Skepticism As a Discipline

This piece was originally published on AlterNet.

Cogito ergo dubito
Why does skepticism matter?

Not just in science, or history, or other academic pursuits where rigorous devotion to the truth is crucial. Why does skepticism matter in everyday life?

When I write about atheism — especially when I write about how the religion hypothesis has no good evidence supporting it and is almost certainly not true — there’s a response I get surprisingly often: “What difference does it make whether it’s true? Religion makes people happy. It gives people comfort in troubling times. It offers a sense of purpose and meaning. It lets people tolerate the idea of death without being paralyzed with terror. Why try to take that away from people? If it’s useful, who cares whether it’s true?”

My typical response to this… well, my first response is always dumbstruck head-scratching. To me, the idea that the truth matters is self-evident, and it seems bizarre to have to defend it in debate. And I am truly baffled by what people even mean when they say they believe something without necessarily thinking it’s true. (“You keep using that word ‘believe.’ I do not think it means what you think it means.”) But when my head-scratching is over, my typical response has been to write high-minded defenses of the philosophical and indeed ethical necessity of prioritizing the truth over our imaginings about it. Coupled with passionate love letters to the universe that would make Carl Sagan blush.

Skeptic tee shirt
Today, I’m going in a different direction. Today, I want to talk about the uses of skepticism in everyday life. I want to talk about how skepticism — prioritizing good evidence and critical thinking over ideology and preconception, which includes declining to accept propositions without good evidence, and letting go of conclusions when the evidence doesn’t support them — can make our lives happier, healthier, and more richly satisfying. I want to talk about the real challenges that a skeptical approach to everyday life can present… and why the rewards make those challenges so worthwhile.

I want to talk about skepticism as a discipline.

(And since I’m writing here about skeptical rigor, I’ll be rigorous myself, and say right off the bat: This piece is very anecdotal. I’m writing largely about my own experiences, and my observations of other people. It’s not as if I have double-blinded, peer-reviewed, replicated research showing that a skeptical life is a more satisfying life. In fact, there is research showing that a few very specific kinds of self-delusion, such as having a somewhat higher opinion of yourself than is strictly warranted, are essential to mental health. A topic for another piece.)

See, here’s the thing. Lots of people who defend religious faith, who defend believing in God or the supernatural with no good evidence, insist that they only ever do this with religion. When it comes to everyday life — health and money, work and love, what car to buy and what food to eat and what city to live in — of course they base their decisions on good evidence. Of course they don’t believe whatever they’re told or whatever appeals to them. Of course they’re willing to let go of ideas when a mountain of evidence contradicts them.

But I know — from my own experience, and from what I’ve seen — that this is simply not the case. I know that it’s not so easy to believe whatever you find comforting in some cases… and then question, or challenge, or let go of your beliefs in others.

Skepticism does not come naturally to the human mind. The human mind is very deeply wired to believe what it already believes, and what it wants to believe. The habit of questioning whether the things we believe are true? The habit of letting go of beliefs we’re attached to when the evidence contradicts them? These are not easy habits to come by. They take practice. And they take discipline.

But it’s a discipline that pays off: in specific pragmatic results, and in the broader, deeper, less obviously tangible areas of personal connection and fulfillment.

Here are a few examples of what I mean.

Letting Go of Glucosamine

I have a chronically bad knee. There are some things I do that make it better, but it’s always going to be at least somewhat messed up. And one of the things I used to do for my bad knee was to take glucosamine. I kept hearing that glucosamine increased the production of lubricating fluid in the joints, which sounded nifty, and some of the early medical research was promising.

But then further, more thorough research was done… and the results were conclusive. Glucosamine doesn’t work.

You’d think I’d have been pleased to hear that. A rational reaction would have been, “Well, good. It would have been better if the stuff actually worked — but at least I don’t have to waste my money on snake oil anymore. Since it doesn’t work, of course I’d rather not take it.”

But I was extremely disappointed in this outcome. Upset, even. And at first, I was very resistant to accepting it. I liked feeling like I was doing something about my bad knee. Especially something so easy. It was comforting. It gave me a feeling of control. It helped me not feel so helpless. And I had convinced myself that the stuff worked. (The placebo effect can be powerful indeed.)

Fingers in ears
So my first reaction was to reject the research. My first reaction was to repeat my “Early research is promising” mantra, to drown out the “This stuff doesn’t work” mantra the universe was now presenting me with. My first reaction was to stick my fingers in my ears, pretend I hadn’t heard anything, and keep doing what I’d been doing.

But because I was beginning to identify as a skeptic, and was getting involved in the atheist/ skeptical movement, I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t keep trying to persuade people to reject the wishful thinking of their religious faith and take a rigorous look at the lack of good evidence supporting it… and still embrace my own wishful thinking about glucosamine over the evidence staring me in the face. Not if I was going to live with myself. That’s the thing about cognitive dissonance: once you become aware of it, rationalizing it becomes a lot harder. And that’s the thing about the cognitive errors skeptics are always yammering about, errors like confirmation bias and hindsight bias and the clustering illusion and so on: once you start noticing them in others, they become a lot harder to ignore in yourself. I couldn’t do it. I had to take my bottle of glucosamine, accept that it had been a waste of money, accept that it had all been a waste of money for years, and pitch it in the trash.

Why was this a good thing?

Why was it good that I gave up doing something that made me feel happy, something that gave me comfort and a feeling of control?

The most obvious answer is that I didn’t have to spend my money on the stuff anymore. That’s a very good argument for skepticism generally: of all the arguments against credulity and blind faith, Not Getting Taken By Con Artists is definitely high on the list. But in this case, that was a minor concern. Glucosamine was relatively cheap. I spend more money every day on useless things that make me happy. (Decaf coffee and cable TV both leap to mind.)

A better answer is that I was no longer doing something useless that made me feel like I was making a difference… so I started looking more carefully at things I could do that weren’t useless and that might actually make a difference. It wasn’t until I stopped taking glucosamine that I started pushing my doctor — hard — about getting me a proper diagnosis for my knee, and getting me some freaking physical therapy for it. I’d asked her about it before and gotten vague, half-assed answers… which I’d accepted, since I was soothing myself with the delusion that glucosamine was making things all better. Once I accepted the harsh reality that my knee was not getting all better, I was motivated to take action that might actually help.

This is a point I make a lot about skepticism and caring about evidence. Good information about reality helps us make better decisions about how to act in that reality. It helps us understand which causes are likely to have which effects. And the reverse is true as well. Decisions based on bad information are no better than guessing. Worse, in some ways, since we’re more willing to let go of decisions we know were based on guessing. It’s like people in data processing say: Garbage in, garbage out.

Facing harsh reality can be… well, harsh. It’s not always fun. And comforting delusions are… well, comforting. But that doesn’t mean they’ll make us happier in the long run. Does believing in God or the afterlife give some people comfort? Sure. Believing that global warming isn’t real gives some people comfort, too. That doesn’t make this belief useful or good. For the people who believe it, or for society as a whole. If you get mad at people who stick their fingers in their ears and say, “I can’t hear you, I can’t hear you,” about global warming… why do you think that’s an appropriate way to think about God?

And then there’s the broader, deeper, “connection with the universe” personal fulfillment stuff. But I’m going to hold off on that for a moment, and talk about one more pragmatic effect skepticism has had in my life.

Weight loss.

No, really.

Lose Weight Now, The Skeptical Way!

A little over a year ago, my bad knee started to get very bad indeed. It went rapidly from “having to be careful getting in and out of cars” to “having serious trouble climbing hills and stairs.” It was a very upsetting experience, one that made me feel intensely helpless: my knee was getting worse, much worse, potentially cripplingly worse, even though I’d been doing everything I could to take care of it.

Well, almost everything.

Everything but lose weight.

I was, at the time, about 60 pounds overweight. And if you accept nothing else about the evidence connecting health problems with weight, at the very least you ought to accept that extra weight is hard on your joints. It’s just simple physics.

But I was also, at the time, deeply persuaded by the more extremist wing of the fat-positive movement that (a) being fat had no connection whatsoever with health problems, and (b) weight loss was essentially impossible. It is embarrassing to admit how much I let myself be deceived by denialism. I was stuck in confirmation bias, wishful thinking, all of it. I had pored over the trickle of studies suggesting that the link between weight and health was minimal, and ignored the mountain of research demonstrating that the link was both real and serious. I had pored over the statistics on how roughly 90% of all people who try to lose weight fail, and ignored the stubborn reality of the roughly 10% of people who do succeed.

Until my bad knee started to get worse. And I faced a choice: Stay stuck in my denialism, and slowly deteriorate into a steady loss of mobility until almost everything that made my life valuable was gone… or face reality, the harsh reality I’d been avoiding for years, and lose the fucking weight.

I had a very dark night of the soul. Or the soul-less, I guess I should say.

And I got up from my dark night of the soul-less, and decided to lose the weight.

I’m not willing to hold myself up as a weight loss success story. Not yet. I haven’t yet lost all the weight I want to, and I haven’t yet kept it off for more than a year. And I know — because I care about reality and am following the research — that keeping weight off is a lot harder and a lot less common than losing it. But I have lost just about all the weight I want to, and I haven’t yet gained any back… and I have a workable, practical plan for keeping it off for life.

And the degree of success I’ve had so far, I owe to the discipline of skepticism, and to prioritizing reality over what I might want to be true.

What does skepticism have to do with my weight loss? Well, for starters, it’s given me an evidence- based weight management plan that actually stands a reasonable chance of working. I’m not getting sucked down the garden path of fad diets, crash diets, snake-oil supplements, dangerous drugs, useless home exercise gizmos, and all the other Quick ‘n’ Easy weight loss tricks that offer false promises and deliver nothing but money into the promoters’ pockets. I’m basing my program on hard research into what does and does not work for healthy, sustainable, non- misery- inducing weight loss and maintenance. It’s a program that’s rather more difficult than popping some pills or eating nothing but grapes and Kool-Aid for six weeks — reality is a harsh mistress, and she demands both more honesty and more work of us than comforting self-delusion — but it does have the singular advantage of, you know, working. (Here’s more about the details, if you’re interested.)

See no evil
But perhaps more importantly: My skepticism is what helped me see my denial in the first place. Because I was familiar with cognitive errors like confirmation bias and so on, I was in a better position to recognize them in myself. Because of the work I’d been doing to show other people how they were unconsciously fooling themselves into believing whatever they already believed or wanted to believe, I’d been softening the ground for my own paradigm shift: for that essential but elusive flipping- of- the- light- switch that’s such a crucial part of behavioral change.

Also, because I’d been reading skeptical blogs and journals, I was familiar with the skeptical criticism of the fat-positive movement’s extreme denialist wing: the wing that’s moved way past the sane and reasonable manifesto of “Society has an unhealthy fixation on an overly rigid and overly thin physical ideal, and needs to accept a wider range of healthy and beautiful body types” (a manifesto I am entirely in agreement with), and into the crazy realm of “Weight loss is completely impossible, utterly pointless, and seriously harmful, for absolutely everybody.” Because I was able to recognize denialism in other areas — evolution denialism and global warming denialism and AIDS denialism and vaccine denialism and whatnot — I was able to see it in the fat-positive movement’s refusal to accept any link between weight and health.

My weight loss hasn’t just improved my knee, by the way. It’s improved my overall mental and physical health, in ways I would never have imagined. It’s improved my feet, my asthma, my sleep. My libido. My energy. My alertness. My mood.

All of which dovetails into another discipline I’ve been practicing: the discipline of being present in the world.

And which brings me — at last — to the broader, deeper, less obviously pragmatic, “connection with the universe” personal fulfillment stuff I keep teasing you with.

What A Wonderful World

Speech balloon
I could gas on for days about the pragmatic ways that skepticism has changed my life and my view of the world. I could tell how my views on strict gender constructionism, strict sexual orientation constructionism, the utility of exercise, the history of witch burnings, whether everyone is basically bisexual, and on and on and on, have all been changed by practicing skepticism as a discipline of everyday life.

But I think you get the idea. And there’s an entirely different way that prioritizing reality over wishful thinking has affected my life: a way that’s a lot less tangible than losing weight or saving money on glucosamine, but is in some ways far more intense and profound.

It has to do with feeling intimately connected with the universe.

Diver helmet
It’s easy, as we all know, to walk around with our heads in a bubble. It’s easy to spend our lives wrapped up in our dreams and fears, our plans and memories, our fantasies and anxieties. It’s easy to tune out when we talk with people, to nod attentively while we think of what we want to say next. It’s easy to manage or medicate or distract ourselves from our feelings when they get uncomfortable. It’s easy to flip on the TV. It’s easy to shut out the world — the sometimes frightening, sometimes tedious, sometimes hurtful world — and live our lives in the more pleasant and predictable world inside our heads. It’s easy. It’s human. It’s entirely understandable. And it’s something I’m trying to do less of.

Street art monkeys repairing bicycle
I’m trying to practice being more present in the world. I’m trying to pay attention to the street art mural between my job and the place where I get coffee, and to notice a new detail about it every time I walk by. I’m trying to really listen when other people talk, and stay with them, and let their words sink in before I decide what, if anything, to say back. I’m trying to limit how much time I spend watching TV or having music pour into my ears on my headphones; I’m trying to only watch TV or listen to music when there’s something I actually want to watch or hear. I’m trying to let myself feel what I feel. I’m trying to let go of expectations, and to let experiences and people be what they are. I’m trying to stop what I’m doing, at least once or twice a day, and remember that I’m alive, and conscious, here in this place and time. I’m trying to stop what I’m doing, at least once or twice a day, and remember that I’m living on a rock whirling around a star whizzing through a galaxy in an unimaginably enormous universe, and marvel and feel humble at the astronomically unlikely good luck I have in being alive at all. I’m trying to literally, physically, with my actual nose, stop and smell the roses. I’m trying to smile at people I pass on the street. I’m trying to notice the world around me, and to connect with it, and to let it in.

And prioritizing hard evidence over wishful thinking — prioritizing what is true over what I want to be true — is an essential part of that practice.

I’m not advocating that we all live our lives as purely rational beings. I don’t want to live on Vulcan. Impulse and intuition, emotion and creativity, passion and insight… all of these have crucial places in a full human life. The world would be desperately dull without them. When it comes to subjective questions, questions of what is or isn’t true for us personally — Am I in love with this person? Should I move to a different city? Should I save my money for a down payment on a house or spend it on a trip to Barcelona? — it is entirely right and reasonable to be guided, at least partly, by the world inside our heads and our hearts.

But when it comes to objective questions of what is and is not true in the world outside our heads… we need to be skeptical. And we need to be disciplined about it. We need to prioritize good evidence and critical thinking over ideology and preconception. We need to not accept propositions without good evidence. We need to let go of conclusions when the evidence doesn’t support them. We need to care about reality more than we care about what we want to be true about it.

Reality is a harsh mistress. She demands our honesty. She demands our work. She demands that we give up comforts, that we let ourselves feel pain, that we accept how small we are and how little control we have over our lives. And she demands that we make her our top priority.

Wonderful world
But she is more beautiful, and more powerful, and more surprising, and more fascinating, and more endlessly rewarding, than anything we could ever make up about her.

And we can’t let her in unless we’re willing to let her be what she is.

And the discipline of skepticism is essential to making that happen.

Skepticism As a Discipline

35 thoughts on “Skepticism As a Discipline

  1. 2

    Gosh, Greta. Your # of “hitting it out of the ballpark” posts continues to get larger. It’s amazing. Your brain is amazing. Thank you for sharing it.

  2. 3

    This is a great post. My evangelical upbringing has trained me to be far more credulous than I’d like to admit, and while I work hard at being skeptical, I rely a lot on the far more skeptical people around me to keep me grounded. This is something I think I’d like to nurture.

  3. 5

    This is splendid. I’ve become someone who questions the status quo more often or not, but reminders like these remind me why I need to be diligent.

  4. 7

    Good for you, Greta, and a great piece. It’s always hardest to apply skepticism to our own selves, preferences and habits.
    You are a weight loss success story. Not because you’ve lost weight, but because you understand why it matters. You’re out of denialism. That’s success! Of course, the fact that you actually have lost a load of weight too doesn’t hurt either… ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. 9

    I keep hearing about these “extreme fat activism” blogs you describe here, and yet I’ve never run across one. I’ve never seen one say “fat NEVER causes problems” – the one problem that weight (whether from height or fat) IS proven to cause is osteoarthritis of the knee. Your weight loss experience is directly relevant to that.
    Fat Acceptance has improved my life. It’s improved my ability to stand up to doctors and get appropriate treatment (after having cancer go undiagnosed for 18 months). It’s helped me be more critical about feminism. It’s helped me be confident as a person. It has helped me exercise and eat healthily (with little weight loss but a great improvement in health). It has helped me get over the idea that I will do things “when I lose X kilograms” – and all of that sounds exactly like what you’re doing. It has not, however, encouraged me post about strawmen who are about “wishful thinking” rather than feminist cultural dissection.

  6. 10

    A few years ago, I started getting a stiffness in my hands. It was almost a weakness. I became unable to grip anything with any significant force no matter how hard I tried. My hands didn’t really hurt, but would get sore after gardening. My knuckles would swell. My Dr. suggested trying Glucosamine – saying I could probably ignore the Chondrotin. I didn’t notice any change for about a week, but fairly quickly after that, I was able to move my hands normally again and grip things as tightly as ever.
    A few months later, I’d changed around some medications and unintentionally stopped taking the Glucosamine. Within a week, the old symptoms started to return. I went back on the Glucosamine and the symptoms vanished in a couple days.
    I honestly don’t believe this was all in my head. I suspect that Glucosamine’s efficacy may be better for pre-arthritic users. This may be hard to test because many probably don’t go to the Dr. until real damage has been done to their joints.

  7. 12

    You may or may not like to hear this, but you seem to be well on your way to becoming a Buddhist ๐Ÿ™‚
    …In fact, you seem to be doing so well already, that you probably don’t need to do anything about it.
    On the other hand, Buddhism has a lot of stuff about present-moment awareness, and about delusion and getting rid of it — so it could be a source of ideas, which is why I mention it. There are a lot of good books on the subject.

  8. DA

    “You may or may not like to hear this, but you seem to be well on your way to becoming a Buddhist :-)”
    Has she started believing in reincarnation, Titans, that abandoning one’s children to become a monk is a praiseworthy act, sexual activities are inherently ‘unskillful’, that those who reject the Buddha after accepting him will be reborn in hell, or that women in Buddhism will cause it to last only half as long as it would have with just men? If not, I wouldn’t say her and our friend Sid Hartha are really on the same page.

  9. 15

    Good evening;
    I did not even have to read this entire blog to see the fallacy.
    It is this: The casual skeptic has several problems.
    1. They do not live the philosophy.
    2. They are not skeptical of their own skepticism and are therefore inconsistent.
    3. Ultimately, the logical out-workings of hard-line skepticism arrives at a contradiction called – epistemological nihilism.
    Even a skeptic will board a plane and expect the crew to transport them at thirty thousand feet above the planet and let them back down again at a precise point and time.
    That’s not skepticism – that’s faith.
    Thank you

  10. 16

    Actually it’s a reasonable assumption based on past performance, aka the evidence. It’s the same reason we “trust” skepticism; past performance shows that it’s the best method for getting at the truth.

  11. 17

    Evening again;
    For themann1086:
    Could you please define your terms – “reasonable assumption?) You are simply advocating the scientific method regarding the process of induction.
    This says that because I have entered such-and-such a place and have only seen red squirrels, therefore, all squirrels are red.
    The late Bertrand Russell, a staunch atheist wrote a scathing diatribe against induction well worth reading.
    Furthermore, based on – reasonable assumption – I’m sure this line of thinking was held by every passenger killed in the 9/11 event who reasonably assumed they were going to get to their intended destination.
    Just thinking…
    Thank you

  12. 18

    You misunderstand, perhaps because I failed to make myself clear. We have a vast array of statistics on airplane flights and their success rates. So we board a flight knowing that there is some small risk of us not arriving at our destination but concluding that it is a reasonable risk.
    As to your comparison, the correct conclusion is “any squirrel found in such-and-such place will almost certainly be red”. This is a “reasonable assumption” based off prior knowledge. Applying it further than this limited area would be unreasonable; further, it would be unreasonable to not revise this assumption upon receiving newer knowledge.
    Oh, and that civil response out of the way: fuck you for bringing up 9/11. Related to Rudy Guilliani?

  13. 19

    Maxx: What themann1086 said. (Except for the “fuck you” part. themann, I adore you, but please keep it civil, okay? I’m the only one here who gets to tell people “fuck you.” ๐Ÿ™‚ )
    I would also like to add: We don’t just expect airplanes to stay in the sky because they usually have in the past. We expect airplanes to stay in the sky because we understand the scientific principles that keep them there: the principles of physics, aerodynamics, engineering, etc. It’s not just induction based on past performance (although, as themann1086, this sort of induction is fair if we’re trying to make a reasonably likely conclusion, as opposed to reaching absolutely certain knowledge). It’s deduction based on understanding the fundamental principles involved.

  14. 21

    Evening again;
    First, I wish to apologize to “theman1086” if my use of the 911 example served as an offense. As a note however, that very same day I stood in the uniform of this country along with my fellow military service members and watched an event we could not stop.
    My fellow soldiers, sailors and Marines watched 3,000 civilians we swore to protect – die that day so please – do not assume I take my example lightly.
    “the-man” simply proves my point in the act of assumption based on the – red squirrel – example.
    It simply gives science no predictive value whatsoever and this is the point the Bertrand Russell made. Empirical ‘a priori’ knowledge is insufficient to obtain a level of certainty because any such knowledge is contingent.
    In response to Ms. Christine:
    Most people, as I could imagine, do not board a plane, calculate the physics involved and then say – “hey, this works according to the laws of whatever so I trust in the laws of physics.”
    Trust in the laws of flight as you have just outlined did not hold true to the wishes of the Polish President who died in a plane crash some months ago. Physics, aerodynamics and engineering did not keep him alive. Why? Because their basic assumptions were violated.
    More realistically, people board a plane with a crew of people they have never met and then expect these people to take them five miles above the earth and then set them down again at a specific place at an approx. specific time.
    Sounds like faith to me.
    For “The Mann.” Your reliance on quantitative data is misplaced. You can prove anything from statistics. What you cannot prove from statistics is the difference between that which is necessary and that which is contingent. Your whole argument lies on the logical misnomer of attempting to absolute-tize what is called a conditional.
    This says that – If this, then that. Even Bertrand Russell recognized the dilemma with this argument and the difference between the definition of necessary, that which cannot not be true and the contingent.
    Oh, and by the way, FU never wins any formal debates in the academy. They usually require words with more than four letters.
    By the way, I’m Irish, I believe Mr. Gulliani is Italian.
    Thank you and most respectfully.
    I wish to thank Ms. Greta to allow alternative points of view.

  15. 22

    Empirical ‘a priori’ knowledge is insufficient to obtain a level of certainty because any such knowledge is contingent.

    And once again, you’re assuming that atheism is an absolutely certain, a priori assumption that no god exists. It is not. Atheism is the conclusion that no good evidence for god exists, and that unless we see better evidence for the god hypothesis (and indeed, unless we see a better hypothesis in the first place), we’re going to assume that no god exists.

    Most people, as I could imagine, do not board a plane, calculate the physics involved and then say – “hey, this works according to the laws of whatever so I trust in the laws of physics.”

    No, most people who fly in airplanes don’t understand aerodynamics. But they understand that the principles of aerodynamics exist. They understand that the plane is not held up by magic in which they have faith; they understand that the plane is held up by principles of aerodynamics, which have been rigorously tested and are well understood.

    Trust in the laws of flight as you have just outlined did not hold true to the wishes of the Polish President who died in a plane crash some months ago. Physics, aerodynamics and engineering did not keep him alive. Why? Because their basic assumptions were violated.

    Nobody thinks that airplanes work all the time. Everyone who flies understands that once in a while, airplanes don’t work — not because the laws of physics and aerodynamics have been violated, but because of human error and bad weather and so on. The trust that an airplane will probably stay in the air is not an absolute blind faith that it certainly will.

    More realistically, people board a plane with a crew of people they have never met and then expect these people to take them five miles above the earth and then set them down again at a specific place at an approx. specific time.
    Sounds like faith to me.

    You are confusing the secular meaning of the word “faith” — i.e., trust, confidence, hope — and the religious meaning. I’ve written more about this in greater detail elsewhere, and don’t want to recap it in this comment. It;s in my piece What Would Convince You That You Were Wrong? The Difference Between Secular and Religious Faith.

    Your whole argument lies on the logical misnomer of attempting to absolute-tize what is called a conditional.

    And for the fiftieth time: Atheism is not an absolute. Atheism is conditional. It is a provisional conclusion about what is and is not most plausible, based on the best currently available evidence. If you can’t accept that and continue to insist that atheists are claiming a certainty which we don’t claim, we’re not going to get very far in this discussion.

  16. 23

    Your reliance on quantitative data is misplaced. You can prove anything from statistics. What you cannot prove from statistics is the difference between that which is necessary and that which is contingent. Your whole argument lies on the logical misnomer of attempting to absolute-tize what is called a conditional.

    Of course it’s conditional. All of science is conditional. We “assume”, based on all collected evidence up to this point, that the laws of physics are universal, aka at every point in the universe they work the same way. There’s no way to “prove” this beyond visiting every point of the universe (and even then one could say we’re assuming that the laws of physics are unchanged through time); it’s not possible to do. And yet, by and large, we’re fine with the level of certainty we have. It’s not absolute, but it’s “good enough for now”.

  17. 24

    I’ve enjoyed this round at your website and thank you for your openness and willingness to engage the average layman.
    I wish to address that at least for now, “Themann” fully supports my argument that science cannot prove that science is the ultimate source of truth – I agree.
    Secondly, Ms. Christina, I am somewhat confused:
    “Atheism is not an absolute…”
    I am aware that the word – atheist in the Greek literally means – “No God”, i.e., there is no God.
    This is an assertion
    “Atheism is a conditional…”
    On what? Evidence? If your atheism is due to what you consider to be a lack of evidence, and you are not going to support atheism in the absolute – does that not better fall within the lines of an agnostic?
    Within a court of law, lack of evidence can only conclude with – we don’t know. Keeping in mind that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
    “Themann” has denied the idea of naturalistic absolutes absolutely. If such absolutes do not, in fact exist, then you cannot make an absolute statement concerning nature or the realm of metaphysics. Yet, this is precisely what is being posited here.
    It is absurd to posit that everyone would agree with what represents, “…the level of certainty.” Certain to whom? By whom?
    Lastly, as far as the idea that atheists are not claiming a certainty, then what is Richard Dawkins, Angelia Jolie, C. Hitchens, Russell and Nietzsche claiming at all?
    If you wish to revert to the neo-atheist redefinition which says, “I lack belief in a god…”
    What then what are you really asserting?
    Nothing, except expressing your belief in your own lack of belief which, in the final analysis, corresponds to nothing meaningful concerning reality or any given state of affair.
    I apologize for this long-winded post, but I wish to add one more thing, if I may?
    You talk about evidence. I’ll tell you about some evidence that nailed it for me.
    1,800 years ago a little nation was disintegrated as a political entity at the hands of Rome.
    A friend showed me in the Bible, in Zechariah I believe, that God foretold this and that he also foretold that even though he had put them aside for a time – it was not over.
    In May, 1948 that little nation resurrected into a political entity again against every odd you could calculate.
    No other nation of people in the world has ever pulled that off. You could call it coincidence, and if it were any other group of people, I would more than happily agree.
    Since its rebirth, this tiny little nation has been at the forefront of news around the world. Why?
    This tiny little nation has been numerously attacked by its Arab neighbors and ridiculously outnumbered – yet it prevails. – How?
    Now again, you might call all of this one big set of coincidences. However, I am unable to detect any evidence to support this conclusion.
    Actually, all the historical evidence available says – they should not be here, yet, here they are – and they are prospering.
    Thank you

  18. 25

    Maxx: I don’t know how to say this any more clearly than I already have. I don’t believe in God — in the same way that I don’t believe in unicorns or fairies or Santa Claus. I can’t absolutely prove that these things don’t exist… but I am certain enough that they don’t that I feel comfortable provisionally rejecting the hypothesis that they do. And I don’t call myself “agnostic” about unicorns or fairies or Santa Claus. Nor do most people. If I don’t call myself “agnostic” about Santa Claus, why should I call myself “agnostic” about God?
    And yes, this is Richard Dawkins’ position. He’s even the one who came up with the Richard Dawkins Belief Scale, in which 1 means absolute certainty that there is a god, and 7 means absolute certainty that there is no god. And he, himself, does not say he’s a 7 on this scale. He says he’s about a 6, which means a De-facto Atheist: “I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable and I live my life under the assumption that he is not there.” For most atheists, this is what atheism means. Get used to it.
    As to why I don’t believe, I’ve explained it in The Top Ten Reasons I Don’t Believe In God. It is not a simple assertion of belief or lack thereof: it is a conclusion based on evidence. If you have better evidence, I’d be interested in seeing it. I’ve even laid out the kinds of evidence that would convince me: What Would Convince This Atheist To Believe? My atheism is falsifiable: it’s a provisional conclusion, and different evidence could change my mind. Is the same thing true of your theism? Is there any possible evidence that would persuade you that you were mistaken? If not, please don’t waste my time engaging me in a debate that you yourself are entirely close-minded about.
    As for your argument from biblical prophecy… I suggest you take a look at the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, which provides (among other things) a long list of biblical prophecies that failed to come true.
    And no, I don’t think the state of Israel is a coincidence. I think it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. As Ebonmuse says in his excellent Theist’s Guide to Converting Atheists, when he says he’d be persuaded to believe in God by “verified, specific prophecies that couldn’t have been contrived,” a prophecy won’t be convincing to him “if the prophecy is self-fulfilling; i.e., if the mere fact of the prophecy’s existence could cause people to make it come true. The Jewish people returned to their homeland in Israel just as the Bible said they would, but this isn’t a genuine prediction – they did it because the Bible said they would. The predicted event can’t be one that people could stage.” The state of Israel exists because people have a vested interest in making it exist… and it largely survives because the United States, a great world power with massive military might, is lending it protection and aid. As evidence of God, it’s about as convincing as me saying, “I’m going to cook every recipe in the Moosewood Cookbook,” doing it, and then saying that the Moosewood Cookbook is an accurate prophetical text that proves God’s existence.

  19. 26

    I wish to address that at least for now, “Themann” fully supports my argument that science cannot prove that science is the ultimate source of truth

    “Themann” has denied the idea of naturalistic absolutes absolutely. If such absolutes do not, in fact exist, then you cannot make an absolute statement concerning nature or the realm of metaphysics. Yet, this is precisely what is being posited here.

    No. You do not comprehend me or science at all. Science is the collection of evidence regarding phenomena and using that evidence to explain past phenomena and predict future phenomena. You can certainly actually use science to test itself: how well does this method work at explaining phenomena? How does it handle new evidence that disagrees with previous theories?
    And the answer is, pretty damn well! We’ve further and further refined our understanding of the underlying physics of our universe (apologies to the biologists out there, I know you all do good work too! Chemists on the other hand… /snark). Newton’s theory of gravity was good; Einstein’s was better! Maxwell improved on the mismatch of laws governing electricity and magnestism; quantum mechanics and quantum electrodynamics was even better. And we’re not done! While we’ll never know “everything” (damn you Heisenberg!) or explore anything much beyond our galaxy (I’d love to be wrong about that), we know we can explain most phenomena, and we’ll be able to predict most future phenomena, too.
    Science has a great track record in discovering things and furthering our understanding of the universe. Has religion discovered anything (besides “holy crap, I can get people to send me how much money by claiming I saw a 20 foot Jesus?”), ever?
    And even though science requires making a few assumptions, so does everything else. Math and logic rest on a set of axioms which cannot be proven, unless you use a different set of axioms, which can’t be proven, unless etc ad infinitum. Hell, you can’t actually prove that you’re not a brain in a vat plugged into a computer; it’s impossible! But there’s no point in trying to prove one way or the other; it’s simpler to just assume your senses are being (mostly) accurate and proceed from there. But hey, if you want to “philosophize” about our universe being on the thumbnail of some giant, that’s cool, just make sure you pass when you’re done your hit.

  20. 27

    Good evening;
    I would like to thank Ms. Christina for your patience and “Themann” at least for your tenacity. I don’t share your faith in science, but yours is obviously positively set. Thank you for restraining your derogatory language. I do most appreciate a civil debate and do not care to respond to “FU” in the proper.
    Don’t misunderstand me, no one appreciates science as much as I do given my current condition.
    However, please do not insult me by telling me I don’t get science – I am currently a senior at a local university and believe me – science is god.
    I must disagree with you Ms. Christina about Israel’s self-fulfilling prophecy. This assumes that the Jews intentionally created the conditions – a priori – in order to do so.
    I don’t see how this was possible given the genocide which occurred only a few years before.
    I don’t buy that there was a group of them in Palestine in 1947 and they suddenly all said, hey, the book says we should get back together again.
    Besides, this makes no sense in light of the fact that modern day Israel is a secular state.
    As far as philosophizing, I must apologize. I am a philosophy / psychology major so this obviously comes out.
    I am also a forty something old man with twenty years in the military, so, yeah, I’ve been around, the world, actually. So, to “Themann” go live a little before you respond. Experience tends to humble a person. Talk to me when “science” cannot cure your child’s common cold when you sit up with him/her all night and you’ve got to be to work by six A.M. No fun whatsoever.
    What I’m interested in is fundamentalism in Christianity and secular humanism (atheism)
    As I study both histories, I am fascinated by the events punctuated throughout the twentieth century.
    On one hand, you have the marginalization of Christianity in the West, and on the other you have the 200 million plus murders at the hands of atheist governments.
    The atheists accuse religion of being murderous and then have to contend with the hundreds of millions murdered by atheists in the twentieth century.
    Then you have the Christians who claim the atheists are murderers while contending with the Crusades, etc…
    What is one to believe?
    Living life on the assumption that there is not God against living on the assumption that there is a God appears to produce something of significance.
    The idea that in the end, there will be justice and that there will be an accounting gives rise to the idea that there are truly things that we ought, or ought not to do.
    In any given debate that I’ve listened to, the theist brings something to the table, and the atheist tries to take it away, while simultaneously failing to offer something in return.
    If I might illustrate:
    I have one child in this world. She is 12. If she were to suddenly die, what can the atheist offer me? Nothing.
    If God does not exist and ultimately, we have no purpose other then what we create in terms of our own meaning, then there is no ultimate meaning to my daughter’s death, or her life.
    But, I’m her dad. You’d better believe that her life has meaning. I don’t care what you believe.
    I wonder; could the key to our lives lie in our relationships? This is the question that a philosopher and a psychologist must certainly answer. My future patients will depend on it.
    I do not think I can find those deep answers in atheism. It is not an issue of a closed mind Ms. Christina, it is an issue that you simply have little to offer.
    Free thinking? What is that, and how do you define it, and who gets to do it, as defined by whom? You? Atheists – Christians?
    Thank you both. You have definitely educated me in my pursuits. I promise, I will not bother you further.
    In your debt;

  21. 28

    You get half a point for a variant I’ve never heard! But that’s a terrible argument. “The thought of there being a god makes me feel better, therefore god exists.” Thanks for playing.

  22. 29

    Maxx: I don’t have time right now to get into your arguments about Israel or science. (Except to say this: Nobody is claiming that science is all-powerful and can answer every question. We’re just saying that science is the best method we know of to answer questions about the real, non-subjective world… and even when there are questions that science doesn’t yet have the answer for, that’s no reason to think that the correct answer is therefore God.)
    What I do want to answer, since it’s what you spent most of your time on here, is this:
    Atheism does have something positive to offer.
    Here are just a few examples of things I’ve written on positive atheist philosophies of life, ways that atheism and skepticism and humanism can improve and enhance our lives, offer comfort and solace in the face of grief and suffering, and give us meaning and hope:
    Dancing Molecules: An Atheist Moment of Transcendence
    Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing To Do With God
    The Meaning of Death: Part One of Many
    “A Relationship Between Physical Things”: Yet Another Rant On What Consciousness And Selfhood Might Be
    The Meaning of Death, Part 2 of Many: Motivation and Mid-Life Crises
    The Meaning of Death, Part 3 of Many: Fear, Grief, and Actually Experiencing Your Emotions
    Atheism, Bad Luck, and the Comfort of Reason
    “Everything happens for a reason”: Atheism and Learning from Mistakes
    For No Good Reason: Atheist Transcendence at the Black and White Tour
    Atheism and Hope
    The Human Animal: An Atheist’s View of People and Nature
    Atheist Meaning in a Small, Brief Life, Or, On Not Being a Size Queen
    Atheism and the Argument from Comfort
    A Skeptic’s View of Love
    A Skeptic’s View of Sexual Transcendence
    Atheism, Openness, and Caring About Reality: Or, Why What We Don’t Believe Matters
    Atheism, Death, and the Difference between Pessimism and Realism
    Part of the Show: Atheist Transcendence at the Edwardian Ball
    Atheism and the Sweet Mystery of Life
    Heck, this very piece, “Skepticism as a Discipline,” the one we’re having the comment discussion on now, is about that very topic.
    And I am very, very far from the only atheist writer to be writing about these questions. Pretty much every atheist writer I know of has addressed some or all of them, at some length.
    It is certainly the case, as themann1086 pointed out, that “I really, really want this to be true” is a truly terrible argument for why something is true. But it’s also the case that atheism does, in fact, have a great deal to offer.

  23. 30

    O.K., I tried to bow out gracefully but you guys responded again?!
    I am sorry but I think I’ve been misunderstood. You’re right – if you’ve taken my argument to the level about feeling good/better if God exists. it is a terrible argument
    No, no, no. There being the existence of the God of the bible does NOT make me feel better, to the contrary.
    Have you actually read the book? Its does not hold a very high view of man. There are parts of it that I really do not like at all.
    I don’t believe it because it makes me FEEL better. This has nothing to do with feelings or emotions which runs so prevalent in our society as a litmus for truth.
    No, it makes me feel worse, but I believe it because I am convinced that it is true. But it offers hope for my dilemma.
    If I were to suddenly receive news that a loved one had died, I don’t reject the news because it makes me feel bad, I accept it because it is true. I may not want to believe – that is irrelevant.
    Ms. Christina, I will read through you links – thank you for putting them together, I’m sorry you don’t have the time to further address Israel or science – I understand.
    One more thing I’d like to add if I may at the danger of long-windiness?
    I add this because I am curious for your inputs…
    Has it struck either one of you that both you and I might be headed to anachronism?
    The Wicca movement has exploded in the states. Islam is the fasting growing enforced religion in the world.
    Atheism, for what its worth, is still a significant minority and Christianity has been marginalized in our society to the position of negated social impact.
    I don’t see anything on this website about Islam.
    The New Age movement is spreading like a phenomenal wildfire in our society.
    My esteemed psychology professor made the statement bemoaning the fact that the West is moving away from Rationalism towards mysticism and spiritualism.
    I’m beginning to wonder if two old classic adversaries are going to be swept away in the coming decades.
    I would not like to see this.
    One more thing – if neither of you a familiar with Sharia Law, I’d like to most strongly recommend that you find out.
    Oklahoma is battling to implement anti-Shariah law and the Muslims are taking them to court. If we do not nip this in the bud, we will be fighting the same fight several nations in Europe are fighting right now.
    You are both obviously very bright thinkers. Do not think that the Common Law used in this country automatically trumps their Shariah Law – read the First Amendment.
    Islam is not simply a religion. It is also a political philosophy. I’d like to see some articles here that address this as well.
    I recommend you think about it, because, like Europe, we are all going to eventually have to deal with it.
    Oh, and by the way, Islam takes a pretty dim view of atheism. Much more direct than Christianity.
    As always; a pleasure.
    Thank you

  24. 31

    The Wicca movement has exploded in the states. Islam is the fasting growing enforced religion in the world.
    Atheism, for what its worth, is still a significant minority and Christianity has been marginalized in our society to the position of negated social impact.
    I don’t see anything on this website about Islam.
    The New Age movement is spreading like a phenomenal wildfire in our society.
    My esteemed psychology professor made the statement bemoaning the fact that the West is moving away from Rationalism towards mysticism and spiritualism.

    This whole piece needs a [Citation Needed] tag. Fortunately, I have actual evidence that… well, show that you have either been horribly misinformed or are lying; you don’t seem like the lying type, so I’ll assume someone else has lied to you. Anyway, the following is taken from the 2008 ARIS Report and refers to the U.S. only.
    New Religious Movements and Other Religions, which include Scientology, New Age religions, UU, Wicca, Paganism, Deism, Druidism, and others, represent 1.2% of the US adult population as of 2008; in 1990 they made up 0.8%.
    Islam represents 0.6% of the U.S. population as of 2008; in 1990 they made up 0.3%.
    Though unmentioned, I would like to point to Eastern Religions, which include Buddhism, Hinduism, and others, who represents 0.9% of the population as of 2008; in 1990 they made up 0.4%.
    The nonreligious, who include explicit atheists, agnostics, secularists, humanists, and other people indicating unbelief, represent 15.0% of the population as of 2008; in 1990 they made up 8.2%. Atheists/Agnostics combined made up 0.7% in 1990; today they represent 0.7% and 0.9%, respectively. The Nones represented the largest share of the population growth between 1990 and 2008 (37%) with Catholics (21%) Other Christians (20%) and Other Religions (6%) bringing up the rear.
    So forgive me if I don’t fear Sharia Law here in the US; I’m much more concerned about a Christian theocracy.

  25. 32

    Good evening again;
    “Themann” – may I call you TM? It’s getting strange to address you by your signature.
    My sources include several local university professors and a couple of Wiccans I’ve spoken to who actually (and coincidentally) addressed your stats.
    According to them, they would never openly admit their beliefs for fear of stigmatization and persecution, noting that they both understand that America is a highly religious state. One of them admitted she attends a local Christian denomination because there is no local Wiccan organization.
    This is my fault, however, for not researching these stats further, but having taken a class in statistics, I’m also aware of the incredible fallibility with them. You’ve obviously heard the old adage – you can prove anything with statistics.
    The other evidence I will offer is that the U.S. Military is also currently considering adding Wiccan “Chaplains” to their portfolio.
    Believe me, they would not do this if they found that a minuscule percent of the troops did not subscribe to it. There is also the ongoing debate on how to oversee the addition of a Muslim Cleric “Chaplain Corps” process.
    And furthermore, TM, I’m afraid that I have to agree with you – I would be very concerned about a Christian theocracy as well. Isn’t that how we all got here to begin with?
    I’m interested however, in pursuing a different approach to this dialogue – if you are interested.
    Thank you again for your time.

  26. 33

    TM, Belay my initial response on reference to your stats. My stats do not match yours and my sources will of course, be biased.
    I must also take into consideration the bias of the academy in their defense of rationalism.
    This will of course, require further research on my part, which I should have done already.
    I therefore strike the evidence of my experience from the table.
    My apologies.

  27. 35

    I have a question throw out there to anyone. I recently had a conversation with my mother and during the course of the conversation she made mention of believing in allopathy and other forms of “alternative medicine”. I’m still learning about the various cognitive biases and logical fallacies. While I understand and am able to see some of them in both myself (Greta, like you, I tossed out my bottle of glucosamine sulfate once I did the research) and others I’m not quite able to articulate my thoughts in a conversation. Even though I was able to briefly talk to my mother about subjective validation and confirmation bias (I was able to elaborate on “appeal to tradition”, which she brought up by way of “people in Europe have embraced CAM some time”), I had neither the time nor enough information, to offer the proper arguments. I love my mother and would like to help her develop her critical thinking skills and skepticism (heck my father along with her). Does anyone have advice on how to proceed (my parents have continually demonstrated a willingness to have genuine, honest discussions with me about anything, so I have little doubt that they would be willing to listen to any arguments I can present)?

    (growing up, my parents taught me to engage in critical thinking; not taking information at face value; researching information to check its truthfulness; reading between the lines to see what’s not said; it’s ironic that now I’m looking to inform them where I can)

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