The heart of skepticism, which is also cental to Buddhist philosophy, is that things are not what they seem. We build our lives up based on our beliefs, what we take to be true. We are often then confronted with unpleasant surprises. What we took to be true turns out to be false. Our world collapses when the foundations we have relied upon reveal their instability.
Uncertainty in our convictions can also arise when we discover that other people have different beliefs than we do. Before we discover that our own beliefs are unreliable, we tend to quickly conclude that other people's conflicting beliefs must simply be wrong. It often seems justified to apply any means necessary to eliminate such error so truth may prevail. Heretics are burned, religious wars mounted.
With sufficient maturity a more skeptical attitude may develop. One learns through experience that one's own beliefs are not reliable, that just because one believes a thing does not imply the truth of that belief. Even if one has tested a belief, further experience may shake that belief, may reveal some deeper truth, may awaken one to one's illusions. When one confronts a conflicting belief, one realizes that one's own belief could actually be the one in error. Instead of just assuming that one's own beliefs must be the true ones, instead one initiates a process of investigation, gathering and weighing evidence, engaging in debate and negotiation. One suspends commitment to one's own beliefs at least temporarily, attempting to judge impartially between conflicting beliefs based on the facts rather than the vagaries of historically entrenched opinion.
With such an approach one has shifted the ground of one's faith from a particular set of beliefs to a method of deciding among beliefs. The scientific method is just this, a commitment to deciding belief though a process of gathering evidence and weighing it through public discourse. As science developed in European culture, so did parallel notions of deciding political issues by democratic processes and economic issues by market processes. This commitment to investigate beliefs we can call "first-order skepticism". The facts about the way the world works, or the value of a commodity, or the social behavior should be regulated, are to be decided by processes of negotiation and debate rather than by any fixed rule eternally etched in the stone of traditional authority.
To question the results of such processes of public negotiation and debate, to propose an alternative science, might seem like a proposal to return to some such fixed authority. Indeed such authoritarian alternatives have not only been proposed but enacted in fundamentalist and totalitarian regimes where debate and negotiation are ruthlessly suppressed.
But in fact there are many possible methods of gathering and weighing evidence, many possible decision procedures. To consider alternatives to one method is not to reject all methods but to start opening up to this space of possibility. The traditional forms of debate and negotiation are not the only forms. Alternative forms can be considered. The advantages and disadvantages of the various forms can be investigated. We can learn to apply more effective methods to decide between conflicting beliefs.
This questioning of method we can call "second-order skepticism". With first-order skepticism we realized the possible truth of alternative beliefs. With second-order skepticism we realize the potential value of alternative methods of investigation, of gathering and weighing evidence, of debate and negotiation. The traditional methods may not lead to the best decisions. We recognize the need to investigate the methods themselves.
This investigation of alternative methods is already bearing fruit in politics and economics. The superiority in some political situations of various voting methods such as approval voting have been demonstrated. Various forms of bidding have been explored and their improved efficiency demonstrated in some market situations. But how to investigate methods of investigation? Doesn't the circularity, the paradoxicality of such a project doom it, render it fruitless or impossible or meaningless? This obstacle seems to be rooted in Cartesian dualism, the adherence to a clean division between the knowing subject and the known object. From such a dualistic perspective, it cannot be impossible for the process of knowing to itself be an object of knowing. Second-order skepticism lets go of this dualism. However we go about investigating methods of investigation, the way we go about it may become itself an object of investigation. Here again we may call on our faith in Buddhism to give us courage to devote ourselves to compassionate action within a vast space without fixed reference points. It is the clinging to beliefs and institutions as if they were eternal and absolute, the refusal to recognize their conventionality, the refusal to investigate their interdependence, that creates suffering.