In a previous post I mentioned that “critical” and “skeptical” are not synonymous, and I thought that I would expand on that point a bit here. In order to do so I’ll add a third word, “credulous,” which although usually considered the antithesis of “skeptical” is in fact little more than its mirror image.
Let us parse out these terms, beginning positively with “critical.”
To be critical is to be a critic, which means to be one who judges. More to the point, within an empirico-rational discourse it is one who judges matters on her or his own authority. This italicized portion is crucial. The critic renders judgments upon empirical and rational matters not by appeal to this or that external authority but rather by appeal to her or his capacity to attentively, intelligently, and reasonably evaluate data and argumentation relevant to the matter at hand. The critic proceeds with a robust and earned competence born from years and not infrequently decades of diligent cultivation of her or his capacity to make such judgments within a particular area of investigation. Moreover, having such robust competence in one realm, and knowing how much effort it took to earn that competence, the critic is 1) aware that she or he lacks comparable competence in other realms and 2) respects the competence of those who do work in disparate realms of knowledge.
Neither the skeptic nor the credulist shares in this robust and earned competence. The skeptic or the credulist might think that she or he has such competence, but in fact what one is dealing with is an incompetence so profound that it mistakes its own ignorance and inability to reason for insight. It is the lack of competence that provides the impetus for such people to pursue skepticism and credulity. In each case the way of proceeding is identical: one programmatically adopts an epistemology that allows one in advance to decide all empirical and rational matters in the area of discussion before any actual investigation has taken place. Such a person does this by a sleight of hand involving burden of proof. She or he programmatically assumes (if a credulist) that all must be true or (if a skeptic) that all must be false until shown elsewise. Such a person does not engage in any actual work of judgment where it really counts, namely the attentive sifting of the data, the imaginative construction of worlds that might intelligibly have produced such data, the rational adjudication between such imagined worlds in order to determine which is the one in which we most likely live. Both the skeptic and the credulist, woefully under-equipped for such work, would rather short-circuit the process of investigation by epistemological fiat. That is, after all, much easier than undertaking the difficult work of cultivating one’s own competence.
In practice of course the same person can move between credulity and skepticism at different times. It is not unusual for one to credulous towards biblical and Patristic yet skeptical towards extra-canonical material, or vice versa. The same person who is a rabid skeptic regarding “the establishment” can be utterly credulous when it comes to conspiracy theorists. This is because, as suggested above, credulity and skepticism are just alternative and precisely inverse strategies for handling a lack of competence. Such epistemological vacillation recedes, replaced by the actual, difficult, work of criticism, as the person cultivates her or his competence.