Skepticism

AI: the boundaries of skepticism

Beyond the idea of early “Philosophical Skepticism” we have the notion of “contemporary”, “modern”, “new” or “classical” skepticism, that is mostly concerned with pseudoscientific and paranormal claims.

Some perceive this as a narrow set of subjects that we should concern ourselves with, others see this as boundless, with skepticism having applications to all areas of life. Skepticism is evolving for many.

What is skepticism?

What are the boundaries of skepticism?

What topics do we need to be skeptical about?

What is outside of the realm of skepticism?

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29 Comments

  1. Beliefs are beyond the province of skepticism. That is to say, if you feel that evolution is a lie, or that homeopathy is effective, or that God is real because you have ‘solid evidence’ to back that up, then we, as skeptics, can tell you, “Now wait just one goddamn minute here.”

    If, however, you feel that evolution is a lie, or that homeopathy is effective, or that God is real not because of any evidence, but because this is what you *believe*, then we, as skeptics, have no business telling you what to think.

  2. Skepticism is the desire to not be a fool. I am a skeptic because I don’t want to be anyone’s puppet dancing on strings to the tune that they call. The limits of skepticism are only those that an individual skeptic will place upon it. We are all limited so skepticisms limits are our limits.

  3. Actually, we are all, at times, the fool. A skeptic is steadfastly aware of this, and can actually make course corrections thru experience.

    Additionally, a skeptic can engage in argument without taking or giving personal insult, because all ideas are tentative and vulnerable.

  4. A skeptic is someone who holds truth to be highly valuable and believes that when a variety of ideas are presented, the truest one will emerge from the conflict.

    This is why skeptics don’t hold any one idea to be sacred – it is almost more valuable to be previously wrong and now enlightened then to think you are right. This is why skeptics try to examine new ideas and reexamine old ones, because they are always interested in what they might learn. This is why skeptic pro-actively gaurd themselves against logical fallacies and wishful thinking.

  5. Skepticism is a desire to know the truth. It stems from a need to be right, as @Gabrielbrawley said “not to be a fool”.

    Asking if there are boundaries to skepticism, the mindset, doesn’t make any sense. Attitudes don’t have boundaries. Anyone can be as skeptical or as gullible as they want about anything…or as cynical…or as optimistic…or as religious.

    AS a movement, however, skepticism is bound by human nature. We can’t act like robots, or we’ll fail at convincing or informing a single person about a single thing.

  6. Skepticism is seeking facts and applying that to decision making. I don’t like the term “the truth” because I associate that with religions. We’ll never know the truth, that would require omniscience. Skepticism should rely on data to refute an idea, and forgo fallacies of logic (especially straw men), and be respectful.

    As far as outside the realm of skepticism, I’m not comfortable with faith and skepticism. If someone chooses to believe in a given religion, that’s their right as much as it is someone else’s right to not believe. If they know the data and choose to fill in the blanks with something like god or the flying spaghetti monster, fine.

  7. What is skepticism? Not easily convinced, having doubts. (Proper evidence is required to take care of this.)

    What are the boundaries of skepticism? There are no boundaries.

    What topics do we need to be skeptical about? All of them.

    What is outside of the realm of skepticism? Nothing.

    With some topics the evidence is so full and clear that skepticism is satisfied quickly but there’s always that opening for more/better evidence that could require change.

    It’s the difference between having an open mind as opposed to having a hole in one’s head. Skepticism keeps the open mind w/o the risk of one’s brain falling out.

  8. What is skepticism?

    Skepticism means different things in different circumstances. Generally speaking, skepticism is a practice of thought that attempts to apply rigorous critique to refine out false hits and misses in our beliefs about reality.

    What are the boundaries of skepticism?

    Claims about reality, and cultural attitudes towards claims about reality.

    A work of fiction that says ‘fiction’ on the spine and involves magic or ghosts is fine with me, so long as its entertaining.

    A work of fiction that promotes blatant pseudo-scientific thinking (for example) would not be totally fine. I might enjoy it as a book, but addressing the promotion of pseudo-scientific thinking in a work of fiction is still well within the domain of skepticism.

    What topics do we need to be skeptical about?

    Everything in the domain of skepticism. That’s so much that no one person could be expected to cover them all – we have to specialize based on social importance (medical quackery), personal expertise of the skeptic, and personal preferences of the skeptic.

    What is outside of the realm of skepticism?

    Just negate my declaration of what’s within the bounds of skepticism.

    For example: The content of fiction is outside the scope of skepticism (even if the implications of a work of fiction are – see above).

  9. Perhaps a distinction needs to be made here between a skeptical attitude , and the topics which are appropriate for us skeptics to harp on about to others?

    In my opinion, the latter include ANY topics which the media or public opinion are getting demonstrably wrong. But in doing so, we should resist speculation, and be willing to change our minds. In short: we must feel obliged to be CORRECT.

  10. SKEPTIC: Someone who is willing to consider available evidence and is constantly willing to re-evaluate an idea as new information becomes available without regard to beliefs and prejudice.
    BOUNDARIES: Within our own lives, I don’t think anything should not be critically reviewed. However, I don’t think we need try to make anyone an atheist or agnostic.
    As a group, I think we need to confine our efforts to keeping religion out of public policy and proving evidence based information for those who are misinformed on subjects that will cause them some form of harm. (alternative medicine, etc) Once informed they can act as they will so long as their actions do not have a negative impact on the public at large.
    MOST IMPORTANT: We need to find paths to teach critical thinking to children. We need to press the concept of thinking critically more than we need to fight for anything else. Because if more people would think rationally, we would eliminate the other issues.

  11. I think you’re far more likely to run into the bounds of good taste than you are bounds of what should be considered skeptically.

    Daniel’s note about fiction is a good one. Yes, I know my book about a demon invasion of a magical world couldn’t actually happen. I’m reading it for fun, not to study the universe.

    Likewise, there’s points where you simply shouldn’t press skepticism. A funeral is not the time to contradict people’s beliefs about the afterlife, any more than it is to scream “He was scum and is gonna burn in hell!”

  12. In having to deal with relativist leaning humanities types, I’ve really had to explore the boundaries of my own scepticism. Most popular sceptics seem to have a practical commitment to reality, and most hold that our ideas and theories may correspond to reality. I’ve just listened to DJ Grothe’s last Point of Inquiry podcast again in which Paul Kurtz talks about one of his influences; the American Pragmatist, John Dewey. However, postmodernists see one of Dewey’s successors; Richard Rorty, as supporting their position.

    It’s easy for us to agree on the popular end of scepticism…lack of evidence for goulies, ghosties, gods and goddesses etc, but we also need to challenge our boundaries at the philosophical end. In a way, one thing that many ‘popular sceptics’ agree upon is that postmodernists are too philosophically sceptical. We support the view that at some level, science is not only good at making predictions, but also provides true theoretical explanations. Rorty claims that we can never know if our theories are a ‘mirror of nature’. I don’t agree, but I’m not sure where to draw the line. The philosophical boundaries of scepticism seem far from clear to me.

    In previous years I would have jumped at the chance to go to TAM London. Now I feel as if popular sceptics may just have their sights set on easy targets. It is important to keep fighting the good fight of course, but maybe these events also need to explore the harder philosophical questions too?

  13. I would consider it the default position – just as atheism. Huh, that rhymes!

    Seriously: everybody uses it, but sadly not all of the time. One can asssume (substitute: believe) no car is approaching before stepping off the curb; but most of the (still living) people do look.

  14. 1. Testing truth claims against reality
    2, 3, 4. None, everything, and nothing (by definition)

    There seems to be a consensus here that ‘reality’ is the ultimate arbiter of truth; and that I think is the principal point of divergence between skeptics and non-skeptics.

  15. What is skepticism?

    Skepticism is the hard-won insight that quite a lot of people are full of poo quite a lot of the time.

    What are the boundaries of skepticism?

    Any reasonable barrier will do, as long as it allows me to say “You’re full of poo!” and get away before you can wring my neck.

    What topics do we need to be skeptical about?

    Anything that can be framed in terms of poo. For instance, “What the poo do you think you’re saying about X?”

    What is outside of the realm of skepticism?

    Theoretically, nothing. Practically, it depends on what’s most likely to get the poo beaten out of me.

  16. i’ve been thinking about these questions a lot lately on my own, actually. i’ve only gotten into skepticism as a movement fairly recently, but i’ve been skeptical my entire life– it’s just part of my personality not to take things on face value. however, recently i’ve started to even be skeptical of my own skepticism in some cases. is it possible for skepticism to become a dogma? if my knee-jerk reaction is to not believe something that a perfectly reasonable person (even a fellow skeptic) is telling me without hard evidence, have i taken it too far? i’m never mean about it, i just require “proof” before i’m willing to buy into what i’m hearing.

  17. Skepticism is leaving everything an open-ended question. We have a current anser, but it is always subject to revision based on new evidence.

    Skepticism ends where a personal value judgement begins. Its when these personal value judgements creep out into the public at large that they can be targets of skepticism.

    We need to be skeptical about everything. Never accept things on face value alone.

    To sum it up, most politics is outside the realm of skepticism. Because if its a question with an answer you can get scientificly, then there should be no politics about it. If its a value judgement of a mass scale, which do you value more, Ideal A v. Ideal B, and the more you have of one, the less you can have of the other, then that is outside of skpeticism. If I can have more colby cheese, at the loss of monterey jack, that is a question that only I can decide. If we as a group are ok with losing some monterey jack for more colby, that is politics.

  18. Yes, I agree Kai. Whilst we can be sceptical on a philosophical level about the (big T) Truth, on a practical level we each acknowledge the (small t) truth when we choose not to step out in front of a moving car.

    It seems to me that postmodernists become inconsistent when they say all forms of T/t ruth are relative. If Truth is relative then how can you know it is and if truth is relative then go ahead, step in front of the car.

    Nevertheless, the question remains, how do we know when a scientific theory is a ‘mirror or nature’ and when is it just a good predictor. Do we identify causations, or just correlations? At one end of the scale you have Newton’s predictions concerning moving cars and body parts, and at the other you have string theory.

    How sceptical should we be about string theory? Do we put too much faith in our own intellectual abilities to be able to explain as well as predict such difficult observations?

  19. My personal take on what it means to be a skeptic is that I am devoted to critical thinking and I am especially concerned with combatting non-rational beliefs that cause real harm, such as creationism, altmed, or threatening children with hellfire (which crosses over into secular humanism, but this is just my own personal take on what skepticism means to me, not necessarily a prescription for a standard definition). I believe that skeptics should avoid discussing atheism and should be tolerant of faith-based beliefs, such as someone’s belief that they can have a personal relationship with God, unless those beliefs are causing harm in some way. Of course, this is a decision that each individual group must make for itself, but I fear that too much emphasis on religious unbelief will hinder the growth of the movement and turn people off to the skeptical message as a whole.

  20. @GeoTraveller:
    I am not convinced one needs to distinguish between big Truth and small truth or theories with different levels of corroboration – when it comes to skepticism.

    Once a topic interests me, it is the only viable approach to look closely. In any way, I can not be sure of causation. Being a good predictor is the best a theory can do for me. Despite the raving success of Newton’s and Einstein’s theories we don’t know how masses attract each other – but we can predict the resulting forces and motions.

    We should be skeptical of string theory, without a qualifier: Terms like “very skeptical” are only language constructs that imply that the theory still has a lot of limitations or weak points. We shave to be just as skeptical about the theory of relativity, should new evidence poke holes into is explanatory power.

  21. Kai,

    Spoken like a true American Pragmatist :)

    But go on, be honest isn’t your gut instinct to ‘believe’ there is some greater correspondence between scientific theory and reality?

    Just being dipping into philosophy of science: realism, instrumentalism, constructive empiricism, pragmatism etc

    This is the side of skepticism which interests me more these days. I’m bored with god bashing. It’s too easy a target.

  22. This may be a bit off topic or pedantic, but:

    I typed about five big long replies to this question and deleted every one of them. Every time I would write something that summed up how I felt, I would then realize that I disagreed if I replaced “skepticism” with “critical thought”. I think there are no boundaries to careful, critical thought – nothing off limits – but I do think that skepticism is meaningless in some fields. Art, meaning, opinions – these are all based in subjectivity. Unlike science, creative endeavors don’t necessarily have an objective third party (i.e., the natural world) to gather evidence from. I could be skeptical as to the value of Jackson Pollock’s paintings, but that doesn’t mean a damn to anybody else’s experience. I don’t know, I suppose I think skepticism (in the sense of evaluating the truth or worthiness of an idea based on evidence) is only useful when the event or idea transcends or is indifferent a single person’s experience.

  23. @GeoTraveller:

    GeoTraveller,

    Agreed, god bashing is easy to do – no wait: religion bashing is easy, god evades! (OK, my lame joke of the day.)

    I have to admit that I tried to understand all the philosophical concepts, but fail to remember which is what. I know there are better and worse approaches, but all have their problems. In the end I decided to assume that there is an objective reality, and that science gives me a good handle to grasp it. Note my careful phrasing: It’s an assumption, and I am willing to re-evaluate if shown that philosophy can help me to understand, say, the Copenhagen interpretation. Or string theory.

    There it is again – pragmatism. I have an idea that it is closely related to my default position, but that needs thought.

    As to “believe”: sure, I attribute high significance to the power of scientific theories. Yet I am aware that they only give a projection into the plane of my comprehension, and I can’t even estimate which depth of reality is lost.

    OK, or am I missing your point?

  24. When I saw this post I thought, “great questions.” The first question, of course, is a question that all of us have been confronted with, either by ourselves or by others, at some time or another. Then why are there only a couple dozen responses? I think because the last three questions force us to think about skepticism a little bit differently. It forces us to be specific.

    My answer to these questions? I am still trying to come up with serious answers. I DO think that our collective answers will reveal us to be a divergent group , but with common bonds. This is a good thing. Diversity is a great thing.

    Karen, please ask this question again at a later time. Perhaps many of us are trying to still formulate our answers. I think that it will be very interesting when we have more voices added to the already interesting answers posted so far.

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