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Properly Skeptical

In Christianity & Atheism, Science & Religion on June 28, 2010 by thesignalinthenoise Tagged: , , , , , , ,

P.Z. Myers is the attack dog of the New Atheists.  He knows his role and he plays it well.  His part is to run out ahead of the movement’s stars, saying and doing outrageous things, so as to stretch the Overton Window and make the stars seem more reasonable by comparison.  For this role, P.Z. gets lots of hits and fanboys at his website (and sometimes even some interesting and helpful comments amidst the floating waste there).  He also occasionally gets to sit with the stars at the big-boy table.  That seems to be more than enough for him in general.

Once in a while, however, P.Z. hits on something that’s really important and significant.  This past week-end offered such an occasion.  P.Z. raised an interesting question:  Should skeptic organizations be atheist organizations?  As a would-be, tries-to-be skeptic, I can fully endorse his conclusion:

The skeptic movement will be inclusive and allow anyone to participate, and participation means your ideas will be scrutinized and criticized and sometimes mocked and sometimes praised.

All ideas should be open to criticism.  But I also don’t think that skepticism should be ideological in the least.  The fact that skeptics may come to different conclusions based upon the same evidence simply means that we’re all human.  Pamela Gay is a skeptic and a good one.    So’s Bill Phillips.  Martin Gardner was too.  I think that the idea that skepticism invokes any litmus tests (with respect to religion, politics, economics, whatever) is just plain wrong.

But P.Z. does make at least one important error.  He asks the following question.

What’s so privileged about belief in general that the mere statement that someone says they believe in something means we should stumble all over ourselves running away from the possibility of challenging it?

Part of what is inferred by this question gets my full endorsement — being challenged about beliefs is perfectly appropriate.  Indeed, it’s necessary and healthy if we’re going to make progress as individuals and as a society.  However, P.Z. means more than that.

It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about skeptical organizations or the science classroom, saying you believe in something does not suddenly make it immune to criticism or insulate it from the requirements of evidence and reason (emphasis supplied).

As noted, I think that no ideas deserve immunity from examination and criticism.  But the suggestion that all beliefs must be demonstrated or at least supported by evidence and reason is a mistaken one.  Evidence and reason focus upon logic and plausibility, but logic and plausibility rarely get to the heart of the matter.  We need to try out ideas if we think they are good ones even when they are (to that point) undemonstrated or unsupported.  I still cannot support the claim that “all men [persons] are created equal.”  But I believe it and believe it to be good policy.  The Framers’ noble 1776 experiment was a good one, even if they had no reason to expect it to work. 

Look at science, for instance, where one can at least strive to approximate something approaching objective fact.  Science is not linear.  If nothing else, Kuhn taught us that.  Neither is science monolithic (which is not to say that all ideas are created equal).  Indeed, as David Freedman’s Wrong points out relentlessly, much of scientific research is simply wrong.  Mathematician John Ioannidis goes so far as to tell Freedman that “The facts suggest that for many, if not the majority of fields, the majority of published studies are likely to be wrong.”  (I want to be careful to note that that Ioannidis’s work can readily be misinterpreted to dismiss the findings of science or to try to prop up denialism — that’s not remotely what I wish to suggest).  The world of values, ethics, and morals is even more likely to provide poor answers than science because these subjects are incapable of offering conclusive demonstration.

To expand the point, each of us (and every ideology — good, bad, indifferent, benign, effective, evil, etc.) necessarily rests his or her core beliefs (or humanity if you will) on certain ideas that we must take as given since they cannot in principle be evidence-based. Examples include such statements as all men are created equal, I should marry her, representative government is good, Bach’s music is beautiful, political equality is a fundamental right, ice cream tastes great (I especially like strawberry), we should help the weak and the oppressed, and love is the most important thing.  These ideas relate to the most interesting and significant areas of our existence (at least in my view) — meaning, value, virtue, beauty, desire and worth.  Indeed, these foundational principles relate to what we, in our better moments, think of as being human.  Put another way, there are a significant number of things we existentially need to know about which evidence-based thinking can have nothing whatsoever to say.

Some of these base-line assumptions may be falsified, surely, but they may not be evidenced. Let’s look again at the idea that all persons are created equal.  You might recall the scandal when James Watson was famously quoted as saying that “he was inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa,” since “all of our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours — whereas all the testing says not really;” that “people who have to deal with black employees find that [the belief that everyone is equal] is not true;” and that “there is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically. Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so.” Watson was vilified for the opinions he expressed, and rightly so.  Some tried to counter his claims on evidence-based grounds, but none claimed that universal equality is evidence-based. Watson has since backtracked, at least somewhat, but the point is still made. All of us rightly base our lives on ideas which cannot be supported by evidence.

When we try ideas on for size, so to speak, we need to evaluate them critically and skeptically.  P.Z. is quite right about that.  But if we wait for adequate support before we try anything out, little of value will get built or done.  It’s easier to destroy than to create after all.  Is doesn’t equate or point to ought

If we throw out all unevidenced belief, we lose much that is of real value.  If we throw out all undemonstrated belief, we lose most of what has real value.  The belief that we’re all created equal is one worth saving — at the very least — even though I can’t demonstrate or even really support it.

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5 Responses to “Properly Skeptical”

  1. Erm, I think you just plainly misunderstand PZ Myers here. He is discussing the culture of shielding beliefs from criticism. That culture is real. People indeed will claim immunity for superstitious or unfounded claims by saying it’s a religious belief.

    Some religious beliefs are not very relevant to question. But some are. But that shield is not discriminant. It’s not saying, OK here is an area where there are conflicting pieces of evidence or world views so critique is OK, but this is not OK to critique.

    As for your case that science can be wrong. Yes it can, but we have methods to establish something being wrong and replacing it with something better. Science at least has a process to find improvements.

    I agree that I don’t believe in “all men [persons] are created equal.” but it’s because I don’t believe they are created equal. I fully believe that we should treat all people equally, but this is not an unfounded belief, it’s founded on the observation that if I permit inequality I can be the one who suffers less benefits than others. And it is founded in the very real emotion of empathy.

    But you are right we have to act with limited evidence. But that is not what PZ says. He says things have to be scruitinized. If you maintain a belief in the presence of evidence, but shield it against that evidence, that is when the problem starts.

    Basically the “all men are created equal” racism is a product of dogmatic belief in creation and disappears when one gives up creation and recognizes that of course we are all different, taller/shorter, stronger/weaker, smart/not-so-smart. But it doesn’t matter. We all deserve equal rights and equal treatment, and the best treatment possible.

    This is what atheists mean when they say dogma gets in the way. It indeed does!

    We do not need to believe if men are equal, because per evidence we know they are not, and the creator question was an obstruction to a trivial moral question to which we already have a perfectly good secular answer, encoded in the declaration of Universal Human Rights.

    Finally on the declaration of independence, it was written in theistic language because that was appealing in the time. Many of those who were part of it would have been perfectly capable of writing: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all persons should treat each other equally and owns certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

    The declaration of equality and rights to live free, does not require a creator nor does it require evidence beyond evidence we see every day. That of empathy, of suffering, of unequal treatment and the detrimental effect.

    Liberal enlightenment was not invented out of no evidence, it was invented out of the observed oppressions and inequalities, specifically in France and the early US as run by the British.

    PZ says nothing what contradicts that. You basically misunderstand PZ’s line. And you misunderstand evidence and history.

    • People indeed will claim immunity for superstitious or unfounded claims by saying it’s a religious belief.

      Indeed they do. But my point is a different one.

      Science at least has a process to find improvements.

      That is a huge advantage. Systems based upon nondemonstrables (such as values) don’t have that luxury, but they surely change over time. People generally only accept what they think works for them. Thus such systems generally need to adapt over time. Christianity, even though it has never been monolithic, today looks a lot different than it did even 50 years ago.

      I don’t believe in “all men [persons] are created equal.” but it’s because I don’t believe they are created equal. I fully believe that we should treat all people equally, but this is not an unfounded belief, it’s founded on the observation that if I permit inequality I can be the one who suffers less benefits than others. And it is founded in the very real emotion of empathy.

      We differ here. I believe in ontological equality as well in the good reasons for applying it you cite.

      But that is not what PZ says. He says things have to be scruitinized. If you maintain a belief in the presence of evidence, but shield it against that evidence, that is when the problem starts.

      If he meant no more than that, I wouldn’t disagree. But I think he follows Clifford.

      Finally on the declaration of independence, it was written in theistic language because that was appealing in the time. Many of those who were part of it would have been perfectly capable of writing: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all persons should treat each other equally and owns certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

      For those rights to be inalienable, they needed to have come from Someone with authority greater than that of the King.

  2. “That is a huge advantage. Systems based upon nondemonstrables (such as values) don’t have that luxury, but they surely change over time. People generally only accept what they think works for them. Thus such systems generally need to adapt over time. Christianity, even though it has never been monolithic, today looks a lot different than it did even 50 years ago.”

    Show my one prominent atheist who denies that chrisianity has evolved. You misunderstand the criticism. The problem is that some faithful oppose science, they actively undermine education, they try to undermine the constitution and government.

    That is the problem. If religious would stop meddling/imposing/bullying you’d be surprised how quickly outspoken atheism disappears.

    Examples:
    *) Creation in classrooms
    *) Removal of founders (Jefferson) from textbooks in favor of heros of conservative christian thinkers and figures of the “moral majority” like Phyllis Schlafly.
    *) Rewriting of the original pledge to exclude some part of the population.
    *) Unconstitutional religious litmus tests for public office in states.
    *) Teach the controvery movement that indoctrinates children to challenge teachers and misrepresents science as “just a theory”

    Christianity is not only evolving socially, it’s also regressing. The theory of evolution is a solid theory for over 100 years now. Yet we still have to fight to protect it against demogogues who don’t know what they are talking about. Yes Christianity has evolved. Among all the positive, it has also spawned very negative.

    “We differ here. I believe in ontological equality as well in the good reasons for applying it you cite.”

    You apply your beliefs to others. Simply advice, don’t. It’s the same as guessing someones intentions.

    In any case PZ says nothing about equality. You construct that connection.

    “If he meant no more than that, I wouldn’t disagree. But I think he follows Clifford.”

    I don’t even know which Clifford you refer to. I’ll ignore the remark.

    “For those rights to be inalienable, they needed to have come from Someone with authority greater than that of the King.”

    And that contradicts what I said how? For people to believe in authority it doesn’t need to be real. The same god that was used to justify equality was the god used to justify the authority and power of the king. Read Locke.

  3. “I don’t even know which Clifford you refer to. I’ll ignore the remark.”

    W.K. Clifford, who claimed that “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”

    “And that contradicts what I said how? For people to believe in authority it doesn’t need to be real. The same god that was used to justify equality was the god used to justify the authority and power of the king. Read Locke.”

    If there is no such authority, there can be no inalienable rights. In the same way, there can be no divine right of kings.

  4. Who has more rights to inalienate others rights if there is no god?

    No, equality needs no deity. Inequality does. Hence why monarchs in Europe sought divine mandate. The Ayatollah in Iran maintains his unequal power through divine mandate etc etc.

    If without god one person or group can try to aliente rights of others, but that doesn’t mean that they had any rights to do so.

    This idea that some concepts need a god for justification is silly. Simple reciprocation already leads to an egalitarian society. Doesn’t need any good.

    God however has served to cement long standing inequalities. Man/women, masters/slaves, kings/commoners, straight/gay.

    Without a god saying that a woman is but a rip of the man, without a god saying that a man has the right to beat his woman if she disobeys, there is no inherent justifications for these things.

    God did not give us inalienable rights, we claim equality to be an inalienable right. Inalienable as “not negotiable”.

    And those of us who really believe it, work to remove those barries to equality that still exist, whether god is used to justify the inequality or anything else.

    The right to equality and happiness is non-negotiable. Hence gay rights equality is indeed non-negotiable, inalienable. But despite all people have their rights we still have to work to ensure that they are not taken from them. God clearly doesn’t step in. The legal system and the court, and people who advocate for it do.

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