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Skepticism and African Awakening

Posted: Tue, November 13, 2012 | By: Leo Igwe



Action is a product of belief. Our beliefs are forms and mental maps. Our actions are the content. Our beliefs shape our actions. They guide our behaviours and attitudes. In discussing or trying to understand human predicament or enterprise both beliefs and actions come into play. So, what kind of belief or attitude to beliefs should inform the much needed enlightenment in Africa?

To address this topic, I would like to refer to a statement by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant said that the Scottish thinker, David Hume, woke him up from his dogmatic slumber. “I freely admit that it was the remembrance of David Hume which, many years ago, first interrupted my dogmatic slumber and gave my investigations in the field of speculative philosophy a completely different direction.” said Kant in his Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics(1783). It is important to note that the interruption of his ‘dogmatic slumber’ changed the direction of his philosophical inquiry. And for the purpose of this article, I would like us to replace ‘the field of speculative philosophy’ with ‘the field of life’. Now what did David Hume actually do to change the direction of Kant’s philosophical inquiry? In what way did he interrupt Kant’s intellectual sleep? 

Hume penned down words-his thoughts- which helped open Kant’s eyes and mind. Hume made Kant to begin to question his beliefs and to stop relying on faith or dogma as the foundations of knowledge or as the guarantor of truth or certainty.

Hume caused Kant to rethink and to re-evaluate human epistemology, which is critical to human action, human life and human existence. According to Hume, “We base our beliefs on what happened in the past, but just because it happened in the past does not mean it will happen in the future.” The critical insight contained in this statement can take so many dimensions. It can be extended and applied to other claims and assumptions that feature in our daily lives.

We base our beliefs too on what is written in the holy books, and just because it is written in a holy book does not make it true or moral; just because it was said by my parents or by my teacher, by a prophet, pastor or an imam does not make it true;because it is a ancient tradition does not make it right, or something that ought to be done; because a belief is entertained by the majority for a long time, or is declared or endorsed by an ‘authority’ or a respected personality does not make it incontrovertibly right, valid or factual.

Now think about it. How many of our beliefs are based on this mental habit and thinking pattern? How much of our lives as individuals or as a society are governed and shaped by the dogmatic traditions that impose necessary connections and association on events that are not so related? How much of our lives are held hostage by individuals and groups with vested interest on imaginary causations purportedly instituted and sanctioned by imaginary beings? How much of the truth claims we entertain are as a result of ‘imputed veracity’ not evidence?

Hume invites us to examine-and to re-examine- the basis of our beliefs, the foundations of our knowledge and truth claims. Otherwise we may be living and languishing in the dark, ‘calm’ and ‘comforting’ tunnel of intellectual forgetfulness, mental imperturbability and ataraxia.

We can take Hume’s skepticism further by asking. Did it happen at all? For there are many events which we believe happened in the past which never happened or did not happen as they said. Many things were fabricated and passed on to us to believe without question in the name of religion, science, tradition or history. Some are lies or myths-the euphemism often used to perpetuate lies forged in the past. We need to ask under what circumstances it happened. Who was there when it happened? What actually happened? What is the source of our knowledge claim that it happened? Is it through oral tradition? Who was the narrator? Is it through a documented text? Who documented it? Why and how did he/she document it?

Leo Igwe, International Humanist
Leo Igwe, International Humanist

What was the mental state of the narrator or author? How do we know the narrator or author was ‘absolutely’ right and not mistaken? If there are conflicting and contradicting accounts of what happened, how do we know the truth especially when we are told not to question, inquire or critically evaluate these claims? How do we distinguish appearance from reality?

Very often we think that because something purportedly happened in the past then it must be true, it must not be questioned. Often we are told certain non commonsensical events happened in the past -and only in the past- and cannot reoccur in the present. This is particularly the case when such an event is associated with some supernatural beings or with persons who are believed to have supernatural powers. These beliefs can be indigenous or foreign, local or international, traditional or modern, religious or secular. For instance, we are told that some books were revealed by spirits in the past, that they contain the eternal word of God. We are made to believe that some prophets who lived in the past performed miracles like turning water into wine, walking on a sea, resurrecting from the dead and ascending into heaven on a flaming horse. We are told that some centuries ago the‘the omnipresent’ deity eventually showed up in human form in certain parts of the world. That god sent certain persons with special messages to guide humankind forever. Today across Africa, there are persons who claim to be god-sent and god-anointed with sometimes conflicting messages and revelations from supposedly the same deity.

We need to wake up to these facts of human epistemology-to the fact of human fallibility and errancy- so as to experience the much needed interruption of our dogmatic slumber as individuals, as a group, as a society and as a generation.

What is most disturbing is not only that these dubious and dogmatic beliefs exist unquestioned and unchallenged. But that there are a number of individuals and groups who use them to exploit other people. Despite widespread exploitation, harm and damage by self acclaimed god men and women, many people still have refused to challenge these claims. Many people have refused to wake up.

In fact many people have been duped by individuals and groups who enrich themselves by marketing spurious spiritual, supernatural and paranormal wares. Many Africans are suffering and dying due to unfounded irrational beliefs. Many people who are sick are exploited by faith healers and witchdoctors. Peddlers of prosperity gospel extort money from poor and ignorant believers. Witch hunters who attribute all problems to witchcraft and magic attack and lynch elderly people. They torture and kill in the name of exorcism children, people with disabilities and others believed to be possessed by occult spirits. Ritualists kill and mutilate albinos, women and children to harvest body parts used to prepare charms. In fact some Africans are currently in jail in Africa and overseas due to superstition-based crimes and scams. Today, Africans have no reason to continue to sleep and slumber in the cave of dogma and blind faith. A lot is happening in Africa that can get Africans to start questioning and re-examining their beliefs.

Just as Kant’s awakening from dogmatic slumber changed the direction of his philosophical inquiry, intellectual awakening in Africa can change and re-direct the lives of Africans. It can positively and progressively transform the society and get Africa and Africans on the sure part of emergence, civilization and renewal.



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