This blog journey begins with a talk given by Hal Bidlack (Skepticality #057 – On being a Skeptic of Faith, Dr. Hal Bidlack, Ph.D.) aired on the Skepticality podcast. He begins by complaining that because he is a high-profile deist he is continually accosted by atheists at skeptic meetings (such as The Amazing Meeting, to which I must make a pilgrimage soon). They simply can’t understand how he can maintain a belief in a deity (no matter how nebulous such a deity might be) and try to convert him.
I sympathize with both sides. I do not condone the actions of such atheists (we should really be above this kind of unethical thing), but I also share their mystification. Bidlack has every right to believe in a deity, but can he be a ‘good skeptic’ while doing so?
First, I will define what I mean by skepticism by taking the most appropriate meaning of the word given in the Wikipedia entry on the subject:
Skepticism: a method of obtaining knowledge through systematic doubt and continual testing.
Of course, this definition does not cover what knowledge is. My own personal view is that knowledge is something for which we have high confidence in being true from observation and testing. Such knowledge can only be held provisionally as being true. This dovetails nicely with what a ‘theory’ is in the scientific sense, which has the following attributes:
- explains the available pertinent observations;
- continues to explain relevant new data as they come in;
- makes testable predictions;
- is a falsifiable explanation.
Gravity is both theory and fact, just as Evolution is. This understandably confuses many laypersons. How can something be both theory and fact? This duality stems from poorly communicating how Science works. Releasing an object reproducibly and predictably results in the object falling to the ground. This is ‘fact’. Note the wording here: the result must be reproducible such that we have a high confidence in predicting the result in further testing. Newton’s Laws of Motion describe how the object will move once released or thrown in a gravitational field, but it is not an explanation. It is this explaining gravity which makes it simultaneously a ‘theory’, which is unfortunately rather elusive. But not having a comprehensive theory of gravity does not make gravity any less real.
Anti-evolutionists like to say Evolution is ‘just a theory’, betraying their profound ignorance in the process. Even if natural selection and genetic drift were incorrect (the probability of which is now so small that I would sooner actually buy lottery tickets expecting to win several times over beforehand), this would not change the facts of evolution, including the ordered progression of the appearances of species in the geological column, the existence of pseudogenes in the genome, the matching of phylogenetic trees between those obtained from comparative morphology and molecular biology, observations in embryology and a host of other data which shows us that evolution occurred and continues to occur.
Enough of that tangent. What makes one a skeptic? Well, from the above definition, a skeptic is one that practices skepticism. What makes one a ‘good’ skeptic? In my mind, it is one who practices skepticism in all aspects of our experience for which it is possible to apply skepticism.
Is it possible that there are aspects of our experience for which it is not possible to apply skepticism? I don’t think so. Anything which is a part of our experience is based on observation and our explanations of observable phenomena are always amenable to testing. This does not mean that we always have a readily available explanation for observations. But any set of connected data related to an observable phenomenon can have and explanatory theory synthesized for it. For instance, we do not have an all-encompassing theory of consciousness. Yet. Yes, there are a set of hypotheses on various aspects of consciousness. For instance, consciousness arose through what is known as emergence, where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. We have a good deal of data supporting such a hypothesis simply by looking at the brains of related primates.
There will always be new phenomena to observe and technology will both help us explain previously unexplained phenomena and produce new questions to be answered at the same time. If it didn’t, we scientists would have been on the unemployment line long ago. But are there things that Science will never be able to answer?
Such phenomena would be prohibited from interacting with the universe (or anything therein) in any way whatsoever. If that is the case, no observations could possibly be made to study it and the universe with or without it would be identical. Bidlack acknowledges that attributes of the Abrahamic god are wholly testable: faith healing, the power of prayer, etc. Each fails systematic testing spectacular.
Bidlack also agrees that there is no evidence of god but warns that claiming absolute knowledge that there is no god is dangerous. He is correct. However, even by carefully constructing his Deist world to avoid it being falsifiable in any way, I think he has done precisely this. I am very uncomfortable with this.
So I would describe Bidlack as a compartmentalized skeptic. In all probability, every member of our species belongs in this class. We did not evolve as fully rational beings and each and every one of us has to fight tooth-and-claw to be rational. Bidlack is a Deist because he is filling a need to believe in a deity, but not one that would allow the suffering his wife experienced. I’m glad that his Deist viewpoint gives him comfort. But he allowed his own emotions to take him there, not evidence. I’m not down with that.
By his own admission, he is careful to construct his deist view such that there are no falsifiable aspects. An Abrahamic god has a number of characteristics to which rational inquiry can be applied: granting miracles (i.e., suspension of natural law), answering prayer and the like. Each repeatedly fails miserably when tested. But just because a belief is unfalsifiable is no reason to accept it or even consider the possibility that it is true.
The null hypothesis is the default position, the absence of effect. In this case, the null hypothesis is the nonexistence of the supernatural, gods included. Positing the existence of something requires positive evidence in support, and (as Carl Sagan noted) extraordinary claims, which the existence of any deity most assuredly is, requires extraordinary evidence. And we haven’t any of even the most mundane type in sight. Without positive evidence in support, the only logical and rational action is to maintain the null hypothesis.
By rejecting the null hypothesis, Bidlack is irrationally accepting a deist god for which he chose the attributes in order to make his deity unfalsifiable. This is intellectually dishonest. Astonishingly, he is quite candid of this and does so in the full knowledge that he is being irrational. While he is quite capable of applying skepticism to many other areas like the anti-vaccination movement, the healing power of prayer, the existence of UFOs and properly comes to the conclusion that they are without merit. But he excludes his own beliefs from scrutiny. So, if you define a good skeptic as one which applies skepticism to all beliefs and concepts, he disqualifies himself by his actions. Whether or not he foists these beliefs on others (he does not) is beside the point.
Look. We are all irrational beings. Our species did not survive by being rational all the time. Quite the opposite, in fact. This why we have such behavior as fight-or-flight. If you take too much time to think about what the best coarse of action is when that saber-tooth tiger is smiling at you – too late! There are times for rational behavior, but not in such situations. One can look at our propensity to believe weird things in similar light, as Michael Shermer did in his book Why We Believe Weird Things. Every single member of our species must fight tooth-and-claw to suppress our irrational brain. As far as I can tell, Bidlack refuses to do so when he compartmentalizes his skepticism. He gives up the ghost because it makes him feel better. In essence, he believes in the Bertrand Russell’s Celestial Teapot in the full knowledge that it isn’t rational:
If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.
Do I have a problem with that? Should I? Yes to both. When irrationality is allowed free reign, only disaster can result. Is it rational that Bidlack believes in a deist god for no reason other than that he wants to? Is it rational for some religious authorities to brand children witches, resulting in their banishment or death? I think the answer to both is no. “What’s the harm?” you might ask. While it may seem that the former is harmless and Bidlack takes care not to prosthelytize, the irrational thinking in both is similar. Irrationality is irrationality, after all. Where do we draw the line?
Each and every one of us has a duty to divest ourselves of irrationality as much as humanly possible, imperfect as we are. A daunting task, indeed. I am under no illusion that I am a perfectly rational being and the rest of you SOBs aren’t. When I recognize that some concept I hold is counter to available evidence or has no evidence in support, no matter how much I dislike the prospect I try very hard to rid myself of it. I’m not sure I’m always successful. It’s not an easy thing to do and requires a good deal of introspection, and it must be continued throughout life. And looking into that kind of mirror is a tough business. But being the extreme introvert that I am, I have lots of time to discuss these things with our four cats.
Bidlack makes an impassioned plea to allow him to go this route. I have no problem with that. He is free to believe what he wishes. But one of the central tenets of my own personal philosophy is that while my beliefs require that I respect the right of others to hold beliefs, there is nothing which requires that I respect the beliefs they hold. That kind of respect is earned, not assumed.