Thursday, February 12, 2015

Skepticism and Hope

When I was a professional philosopher I was quite taken by Skepticism. One of the three main sources of my dissertation was the ancient Greek Skeptic, Sextus Empiricus. Zhuangzi, who I talked about last week, was among other things a skeptic. Sometimes today we use the word skepticism for people who disbelieve in God or ghosts or conspiracy theories or global warming or whatever. But the older use of the term is for people who don't have a belief yet one way or the the other, who are open, literally in Greek it means something like still-investigating. I thought, (and still think) of skepticism as an epistemic virtue, it's part of being a good knower, knowing what we can know, and knowing that there are limits to what we can know, to how certain we can be. It's related to honesty, it's about being honest about the limits of our evidence, about admitting when we are partly guessing, when we are proceeding “as if” something were true, but we know we aren't sure and we might be wrong. It's being humble about our powers to know.

But in my own life as someone struggling with suicide for years, and someone coming out to themselves and then others as trans, and as someone who talks to suicidal trans people regularly now, I'm more and more thinking of Skepticism as a moral virtue too, as something related to hope as well as related to honesty, or humility or being a good knower.

When I was suicidal, I “knew” that I was worthless, that my life did more harm than good to the world at large, that the world would be better off without me, that I would never again be of value, that my potential was all used up, spent on a gamble that didn't pay off. My heart told me those things over and over, and my brain believed them. But in my better moments, another part of my heart and brain fought against those certainties, balancing that argument out with arguments on the opposite side, and resting at some uncertainty, some suspension of beliefs, some irresolution. I couldn't see how I could ever be valuable, or happy again, but I had to admit that I didn't know the future, that my predictions had been wrong before, that I couldn't really be as certain as I was pretending to be. Maybe my future would suck, probably, but I couldn't really be certain. Maybe something will happen that you can't imagine now. Maybe, your situation will change only a little, but your mentality towards your situation will transform. Maybe you're wrong about some assumption somewhere in your train of reasoning, in your train of feeling. It wasn't hope exactly. Or at least it wasn't the sort of thing I've often seen portrayed as hope. It wasn't blowing sunshine up my ass, and it wasn't about positivity. It was a different kind of negativity. I'm limited and weak enough, that I cannot be sure of the dark certainties that I feel so sure of. It wasn't about having a positive attitude, it was about openness to possibilities I couldn't really imagine.

And, of course, for me, this worked. Your mileage may vary. I argued myself out of suicide time and time again, and I got slowly better. Eventually I discovered (literally dis-covering) that I had been repressing my gender issues, and that being more open about them to myself and eventually others was vastly more comfortable. I became happy, and in ways, that I literally failed to imagine when I was at my worst. And again, giving up an assumption that I thought I knew (that I was male), was a key part of the psychological process for me.

One of the trans people I talked to today was very near the end of her rope. Obviously, I don't want to disrespect her privacy by saying much about her, but it's fair to say she'd had a surprisingly rough couple of years. She'd heard most of the lines of thought on suicide before, from friends, family, or therapists. I certainly wasn't trying to argue with her in anything like the philosophical sense, and I certainly didn't want to present false hope. But one of the things I said to her has stuck with me today. I said “Two years ago, could you have imagined that you would be where you are now?” And she was very much, no way, not at all, the things that have happened to me I couldn't have believed or imagined until they happened. “Ok, then realize that two years from now, you could be happy again, somehow. I don't know how, and I'm not saying it's certain, or easy. Just that it's possible. It feels like there are no possibilities anymore, for you, I know. But we just don't know the future.” Sometimes life surprises us. It can be terrible, horrible surprises. But it can be slow, wonderful, healing surprises too.  People that become disabled through injury or disease, sometimes find that after a hard period where everything is very difficult, they actually get to a point where they are happier than they were before the injury, whereas people who win the lottery often find that after an initial period of increased happiness, they wind up less happy than before the event.  Happiness as it plays out in actual human lives is complex and often mysterious or paradoxical.  You just don't know how you will be two years from now, or five or whatever, if you can survive that long.  If you have faith, well, that's one way to spin it. And the theological virtue of faith is the traditional precursor to hope, and then, love in the Christian tradition. But doubt, skepticism, those are ways to spin it too. We just can't really know that things are as hopeless as we can think we know they are. Skepticism, as a purely epistemic virtue, preaches non-hopelessness as a moral virtue. It isn't quite the same thing as actual hope, I'll admit. But it is a kind of substitute for hope when hope is hard to find.

"Come, dream a dream with me; come dream a dream with me; come dream a dream with me; that I might know your mind;
And I'll give you hope, when hope is hard to find; and I'll bring a song of love, and a rose in the winter time."
From the UU hymn "Come Sing a Song" that I used to sing all the time.

If it all seems meaningless or pointless, well, OK, it seems that way to you, fair enough. But you can't really KNOW that it is meaningless or pointless. Maybe the meaning will emerge later. Or maybe it is meaningless after all. But proper skepticism can pry open the space for the possibility of meaning, the possibility of hope, in a heart or mind that is all but closed off to these possibilities.

That is it, that is my philosophical plea, leave a little space in your heart and mind for possibilities that you can't really comprehend, even hopeful happy ones.