I am a Rational Skeptic

Consider this blog post the definitive statement of my core beliefs.

I’ve gone through many superficial belief systems in my life, for better or worse. Many of the things I believe have changed over time, but looking back through my history and assessing what I believed and why I believed it, I can say with confidence that my core system has never changed, and is unlikely ever to do so.

I think that a person’s core beliefs are significant, and speak to the heart of what that person is all about. I believe they can be used to reliably predict their behavior and their responses.

My beliefs are not common in the society or communities in which I’ve lived. They are not unheard-of in my country, but they are certainly the struggling underdog in the culture war. They are also frequently misunderstood and misrepresented. Therefore, in order to save myself a lot of explaining and re-explaining, I will articulate them here, and in the event anyone is curious as to what they are (as happens from time to time), I will simply point them to this document.

I am a rational skeptic, and I’d like to unpackage exactly what that means.

The first word – rational – describes how I deal with information derived first-hand. It tells me, without anyone’s help, that if I’ve eaten my cake, I no longer have it.

Rational means “Based on or in accordance with reason” and this is probably the more weighty of the two words I use to describe myself. I hold reason as an absolute primary, meaning that it is the starting point from which all my derivative beliefs may be traced back to.

The concept of rationality has a lot of “sub-concepts” packaged in with it, and it important to clarify these concepts and articulate how they relate.

Reason is the primary concept associated with rationality. Reason is defined as “thinking, understanding, and forming judgments by a process of logic”. Logic is a methodology of thinking conducted according to strict principles of validity.

All of this rests on certain axiomatic truths. They were described by Objectivist philosopher Ayn Rand as follows:

1) Existence exists
2) Consciousness exists
3) A+A (The Law of Identity)

Without debating or deliberating those axioms (I will accept them until I have reason not to), it is important to understand the role of the Law of Identity in the process of reasoning. Logic is a process of non-contradictory identification. Logic, in its simplest form, takes the position “If this is true, then that must also be true”. The if/then statement is the simplest and most basic expression of logic.

The Law of Identity, which tells us that a contradiction cannot exist in reality, is something that must be accepted in order for logic to be accepted as useful. The usefulness of logic must be accepted in order for reason to to be accepted as a useful guide to knowledge. Reason must be accepted as a useful guide to knowledge in order for rationality to be accepted as a useful principle to live by. Thus, the Law of Identity justifies logic, reason, and rationality. To dispute the efficacy or utility of any of those concepts is to dispute the Law of Identity. Indeed, reason, logic, and rationality are themselves expressions and inescapable consequences of this law.

To put this simply – my commitment to reason is as absolute as the Law of Identity, and will remain so until and unless I discover that the Law of Identity is not absolute.

The second word – skeptic – describes how I deal with information I receive that is not derived first-hand.

Skeptic means “a person inclined to question or doubt all accepted opinions.”. In the context of my own belief system, it may best be described as the commitment to assign a degree of certainty to all propositions, whether positive or negative, in exact proportion to the available evidence supporting it. This approach is necessary because, while nature cannot speak untruths, people can, and they do, and they do it for more reasons than can be named. People may lie. People may lie to themselves and pass the falsehood to others with conviction. People may have been fooled by others. People may have been fooled by their own senses. People may report facts which were true at one time but are no longer true. People are naive at times. People are sometimes too slow to accept unhappy realities. There are as many reasons not to take propositions at face value as there are people on the earth.

It is therefore important to identify the most reliable method available to us for handling information we receive from others, which is typically presented in the form of a proposition.

A proposition is, in a philosophical context, a statement about reality. (An in-depth discussion into the various types of propositions is found here, but for the purposes of this essay I speak of propositions generically.) Propositions can be ordinary (“I spoke to your mother yesterday, she’s doing well”), abstract (“People have free will”), or extraordinary (“I can solve a Rubik’s cube faster than anyone on Earth”), but all of them purport to provide some information about reality.

To be skeptical of all propositions would be to question all propositions. Besides being exhausting, this would be irrational, as most propositions are easily validated using immediately available first-hand information. Examples of this are:

  • A guy at a Rush concert singing along to every song turns to you and says “I love this band!”
  • Your spouse wakes you up with kisses and says “I love you”
  • A cashier at a fast-food restaurant rings in your food and tells you the total (which is also reflected on the receipt).

These are the sorts of propositions we hear most often, and while it is always important to keeps one’s “reason-filter” turned on, the fact is that 90% of we hear justifiably passes through without a problem. To doggedly demand more evidence than is required to validate an ordinary proposition is neither rational nor practical.

However, for those times when we hear propositions that don’t immediately pass through that filter, the rational skeptic does all he or she can to see that what should pass through does, and what should not pass through does not.

  • An acquaintance says “I can help you lose 30 pounds in 3 months!”
  • A preacher says “Accept my religion or you will go to hell”
  • A politician says “I will uphold the will of the people!”
  • A teacher says “We evolved over millions of years.”
  • A lawyer says “My client is innocent!”
  • A friend says “You won’t believe what I heard about this other guy!”
  • A stranger says “Jesus loves you”

None of these propositions are ostensibly factual. All require a good degree of skepticism in order to sort out which are probably true, which are probably false, and which are entirely arbitrary. Some may require more information. Some may be unknowable. None should be accepted at face value.

At this point, I would like to clear up some common misconceptions.

– A Rational Skeptic does not need to witness or perceive something first-hand in order to believe it. Rather, Rational Skepticism demands that all propositions be validated using first-hand information.
– No two Rational Skeptics will believe exactly the same things. This does not invalidate rational skepticism. In fact, this is one of its strengths, and it a necessary aspect of rational skepticism.
– Atheism is not a necessary aspect of rational skepticism. Although I believe that most rational skeptics, if they dig deeply enough, will arrive at an atheistic worldview, so long as a person is considering all of the information they have available to them, and exercising their rational faculty as best as they know how, they are a rational skeptic.
– A belief does not need to be validated to the point of 100% certainty in order to be considered a rational belief. If the degree of certainty with regards to any proposition is scaled to the available evidence, and the amount of certainty is sufficient to meet the threshold of belief, then the amount of certainty is rational and the belief is rationally justified.

So as you can see, my self-identification as a rational skeptic is deliberate and calculated, so please don’t ever make the mistake of thinking it frivolous, or that it’s merely a smaller aspect of a larger belief system. It is the largest framework in which my mind and beliefs operate. Do not make the mistake of thinking I “believe in nothing” just because I don’t share your beliefs. Don’t confuse certain features of my belief system as being the belief system itself.

In closing, I am compelled to emphasize one final point. There is an almost ubiquitous tendency, particularly among theists, to identify my belief system by reference to the same linchpin on which their beliefs hinge – specifically the question of whether or not someone believes in a god or gods. Thusly, they tend to identify all those who hold no such belief, regardless of what their actual belief system is or whether or not they even have one to begin with, as merely “atheists”. I find it patently absurd that anyone would hold up a one particular position – a derivative position that is a consequence of my belief system rather than a feature of it – as being the prime motive from which all of my other beliefs stem. But it happens all the time, and it’s worth addressing here.

I am not an atheist at the core. Atheism is a default position, and it is a feature of my belief set, not of my belief system. While it would be true to say that I do not believe in a god or gods, it would not be true to say that I have a positive belief that no god exists. My position is that the concept is undefined and every proposition I’ve heard about any god thus far has been arbitrary, and therefore dismissed as all arbitrary concepts ought to be.

But as a rational skeptic, I am committed to examining evidence for all propositions, and if presented with compelling evidence that a god or gods exist, I would change my position. I would be a theist. I would have to be, because at that point rejecting the proposition would mean rejecting rational skepticism, which is what I am first and foremost.

The rejection of arbitrary claims about an undefined god is no more relevant to my belief system than rejecting unsupported claims of alchemy, astrology, water divining, or the Kennedy assassination. Therefore if you’ve read this and you understand it, please do me the favor of not making the mistake that atheism is my belief system. It isn’t. It’s not even part of my belief system. It’s nothing more than a default position that will continue until reason demands otherwise.

In my judgment, I was a rational skeptic even while I was a theist. I have better information now than I did when I was 16, which is why my conclusions have changed. And I’ve known quite a few theists – Christians even – that I consider rational skeptics, and I would consider them my intellectual brothers-in-arms before I’d throw in with any atheist who doesn’t consider reason to be a primary absolute. Perhaps in another 15 years I’ll have even better information, and my conclusions will change yet again. One fortunate aspect of being a rational skeptic is that there’s never a moment when one feels one has finally arrived – it’s a never-ending process of discovering, learning, assimilating, re-assessing, and growing.

So hopefully this post can serve as the final one-stop-shop for those curious folks who either want to know what it is I believe at the core, or who routinely fail to understand it, or are looking for a better way to describe themselves.

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2 responses to “I am a Rational Skeptic

  1. Well written, Kacy. I can identify with what you have to say here, and I like the way you have included the points about: changing beliefs with better evidence; and how atheism is not core (but perhaps necessary) to your understanding of the world – not as a input, but as an outcome.

    • Thanks. 🙂

      I wouldn’t even say atheism is necessary. Consider – those who triggered the enlightenment (Paine, for example) lived before Darwin published his discoveries. Paine was a rational skeptic without a doubt, and during a time when it was less fashionable. But he didn’t have access to the information we have now, and things that are not mysterious to us now were completely mysterious to him then.

      At the time, the idea that something or someone put it all together was the best guess going. I don’t think it would’ve been unreasonable for him to accept that as the most plausible explanation. Indeed, he *was* a theist (a deist) and I wouldn’t say that made him any less of a rational skeptic than you or I.

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