Skepticism is a powerful cognitive tool in human life. We are constantly inundated with messages about ourselves, others, and the world that are fashioned more out of self-interest that misleads us about the truth of things. A healthy skepticism has the ability to peer behind the veil of our discourses and ask “Is that really the case?” With these questions in tow, it can motivate us to look and examine something more clearly. This can at times make one a target of anger, frustration, and even derision from others who wish you would you would just accept what they say, but the journey of learning often has us having to endure such judgments.
Yet, at the same time, skepticism has a few potential downfalls. It succumbs to the law of diminishing returns. A little bit of skepticism, which may also be referred to as epistemic caution, can provide huge benefits in learning. However, skepticism makes this type of learning possible by creating an openness to investigate and learn, but it doesn’t actually make learning happen. In fact, too much skepticism may make one increasingly unsure of any and all foundations to be able to learn in the first place. As such, the heightening of skepticism can lead to the evaporation of understanding. Pushed too far, and it can actually erode the heart down, as we are not made to live in perpetual, high-octane skepticism.
Being able to make a distinction between a cautious skepticism and a high-octane skepticism is important for the Christian’s journey of learning wisdom. We see in Proverbs 3.5-8 an expression trusting in the Lord that is associated with a form of skepticism. Literally, vs. 5b calls for the hearer to not “lean” (אַל־תִּשָּׁעֵֽן) on their own understanding. Then, a similar sentiment is expressed in 7a in not perceiving oneself to be wise.
Having my earliest years of faith being experienced in a rather conservative, nearly fundamentalist, expression of Christian faith, I remember Proverbs 3.5-8 being lifted up as a way of castigating “scientists” for their knowledge. By them, Proverbs 3.5-8 was treated as a proof-text legitimating a high-octane skepticism of science, particularly when scientists said something that the quasi-, if not outright, fundamentalists thought were in contradiction with their beliefs about God from their interpretation of the Bible. They made the assumption that their beliefs about God from the Scriptures were the same thing as trusting in God, and treating anything else with a high-octane skepticism.
However, it is important to note is that the teacher of wisdom here is talking about the perceptions and reliance upon one’s own knowledge, not a skepticism of other people’s knowledge. We certainly see such a skepticism towards the knowledge of society expressed in the later concerns about wisdom in Jewish apocalyptic literature, but that is not what is being expressed in Proverbs. Rather, what Proverbs 3.5-8 is describing in terms of a ‘self-skepticism’ is close to how Socrates came to understand why the Oracle of Delphi thought him wisest man in Athens: because Socrates did not think himself wise.
Now, to be clear, Proverbs and Socrates are not saying the exact same thing. Besides the glaring difference between the God of Israel and the Greek god of the Temple of Delphi, Apollo, there is also a distinctive difference between the purposes of such self-skepticism. For Socrates, it essentially functioned as a way that he would be like an annoying gadfly to the Athenians; Socrates self-skepticism lead to a skepticism others, directed towards a political skepticism of the Athenians. For the teacher of wisdom in Proverbs, also, there is a different purpose: an appropriate self-skepticism enables a trust in God that then leads to the well-being of life.
Why is this case? The teacher of wisdom doesn’t explain, but through my experiences, I have come to a tentative answer.
So much of what we think, what we feel, what we believe we know is motivated by fear. Not simply the active feelings of fear that cause us to panic and act rashly, but the way fear unconsciously directs how we live in the world so that we can avoid threats to our well-being. For instance, if you are standing on the side walk, wanting to cross the street, and you see a car coming, the unconscious power of fear will make it so that you don’t consider stepping out in the street. Of course, this is when fear is acting appropriately. However, fear can have a way of triggering at mere hints of danger, even if there is in reality nothing to fear, depending on how vigilant a person is and people’s past experiences. Then, when this fear gets directed towards people, whether realistically or not, it can also lead to the emergence of anger, which then determines how we understand other people and our world. As a consequence, our ‘knowledge’ becomes highly formed based upon our conscious feelings of fear and anger in addition to the more unconscious ways the encoded memories and imaginations evoke the potential for fear and anger.
Now, fear and anger in and of themselves are not wrong or unhealthy. They are necessary emotions at times for us to address short-term threats to our survival. When they are healthy and realistically addressed towards real challenges and threats, they allow us to protect ourselves from those threats, preventing long-term harm. Healthy expressions of fear and anger are beneficial in the long-term. However, fear and anger also take a toll on the body, both directly through the way the physiological experiences of them can put inordinate stress on the body and indirectly through the way the persistent expressions of these emotions towards other people impacts our relationships. Fear and anger are designed to protect us in the short-run, but over the long-run they can cost us. Anyone who has experienced deep social traumas and the havoc they can wreck on your emotions, and thus also on your body, can tell you about it.
However, here is the thing about ‘knowledge.’ Our ‘knowledge’ is instrumental in allows us to avoid the experiences that would evoke these feelings of fear and anger along with giving us insights as to how to address them in the future. As such, ‘knowledge’ can be instrumental in our long-term health by enabling us to preventing both experiencing the direct threats to our well-being and, when effective, not have to deal with the persistent emotional experiences of fear and anger. Our ‘knowledge’ can function as sort of a compromise between short-term survival and long-term well being. However, as if often the case, short-term survival is favored more than long-term well being, as we often get caught in ruminations and memories about threats and harms done. When that is the case, our ‘knowledge’ functions as an echo-chamber, reinforcing those feelings and emotions rather than challenging then, making us more act based upon short-term survival at the case of long-term well-being. Then, when we are highly confident in our knowledge such that we are willing to entirely depending upon it for our well-being, the echo chamber of ‘knowledge’ becomes even stronger.
So, a healthy self-skepticism has the effect of saying that I will not treat what I ‘know’ as absolute, as law, as unquestionable. In so doing, it can help to break the self-perpetuating cycle that knowledge and the emotions of fear and anger can created.
However, even that isn’t enough by itself. One does not heal emotionally by simply not getting harmed again. One must have experiences of the opposite. Those who have lived in great pain need to experience some pleasure to learn that not everything is pain. Those who have felt discarded need to experience love. There is part of us that is “programmed” to try to find what is good to compensate for what has been lost.
Yet, we are also notoriously bad at finding what brings a lasting good, often times taking immediate short-term pleasures at the cost of long-term well-being. In our hearts is laid the desire for progressing towards the good, but we are unreliable in our ability to find it. Our ‘knowledge’ has been built more upon the negatives that we fear and are angry about that they don’t give oneself a clear, reliable sense of what is truly good to experience; our ‘knowledge’ works on opposites, thinking the opposite of what we experienced as bad must be good, but this often is not the case, as running to one extreme to avoid another extreme also takes it toll on us.
This is where a healthy self-skepticism needs something more to heal: one who is wise about what is good to teach and direct. This is what the teacher of wisdom speaks of: an epistemic dependence and reverence for the Lord who can direct one’s paths as one acknowledges Him in all one’s journeys. The synonyms of דְּרָכֶ֥יךָ and אֹֽרְחֹתֶֽיךָ in Proverbs 3.6 functions to portray a synergistic relationship influencing the direction of a person’s life, produced by the actions of human dependence and trust in God and God’s action to provide and direct a straight path. The person who does not “lean” on their understanding is not told to simply wait until God gives a specific direction, as if they should be utterly skeptical about their ‘knowledge,’ but rather the person recognizes that the path they are taking should be a reflection of their depending upon God, which creates a willingness to allow God to create a straight path for them, as they revere God and will turn away from the pathway of little worth (v. 7: וְס֣וּר מֵרָֽע). God gives directions to discover and experience what is truly good, what is truly life-giving as one is given the discernment to avoid life directions that would cause serious harm. Through a healthy self-skepticism combined with a trust in God, this leads to one to take the paths in life that bring healing and refreshment to the body (v. 8).
In conclusion, a healthy self-skepticism is instrumental to one’s long-term well-being. A related attitude to a healthy self-skepticism is repentance, where we are willing to recognize that we have been taking and rationalizing the wrong paths in our life. However, with a healthy self-skepticism and repentance needs to be joined a learning of what is good and life-giving in order for it to bring life, joy, and peace, which we must learn from another who knows before we can find it ourselves. Hence, trust, and more particularly a trust in God, is need to be joined with a healthy self-skepticism and repentance to realize the life-giving purposes that God has for our lives.