THE X-FILES’ TRUE SKEPTIC.
Who is the true skeptic of the X-files, that 90s TV series concerning two FBI agents who investigate paranormal activities?
The answer might seem obvious to anyone who has heard of the show. Everybody knows that Agent Fox Mulder is the Believer, driven by an incident from his childhood in which his sister Samantha was taken from the family home. Mulder believes this crime was committed by aliens and as an adult devotes his life to proving the reality of alien abductions, ghosts, ESP, and anything which lies beyond scientific explanation.
His perfect counterpoint is his partner, Dana Scully. A medical scientist, she seeks the more plausible explanation as an alternative to Mulder’s outlandish speculations. It is not a UFO, it is swamp gas. It is not a phenomenon involving the teleportation of some object, it is an ordinary crime made to look extraordinary. In earlier episodes of the series, Scully would typically raise her eyebrow at Mulder’s theories, thereby registering her utter disbelief.
Scully, then, is the skeptic to Mulder’s believer.
But, actually, I would argue that Mulder is the true skeptic.
To be fair to agent Scully, while she is not a true skeptic like Mulder is, it would be unfair to call her a psuedoskeptic. What is a psuedoskeptic? For one thing, it is a term that is much abused by conspiracy theory nuts, who typically level it at anybody who does not take their word for it about what is really going on, or are not persuaded as they are by what evidence has been presented in support of whatever it is they believe. More rational people would counter this attitude by pointing out that the more extraordinary a claim is, the greater the burden of proof needs to be. A real psuedoskeptic is not someone who is yet to be persuaded to accept a radical theory, but rather someone who cannot be persuaded, because they just know it cannot be, and nothing will change their mind.
The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard pointed out that there are two ways in which to fool oneself. “One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true”. A real psuedoskeptic is guilty of the latter kind of self-deception, particularly when the truth has been established beyond reasonable doubt.
In that sense, then, Agent Scully is not a psuedoskeptic, because she is quite clearly willing to accept the existence of that which lies beyond the boundaries of current science. In fact, as the series develops she becomes somewhat less the rigid scientist accepting nothing but a materialist explanation and becomes more open to so-called ‘extreme possibilties’ (actually, Dana is a catholic so it is probably not appropriate to call her a strict materialist).
But while she is more open-minded than either a conspiracy theory nut (that would be a person guilty of Kiergegaard’s first kind of self-deception) or a psuedoskeptic, she is not quite the perfect skeptic that Mulder is.
So what makes Mulder a better skeptic than Scully, indeed most people?
It is because he is so rationally open to extreme possibilities. In other words, he has a really fine-tuned ability to judge when the time has come to look beyond conventional, rational thinking. He does not just jump straight to extreme possibilities if the evidence does not justify such a leap. In fact, quite often he is heard to say “I see no evidence of” (insert name of paranormal activity here). And when the evidence supports the more down-to-Earth explanation, Mulder accepts such explanations, even when it means abandoning beliefs central to his whole character (as happens around Season 4-5 when evidence seems to support his sister’s abduction not happening like he always believed).
But when the mundane explanations are unsatisfactory, and fail to account for everything he has witnessed, then (in his own words)
“When convention and science offers us no answers, might we not finally turn to the fantastic as a plausibility”?
Now, I said earlier that Agent Scully does ‘finally turn to the fantastic as a plausibility’. But I think it is fair to say she is never quite as comfortable with this as Mulder is. Whereas Mulder will listen to somebody and quite clearly takes them seriously until he has evidence that what this person is claiming cannot be so, Scully tends not to take anybody seriously unless they present evidence that shows what they claim IS so. And she quite often turns her back on folks who approach them with tales of alien abductions, ghostly visitations, psychic abilities, etc. Mulder never does that. He is the perfect agnostic, open to their stories, at least until such time as evidence indicates they are fooling themselves into believing something which is not true.
So that is why Agent Mulder is the perfect skeptic. He is genuinely open to extreme possibilities. He does not prejudge and is willing to abandon former beliefs if the evidence merits such a move, even when the beliefs to be abandoned were very dear to him. He has a great intuition, and is very capable of judging the moment when conventional explanations are not good enough. He knows when the time has come to ‘finally turn to the fantastic as a plausibility’.