Why Skepticism means more than incredulity- A response to an unreasonable “skeptic”

There is a definitional problem with the word “Skepticism” that confuses some people.

The idea that skepticism merely entails constant incredulity-with no process by which to assess truth claims- will render the very definition of skepticism an impossible heuristic.

Recently, Jeremy got into an online exchange (and by “exchange”, I mean “drive-by-followed-by-tone-trolling”) with a commenter called “badrescher” on his post Let’s Meet In The Alley: Skeptics vs. Atheists.  Let’s look at Skepticism according to Badrescher:

I share Jeff Wagg’s concerns and care little about discussing religion. That said, I am tenacious about secularism and the separation of church and state. It doesn’t work, though, without wide-spread acceptance that we do not all share the same religious (or non-religious) views. Atheists are not exempt from this; we need to accept that others have come to different conclusions.

I totally get what you are saying!  I went to ComicCon last year, and there was this group of guys (I bet you guessed they were guys) who were all dressed up as Klingons.  This totally pissed me off.  Star Trek is totally different from comic books.  Sure, some people who like comic books also like sci-fi television programs, but what about the hipster indie comic junkies who totally fancy themselves too cool for Nerd culture?  Plus, Trekkies totally have their own Cons already,why can’t they just segregate and stick to COMICS?

But I wanted to comment on something that I noticed that seems to be a pervasive view in this community.

ORLY? Please, by all means, tell me what all my friends are thinking…..

Your tone, language, and even your stated goals all indicate a view of skepticism as a ‘fight for rationality’ and the work seems to be about winning arguments. For example, you describe Christians “using” skepticism to “get the upper hand”. You also stated your goals as to “expose irrational thought”.

The ‘movement’, as defined by the organizations that provide its structure and purpose, is not about exposing irrationality. If it was, we would all be hypocrites. It’s about protecting people from the harm that comes from poor critical thinking and ignorance. Reasoning is part of critical thinking, but not all of it.

Yeah, see, I get that. I’m just wondering how you manage to carry on meetings based solely on theoretical thinking skills.  Heaven forbid anyone “expose” a specific idea as being irrational.  I bet at all your meetings, you avoid talking about homeopathy for fear of hypocritically Exposing Irrationality. You must just talk about the null hypothesis all day long.  Right?

Human beings are, in general, very poor reasoners. This includes atheists. An example from this post:

“But if someone were truly skeptical, believing in a man born of a virgin would end their religious beliefs in a New York minute.”

Human beings are, in general, very poor reasoners.  Agreed.  This includes  atheists, I suppose, in that to the best of our current knowledge on Zoology, every known atheist happens to be human.  So I’m going to give you mad props for your ability to use logic.

  1.   All “A” are “B”.
  2.  “B”, as a general rule, have characteristic “X” that is not mutually exclusive of the state of being “A”.  
  3. Therefor it is likely that some proportion of “A” have characteristic “X”

Excellent!

The problem is that you should have left it there.  You had me at “Therefor”.  Why did you have to go and piss away all your logic props?  What, praytell, is poorly reasoned in that snippet you singled out?  I’ll let you explain…..

Your statement assumes that there are no reasonable explanations for how this could be, yet the Bible explains how it could be: divine intervention. That’s not an irrational explanation. Where that explanation goes wrong is not in its reasonableness, but in it’s lack of parsimony and empirical evidence. Furthermore, when asked why they believe in God, many believers easily call to mind experiences which have convinced them. Experiences ARE evidence. Personal experiences may not be good evidence, but it takes knowledge and good critical thinking skills to determine what constitutes ‘good’ evidence. It also takes knowledge and skills to discuss why some evidence fails; “I think it’s silly” isn’t good enough.

Oh my.  There is nothing irrational about accepting a biblical account of the virgin birth?  Nothing?  Really?

NOTHING?

……..REALLY?

Wow.  So Your claim is that divine intervention, with no evidence of anything divine nor evidence of anything supernatural that intervenes-is at least plausible?  What bar do you set for “reasonableness”?  Do set it at merely “able to be conceived without directly, immediately, and incontrovertibly contradicting observable reality”?  I think there might be a higher bar than that.

Divine intervention is only reasonable if we first grant a huge list of premises that themselves don’t pass scrutiny.  So long as we accept a host of almost impossibly improbable prerequisites, it is reasonable to assume the conclusion?  Why, then, would you argue that the explanation is not parsimonious?

If I’m going to all the trouble of assuming that an all-loving God was so troubled by mankind that He impregnated a virgin with Himself so that we could, in 33 or so years, nail him to a crucifix and dump his body in a cave so that He could ascend bodily into heaven but then come back down in a few days to be witnessed by lots of people and then ascend back up again so that men might atone for their transgressions by proxy in their acceptance of His sacrifice if I’m going to all the trouble of assuming THAT…. then surely divine intervention is the absolute MOST parsimonious explanation available, wouldn’t you say?

I’ll reiterate Jeremy’s own response to the rest of that paragraph, because I think he nails it (roundabout pun intended):

Eye witness testimony ≠ scientific evidence.

You act as if someone said, “I rub coffee beans on my left foot when I get a cold, and it cures it within 5 to 7 days every time.”

You talk as if, “I masturbate every third Sunday of the month and it most definitely brings rain within 6 to 10 days.”

Anecdotes only give witness to one thing- how poor we are at reasoning.  Hey, didn’t you point that out already?

What Skepticism is about is exposing fraud, providing alternative explanations for what appears to be extraordinary phenomena, and providing people with the tools to evaluate information, claims, evidence, etc. effectively (i.e., critical thinking skills). We do this so that people have better information with which to make important decisions.

What skepticism is about is exposing fraud- like religion, providing alternative explanations for what appears to be extraordinary phenomena-like faith based “evidence”, and providing people with the tools to evaluate information, claims, evidence, etc. effectively (i.e., critical thinking skills)- including when the source material is a Bronze Age book of faerie tales written by sheep herders trying to make sense of their world.  Important decisions sometimes involve religious convictions, badrescher, and homeopaths, anti-vaxers and Christians all have feelings that are going to be hurt.

It’s not a war and it’s not an effort to show people how stupid or wrong we think they are.

It’s not a war.  It’s a crusade.  Get it right.  It may never just be an effort to show people how stupid or wrong we think they are, but I still enjoyed doing that to you just now. 😉

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