Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Skepticism, belief revision, and science

In the comments of Massimo Pigliucci's blog post about the scope of skepticism (which I've already discussed here), Skepdude pointed to a couple of blog posts he had written on similar topics some time ago, about what atheists have in common and skepticism and atheism. He argues that skeptics must be atheists and cannot be agnostics or theists, a position I disagree with. In an attempt to get to the bottom of our disagreement after a few exchanges in comments on his blog, I wrote the following set of questions which I first answered myself, so we can see how his answers differ.

Do we have voluntary control over what we believe?

In general, no. The credence we place in various propositions--our belief or rejection of them--is largely out of our voluntary control and dependent upon our perceptual experiences, memories, other beliefs, and established habits and methods of belief formation and revision. We can indirectly cause our beliefs to change by engaging in actions which change our habits--seeking out contrary information, learning new methods like forms of mathematics and logic, scientific methods, reading books, listening to others, etc.

How does someone become a skeptic?

People aren't born as skeptics--they learn about skepticism and how it has been applied in various cases (only after learning a whole lot of other things that are necessary preconditions--like language and reasoning). If skepticism coheres with their other beliefs, established habits and methods of belief formation and revision, and/or they are persuaded by arguments in favor of it, either self-generated or from external sources, they accept it and, to some degree or another, apply it subsequently.

When someone becomes a skeptic, what happens to all of the other beliefs they already have?

They are initially retained, but may be revised and rejected as they are examined through the application of skeptical methods and other retained habits and methods of belief formation and revision. Levels of trust in some sources will likely be reduced, either within particular domains or in general, if they are discovered to be unreliable. It's probably not possible to start from a clean slate, as Descartes tried to do in his Meditations.

Is everything a skeptic believes something which is a conclusion reached by scientific methods?

No. Much of what we believe, we believe on the basis of testimony from other people who we trust, including our knowledge of our own names and date and place of birth, parts of our childhood history, the history of our communities and culture, and knowledge of places we haven't visited. We also have various beliefs that are not scientifically testable, such as that there is an external world that persists independently of our experience of it, that there are other minds having experiences, that certain experiences and outcomes are intrinsically or instrumentally valuable, that the future will continue to resemble the past in various predictable ways, etc. If you did believe that skeptics should only believe conclusions which are reached by scientific methods, that would be a belief that is not reached by scientific methods.


Russell Blackford said...

This is a nice li'l post, Jim. :)

It deals concisely (and I think persuasively) with difficult subjects.

Jim Lippard said...

Thanks, Russell!

Larry Moran at Sandwalk has linked to this post and referred to it as "controversial"--he quoted the last question and answer, so I guess it's my statement of epistemic dependence on others or my claim that there are non-scientifically testable assumptions that are preconditions for science that he takes issue with.

I'd say the latter is more controversial. It could be argued that the empirical success of those assumptions is evidence for their truth, but I don't think you can supplant philosophy with science with respect to issues like the problem of induction, the foundations of logic and mathematics, or the most general forms of skepticism (e.g., solipsism, idealism, Cartesian evil demons).

Brian said...

Hi Jim, a few questions about what appear to be Humean positions.

We also have various beliefs that are not scientifically testable, such as that there is an external world that persists independently of our experience of it,

If we draw an inference from some form of data that occurs say by regular (perhaps every nanosecond) monitoring by some device isn't that scientific? It's not certain and there are other explanations but if they explanation makes sense and is falsifiable....

... that the future will continue to resemble the past in various predictable ways, etc. If you did believe that skeptics should only believe conclusions which are reached by scientific methods, that would be a belief that is not reached by scientific methods. Perhaps you're defining scientific methods in a very narrow sense here because it is not a certainty or demonstration that leads us to hold the above but a good working hypothesis that hasn't yet been shown to be false. It certainly could be falsified. The next rock that tips off a cliff might not fall to Earth for example. Seems scientific, at the very least empirical in nature to me, all though perhaps not rationally defensible. Can you explain?

Russell, I'm a little surprised that you agree. I've seen you post many times that science is part of a continuum of rational thinking and not separated from it. Perhaps I'm misunderstanding what is being argued here.

Brian said...

I think I see the answers to my questions in your post to Russell Jim. You're not denying the empirical success of the assumptions just saying that it's a philosophical question?

What answer to the problem of induction does philosophy offer that science can't? I don't find cartesian evil demons are interesting because Descartes relied on a stock of knowledge about how the world would've been if there were an evil demon to get to his supposed 1st piece of knowledge (the cogito). Anyway, I think I understand what your point is now. Thanks. :)

Jim Lippard said...

I agree with John Searle (as expressed in the last 3 chapters of his _The Construction of Social Reality_) that external realism is a background condition of intelligibility, similar in character to normative standards of rationality. Asking for a proof of external realism is like asking for a proof of why you should be rational--to ask the question presupposes the answer.

Your question about observing data from an instrument presupposes external realism.

We could observe that the uniformity of nature ceases to be uniform, but the question here is whether past uniformity provides evidence for continued future uniformity. You seem to suggest that we should follow Popper and rely on falsifiability as our criterion of science and as a solution to the problem of induction, but I don't find his views satisfactory for a variety of reasons--he smuggles "a whiff of induction" back into the picture (as "verisimilitude"); I think we do have positive reasons to believe scientific claims on the basis of supporting evidence, not just the lack of falsification; scientists don't in practice spend most of their time trying to falsify each other's work; propositions can't be tested in isolation (Duhem's point); apparent falsifications are legitimately avoided by changes to auxiliary hypotheses (Lakatos's point), and so forth.

I haven't defined scientific methods at all, and I think I would define them rather broadly, and agree with the position you attribute to Russell that there is (at least some measure of) continuity between science and philosophy. I don't think there is a criterion of demarcation between science and non-science in the form of necessary and sufficient conditions--the boundaries are fuzzy and ambiguous, and are shifted in various contexts. Thomas Gieryn's classic 1983 paper, "Boundary-work and the demarcation of science from nonscience" has some good examples from 19th century scientist John Tyndall using different criteria for the boundary when distinguishing science from religion as when distinguishing science from engineering (or "mechanics")--in the former case emphasizing the usefulness of applications of science, in the latter case emphasizing theoretical science and knowledge for its own sake.

Jim Lippard said...

Brian: Correct, I'm not denying the empirical success or usefulness of the assumptions, I'm saying that they are not themselves claims that can be tested scientifically. There's at least a residue of non-naturalizable (in Quine's sense) philosophy...

If you look at the positions described under "Naturalized Epistemology" at the Stanford Encyclopedia of philosophy, I reject replacement naturalism, accept cooperative naturalism, and am favorably disposed towards substantive naturalism.

BTW, if I've just said anything that seems inconsistent, please jump on it--I'm just getting back into these issues after 15 years away from academia, and I've by no means got a completely worked-out worldview here. I studied the works of and took classes from (and took comp exams with) Alvin Goldman, John Pollock, and Keith Lehrer when I was at the Univ. of Arizona, all of whom are mentioned in that article as representatives of quite different views, and from time to time I found each of them more persuasive than the others.

Brian said...

Thanks Jim. I think I've got you now. I haven't read Searle and I'm too ignorant to be able to say if you've made any errors or not. I agree with you that Popper smuggles in induction somewhere.

Your question about observing data from an instrument presupposes external realism.

I think so, but it's not based on an infallible claim. All I meant was, given the I perceive what I call reality to be external, and given that I have this data, then can I not infer that the world is real even when I'm not looking? My point was that it's scientific or empiric in that it makes no claims to be irrefutable or certain but flows from constant observation either direct or indirect. It's a mitigated species of realism I suppose. That probably made no sense.

In any case, I'm not interested in claims to absolute certainty in the universe, that doesn't seem possible (that's a hypothesis based on evidence, not a self-refuting claim of certainty!) By the way is Searle's argument a species of Kantian "transcendental argument"?

Jim Lippard said...


I'm not sure I follow you. In the instrument case, it can give you evidence about persistence of objects in the world, but talk of an external instrument conducting measurement is already granting that there is an external world being measured for the persistence of objects in it. It doesn't get to the root of the realism/anti-realism argument.

You're correct that Searle's argument is a Kantian transcendental argument--assume that a certain condition holds, then see what is presupposed by that condition. He argues that the notion of "normal understanding" when we try to communicate presupposes external realism, because normal understanding requires sameness of understanding by speaker and hearer, which in turn requires that expressions refer to a publicly accessible reality. Public languages presuppose a public world. That doesn't, he notes, presuppose that any of the utterances *successfully* refer, only that they purport to do so. What he means by external realism doesn't entail anything about what that external reality is like or that we have any knowledge about its contents or character, merely that it exists independently of our representations of it. This formulation allows him to identify conceptual confusions in various arguments for anti-realism and social construction on non-social facts. The message of his book as a whole is that there are social facts that are true in virtue of our mental representations and social institutions, and those are distinct from what he calls "brute facts" that have no dependence upon human minds or institutions.

I was motivated to read it (and Ian Hacking's _The Social Construction of What?_, which I haven't started yet) to help myself identify conceptual confusions in the science and technology studies literature.

Brian said...

What he means by external realism doesn't entail anything about what that external reality is like or that we have any knowledge about its contents or character, merely that it exists independently of our representations of it I think this was the point I was floundering on. We can agree there is a real world out there, at least that it's the most plausible conclusion, but what it is, is another question I guess.

I'd better note the title of Searles Book, it sounds like my cup of tea. Have you read a book by Bruce Aune called Knowledge of the external world I just started it so far have found it a good read.

Jim Lippard said...

Brian: I'm not familiar with that book, but from the description on Amazon it sounds like it will get deep into this issue.

Brian said...

Found the book at Borders today. Hopefully it'll enlighten me. Thanks again Jim.

UNRR said...

This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 10/23/2009, at The Unreligious Right

Alpharabius said...


I remember asking you what you consider to be your primary identity and you answered: skeptic. I was surprised, but as time goes I realize now that I was a skeptic before I was an atheist.

In fact I would say I became a skeptic at least 5 years ago when I first argued with the local Imam on the apostasy punishment (death) and segregation of sexes. It was a slippery slope from skepticism to atheism, although I am not sure I can see and Atheist not being a skeptic.

With that said, I can see how not all atheists would be skeptics, but I would also argue they would all converge into the general locus of a collection of ideas. No skeptic would claim the man in the sky made the earth and everything in a fixed amount of time a few thousand years ago.

Jim Lippard said...

Alpharabius: "With that said, I can see how not all atheists would be skeptics, but I would also argue they would all converge into the general locus of a collection of ideas. No skeptic would claim the man in the sky made the earth and everything in a fixed amount of time a few thousand years ago."

I agree that there would likely be a lot of convergence--specifically, on the conclusions that are derivable from multiple lines of evidence by forms of science that are easily communicated to and understood by the layman. But once you get beyond that, there's a lot of possible sources of disagreement, including differing cultural and conceptual frameworks.

I agree with your last sentence, given what we know today, but that's different from saying that no skeptic would be a theist.

Skepdude said...


I actually agree with everything you say here, I just don't see how it rejects the arguments I have made in favor of my position, which I recently reiterated in a new entry, in the hopes of making my line of reasoning clearer.

I guess what it boils down to is your statement that not all our beliefs are subject to the scientific method which is of course true, but bear in mind that I don't see atheism as a "belief" in any sense of the word, but simply as lack of belief in a God; a lack of belief which rests upon the lack of what would be considered proper evidence in skeptical circles.

I view atheism not as a belief, but as taking a position based on the evidence provided. Thus I compare it to, and now I'm going to coin a few terms, a-bigfootism, a-unicornism, and a-FSMism. I just don't see the difference and don't see why god should be treated differently.

Jim Lippard said...


I'll check out your new entry.

The word "atheism" for most people means disbelief, not just lack of belief, which most people call "agnosticism" (and about twice as many people in the U.S. identify themselves as agnostics than identify themselves as atheists).

I suspect the main reason we don't see the additional terms you coined is because the believers in those things are all in the minority, so people don't need words to self-identify in opposition to them (though "skeptic" may be used in that regard). If most people were atheists, we probably would see that term used to self-identify about as much as "theist" is used today for self-identification (i.e., only in specialized contexts, like philosophy discussions).

Skepdude said...

What you say is true, nevertheless, many people think the word "skeptic" to mean a cynic, or someone who does not belive in anything, but we as skeptics do not accept that definition and fight against such misconceptions in the public square.

The point I want to make is that those popular understandings of what an atheist is are not correct and skeptics should not go the politically correct way and side with the misconceptions in an attempt to avoid the stigma that the word atheist, unfortunately, carries with it in our society. I think skepticism requires intellectual honesty and if we were to do that, we'd defend the best meaning of the word atheist, as one who lacks belief, and would embrace that label.

Unfortunately I see way too many skeptics, even "famous" ones do the opposite and hide behind the agnostic label, for PR reasons I suspect, and I don't agree with that.

Jim Lippard said...

I think "atheist" *does* mean disbelief, even among most atheists. The negative atheist/weak atheist position has been a relatively recent derivative, and it presents some difficulties, especially if you intend to infer anything from it. Agnostic means something like "I think it could go either way." They aren't equivalent positions.

A recent poll of the Gotham Skeptics asked for agreement or disagreement with the statement "Skepticism is equivalent to atheism."

Results: Strongly disagree: 44%, Disagree: 32%, Neutral: 12%, Agree: 12%, Strongly agree: 0%. That's 76% disagreement (mostly strong) vs. 12% agreement (none of which is strong).

Jim Lippard said...

Skepdude: BTW, you also seem to still be suggesting that skepticism leads to either atheism or agnosticism, but I don't think that's the case either--certainly not the case for scientific skepticism that's restricted to empirical claims. (And see Kylie Sturgess on deist skeptics.)

I've also been thinking further about Maverick Philosopher's point about lack of belief that I linked to in my prior comment--a lack of belief can't motivate either belief or action, so you should ask yourself what beliefs (or propositional attitudes, which include beliefs, desires, and intentions) are motivating your claims about skepticism and arguments for atheism. It's not the mere lack of belief in gods! Perhaps you hold a view something like "nobody should believe anything without empirical evidence"--in which case, what's the empirical evidence for that? It seems to me math and logic are perfectly good things to give credence to without empirical evidence, as are certain background beliefs like the ones previously mentioned here (e.g., external realism).

Skepdude said...


You keep going back to what the general understanding of these words IS. I'm not contesting what the current, popular misconception about the term is, I'm saying it's not the correct meaning. If you can argue that atheist=disbelief in God is a better definition than atheist=lack of belief in God then we've got a dialogue going on. You're pointing at what is, I'm pointing at what OUGHT to be.

Same goes for your Gotham Skeptics poll. It shows that skeptics hold the same misconceptions about atheism as the general public. That's it. And I know that, thus my entry, but this bit of data does not invalidate my argument. Again ponting out what people think now does not invalidate my argument aobut how they OUGHT to think about this issue.

I have read the maverick philosopher's entry that you link too, and I must say I don't find it very persuasive at all. Sure his bit about cabbages and tire irons is funny, but so what. I say show me a cabbage that can articulate the main ideas of the God Delusion and maybe he's right. On the other hand, I don't care if a cabbage would be considered atheist or not; that does not change what I think on the issue.

Is atheism a proposition? Not really; it's more of a statement that goes like " I do not believe in God". When people argue back and forth they argue the REASONS why one does/doesn't believe.

You do not debate only statements that have truth value, otherwise we'd not be debating ethics at all and 90% of philosophy would disappear overnight. Just because there is discussion does not mean that something that has a truth value is being discussed! I do not intend to dwell too long on the Maverick Philosopher's entry but it sounded to me like a word play and it seemed that he was making leaps of logic that were not warranted.

Bottom line is, you define a group of people by the common characteristic. Disbelief in God is not a characteristic that all atheists will attest too; certainty that there is no God isn't either; the one thing that all atheists will attest to is the lack of belief. That is the best commonaliy to use to define atheists, regardless of what the current meaning/popular misconception may be. Now I find this to be very clear and logical. Can you show me where I am going wrong in this line of reasoning?

Skepdude said...


I do not mantain that "nobody should believe anything without empirical evidence", I only maintain that for claims that have a truth value. For example, if one posits a God that meddles in our everyday business, if you credit him with miracles and such, that is a claim that has a truth value. Either God produced a miracle or he didn't. That is the way the major Gods of today are presented, and I think they are amenable to both the rules of logic and to scientifit inquiry.

Now, a deist on the other hand, may posit a God which eons ago set everything in motions, and then receded in some place that is beyond our capability to observe in any way. This God would not interfere with our daily lifes whatsoever and would be utterly undetectable. That God I do not think would be subject to the rules of scientific inquiry, although I must say to such people: What the hell is the point of even positing such a being?

Jim Lippard said...

Skepdude: Why do you think that only empirically testable claims have truth value? By that premise it was neither true nor false that the earth revolves around the sun at the time of Copernicus (and even as late as Galileo). Don't confuse epistemology with metaphysics--propositions have truth values even if we can't know what they are.

I'm making both points about the definition of atheism--as a descriptive matter of what the word means in ordinary usage, as well as giving reasons in favor of the ordinary usage. I also disagree with the notion that a label for an identity category must be defined by necessary and sufficient conditions rather than family resemblance to a prototypical instance--there need not be any single characteristic (or set of characteristics) that all atheists necessarily share, nor that all Christians share.

As for the point of a deist conception of God--it provides an explanatory framework that you can draw further inferences from; obviously some people find that pragmatically useful in a number of ways. Lack of belief in God doesn't state a position, and can't drive inferences or action (though lack of belief combined with some meta-belief about that lack of belief can do so).

Skepdude said...

Good point, I should have been clear to say that I mean empirically testable claims. My point is that God as posited today by the major religions is empirically testable, unlike the deist god I posited in my previous comment. If he is empirically testable he then falls within the realm of claims skepticism can handle. The lack of evidence in favor of the god hypothesis must lead a skeptic to, at the very least, lack belief in such entity, which should make them atheists (if we were to agree that my definition of atheist is the best)

Now on to your second paragraph, yes probably there needen't be any such characteristic that members of an identity group should share, but there is in the case of atheism and ignoring it in favor of other resemblances seems unwarranted.

Your last paragraph I agree with. I know some folks get some meaning out of a deist god like that. I don't, I find it a futile exercise but hey, what the hell, that don't bother me too much. And yes, atheism itself cannot and should not drive action, not anymore than my lack of belief in fairies drives action on my part. What drives the action on the atheist's part is really the actions of the religious folks such as state-church separation violations, discrimination in the name of religion etc etc. At that point our lack of belief, our atheism, combined with our moral/ethical values prompts us to act.

Jim Lippard said...

*Some claims* about the gods of the major religions are empirically testable, and those claims have commonly been discussed in skeptical magazines--young-earth creationism, flood geology, Bible codes, faith healing, efficacy of prayer, and so forth. It's not entirely clear that *existence claims* about such gods are empirically testable, though I agree with you that at least some of the claimed characteristics entail empirical consequences that are therefore testable. I think you do need to do some philosophy along with science to make arguments against such gods, and I do agree with you that such arguments can be successfully made.

But where I disagree is that I don't think someone who disagrees, and who thinks that such a God exists, is necessarily not a skeptic as a result.

Skepdude said...

Well I hope I did not make such a strong a statement before. No, I can't say someone is not a skeptic if they are not atheists. I think skepticism, properly applied in the case of god should lead to atheism. Now, being that no one is perfect I can see why real skeptics can take a different, albeit wrong, position.

I am solely saying that they've either gone wrong somewhere in their skeptical analysis of this issue, or they have some evidence that they think warrants this position (which I still think most likely means they're doing something wrong again, but that's my bias showing, lol). My purpose is to challenge them to reassess their position and see if it holds up. We'll see if that goes anywhere.

And definitely yes without some philosophy you cannot win these arguments. One only needs to listen to whatever-his-first-name Craig is debate to know that pure science will get you nowhere with him. Philosophy is important of course, but I think as far as skeptics are concerned this should be a nonissue just as aunicornism, or aFSMism is.

sensit said...

You may find interesting another review on Construction of Social Reality by John Searle