The Importance of Reasoned Skepticism

Isn’t it weird that so many self-proclaimed “skeptics” and “freethinkers” seem so self-assured of everything they believe in, just like the “ignorant Christians” they spend so much time attacking? “Question authority,” they proclaim out one side of their mouth, while vomiting rigid and sometimes archaic scientific formulae out the other. “Think freely” they bark, only to chastise those who don’t live up to their (often contradictory) standards. In practical experience, very few atheists actually seem willing to question or think freely, when it really gets down to it. Just like true believers, atheists hold to plot points on a narrative–only their’s is backed up by evidence and reality (at least in their own minds). We’ve heard it all before, right?
Rather than rehash the obvious, let’s take a different approach.

Contrary to the cries of those who perpetuate the “belief and skepticism are incompatible” trope, reasoned skepticism is an essential piece in the believer’s toolset. Now, it’s important to note just what I mean by “skepticism” here, for I’m not referring to today’s knee-jerk postmodern scientism. I’m not talking about the “thoughtless doubt” or pseudo-skepticism reserved for teens and new atheists. By “skepticism” I mean genuine, reasoned doubting of one’s self and others.
To a certain degree, believers should be skeptical! After all, the Bible is (among other things) one giant recollection of human faultiness. The Bible doesn’t make any prohibition against healthy trust, but it definitely seems to prescribe against cocksureness.

“No matter how strong our convictions may be, we must learn to distrust ourselves, for we are all prone to err; and the more self-assured we are, the more liable we are to go astray.” —Watchman Nee

Preach on, Brother Nee! This is why I’m an equal-opportunity skeptic: because man is so often wrong, and this brings up an interesting point, one (a)theists can agree on. Like the Bible, science is also a recollection of human faultiness. Right? Right.
Since every human institution is, well, human, reasoned skepticism must extend itself equally in all directions. Don’t let any self-proclaimed defender of “reason” fool you. To say that belief and skepticism are compatible would be an understatement. One can’t have healthy beliefs—either scientific or religious—without reasoned skepticism.


Posted in Books, The Normal Christian Worker, Thinking Critically, Watchman Nee on by .

13 comments

  1. Avatar Stephen Gray says:

    Absolute rubbish. If you dared to apply real skepticism to the Bible, you would no longer believe any of it. For a start, what do you say to the daffy notion that God sacrificed God (JC himself) to pay a debt to God? Ridiculous. What to you say to the well-known fact that NO secular observers ever said anything about Jesus? (The 2 paragraphs in Josephus are obvious fakes, and Tacitus fares no better.) What do you say to Jesus’ failed prophecy that he would return within the lifetime of his audience? What about his wrong prophecy that he would be buried for 3 days and nights? What do you say to the fact that Paul said the OT no longer applied, but Jesus said the exact opposite? What do you say to the charge that the OT God was a psychopathic murderer?
    By attacking skeptics, you are attempting to divert attention from the fact that you cannot coherently answer charges like mine.
    r opinions are 100% wrong. Get real.

  2. Avatar Crude says:

    In practical experience, very few atheists actually seem willing to question or think freely, when it really gets down to it.

    Hell, just look at the reaction from that TED conference with Rupert Sheldrake. Skeptics love skepticism, so long as the skepticism is selective.
    But who doesn’t?

  3. Avatar Cormack says:

    Well keep in mind that real cranks exist. They typically fail to understand the fundamentals of the scientific method, especially the aspect of skepticism. As Feynman said, “Science is a way of trying not to fool yourself. The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”
    Rupert Sheldrake is a good example. I mean, it might be possible that dogs are telepathic, but actually demonstrating this would require several independent testers to successfully replicate the results of a given experiment under careful controls. On some level Sheldrake doesn’t seem to grasp this.

  4. Avatar Crude says:

    Rupert Sheldrake is a good example.
    Alright. Why is he an example?
    I mean, it might be possible that dogs are telepathic, but actually demonstrating this would require several independent testers to successfully replicate the results of a given experiment under careful controls.
    I’m skeptical of the conclusions Sheldrake draws from his research, and of his theories in general. But so what? Why does this make him a crank while Dan Dennett (whose views about the mind are, putting it very mildly, very controversial) is just a provocative thinker?
    It’s not like Sheldrake is going around yelling “I proved dogs are telepathic woohoo!” – he carried out experiments and reported his results. He invites people to replicate his research, and he seems entirely relaxed – even detached – about the results. Where did he go wrong in how he conducted himself?
    I’m sure real cranks exist. What also exists are people who are unjustly called cranks, or people who are very selective in their skepticism. With TED, it really seems like a small group of paranoid atheists couldn’t stand the existence of a TED lecture that questioned and criticized their views, and they demanded censorship.

  5. Avatar Cormack says:

    Sheldrake’s TED talk was withdrawn because there is no solid evidence for any of his claims. Solid evidence means reproducible positive results from independent testers under strict controls.
    This isn’t about dogmatic or close-minded scientists. On the contrary, scientists want nothing more than to discover a hitherto unknown phenomenon — a new fundamental force, a real demonstration of telepathy, a new model for the physical constants of the universe. Any one of these deserves a Nobel Prize, and its discoverer would be a hero immortalized in the annals of science and human history.
    Yes, there is censorship here — TED censors out pseudoscience.

  6. Avatar Crude says:

    Sheldrake’s TED talk was withdrawn because there is no solid evidence for any of his claims. Solid evidence means reproducible positive results from independent testers under strict controls.

    What complete baloney.
    TED will let Dan Dennett go up on stage and spin his utter cockamammy philosophical views about ‘the illusion of consciousness’, and the fact that he’s making metaphysical and philosophical claims that science cannot demonstrate by definition in no way leads to any censorship of him. Richard Dawkins can go up and basically editorialize about atheism.
    Sheldrake, meanwhile, goes up and talks about a variety of things – he wasn’t just censored over his ‘morphic resonance’ talk – and suddenly, he’s censored. Not only that, but the censorship comes hot on the heels of terrified atheists complaining loudly, and is referred to some anonymous panel. That’s quite a thing.
    Sheldrake’s TED talk was censored, not withdrawn. Censored. He had as much – even far more – evidence for a variety of the points he made as Dennett and others did. With people they agree with, TED’s standards become far looser and speakers are allowed to share their opinions and views. Even with scant evidence or bad arguments, it’s tolerated.
    TED censors ideas that scare the people running the show, and Sheldrake unwittingly exposed as much. Considering one of his points was to highlight the dogmatism of atheists who actually end up abusing science, it’s ironic.

  7. Avatar Cormack says:

    Dennett is a philosopher. Science and philosophy are different subjects. I haven’t seen a TED talk in which he promulgated pseudoscience. But even supposing he did, that would not imply that Sheldrake should be permitted to spread pseudoscience at TED’s expense.
    As I said, TED does censor — it censors out pseudoscience.

  8. Avatar Cormack says:

    Remember Pastor Rick Warren gave a TED talk, too. My understanding is that TED allows philosophy to be presented as philosophy and religion to be presented as religion, while it is not permitted to present non-science as science, aka pseudoscience.

  9. Avatar Crude says:

    Dennett is a philosopher. Science and philosophy are different subjects.

    Dennett’s views on science aren’t particularly inspiring either, and if you don’t think he presents his views as if they carried the authority of science, you aren’t very familiar with Dennett.
    TED censors out ideas that spook them. Sheldrake has performed experiments, and he properly qualifies his views. Do I think he’s right? No, I’m on the skeptical side when it comes to morphic resonance and the dog psychic stuff and the rest. But to his credit, he does experiments and researches. TED took an axe to his presentation because his comments – many of which, by the way, dealt more with philosophy and sociology of science than anything else – disturbed people who want science to be their exclusive dogmatic realm.
    It backfired on them. As well it should have.

    Remember Pastor Rick Warren gave a TED talk, too.

    A very sterilized talk about broad feelgoodisms. If Plantinga went up there and explained the abuses of science Dawkins and company engage in while presenting evolutionary theory, he’d be censored just like Sheldrake was.

  10. Avatar Cormack says:

    I don’t know how to respond except to repeat what I said before: there is no solid evidence for any of his claims. Solid evidence means reproducible positive results from independent testers under strict controls. This isn’t about dogmatic or close-minded scientists. On the contrary, scientists want nothing more than to discover a hitherto unknown phenomenon — a new fundamental force, a real demonstration of telepathy, a new model for the physical constants of the universe. Any one of these deserves a Nobel Prize, and its discoverer would be a hero immortalized in the annals of science and human history.
    We aren’t talking about “Look at this new species of octopus” or “I found some interesting behavior in rhesus monkeys” which may be interesting or even ground-breaking but they don’t rise to the level of Nobel-prize-winning discoveries. If what Sheldrake says is true about, say, morphic fields, then I would literally call it the greatest discovery of all time, and I would call him the greatest thinker of all time. However an extraordinary phenomenon that revolutionizes our understanding of the universe has to be independently confirmed before being promulgated as science. Nobody has been able to do that with Sheldrake’s extraordinary claims.
    Should TED ask psychic Sylvia Browne to give a talk? Why not? She’s absolutely certain that she’s psychic, and thousands (maybe even millions) of her fans believe so too. She can cite reams of evidence, and she has even agreed to take Randi’s million dollar challenge (though that was many years ago and she still hasn’t followed through). So why shouldn’t she give a talk? Otherwise TED is just censoring ideas that spook them, right?
    You might take exception to the Sheldrake/Browne comparison, but evidence-wise they are the same. The world is brimming with people making these kinds of extraordinary claims. They get plenty of exposure in the pseudoscience/paranormal subculture. I for one am glad that TED is not a part of it, and I would submit that you should be glad too.

  11. cl cl says:

    Hey Crude. Long time no hear. I’ve been out of the trenches for quite some time now.
    Howdy Cormack, welcome to TWIM. I tend to side with Crude here, for various reasons. For example (and these are taken out of order):

    Should TED ask psychic Sylvia Browne to give a talk? Why not?

    Because she doesn’t conduct scientific research. Sheldrake, on the other hand, does. You’re comparing apples to oranges.

    …evidence-wise they are the same.

    I don’t see how any intelligent person can make that claim. Can you produce even a single scientific experiment from Browne? Sheldrake has evidence. Has it been replicated? Not yet, but there is quite a bit of evidence for psi-phenomena like telepathy that has been replicated.

    As I said, TED does censor — it censors out pseudoscience.

    And precisely how do you define “pseudoscience”?

  12. Avatar Cormack says:

    Hi cl,
    Sure, Sheldrake “has evidence”. However that’s a very low bar. Anyone can “have evidence”. It was for a reason that I said “solid evidence” and gave its definition twice: Solid evidence means reproducible positive results from independent testers under strict controls. Neither Browne nor Sheldrake have solid evidence.
    You’re nibbling at a random example I gave which is tangential to the main point. If you like I’ll completely retract the Browne analogy since it doesn’t affect the point I was trying to convey.
    Let’s take a neutral example instead. Someone–call him Bob–says that he has evidence that the mass of an electron is actually half of the currently accepted value. What should his next step be? Should he treat this result skeptically and see if anyone can verify it? Or should he write books and give lectures about his amazing discovery that dogmatic scientists are unwilling to accept? If Bob takes the latter action then I would say that he’s engaging in pseudoscience. He is making an extraordinary claim without solid evidence to back it up; he is bypassing the peer review process; he is making a bid for acceptance to the general public instead of to the scientific community. All of these things are indicative of what is commonly called pseudoscience.

  13. cl cl says:

    Howdy again.

    You’re nibbling at a random example I gave which is tangential to the main point. If you like I’ll completely retract the Browne analogy since it doesn’t affect the point I was trying to convey.

    Well excuse me, but, how does your comparison of Sheldrake to Browne have anything to do with the main point of the OP? Also, it’s not nibbling: I was calling you out for comparing apples to oranges. You *should* retract that example, because it’s totally bunk. If you use those sorts of examples, people like me are going to think you just haven’t looked at all the data. Quite frankly, that was a Dawkins-esque example. But good on you for retracting it.

    Someone–call him Bob–says that he has evidence that the mass of an electron is actually half of the currently accepted value. What should his next step be? Should he treat this result skeptically and see if anyone can verify it? Or should he write books and give lectures about his amazing discovery that dogmatic scientists are unwilling to accept? If Bob takes the latter action then I would say that he’s engaging in pseudoscience.

    First, I agree with you in spirit here, although, I wouldn’t accuse Bob of dabbling in pseudoscience. I would just say that he’s conducting genuine science irresponsibly. I think we have differing definitions of pseudoscience. If you’d like to understand how I use the term, I suggest this post.
    Second, you’ve presented another unfair comparison: Bob didn’t say he had “solid evidence,” right? Is Sheldrake running around saying he has “solid evidence” for his claims? If so, can you present a quote from Sheldrake’s mouth to this effect? Or, as I suspect, is Sheldrake simply saying, “Hey, I’ve got some (preliminary) evidence for this, other people should check it out?” That matters greatly.

    All of these things are indicative of what is commonly called pseudoscience.

    Again, I disagree. These indicate the irresponsible use of genuine science. I use the term “pseudoscience” to denote things that are impervious to the scientific method, but are still presented as genuine science.
    I’m sympathetic to Sheldrake because he doesn’t make his claims in a vacuum. There is a *lot* of data on telepathy, and a non-trivial amount of it has been replicated. That’s why I cringe when I hear people just write it off as “pseudoscience,” because I don’t think it is. I think the people who make those types of statements are generally just expressing their own bias.

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