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Saturday, February 09, 2013

Skeptics Must Be Atheists

The skeptic movement has been in a bit of a turmoil over the past few years. One of the problems concerns the role of atheism in the movement. Many people think that outspoken criticism of religion (i.e. Gnu Atheism) is not a necessary part of skepticism. I agree—just as you don't have to be an outspoken critic of chiropractors to be a skeptic.

However, that doesn't mean that belief in god(s), or belief in the grandiose claims of chiropractors, is compatible with skepticism. They aren't.

PZ Myers and Steve Novella are debating this issue. The latest round is from last week on Pharyngula: Atheists are skeptics. (His title is wrong ... more about that in another post.¹) Novella is one of those skeptics who think that skepticism requires scientific thinking [Bigfoot Skeptics, New Atheists, Politics and Religion] but he also believes that the scientific way of knowing has limits and that belief in god(s) falls outside of those limits. The "limit" is, as we all know, methodological naturalism. (Novella's main interest is quack medicine.) Here's how he describes one of the attributes of a skeptic ...

Methodological Naturalism – Skeptics believe that the world is knowable because it follows certain rules, or laws of nature. The only legitimate methods for knowing anything empirical about the universe follows this naturalistic assumption. In other words – within the realm of the empirical, you don’t get to invoke magic or the supernatural.
If you accept that limitation, then it's possible to be a true skeptic and still believe in supernatural beings. Here's how Steve Novella explains it ...
The issue is not with religion or religious-based claims. We address them all the time (creationism, miracles, faith healing, separation of church and state, secular moral philosophy, etc.) Really – we are right there shoulder to shoulder with organized atheists taking on every such issue. It is NOT that religious claims are untestable (some are, some aren’t), it is only that when claims (religious or otherwise) are framed as untestable then they are matters of faith and not science.

If you believe in the floating, invisible, heatless dragon then you do so as a matter of faith, because you have insulated that belief from every possible empirical test. You have ejected your own belief from the arena of science. As skeptics we can now say – that belief is not science-based. It is faith. Now the rules of faith apply – which means, in a secular society (see above) you don’t get to teach such belief in the public school classroom, and you don’t get funding for scientific research, you can’t impose your beliefs on others without violating their religious freedom, you cannot claim that insurance companies should cover your therapy, etc. It becomes a matter of personal faith only.

Further, no one is saying that it is outside the realm of skepticism or reason to argue that arbitrary faith-based beliefs are counter-productive, difficult to justify philosophically, or to point out when they defy logic (by being, for example, self-contradictory). The only restraint I would argue for is one not imposed by me but by philosophy (in my opinion) – I don’t think it is legitimate to say that a faith-based belief can be proven wrong by science. I would, in fact, condemn it with the far harsher criticism of being – not even wrong. It’s not even in the scientific arena.
This is very confusing. Of course you can't prove that belief in god is wrong, just as you can't prove that belief in the tooth fairy is wrong. But surely skepticism is more that just proving things wrong? There are criteria for believing that something is right and one of those criteria is EVIDENCE. You can't be a skeptic if you just willy-nilly believe that something is true knowledge just because you want to. Skepticism and belief in god(s) are fundamentally incompatible unless you abandon the idea that claims require evidence and extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

This point is different than the emphasis on methodological naturalism but I don't think Novella understands the distinction. In his reply to the first post by PZ Myers, Novella says [PZ Replies] ..
Where we differ is on the attitude and behavior of the skeptical movement, or organized skepticism. Here I think we can agree partly on the facts, but not the narrative.

We seem to disagree on the underlying philosophy. I have essentially taken the position that scientific skepticism (like science) requires methodological naturalism, while atheism is a belief in philosophical naturalism. These are compatible but distinct positions. Methodological naturalism is more narrow. It is my understanding that this is the consensus of opinion among philosophers (feel free to correct me if you think I’m wrong).
I believe that many philosophers accept and promote this limitation of science. It's certainly the main defense of accommodationism. However, there are many who disagree with the distinction between methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism. These people think that you can use the scientific way of knowing to investigate ANY claim, including the claim that supernatural beings actually exist. Since science requires that truth claims be based on evidence and since there are no other ways of discovering truth that we know of, it follows that belief in god cannot be accepted as true if you are a skeptic.

You can catch up on this debate by reading: John Wilkins Defends Methodological Naturalism. My impression is that more and more scientists and philosophers are beginning to see the problems with self-imposed limitations on science. I'm not sure what the "consensus" is today but whatever it is doesn't make it correct just because it's the consensus.

1. Not All Atheists Are Skeptics


Explicit Atheist said...

I don't think it is even debatable that there are possible evidences which, if discovered, would be favorable for supernaturalism being true, I don't think this shoud be controversial. There is room for different interpretions of the same evidences and, of course, absolute, definitive, complete proof is impractical, but these limitations of evidences apply generally.

Explicit Atheist said...

Steve Novella makes this argument: "What is really meant by the notion that science requires MN is that nature has to be predictable and follow laws if it is to be examined by scientific methods. If you can invoke miracles in your explanation, then you cannot really follow a scientific method." This appears to be basis for his assertion that skepticism is compatible with philosophical supernaturalism because it places supernaturalism outside the scope of skepticism given that skepticism depends on scientific methods which depends on MN.

But it is true that "scientific methods" require predictable laws or that MS precludes predictable laws? Both are false. Scientific methods require one thing, and only one thing: Successful outcomes. If we lived in a universe where the rules for obtaining successful outcomes varied and by worshipping a deity we could obtain knowledge of how to obtain successful outcomes at any given moment than the scientific method would be to worship that deity. Furthermore, supernaturalism does not require unpredictability, we could live in a supernatural universe that is predictable and follows laws. The only difference between the predictable and unpredictable supernatural universe is that the knowledge divulged by divine revelation would remain stable and viable. Furthermore, it is conceivable for a universe to be both unpredictable and natural. So I disagree with Steve Novella and the "consensus" on this assertion that MN is requisite for science to be viable, MN is how science works in our universe BECAUSE our universe is naturalistic, not because MN is an a-priori requirement that is in principle necessary for science being viable.

Unknown said...

If there were evidence for something that matched people's concept of the supernatural (say, violations of well-proven laws when personally invoked by a priest of some god), science would try to figure out the nature and origin of that powerful personal entity and make predictions about it. Science would NOT say "oops, can't go there, it says in my science manual that I can't study things like that."

Explicit Atheist said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Luther Flint said...

Violations of the best laws science can muster are ten a penny. This post, for example, violates any imaginable laws. Indeed, the whole idea that there are laws that govern everything has been falsified in every conceivable way and yet people like you still believe in them. That, in fat, is the only unbreakable law: people will believe what they believe irrespective.

Alex SL said...

Yes, Novella seems to conflate skepticism and methodological naturalism, but that is not the same. Skepticism should include the concept of not accepting beliefs for which there is no good reason to accept them, otherwise the whole term does not make a lot of sense.

But I'd go even further...

it is only that when claims (religious or otherwise) are framed as untestable then they are matters of faith and not science.

Had a similar discussion on Massimo Pigliucci's blog who, of course, also tries to corral science into being only a double blind experiment done while wearing a lab coat. Tools like the principle of parsimony, on the other hand, are not science but philosophy. And look, it was a religious philosopher who invented it! QED.

Or, you know, not. The problem is inconsistency: if parsimony is taken out of the toolbox of science (to safeguard religion or, in MP's case, to get the scientists off his lawn), then science cannot conclude anything whatsoever, not even that phlogiston does not exist or that we aren't descended from cabbage. Once you place parsimony in our toolbox, god is out. The idea that science cannot conclude anything about untestable beliefs is mere special pleading.

Explicit Atheist said...

Clarification: the MS in "MS precludes predictable laws" in the first sentence of the second paragraph above refers to methodological supernaturalism.

Explicit Atheist said...

People can disagree about where to draw the line regarding what qualifies as "science", but there shouldn't be disagreement that methodological supernaturalism (MS) could be compatible with science. It is just a fact that MS and science are potentially compatible. Assertions that MN is an axiom of science and skepticism is a form of special pleading on behalf of religion. What is true about how the world works can be untestable regardless of whether the world works within a naturalistic or a supernaturalistic context and vice versa (can be testable regardless). Abandoning parsimony, on he other hand, excuses all sorts of craziness. Parsimony is essential to being sensible. The only reason people get away with being non-parsimonious is by being inconsistent. No one adopts non-parsimonious thinking across the board without ending up in an insane asylum.

c0nc0rdance said...

I agree with Dr. Novella's position on this, but perhaps for different reasons. I consider my skepticism as the process by which I evaluate testable truth claims, and atheism as simply the conclusion I arrived at by that process with regards to claims of a personal omnibenevolent, omnipotent being.

I much prefer to define myself by the process I use rather than the conclusions I arrived at. It could be that some people arrive at atheism by different roads than skepticism and rationality. Some, as Dr. Moran points out, are born into by default.

Explicit Atheist said...

I agree with most of what Steve Novella says. But in the debate in the comments section there is a debate between "Nolan" and Steve Novella, I agree with Nolan, not with Steve Novella. There are lots of conclusions that follow from critical thinking, from empiricism, from skepticism, whatever we want to call it. One conclusion is homeopathy is false, another is climate warming is true, another is vaccines are effective and safer than no vaccines, another is that theism is false. They are all conclusions of the same skepticism. I can accept deism, but theism is not consistent with skepticism. Steve and other skeptics are themselves atheists, but they argue that not offending theists has priority over criticizing theism because most of their target audience are theists and if they criticized theism they would have a smaller audience and be less effective in converting non- skeptics to skeptics.

Iain said...

Science can't tell you what's wrong with the ontological argument: it's a purely a priori argument, so there are no empirical premises for science to test. The cosmological argument has one trivially empirical premise ("there is something"), so it too is not amenable to scientific refutation. These are philosophical questions, just as the question of whether it is always wrong to kill an innocent person is a philosophical question. I think they are outside of the scope of scientific skepticism.

A trickier case is the person who believes in God "on faith alone" - i.e., with no argument or evidence whatsoever. I would agree with Larry that such a person is not a skeptic - in that a defining commitment of a skeptic is to base one's beliefs, as far as one is able, only on that for which one has evidence. But how are we to persuade such a person that they are wrong? Not by using the tools of scientific skepticism, for they reject those tools. No amount of evidence is going to persuade someone who does not accept that evidence is important. Or, to put it another way, you cannot prove scientific skepticism from within scientific skepticism.

Faith-based belief and theological reasoning are thus both outside of the scope of scientific skepticism. That doesn't make them impervious to reason, but the reasoning is pragmatic or philosophical, not scientific. Except where it makes explicitly empirical claims (miracles, creationism, etc.), religion is in the same category as ethics.

Alex SL said...

Well, unless I misunderstand you the second half of this is very similar to what I am thinking. Science sensu lato is merely a formalized version of the same approach that even the most religious person on the planet would use when hunting for their lost keys or trying to figure out what that weird sound is that wasn't there before. All they do to be able to remain religious is erect a fence with a sign "no reason and evidence beyond this point" around their religion where an atheist skeptic applies reason and evidence consistently to all beliefs.

However, I am not sure that the word supernatural has any useful meaning at all. If gods, souls or demons existed, they would be part of nature, and studying them would not be any more troublesome than studying other sentient beings, i.e. us. In such a world, theology would be a comparatively fuzzy science like ethnology or sociology, but it would be a science.

Explicit Atheist said...

Immaterial mind is supernatural. Immaterial willful agents is supernaturalism. I don't agree that everything that exists is automatically natural.

Explicit Atheist said...

I disagree. Part of the problem here is the word "science", it is too restrictive. Just replace the word science with skeptical critical thinking that relies on empiricism because we have hundreds of year of history that this is THE ONE AND ONLY method that reliably distinguishes the true from the false. The ontological argument just doesn't get us to theism, at best it gets us to we don't know. We cannot reach existence conclusions from ignorance or mystery or intuition, we can only reach existence conclusions from empirical evidence. Faith based belief and most theology is wrong, it is mistaken, it is fiction, precisely because it is not rooted in empiricism and we know (from history) that without the anchor of empiricism we produce fiction not just the majority of the time but close to 100% of the time. The fact is that modern physics comes very close to explaining how we get something from nothing - no time, no space, all that is needed is the quantum wave function to generate our entire universe which has zero total energy.

steve oberski said...

I take pretty much the same position, considering atheism to be a specific type of a more general skepticism, although I have to admit that I arrived at this position via my journey to atheism and have in the past and most likely currently hold non skeptical positions in a number of areas.

Explicit Atheist said...

I am willing to be a little more "flexible" or "generous" in the sense that I can accept a deism derived from various appeals to ignorance/mystery/intuition such as fine tuning and the ontological argument as being sort of compatible with skepticism. But I still think that is jumping to too a strong conclusion based on a relatively weak sort of evidence (and a too narrow focus, we should look at all of the evidence for its overall direction, not just for arguments that favor a particular conclusion), Over and over we hear theists making these kinds of weak, appeals to ignorance/mystery/intuition type of arguments, but these arguments do not, and cannot by themselves, logically take anyone all the way to theism, if we restrict ourselves to skeptical, critical thinking rooted in empiricism, which again is the only way to properly justify beliefs about how the world works.

Pseudonym said...

I have a two-word counter-argument: Martin Gardner.

Any theory about whether or not a theist can be a skeptic must be able to explain the existence of Martin Gardner. If it can't do so, then it doesn't fit with the known facts.

Iain said...

"The fact is that modern physics comes very close to explaining how we get something from nothing - no time, no space, all that is needed is the quantum wave function to generate our entire universe which has zero total energy."

I know Lawrence Krauss claims that, but he is wrong - as has been pointed out to him by more than one philosopher. The quantum wave function is itself a "something", the existence of which calls out for explanation. And anything that physics can come up with will have the same problem - precisely because physics is based on laws.

In order to defeat the cosmological argument, we need an argument to the conclusion that not everything must have a cause or be explainable. That's a philosophical argument, not a scientific one - and in fact, it goes against one of the methodological principles of science, which is that everything that happens can, in principle, be explained (and, yes, that includes probabilistic explanations).

I agree that the theologians' arguments are not very good - that's why I'm an atheist. But it is a very different kind of debate than those that are the standard fare of skepticism, and I think it is a mistake to conflate them.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for all of these steaming piles of regurgitated neck bearded blather, you pseudo-intellectual basement dwellers! I mean, let’s put the faux-analytical hyperbole away for a while and look at reality: Kalaam Cosmological Argument, the Argument from Reason, Fine Tuning of Universal Constants, irreducible biological complexity, the argument from morality… While you sit there and quibble over who can string together more fanciful sound bites, your entire world view lies shattered at your feet. If you truly honor the gods of reason and critical thinking half as much as you claim, you would plant your face firmly into your hand, step away from the device, find a quiet place, and rethink your life. Indeed, why are you even bothering to comment at all? No atheistic position can be taken seriously until two threshold questions can coherently be answered. 1. Why is the atheist even engaging in the debate. On atheism, there is no objective basis for even ascertaining truth; there is no immaterial aspect to consciousness and all mental states are material. Therefore, everyone who ever lived and ever will live could be wrong about a thing. By what standard would that ever be ascertained on atheism? Also if atheism is true, there is no objective meaning to existence and no objective standard by which the ‘rational’ world view of atheism is more desirable, morally or otherwise, to the ‘irrational’ beliefs of religion. Ridding the world of the scourge of religion, so that humanity can ‘progress’ or outgrow it, is not a legitimate response to this because on atheism, there is no reason to expect humanity to progress or grow. We are a historical accident that should fully expect to be destroyed by the next asteriod, pandemic, or fascist atheist with a nuke. In short, if atheism is correct, there is no benefit, either on an individual or societal level, to knowing this or to spreading such ‘knowledge.’ 2. Related to this, why is the atheist debater even alive to participate. If there is no heaven, no hell, no afterlife at all, only an incredibly window of blind pitiless indifference, then the agony of struggling to exist, seeing loved ones die, and then dying yourself can never be outweighed by any benefit to existing. As rude as it way sound (and I AM NOT advocating suicide) the atheist should have a coherent explanation for why they chose to continue existing. Failure to adequately address these threshold questions should result in summary rejection of the neckbeard’s position.
In the end, we all know you can’t answer these questions because yours is a petty, trivial, localized, earth bound philosophy, unworthy of the universe.
Finally, is there a basement dwelling troll left in the multiverse who doesn’t drag themselves out of the primordial ooze and logged onto this site in order to announce our collective atheism towards Thor, that gardens can be beautiful without fairies (a powerful rebuttal to fairy apologetics, by the way, but it leaves a lot unanswered about the Gardener), and that we cling to Bronze Age skymen due to our fear of the dark? Let me translate that to neckbeard: you are unoriginal, you are wrong, and you are an ass.
Also, FTW atheism is incoherent: