Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Spirituality, The Dark Pact

Retreat from Reality

I don't like the word "spirituality." It has far too much mystical nonsense and fluffistry attached to it. Spirituality is an excuse to avoid rigour and represents an agreement between people to leave their respective vague nonsense unchallenged and held immune to examination.

I have been known to rail on about "external referents" and entirely "private, internal realms." Well, I'm not just talking about claims to factual knowledge. Ever notice how, in natural language, spiritual feelings are analogous to mysticism? That's no coincidence, folks.

It seems both the religious and spiritualists claim to have spiritual components, which are feelings (often of "oneness") they have carefully constructed around their "understandings." To classify feelings as spiritual is an attempt to place feelings beyond public scrutiny, in the same way that defining beliefs as faith attempts to put beliefs beyond refutation. The spiritualist wants to have their cake and eat it too. They want all the benefits of an entirely private emotional (intuitive) realm of "truth" without the discomforts of reference to external reality, be that in the form of empirical verification or in the form of social negotiation.

In this way being spiritual places feelings in an "entirely private realm" that has no "external referents." This functions precisely the same as faith places statements of belief in an "entirely private realm" with no "external referents." In the case of spiritualism, external referents really means negotiating the legitimacy of feelings with others. Morality, from the religious/spiritualist standpoint, is a peculiar mix of belief and feelings.

The Dark Pact

The relief the spiritual person expresses when you claim to be spiritual is the understanding that you "recognize" the legitimacy of their private emotional realm as being somehow sacred and therefore not subject to examination, refutation, or critique. Spirituality is an excuse to avoid rigour and represents an agreement between people to leave their respective vague nonsense unchallenged and held immune to examination. It another way of saying, "I won't challenge your woo if you won't challenge mine."

I don't make this deal with anyone. I don't want my private internal realm to be immune to critique. I am fallible and prone to error (think about how humble a realization that is!) Making one's ideas immune to critique is the short path to insanity.

The dark pact, however, underscores a deeper problem - the idea that our understanding of reality is reality itself, the "true for me" mentality - that there are different realities for different people, rather than that we experience the same reality differently. If we do not recognize the commonality of reality, then we lose our ability to explore it in a way that is useful to, not just ourselves, but others as well. But, aside from that, spirituality is the very antithesis of self-discovery, since spirituality allows self-critique to simply stop.

"But feelings are harmless!" wails the spiritualist.

Ever notice how spiritualists seem to be in a world of their own? They are. This, contrary to popular opinion, is not a good thing.

Let's be blunt and to the point. History shows that we advance when we move beyond mysticism. Things go from being un-understandable to understandable. We go from being helpless pawns blown along helplessly on the winds of capricious fate to being efficacious beings capable of understanding and affecting reality when we get rid of mystical elements. Mysticism is perhaps the single most debilitating and disabling idea in human history.

Lately, as a species, we have been moving away from mysticism and faith, with tremendous effect and benefit, through a methodology of empirical verification (science). Every time we ignore the mystical, we gain human efficacy - the ability to influence. We have done this in terms our understanding about the natural world (beliefs). For simple, practical reasons, we need to do the same thing with respect to concepts of self and emotional realms (feelings).

Social Beings, We

We are social critters. Our social state of being is, to some degree, negotiated. We need to make our private, internal worlds public and open to critique. Spiritualism is a denial of that basic, human, social function, even when it is screaming loudly about being "connected." Ever notice how that connection is only peripherally concerned with other people? They want to "rise above it," when we, as people interacting with other real, living, breathing people, must be "down in it," engaged and involved with other human beings - not making excuses to not be engaged and involved. The claim to "connection" is shallow, self-absorbed and lost in egotism and often references vague, undefined (and undefinable) realms and entities. This is the same as having no external referents at all. It is anti-human, despite its fluffy emotive bent. It is dogmatic. It is the cult of "I."

Negotiating our concepts of self is a vital human function. It is also intensely difficult and fraught with peril. There's always the possibility we might be that unthinkable thing - wrong. Spiritualists deny that negotiation function. They trump human negotiation of our understandings in favour of their little private realms. They mystify their feelings and pretend they are somehow sacred. Things get a little muddled when those feelings also *seem* to include others, most notably when spiritualists attempt to spread their sickness, making it appear as if they are engaged in the human negotiating process. But their part in the process is entirely one-sided. They are attempting to influence others, without permitting themselves to be influenced by others. This is not merely dishonest; it is sociopathic.

The worst kinds of spiritualism, just as is the case with the worst kinds of religion, make no reference to external reality in any way whatsoever, and therefore are never subject to empirical critique. It is emotional intuitionism in its most fundamental, irrational form, but it appeals to those who want to claim expertise without the burden of evidence or, in terms of being social beings, never being subject to the social negotiation process of definition/redefinition of concept of self.

Just like religious belief, spiritualism is self-centered and egomaniacal, placing the self above reality and other people. Denying critique or negotiation through force of will. Spiritual "growth" is a distancing from humanity.

It seems to me that the most appropriate way to view religious belief and spiritualism is as rotting diseases of the social capability of the mind. They do not "inform" (as the euphemism goes); they define and restrict - hobble development and growth, distract into meaninglessness. The claimed "depth" of it is merely mental/emotional drowning in egotism.

Beyond Spirituality

So, what is my point in writing this? Reason and rationality require analysis and critique - not just of what other people think and say, but also of what we think and say.  Being rational requires a profound distancing from our egotism, to the point of allowing an external referent be the arbiter of our understanding. Being critical is more than pointing out how a view doesn't match one's own (different views talking past each other), as if one's own view were the final arbiter of truth. It is about holding one's own ideas up for critical analysis as well. It is also about framing our understandings such that reality is relevant to them. If one's internal realm consists of gods, vague apparitions, and undefinable ideas, held as truths, then there is nothing for anyone, including oneself, to get a grip on. We can all build elaborate mental/emotional constructs that make no reference to empirical reality at all, but that is hardly profound. Your average small child does that when imagining an unverifiable/unrefutable monster in the closet or under the bed.

We need to do better than your average young child.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Conflict Engines

So, this blogpost is going to be a little more difficult, perhaps a little more densely packed. Put on your metaphorical hard-hats, and prepare for some rampant conceptual discussion... ;)


Exhorting Exhortation

The real enemy of civilization, and of peace, is the prescription to evangelize, by whatever name you call it - jihad, proselytizing, indoctrination, brainwashing, or more philosophically, prescriptivity). In some more modern ideological camps, it is conflated with "education." It is a function of every ideology, every dogma, every moral realist doctrine. It is the perpetuation engine of a given ideology. The ideology tells you to spread the word.

Now, this function is to be understood separately from the particular prescriptions of a given ideology itself. It is the empetus to spread the ideology, built into the ideology. It is the source of the proselytizing mindset, whatever the particulars of a given ideology. Often we hear people refer to the particular prescriptions of a given ideology and seemingly think that's the end of the story, thereby justifying one ideology over another while keeping the prescriptive function. I think I shall call this the "Sam Harris Fallacy."

When I suggest critique of prescriptivity, I am suggesting much more than a mere critique of this or that moral prescription. It is not enough for me to look at, say, Islam and proclaim that it is more evil than, say, Hinduism because it prescribes stoning people. That is certainly interesting, but it is only one symptom of a much greater disease. I am suggesting a critique of prescriptivity itself - of the self-perpetuation meme of moral realism.

Who We Are

When you hear people speak of the difference between teaching children what to think and teaching them how to think, this is, in part, what is being pointed at. Teaching children how to think is to teach critical inquiry, including (perhaps even especially) into one's own ideas. This is, of course, antithetical to the rampant and pernicious notion that we are our beliefs. To be critically minded is to be beyond even your own beliefs, to be something more than a mere collection of truth-conceits. It is to entertain an idea without believing it.

Ever hear the statements...
"Stick to your guns."
"Never let them change who you are."
"Do what's right, not what you're told."
...and the like?
These are symptomatic expressions of a sickness built into our relationship with our own ideas. These prescribe that we identify ourselves, indeed define ourselves, in terms of our beliefs, in terms of mere ideas. Actually, it's even more insidious than that. They prescribe we define ourselves in terms of ideas outside ourselves that we are then to emphatically urged (sometimes coerced) into internalizing as our own.

Moral Democracy

This prescriptivity function prevents the democratization of morality, prevents a context of peaceful disagreement from being developed. It keeps people in polarized hysterics, screaming fanatics, inflexible and reflexively violent. It locks people into being cogs in dogmatic meat grinders, servants of dogma, rather than as actual participants in the open social negotiation of societal norms and mores.

One may think one is "participating" by promoting one's dogma, but you aren't actually participating in the negotiation at all. There is no negotiation to participate in. You are merely one more inflexible hard-liner subserviently pushing absolutism by metaphorically (and sometimes literally) screaming on a street corner. You are specifically prohibited from negotiating the prescriptions of the ideology.

Now some may disingenuously try to characterize all these screaming fanatics seeking to push their fanaticism as a kind of negotiation process, but it is missing an important aspect - that these are not negotiating with each other. There is no understanding that mores and norms are subject to negotiation. There is only a banging of fists on the tabletop in the name of this or that absolutist hard line, seeking to make their hard line the hard line.

As long as we think morality is an objective fact (moral realism), rather than as a negotiated social construct, we are doomed to reflexively violent and intractable conflict. Ideologies are conflict engines, and religions are the paradigm cases of conflict engines run amok, prescribing prescriptivity.

Yes, I did just conclude that religions are the enemies of civilization.


Sunday, October 7, 2012

A Wilderness of Mirrors

I'm almost 50 years old. When I was growing up, an atheist, it was a different environment, one with a domineering (even if not quite so dominant) ideology demanding compliance with its orthodoxy requirements - on pain of excommunication/shunning. Sadly, a necessary, practical part of being an atheist was defying this regime of social control in the name of ideology. One had to be independently-minded. We learned to be determined; we learned to be critical; we learned the dangers of ideological orthodoxy mindsets - how, in their quest for control over all discourse, they hobble conversation and stifle inquiry. And we knew first hand the kinds of tactics, rhetorical and otherwise, that were employed. There were real consequences to being atheists then. Some of those consequences even still exist even today.

Well, here we are again. It is a property of ideology (any ideology) that they seek to control discourse and stifle inquiry. And exclusion is always used as an enforcement tactic. It doesn't matter whether you agree with the tenets of the ideology or not, ideology itself remains the same. This is why Atheism+ is receiving such a vigorously unhappy response. The control-minded persons at its foul heart are not just advocating their views; they are seeking to restrict other views from being expressed, and see any method as appropriate in the name of "the cause."

Now, Matt Dillahunty (of Atheist Experience "fame") is having an apology demanded of him because some are butt-hurt that he would have the temerity to dare not comply with absolute precision to their requirements, and in the name of being personally offended, are seeking a very specific indication that he is "one of them." I can't say I have much sympathy for Dillahunty - he brought it on himself, and tried to bring it on the rest of us, too, but he should realize that his illustrious self has no special copyright on exposing flaws in thinking.

Welcome to the world of ideological orthodoxy requirements and secular shunning, Dillahunty. You deserve it for endorsing it. Revel in it. Welcome to what it was like living in a social order dominated by the religious and their demands, because that's also what Atheism+ is.

Welcome to the atheists' experience, Dillahunty.

As a young atheist, I stood firm against theism and its ideological orthodoxy requirements. I dared to inquire; I dared to critique. It was what was needed at the time. I was an atheist despite that it wasn't trendy, edgy, popular, or profitable - quite the opposite in fact. I advocated for free and open critical inquiry, despite that the dogmatic theists really hated that. I was told I was less than human by preachers, that I was just being defiant for its own sake, that I was a moral monster, that I was just angry, that there was something wrong with me. These arguments were leveled against all atheists. We now recognize these arguments for what they were...sordid rhetorical ploys.

...or we did, until Atheism+ reared its dogmatic head.

Defending free and open inquiry is perhaps one of the most thankless stances one can adopt, because many are all for free expression when it is their ideas being expressed - not so much when it is someone else's opposed ideas. To focus on the conversation itself rather than the particular content is difficult, perhaps too difficult for many.

But here I am, keeping a vigil, just a voice in the crowd, in the perhaps vain hope that the free and open inquiries are never silenced - not by anyone...

Monday, October 1, 2012

Blasphemy Day

People who promote or support blasphemy laws are most definitely not engaging in mutual respect and full communication. Quite the opposite. They seek to control and hobble discourse by using their deliberate petulance as a tawdry rhetorical ploy. This is both a matter of mere convenience and a logical error (appeal to emotion).

No subject matter is ever advanced by bobbleheading and eternal recapitulation to stagnant ideas. Only critical inquiry advances a subject matter. An environment where critical inquiry is possible is necessary for advancing any subject matter - and that's why the islamic world contributes nothing to any subject matter, since Abū Ḥāmed Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-Ghazālī. All inquiry is stifled by petulant orthodoxy requirements. Most of the rest of humanity has learned the lesson. Islam refuses to learn anything, by doctrine. This (and nearly identical issues with chritianity, hinduism, and others) is why September 30th is now Blasphemy Day, celebrated by forward thinking, progressive, and free people - people who understand the difference between words and violence and the importance of free and open inquiry.

Respect applies to people, not to ideas (people and ideas are not equivalent), however much ideas may be cherished, Even then, respect must be earned - it is not some sort of entitlement. People who do not understand this are usually those incapable of distinguishing between words and violence (a criterion of civilization and living with other human beings).

And this is why Draw Muhammad Day exists. To try to teach people, through causing them to become desensitized, the difference between words (or images) and violence. If you are provoked to violence by a stick figure that is your failing, your reflexively violent tendency, your lack of understanding, your lack of civilization, your responsibility, not anyone else's.

This post also explains why I continue to oppose Atheism+.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Stipulating Stipulations

Daring to Talk About Something Else...

So, let's take a short break from the ideological campaign seeking to sweep through atheism/skepticism and talk about something else, related, but not specific to that onerous topic.

Given that my primary means of promoting my blog is Facebook, it is likely that many of my readers, are themselves Facebook participants and internet debaters just like yours truly. How many of you have experienced the joy of the theist who tries to tell us what atheism is, using definitions that hobble inquiry and do not align with atheists' understanding of atheism?

Hell, even within atheism we have people trying to impose a definition of atheism that includes ideological content ... Sorry. That slipped out. ;)

Atheism Qua Denial

One common ploy is to claim that atheism necessarily represents a knowledge claim (which they will then, apparently unaware of the excruciating irony, say is unsubstantiated), a denial - which leads to all kinds of stuff about proving a negative, etc., etc.. From there, theists will often claim that atheism is a dogma and a faith. Now, let's be honest. There are dogmatic atheists out there, who claim that they know there is is/are no god(s). Personally, I see these folks as making the same epistemological error as the theists, and, sadly, these dogmatic atheists do offer ammunition for theists' complaints. However, that there are dogmatic atheists does not entail that all atheists make that error. Actually, in most case I have encountered, most seemingly dogmatic atheists are really expressing their view forcefully because that is what is expected in what people call argument.

And this is, in part, why my preferred definition of atheism is "lack of belief in god(s)." It has many benefits:
(1) It is ideology-free.
(2) It is inclusive.
(3) It is focused on a precise subject matter.
(4) It avoids epistemological issues surrounding most certainty claims.

This ploy of conflating atheism with knowledge claims is why we often see apologists unable to distinguish coherently between atheism and agnosticism. No, agnosticism is not just a weaker version of atheism. They are about different subject matters. For the record, yours truly is an agnostic atheist. The definition of God does not admit of verification/refutation, so knowledge of God's existence is impossible. I make no knowledge claims. At the same time, I lack belief in god(s). Despite the mewlings of apologists, this is not a contradiction.

Axiomatic Truths

Some people treat definitions like they are written in stone, absolute, inflexible, inviolable, immutable truths. In fact we create and revise definitions based on utility. As someone who has studied philosophy, I can tell you that often philosophers create new terms to express new ideas or refine existing ones. When one is working with abstract or very precise concepts, it is often necessary to make sub-distinctions and/or new definitions in order to more precisely describe or advance the subject matter.

The matter becomes even more ... interesting ... when we are speaking of definitions about social constructs or conventions (especially normative ones) which do not have any firm empirical basis.

However, even if we are talking about a field with hard empirical reference, our understanding of the empirical data may change over time, and new terms are created to reflect that. There was a time when earth, wind, fire and water were considered the "elements." Modern chemistry and physics now uses "elements" to refer to over a hundred precise atomic entities. What is it, 118 as of last count? Further, energies and forces and a host of other words have been added to the repertoire in order to deal with yet another feature of reality. As our understanding expands, our lexicon grows and becomes more precise.

Now, one can easily see how absurd it is to have the Funk & Wagnalls (a common dictionary) dictate the discourse in a very specialized subject matter. Your average theoretical physicist is not going to constrain their work to the dictates of the Funk & Wagnalls. The Funk & Wagnalls was a *general* reference, not one precise to a specific subject matter with very precise terminology. The same is true of any specialized field of study, including philosophy (epistemology). For these there are specialized texts including much more precise language. This is why course materials include textbooks, and not just the Funk & Wagnalls. So, if you want to talk about philosophical definitions, it might be wise to refer to something a little more specialized than the Funk & Wagnalls. How about http://plato.stanford.edu/ for starters. Even then, we must keep in mind that there is developing work, not yet represented in the encyclopedia. As atheism develops, it might be wise to consult the negotiations among atheists about what it means - and there are very, shall we say, vigorous negotiations underway...

Funk & Wagnalls is no longer, but its name is fun to say, so... ;)
Insert your favourite general dictionary name as desired.

It's Chaos, I tells ya! Pure CHAOS!

The language is not static. However, there are folks who don't like new ideas and latch onto previous definitions with a fanatical tenacity - usually from an agenda-driven perspective. Dictionaries change over time as natural usages of words evolve. It is not the case that language adheres (with fanatical devotion) to the dictionary; the dictionary evolves as the language does. Dictionaries, by necessity, lag behind the current state of the language. The internet perhaps reduces this lag (yes, gamers, bitterly laugh away), but doesn't eliminate it altogether.

While it is true that common definitions are, to some degree, necessary for conversations to occur (there's a reason why your average Joe is not a theoretical physicist and rarely converses coherently about technical matters with theoretical physicists), this does not mean that the language is forever fixed. To fix our stipulations in place would be to deny ourselves opportunity to advance any subject matter. Of course, that's what some people want...

I discuss we atheists defining ourselves now in another of my earlier blogposts:
By Atheists, of Atheists, and for Atheists

Dicktionary Theists

Now, religious apologists often choose to use definitions that service their desires, but all that's going to do is leave them bereft of understanding. If you want to find out what atheism means, consult atheists, not theists who contrive their understandings specifically to counter atheism. If you consult atheists, you might learn something about what we think and how we think (as opposed to what you think we think and how you think we think).

It seems to me that what we have here is a case of talking past each other (put more charitably perhaps, a negotiation of what the word "atheist" means). So, what does "atheism" mean? The word is even under negotiation among atheists, with "lack of belief" being the rising star (it avoids certain epistemological traps theists are prone to and try to set for us). Otherwise, enjoy choking on the dust of the rest of us leaving you behind. I'll wave to you in the rear view mirror as a passing courtesy. :)

Friday, August 24, 2012

AtheismFree (TM)

Stop the Experiments!

Imagine if someone walked into a laboratory and told the scientists to revise their test results because it didn't fit with cherished notions of the day. Imagine if that someone said that no experiments that might reach that unfavorable result could be conducted, or even talked about being conducted. Imagine if ideology-based "facts" were introduced as lab results. Imagine if orthodoxy requirements replaced error-correction.

What do you think would become of science?

Atheism, and even skepticism, are in crisis right now, looking at restipulations based on ideological demagoguery rather than on any honest effort to get at the facts of the inquiry. Atheism+ is really atheism minus even the attempt at talking about descriptive reality.

Are we now going to say that any scientific result that doesn't agree with some feminist assertion must be revised so that it does? When Bush tried to introduce "faith-based" evidence into science, the effort was resisted, because it would undermine the error-correction methodology of the scientific enterprise. When Shermer tried to equate skepticism with his radical political and economic ideology, libertarianism, he was left, quite properly, licking his wounds.

Think I am overstating the case? Now we see FtB seeking to impose ideological orthodoxy requirements on its bloggers. This undermines the unlimited scope necessary for open inquiry. Whatever else the FtB may be, it is not about free thought. If we are going to revert back into only inquiring about what we are permitted to inquire about, then we might as well go back to the Church-led dark ages.

I have met atheists who are not epistemologically rigorous - the ones who think they "know with certainty" that god(s) do not exist. I have met atheists who have radically different opinions on social policy than I do. I have met atheists who do not share my skeptical perspective on conspiracy theories and woo. I have met atheists who believe in UFOs and/or ESP. They are still atheists. Agreeing or not with me on these matters does not make them not atheists.

So, when are freethinkers going to get around to defending free thought? When are skeptics going to get around to defending skepticism? When are atheists going to get around to defending atheism? When are the rational going to get around to defending reason?

When are inquirers going to get around to defending free inquiry?

This Humanist

I am a philosophical skeptic, an atheist and a humanist - in that order. I do not claim that humanism is true; I am a skeptic after all. Nor do I claims that humanism is essential to atheism. In my view, atheism is skepticism with regard to a particular claim. I understand that however much I love humanism, it is not a necessary component of atheism - a separate subject matter. *That* recognition is what not letting ideologies dictate your inquires is. Just because I like it doesn't mean it is objective fact. Realizing that is intellectual integrity. Well, just because you like it (whatever "it" is) doesn't mean it is objective fact either. Normative values are not empirical facts. That I, or you, like it or dislike it does not make it any less or any more of a fact. It's easy to see how the other person's ideological stances are not a consequence of atheism. It is not so easy to do so with one's own. That blindered thinking is what we are seeing in so called Atheism+.

People may feel it is a matter of opinion whether there are god(s) or not, but whether there are god(s) or not is not a matter of opinion. Understanding the difference between these is critical to empirical study, indeed any study that strives to be objective (like skepticism, which is not just about empirical matters). It is a clear and precise understanding of the descriptive/prescriptive distinction that I champion - that and the unlimited scope of inquiry necessary for progressing any subject matter. Somebody has to, or we will slip back into the darkness of dogmatic orthodoxy again.

The Pernicious

So what can be more disgraceful than a scientist, a skeptic, an atheist who cannot comprehend the difference between description and prescription?

When Myers squeaks derisively of the "textbook definition" of atheism, I wonder what he is talking about. I mean, what exactly is the non-textbook definition of atheism that allows ideologies to annex atheism in their name? If only you believe what I believe? That would be very Church-orthodoxy of one, would it not? Which "atheism" with which ideological content is the right one and how are we supposed to tell? Science works, in part, because it is very precise in its terms, its jargon, its concepts. Precision in language offers precision in thought. How often do you see scientists say, "We have decided to abandon our jargon, the language that leads to clarity and precise inquiry, careful calculation and rigorous discussion. Now we are going to refer to all sciencey content as 'stuff.'"

Because, you see, that is what Atheism+ is in the vision of the ideological demagogues. Atheism is now "stuff" that includes all their stuff while excommunicating anyone who dares critique the cherished stuff. And guess who gets to decide what is the proper stuff?

Once upon a time, atheism was about whether there are or are not god(s). More recently, in response to theistic epistemological traps, atheism started talking about belief states with respect to the existence of god(s). Now it is about being nice? Well, theists have been saying forever that atheism is not nice but we persevered, focused on the real subject matter - not about how palatable the ideological sheep thought the subject matter was. Atheism+ is another variant of the "militant atheist" meme. "If you don't agree with my ideology, STFU!" I don't think so.

In the meantime, the theists are laughing their heads off at us for getting bogged down in the quagmire of ideological stuff, all reinforcing their mistaken claim that atheism is just another ideology. A claim we have, until recently, at least tried to mitigate with some attempts at objectivity, back when we thought is such terms. Once upon a time we went to great lengths to talk about the facts, or lack thereof. Now ideological elements within atheism are fueling theistic claims, not just by following their own ideology, but by tring to impose it on everyone else - on pain of being excommunicated from the conversation. This is a rot from within. This is apologism for a non-God ideology.

You know, sooner or later some clever feminist is going to hit upon the idea that feminist orthodoxy could be more easily imposed on others if it were painted as God's will. What do think atheism will become then?

If "Atheism+" takes hold, we will have to begin our struggle for objectivity all over again. Atheism permits inquiries that God-content formerly prohibited. Atheism does not require ideological orthodoxy. We do not do honest inquiry any favours by replacing one ideological orthodoxy with another.

AtheismFree (TM)*

*TM = Trade Mark.

I think I shall stick to my "AtheismFree." Atheism free of orthodoxy requirements and ideological demagoguery. Atheism that can focus on the actual subject matter, free of fallacies of relevance. Atheism for anyone and everyone. Or in other words, atheism.

I think I shall also stick with a definition of free thought that actually leaves people free to think. Imagine that!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012


Here's a nice, short one, barely a comment...

I often say, "Doubt is not denial." It's almost a mantra for me, because people confuse the two so astonishingly often, usually deliberately.

The Japanese have a term for the game Go. It is "sente." The closest English translation is "initiative." Your opponent is said to have sente when you are spending your game actions responding to your opponent's moves. Those who play chess will be familiar with this sorry state, helplessly having your moves dictated to you by your opponent. A game of chess, and Go, is about controlling the game, dictating the course of game events.

Theists make a claim about the existence of God. This claim is presented as an affirmation, the baseline for the discussion. If you question this affirmation, you are said to be denying it, and your question is said to be a negative act of denial. This is called controlling the discourse. The theist causes the skeptic to respond to the affirmation. Sente. The skeptic is depicted as denying. Doubt and denial are falsely conflated with each other, and skeptical doubt gets painted as denialism.

Do you let the theist seize sente? Do you think skepticism is denial?

And this, in part, is why we are seeing a rise in a definition of atheism as a "lack of belief in god(s)." It changes the discourse baseline and denies the disingenuous theist sente.

And this perhaps, helps clarify my snippet:
The logical contradiction of "believing A" is not "believing not-A."
The logical contradiction of "believing A" is "not believing A."

First 30 seconds of an intro logic course; the definition of "not."

This difference is critical, because there is more than one way of "not believing A," one of which is skeptical doubt, which is not denial.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Be the Test Subject

Hard-hat warning. Rampant exploration ahead...

"I really feel, very strongly, that we shouldn't, you know, just SHOULDN'T, use normative language."

This was a snippet I crafted while in a Laurie Anderson mood. Yes, I was being flippant at the time, but it does suggest something interesting, does it not? It uses normative language to prescribe not using normative language.

When I was a young man, taking my first course in analytic ethics, I encountered this idea of a moral prescription and wondered what it was - how it worked. The textbook told me that it was intimately connected with words like "should," "ought," (and their contradictories), "good," "evil," and others, so I thought I'd try a little experiment. I decided to surgically remove these words from my natural discourse, my everyday speech. It quickly became apparent to me how prevalent these words and words like it are, and how subtly they are interwoven into our language.

Now, of course, we use "should/ought" in a couple of very different ways. In one sense, these words represent an expectation. Striking a nail firmly enough with a hammer "should" drive it into the board. This use of "should" is a prediction, not necessarily based on any normative considerations. This is not the meaning of "should" I was seeking to find, but it does end up becoming part of the context, in that many of our expectations are moral ones. Indeed one could argue that morality is a realm of reasonable expectations...

It is the other sense that really caught my attention as a student of analytic ethics. It is the use in which we pretend that something is to be the case based on a desire or a command (it's even hard to depict this without using those words). It is interesting to note that "should" serves a command function in our everyday language use. This is subtly disguised by a lack of direct reference to the commander.

"Do X" is a command referencing the speaker as the commander, X as the thing to be done, and the person spoken to as the one commanded. "You should do X" again gives us the X (the thing to be done), refers to the person spoken to as the commanded, but leaves the commander much less well-defined. This has the effect of making it hard to point at the commander and argue with it. Now, theists will say that the commander is God, and it is intrinsically ridiculous to argue with God, since God is, by definition, always Right in His commands. Without god(s), as moral commanders, suddenly the commander becomes obviously the speaker again and that leaves room for debate whereas before, no such room existed.

Trying to avoid prescribing normatively, I restated "oughts" and "shoulds" as if-then "must" or "expect" conditionals. If you value X, then you must Y. This kept me from asserting or "affirming" X. This had the interesting effect of distancing myself from my own normative evaluations. I started to define myself, not so much in terms of the values I held, but in my ability to recognize my own values for what they were - normative constructs, and what they weren't - facts/truths. In this way, I was able to look past my own biases and was able to start taking responsibility for not just my actions, but also my attitudes. And that's something theists never do; take responsibility for their attitudes. They don't see attitudes/values as something they have. They see them as something they are, and this is no small difference.

One of the greatest catastrophes of the Ancient Greek philosophical traditions is this idea of "living a philosophy." Of defining yourself in terms of this or that philosophical stance. We see it at work today, with phrases like, "stick to your guns," and "don't ever let them change who you are." This sentiment I find nonsensical. When did "don't change your mind" become a positive thing? When did refusing to learn and grow become a value?

This experiment is one I recommend to everyone, even if done only casually (I dedicated three years and then much of the rest of my life to it) if you wish to understand how these words work and what they mean in natural use. But more, if you wish to understand how normative-evaluative language controls your discourse and your thinking. It's not easy at first, but gets easier as time goes on - as you develop the skill. It's like being a skeptic, holding that possibility that one might be mistaken, firmly in one's mind. I often hear people say things like "well, no one can be skeptical of everything." Seriously? You can't hold the possibility that you might be in error at all times? Sure you can. It's easy, with practice.

What this experiment really did was help to illustrate with remarkable clarity the difference between a description and a prescription. A statement of fact and a command/desire. This is a skill I think we desperately need today. And this is also how I came to science philosophically - by recognizing my own biases at work, seeking to correct for them, not just when applied to the facts, but also in recognizing *how* I was making errors and how the language encourages me to make these errors - to impose my will on others with subtle command structures. With prescriptivity.

Prescriptivity (and normative language) is a self-referential web of command functions designed to influence you and to allow you to exert influence over others. This about control and use of them is about controlling others. And that, is the business of religion. But, what does it say about us that we think everyone else needs to be controlled?

This is why my working definition of religion is "a prescriptive philosophy."

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Dglas "Inquest"

Some folks seem to like personal posts, and I was asked to describe my "worldview."

Who the hell is Dglas anyway?

Some of this is already in the snippets and soundbites you can find along the periphery of the Inquest, but perhaps a more structured approach is in order. Now, please understand that this is a particularly difficult exercise for me. It's like trying to nail down that which I deliberately keeps nails away from. It's like saying "This I believe" without using the word "believe."

Nevertheless, here goes...

I am fallible. We are fallible. This is not a thing that is easily internalized. Philosophies are tools, not truths. The instant we think we have the truth, we stop. Never stop. Inquiry is a journey, not an end. I see dogma and ideology as self-imposed hobblings of our minds and inquiry. This is why I combat religion - not just a particular religion - but all of them, and on the same basis.

My views are forward-looking, human-centered, life-affirming, freedom-loving, and reality-based. I sing the song of reason, free inquiry, and science, and of inclusive mindsets and cooperative mentalities. I am a philosophical skeptic, promoting unlimited scope of inquiry. No subject matter was ever advanced by bobbleheading.

I am a humanist, but I realize that is a choice, not a truth. My humanism is human centered - it is of humans, by humans and for humans, not a consequence of something else. I value humans for their own sake, not as mere cogs in a dogmatic meat grinder, not because some fantasy figure commands me to, but of my own choice. I don't advocate honour killings or savage retributivistic mentalities.

I do not "believe in" - that is a mindset I do not engage in. I "believe that" and those beliefs are contingent on reality. Based on, corrected by, and about reality. Subject to change if reality requires it. Really, I posit, rather than believe.

Every new thing gets an "Oh. Cool!" from me. I critique the philosophies that are exclusion machines and conflict engines. I inquire. I explore. And I revel in that. I have come to posit that explorers are what we are, from our first breath. My greatest fear is hardening of the grey matter and ideological stances that cause grey matter to harden.

No one is going to save us. It's us, only us, we may rely upon. Even if I am wrong about that, it is still a practical starting point.

I advocate for honest negotiation of our social constructs, morality being one of them, with continuing negotiation being key - again, a journey, not an end. Dogmas and ideologies are dishonest negotiation. I recognize the difference between words and violence, and I see the difference between fantasy and reality. I understand the difference between the purely analytic and the synthetic. We can't find out about reality by building massive webworks of purely analytical structures, divorced from reality.

I am a philosophical skeptic, with a practical streak. This is not a contradiction. Doubt is not denial.

Of course, I am a work in progress, just like this description is, subject to revision... because that's really the defining characteristic of who I am, and that includes not just my empirical positings, but my non-empirical ones as well.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Inquiry's Nemesis

A Stance of Deliberate Obliviousness

Quoth Ed Brayton:
"Yes, I am the owner of Freethought Blogs. And I was the one who made the decision to remove Thunderfoot from the network, for reasons I have already explained many times. I did what I did because my primary concern is the health of the FTB community, which was being seriously disrupted by Thunderfoot's presence. It isn't about disagreement; we disagree with each other all the time, as anyone who reads the various blogs can attest. I am perfectly content in accepting the reality that some people are going to believe his side of the story and some are going to believe mine. But the opinions of others are simply not my concern, so there is little point in writing to me to complain about it."

This is one of the most tragic things I have ever read by a self-professed freethinker. The opinions of others may not matter to you, Brayton, but they matter to me because I am interested in exploring ideas. Even unpopular ones. No one ever advanced a subject matter by bobbleheading. There was a time, not so long ago, when atheists were considered "disruptive." I saddens me to hear atheists using the same "arguments" used only too recently to keep atheists silent and under thumb. It seems some, possibly many, have learned nothing. It's a good thing atheists insisted on being heard despite the arrogance of those who weren't interested in other people's opinions.

The Prescriptive and the Descriptive

If you are going to conduct skeptical or scientific inquiry you must learn to distinguish carefully between descriptions of reality and prescriptive ideologies (desired or otherwise). Between what is and what you want to be. In an environment that lauds facts, it is not always an easy thing to realize, much less admit, that your cherished notions are not objective facts, but intellectual integrity and the efficacy of the method demands that you do so. Values are not facts. Those, like the FTB, who want to constrain inquiry within ideological boundaries are the bane of skeptical and scientific inquiry. So, too, are individuals who seek to use skeptical inquiry as a niche market for their ideologies.

It's easy to see why this happens, though. Modern distortions of the definition of "skepticism" have placed ideological claims beyond the scope of skeptical inquiry, with the very goal of classing them immune to skeptical inquiry. So, when I speak of people who seek to use skeptical inquiry as a niche market for their ideologies, I am speaking of people like Shermer and, yes, Watson.

Right now, skeptic and atheist communities are wracked with ideology-based conflict, and the primary functions, benefits, and methods of skepticism and of atheism respectively, indeed of science, are being forgotten about in the sound and fury. The noise rises and the signal fades. Skepticism seems no longer to be about rational distancing from subject matters based on evidence or lack thereof. Instead it is about petty personality conflicts, pushing ideologies, and cliquish mentalities. Atheism was once about questions of whether God exists or not, and the implications thereof. Now it seems to be all about ideological orthodoxy. Conform or be cast out. Secular shunning. Assigning stigma, for lack of anything factual.

I am a humanist - by choice - but I do not ever claim that humanism is, in any sense, true by virtue of being objective fact. That's because, despite that humanism is a cherished notion for me, I understand with crystal clarity that it is not in any sense fact. Humanism is a values consideration. Humanism is not a consequence of skepticism, even if dogmatism is antithetical to humanism (as I claim it is). I am not quite so presumptuous as to claim that my values represent objective facts. Think this paragraph is irrelevant to the discussion? Perhaps it might serve to revisit ideas like skepticism, atheism, and science. If these ideas have anything in common it is that they are unconcerned with what you or I want to be the case.

If we let skeptical or scientific inquiry be dictated by ideological considerations, then we are precisely equivalent to the Bush administration's attempts to introduce faith-based evidence into science, or to the former Soviet Union's attempts to recognize only state-sanctioned "scientific" theory. These all undermine the process and render the results unreliable. Are we interested in error-correction or not?

Mere Rhetoric

It is altogether too easy to vilify those who can remain on-topic as "disruptive" because they don't conform to the current orthodoxy requirements. It's altogether too easy to call into question the "sanity," to engage in amateur psychology, of someone who have the temerity to dare question your cherished notions. Theists have been characterizing atheists as mentally deficient for millennia. It's all too easy to call people names, and awash in the revelrous umbrage of spewing vitriol, forget all about the subject matter.

Never mind that such rhetorical ploys are fallacies of relevance.

Every day, the credulous and the fanatics accuse skepticism and atheism of being "just another ideology." Every day, skeptics and atheists claim those claims are not true. And every day, skeptics and atheists forget about skepticism and atheism in favour of petty ideological squabbles. You can almost hear the peals of laughter from the theists and the credulous.

When did skepticism become about seeing which "prominent figure" you can topple in order to enhance your status, with strong-arming compliance via boycotts? When did atheism become about who gets to dictate the terms of discussion? When did rhetoric replace argument? Remember argument? The point of an argument is not to win. The point of an argument is to learn, to explore, to tease some signal from the noise.

Getting On-Topic

I have been an open. public skeptic (with unlimited scope of inquiry) and an open, public atheist for over thirty years. For over thirty years I have tried to be an example of careful, deliberate reasoning to those around me. For over thirty years I have waited for an environment where free and open inquiry, free of ideological shackles, might arise from the dogmatic noise of petty personal interests or suffocating doctrine. And look what we are seeing instead. "Skeptic" organizations shun people with differing viewpoints. So-called "freethought" groups seek to impose orthodoxy on the discussion. My primary concern is always with the environment where ideas can be exchanged.

Aren't those locked in the quagmire of ideological bickering ashamed they so lack focus that they are distracted from the primary subject matters so incredibly easily?

I am interested in skepticism. I am interested in atheism. I am interested in science. I am interested in free and open inquiry. What are you interested in?

Saturday, July 21, 2012

An Interview with Yours Truly

A friend from across the globe has elected to do some interviews with atheists for his blog and decided to include yours truly. As an exercise in self-indulgence (and because I state things reasonably clearly here), here is the interview (warts and all) in its entirety as he presents it on his blog:
Cosmic Stories

OK. I did add some paragraph breaks. ;)

Without Further Ado...

Q: What is your name?

Dglas: Gregory Douglas Teed. Hence the name I use online, “Dglas.”

Q: So, you are a philosopher and an atheist? Why don’t you believe in God?

Dglas: I don’t have any reason to believe in God. There is no evidence for such an entity. Indeed it is specifically defined such that evidence simply does not apply. Recognizing the nature of that definition makes one realize that we can define any host of things that way. If we believed things based on such definitions, there’d be a whole lot of things we’d be believing – like that malicious gremlins (who can only be appeased by sacrificing bowlfuls of Lucky Charms) cause car engine knocks. For me to believe something, there has to be a reason to believe it.

And then, my “belief” is contingent and subject to change if the evidence warrants a change. My beliefs do not exist outside of reality. My beliefs are about reality and are thus governed by reality.

Q. Some people would say that you don’t want to see the evidence of God.

Dglas: Yes, some do say that.

What I do or do not want is irrelevant. More importantly, however, is that I am no sole arbiter of what is or is not the case. I have bad eyesight, but I do not imagine that looking over the rims of my glasses actually changes reality just because it looks different to me. My perceptions are flawed, just like anyone else’s. We need a better standard of evaluation that just “seeing the signs.” We need something that tempers human fallibility, including my own – or that at least tries. Mere confirmation bias is not a good basis for understanding reality.

Q. I have heard to William Craig, the famous christian preacher. Why is there anything instead of nothing?

Dglas: Many questions expect certain kinds of answers – they are leading questions. “Why are we here?” often expects a certain kind of answer – usually a purpose-oriented one. If you can accept an evolutionary explanation for why we are here, then that answer will be satisfactory. If not, then that answer will not seem satisfactory. Craig’s question is such a leading question, although it requires much more work than our scope here permits. Why would anyone ever assume that there can be nothing to contrast with something?

Q. You don’t believe that there is any evidence of God. But God has always been associated with ethics and morality. Where do the Atheists get their morality from?

Dglas: Unicorns have always been associated with virginity and purity too.

Technically atheism is only about the existence or non-existence of god(s). Questions of ethics are separate and apart from that, but at least atheism opens the door for a model of ethics that isn’t just a tyrant holding us down. To answer the question though, most atheists I have encountered get their morality from their society and the people around them. Many understand morality to be a negotiated social construct rather than a top-down assignment of forbiddings. Personally, I think this is a better model for morality than what gods offer us, since it involves some negotiation and agreement. I think that one important thing to realize about the state of modern atheism right now is that it is in transition, developing it’s own path.

Q. But, weren’t Hitler and Stalin atheists?

Dglas: Hitler professed to be a Christian, and often used appeals to Christianity to push his totalitairianism. Personally, I find the “What was Hitler?” disputes (I won’t even dignify them by calling them debates) childish. In my view he was a ruthless opportunist using anything he could get his paws on to promote his own personal power. The masses could be swayed with Christian noises, so he made Christian noises. As for Stalin, the matter is more complicated, by very similar. Stalin sought to replace Christianity with a state loyalty – effectively another religion. What his motives are are a matter of opinion, but I would say this: atheism itself is less than accommodating of religions – including state-based religions. Again, of course, questions of existence of god(s) and questions of ethics are separate subject matters.

What is more interesting is how these noises could be used to sway the masses. Being a believer seems to make one susceptible to suggestion…

Q. You are a philosopher. How does it helps you to resolve the everyday problems of life?

Dglas: Technically, I am not a philosopher. I am philosophically-minded. However, that said, philosophy, as inquiry, allows one a broader perspective that allows for more possibilities in one’s thinking. I suspect I adapt to new information better than your average believer, because I’m not busy seeking to deny new information on the basis of this or that unsubstantiated faith. Faith does not interfere with my acuity or ability to learn. I can approach problems from a wide variety of different angles, rather than just trying to brute-force my way with the established doctrines.

Q. So, Greg, are you married?

Dglas: No.

Q. I have heard that many atheists do not believe in marriage. Are you one of them?

Dglas: Here’s my take. Marriage is merely a symbolic ritual. What matters is the relationship between the people involved. If that’s not enough to sustain you, then you are living a lie. Unfortunately, the symbolic rituals usually involve introducing doctrinal nonsense into the relationship – poisoning the relationship. My story of becoming an anti-theist has to do with just such a poisoning. The religious may not claim my personal life – it is not theirs for the redefining into their hobbled little framework. That said, I really have no issue whatsoever with marriage. My reasons for not getting married are really my own and involve a lot of factors that others may not be familiar with.

I cannot speak for others on this.

Q. So you believe in only those thinsg that can be proved. What about Love?

Dglas: I am not entirely convinced love is anything but a homeostatic imbalance.

More seriously, love seems to be a social construct as well, subject to negotiated public and private understandings. There are physiological and bio-chemical underpinnings to love, it seems, but the general understanding of these seems subject to interpretation.

Q. Many people think that atheists are cold and distant, that they do not understand things like poetry and beatuty. What is your take on that?
Dglas: I think that’s nonsense. Why has understanding of art been associated with supernatural conceptions. I am a fan of music, despite that the dance of notes can be depicted mathematically. I think this misconception has to do with the idea that without mystery there is no wonder, but in my experience, and seemingly the experience of many atheists, wonder is a vital part of our existence. Our most popular speakers, past and present, like Dr. Sagan for example, speak of the joy of exploration, discovery, and inquiry. For my own part I am proud of humanity when it pushes the boundaries of our knowledge and understanding. Every new discovery, every new advancement exhilarates me. There is a reason why we are typically systematic in our understandings – it helps us grow. Of course, many atheists are also humanists, which is not exactly a cold and analytical perspective. One of my reasons for being an anti-theist is that “I prefer Hobbits happy and free, to Hobbits in chains.” For many of us, it seems, the future is a wonderland of possibilities, open and limitless. Compared to that, the “end of times” visions of the religious seem desperately poor in their poverty.

Q. If there is no god then who created the universe?

Dglas: What makes you think there is a someone who created the universe? For that matter what makes you think the universe ever did not exist, much less was “created?” That is a leading question that expects a certain kind of answer and I think I covered that already.  One does not answer leading questions. One points at their leading nature and laughs at them for trying to control the discourse.

Q. Still there are billions of religious people in the world. Do you take these people as partners or enemies in your endeavor to make a greater change in the world.

Dglas: We are all engaged in a grand enterprise, a planet-wide negotiation of who and what we are and of who and what we might be. We need variety of perspective in order to have a wide diversity of ideas and material to work with. Some, I think, approach the negotiating table dishonestly with no interest in compromise or possibilities. I do not see the people as “enemies.” I see dogma as an affliction that hobbles could-be allies in that grand exploration. I see orthodoxy requirements as a means of halting discussion, of silencing critical inquiry, of limiting possibilities. I see them as potential allies who could be friends if only they didn’t have this intellectual/emotional disease, this dogma, telling them to hate me and to hate humanity. Dogma, including religious dogma, is antithetical to change. It is a cage of the mind. Our understandings of self are a negotiated social construct as well. I add my voice to the negotiation advocating that we be more than just a caged animal.

Q. Thank you Greg for your support and honest answers. I wish you luck in your life.

Dglas: Thank you. I hope I have been helpful in some way.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Pawns & Perspectives

Adventure Awaits!

Let's shift gears, just for a moment. I said in my blog description that I would sometimes talk about gaming...

Games have always fascinated me from a logical systems point of view, even before I started studying that analytic wonderland called logic. I just didn't always know what to call that fascination. Now, most of the early popular games of the first half of the century were pretty simple matters. Most, like Monopoly, didn't offer much in the line of decision making, much less in terms of those decisions being influencers on the outcome of the game - chess, of course, was the notable exception.

In the second half of the last century we saw a movement away from religion in western society and, in a new generation, a move towards viewpoints critical of religion in particular. I put it to you that gaming has been a significant part of that movement. A generation, perhaps two, was raised on a particular kind of game, indeed a particular game, the likes of which we had never seen before.

I am, of course, speaking of Dungeons & Dragons, and the multitude of games that spawned from it. Dungeons & Dragons was a radically different kind of game in a number of respects, and in some of these respects, it absolutely terrified religious influences in our society - and rightfully so, but not for the reasons the religious presented. They dared not speak of the real reasons...

The first hardcover edition of D&D, AD&D was published in a three part core ruleset, with the "Monster Manual" being the first book published. In it a demon lord of the undead, Orcus, was described as "great." In this context the meaning of the word was clear: great as in powerful. The fanatics, of course, latched onto what they perceived was a positive connotation in the word "great" and squealed that AD&D was worshiping, and promoting worship, of figures such as Orcus. As if Orcus was real. Pfft!

Anything different or new is dangerous to the religious mindset, precisely because it isn't an eternal recapitulation to dogmatic orthodoxy. And, of course, anything that can be exploited as a polarizing factor will be latched onto by religious figures in a desperate clutching at remaining topical. There is much more to D&D that makes it dangerous to the religious mindset.

Role-Playing Games

For anyone not familiar with role-playing games, imagine that you and some friends are around a table. There is a stack of a few hundred blank pages before you. In order to put something, a story, on those pages you are each assigned a role. One is the story's narrator. Others become protagonists within the story. Together, in a cooperative setting, you build a story that slowly fills the pages of the novel, develops the protagonists and antagonists, and writes the scenes. The story can have any of the traditional elements, from heroism to betrayal to just about anything you can imagine. Some of the games have swords and sorcery settings, others are space operas, and others post-apocalyptic high-radiation zones. Still others are cyberpunk corporate wastelands.

Even this example has you playing, in your mind, the role of a story developer using a particular method.

Above all, role-playing is, even among the less cooperative players, a cooperative enterprise. This has implications. After all, religion is not about cooperation; it is about submission.

Interactive Media

To the best of my knowledge, Dungeons & Dragons was one of, if not the first, game to be presented as an interactive medium. Unlike the one way media of television, radio or even of other games with their established regiment of inflexible rules, D&D did something radically different. It assigned roles to the players, not just to the players playing the roles of characters in the fictional game world, but also to the players around the table as participants in the game (character as opposed to gamers). A game or campaign in D&D was a social-interactive, cooperative enterprise in which all persons worked together to build a story. The players' decisions influenced the outcomes of the story - even the progression of it.

This is a far cry from the top down, strictly restrained world of Monopoly. In D&D the gamemaster presents a story, a challenge, and the players seek to resolve that challenge often in ways unforeseen by the gamemaster. This meant that the gamemaster had to adapt his/her work to accommodate new elements as brought up by the players. The story became interactive with players and the game's master participating in its development and resolution. The players stopped being pieces moving around a board according to the dictates of dice in carefully and resolutely locked manners and became vibrant pockets of influence in the game world.

This form of participation gave the game an incredible appeal. Why? Because it was a kind of metaphor for participatory cooperation - a kind of metaphor for democracy actually.

Now when you look at religions, and especially of religion-inspired templates for morality, their vision is invariably top-down, authoritarian, with humans being like pieces in a Monopoly game. Roll the dice and go where they send you. Lucky you if you got to pass Go and collect $200.

And then there was...


In the early days of Dungeons & Dragons role-playing was considered a horrible thing, and justly so - if your perspective was that of the fanatic. Later, of course, role-playing would become legitimized methodologies in professional areas ranging from marketing to business management to meta-ethics to psychology to evolutionary biology, and much, much more...

In Dungeons & Dragons, players assumed the role of personalities not their own. Think about what that means for a moment. People are seeing events from the perspective of someone else, even if just a fictional someone else. This was so troublesome to the fanatic that they created stories of "sublimation" into character as scare tactics. The classic example of this was the absurd Tom Hanks film, "Mazes & Monsters." In this film a disturbed young man seeks refuge from his own tormented identity in the character of a fictional character in a role-playing universe. The result is someone getting stabbed. The moral of the story? Role-playing can cause you to lose track of who you are and make you become someone else instead - possibly, indeed probably, someone dangerous.

Assuming a personality and perspective not your own and seeking to role-play it honestly involves some mental gymnastics the sort of which the fanatic, obsessed with the petty smallness of their own delusion cannot tolerate. It involves putting yourself in someone else's shoes, in spinning stories (recharacterizing events) to meet that perspective. Among the religious leaders, already engaged in endless spin, the ability of the populace to do the same, even just to recognizing it happening, is deadly to their enterprise - the enterprise of keeping the wool pulled over your eyes. Imagine if that were to happen. Pedophile-sympathizers within the church might not be able to pass off crimes as attempts to forgive the pedophile. The church might actually start being held responsible, and people might start seeing through the absurd spin.

Role-playing gives people the opportunity and ability to look beyond their own immediate interests and perspectives. It is a similar effect to having, say, a worldwide communications network that allows you to meet people and hear ideas different from one's own. This is a kind of practical empathy - the likes of which is antithetical to the religious engine of conflict mentality in which people with other beliefs are alien, strange, dangerous - enemies.

For the record, as a 30+ year long role-playing gamer, I have never seen anyone get sublimated into character. Quite the opposite, in fact, Despite our geekiness we seem more aware of the line between fantasy and reality than most. And that has to be the most terrifying thing of all for fanatics who want us to believe in gods, devils, unicorns, miracles and a host of other nonsense that directly conflicts with reality. The Phelpses and Campings of the world must really hate us...

The worst emotional influence I've seen is some depression over the lost of a loved character. Sorry, Darren.

Ethics as Story Conflict

Gary Gygax was a writer. An interesting question to ask is from what perspective a writer will approach game design. Dungeons & Dragons evolved out of war games, like Avalon Hill games, involving units on a battlefield. The units on the Avalon Hill style battlefield became heroes. The great leap for D&D was in having players adopt the role of these heroes and a fantasy world simulation was woven around that. D&D was, and is in large part, a conflict-based game. In writing stories conflict is always an integral part. One would expect a writer, trained in this to bring that perspective to a game that he was co-designing (along with Dave Arneson).

Now, in seeking to create a simulation of a swords & sorcery society, one would only expect that a simulation of ethics in some form or another would be included. In D&D that simulation took the form of the nine alignments. In the ethics of the D&D universe, the ethical alignments are depicted by two axes. One axis runs the gamut from good to neutral to evil. The second axis runs the gamut from lawful to neutral to chaotic. There are nine permutations: Lawful good, lawful neutral, lawful evil, neutral good, true neutral (neutral neutral), neutral evil, chaotic good, chaotic neutral, and finally chaotic evil.

What is astonishing about the "nine-alignment" depiction of ethics is not its failure, but its success - as a story-telling conceit -success that would lead to intense critique. Entertainingly, much of the discussion is about what each alignment means, but that is not to my point here. What is to my point is that the alignments were structured as conflict-driving devices. More interestingly still, the nine-alignments were surprisingly representative of the morality of religions, complete with adherence and orthodoxy requirements. The nine alignments were dogmatic. Even being true neutral did not mean being unaligned. It meant striving to maintain a balance between the extremes. There is no third axis representing live and let live vs convert or die. Everything was convert or die.

Sound familiar?

If you are able to posit the idea of other perspectives possibly being legitimate in some way or another, and if  you depict ethics as a conflict engine, then it is a short step to realizing that the paladin is not the noble knight in shining, holy armour as depicted, but is instead a killer for a cause. Does that sound familiar? One would expect it to. It is the story of every soldier who kills for nationalism. Of every person brutalized in the name of vital interests. Of every child slain because their, or someone else's, religion depicted them as something less than human...

Expanding the Ruleset

In this age of computer gaming, player choices influencing outcomes is a primary consideration in game design, whether the game is PvP or PvE (Player versus Player or Player versus Environment) oriented. What is at work is a philosophy of game design that incorporates the player's input in the unfolding of the events of the game (either real or illusory). Some games do it better than others, and one of the issues in game design is the limits on the impacts on the outcomes players can have, even in an ideal world of unlimited processing power and unlimited storage capacity.

We have similar issues when confronting ideas such as freedom and responsibility in a social setting. One of the meta-game issues among some games was the tendency on the part of rules to favour the players or to favour the environment. The difference between "say yes to the players unless you absolutely can't" versus a "say no to the players unless they are exceptional rules-lawyers" mentalities. Religions, I have found, are a mentality of "No! You must not! If you do you will be punished!" And under no circumstances ever consider that maybe the rules might be subject to revision through negotiation - that the mere subjects might have input into the ruleset.

Equally interesting to me, however, is the idea of games like Dungeons & Dragons qua simulation. In a strong sense these logical structures are very much like the norms, values, rules, and structures of a society. Do we wish to depict ethics as two axes of mutually exclusive dogmatically held ethos - all of which are "legitimate justification" for often lethal conflict, about limiting and restricting? Or will we have the courage to add another axis, perhaps more? Perhaps do away with the axes altogether...?

Tell me, are you excited by the possible directions our examinations into ethics might take us, or are you constrained by fear and think morality exists to keep intrinsic monsters under control...?

When we engage in social theory, indeed in meta-ethics deliberations, are we interested in expanding the ruleset, or restricting it? I, for one, am interesting in expanding the ruleset. I prefer Hobbits happy and free to Hobbits in chains.

Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, I don't think even you knew what you did for us. From me, as one growing up in a generation with D&D, thank you for providing all that fun, and more, expanding my perspective. I took an interest in logic and analytic ethics, in part, because of you.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Positive, Practical Skepticism

Out With the Bad Air - In With the Good Air

I am a philosophical skeptic, which is not common today, I understand, but you have to start somewhere. Sometimes that involves taking a look at the arguments once used to dismiss something and re-evaluating them in light of new information or in light of the context of the time when bad arguments might have seemed convincing. There was a time when appeals to "intuitive obviousness" and "immediately evident" were common among philosophers. Mostly, these are now seen as errors. Mostly...

For example, the theists desperately want to define atheism as another dogmatic belief with no better founding than any other (especially their) ideological or epistemological stance. This so that subtle and not so subtle errors and difficulties can be imposed upon the thinking of atheists. Atheists today, however, are redefining themselves in terms of "lack of belief" rather than " belief in lack" (much less "knowledge of lack"). The old arguments based on theistic definitions of atheism do not hold up so well in the face of "lack of belief." The epistemological quagmire has been avoided, much to the consternation of the theist. Much energy is spent by theists attempting to impose old definitional traps and irrelevant errors onto atheists. Perhaps this is because they realize we have solved the errors and to recognize that will decimate the unsupported nonsense that props up their baseless theism...

Similarly, dogmatists (those who imagine they have certainty and the really true truth) seek to define doubt as denial, and if defined that way, serious problems arise for skepticism. If, however, you understand that doubt is not denial, then those issues and seeming contradictions vanish like the illusory chimera they always were. With doubt not being denial, one can be skeptical of skepticism and it is not a contradiction. Instead we end up with an infinite series of meta-levels of uncertainty - which is skepticism. This is not some terrible infinite regression. Don't flee in abject terror yet. Instead it is a constant state of uncertainty - of permanent inquiry. This is not as terrifying as it seems. True, we don't get to claim we "know" with "certainty,"  We do, however, get to keep learning...

What's profoundly interesting about this is that it is arrived at critically, rather than by some baseless affirmation. Skepticism is the only philosophy to do this.

Positive Skepticism

People often see skepticism as a negative thing, a negation, but it isn't.

Skepticism is a careful nurturing of doubt, of that tiny but vital, necessary room and capacity for growth, change, learning, and inquiry. Without it, we stagnate, wither, and our grey matter hardens. Without it we mentally and emotionally stop. Without it we stultify, are frozen in place, intellectually dead, left merely waiting for our organs to fail.

Skepticism is positive in ways mere affirmation cannot even begin to fathom or approach.

Here's what I see as the big issue with a dogmatist's (like theists) understandings of skepticism. A claim is made (or affirmed), and that affirmation, that "Yes!," becomes the baseline for evaluating anything else said on the subject. It's a little like your opponent seizing sente in a game of chess, of making you react to them rather than playing your own game. The result is that they end up controlling the game and you are left helplessly following the events as they play out. The skeptic's game is the game of unending inquiry, of learning and exploration. I see no reason to play the dogmatist's game.

The result is that one can deny a dogmatic claim, and that would be a denial. X, not-X - you get the idea. But to doubt the claim is not necessarily a denial in that it refers not so much to the claim as it does to the knowledge-state of the person considering it. The claimant wants it to be about the claim. Whereas, with knowledge claims, we are actually talking about the knowledge-state of the "knower." And here's the interesting thing about knowledge states: one can know X, one can know the negation of X, or one can not-know either. This translates directly over to the error that atheism is the denial of God:

The logical contradictions of (belief in God) is not (belief in not-God).
The logical contradiction of (belief in God) is not-(belief in God).
See how in one we are talking about God, and in the other we are talking about belief-state?

Traditionally, critiques of atheism have been based on the assumption that atheists are making a knowledge claim about the existence of God. And atheists have reacted, helplessly following the events on the chessboard, as if this were true. Hence we have the rise of agnosticism as an "intermediate" state between theism and atheism, but it isn't a single straight line: "theism-agnosticism-atheism." We are talking about different subject matters: God vs knowledge. This, with atheism being defined as "lack of belief" is changing now.

Doubt is Not Denial

I think something similar has happened with skepticism. Sextus Empiricus (yes, that was really his name), in "Outlines of Pyrrhonism," lists the skeptical tropes, many of which are a little dated by today's standards. But most, if not all, refer not to reality, but to the reliability of our apprehension of reality. Skepticism does not deny reality (indeed skepticism is a realist philosophy, assuming there is a reality we can be mistaken about), but rather illustrates, and with seemingly good reason, our fallibility. So skepticism is not denial of reality, it is doubt of our infallibility. Doubt is not denial. If someone wants to form the proposition "We are infallible!" and assert it as an affirmation - and then claim we are "denying" that, then I will be only to happy to guffaw at them for being so presumptuous as to use a mere trick of language to present our rational caution as some sort of negation. That same presumption is shown everyday in the theists who disingenuously claims that atheism is necessarily a denial of their affirmation.

Warning - Hard-Hat Zone: There seems to be a problem where people equate propositions about a thing with the thing itself. This, I think, bears further exploration. Is it possible to doubt or deny a proposition without doubting or denying the content of the proposition? Hard question. There do seem to be implications of seizing sente by crafting an affirmation, and there seems to be an assumption that this is somehow a legitimate exercise. Perhaps we will find, eventually, that truth and falsity are purely analytic ideas, tricks of the language, and do not map onto reality like we think they do. Maybe truth-values in logic have a hidden, perhaps normative, content...

The Rhetoric of Rhetoric

We live in a marketplace of ideas in which expressions of confidence, the more confident the better, are seen as positive, regardless of whether or not there are actually reasons for having such confidence. Screaming fanatics are given credit for "the strength of their convictions." We have ridiculous soundbites like "stick to your guns" and "don't ever let them change you." This is not only absurd, but counterproductive to advancing any subject matter. When ranting opponents are counted as authorities, how do we approach the delicate, speculative task of critical inquiry. "Yes" or "No" is simply not good enough. We need to address the whys of it, and we need to adapt a mentality that thinks in terms of more than just "Yes!" or "No!"

The point of an argument is not to win. The point of an argument is to learn, to explore, to tease some signal from the noise.

Imagine, if you will, a dog chained to its stake. It has been the victim of consistent abuse and now reacts to anything new reflexively, fearfully, snarling, growling, snapping at anything and everything that comes along. New ideas seem strange, threatening, frightening, evoking a visceral reaction rather than a considered, contemplative one. So, when you have a new idea before you, how will you react? Will you be that dog?

Mere rhetoric is a snarling, snapping dog, jealously guarding its turf against perceived threats, real or imagined.

Practical Skepticism

Is it not infinitely practical to be able to adapt one's view and understanding? Is it not a practical measure to rigorously maintain that capacity - to avoid harening of the grey matter? Isn't that capacity a practical necessity of learning, growth, flexibility and change? People say, "What is the benefit of doubt?" Well what is the benefit of learning that building a bridge that other way didn't work, so let's try it a new way, incoporating new ideas instead of sticking faithfully to past biases and expecting better results the next time? What is the benefit of experimenting with new explanations when the old explanations fail to provide us with predictive power? God may be a comforting delusion for some, but as an explanatory device, it lacks any practical application. Is there a practical benefit in seeing illness as caused by microbes rather than demons? It would seem there is, but without skepticism, that moment of doubt, we'd still be shaking rattles and kissing beads, praying that the demons would stop possessing the sick.

There seems to be all-pervading, and seemingly, unshakable opinion out there that if you don't affirm something with absolute conviction, you can't work with or build on it, hence the strange conclusion that skepticism is sterile and unproductive and leads to a state of stasis. But that's simply not true. I think that is an expression of belief/delusion bias. Have you never entertained an idea and built on it, seeing where it leads? When doing this, did you necessarily have to deny the capacity to throw out the original idea if it didn't lead anywhere or if you found another that led farther faster?

Skepticism is painted, quite erroneously, as a negative, impractical, sophistical process, but the opposite is actually the case. Skepticism is the capacity to learn, to grow, to explore, to inquire. It this respect it is positive, forward looking, and conducive to adaptation, versatility, and change. And adaptivity is infinitely practical. What could possibly be more practical than being able to adapt to reality?

It is affirmations, assumptions of truth and certainty, that are negative, that are impractical, despite the trick of language involved (the sente of positive connotation). It is affirmations that hold us back, stop us in our tracks, end our investigations, and impose stagnation upon us. Do not define yourself in terms of what you think you "know." Define yourself as an inquirer, an explorer, a delver. Eschew certainty. Keep the grey matter loose and flexible. Be a lifetime learner...

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The End of Reason (Reprise)

Secular Shunning (Excommunication)

Thunderf00t Speaks

Thnunderf00t Discusses his Dismissal from FreeThoughtBlogs

Normally, I'm not a big fan of Thunderf00t. I found some comparisons he made in his famous "Why People Laugh at Creationists" series to be unfortunate and not conducive to popularizing science. Insulting the people you are trying to popularize science among doesn't strike me as profoundly clever.

However, there does seem to be an environment of secular shunning at work in the freethought community and more than a bit of it seems to revolve around a certain social climber using unevidenced claims and character assassination as her MO.

Now, don't straw man me. I'm not evaluating Thunderf00t's arguments on the topic this revolves around one way or the other. But I will say that an exchange of ideas requires an environment where an exchange of ideas is possible. Some folks, those whose minds and reason have been overwhelmed by ideology and dogma, won't like that environment - go figure.

It seems freethought, whatever it meant to you before, now means be orthodox or be shunned and banned. Conform or be cast out. I worry for the future of freethought. Soon, we will need a freethought free of freethought orthodoxy requirements in order to be able to talk about anything.

Of course, I wouldn't know anything about secular shunning. It's not like I was banned, on a false accusation, from the JREF forums for having the sheer temerity to be an outspoken atheist and to dare challenge something The Lord God Randi said.

Oh, wait. I was. Imagine that...

P.Z. Myers Speaks

So, here is the video presented by P.Z. Myers speaking of "dismissing" Thunderf00t:

P.Z. Myers Discusses Thunderf00t's Dismissal from FreeThoughtBlogs

I've heard claims on both sides and one important point seems to be missing here. In order to have open and free inquiry there must be an environment where open and free inquiry is not only possible, but encouraged - even if one finds some of the views presented personally distasteful. I see little room for advancement of any subject matter where dissenting views are simply not permitted. What P.Z. Myers depicts as freethought is not freethought. It is orthodoxy requirements. It is ideology. It is dogma.

I thought we were supposed to be beyond that. I thought we were supposed to be advocating for better than that. I thought we were supposed to rely on solid and sound argumentation and evidence, not popularity contests and ideological conformity.

My estimation of PZ Myers is rapidly fading. His apparent disdain for those of us with the inclusive, and epistemologically sound, "lack of belief" understanding of atheism, and now his orthodoxy requirement mentality for the "FreethoughtBlogs" indicates to me that this man has a dogmatic mentality, rather than a versatile, flexible, inquiring one. Now, Thunderf00t may or may not be much better, (I'm not defending Thunderf00t here; I am defending something bigger), but at least he seems to recognize that a debate necessitates that opposing positions at least be permitted to be represented. Something PZ Myers seems to have lost all concept of - if he ever had it. Apparently, "reason" does not involve open and free inquiry in the mind of P.Z. Myers. Now, the Enlightenment was a little bit about exploration and inquiry, was it not?

Now, whoever owns "FreethoughtBlogs" can determine what is and what is not permitted on their site, but that does not mean that these determinations need to afforded credibility. This behaviour, and the rationales for it sound terribly and recklessly familiar, are a terrible blow to Freethough Blogs' credibility. Thanks, PZ Myers, but I can get banned from any fundamentalist site in a heartbeat. You are not representing anything new, innovative, or profound by adopting their tactics and justifications in the name of this ideology rather than that ideology. All you are doing is showing that you have been polarized beyond "reason" by a mere ideology.

Running in Cycles

Historically, skeptical perspectives, are often trotted out to undermine the previous in favour of the new, and then conveniently shucked aside when the new becomes the current. I hold that we need to step sideways, out of the cycle, so that we "don't get fooled again," because orthodoxy requirements are orthodoxy requirements, whomever the "boss" is this time. And orthodoxy requirements always stifle freethought. I recommend we stop using skeptical tools as a matter of mere convenience and actually embrace skepticism.

We need to stop permitting people to dictate the course of discussion on the basis of personal offence and appeals to pity. Surely atheists have heard enough of those nonsensical rhetorical tactics already, and constantly dismiss these rhetorical ploys for the errors they are. By what standard do we say that theists are mistaken to use these "methods," but that "freethinkers" are now entitled to use the very same garbage?

I'll tell you something I have noticed - precious few people are talking about skepticism in the skeptical movement anymore. Everyone seems too wrapped up in this or that ideological showdown. If this weren't so tragically absurd, it would be laughable.

The Ideological Assault

The atheist, and even more disturbing, skeptical movements are now under attack by ideological demagogues seeking the usurp the primary content with their ideological orthodoxies. While atheism does not require non-dogmatism, one would think that even dogmatic atheists would have some sympathy for an environment of dissenting opinion - like one that permits atheists to rise from suppressed obscurity to being able, at least to some degree, to present their case.

For skepticism - remember: the method of doubt the primary function of which is to defend against dogma - to be subverted by dogmatic ideology is entirely unforgivable. This arises, I suspect, from warped and distorted definitions in the skeptical movement presented by those who desire to limit the scope of skeptical inquiry, accommodate apologists, and present ideologies unchallenged by skeptical inquiry. I covered this more thoroughly in "Fluffistry Unchallenged."

We are being fooled again.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Fluffistry Unchallenged

So, I say in my introduction blurb, "I am a skeptic, a real one - both scientific and philosophical with unlimited scope of inquiry." What does that mean? Let's start with the not quite hidden evil twin of agnostic atheism:

The Evil Twin

Nowadays, and I push for this as well, atheists are in the process of defining themselves. The rising star is atheism as a "lack of belief" rather than a "belief in lack." This avoids certain epistemological issues and heals the rift between agnosticism and atheism. Oh, buy, does that ever piss the theists off. They no longer get to control the discourse. I often sense their panic setting in. Thta said...

It is possible for someone to be a dogmatic atheist - not relying on skeptical reasoning for their belief and/or claiming that their atheism is a knowledge claim. At that point skeptical doubt is not being universally or rigorously applied.

Beware the new age definition of skepticism. That definition limits the scope of inquiry and decimates the primary function of skepticism - protection from dogma.

Scientific "Skepticism"

Modern "scientific skepticism" defines things entirely in terms of empirical evidence (this admittedly aligns itself with science), effectively claiming that non-empirical matters are beyond the scope of skeptical inquiry. Hence a whole non-empirical realm of "woo" is deemed off-limits to skeptical inquiry. This is the underlying effect of NOMA (Non-Overlapping Magisteria). Thus you see skeptical organizations attacking "woo" that has empirical references, but holding "woo" without empirical reference immune to skeptical inquiry. This, of course, is loved by the apologists and accommodationists who wish to selectively decide what does and what does not get called into question. The primary example of course, is that the greatest, most dangerous and pervasive "woo" of them all is left unchallenged by scientific skepticism - God. And that, ultimately, is why the Pope has never received a Pigasus.

So, how did we get to this miserable state. Well, this may come as a shock to some, but religion was not always tempered by considerations like reason and honesty. Basically think of religion as being temporarily papertrained. Stop watching it, and will start pissing all over everything again (current American/Canadian politics display this only too vividly). In order for a fledgling movement to avoid getting squished like a bug under religion's heel, certain compromises were made. NOMA was developed and made part of the agenda. Now, "skeptical" organizations are effectively under the heel of apologists and accommodationists. The justification now is theists "being welcome," but whatever the justification, the result is the same - a hobbled scope of skeptical inquiry.

The JREF's Shame

That is one of the reasons I have such a profound disrespect for the JREF. The last MDC (Million Dollar Challenge) I saw was an hour or more long live videofeed of Jeff Wagg's crotch as some poor, deluded backwater woman tried to prove she could make him urinate with the power of her brain. I kid you not. Meanwhile, God remains unchallenged and the Pope still does not have a Pigasus.

The other reason has to do with free and open inquiry, but that's a story for another time.

Worse, with the new age definition of skepticism, ideologies are also outside the scope of "skeptical" inquiry. Hence we get people like Shermer and Watson seeking to annex skepticism as a niche market for their personal ideologies and demagoguery (and sometimes mere cliquish popularity contests). Ideologies are non-empirical, as are values. Hence we see Shermer's clam that "pure skepticism" is sterile and unproductive. This is, of course, utter nonsense - we can work from posited starting points just as easily as we can from dogmatically believed ones. Uncertainty does not necessarily equate to indecision or helplessness.

Shunning Your Allies in Favour of Your Enemies

What this hobbled definition really amounts to is a disdaining of anyone who has the temerity to think in any but empirical terms. Which is all well and good, until again, you encounter an ideology, or a claim that is presented in such a fashion that it does not admit of empirical verification/refutation (such as God). Whether ideologies are empirical or not, they do have real influence and real empirical effects. I hold that we cannot afford to leave the other magisteria unchallenged, to the dogmatic nutjobs.

And that is when you need pure or philosophical skepticism, because it also provides a defence against these "other magisteria" claims. That "other magisteria" is within the scope of philosophical inquiry.

The purpose of skepticism is not (merely) to indicate when a claim is false, but to indicate when a claim is not necessarily true. If we limit the scope of doubt to a very specific realm, then skepticism loses its ability to provide us with a doubt methodology for non-empirical matters (more properly said, we ignore that tool) - to provide us with a defense against mystical/metaphysical/non-empirical fluffistry. The ideologues and dogmatists are left a whole realm where they are left unchallenged. And, you see, this is where I, as a philosophical skeptic, differ from the mere scientific skeptics. I recognize no artificial limits on the scope of skeptical inquiry. I can meet the dogmatists, the mystics, the ideologues, and the demagogues on their own turf and soundly thrash them there, rather than just pretending they can be ignored - because they can't. They have influence, like it of not, and I think the evidence bears that out.

So, I am a scientific skeptic, but I am also a philosophical skeptic, with an unlimited scope of skeptical inquiry. The apologists and accommodationist influences who seek to hobble and contain inquiry within their very specific parameters can go to hell, straight to hell, do not pass go, do not collect $200.

Dishonest Skepticism

Fortunately, many people extend their skepticism beyond the scope of scientific skepticism and that stopped Shermer in his tracks not that long ago (and has also resulted in a strong correlation between skeptics and atheists) when he tried to equate skepticism with his radical political and economic ideology (libertarianism), Whether it will be enough to halt Watson before she turns the whole enterprise into a polarized shouting match and skepticism is lost in the demagoguery is an open question. Getting polarized is easy - remaining unpolarized, not so much.

Unfortunately, many people extend their skepticism selectively so that their private gris-gris remains "beyond the scope." The principle of eschewing certainty gets shuffled off to a limited scope, defined, in part, by individual whim (which really equates to intuitionism). And that is the purpose behind Shermer's definition of skepticism. Hence we get silly claims like "no one can be skeptical of everything." Of course anyone can. Doubt is not denial. All it requires is the recognition of the possibility of error regardless of the subject matter, the eschewing of certainty with respect to all subject matters, including one's own cherished beliefs and preferences. I, for example, am a humanist by choice, but I do claim that humanism is The Truth!(TM).

Skepticism can be harsh, it'll tell you things you don't really want to hear, but it is absolutely loyal and will never tell you lies.

No True Skeptical Scotsman

Now, the intelligent design (cdesignproponentist) people tried to redefine science such that faith-based evidence was considered scientific. Most people with any grasp of science will realize that this utterly subverts science as a methodology of error-correction based on empirical evidence. After all, if adopted, the ID mentality will now base error-correction on the whims of faith. In this way intelligent design completely decimates the primary function of scientific inquiry.

So it is with artificially limited scope and skepticism. Skepticism is, first and foremost, a protection/defence against dogmatically held ideas - any ideas - including non-empirical ones. When we say that a subject mater is "beyond the scope" of skeptical inquiry, we are rendering ourselves defenseless against that other magisteria. Thus utterly decimates the primary function of skepticism.

This is what I mean when I say I am a true skeptic. It's not a fallacy; it's a recognition that skepticism has a function. Scientific skepticism is all well and good within its sphere, but the moment it tries to limit all skeptical critique to within that sphere (as Shermer and others have done), a terrible, terrible error is being made - usually by those who don't want their dogmas critiqued. Perhaps you would prefer I say, "a thoroughgoing skeptic?"