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Posted by on Apr 14, 2013 in Culture, Debate, Religion, Science, Skepticism | 3 comments

Daniel Loxton on skepticism and atheism (2)

Yesterday I wrote a post in which I explicitly announced a change of mind. I defended a relatively narrow remit for the scientific skeptic movement, that remit being the (suspicious, critical, etc.) investigation of claims that are both 1. anomalous within the picture of the world that has been pieced together by science in recent centuries and decades, and 2. open to relatively straightforward empirical investigation. I think that this reflects the broad concept of what they think they are doing held by many leaders in the movement, captures the core of what goes on within the movement as it currently exists, and is consistent with the movement’s history and heritage.

Unfortunately, it leaves a degree of fuzziness. How do we define the scientific picture of the world – for example does it include the robust findings of textual scholars, historians, and so on? Does it include not-so-robust findings from disciplines that may be at an early stage of development, or heavily politicised, or plagued by factors that make it difficult to conduct decisive experiments and observations (leaving the data open to many interpretations)? Some claims from these disciplines may actually merit skeptical scrutiny rather than acceptance as part of the scientific picture. While the central meaning of the scientific picture of the world may be clear enough, then, the full extent of it may be open to much legitimate controversy.

What do we mean by “anomalous”? How directly does some claim have to clash with specific scientific findings before we see it as anomalous? In some cases, surely, the seeming inconsistency will be apparent only through rather indirect reasoning, perhaps taken together with considerations that arguably fall outside science.

And this also relates to how straightforward is “straightforward”? While it might be possible, in some cases, simply to replicate an experiment and see what happens, other cases may involve circumstantial evidence that is open to different interpretations. This is also true of science itself (we should not work with a simplistic picture of how science advances).

I’m not saying these things to be harsh about my own definition. In fact, I think it’s as good as any. The point is that there is almost inevitably some fuzziness about what matters fall within the remit of any intellectual and cultural movement. We may be able to come up with a definition that shows why certain things are central to a movement’s concerns, while some other things fall into a grey area where the movement has some (perhaps contestable) interest in them… while still others are of no interest to it at all. But what we probably won’t be able to do is draw a sharp line within the grey area.

When we are examining human enterprises, definitions are mostly ways of giving an indication of what is involved. They offer a concept of it, but the concept will be blurry. That should not be surprising to anyone who has studied fields such as law or philosophy, where it is all important to consider, well, the concept of concepts, and to understand that concepts often take us only so far in drawing lines. In the law, for example, judges and juries have to make somewhat arbitrary findings of what conduct is “reasonable” or “proportional” for purposes such as the law of negligence or that of self-defence. Indeed, this kind of conceptual fuzziness is more the rule than the exception.

Given all this, I don’t think it’s surprising that there are differences of opinion within the scientific skeptic movement as to just what is “in” and what is “out” as a matter of interest to the movement. Some things may be pretty clearly “in”, such as the merits of (supposed) evidence for homeopathy or astrology. Many may clearly be out. For practical reasons, perhaps the movement should be focused around investigation of those claims that are pretty clearly “in”. As I mentioned yesterday, even this will involve a vast range of topics. Some will be of great social importance. Some might simply be fun – and there’s nothing wrong with that. But the kind of definition I have offered shows why they cohere.

In the circumstances, I don’t think that atheism should be considered central to the scientific skeptic movement. Being an atheist should not be a shibboleth for being a valued contributor to the movement, though surely at least some (perhaps many) specific religious positions are incompatible with the central purposes of scientific scepticism. In any event, there may be good pragmatic/historical reasons for keeping skepticism about religion out of a central place in the activities of an organisation such as the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry or the James Randi Educational Foundation. To that extent, I am on board with Daniel Loxton.

But is there no overlap at all between the concerns of scientific skeptics and people who are skeptical about the claims of religion? Surely that would be going too far. Unless you buy into some simplistic accommodationist position, there is a live issue as to how far religion of various kinds is compatible with the scientific picture of the world. Bluntly, anti-accommodationists (like me) deny that compatibility. From our viewpoint, therefore, scientifically-informed skeptical investigation of religion is at least likely to fall within a grey area for the scientific skeptic movement. It should not be central, I agree – this is partly for historical reasons and partly for reasons to do with the indirectness or non-straightforwardness of the arguments put by anti-accommodationists. Furthermore, we can agree that the availability of various accommodationist positions – even if these positions are false, they might have some kind of legitimacy as philosophically reasonable positions to hold – might enable some people to adopt some kind of religion while also being skeptical about  the sort of phenomena that scientific skepticism is most centrally concerned with.

But unless the argument about accommodationism can be solved decisively in favour of the accommodationists, I see no way of driving skeptical investigation of the claims of religion out of the culture of scientific skepticism completely. It will continue to creep back in around the edges. As long as some scientific skeptics are also anti-accommodationists, they will think it legitimate to investigate systems of religious belief. Furthermore, I see no prospect of using an accommodationist position on the religion/science controversy as a shibboleth for participation in the scientific skeptic movement. The most that can reasonably be asked from anti-accommodationists is an acknowledgment that our position is not compulsory within the scientific skeptic movement, and that the movement’s real focus is elsewhere. A fair bit might flow from that, though, as to how far we press anti-accommodationism within the scientific skeptic movement, rather than elsewhere, and the tone we take if we do discuss it there in some limited way.

In this post, I’ve introduced a very broad consideration – the existence and legitimacy (and, in my view, correctness) of an anti-accommodationist position on the religion/science issue. There is a lot more to say that is specifically responsive to Loxton’s own arguments. So we’ll at least need to go to a part 3. In particular, I want to home in on my concerns about someone describing his atheism as “my personal non-scientific theological beliefs”. More later today… or it might, alas, slip into tomorrow.

  • Patrick

    The essence of scientific skepticism is that claims should be supported by objective, empirical evidence. Theists make claims that lack such support. Those claims are therefore properly within the remit of scientific skepticism.

    There may be many reasons, including but not limited to being a skeptic, for one to be an atheist. There is no justification, however, for a scientific skeptic to be a theist.

  • I don’t see religious claims as being less “1. anomalous within the picture of the world that has been pieced
    together by science in recent centuries and decades, and 2. open to
    relatively straightforward empirical investigation” than e.g. ghosts or psychic powers are. What’s more anomalous within the empirical scientific world than an immaterial creative intelligence with superhuman powers? Or that believing a fact can make your immaterial self transfer to a different plane of existence after your body dies than it would have otherwise? These are just ludicrous as far as empirical science goes, as the latter suggests minds require physical bodies to exist, ‘afterlife’ planes of existence don’t exist, that all of these beliefs can be traced historically and culturally from earlier varients that lack a foundation in reality, etc..

    I remain to be convinced the real reasons some people wish to exclude religion from “standard skepticism” are your unelaborated historical and practical reasons. I assume these are “we’ve historically only examined only some religious claims, not the whole thing or core ideas” and “we don’t want to alienate self-described skeptics who are religious, because there are more of them than there are self-described skeptics who believe in ghosts or psychic powers.” One of those reasons is lazy and the other is patronizing.

  • RussellBlackford

    Thanks for both of these comments. Note for all reading this that we are now having a good discussion of the issues in the thread attached to Part 3.