Afternoon Inquisition

AI: The Limits of Language

Each Wednesday’s Afternoon Inquisition is presented by the previous winner of the Comment o’ the Week. Today’s question comes courtesy of SKrap, who writes:

We often talk about Skeptic vs. Believer (leaving aside that we might occasionally precede the terms with awful words like “smackdown.”)
This strikes me as a false comparison. Skepticism is a method, a path if you with to be more mystically about it. Belief is an outcome, a destination. Skepticism, properly applied can lead to belief or [word#1.] Alternately, you can reach an outcome by applying Skepticism or [word#2]. And that’s the problem. We’re missing words. Unbelief isn’t right, as it only states the negative. Similarly, faith is an okay word#2, but it certainly isn’t the only other thing that can fit.

What are the missing words (concepts?) Why are we missing the core vocabulary to talk about what we are, much less what we do?

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear daily at 3pm ET.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

Related Articles


  1. What are the missing words (concepts?)

    #1 = Understanding

    #2 = Critical thinking

    Why are we missing the core vocabulary to talk about what we are, much less what we do?

    We’re not.

    Skepticism is what we do. Thinking critically is what we do.

    And we are any variety of things, all of which have words to describe them.

    The word “skeptic” is simply a convenient term to describe us when we are in this mode. It does well enough to describe us while we’re buzzing around this hive or another skeptical hive, but it’s no more helpful outside of these confines than the word “driver” is for a person who is not behind the wheel of a car.

  2. I think we tend to get hung up on discrete definitions. Language, particularly English, is not so inflexible. “Faith” does mean “belief without proof” from a strict Judaeo-Christian understanding. But my Buddhist studies have lead me to understand other definitions.

    Faith can also mean something akin to “trust” or “confidence”. If you go to school, you have faith in your instructors. Granted, they typically have the credentials, but you take it on “faith” that the school has verified their credentials, and you don’t go marching into their office demanding to see their diploma. You have faith in the scientific method. A method that by its own admission is imperfect, but has proven to give results.

    It’s not that we lack the vocabulary, but rather that we’re deliberately limiting it.

    It’s been said that atheists don’t have beliefs. That’s not true. Everyone has beliefs. We just define belief in different ways. I believe the sun will rise tomorrow. I believe there’s only one creamsicle left in the deepfreeze, unless my wife has eaten it since last night. I believe my coffee maker will turn itself off approximately an hour after I leave.

    There are plenty of words. We just limit ourselves to definitions that suit our position.

  3. @Peregrine: Well said.

    Skeptics do believe things.. in fact one of the first posts I read here at Skepchick was Sam’s This I Believe” post.

    But I understand what SKrap is getting at… the limitations are there, it is just up to us if we are going to use them or break them apart.

  4. I was once told a story about how artists make a sculpture of an elephant from marble. They start with a block of marble and simply take away everything that isn’t an elephant.

    I believe that “skeptic” describes an artist that starts with information instead of a block of marble. Their art is simply to take away everything that doesn’t match with reasoned thinking. Instead of an elephant, we end with a pretty good idea.

    Just as an artist uses a chisel, a skeptic uses critical thinking.

    My grandma doesn’t know the word skeptic, but she might just call the lot of us “prudent.”

  5. It annoys me to no end that people think because I am an atheist I have no faith (obviously comes up constantly because of my given name). I generally use peregrine’s alternate definitions, however, faith is usually defined as “without questioning” which is exactly the opposite from what I idealize.

  6. Word #1: probable conclusion backed by reason and empiricism

    I don’t believe the sun will rise tomorrow morning, that is just the most likely conclusion based on the available evidence and reason. Scientific knowledge is ultimately asymptotic.

    Word #2: not

    As in, “you can reach an outcome by applying Skepticism – or not.”

  7. I did a bad job of explaining this.

    Think of Skeptecism as a machine. It takes inputs (evidence) and produces outputs (acceptance or rejection, with acceptance being functionally equivalent to belief.)

    What is the alternative machine that you can apply that produces outputs like Bigfoot=True, Dilution=Enhancement, Water>>Gasoline, etc? What is the process into which you feed the same evidence and get different outputs?

    The other half of the question is what to call the negative output. I called it rejection above, and that’s not a horrible word, but it seems like we can do better.

  8. @SKrap:

    What is the process into which you feed the same evidence and get different outputs?

    In the case of the subjects we cover on this blog, it’s either ignorance, denial, or very poor evaluation skills.

  9. It can’t be answered any more succinctly that what Sam said.

    The problem with defining ourselves is that we are diverse. It’s also our strength. Over the last two years I have learned that I fit into this community even though I’m not an atheist or a strictly defined agnostic. Religion does not play the same role in our lives as religion plays in the lives of true believers.

    As Sam has suggested, we skeptics seek to understand the world that we live in through critical thinking. The rest is just bells and whistles to us … UNLESS there is a threat; we will fight against actions initiated by the true believers and the woo proponents if it threatens the health or well being of our community at large. We make these decisions based on how we understand the world through science, the scientific method and thinking critically.

    Often, magical thinking is just a harmless quirk of personality. It’s these “harmless” bells and whistles that sometimes mess up our “definitions.” These are not important.

    Threats are.

  10. Here is a question,
    Posted by SKrap
    That goes in your head,
    Not your mouth or lap.
    What in the world can we do
    Without Word 1 and Word 2?

    Word 1 is a Path
    not a destination
    It takes some time
    Much like gestation.
    Follow the Path
    But not to the Mountains Tajik
    Simply sit down and reason
    And use some LOGIC

    Word 2 is the same
    But very much different
    You follow the path
    To your true intent.
    No need to use terms
    All meteorological
    Just stand up with pride
    For you are LOGICAL

  11. word#1:
    irrationaldisbelief (one word is hard here)

    word 2:

    The alternative machine/process of which you seek does not exist.
    If it is to be machine like, or considered a process, it must have set, reliable, repeatable elements to it.
    Take a simple process, like a lighting circuit: when you flip a light switch, the bulb lights. If you perform that same input, you get the same output. There is nothing that will change the outcome assuming all parts of the process work as they should. Only when the brain is involved can you get a different outcome than a process would.

    This is the major reason science works. It truly is a process.

    The only thing that can take the same input and create a different outcome is the antithesis of a machine.

    Ok, I’ll give it a shot- maybe a compartmentalizer? How else do irrational thinkers hold firm against all the contradictions they believe?

    I hope that’s not too terribly pedantic…

  12. I’ve been thinking about similar issues of late and it seems to me that in many ways the skeptical movement is similar in many ways to the Enlightenment. So I like words such as ‘rational’ and ‘reason’ or even ‘inquiring’ to describe the core notions of the skeptical movement. If someone tells me skeptics are just jaded, closed, negative and argumentative I assert that being rational and reasonable and is anything but jaded and/or negative.

  13. WARNING: Long-winded rambling follows…

    I think the problem comes about in seeing it as a dichotomy. It’s probably more of a continuum. Everyone makes assumptions (or believes) all the time; it’s just the degree to which they do so that marks the difference. If you were to present a cross-section of the population with a set of true/false questions starting with “It is reasonable to assume…” you’d probably get a wide range of answers.

    For example I assume that, when I drop something, it falls. It’s a perfectly reasonable assumption but anyone who’s raised a child knows that this is not instinctive. Babies will test this property of matter over and over (often with their food). Eventually, they develop a mental shortcut/generalization/assumption that things fall. Exceptions are later added for things like helium balloons. The point, though, is that we use these mental shortcuts so that we don’t need to constantly test reality. The mind is a tangled mess of these rules and exceptions but it appears to work for us most of the time.

    The problem comes in when this mechanism is applied to things that aren’t true or aren’t consistent. It’s easier and more seductive to rely on generalizations than to test them, so often we just skip the testing part and take things for granted. Some people are better at breaking out of that mode and questioning their own assumptions.

    Neither extreme (taking everything at face value versus taking nothing at face value) is particularly useful. Everyone falls somewhere in between. It’s probably difficult to put labels on something that fluid. To complicate matters, it’s possible to be skeptical/questioning/critical about some subjects but naive/credulous/gullible/uncritical about others. You end up with a multidimensional continuum of critical thinking that defies any sort of labeling.

  14. Hello everyone, this is my first post. This is an interesting question, because there is a mathematical theory of belief put forward by Judea Pearl, based upon bayesian probability. I only understand the theory in a superficial way so I won’t be able to do justice to it here. Let me just say that there is some evidence that our brains do something like “Belief Propagation” as described by Pearl and others.

    In a hierarchical belief propagation network, every node receives evidence from nodes ‘below’ it, and hypotheses from nodes ‘above’ it. But all nodes simply output ‘belief’.

    A belief propagation network is stable when hypotheses are consistent with evidence at every layer and probably unstable otherwise. But if the beliefs from above are strong enough, they can cause evidence to be discounted or misinterpreted.

    Viewed this way, all ways of knowing boil down to beliefs. Skeptics are people whose beliefs are not rigid and therefor easily adapt to new evidence. As a result, our beliefs tend to be more consistent with the evidence provided by reality. But consider that everyone is prone to mistakes of belief. Most optical illusions are mistakes of belief, where in some way hypotheses made within our brains override our sensory input and we form the wrong belief for what we are seeing. Optical illusions and religious delusion may seem like very different phenomena, but it is possible that the theory of belief propagation networks may show that they are essentially the same kind of mistake.

  15. Love is totally inadequate.

    I need a word that describes how I feel about my wife.

    I need a word that describes how I feel about my children or my parents or chocolate or wine or sex or comic books or movies or science or science fiction or masturbation or boobies or freedom or running.

    All I have right now is love but it is totally inadquate to the job.

  16. If I’m understanding the question, word #1 would be rejection, or modification. I would use the sentence differently, though. Instead of the word belief I prefer the word acceptance. I accept the modern synthesis as the best explanation which incorporates all the evidence. If a better theory came along, which incorporated all the evidence as well as (some hypothetical other evidence not yet discovered which didn’t fit with the modern synthesis) I would accept that rather than dogmatically adhere to the modern synthesis. This might lead to my rejection, or modification of the former theory. That is the nature of critical, evidence based thinking. I don’t like the word “belief” or “believe” because of it’s uncritical connotations. These connotations are not necessarily inherent in the word itself, but have become associated with it due to cultural usage, ie. it’s interchangeability with the term “faith”
    With regard to word #2, I think that coming to a conclusion without applying skepticism (critical thinking), is not something to aspire to. I’m not even sure what concept you are searching for. Faith? Luck? Tarot? Sylvia Brown? No, thank you. I might, in a pinch, without any data or evidence to draw on, use “copious amounts of good booze” for your sentence with word #2, but only because it’s fun, and certainly not because I’ve found it to be an empirically successful method.

  17. “If you could say it in words there would be no reason to paint.” -Edward Hopper

    I myself am one of those people who uses the word “believer” to describe a person who participates in pseudoscience or religious activities, and I often use the word “skeptic” to refer to those who don’t. I find it to be an easy and effective way to express systems of understanding the world to a general audience.

    The vocabulary will most likely evolve as the discourse continues. Think about it, we have already added the words woo, skepchick and baconfluenza to our skep-vocab. What more do we really need? I think what is most important to remember is that we need to get our message across in an easy to understand way without coming off as elitist jerks. If we add words we need to choose words that will embiggin us all…

    … and until there are even more effective ways of communicating our ideas verbally… I shall paint.

  18. 1) The opposite of a belief is reason. That is to say that belief is only required to be sound. A reasoned argument must also be valid.

    2) The opposite of skepticism is either ‘needlessly picking fights’ or ‘being a dupe’.

    3) @Gabrielbrawley: I love your perpetual vocalness about your love for boobies.

  19. 1. Since belief is an emotional solution to a rational problem, I’d equate catharsis. An emotionally based release of tension leading to a state of satisfied relaxation in reaction to a problem solved.
    2. The most familiar word for solving problems is deduciton. Doyle’s faeries aside, it a word associated with investigating and finding truth and the mechanisms by which something happened.

  20. Skepticism, properly applied can lead to belief or [nonbelief] Alternately, you can reach an outcome by applying Skepticism or [faith].

    Now, I know people will tell me that faith is belief without evidence. But it is also a method by which people make up their minds.

    At the creation museum, someone engaged one of our fellows and in the subsequent discussion was asked: How do you know creation is true?

    Their reply was: How do you know evolution is true?

    Their assumption was that we were getting our conclusion using the same method- faith.

    Faith allows people to use unfounded premise “God created man and woman” to come to erroneous conclusion “homosexuality is unnatural.”

    Skepticism allows people to question premises such as that above and realize that it is without foundation and that any conclusion which requires it to exist must likewise be false.

  21. WRT word #2, I’d say the opposite of skepticism is credulism. The uncritical acceptance of any explanation that appears to cover all the facts, but without checking if it really does, because checking would be skeptical.

  22. It says what it needs to convey. What’s more, right now there’s no misunderstanding it or twisting its meaning into something completely different …

  23. Incredulism has a nice ring to it. If I don’t forget it in the next few minutes I’m going to start using it. It has the added bonus that I get to dub “believers” credulists.

    Thanks, exarch!

  24. I like the word incredulous. Just call me the incredulous hulk. :)

    I would say that skepticism, applied properly, can lead to either accepting or rejecting the null hypothesis, but that’s a bit of a mouthful.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to top button
%d bloggers like this: