Atlantis and the Art of Skepticism
by Rod Martin, Jr.
Why is skepticism important to the discussion of Atlantis? This importance is covered in greater detail below ("The Value of Skepticism"), but to put it simply, skepticism helps keep us from being gullible and helps us demand a higher standard. It is important to note, however, that there are at least two kinds of skepticism that are too often confused with each other. Such confusion often leads to wasted effort, lost opportunity or outright tragedy.
Two Kinds of Skepticism
The best kind of skepticism is one of restraint. It is the attitude that the easiest, most simple answer is not necessarily the right answer. It is driven by a desire to know "Truth" and cautious not to fall too far short of that goal. Quite often it is tempered by humility.
There is a difference between "truth" and "Truth." One is spelled with a capital "T" and refers to the absolute, and likely unattainable, answer to some puzzle. No endeavor of mortal man can believably claim to have attained "Truth." Yet we strive toward that perfection. Science, for instance, settles for "truth" the relative truth of its imperfect laws. Those truths serve us well. Our civilization is built on them.
Newton gave us his "laws of motion." Those "laws" were only relative truths, and relatively perfect representations of the phenomena we observe in the universe around us. Yet, they are not absolutely perfect. Einstein showed that Newton's "laws" break down as one approaches the velocity of light. Relativity takes over in that realm. But even Einstein could not find his "perfect" unified field theory his "Truth" to explain all.
There are many mysteries in our world. Science engages with some, ignores some and ridicules others. For all the high ideals held by science, scientists are nonetheless human and subject to human frailties. The ego of "right" and "wrong" is apparent with some subjects. Emotions come into play and logic and skeptical restraint are left floundering on the sidelines.
Do scientists really do this? Perhaps not all, but some do, and some more than others. The attitude of "me versus you" comes into play more often than many might think. The award-winning essay, "Outsiderness in the Scientific Community" discusses this darker side of the "Ivory Tower" we know of as science. But this divisive attitude is not only between scientists, but used against non-scientists and also "unapproved" ideas. One has to ask, "How much is lost to our civilization from such attitudes?"
This negative attitude from scientists and otherwise very intelligent people all too often takes the form of ridicule. Such ridicule, however, is a logical fallacy ad hominem. Despite their training in logic or at least scientific acumen, scientists sometimes fall under the spell of this logical fallacy. That is the power of ego the need to be right and, all too often, the need to make others wrong.
Atlantis is one of the current "blasphemies." If you are a non-scientist and support the idea that Atlantis was possible, you are "confused." If you insist Atlantis was real, you are a "crackpot" and might be asked if you also believe in the "tooth fairy," "Mother Goose" or some other nursery rhyme character. If you are a scientist and you discuss the possible past reality of Atlantis, you may lose credibility in your field, may lose funding or worse. All of these supporters of the possible validity of Atlantis are also subject to ridicule.
The very intelligent are not immune to bouts of ego or destructive tendencies. Computer viruses are written by very intelligent, though misguided, individuals. Geniuses can be criminal or merely vindictive. This is not the stuff of science or civilization. Such attitudes do not build, but instead tear down.
One skeptic on his website states, "But sometimes the only appropriate response to an arrogant speculation monger is ridicule. Some arguments are truly too ridiculous to respond to." Yet, his responses to logical debate are illogics and ridicule. His website claims to be a dictionary on all things skeptical, yet it leaves out the important definition of ad hominem the one logical fallacy he seems genuinely pleased to use.
Skeptics on Atlantis
If I were to grade the websites I've seen that purport to be skeptical, I would have to give them failing or near-failing grades for their arguments against Atlantis. I find slightly better arguments against Atlantis in a couple of published works. In the Penguin Classics book on Plato's Timaeus and Critias, translator Sir Desmond Lee gives a moderately good argument against Atlantis, bouyed largely by the fact that he shuns the use of ad hominem. Similarly, the editor of the Dutton Books reprint of Ignatius Donelly's Atlantis: The Antediluvian World, gives an even-handed assessment of the mainstream view of Atlantis. Why do the websites come up short? All of them use ridicule to a greater or lesser degree. Some are better at using restraint, but most of the arguments are against the wide variety of Atlantis supporters and against their ideas for what Atlantis was and where it was located. Very little is said about Atlantis itself. This is a curious omission.
In an article appearing in Scientific American magazine, Dr. Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine says about Atlantis, "What if Plato made up the story for mythic purposes? He did." The support for his assertion is the assertion itself. To him it appears somehow "self-evident." That's not logic and that is certainly not science.
What is Missing from the Atlantis Discussion?
In all of the websites I've seen, there are several obvious questions that are missing from the skeptics' arguments.
I am skeptical of Atlantis (the restraint-based kind). What I want to know is,
These are issues that bear directly on the subject of Atlantis, itself. If Atlantis existed one could reasonably expect that there would be some effects that show the impact of Atlantis, its destruction, and its refugees on the world at-large.
These are the kinds of issues this website was meant to address and possibly answer.
The Value of Skepticism
In any investigation, skeptical restraint serves a valuable function. There are a number of reasons. For one, it keeps the investigator from being too gullible. The remarkable fact is that those who practice skeptical ridicule quite often show very little restraint in jumping to an unfounded conclusion. They become "gullible" to their own negative idea the idea that some premise has a lack of validity. Gullibility can go both ways for or against a premise.
Another purpose that skeptical restraint serves is one of demanding a higher standard. Like the artist dissatisfied with the ordinary of last year's styles, the scientist with skeptical restraint hungers for a more perfect view of the facts and evidence. He isn't satisfied with the quickest or easiest answer. In fact, frequently he suspects easy answers as being imperfect. The universe is typically more interesting than the purely simple answer, though frequently there are underlying simplicities at work. We simply have not found all of them, yet.
Skepticism done right helps to produce results. Skeptical ridicule creates nothing constructive. If you experience someone belittling someone else, you can know that there is a better way to treat our fellow humans. If someone has a misguided idea one that is illogical then education is the best method. If education doesn't work, ridicule certainly won't.
If someone is certain that they know "Truth" on a subject, they are either "heaven sent," or they are arrogantly delusional, no matter what is their social status. Such arrogance is typically a form of blindness keeping that person from reaping the fruits of observation. Such arrogance has blinded science on numerous occasions. Scientists, for instance, dismissed many myths as purely fiction, that today have been proven to have at least some foundation in reality. Many scientists missed out by blinding themselves with skeptical ridicule or judgement without restraint.
Such arrogance has also blinded scientists within mainstream science. The essay on "Outsiderness in the Scientific Community," mentioned above, covers some of the problems here. Another example comes from North American anthropology. For years, anyone who attempted to publish evidence contradicting the "Clovis first" dogma was ridiculed. "Clovis first" was "law." It was fixed and nothing not even Truth itself could dislodge it. Such attitudes are not science. Are they science pretending to be the new religion? Nothing so grandiose. Quite simply, it is the darker side of human nature at work.
One can be skeptical of an idea, myth or hypothesis, but one can also be skeptical of someone else's arguments against a hypothesis. One can be skeptical of their own skepticism in other words, humble of their own point-of-view. If an idea becomes too fixed, then it prevents a person from looking any further. So, skepticism can be just as valuable when directing it inwardly as with directing it outwardly. Always, the key is to nurture greater awareness. If skepticism is to have a constructive purpose, this would be it to nurture greater awareness.
Donate to Mission: Atlantis
Copyright © 20092013 Rod Martin, Jr., All World Rights Reserved