A few thoughts on the scope of skepticism
Jim Lippard put up an entry on the scope and nature of skepticism at his blog the other day. I agree in general lines with most of the things he wrote with a couple of exceptions which I will outline below.
1-On the question of skeptics deferring to scientific consensus on a given issue, Jim says:
I think skeptical organizations and their leaders should defer to experts on topics outside of their own fields of expertise on pragmatic and ethical grounds, but individual skeptics need not necessarily do so.
Unfortunately, he doesn’t elaborate so I hope I’m not misunderstanding what he’s trying to say. I do not see how it is acceptable for a skeptic to not defer to scientific consensus, although I can see how a skeptic doesn’t have to defer to an expert (if there is a real controversy in a given field, thus lacking consensus). In that case though, I tend to agree with what Daniel Loxton said in his entry a while back, which was that if there is no consensus among the experts and they are fighting it out, a non-expert outsider should basically sit it out. I think that was the gist of Daniel’s point.
However, so far as a consensus exists among the experts, a skeptic person or skeptical organization must, in my opinion, defer to the consensus, with the only possible exception being if the person is also an expert on said field and can in effect make a valid counterargument to the consensus. Nevertheless, I would also argue that the person in that case would be acting out in his capacity as an expert in the field not as a skeptic.
2-The Atheism issue – Jim and I do not agree on this point. We’ve gone back and forth on Twitter on his blog’s comments on my blog etc. Here’s Jim’s position:
Does skepticism imply atheism? No, regardless of which definition you choose. It is reasonable to argue that proper application of philosophical skepticism should lead to atheism, and to argue that scientific skepticism should include methodological naturalism, but I prefer to identify skepticism with a commitment to a methodology rather than its outputs. That still involves a set of beliefs–which are themselves subject to reflection, criticism, and evaluation–but it is both a more minimal set than the outputs of skepticism and involves commitment to values as well as what is scientifically testable. My main opposition to defining skepticism by its outputs is that that is a set of beliefs that can change over time with access to new and better information, and shouldn’t be held dogmatically.
I fail to see the distinction between skepticism implying atheism and proper application of skepticism leading to atheism. I regard the two as saying the same thing, that skepticism, if consistently applied should lead to atheism. I am not sure what Jim means by philosophical skepticism, and maybe that’s where he draws the difference, but I refrain from using qualifiers in front of the word skepticism, be it philosophical or scientific. Skepticism is skepticism, we evaluate if a given claim is supported by the evidence.
As far as his claim that Skepticism->atheism is a no, “regardless of which definition you choose” I couldn’t disagree more. I’ve already made the case for a (in my opinion the most appropriate) definition of atheism. And since I’ve put up the entry I haven’t heard any counterarguments, or any flaws in my logic pointed out (so long as we agree on the definition of atheism I used). I agree that skepticism is best understood as a committment to a methodology, but does that imply that we can’t reach conclusions or “outputs”. If an output, such as rejection of homeopathy, is a valid output of the rigorous skeptical methodology what are we to do with such output? Are we not to say that skepticism, if properly applied to homeopathy, ought to lead one to reject the homeopathy hypothesis?
Skepticism is based on evidence, if the evidence is satisfactory, by our standards, we accept the claim; if it isn’t we don’t, we temporarily reject the claim. I dont’ think we withhold judgement on the claim, that would not be consistent nor intellectually honest in my opinion.
I only take this process one step further and argue that just like with homeopathy, the god hypothesis also fails the evidence test, if skepticism is properly applied to it and as such skeptics must reject it, at least until better evidence is provided. No special buckets needed, and definitely not a special bucket just for the god issue.
I am not saying that there are no religious skeptics; I am aware they exits. What I am saying is that these people are not applying skepticism consistently to their religious beliefs; that they are in a certain sense choosing not to scrutinize their faith as they do other topics. If they honestly did they would be forced to accept that the god hypothesis doesn’t stand up to scrutiny and they would be faced with the choice of either giving up god or giving up skepticism. It seems they’ve rationalized this contradiction away by applying the non-overlapping magisteria idea to skepticism. God is outside of the scope of skepticism they say, so there you go contradiction solved. Talk about cognitive dissonance! And I can’t let that pass unchallenged, not in the midst of skeptics at least, who are committed to evidence and the rules of logic above all.