I begin simply by remarking on the death of Paul Kurtz, a stalwart, lifelong defender of reason and humanism. Perhaps I will get an opportunity to comment on this great humanist and his contribution to the cause of rational discourse at another time. R. Joseph Hoffmann has some thoughtful remarks here. While some of Kurtz’s last months were marked by contention with a new generation of atheists, it is unfortunate, I believe, that Hoffmann should have taken this occasion to raise his beefs (which also happen to have been Kurtz’s) with the new atheism. This was so small a part of Kurtz’s life and contribution, and can be partly explained by the unwillingness of an aging man to let go of a movement he did so much to influence, which was undergoing, as all things must, a process of growth and change, that it strikes me that it would have been better to have chosen another occasion to raise such issues, if raised they must be.
The last few days have been a real eye-opener for me. You may say that I have simply been naive, and that may be true, but I do expect a level of rationality in discussion that seems to me to have gone missing a number of times in the last couple of days while I have been rearranging and alphabetising my library — a task that I have been putting off and off for the last couple years, and finally, in search of a book which had already consumed a couple of hours, decided that I had to do now, instead of wasting more time on what was becoming ever more obviously a fruitless search. So I have just let the comments on my last post grow like Topsy — an expression, in case you wondered, straight out of Uncle Tom’s Cabin:
“Tell me where were you born, and who your father and mother were.”
“Never was born,” re-iterated the creature more emphatically. “Never had no father, nor mother nor nothin’”
“…Have you ever heard anything about God, Topsy?” The child looked bewildered, but grinned as usual.
“Do you know who made you?”
“Nobody, as I knows on,” said the child, with a short laugh. The idea appeared to amuse her considerably; for her eyes twinkled, and she added, “I spect I grow’d. Don’t think nobody never made me.”
Well, things just grow’d, didn’t nobody monitor how. In this post I want to do a bit of monitoring and commenting, since, it seems to me, a number of things were said that need to be discussed. I also received a comment on an earlier post about sophisticated believers which I trashed — something I seldom do — the more to honour it by bringing it right up front where it can be discussed.
The trashed comment is from someone named Gord, from Vancouver or environs, and it goes like this:
There is a lot of silliness contained in your post. Of course there are sophisticated non-fundamentalist believers. 40 percent of acting scientists have an active faith in God. One third of American philosophers are theists. The Veritas Forums host many Christian intellectuals on campuses around the world–from across the disciplines. Notre Dame University has many world-class scholars who are people of faith. You have a clear bias that misses many facts. Try again. [corrected for spelling]
I don’t think Gord was reading particularly clearly, but he was obviously incensed that I should have questioned the sophistication of the “hosts of Christian intellectuals” and “world-class scholars who are people of faith.” But, you see, I never questioned the existence of these intellectuals or scholars. Indeed, I gave two examples in the post concerned, both of them English, I’m afraid, but none the worse for that. Both N.T. Wright, a bishop and a New Testament scholar who has written several books, and, most lately, a three-volume study of the resurrection of Jesus, and Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, can scarcely be called slouches when it comes to Christian scholarship.
My question, however, was not addressed to their existence as intellectuals or scholars, but to their sophistication. In one sense, of course, there is no question as to their sophistication, and insofar as this is true, Gord is right. They are subtle and refined, knowledgeable and highly respected. But my question obviously was not addressed to that. My question simply was whether, by finding workarounds for common beliefs, or by fudging the lines between sense and nonsense as Rowan Williams seemed to be doing, their sophistication amounted to a form of window-dressing. And just pointing to the existence of people like Wright or Williams scarcely answers the question that I was — or at least thought I was — addressing. Jerry Coyne uses the term Sophisticated Theology™ to refer to precisely the kind of thing that I was trying to illustrate by using Williams and Wright as examples. If there is substance behind the fancy facade of their “sophistication,” I am merely suggesting that it is hard to find. And it is, I am afraid, Gord, with the greatest respect, silly to suggest that this is a silly question to ask.
The next issue — and I take these up in no particular order — is Egbert’s suggestion that I define scepticism in my own way. Here is his accusation (from comment #3 in the last post):
I’m not sure exactly how I’m supposed to respond, other than Eric is doing nothing other than attacking the sceptics rather than their claims, misinterpreting them, then defining scepticism his own way.
But I certainly wasn’t defining scepticism in my own way, and using that to misinterpret what sceptics claim. Indeed, the issue of the post was scepticism (just as this one is), and the widespread misunderstanding of what scepticism is, and how it should be expressed. I certainly was not deliberately defining scepticism in a way that was unfavourable to specific sceptical claims. I was asking a question about the uses of scepticism. For, after all, I consider myself a sceptic about many things, and the suggestion that I am over here and the sceptics in their turn are over there, and that I am a non-sceptic dumping on sceptics is completely orthogonal to what I believe I am doing.
As I understand it there are two fundamental kinds of scepticism. The first is philosophical scepticism, or what has been called Pyrrhonian scepticism, where it is doubted that it is possible to know anything at all. This form of radical scepticism is less common than it used to be before the revolution in science of the seventeenth century, when it became less and less possible to claim that we can know nothing at all. Even if, for any particular scientific discovery, we must say that it must be held in a qualified way, so that we cannot say that we know that it is true absolutely, we can say, with some assurance, that it provides a fair representation of the world given the present state of our knowledge about the world. But it could still be claimed, as the Pyrrhonian sceptic would want to do, that even that does not amount to knowledge, because it is a peculiarly perspectival view of reality, that is, that it is only what can be “known” by a cognitively limited being such as human beings are. What the world and the universe are like “in themselves” cannot be known by us, since we are inescapably bound to this limited perspective. We do not have, as Nagel pointed out in a book with the same title, a “view from nowhere.” This is not the kind of scepticism that I have in mind here, however important it is to philosophy to try to cut the nerve of this kind of universal doubt.
The second kind of scepticism is scepticism, or doubt about the truth of something, within the context of things already known; and its main purpose is to find reasons for belief, or, on the contrary, reasons to doubt. This kind of scepticism is local and occasional. It cannot be a general scepticism, because it is based upon already achieved knowledge, from which it gets its purchase for questioning and assessing other claims to know. This is what the author of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on scepticism calls ”ordinary incredulity.” In respect of this kind of scepticism the question is not whether knowledge as such is possible, but whether a particular knowledge claim is reasonably doubted. Let’s begin with evolution, because that is so widely doubted by Christians and Muslims, who, as a consequence, are fair game, certainly, for refutation, and even for a bit of ridicule, for they simply do not seem to understand, or to be willing to accept, the weight of the evidence ranged against them. What they do, sometimes, to make the point that I tried to make in that earlier post to which Gord took so much exception, with considerable sophistication, is to provide what I earlier called “workarounds,” plausible sounding arguments which call into question the evidence that they think is insufficient to show that life evolved — at a “macroscopic” level, they will instantly add, since they can scarcely deny that there are evolutionary changes in existing organisms, since this has been decisively demonstrated in experimental situations. But, they add, there is no basis for the claim that genuinely distinct species evolved from earlier species, or that human beings are related, by way of evolutionary ancestry, to any earlier forms of life, like the common ancestor of apes, say, and humans.
Now, those of you who are sceptical about claims about global warming, or about the claim that the reason the twin towers in New York were felled in 2001 was the result of crashing large jets into the buildings, must be prepared to show, in detail, in the first place, that there either is no global warming, or that the warming that there is is entirely explicable on grounds other than the emission of greenhouse gases by human activity. Conspiracy theorists of the twin towers disaster have to explain, if the most obvious proximate cause of the collapse of the buildings (namely, flying two large jet airplanes into the towers) was not sufficient to cause the collapse, what in fact did cause the buildings to collapse. Just as in the case of creationist sceptics about evolution, sceptics about global warming and the 9/11 collapse of the twin towers in New York must provide alternative explanations that can be shown to be true. It is well-known now that no creationist responses to evolution are plausible. The evidence for evolution is overwhelming. It was overwhelming even in Darwin’s day, and he had much less information than we have now. He knew nothing about genetics, and he had no idea of the mechanism (DNA) — nor, of course, did Mendel – that explains inheritance. And yet the evidence that he presents in the Origin, if not conclusive at the time, changed the whole game plan for biology.
The same, as I say, goes for global warming and the collapse of the twin towers. Corio, for example, asks some very specific questions, and then suggests that, if I cannot answer those questions, that global warming scepticism wins by default. But I am not a climate scientist, just as I am not an evolutionary biologist. There is simply no option here but to take the consensus amongst climate scientists as a starting point, and it is for climate scientists to answer questions put to them by sceptics. Asking me, a mere layman when it comes to science, let alone climate science, how I explain this or that supposed fact, if climate science is right in its conclusions about global warming, is like asking me, if I claim on the basis of what I believe I know, that it is possible to operate on the eyes of humans to correct faults in vision, to show that my claim is true by operating on someone’s eye. And telling me that support for global warming is dropping in Australia is even worse. This is not a popularity contest. We are trying to speak about what is happening. My own observations over the last decade or so, as the fall remains warmer — we didn’t have a heavy frost here in Nova Scotia until mid-October, when it used to be mid-September — and the winters milder, suggests that large-scale change is afoot, but I really have to take my cue from the scientists whose responses to climate change denial has been consistently and robustly supportive of claims that industrialisation has not only accompanied climate change, but is a direct cause of climate change, and that the result could be disastrous. Ecosystem collapse could be sudden and catastrophic. It is hard to believe that general scepticism regarding these conclusions is reasonable, given that the consensus on climate change and its causes is so broad. Doubt of this sort has a context, and it is within that context that it must be answered. It is hopeless to create an entirely new picture of climate trends that denies the fact of global warming or its most salient causes, unless there is some completely new theory that can explain what climate scientists measure. “Getting skeptical about global warming skepticism” is a good place to start. I know of no other way of being reasonable in this situation than by taking seriously what climate science is telling us, just as I know no other way to be reasonable about the development of life than to take what evolutionary biologists believe to be true. General scepticism in this context seems to me to be not only dangerous but foolish, and electoral numbers mean nothing at all.
As to the twin towers, I cannot see that scepticism regarding the causes of the disaster is reasonable; nor do I think, as Egbert suggested, that there is nothing verifiable here. Watching two jetliners crash into the towers and then watching them collapse, and thinking that these events are causally linked is not simply a case of post hoc ergo propter hoc, unless there is some other plausible explanation for the collapse of the towers. In response to some reasonable comments on the criticism of global warming and the terrorist attack which is reasonably thought to be what caused of the twin towers disaster, Egbert said first:
Really, this level of hysteria and abuse coming from the ‘reasonable’ non-sceptic side, is worrying, although I knew it was always there.
and then, second, a bit later:
Come on people, let’s not keeping sinking so low as to be hysterical and irrational, get back to being reasonable and then we can have reasonable discussions.
I do not bring this up to pillory Egbert, but simply to point out that what led to the reference to hysteria and abuse was anything but hysteria and abuse. And claiming those who criticised “9/11 truthers” and climate change denialists as “the ‘reasonable’ non-sceptic side” is bizarre! Scepticism does not consist in doubting things, unless of course you want to take a Pyrrhonian sceptical position, which is harder to establish rationally than many people think (see here A.C.Grayling’s two books The Refutation of Scepticism and Scepticism and the Possibility of Knowledge). It consists in reasonably doubting things, and the arguments made by David Evans and Tildeb and others is that there was no reasonable argument in evidence for either “truther” claims or global warming denial. This is a terrifically important issue, and in so many internet discussions it seems to be overlooked. Just having a reason for believing or disbelieving something does not make it a good reason, and does not make disbelief rational. That is why religious believers field apologetic arguments in support of their beliefs, and also why the contention between believers and unbelievers runs so fast and furious at times, because a lot of emotional energy is tied up in our beliefs and our believing, especially when it goes against the grain of accepted beliefs. Of course, I could get my second wind at this point, and go on for another few thousand words, but perhaps this is as good a place to stop as any. But my point in this, as in my previous post, is to highlight a problem with internet discussions, and the difficulty of keeping these discussions on an even keel. Sceptics should endeavour to be reasonable above all, and should not be led into the morass of scepticism just for the sake of being transgressive. The aim should be to construct a reasonable model of the natural and social worlds, especially now that the religious world view is under so much stress and is in the process of collapsing. That, at any rate, is what I conceive myself to be at least attempting to contribute to, and I apologise if, to some of you, I seem in this post (to use that terrible expression) to be beating a dead horse.