I was recently prompted to think again about the meaning of ‘scientific’ skepticism after reading Daniel Loxton’s recent article about skepticism and atheism (also see fellow SINner Russell Blackford’s discussion). I have a slight confession to make – although I’ve been a fan of the work of skeptics, and have read books and articles on the subject, I still don’t really understand exactly what we’re talking about when we talk about ‘skepticism’.
It should be noted that I’m not talking about the ‘skepticism’ spoken about by philosophers – the view that knowledge of the world (or of anything at all) is impossible. I’m talking about the skepticism of James Randi and Carl Sagan. There’s a crucial difference between these concepts: classical skepticism concerns ourselves – we lack the capacity to (truly) perceive the outside world or to acquire real knowledge of things; scientific skepticism concerns the objects of our knowledge – e.g. it is the nature of claims about ESP and the lack of any scientific evidence for those claims that is the reason for the fact that we don’t believe them.
Shouldn’t that definition suffice? ‘Skepticism is that whatever isn’t supported by science shouldn’t be believed.’ No, since there are non-scientific beliefs that we hold rationally, such as moral ones. How about ‘Whatever should produce scientific evidence if it was true, but doesn’t, shouldn’t be believed’? That seems to be closer to what scientific skeptics talk about. But isn’t that just science? It seems to me that a definition of ‘skepticism’ mustn’t be a synonym for science, as the term would be redundant. Furthermore, intuitively, the set of all ‘skeptics’ seems to be different to the set of all scientists.
This is important for a discussion about the relationship between skepticism and atheism. If the skeptic says that their atheism isn’t related to their skepticism, then presumably the reason for this is that questions about the existence of gods are not scientifically testable. But nor is the existence of ghosts! On this point the skeptic usually says something like “I’m not saying that ghosts don’t exist. Show me the evidence!”, and they’d probably say the same about Thor. That’s fair enough.
So if skepticism doesn’t tell us which entities don’t exist, what is it, then? It isn’t the process by which we investigate the claims, since that’s just the scientific process. My failure to understand is rooted in the question about what skepticism adds to science to make it scientific skepticism rather than just scientific inquiry. For the record, these are not rhetorical questions. I’m sure there is an answer – skepticism really is something and that something seems distinct from science itself. Perhaps the answer involves magic, since magic is central to a lot of skeptical ‘inquiry’. Perhaps it is to do with the object of the inquiry – skeptics go after cold-readers while scientists don’t. Perhaps it is a moral position – we ought not promote claims for which there is no scientific evidence – going so far as actively protesting their promotion.
I’d love someone to set me straight in the comments. Once I agree on a definition, I can then judge whether atheism is outside the scope of skepticism or not. Until then, I reserve judgement!