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.