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?"