From Abracadabra to Zombies
reader comments: skepticism
22 Nov 2009
I would like to quibble with your notion of scepticism. In philosophy, pure scepticism is the withholding of belief in absolutely everything, including the existence of an external world, let alone God, angels, etc!
reply: "Pure" skepticism? You might be thinking of Pyrrhonian skepticism and you might be confusing suspension of judgment with withholding belief. To suspend judgment on the truth or reality of everything is quite different from withholding belief. No one could survive for a second without beliefs. The Pyrrhonian skeptic says we can know nothing not even that we can know nothing, but he doesn't say we can exist without beliefs.
Academic skepticism, on the other hand, while emphasizing suspension of judgment because of the human inability to attain certainty or absolute knowledge, did not advocate withholding belief in those cases where the preponderance of the evidence was on one side rather than the others. Granted, this is a simplistic division of skeptics, who represent a very broad array of approaches to knowledge and belief. Still, the idea of there being a "pure" skepticism is why I wrote my essay "Why I am not a real (true) skeptic."
You do not represent scepticism. What you do seem to represent is a metaphysical position known as materialist reductionism - therefore I think you should rename your dictionary something along those lines!
reply: I don't try to represent "scepticism," and certainly not "pure" skepticism. If I am thought of as representing anything, I'd like to be thought of as representing critical thinking or ordinary skepticism. As I note in my entry on philosophical skepticism:
Philosophical skepticism should be distinguished from ordinary skepticism, where doubts are raised against certain beliefs or types of beliefs because the evidence for the particular belief or type of belief is weak or lacking. Ordinary skeptics are not credulous or gullible. They don't take things on trust, but must see the evidence before believing. Ordinary skeptics doubt the miraculous claims of religions, the claims of alien abductions, the claims of psychoanalysis, etc. But they do not necessarily doubt that certainty or knowledge is possible. Nor do they doubt these things because of systematic arguments that undermine all knowledge claims.
I am a materialist and have produced many arguments for doubting the existence of spirits, ghosts, gods, and other immaterial beings. However, those arguments make up only a part of The Skeptic's Dictionary. I have also produced many arguments against various forms of quackery that have nothing to do with materialism.
Now, philosophically speaking, materialist reductionism does have flaws, as do all metaphysical positions. However, that is another story. I do think however, that you should not be claiming the mantle of scepticism - that belongs in truth to philosophers such as David Hume who doubted even his own existence.
Dr Alasdair Broun, PhD Philosophy, Lancaster University 1986
reply: I think you should read Hume again, if indeed you've ever read him. Hume was the greatest of all the skeptical philosophers, in my opinion, but he did not doubt his own existence.
Dr. Broun replies:
Thanks for your reply. I did not read your piece on skepticism as such but was picking up on your title of a skeptic's dictionary.
In fact, I wrote part of my PhD thesis on Hume's theory of personal identity. He maintained that the self was simply a series of impressions and that he could find no underlying substance.
reply: Yes, which is not the same as denying his own existence. He didn't deny that his perceptions and memories existed, but he did deny that he perceived anything in addition to those perceptions, such as a soul or mind or immaterial substance. He also, following Locke, argued that he wasn't a materialist in the sense that something called a material substance exists above and beyond the perceptions of qualities such as solidity and color. I agree with Hume on the question of substances.
Sadly the fields of religion and the paranormal have been shot through with fraud, and this has discredited what is, in my view, a perfectly valid and scientific field of endeavour - to see if there are repeatable experimental results for (so-called) psychic and religious phenomena. Although there has not been, to my knowledge, any incontrovertible scientifically established evidence for the existence of such phenomena, it is nonetheless a valid field of research, due to two reasons:
1. The vast quantities of anecdotal evidence 2. The often overlooked fact that many of the reductionist explanations - such as confirmation bias, placebo effect, mass hysteria, hypnosis, etc., etc., do implicitly acknowledge that mind or consciousness has some power with respect to the material realm, and that the explanations often advanced by advocates of "psychic" and "religious" phenomena are often more "materialist" (e.g. postulating hidden dimensions, light-energy pathways in the physiology, aliens, etc etc) than the reductionist explanations! There is a kind of irony here which is often overlooked. So when I say that you are a materialist reductionist, I am being inaccurate too - I actually think that your position is closer to what philosophers term "naive realism" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naïve_realism , the big problem with which is that it has no coherent underlying theoretical underpinning. It seems to be more of an emotional reaction to things that do not fall within a certain range of common everyday assumptions of our contemporary western society.
reply: I don't know why you are bringing up the issue of the validity of parapsychology here. If you nose around my site a bit more, you will find that I have taken very seriously the claims of parapsychologists, have read many of their scientific studies, and have gone overboard to try to find something of merit in what they do. Look here, here, here, and here, for a start. It is true that there has been a good deal of fraud in parapsychology, but so has there been fraud in other sciences as well. I discuss this issue in detail because there are implications that apply specifically to parapsychology.
When I studied philosophy, naive realism was the "what you see is what there is" school of thought, that our perceptions are representations of what actually exists external to our mind. That's not a view I hold, but my view on perception (which is pretty similar to Hume's and is called representational realism in the article you link to) has no significance for most of what I have written about. What I mean by that is that the arguments I've made and the conclusions I've drawn don't stand or fall on whether representational realism is correct.
12 Aug 2000
Using your arguments challenging many of the subjects covered by your website, I believe it is possible to cast doubt on the possibility of the existence of humans.
I mean, how could any thinking entity believe that a planet just the right distance from the sun, spinning at just the right speed, tilted at just the right angle could support life. It's preposterous I tell you! Furthermore, the idea that plankton floating in salty brine could end up reading e-mail is really bizarre. And what is a "thought" anyway? You can't see it. You can't measure it or take its' temperature. I don't believe "thoughts" exist. What do you think?
reply: I think a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
9 Aug 2000
In doing research on various skeptic martyrs on the net and elsewhere, I have noticed that their personal education is often nowhere near what would be required to make a reliable, let alone educated, opinion on a subject. For example, your site covers everything from Bigfoot to Egypt to Abductions. A hefty load, requiring a hefty knowledge base to back it up. But quite frankly, philosophy just doesn't cut it. After all, my brother also has gone the philosophy route because he found he could not pass anything else.
It should be perfectly obvious, the pro-bigfoot people are usually anthropologists while the pro-alien/Egypt people are geologists/Egyptologists and so on. No Egyptologist seems to think it's appropriate to wager an opinion on Bigfoot, and by the same obvious deduction, no anthropologist ever wagers an opinion on Egypt. Nor should they, for it's not in their area, and THEY at least know enough to not spout off about what they know nothing about. I already know this falls on deaf ears, enough naked anger leaks through your comments to let anyone realize you can't be bothered with those who prove you wrong. Not posting any of the letters I've sent where I've very effectively nailed you to the wall for your factual errors is a dead give-away. But if you have ANY respect at all for an informed analysis, here's one::: Your site suggests that you DO know enough about a 100 different fields of discipline to comment on all of them, despite the fact that such knowledge would amount to several if not dozens of PhDs.
There's your delusion, if you are really looking for one. Learn well.
reply: Tell me, Bern, what kind of Ph.D. does one need to write such a letter? What field is it that justifies the claim that the "personal education" required for "reliable...educated" opinion on a subject is professional degreed education? Did you learn this from your brother?
I don't doubt that to you it is "perfectly obvious, the pro-bigfoot people are usually anthropologists while the pro-alien/Egypt people are geologists/Egyptologists and so on." It is also false. Real anthropologists won't bother themselves with distractions like Bigfoot, and real Egyptologists find pyramidiocy ludicrously irrelevant.
I don't question your powers of deduction, Bern. But your assumptions are asinine as well as false. I shudder to think that you might have learned such things at school. "No Egyptologist seems to think it's appropriate to wager an opinion on Bigfoot," you say. That may be true, but not for the reason you assume. They don't wager opinions on Bigfoot because they probably have no interest in Bigfoot. Egyptologists don't make claims in nuclear physics because it is not their field, but if they don't make claims about Bigfoot or God, it is not because only appropriate experts should make such claims.
Another assumption you seem to make is that a person can't gain knowledge or reasoning ability by reading or studying a subject outside of an academic or professional environment. Bern, let me tell you something: you don't need to have a Ph.D. in philosophy to make intelligent claims about what is ethical or not. You don't need to be a Ph.D. in Egyptology to make intelligent claims about aliens breeding with ancient peoples and teaching them to build pyramids as radio towers or water pumps.
People like you don't make me angry, Bern. You irritate me with your pompous attitude and you remind me that what I do often falls on deaf ears for reasons beyond my control. I don't recall any of your previous letters, but I usually ignore long, rambling letters that have no specific criticism and I ignore letters I don't think would benefit anyone either by their content or by my response. Now, perhaps you have "nailed me to the wall" as you say, but I am sure there was some good reason why I was unable to appreciate the brilliance and insight you must have shown. It was probably because I only have one Ph.D. and it isn't in the appropriate field.
In conclusion, I wonder if you could help me and my readers out by informing us what kind of expert would be appropriate to comment intelligently on the following claims by Michael Menkin?
This request references reports of alien abductions as reported by Bud Hopkins, David Jacobs and Raymond Fowler. I made a device which may help people abducted by aliens as reported by the above investigators. The device works by blocking alien telepathy and mind control, I call my device a "thought screen helmet." My device consists of a leather helmet lined with layers of special conductive plastic, the same material used to prevent static electricity damage to printed circuit boards. When worn over the head, I believe the device may insulate an abductee from alien telepathic control. Its function is not proven, I realize, but a shield for blocking alien telepathic control is worth trying.
To date I have one abductee trying my device. He has not had any memorable alien contact for three months so the device may work. I am still working with this person and hope to confirm its operation. I am trying to get other abductees to try the device to confirm its operation. My "thought screen helmet" cannot be tested in a laboratory. The only way to test it is for an abductee to wear it for a period of time and determine if the telepathic control of aliens is blocked or neutralized. If the "thought screen helmet" works it will minimize alien activity with a person and allow that person to resist aliens.
If I cannot verify the function of my current "thought screen helmet" configuration, I plan to test different materials to find one that does work. If your organization can put me in contact with the kind of abductee described by Jacobs and Hopkins who is interested in trying the device, I will mail it to them for free, worldwide. There are no catches. It's available to any serious abductee who wants to test if for free, anywhere in the world. Several size "thought screen helmets" are available.*
My guess is that the appropriate expert would be your local hardware store manager, but I could be wrong.
10 Aug 2000
Your local hardware store manager is unlikely to be a highly degreed person, so I have to disagree that he/she would be an appropriate expert to comment on the hat. Having seen picture of the hat at Michael Menkin's site, I think that a comment by a fashion designer would be more appropriate.
Or since the idea for the hat originated from a Science Fiction
novel, perhaps the "Aids is a Conspiracy" Science Fiction author
James Hogan would be appropriate.
13 Aug 2000
Actually, you do not need to go the high-tech (and no doubt expensive) route that Mr. Menkin has in order to shield your mind from alien influences.
Minor league baseball caps serve the same purpose. I have a small collection of them, and I wear them often. I am able to state that I have never been under any sort of alien mind control while wearing such a cap.
I don't know if major league caps perform the same function. Next
time I go to a game I'll buy one and see if I notice any alien influences.
13 Aug 2000
Regarding Bern F's quip of 9 Aug 2000, in which he states:
"In doing research on various skeptic martyrs on the net and elsewhere, I have noticed that their personal education is often nowhere near what would be required to make a reliable, let alone educated, opinion on a subject."
When - if ever - have institutions of "higher education"
held a monopoly on knowledge? As someone who considers myself
self-educated and generally quite knowledgeable on many subjects, I must
respond; how arrogant! Look, you either agree or disagree. There's no need
to insult, or attempt to belittle . . . or to bore for that matter. Make
your point and get on [over] with it.
Bern Finnigan replies:
14 Aug 2000
Another commonality between all skeptic messiahs I have researched is their LACK of research towards contrary views. Such skeptical talking heads on any number of paranormal television shows can have their entire thought process summed up with: "My opponent has expert testimony, but I have a quippy one-liner, therefore I'm right. Oh, I have a life too."
The sole exception would be Carl Sagan, who in his book "Broca's Brain" dedicated no less than 56 pages to a dissection of the "aliens and Moses" hypothesis of Dr. Velikosky, wherein Dr. Sagan used natural laws of physics, chemistry and mathematics to demonstrate the impossibility of the unusual ideas. Such a qualified disproval, is of course, the exception in your chosen hobby.
Sticking with the example of Bigfoot (as we both live in his alleged stomping ground, pun intended), you said the utterly misinformed statement: "Real anthropologists won't bother themselves with distractions like Bigfoot." The conceit and lack of objectivity here is obvious. I can't help but wonder the criteria that a philosophy PhD sees fit to impose on a field that has nothing to do with philosophy. Heaven forbid letting anthropologists be autonomous in their own field. I suppose by "Real" you mean "agrees with me", and I'll let the ridiculousness of that speak for itself. Regardless, you're wrong. Anthropologist Dr. Grover Krantz PhD. of Washington State University has been studying the phenomenon since the sixties, and I do believe he qualifies as "real": tenured position, teaches graduate level courses, publishes papers including a few books. Sound good? Except he has the audacity to actually explore the situation before making a irrational proclamation based on the statue quo. He publishes articles on his findings based on the known rules of anatomy and primate locomotion and other silly new-age fantasies. His finest achievement: a book where he discusses all known evidence and subjects it all to scientific rules, AND I might add, without a single one of those pesky unreliable testimonials. (Big Footprints, look for it on Amazon). [The title has been changed to Bigfoot Sasquatch : Evidence] He makes a case for the creature using the available physical evidence (footprints) and the best film of the alleged creature, the 1967 Patterson footage. He puts them all to the test of known rules of vertebrates that supposedly all earthly creatures must obey no matter how hairy they are: skeletal anatomy, weight distribution, muscular formation, etc. He should be quite qualified, after all that's his job to know those things, and that's what he has been teaching for 30 years. He concluded that the 1967 creature could not have possibly been a man in a suit. His book is full of all of his mathematical calculations and rational deductions that anybody can double-check to their hearts content. He concealed nothing. So, if Dr. Krantz says its a real monster by using mathematics, if anyone has a complaint with him the logical recourse would be to counter him by using mathematics.
Unfortunately, just saying "It looks fake to me" comes in a distant second in the reliability department, and is an insult to the accepted procedure of the scientific method. If you do not accept the findings of a professional merely because he supports the creature, and then you deserve to be irritated, and even a PhD. in basket weaving should recognize the validity of the scientific method over a layman knee-jerk reaction.
Now for completeness sake, I will tell you where you can find monster-maker John Chambers directly quoted denial that he had nothing to do with the Patterson monster: The Fortean Times, issue of February 1998, pg 48.
That will make it the 3rd time I've sent you that information. If you want to believe the movie was a fake SO badly, give me your address and I'll send you a copy of the whole article. My pleasure.
reply: Well, Bern, I guess this is where you think you have "nailed me to the wall" with your evidence and arguments. I'm afraid you're not very convincing, however. I can't deny that Krantz has a Ph.D. and teaches anthropology at Washington State any more than I could deny that alien abduction advocate John Mack is an M.D. and a psychiatrist who teaches at Harvard. I don't think you should deny, however, that both are considered quite odd by their colleagues. Be that as it may. Krantz is considered heroic by some because he did what many would have thought was professional suicide when he devoted his scholarly talents to investigating Bigfoot. He is still the odd man out, regardless of his credentials. You will not find mainstream anthropology textbooks or classes that take seriously the study of Bigfoot, just as you will not find standard texts in psychiatry giving advice on how to treat patients who have been abducted by aliens. (I don't doubt that you can find a book or a teacher that takes seriously just about every topic I've debunked.) I've never met Krantz, but he has some odd ideas. For example, according to the Fortean Times, Dr. Krantz advocates a hunt-and-kill-a-Bigfoot mission. Now, I'll say that's true scientific devotion, a willingness to kill in the name of finding the truth. I only bring this up because I have a hunch that if Bigfoot exists, the creature would qualify for listing as an endangered species.
What would you do, Bern, if someone pointed out to you another Ph.D. in anthropology who thinks Krantz, while building a strong but selective case, has failed to prove his point? Krantz, by the way, is not an expert on films as far as I know. I thought you required that nobody speak outside of their own field of expertise? By the way, how do you know this? Is it common sense? Do you have a Ph.D. in common sense, Bern? (You know, the only reason common sense is so common is because it often doesn't make much sense.)
Do you really accept Krantz's response that Bigfoot is "shy and nocturnal" to typical criticisms, such as those below from my entry on Bigfoot?
There are no bones, no scat, no artifacts, no dead bodies, no mothers with babies, no adolescents, no explanation for how a species likely to be communal has never been seen in family or group activity, no evidence that any individual, much less a community of such creatures, dwells anywhere near all the "sightings," etc.
This shy and nocturnal animal has been spotted in broad daylight hundreds of times, if the testimonials are to be believed. Are the creatures so shy that they pick up their scat and hide it? Does the community live underground or in caves no human has ever found? Maybe they live in the Hollow Earth? (Ooops, sorry. I forgot that you don't like one-liners or quips. They help me keep my sanity when dealing with humorless doubledigits.) Not one baby or adolescent spotted in all these years? No evidence of habitation? What are the mathematical probabilities of such a species surviving for hundreds of thousands of years without a single shred of direct physical evidence?
Finally, the issue regarding costume-maker Chambers is a side issue I've addressed before.
22 Jan 1999
You might be interested in my site [The Anti-Skeptic Site] www.mysite.com/don/antiskeptic.htm
reply: I have looked at your site and read some of the entries. However, I don't see what any of it has to do with skepticism or Skepticism (see my entry on the topic for the distinction <philosophical Skepticism>.
The members of your first group of "skeptics" (people who made bad military decisions) seem to share in common only two things: they were close-minded and their preconceptions turned out to be wrong. If one defines a skeptic as one who is closedminded and turns out to be wrong, then examples of skeptics and non-skeptics will fill up a very long list, indeed. Neville Chamberlain, for example, is one I would characterize as gullible and guided by wishful thinking. To call Chamberlain a skeptic seems silly.
Your medical mistakes list seems also to be a list of people who share these same two characteristics of being hidebound and wrong. Again, one could find both skeptics and non-skeptics to add to this list.
You head your page with the following "The web has plentiful sites by skeptics - people who try and critically analyze the mass of nonsense loose in our society. Skeptics usually find themselves in the position of saying something is not true - that there is not enough evidence for something."
By defining skeptics in this way, you make everyone a skeptic who has analyzed an issue, taken a position against that issue on the grounds that there is not enough evidence to support it, and then turned out to be wrong. Such a broad definition would include many strange bedfellows in its denotation. You are, of course, free to use words any way you see fit, but I wonder about the utility of defining 'skeptic' in a way that would include Richard Nixon and George Patton and Joan of Arc.
Mr. Cohen replies:
I will change the title of my website, perhaps to "The
anti-Closed Mind" Website.
09 Nov 1998
Thanks for providing the Skeptic's Dictionary, which is almost unique on the Web in being interesting, well-judged, well written and well researched...I just wanted to raise a couple of issues concerning your account of Philosophical skepticism and your alignment of yourself within that movement I'll be as concise as I can.
You say (I think!) that modern skeptics, by and large, accept that certain knowledge is impossible (at least outside the fields of logic and mathematics) but accept that empirical or sensory evidence can confer some degree of probability, or confirmation, on theoretical claims; and that the distinguishing quality of a contemporary skeptic is a sort of healthy refusal to believe theoretical claims unless supported in this way by properly conducted empirical tests, coupled with an unwillingness ever to regard such claims as finally decided for once and for all.
reply: No, I say that one tradition of philosophical skepticism has defended probabilism and the tentative nature of empirical knowledge. This distinction is a very old one. Accepting probabilism does not make one "modern" in any sense of the word.
It seems to me that this, while probably a position which is extremely and justifiably common among 20th century philosophers and scientists, is not a skeptical one, since it is actually called into question by some of the most important skeptical arguments. The point of Hume's skepticism about induction, for instance, is not merely that it demolishes claims to dogmatic certainty, but that it calls into question our right to claim that any amount of empirical data makes any theoretical claim any more probable than its contrary. Similarly, Descartes' "evil demon" argument, if it works, shows that sense data (appearances) is consistent both with our ordinary scientific world-view and with a completely different set of theoretical claims about the way the world is, and cannot therefore provide any evidence, even of a probabilistic nature, either way.
reply: Hume's skepticism is very complex, but generally he is sympathetic to probabilism. He rejects metaphysics as a waste of time, but not math and science. He certainly does not advocate the notion that one scientific theory is always as good as any other. Descartes, on the other hand, had no interest in probabilism. Philosophical rationalists demand absolute certainty. I take it you do not think Descartes disposed of the Evil Demon hypothesis adequately. Metaphysical possibilities, such as that we are all dreaming or that we are all atoms in a universal being or that we are all being constantly deceived about fundamental matters of perception and mathematics by an Evil Demon are not denied by skeptics. Descartes was not a skeptic, so I don't know what your point in noting that he believed that if the Evil Demon hypothesis were not disposed of then any empirical theory would be as good as any other.
The view that the scientific or empirical method is the only trustworthy one, and that while it cannot yield certainty it can confer probability on theoretical claims, seems to me not to be a skeptical one, but closer to what has traditionally been called "pragmatism" or "fallibilism" (in which I would include, for instance, the views of philosophers such as Dewey, most Bayesians, and many modern philosophers of science). Unless accompanied by a satisfactory refutation of Humean and Cartesian skepticism, it remains a dogmatic view. To me at least, the most valuable 20th century work in the philosophy of science has been done by those philosophers (such as Popper and, in particular, Quine) who accept the correctness of Hume's argument but try nonetheless to come up with an account of why it is rational to pursue scientific, empirical inquiry. In the absence of a plausible refutation of Hume, the idea of constructing a philosophy of science which makes no appeal to any positive concept of confirmation or justification seems like the natural way to develop, since Hume's argument appears to undermine these concepts fatally. It might, therefore, be appropriate to call Quine and Popper skeptics, since both deny that empirical evidence can ever confirm a theoretical claim. The view that empirical data can confer any non-zero degree of probability on a hypothesis, by contrast, strikes me as quite anti-skeptical, since most skeptical arguments are just as effective against claims to have even weak confirmation of a hypothesis as they are against claims to certainty. skeptical doubts apply equally to scientific claims and to the claims of New Age therapists, proponents of the paranormal etc. The difference is that there are, as your site ably demonstrates, additional reasons to doubt the latter - you don't have to be a skeptic, in any traditional philosophical sense.
Hope that all sounded coherent.
reply: It's coherent, but wrong. Popper does not say that no empirical evidence can ever confirm a theoretical claim. He says that no amount of confirmation of an empirical theory can prove the theory is true. He also used 'probability' in a mathematical sense when he claims that all scientific theories have zero probability (because no matter how many tests have been done, there are an infinite number left to do and any number divided by infinity equals zero). The ancient (and modern) skeptics who defend probabilism are not talking about mathematical probability. They are using the term in much the same way I would use it when I say "I probably left my notebook in the office." They are not using it in the sense of "the probability of a heads coming up on any given coin flip is 1 in 2."