On Scepticism

The Bible Car: Driver Side
Image by ASurroca via Flickr

I have been doing a little light reading recently, mostly online.  I don’t want to discuss the content of what I have been reading, though.  Instead I would like to discuss the reactions to the reading I have been doing.  The nature of true scepticism is to have an open mind: to say that I do not believe the claim made but if sufficient proof can be found I will change my view on the matter.  True scepticism applies to everything: crime reports, whether your partner is/isn’t having an affair, the daily news, whether the fish caught really was “that big” and so on.  It is healthy to be sceptical, otherwise we would all walk around looking like idiots as we believed without question absolutely everything we were told.

The opposite end of scepticism is not, I think, belief but instead it is cynicism.  The dictionary ( :pseudo: ) defines a cynic as believing that everything is done through self interest, but this has pretty much expanded to also mean a disbelief in things; the assmption that everyone is a liar.  This latter extreme bars one in gaining any extra knowledge in the same way that believing everything does – one just makes you disbelieve everything and the other gives you no filter against any new knowledge and so it all becomes meaningless.  True scepticism sits neatly between the two extremes.  It means that one will listen to the information, weigh it up, test it and then come to a conclusion.  If that sounds familiar then you are probably a scientist! :drugnerd: This is something we should all do and usually fail to do – hence the spate of news stories about ghosts, psychics and other stuff.  All of this is presented as absolute truth and is usually not even slightly looked into – in an ideal world, none of these stories would ever appear on the news (unless in a “funny old world” way) because they are easily disprovable.

In terms of my personal bête noire psychics and homeopaths, there is a famous saying “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence“.  So what does this actually mean?  In the link, the site there discusses the resurrection of Jesus.  Don’t worry, I’m not going to go off on an atheist rant here 🙂   This does, though, illustrate the point.  A Christian, generally speaking, will accept that the man Jesus died (was murdered, killed, etc) and after 3 days rose from the dead and walked around and spoke to people prior to ascending to heaven.  This is a very powerful image and constitutes proof of his divinity.  A sceptic, however, would point to the fact that the only real testimony of this is from the Bible which is, as we all know, a hodge-podge of anecdotal and second hand information filtered through the early Church to make it politically acceptable.  Since then there have been no reliable testimonies of people rising from true death and the miracle is something that we know now can be falsified with various drugs.  So, bearing in mind that this is not possible to be proved true or false, where does the sceptic go with this?  The sceptic is left where s/he started – it can’t be proven, it can be falsified and there is no proof either way.  I can happily live with that.

However, my light reading has shown me something very interesting.  Let’s look at what Merriam-Webster have to say about skepticism (US dictionary, US spelling I’m afraid):

1 : an attitude of doubt or a disposition to incredulity either in general or toward a particular object
2 a : the doctrine that true knowledge or knowledge in a particular area is uncertain b : the method of suspended judgment, systematic doubt, or criticism characteristic of skeptics
3 : doubt concerning basic religious principles (as immortality, providence, and revelation)

As we can see, it is a means of suspending judgement and the unsaid bit there is “until proof one way or another arrives”.  Fun stuff, eh?  In practical terms, I can say that I can fly.  I can also present you with several people who “definitely, really saw me fly the other day and it was awesome”.  I can also put together a batch of seemingly scientific papers to show that unaided flight is not only possible but has been reported on for many years.  Do you believe me?  Of course not because I have failed to actually show you that I can fly.  Ah, I may say, but you live many miles away and it is not practical for either of us to meet so you can see proof of my flying.  So you’ll just have to believe me, right?  Nope again.  Maybe you would suggest that I create a video with eye witnesses or present myself to your nearby friend/relative to show them that I can fly so they can tell you.  Or maybe submit myself to, ooh, I don’t know the Million Dollar Challenge, perhaps?  And so on.  We are all naturally sceptical and this is a very healthy thing.  Personal beliefs will make you suspend this – religion, belief in the paranormal, etc – but broadly we are all sceptical.

All this is a long winded way to bring me to my next point.  I have read several sites with both a pro- and anti- paranormal stance.  The responses to both the main story and the comments are strangely similar.  If your blog is atheistic or anti-paranormal, the commenters will form into two camps, both with their own prejudices and their own set of respected scholars.  The difference is that the pro- side will generally derail the argument and often present responses to arguments that haven’t been made.  This is a common tactic, by the way.  Many will simply offer to pray for the poster or commenter as if this will make them change their mind.  On both sides, however, 2 things shine through: educated people have their own beliefs and will take one side over the other accordingly and both sides will be absolutely sure that they are right and the other side is wrong.  This is not scepticism but, unfortunately, it is human.  As humans we are predisposed to pick a side and, as humans, we are predisposed to defend that side.  As internet humans (!) we are predisposed to be less polite than we would be in a face to face setting!

So is there a fix for the lack of calmness and rationality on both sides?  I don’t think so.  We are human after all and as such we will display the same traits no matter what the subject or our personal backgrounds and beliefs.  Academics are no less prone to outbursts of irrationality than street sweepers or anyone else.  All I can suggest is that we all recognise when we are becoming too heated and to try to see the argument from the other side – a good exercise would be to pick a position and then to defend the other side.  Also, we need to know that being open minded does not mean that you should believe in everything you are told, an open mind will understand that your position may not always be the correct one.

Oh, and if you are making an extraordinary claim, get some extraordinary evidence to back it up or you will be called a kook.

For examples of extraordinary claims, follow this link to the Challenge Applications listing on the JREF site.  These are descriptions of the claims made by applicants and the evolving protocols designed for them to prove the claims.

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Posted on 9 August, 2009, in Skeptical Stories and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. I agree. When we discuss online, we all tend to take sides. Unfortunately when a discussion starts off on a heated note, even moderate voices of reason are drowned or silenced or forced to take up a strong and hostile stance.

    "The difference is that the pro- side will generally derail the argument and often present responses to arguments that haven’t been made. "

    I've seen both sides being equally irrational and often the anti- side being even more irrational than the other. On the other hand, you also have to recognize that the pro-side often have a greater disadvantage when starting out – the whole burden of proof being put on their side. It's no wonder that in the heat of batlte, many people are forced to take positions they might not care to defend – much like in a real war.

    I have to say that though I am convinced that God exists, I cannot offer real or tangible proof of His existence. My best argument is that higher spirituality is a state of existence and evolution and cannot be attained by mere intellectual argument.

  2. "The difference is that the pro- side will generally derail the argument and often present responses to arguments that haven’t been made."

    I've seen both sides being equally irrational and often the anti- side being even more irrational than the other.

    Yeah, was being a little unfair there. If it gets heated enough, both sides are capable of skipping the actual argument and jumping onto an imagined one.

    On the other hand, you also have to recognize that the pro-side often have a greater disadvantage when starting out – the whole burden of proof being put on their side. It's no wonder that in the heat of batlte, many people are forced to take positions they might not care to defend – much like in a real war.

    I have to say that though I am convinced that God exists, I cannot offer real or tangible proof of His existence. My best argument is that higher spirituality is a state of existence and evolution and cannot be attained by mere intellectual argument.

    If you don't want to defend a claim, don't make one! The difference between your quiet belief and that of too many others is that you don't want a Theocracy or even a world where dissenting opinion is disallowed. Bearing in mind the ratio of believer in any god/s to the ratio of non-believers, we are the minority and have difficulties in being heard.

    The fact is, in terms of religion or other woo subjects, believe all you want but don't be offended when I don't. What was that phrase? Oh yes, "I put it to you that we are both atheists, I just choose to believe in one fewer god than you do." 🙂

  3. And yes, I am aware that that last post was somewhat rambling!

  4. A theocracy is a totally different subject. I do recognize that a lot of atheism is directed against organized state religion as well as cultish religious following.

    I agree on that score. But my only wish is that atheists wouldn't lump all religious belief in one banner and paint all religious believers as cult followers. Often in a heated discussion, this assumption is made far too easily. Religious belief != cult following.

  5. Ray, I bet you that if you offered the proof that you mentioned in your post there would actually be a hell of a lot of people who would believe you.

    As to the Bible, I'm not going to argue with you there, but I happen to believe in it and there is not a thing that anyone could say that would make me change my mind, and I've had a lot of academic friends that have tried. 😉

  6. I couldn't agree more.

    As an atheist myself, I'm not going around trying to tell people what to believe in, but what I will do if dragged into the subject of the bible is point out all of it's contradictions with everything else in it that is actually bad according to my own moral judgments. The sad part about the bible is and a lot of people who follow it don't even really understand it themselves, they'll take a preachers word for it each Sunday.

    If you take the bible literally (which you should if you're going to follow it as your belief but that's a totally different topic), there is something definitely wrong with you, no pun intended to those that take everything in the bible literally.

    • People who claim to take the bible literally do not do this. There are a great many insane rules in that book and if you followed them all you would end up in jail real quick.http://godisimaginary.com/video2.htm to give you an idea.

      • And that's why one should not take such religion seriously. If you only pick and choose what you want to believe and how to live your life out of a book you claim will give you eternal salvation, to me, you either have to take the whole thing or none of it at all.

  7. I've actually got a sign on the door that prevents Jehovahs's from even knocking. If someone asks me what I believe I will state the fact but I do not preach. I'm not that conversant and would probably do more harm than good.

    • Joe-Bos can also be removed by turning up to the door naked. Religion should never need to be mentioned unless you are asked or you are in a place of worship. And, unfortunately, most Christians do not know much about the bible beyond the bare bones of the front of the New Testament.

  8. A theocracy is a totally different subject. I do recognize that a lot of atheism is directed against organized state religion as well as cultish religious following.

    I agree on that score. But my only wish is that atheists wouldn’t lump all religious belief in one banner and paint all religious believers as cult followers. Often in a heated discussion, this assumption is made far too easily. Religious belief != cult following.

    • The thing about religion is that they are all full of sects – Christianity has multiple branches, as do both Judaism and Islam. In fact, Judaism is the root and Islam and Christianity are both technically cults of that root. And they all argue that their invisible friend beats anyone else’s invisible friend….

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