On Existentials and Skeptics.


I thought I’d start this off with something easy. You know, nothing too deep. Nice and simple and unchallenging. Unfortunately, I appear to want to talk about existentials, so the nice, simple stuff is going to have to wait until later.

I’m in my mid-late 20s, I have a couple of Arts degrees*, and, in case nobody’s mentioned it to you, we’re in a recession**. Having an entirely fashionable quarter-life crisis is only to be expected. In my case, this has revolved around two main themes. The first is pretty basic- where am I going in my life and why am I nowhere near any of the massively important ‘grown-up’ milestones that so many people around me seem to be galloping past? The second is far more interesting than that, and is to do with some ways in which I have done a bit of growing-up over the past few years.

One of the major things I have been doing over the past few years is coming into my own as a skeptic. While it didn’t hand me a ready-made career, college did teach me an awful lot about critical thinking- and once you start that (awesome!) process of questioning and looking deeper into the world around and within you, it’s hard to stop. For me, this process also involved a transformation, so gradual I couldn’t tell you where it started and when it stabilised, towards what currently appears to be a confident atheism. My newfound perspective on the world was something I found both marvellous and terrifying- but that’s a whole new topic for another post. However, what is relevant here is that I spent a lot of time lurking about skeptical and atheism-related blogs and communities, as well as devouring all the related books I could get my hands on.

Those people love science. I mean, they really, really love it. I love it too- the process of finding out, of increasing knowledge, the ways in which we correct for our biases and come to the most wonderfully fascinating discoveries. It inspires all sorts of flowery language in me, images of our relentlessly chipping away at out own ignorance, the wonders of describing what we can barely grasp, our having created tools to compensate for the weaknesses of the very minds that created them- that sort of thing. I think it is, for want of a better word, awesome.

As for what I do, what I’m trained in? It’s in the grey area between Real Science and, well, Everything Else. One of the unfortunate things about being around a community of people who are so excited about science is that they’re, to put it mildly, a bit less excited about things that may not strictly be considered science. Social science is fuzzy that way. Because in the social sciences we are people studying people, it’s impossible for anyone to be unbiased or detached from the data. You may think you can, but any social scientist worth their salt knows that even sociologists are part of society, have been moulded and biased by the very thing we want to study. It provides quite the challenge, to be honest. But it means that if you’re going to do good research, one of the first things to do is to quit even thinking you’ll get the same kind of certainty that your counterparts in the hard sciences can achieve. Useful knowledge and fascinating insights? Absolutely! But it’ll rarely be replicable, or generalisable, and you’ll never be able to fully correct for your own bias.

And yes, this is where the existential comes in. One of the major fears I’ve had in recent times is that I’m going in the wrong direction in my life. That I took a wrong turning back when I started college, and, goddamnit, if I could do it over I’d be a marine biologist*** by now. Or, at the very least, doing something that I’d need a lab for. In my head, for a while, that was what was truly useful, what would make a real difference in the world.

It wasn’t until the other day that it hit me that I was thinking about things the wrong way around. Sure, it would be lovely to go back to college and do another degree in something deliciously sciencey. In the kind of science that everyone acknowledges is Science. In the kind of thing that doesn’t get disparagingly referred to as wishy-washy, or somehow not real. But that wishy washy, not-real-science field? That’s where I cut my teeth on critical thinking. That’s where I learned how to examine, and re-examine, and to question everything. To not take things at face value. It’s where I developed the very skills that made me want to go back to college and be a ‘real’ scientist.

So you never know. Maybe someday, when I’ve the money****, I’ll take myself back to college and have a fine old time at Real Science. However, for the moment, I’m okay with being a person who knows how to do good research and answer questions that could do with answering, and I’m okay with my field being one that people see as a bit ‘fuzzy’. It was that fuzziness that taught me to look harder, question more, and be prepared for my assumptions to be shown up at any moment. It’s really… kind of awesome.

.

* BA in Sociology and Politics, and MA in Sociology of Development and Globalisation. Entirely lovely, both of them.

**It is possible that you’re not in a recession. Lucky you! Please send information regarding your location, as well as immigration requirements and procedures. Also, since you’re not in a recession, you probably have a sofa for someone to crash on, right?

*** In my fantasies, I am a marine biologist somewhere marvellously exotic, making incredibly fascinating discoveries that just happen to take place in breathtakingly beautiful coral reefs. I can dream, right? Right?

****I KNOW! I made a FUNNY! I have Arts degrees, we don’t make money! The lulz, they kill me.