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Posted by on Apr 19, 2013 in Religion, Skepticism | 8 comments

Skepticism about gods and ghosts

In the lead-up to TAM, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the relationships between the concepts of atheism, scientific skepticism (and other forms or ideas of skepticism), naturalism of various kinds, and denialism. I expect that my talk will touch on at least some of this stuff, though I won’t be there to shove atheism down the throats of people who may be religious believers. Hopefully I can say something a bit more interesting and useful than that.

But I’ve become interested in the philosophy that underlies scientific skepticism, if there is one. If there is one, does it also entail atheism, or at least skepticism about religion? If not, why not? From what vantage point can you be sceptical about the sorts of things that scientific skeptics tend to focus on while not being skeptical about some religion that you favour? How do reconcile the two? I get that some people interpret their religions in non-literal ways, but what if you really do buy into your religion’s supernatural claims?

I also get that you could be an atheist without being a scientific skeptic – as I said a few posts back, there could be various paths into atheism. But I still think there is some mystery about how it can go the other way, how you can be a scientific skeptic without also being skeptical about religion, at least if you think it right through. I say “some” mystery, because I can make up narratives as to how someone can be skeptical about various claims about ghosts, quack cures, paranormal perceptual abilities, etc., without embracing an overall metaphysical position that entails atheism. But surely many of us are skeptical about these things precisely because they are difficult to reconcile with the scientific picture of the world. But if that is our motivation, why are we not skeptical about other claims that are difficult to reconcile with the scientific picture of the world, such as claims about the existence of immaterial, supernatural beings like the Abrahamic God?

I have some ideas, as explored in previous posts. I do think there are paths by which you could come to such a position, and I’m not suggesting that people who’ve come to such a position via one of those paths should be made unwelcome in the scientific skeptic movement. On the other hand, I find any such position intellectually unsatisfactory.

But rather than worry away further at that, I’d be interested to hear more from others, especially people who are skeptical about the existence of ghosts, the efficacy of homeopathy, the operation of astral influences or anomalous perceptual capacities, etc., but not about the existence of the Abrahamic God. What distinction are you making? I’d also be interested to hear from anyone who thinks the other way – i.e., an atheist who believes in, say, ghosts or psi. I’m not even looking to have an argument (and certainly not a flame war). I’d be genuinely interested to hear how people with these combinations of views reconcile their positions, or what deeper starting point they might have that leads them to their views.

  • Looks like my comments had some effect. 🙂 I’ll also be interested to read any examples.

    One possible reason given could be that the Abrahamic God is usually thought to be (and often defined as) tri-omni, unlike the usual conception of ghosts. So an omnipotent omniscient god could change reality to alter any empirical result suggesting its nonexistence. Good counterarguments to that include Yahweh/Elohim not being tri-omni in the earliest records, a hidden god being contradictory to God’s desires and nature as usually described in Abrahamic texts, tri-omni-ness itself being internally inconsistent, the fact such a hidden god would still merely be possible and not actually supported by any evidence, the fact an omnipotent omniscient god could also trick us about anything else such as ghosts’ existence, and the fact since ghosts’ powers aren’t empirically established why couldn’t they be omnipotent and omniscient too?

    I could also see someone accepting God instead of ghosts or ghosts instead of God purely because they doubt the reported encounters supporting one but not the other, while not following or not caring about the broader empirical reasons science makes both claims unlikely. This would match your previous distinction between atheist and scientific skeptic arguments, though ironically I would consider it unscientific and unskeptical.

  • RussellBlackford

    Well, I’ve enjoyed the conversation we’ve been having… but it’s not as if you had to convince me to adopt an anti-accommodationist view on the science/religion issue. I’ve been arguing that position for many years now – – and I think you’re going to enjoy 50 GREAT MYTHS ABOUT ATHEISM. But how the scientific skeptic movement might legitimately and usefully define itself is not quite the same thing.

  • Markuze strikes again.

  • It’s best not to respond to him. I’ll catch up with his comments. His modus operandi isn’t difficult to recognise.

  • Good.

  • Thanny

    I’ve started typing comments on all of these posts, but gave up because every point I thought of making had a counterexample. This is a deceptively complex topic.

    I do, however, think I finally have a point I can stand behind, which is this: Human brains are immensely complex machines capable of holding beliefs that are utterly incompatible with each other in their foundations. No one is immune to being stupid about something, no matter how reasonable he or she is about the rest of the world.

    A good example is Bill Maher, who is a reliable ally in the fight against religious hegemony in our culture. He believes ridiculous things about food and medicine. But that’s no reason to turn up our nose at his support on the religion front.

    The same is true of religious people in the skeptic movement. It’s beyond question that their religious beliefs are wholly unreasonable (as all religious beliefs are), but they may be staunch allies against nonsense like homeopathy, healing magnets, psychic readings, etc. – scams that do real harm to real people in very specific ways. We shouldn’t go out of our way to alienate these partial allies when focusing on those specific problems.

    It’s not that we should let them claim their beliefs are reasonable – just don’t pick a fight.

    I think that’s my real position – no beliefs are exempt from criticism, but it’s a target-rich environment out there. There’s plenty of room for different associations to set their sights on specific subsets of irrationality. It’s counterproductive overall to wrench the barrel back towards specific members of the group in question who fail one litmus test or another.

  • lol, Markuse causes trouble again – the above was posted accidentally, and for some reason it is not deleting. Moving along! 🙂

  • Luke Vogel

    It’s a good idea to revisit this discourse. It appears to me that over that past six years or so there’s been a disconnect between what and where demarcations should be applied. My targets have been mainly on what is being claimed with regards to science’s involvement in supernaturalism. However, at times my aim turns on those that without explanation seemed to abandon a relevant position while maintaining the overarching subject is still a purvey of scientific skepticism.

    Here I’ll focus briefly on Massimo Pigliucci since trying to tackle claims by those who would normally visit your blog has backfired with momentous force. While I largely agree with Massimo in the debates regarding science and supernaturalim, he placed an unfortunate chasm in the area of religious beliefs that he once argued openly for and then suddenly shifted to a position of only a relegated aspect of scientific skepticism should be applied to religious claims.

    Let’s take Massimo’s essay in Skeptic magazine from 1998 [Vol. 6 No. 2], titled “The Case Against God” as an example of his rather nuanced switch in position on where a demarcation should be applied. In his essay he makes very good arguments for his case. If one cares to read that essay (it is found for free online) it’s easy to see he was arguing not only as someone that is part of the skeptical movement, but it can be seen in many ways as containing arguments reminiscent of what we are told to believe is a “new” atheism. I agree with most of Massimo’s essay, I do think there are over statements. However, the point is Massimo will now argue this line of reasoning contained within skepticism should be largely abandoned while at the same time maintaining skepticism must be applied to religious claims.

    Above is an area where we are dealing with a “division of labor” with regards to scientific and philosophical skepticism. This is a fairly tricky area and one that has been discussed at length in various arenas. Skeptical Inquirer magazine at one time started to publish special “Science and Religion” issues. In one such issue, “Science & Religion – Conflict or Conciliation” [July/August 1999 – also free online] the issue of “division of labor” is outlined by those long standing in the movement, such as Paul Kurtz (the founder of that flagship publication) and relative newcomers at the time, such as Steve Novella. In my opinion one must get to the final last half of Paul Kurtz’s piece to see why his is a rational approach for the Center of Inquiry. What he is not arguing is that skepticism as a whole should in any way abandon religious claims, regardless of their reach. This is argued in no uncertain terms, saying it would irresponsible to do such a thing. However, Paul’s piece must be read with caution, for it is not an argument of a singular demarcation, but defining that demarcation and explaining why one may exist in a certain forum – such as why certain magazines under the CFI umbrella would be wise to maintain certain focus.

    Taking this argument further – CFI used to publish other journals, one of my favorites being “Philo”, another includes “The Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice”. Both seemed to allow for both philosophical and scientific skepticism, but how far involved would a journal such as TSRoMHP go into philosophical skepticism and how far would Philo go into scientific skepticism? I must add that there were aspects I simply could not agree with Paul on – and it is here I’ll raise the next point.

    As in the above issue of Skeptic magazine I mention – Skeptic was already closing the gap on what a skeptical approach may look like. In 1997, Skeptic published “The God Question” issue. As in the other issues dealing with god and religious claims, this one also hold areas commonly regarded as firmly within scientific skepticism. Expanding on this approach, Michael Shermer has maintained that all these questions can be seen within a scientific realm. In other words, a philosophical skepticism is compatible with scientific skepticism as long as the philosophy is entwined with scientific knowledge. Hence, there is no real “division of labor”, only approaches with common underpinnings dealing with issues of importance. This is also shown in Shermer’s book, “The Believing Brain”, whose subtitle includes “From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies”. I whole heartily support Shermer’s efforts in this regard. However, I find him lacking when arguing and advocating areas clearly more towards philosophy, but maintaining he is coming from a scientific position. I understand Michael wants to approach certain questions scientifically, but appears to have a small blind spot to not notice when he is making philosophical arguments. Paradoxically with regards the above points, it has been Massimo who has pointed this blind spot out with great ease and insight.

    With just these few examples it’s clear to me that the issues of “division of labor” and where demarcations are made is long standing, going back further than I have shown above. There are many others – including Loxton’s recent posting which I found boring, I tend to read his position as more of a personal preference and should be cautiously considered. It seems to me that personal preference tends to steer the dialogue, especially at a time where people are speaking quite loudly from platforms primarily serving their pleasure. The unfortunate aspect to recent debates is that “division of labor” could be re-definable. Thus clouding what and where demarcations are appropriately applied. The most obvious example for me is the ideas offered on science and the supernatural. I absolutely hold that skepticism must allow for even the “god question” and religious claims in general. However, what I claim about science I can not do in a vacuum. Even though what I allow for includes such things as ghost, esp, homeopathy and religion, it is another thing to say science is now studying supernaturalism. By doing such I would only be confusing philosophical skepticism with scientific skepticism and what are “claims of supernatural events”, “claims of paranormal experience” and so on.