there are no truths’, is itself a truth-claim.

The sceptic is not concerned with ultimate truth, so much as his own humility in the face of the limits of his own perception and imagination. Scepticism means to live in a healthy relationship with one’s own limitations.

Why then, do cynicism and scepticism get so easily conflated?

A huge part of the reason must be the overwhelming nature of modern living. The nervous system runs on empty for most of us, and the threats of the unknown are, as a result, more terrifying. The more useless stimulation we have to process, the more anxious we become, because our survival mechanisms – whatever they may be, I’m not a brain scientist – are in a state of perpetual overdrive.

It is not unreasonable to propose that our imaginative abilities, our faculties of seeing beyond the immediate situation into the realm of possibility, are what have sustained human beings and placed them at the top of the food chain.

In the modern world this imaginative faculty, this hyper-perception of what has not yet occurred but might, becomes strained. It is therefore easy to slip into cynicism.

The natural scepticism of the scientific world view, that healthy ability to entertain multiple hypotheses, is used as a sort of PR gloss, a way of convincing ourselves that the uncertainty of being overwhelmed is the same uncertainty as the disciplined scientist and philosopher.

We congratulate ourselves that our anxious state of cynical unknowing is the ironic methodology of Hume, Francis Bacon and Descartes.

The reason we conflate cynicism and scepticism then, is simply because it makes us feel better. The two attitudes grew in power simultaneously as a response to the growth and dominance of the technological era. However, they are in fact, entirely different ways of looking at the world.