Saturday, January 31, 2009

A Few Thoughts on Skepticism

I recently created a Discussion Group on my Facebook Page called "Skeptically Speaking." The idea to do this was inspired by one of my favorite podcasts, "The Skeptics Guide to the Universe." It was my desire to find a hand full of like-minded folks who share my interest in scientific subjects and critical thinking. To clarify the intentions behind setting up the Discussion Group I posted a note on my page that provides an exposition. For those interested in my blog I have posted the text of that note here...

Since I named our Discussion Group "Skeptically Speaking" I thought it might be helpful for me to share my thoughts on the subject of skepticism. So let me define what I call a good skeptic by trying to debunk the straw man conception that true believers have of skeptics.

I'm reading a book by John Ankerberg and John Weldon titled "Handbook of Biblical Evidences." Throughout the book the authors refer to skeptics as people who, because of their personal biases, are not willing or able to consider the "evidence" of Biblical claims. Here's a quote: "skeptics...wish to find 'evidence' to support their skepticism." Another: Skeptics "allow their personal materialistic philosophies to color their interpretation of scientific data."

In other words, skeptics already have their minds made up. And it's true that there are some people who are skeptical in that way. These are a priori skeptics. But that is not a good skeptic. A good skeptic approaches the world with an open mind and an excitment about the process of learning and exploring possibilities. A good skeptic is keenly interested in examining evidence of any kind for most claims. Of course if I claim I have an invisible elephant living in my garage, no one, skeptical or otherwise, is going to believe me. Why not? Because there are some basic things we as educated people living in the modern world can agree on because everything in our shared experience confirms certain realities.

And there are different levels of reasonable skepticism. If I meet someone and he tells me his name is Frank there's no good reason for me to be skeptical of his statement. But if he tells me that his name is Frank and that he died yesterday and came back to life this morning I'm going to require a little more evidence other than his testimony before I will believe him. As Carl Sagan said, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."

But as we move further away from our comon experience of everyday realities, as we begin to consider things that may dwell in the fuzzy edges between reality and fantasy, people tend to divide into different camps. These various camps or positions fall along a wide spectrum.

At one extreme end of the spectrum are people who are fantasy prone. These individuals haven't met a conspiracy theory or a piece of magical thinking that they don't like. These are the people who are always forwarding emails containing stories that turn out to be urban legends. These are folks who use "miracle" to describe just about anything that is out of the ordinary.

On the other extreme end of the spectrum are those who are not only hardcore skeptics, they are cynics. These folks just aren't interesting in anything that falls outside their limited view of reality and are quick to dismiss even things which may be well-established but with which they are not familiar. They are closed-minded and lack intellectual curiosity.

Most of us fall somewhere in the middle. But I think (and I'm just speculating here) that more than 50% of the populations in industrialized western cultures tend to lean more toward the fantasy prone end of the spectrum. Most people, for instance, would probably say they believe in luck to some degree or another. Most people have a few pet superstitions. Some of these superstitions may be so minor and inconsequential that their owners may not be consciously aware of them. Think of what a big deal a lot people still make about Friday the 13th. Many buildings, even today, don't have a 13th floor.

And then there's all the rampant magical thinking that is at the heart of the self-help industry and about half the stuff Oprah is pushing on her beguiled audience. Just believe hard enough and you too can be rich, thin and in love!

I spend a lot of time thinking about why people believe what they believe. What are the fault lines, so to speak, that separate critical thinkers -- skeptics -- form the rest of us. And I'm still working this out but so far I think it breaks down to two major questions:

1) Is the universe purely materialistic or iis there something beyond reality as we experience it?


2) Do we believe what we believe because it makes us feel good?

When a person wrestles with these two questions they will have addressed what is at the core of their decision-making process when evaluating truth claims.

I've been on a journey over the last few years. A journey of intellectual inquiry and re-evaluation of my thought processes and belief systems. I don't expect this journey to end as long as I have a pulse. And I make no claims to have arrived at any great and lasting Truth. I can only give you the provisional conclusions that I've drawn at this point.

First, based on my observations, all phenomena which can be explained can be explained in materialistic, natural terms. I have seen no evidence of the supernatural. One could argue that the supernatural, by its very nature, lies outside the realm of scientific investigation. Assuming that to be the case, I would have to say that I'm agnostic in regard to the supernatural.

Second, whether it makes me happy or sad to believe a thing has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not said thing is true. It has been said that "the truth will make you free." You may be free but you may not be happy. When you find out a loved one has cancer you're going to know the truth and you're not going to be happy about it. I say that to say this: be very skeptical of the person who claims that embracing the belief system that he is peddling will make you a much happier person. You may be deluded into a kind of happiness based on self deception but you won't be any closer to the truth.

So, in conclusion, I'd like to address the various topics in our discussions within the framework of critical thinking. I think the best tool for understanding reality is the scientific method and a rational analysis of empirical data. But I'm certainly open to debate on this point. Let's throw some ideas around and see what happens.

Thank you for reading.

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