Thursday, July 22, 2010

What type of Theistic Skeptic are you?

I've obviously spent a lot of time on this subject and this will be a much shorter post. I'm simply going to categorize, for clarity, the different types of skeptical theists. I've named them after individuals who all self-identify as both skeptic and theist (some as a specific subtype, like Christian) and as skeptics.

The "Lee Strobel"

This individual is convinced that the proper application of skeptical principle actually confirms their theistic beliefs.

The "Pamela Gay"

This individual is convinced that their theistic beliefs are beyond the critical eye of skeptical principles, often asserting that skepticism only applies to testable claims.

The "Martin Gardner"

This individual acknowledges that they're not being skeptical of their theistic beliefs and that they have some emotional reason for believing. Often they'll acknowledge that their beliefs most probably would not hold up under the critical evaluation of skepticism.

I've covered the difference between the "Pamela Gay" and "Martin Gardner" types in previous posts. In short, neither is applying skepticism to their theistic beliefs and one is claiming that it shouldn't apply. The assertion that skepticism can say nothing about untestable claims is one that I think is demonstrably absurd.

But what about the "Lee Strobel" type?

I'm pretty sure that if we polled skeptics at a convention like TAM (and I think we should), an extraordinarily high percentage would claim that the "Lee Strobel"-type is simply not a very good skeptic. Some of them, might even flatly claim that the "Lee Strobel"-type simply isn't a skeptic, despite using the label.

Is Lee Strobel a skeptic? How about Kent Hovind or Duane Gish or Ken Ham or Deepak Chopra or Sylvia Brown? I'd be willing to bet that most of them would self-identify as a skeptic because most of them think that they have evidence (or perhaps pretend that they think they have evidence, if they're simply dishonest) and that the evidence confirms their beliefs. They, like most people, recognize the value of evidence in understanding reality and I'd bet that most of them (hell, most anyone) would say, "Yes, I'm a skeptic and I value skepticism" once they've had it explained to them.

(The explanation, by the way, could simply be: a skeptic is a person who strives to accurately understand reality by accepting only those things that are supported by the evidence.)

But are they really a skeptic, just because they call themselves one? Would you consider them to be a good skeptic? Is their usage of skeptic consistent with your it consistent with the larger skeptical community? If any of those people were invited to speak on behalf of skepticism, would you object?

Let's not pretend that legitimate, skeptical questions about this subject can be answered by accusations of a "no true Scotsman" fallacy if we're really trying to determine whether or not someone is conveying accurate information about Scotland.

Let's not pretend that we're somehow rude for questioning or correcting misinformation or that there's no problem with letting some misinformation slip by.

If we wouldn't pretend that the "Lee Strobel"-type has any more knowledge about Scotland than one might obtain after watching a special on the Loch Ness monster...then let's not pretend - at all.


  1. I suppose they would be skeptics, in the sense that they strive to employ skepticism. However, we would only be able to conclude that they are doing a poor job at it for not recognizing logical fallacies and cognitive bias. I think that good skeptics should be aware of these in order to ensure that they have the most true and the least false beliefs possible. Since they are not aware of these, evident by actively engaging in them, they are implementing skepticism poorly.

  2. I think the important thing to note about the 'No true Scotsman' fallacy, is that it isn't just the claiming that someone isn't a true X that makes it a fallacy, but rather it is the ad hoc altering of the definition of X that makes it one.

    I'm just saying that because I've seen some people claim that merely saying that someone isn't X (be it Christian, atheist, sceptic, whatever) is 'No True Scotsman(!!!)'. It isn't. If someone claims they are a footballer, and they've never played football in their life, then it is not fallacious to say they aren't a footballer. If we didn't enforce that, words would be meaningless - obviously, unless we all know what the word means, we can't converse.

    As such, if someone, like, Lee Strobel, does something which conflicts with the definition of 'sceptic', then pointing that out is not fallacious, either, even if he claims to be a sceptic.

    As regards the people you mention, Matt, for me they aren't sceptics, whether or not they claim to be so, and they aren't 'not sceptics' just because I say so, but rather because they do not argue/reason with a sceptical mindset.

  3. That whole "Martin Gardner" bit sort of hurt my feelings, since I've been a fan of his for close to 2/3rd of my life. Yeah, he was wrong on the theist/atheist issue, but to attack him seems counter-productive. I'm not saying it isn't fair to attack him, but it also seems to dismiss the positive good he did in his lifetime by reducing him to a "type".

    Couldn't you find an example of someone who wasn't such a positive good in total? Or was that your intention, to aggressively attack an icon of the overall skeptical community?

    As always, whether we agree or not, the fact that these disagreements exist is a positive testament to the atheist movement as a whole, that we question ourselves and each other at ever step along the way.

  4. I'd be willing to bet that most of them would self-identify as a skeptic because most of them think that they have evidence [...] and that the evidence confirms their beliefs.
    This hits the nail on the head of something which has often bothered me. On a number of interviews down by skeptics with skeptics you'll often get the question 'how long have you been a skeptic' and the other person will go on about how it started when they were a child and [wank wank wank]. But really I suspect you could take the most gullible person on the face of the Earth and given the same question they'd give a similar answer. A more useful question in my mind is 'how long have you been involved with the skeptical movement?'

    The assertion that skepticism can say nothing about untestable claims is one that I think is demonstrably absurd.
    Could you elaborate on this? Because I disagree. If you take something like Homeopathic claims you are in a situation where saying it works would require evidence not only of efficacy but also method. So both statements 'homeopathy works' and 'homeopathy doesn't work' are making claims, the latter is simply more parsiomious with the theory of science which is based on testable claims and thus likely to be true. On the other hand if you take a theory about an omnipresent god that is parsimonious with facts (so none that I can bring to mind :P) both the claim that 'it does exist' and 'it doesn't exist' are both making claims, the difference in this case is that neither can back it up. In my opinion a 'true' skeptic should say that 'it's impossible to know' and stop there, although I also see no problem with the person then elaborating and saying 'I don't personally think there is because it requires special pleading or violates Occam's razor or whatever'. The problem in my mind is that if you take a proposition that can never be verified or disproven then a statement about it's factuality will necessarily be a faith or belief based position.

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  7. This is a thorny path you are going down Matt. I cant wait to see where it leads.
    Its clear from your TAM posts that many in the skeptic community are more concerned with maintaining a club than in valuing skepticism.
    I predict this will bring to the surface a lot of buried prejudice of the kind that appears when Atheist billboards go up or the president addresses non-believers in a speech.
    But it needs to be done. Atheism IS a subset of Skepticism.

  8. I would suggest Raymond E. Brown instead of Pamela Gay to represent the mystical/subjective category.

    Brown was a world-class Biblical scholar who admitted that elements of faith (RCC dogma, in his case) do not stand up to historical or empirical scrutiny but should be understood and affirmed through what Bob Price has called "an alternative epistemology."

  9. L,


    I'll go even further: atheism is a subset (and consequence) of rationalism and empiricism itself.

    There is no religion in the history of man which cannot be subjected to the same scrutiny as leprechaun-ism and shot down for exactly the same reasons.

  10. @Improbable Joe: Wait, what? Aggressively attack? I can see why Matt's choice of example might be unpleasant to you. It certainy was to me, because I did't even realise that Gardner was a theist.
    How did Matt attack him? And if he did, why would it have been better to to attack someone less popular than Martin?

  11. Well you have to ask the question, what does it mean to be a 'skeptic' and why does that label matter? In the strictest sense it means that you are applying skeptical analysis to the claims that you hear and by that definition then clearly people that are selectively skeptical like those mentioned would not qualify. But a lot of times we are not just talking strict definitions of the word, we are talking about a community of people.

    So if you define the skeptical community as some sort of Tao, or way of life, then yeah it would have to exclude certain people that don't uphold those standards. But I don't really see it in that way. To me it is more of people just contributing to a body of knowledge that allows you to interpret issues/claims/reality critically. And in that sense anyone that can contribute something to that knowledge pool would be valuable. In the end it is just a label, and unless the government starts handing out tax exemptions for being a 'skeptic' does it really matter if we can label someone a skeptic or not? Just seems to me that arguing over labels is red herring and distracts from the important work of evaluating ideas on their own merit.

    But honestly, I didn't quite follow what point was trying to be made at the end of your post Matt, it seemed kind of confusing to me. I am not even sure I am clear on what the disagreement is all about. At times it seems to be about if theists are welcome in the skeptical community in which case my answer is what I wrote above. At other times it seems to revolve around this perception that the skeptical community could be starting to treat religion with the same hands-off reverence that it enjoys in mainstream society in which case I would have to say that is clearly should not happen. The crux of skepticism is the idea that there are no sacred cows. The community should be (and I think largely is) open but not accommodating toward theists.

  12. "That whole "Martin Gardner" bit sort of hurt my feelings, since I've been a fan of his for close to 2/3rd of my life."

    I'm still a fan.

    "Yeah, he was wrong on the theist/atheist issue, but to attack him seems counter-productive."

    Where did I attack him? And since when do we sacrifice the TRUTH just because it might be less productive?

    That's just shameful.

    "Or was that your intention, to aggressively attack an icon of the overall skeptical community?"

    Where did I aggressively attack him?

    What fucking post did you read? I accurately represented his views.

    I was going to write this response to clarify my thoughts on his views, but I don't think I'll bother.

    Your post PRECISELY demonstrates a problem I've brought up repeatedly:

    There was no attack, let alone an aggressive attack...but you're quick to claim one, utterly misrepresenting what I wrote, simply because you have a strong emotional tie to the subject.

    Just think for a minute. If you're willing to do this about the simple plain truth about a fellow skeptic, what happens when someone honestly and fairly, yet bluntly, criticizes beliefs that someone holds not only dear but sacred?

  13. "The assertion that skepticism can say nothing about untestable claims is one that I think is demonstrably absurd.
    Could you elaborate on this? Because I disagree."

    I thought I'd posted on this previously...but I guess it deserves it's own post. Here's the short version:

    Skepticism isn't just about debunking, it's a toolset to determine the most accurate information possible about reality.

    The core issue is one of the burden of proof. Claims have to be justified and if they're untestable, that burden can't be satisfied.

    Skepticism cannot debunk/disprove untestable claims...but so what? That's a shifting of the burden of proof. Applied skepticism dictates that when there isn't sufficient evidence for the claim (which is impossible if it's untestable), then belief is not rationally justified.

    Those who believe untestable claims are exercising faith, ignoring the burden of proof - and that is not consistent with skepticism.

  14. I thought I'd posted on this previously
    You might've, sorry, but I just post on interesting things that come up in the skepticator feed.

    Skepticism cannot debunk/disprove untestable claims...but so what? That's a shifting of the burden of proof. Applied skepticism dictates that when there isn't sufficient evidence for the claim (which is impossible if it's untestable), then belief is not rationally justified.
    But you too are making a claim in saying that an omnipresent God can't exist [just as a disclaimer I too am an atheist, also I know I'm misrepresenting your position a little by using 'can't' rather than 'doesn't' but in this case I think the two may as well be equivalent]. I think there's a disconnect here with skepticism as applied to the real world and skepticism as applied to philosophy (including religion), ethics (I know skeptics who claim skepticism points to a universal ethical truth), politics (I know skeptics who claim skepticsm necessarily leads to libertarianism) and a myriad of other things (Usually of the form of someone saying 'skepticism necessarily leads to [favourite theory on something]').

    In the sense that in each of the above science can inform what you think, but it can't tell you which, if you like, is the one true one. So religion for example. You can take each one as they come up and point out their internal inconsistencies and say based on that they don't bear scrutiny thus are wrong, however this doesn't mean that there may not be some omnipresent God out there (often the people who say it does seem to appeal to an argument from personal incredulity - seriously grab the God Delusion and take a drink whenever Dawkins says words to the effect of 'I can't believe a God with [some set of properties] exists'). It's sort of like saying 'there aren't any results in physics that point to language therefore language doesn't exist' (this example isn't quite as solid as I'd like but you get the idea), the question isn't in the realm of physics just like omnipresent God isn't in the realm of scientific, and thus reality based, skepticism. Now if you want to say 'there's no evidence of God therefore I chose not to believe' that's fine, but that's a belief (or perhaps opinion might be a better less-loaded word to use) based position, for it to be factual you would need to show something like the existence of a God necessarily implies inconsistencies in any philosophy since it is conceivable to come up with a description of God that is unprovable making your position potentially unfalsifiable. I guess, as I said, what I'm trying to get across is the idea that the proper position for a skeptic on a topic which cannot be either proven or disproven should be 'In general it's not possible to know' (I added 'in general' because of the inconsistencies thing I mentioned earlier), and then perhaps argue the most sensible position is atheism (or agnosticism).

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  16. "The core issue is one of the burden of proof. Claims have to be justified and if they're untestable, that burden can't be satisfied."

    I hope you're excluding historical claims when you say untestable claims. Historical events are not testable, but we can still offer evidence for them in order to meet the burden for justified belief.

  17. Matt,

    Can I add one thing?

    A skeptic might well have a subjective, personal experience which defies duplication or external observation and for which the burden of proof could never be met.

    But if the skeptic is intellectually honest, he will readily admit that he cannot reasonably expect anyone else to accept the reality of his experience.

    We are not calling him a liar. We are saying that we may fairly withhold endorsement of his claim until such time as he can show us sufficient evidence to deserve endorsement.

  18. I don't see it as useful to ask the question "is X a skeptic?" It's divisive, and puts up the false dichotomy of claiming you either are or are not a skeptic. It makes skepticism an issue of identity rather than a means of discovering the truth.

    It's far more accurate to use the adjective "skeptical" with regards to behaviour, than the noun "skeptic" with regards to people. If a Martin Gardner-type accepts that his beliefs probably wouldn't stand up to skeptical scrutiny, and he doesn't want to defend his belief, that doesn't prevent him from being skeptical in any other aspect of his life. I don't want to say "he is a skeptic" or "he is not a skeptic" or even "he is a lousy skeptic" because the position is clearly more nuanced.

  19. Thank you for your posts on this matter, Matt. I'm relatively new to the skeptic community, and it surprised me tremendously that there were *any* theists in the community. I've been trying to come to terms with the fact for about six months, and still can't figure how theistic 'skeptics' are happy to compartmentalise their religion, while happily attacking those who hold irrational beliefs in ghosts, alternative therapise etc.

  20. Very clearly put Matt. I wish someone would tell that to The Skeptics Guide to the Universe lot. They hide behind the 'testability' notion all the time.

    I've noticed this more with skeptics in medical field. Perhaps their attitude of 'Does this treatment/diagnostic work, and have repeatable studies proving so... or doesn't it' carries over into their skepticism? They only care about testable things in their every day life and it is easy for them to blend this into their skepticism?

  21. @kevin

    "I hope you're excluding historical claims when you say untestable claims. Historical events are not testable, but we can still offer evidence for them in order to meet the burden for justified belief."

    I would disagree. If you've got evidence to support a claim, that's a type of testing a claim. The Tiktaalik fossil was predicted by evolution (a halfway form from fish to land-dweller). We ended up finding it, and that further confirmed evolutionary theory - even though the fossil itself is a historical freeze-frame.

    If we're talking about a historical claim about a battle that occurred, if we find weapon parts on the supposed battle scene, we've just tested the claim, and it passed.

    Obviously, the further back in history one goes, the harder the testing becomes. Testing doesn't have to be a direct observation, which is a common misconception about science.

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  23. Or... to look at this issue from another perspective. What kind of anti-vax skeptic are you? Is Bill Maher a skeptic because of his skeptism in other areas while he believes vaccinations are harmful?

    That's what this whole thing sounds like to me. Great post Matt.

  24. Ing

    If your'e going to cross post something to Skepchick, why not post the one that was specifically written as a response to the article you're talking about?

  25. @Matt

    Missed that post thanks.

  26. >Those who believe untestable claims are exercising faith, ignoring the burden of proof - and that is not consistent with skepticism.<

    Don't mean to jump in because I'm still very poorly read on the subject of skepticism in general but...

    The way I learnt it, accepting as true without evidence (i.e. believing) untestable/unsubstantiated claims is also inconsistent with atheism, is it not? - i.e. going under the definition of atheism as a lack of belief in the claims to knowledge of the existence of gods by religious belief systems.

    I don't think that the discovery of an indeterminate truth value for a claim entitles one to go too much further about the truth value of that claim.

    I mean, I think it's reasonable to assess the _probability_ of some truth value for it (i.e. the likelihood of the existence of a god based on the relentless lack of evidence is NOT 50/50, but instead arguably very low), but I think more work has to be done before you can actually _assign_ one to the claim.

    I do think a statement like "I believe a god doesn't exist" (where "believe" is defined as a notion in my mind based on nothing I've observed in the world) is almost certainly in the arena of faith, but I also don't think that's an accurate representation of the atheist position. In fact, I just got through starting a fight on a believer's blog about just this point not too long ago. The assertion was being made that atheism was a belief system with that very belief as one of its core "doctrines", etc.

    So I guess I'm having a little trouble understanding what the schism is between atheism and skepticism (if there is any) on this particular point?

    I find myself perfectly aligned with Matt's remarks here. IOW, I don't see Matt making a claim along the lines of "therefore, god doesn't exist/I think a god doesn't exist/etc".

    Let me know if I've misunderstood - as I said, my scholarship in this particular area is pretty light so I'm definitely in the info-gathering stage....


  27. I would consider the theist who acknowledges that their belief has no rational basis, and cannot be properly supported but has an emotional reason to believe to be a skeptic, however a skeptic with a blindspot.

    The second can be, but that just sticks in my craw. I understand that 'culturally' we separate religion from skepticism. But to claim that it SHOULD be separate, that its beyond skepticism, just irks me.

    Also, like others have said, it comes down to if you mean the person is a "skeptic" or part of the skeptical movement.

    The skeptical movement in general acts like consumer protection, and leaves the religion to the atheist groups.
    I guess that's OK. I'm a computer tech, but get people asking me to fix dvd-players, vcr's, gps systems and phones all the time (cause they're "like computers" I guess?). I tell them that's not what I do, though sometimes when I can, I do (so liken hooking up a phone to a computer with bluetooth to busting a miracle claim...or something.)

    So as a practical matter I can understand the skeptical community not really getting involved with religion. And so people can still be involved in the movement without applying skepticism to religion, but I still think they should be honest that they are intentionally not applying skepticism to that area of their life (and not the kinda dishonest claim that they can't)

  28. I can't help but notice there isn't so much of "No, you're wrong for questioning it, they clearly are 100% skeptical and here's why" and ore of "Don't be a dick by insulting those nice people!"

    Of course all the evidence based is stuff on untestability and ultimate knowledge...arguments no 'skeptic' accepts from psychics or faith healers.

  29. Hi Matt I kind of disagree. Take for example political questions like whether taxes should be raised or lowered. Obviously there are arguments on both sides but these arguments are nearly always based on claims that are not justified. But imho you can still call yourself a skeptic even if you have an opinion on that topic. By the same token I don't see why somebody could not be a skeptic and belief in the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.

  30. Hah actually I realised where I was going wrong and was rereading my above posts and some of them are complete skeptic fail, so ignore the less coherent of the stuff above. Sometimes when playing devil's advocate I get carried away.

    Anyway my problem lies with me probably taking the statment 'skepticism necessarily leads to atheism' too literally, since I'm perfectly OK with 'skepticism plus the available evidence points to atheism'. In my opinion the former is too strong. My bad, and thanks for your patience and replies. :P

  31. I'm with 2nd Op.

    Skepticism for me is a method, an intellectual discipline and not a manifesto.

    For example: the claim that capital-S Skepticism requires a priori repudiation of capitalism and/or socialism would be a rank betrayal of its core principle.

    However, any distinct claims made by adherents of either camp can and should be subject to scrutiny.

    Which brings us to theism. The claim that there is some manner of "god" is quite extraordinary - indeed, you'd be hard-pressed to find something more so - and anyone making it had better be prepared to put their cards on the epistemological table.

    Now, if they're going to say "Look I don't have any evidence; it was an inner-voice, mystical sort of thing or some kind of non-reproducible event only I was privy to" then fine.

    I will accept that... so long as they will accept that I in turn have no good reason to believe them.

  32. @ George

    AND, no reason to RESPECT that belief. ANy more than if i came up and informed everyone that elves are telepathically communicating with me.

  33. Yes, good point.

    I love the "You have to respect my beliefs!" line.

    No, we don't. In fact... we CAN'T unless we redefine "respect" as something other than what it is.


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