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.

Reason, Faith, Belief, and Certainty

The following is an edited version of an email I wrote to someone in an effort to clarify the relationship between some of these commonly used terms – terms which, when used loosely or without very clear delineation among concepts, can muddle very important issues being discussed. I have posted it elsewhere, but I want it here in order to preserve continuity between other posts I intend to write and to make it more accessible.

It is an explanation of why I advocate the use of reason, and only the use of reason, as a tool of cognition and the basis for what I believe and what propositions I reject.

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A proposition is a statement about reality.

Propositions can fall into two broad categories: Those that have truth value, and those that don’t. A proposition that is verifiable and/or falsifiable has truth value. A proposition that is neither verifiable or falsifiable has no truth value. We call those propositions “arbitrary”, and statements arbitrarily made may be arbitrarily discarded.

Propositions that have truth value ultimately fall into one of two categories: True or false.The placement of propositions into those categories is done by each individual, to varying degrees based on ones degree of “certainty” that the proposition is true.

“Certainty” is a word that describes how fully one accepts the truth of a particular proposition. It is up to each person to judge for themselves how certain they are of any given proposition. No one can decide this for someone else – the degree of certainty is always up to each persons individual judgment.

Certainty always falls on a spectrum from 0% (not at all accepting) to 100% (accepting completely).

On this spectrum, we have certain broad “zones” where we classify the certainty of our acceptance of a proposition. For example…

If a person feels 0% certain of the truth of a proposition, they may say they “do not believe”.

If a person feels 1-20% certain, they might call themselves “doubtful”

If a person feels 21-40% certain, they might consider themselves open to the possibility that it’s true, while not yet accepting it.

If a person feels 41-60% certain, they might consider themselves “on the fence”

If a person feels 61-80% certain, they might say “it’s probably true”

If a person feels 81-100% certain, they might call themselves a believer.

Note: These percentages are rough estimates and only used as an example. The true degrees of certainty, and the thresholds they trigger, are different for each person and must be decided on by each person. There are no real numbers… but there are real degrees, and each person much decide what the thresholds are for each degree of certainty.

There is no law that determines what degree of certainty any person must have about the truth of any proposition. We are all free to be as certain or as uncertain as we want about any given proposition whatsoever.

There is no law that demands what we base our degree of certainty upon. We can base our certainty on whatever we choose, or we can arbitrarily choose to be certain.

So on exactly what should be base our degree of certainty?

The philosophical branch of epistemology concerns itself with exactly this question. Among other things, it endeavors to identify and justify what certainty ought to be based on. (It also speaks about what certainty means, whether it’s possible, etc… but that is outside the province of this discussion).

When we debate faith versus reason, we are specifically debating what the basis of certainty (and thus belief) ought to be.

Reason is a process by which one uses empirically observed fact in order to ascertain facts which are not empirically observed. Reason relies of the law of non-contradiction (A=A), in concert with sensory evidence, in order to gain knowledge and understanding of what we do not observe, based on what we do observe.

Faith is not a process. It is a direct cognitive leap from “not accepting” straight to “accepting”. Do not pass go. Do not bother with scaling belief against evidence.

So how does this apply to certainty? Is it possible to believe a proposition on faith and on reason?

The answer is yes.

In the context of epistemology, reason demands that the degree of certainty with which one accepts a proposition is congruous with the amount of evidence that supports the truth of that proposition. In other words, if you are presented with a proposition, backed up with evidence that supports it to a degree of 50% (for example), then reason demands that your certainty that the preposition is true should be roughly 50%.

If the proposition is backed up with evidence that supports it to a degree of 80%, then your degree of certainty should be 80%

(It is important to point out here that supporting evidence of 100% is not possible. Since all evidence is subject to further discovery, 100% is never possible. We cannot ever know everything – the potential for future discoveries are an inherent aspect of objective, contextual knowledge.)

So, if one is committed to reason, one will always strive to ensure that ones degree of certainty is scaled – to the best degree that one is capable – to the degree of evidence that supports that proposition.

What about faith?

In the context of epistemology, faith is the act of *assigning certainty disproportionately* from the amount of evidence supporting a particular proposition.

In other words, if a certain proposition is supported only with 25% evidence, yet one accepts the proposition with a a 99% degree of certainty – one has “bridged the gap” with faith.

So, to be clear… a person who does this would believe the proposition based on “evidence” (to the degree of 25%), and “faith” (bridging the cognitive gap). In this way, most faith-based beliefs do have supporting, albeit insufficient, evidence.

(This “bridging of the gap” is what is commonly referred to as a “leap of faith” – it’s a cognitive leap from certainty that is supported by evidence to certainty that is not supported by evidence).

It is important to remember… just because one accepts a proposition based on evidence and faith does not mean that faith and reason are compatible. They are two separate and mutually exclusive concepts. Evidence generates a specific degree of certainty…. and you are free at that point to stop there, or you are free to exercise faith and assign more certainty to the proposition than justified by the available evidence.

To say that faith can be based on evidence is nonsensical. Faith always begins where evidence ends – literally by definition.

My position is that such a cognitive bridge is always wrong. It is always wrong to assign a degree of certainty that is disproportionate to the amount of evidence available. Our degree of certainty ought to always be scaled to what we ascertain via empirical evidence, coupled with reason, any degree of certainty above and beyond that – or even below that – is cognitively unjustified. This is the definitive statement of my position.

So, if you really want to discuss epistemology… this is the place to start.

Reason demands that certainty is scaled to evidence.

Faith is the act of subverting the scaling process and assigning a degree of certainty that is incongruous with the amount of evidence available.

I advocate a policy of strict adherence to the demands of reason. I reject any suggestion that my degree of certainty of any proposition ought to be scaled above (or below) the degree of evidence available.

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William Lane Craig’s “proof” that Biblegod exists.

William Lane Craig’s did an opinion piece Fox News and offered 5 “proofs” that God exists, and they are, if nothing else, at least instructive on his apologetic style and tactics.

1.  God provides the best explanation of the origin of the universe.

2.  God provides the best explanation for the fine-tuning of the universe. 

3.  God provides the best explanation of objective moral values and duties.

4.  God provides the best explanation of the historical facts concerning Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

5.  God can be personally known and experienced.

I’m not going to concern myself here with answering these questions. They have all been dealt with elsewhere, and questions 1, 2, and 4 are of no concern to me at all (question 4 is loaded, and not even a legitimate question). But I would like to take a moment to examine his apologetics.

Notice that 4 out of 5 of these “proofs” are assertions that the positing of a God “provides the best explanation” for whatever question he doesn’t know the definitive answer to. This is a common apologetic by which folks figure that if *you* don’t know the answer to some cosmic question, then my answer wins by default.

As many philosophers have pointed out, positing a God as the answer generates more questions than it answers. But more to the point, positing an an arbitrary explanation is not somehow better than accepting the absence of an immediate explanation. Sure it’s fine to hypothesize and speculate, but a hypothesis is not an explanation.

For example: No one knows for sure where Jimmy Hoffa is. If anyone on Earth can answer the question of what happened to him, no one seems to be coming forward. We can speculate all day long, but wouldn’t it just be simpler to explain his disappearance using God as an explanation? I mean, it’s simple, it has biblical precedence, and – most importantly – it is unfalsifyable.

God might have taken Jimmy Hoffa. You can’t prove God didn’t, and since you don’t have an explanation of your own, then this explanation is the best one, right?

Only if your mind operates the way WLC’s does. The lesson here is that WLC uses the phrase “provides the best explanation” without defining the criteria for an acceptable explanation. If he tried, you’d find that, for him, an arbitrary explanation is every bit as acceptable as any other, so long as it’s an explanation he likes. Moreover, he has no qualms about employing the “if you don’t know the answer then my answer wins by default” apologetic. Good thing for him that he’s not a lawyer.

His third point parrots an apologetic that has become fashionable over the last few years, the “objective morality” argument. This amusing apologetic attempts to assert that, if it weren’t for his god arbitrarily deciding what’s right and what’s wrong (which changes from time to time whenever his god decides it’s going to change), then no objective morality exists. This translates to the astonishing proposition that biblegod has done us the favor of informing us about what is right and wrong (which we would not otherwise be able to know) based on objective reality that he created, and does not depend at all on anyone’s thoughts or feelings… including his. This argument can only sound reasonable to those who do not have any clue what concepts are involved.

“Objective”, put simply, means “without reference to personal feelings”.

  1. free of bias: free of any bias or prejudice caused by personal feelings
  2. based on facts: based on facts rather than thoughts or opinions

Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether biblegod is even a legitimate example of moral behavior, if you’ve read the bible, you know that biblegod makes up rules as he goes, changes the rules arbitrarily, breaks the rules whenever he likes, suspends the laws of nature, regrets his decisions, plays mind games (and here, and here), and dispenses with them when its convenient. What’s more, if one were to accept that biblegod created everything that exists, then no objectivity would be possible to him, since he is the creator of all facts. Since he would be the author of all facts, then he could not refer to facts to derive an objective moral code. It would be the exact opposite of objectivity.

Only a being that did not create reality, that did not create facts, could possibly look outward to facts and derive truth from them. If reality was created by a god, then god could not possibly be “objective” about his moral code, since all of reality is an expression of his (personal, subjective) will. Not only would his own decisions be subject to his own feelings, but so would all of reality. If god created everything, then god would not be able, by definition, to reference anything objectively. It would be the equivalent of a painter who painted a painting, and then looked to his painting for instructions on how paintings ought to be painted.

WLC’s logic is formulated as follows:

  • God created everything (all of that which exists).
  • Now that facts exist (which God created), God looks to those facts to derive a moral code that is free of bias or prejudice caused by personal feelings.
  • God then demands that we follow his moral code, which we could not have discovered without his help (for reasons that are not explained).

Can anyone state with a straight face that the moral code that is described in the bible is “free of any bias caused by personal feelings”?

(Hint: Commandment #1 is “Thou shalt have no other gods before me”)

By the definition of “objective”, the only criteria for objectivity is that facts are identified without reference to personal bias or feelings. A moral code is objective, by definition, if it is arrived at by referencing facts, without reference to personal bias or feelings. So much for point #3.

His final point is the most amusing of all.

“God can be personally known and experienced. The proof of the pudding is in the tasting. Down through history Christians have found through Jesus a personal acquaintance with God that has transformed their lives.”

All members of all religions believe that they have experienced exactly what WLC believes he has experienced with his own personal god. All people of all religions have their life transformed. Guess what? Leaving religion transforms your life too.

The funny part is that, before his god can be “personally known and experienced”, one must fully accept that it is real. Can you think of any other thing that actually exists that must first be believed before it is experienced?

Do you need to “believe” a bullet exists before it will penetrate your skin? You can reject the fact that it exist all you want… you will still find yourself bleeding pretty badly when it is fired your way.

Do you need to “believe” that gravity exists before you feel its effects? You can deny it all you want… you’ll still find yourself approaching the ground really quickly when you step off the ledge.

Do you need to “believe” that poison will kill you in order for you to feel its deadly effects? You can deny it all you like… you’ll still die pretty fast after chewing that cyanide tablet.

Do you need to “accept” that medicine works better than prayer? Sadly, the graves are filled with children whose parents refused (and continue to refuse) accepting that fact.

The bottom line is that things that are real will be experienced whether or not a person believes they are real. If something is real, then it does not require anyone’s belief in order for them to experience it. Why, then, is WLC’s god only experienced by those who already believe in it?

Hmmm… could it be that what they are experiencing is a creation of their own mind? Yeah, I think that’s the best explanation.

The most commonly overlooked aspect of skepticism (or, why PZ Myers doesn’t understand skepticism)

PZ Myers recently blogged about how a person known to him confided a story to him about how she had been raped by a prominent member of the skeptic community.

Now I’ve been sitting here trying to resolve my dilemma — to reveal it or not — and goddamn it, what’s dominating my head isn’t the consequences, but the question of what is the right thing to do. Do I stand up for the one who has no recourse, no way out, no other option to help others, or do I shelter the powerful big name guy from an accusation I can’t personally vouch for, except to say that I know the author, and that she’s not trying to acquire notoriety (she wants her name kept out of it)?

So he told the story as it was told to him. Well, the important parts, anyway.

Of course, the blogosphere erupted. Those who don’t much care for PZ pointed out to him that it’s a pretty big deal to level unverifiable accusations from an anonymous source at someone whose career might be affected by such accusations. Those who have always liked PZ immediately ran to his defense. That was to be expected.

Much of the furious debate raging about the charges involve pointing out to PZ that it is inappropriate to take an anonymous, third-hand account at face value, particularly where such a grave charge is concerned.  As a general rule, the consensus on that side of the debate is that no matter how serious the charges, we don’t just check our skepticism at the door. If we don’t just take the word of anonymous third-hand accounts from other, we shouldn’t be expected to accept it from PZ. Moreover, a purported skeptic like him ought to know that.

PZ’s faction seems to believe that a charge this serious warrants an immediate suspension of our normal skeptical standards. With a serious charge such as rape, you ought to just believe it. Take it on faith, you know?

(I’ve already written on why one can and should remain a skeptic while still acting appropriately, so I won’t get into that here.)

In fact, PZ and his band of merry men have gone out of their way now to argue against skepticism (where women’s claims are involved, of course!), deriding “Extreme Skepticism (TM)” as too much of a good thing, I guess, and instead branding it “denialism“.

See, when you require evidence for a scientific or philosophic claim, it’s skepticism.

When you require evidence for a criminal complaint, it’s denialism. Got it? Good.

So PZ writes a little short sketch called “SkepticDoc MD” which delighted his devoted fan base. It’s a little story about a doctor who won’t believe anything his patients tell him and demands concrete proof for everything. Funny, right?

I don’t know what it is, but some skeptics have adopted this calcified attitude towards what constitutes reasonable evidence and reasonable claims. It seems to me that these are nothing but excuses contrived to justify denying reality, and that they are actually toxic to any kind of functional, societally useful version of skepticism; this is the skepticism of the status quo.

He begins his little story by immediately showing off his ability to drop context.

What if people actually operated as these advocates for purblind skepticism suggest? So I paid a call on SkepticDoc, M.D., the very acme of this form of skepticism. Here is how the visit went.

PZ: Doctor, lately I’ve been experiencing shortness of breath and an ache in my left shoulder when I exert myself…

SkepticDoc: Whoa, whoa, whoa, slow down! See the name on the shingle? It’s SkepticDoc. Do you have anything other than your feelings to justify wasting my time here?

See that little trick he pulled there? The man complained about a sensation he had been experiencing. To feel something in this context means to experience it through sensory apparatus. But SkepticDoc responds by using the word feeling in an emotional context.

Those are two very different things. But what’s a little context dropping for the sake of good satire, right?

PZ: What? I’m telling you my symptoms…

SkepticDoc: Yeah, yeah, your feelings. Do you have some physical evidence that you felt pain? Some independent corroboration that you felt this remarkable “ache”? So far, this is just gossip.

Here PZ equivocates first-hand experience with “gossip”,which is, by definition, the second hand telling of a story. Bad, bad skeptic.

I won’t parse through the entire sad attempt at comedy (it just gets worse from there). But the claims of Extreme Skepticism(TM) and denialism got me to thinking about one of the most commonly overlooked aspects of critical thought and skepticism. And it made me realize how poorly understood skepticism is even among those who claim to be skeptics.

I described skepticism in an earlier post.

Skepticism is the deliberate act of ensuring that one’s degree of certainty regarding the truth of any given proposition is proportionate to the weight of the evidence supporting the proposition, without reference to personal feelings or conjecture.

Skepticism is widely understood to be the refusal to believe something without evidence. But this is not the whole story. The flip side of skepticism is the refusal to disbelieve something for which compelling evidence exists.

Galileo provided a fantastic example of this aspect of skepticism. His telescope and calculations presented unmistakable evidence for heliocentricity. Although he officially recanted (on pain of death), he took his knowledge to the grave with him. In his heart, he absolutely refused to relinquish his belief in the evidence presented to him by his senses and reasoning mind.

But it’s not one or the other. Since new discoveries are always possible, absolute certainty of the truth or falsehood of any proposition is inappropriate. Certainty can only properly be held in degrees, and reason demands that the degree of certainty be proportionate to the amount of evidence for or against the proposition. That’s the “rational” aspect of rational skepticism.

And that’s how I know PZ and his ilk do not understand skepticism. If they did, they would know that extreme skepticism would be nothing more than scaling your certainly with extreme precision. It would not merely be doubting, as they have described it, but rather extremely well-calibrated degrees of certainty.

And that would be great! I’d take extremely well-calibrated, extremely rational, extremely well-researched skepticism over normal, frivilous skepticism any day of the week.

The caricature of skepticism presented by PZ and celebrated by his cronies was all the evidence I needed to see that PZ Myers is a sham of a skeptic and no intellectual ally to anyone who values critical thought. He’s a fraud with a gossip column. That’s all he is.

Should rational skepticism be abandoned in emergency situations?

Skepticism is the deliberate act of ensuring that one’s degree of certainty regarding the truth of any given proposition is proportionate to the weight of the evidence supporting the proposition, without reference to personal feelings or conjecture.

For this reason, it is common practice among skeptics to, as a general rule, withhold judgment on any truth claim until enough time has passed to have all of the relevant, discoverable facts fleshed out. A seasoned skeptic also understands that, as omniscience is impossible, there always remains the possibility of new discoveries that may warrant a revision of ones appraisal of the proposition, even after reasonable certainty has been established.

And this is a reasonable, practical approach under normal circumstances. But is it the most practical approach in all circumstances?

An emergency situation is a situation in which a chain of events has been initiated that, if left un-interfered with, will result in an undesired or adverse outcome. It doesn’t matter whether the emergency situation is active (there’s a guy with a gun to my head saying he’ll kill me unless I give him my wallet) or passive (I’m bleeding badly and I need a bandage), the nature of an emergency is such that if it’s left unaffected, an undesired outcome will result.

Emergencies, by their nature, have a critical time constraint where action is concerned. What that constraint is, is not always known, but the fact that such a constraint exists must be.

As skeptics, we are conditioned to ensure that all propositions are accepted as true only when appropriate evidence is presented. Sometimes that takes time and thorough investigation. Clearly in emergency situations this isn’t always possible. How, then, can rational skepticism be applied? Are we to believe all claims of emergencies, since the claimant has no chance at providing the necessary evidence within the time available before the critical moment of an adverse outcome? Should we refuse to believe claims of emergencies, citing skepticism as an out-of-context value that trumps all other values?

Clearly neither answer provides a universally desired outcome. People frequently manufacture “emergencies”, so the former option makes the skeptic vulnerable to fraud. On the other hand, people (including skeptics!) frequently find themselves in legitimate emergency situations where the provision of sufficient evidence is untenable, so the latter answer fails.

The key to solving this mystery is to remember that one need not fully accept a claim in order to respond appropriately to it.

If a man tells me that he’s having chest pains, I do not need to fully accept his claim in order to call an ambulance. If a child runs into the yard and tells me his sister is drowning in the backyard pool, I do not need to accept his claim with certainty in order to make a mad dash to the backyard and jump into the pool if I see someone in it. If a woman tells me she was just raped by a friend of mine at a party, I do not need verification in order to contact the authorities and get her whatever medical attention, moral support, and crisis intervention/police support she might require.

The nature of an emergency situation is such that action must be taken immediately in order to interrupt a potentially disastrous chain of events. Neither belief, acceptance, or certainty is required for action. A rational judge of values will generally know right away that the price of demanding evidence for claims of an emergency situation is almost always higher than the risk one assumes by simply acting on it. 

Might the kid be lying about his sister drowning? Sure, he might be. But I’d rather find out I’ve been pranked than to find out I allowed a kid to drown.

Might the guy be lying about his chest pains? Sure. But I’d rather find out I’ve had the wool pulled over my eyes than to find out I’ve let a man die who I could’ve helped live.

Might the woman have lied about being raped? Sure, she might have. But I’d rather find out that I’ve been the victim of fraud than to find out I’ve failed to assist a victim of rape.

This might help to clear up some of the murkiness being purported by our friends over at Freethought Blogs, where the false dichotomy of “either you believe the purported victim and help her or you withhold judgment and abandon her has been the new line in the sand between Atheism plussers and their antagonists. The fallacy here is in the dishonest “package-dealing” of the withholding of judgment with “believing the rapist”, as though a refusal to accept one side uncritically is tantamount to going all-in with the other.

Nothing could be farther from the truth, and it is perfectly consistent with the “You’re either with us or you’re against us” mentality that pervades the FTB cult.

The fact that there is a risk associated with refusing to act when someone claims an emergency situation means that there is a value judgment required when such a claim is made.  The fact that the cost associated with the risk one assumes by refusing to act is often higher than the risk associated by acting means that it is often in a skeptics best interest to act in the absence of information.

It is for this reason that the statement “I am withholding judgment on that claim” does not translate into “I am refusing to act on the claim”, despite what our friends over in the pseudo-skeptic community might have us believe.

To act on someone’s claim that an emergency situation is taking place (even while withholding judgment on the truth of that claim) is consistent with rational skepticism. To claim that one must immediately decide whether they believe the claim or not before acting is a false dichotomy, and those who propagate this false dichotomy do so for the usual reasons – to justify moral condemnation toward all those who won’t accept their claims on faith.

To put it simply: When someone says they need help or that they’ve been victimized, in the absence of any other information, a rational person acts as though the claim is true. No need to know whether or not it is. And it is unjustified to demand that the claim be believed. Belief is not a prerequisite for appropriate action.

Thus we see the problem with the demand that one must automatically believe a claim of victimization such a rape.  First off, when someone claims they’ve been raped by someone else, it is logically impossible to believe the victim’s story uncritically without accepting the accused party’s guilt uncritically. The problem with that is obvious. But more importantly, as we’ve seen, it is not necessary to do so in order to respond appropriately.

If someone claims they’ve been raped (or otherwise victimized), get them the help they need right away. Alert those who need to be alerted. Continue providing support. That is the extent of your role. If a specific accusation is involved, let the professionals sort out the facts and handle them appropriately. Determining someone’s guilt without sufficient evidence is neither your right nor your responsibility.

Skepticism should be applied in all situation. A skeptical position does not require inaction, insensitivity, or any hesitation to help someone in need. There is no reason, ever, to check your skepticism at the door.

Why ask why?

Not all questions are asked for the same reason.

That’s a point that Larry King should have brought up to Jerry Seinfeld a few years back. While interviewing Seinfeld, Larry asked a question that he undoubtedly knew the answer to.

“You gave it up, right? They didn’t cancel you.”

Seinfelds incredulous reaction to that question was an embarrassingly obtuse moment for an otherwise intelligent actor. He berated King for asking a question that he should’ve damn well known the answer to, as King was well familiar with Hollywood and the entertainment industry. King, a bit shocked at Jerry‘s response, was so caught up in trying to deflect Jerry’s incredulity that he was probably too flustered to mention what seemed pretty damn obvious to me – the question wasn’t being asked for King’s sake. King hosted a show which was watched by millions of people – people who may or may not have given enough of a fuck about the Seinfeld show to know why the show went off the air. (I fell into that category, by the way).

He asked the question for the benefit of his viewing audience. Not because he himself didn’t know the answer.

Bill Engvall and company like to play on this theme – the “stupid question” joke, referring to how people ask questions whose answers are obvious. Understanding that his business is comedy, it makes sense that he would drop context for the sake of a laugh. I am all about twisting intellectual considerations for a laugh, so I’m not criticizing comedians for doing so, but I’d like to point out that they do it deliberately, and they do it because they know it works. People laugh because they don’t realize that context has been switched.

The joke works because not all questions are asked for the same reason. Some are asked to gain the information ostensibly requested by the questioner. Others (such as in Kings case) are asked in order for the answer to be explicitly communicated to all who may be listening. Others may be asked for lack of a better way to demonstrate concern (“Are you hurt?”). Other’s may be asked in cases when the answer is obvious, yet the asker wants to make it clear that he or she is not making assumptions. There are many different legitimate reasons for asking a question other than the standard reason of wanting to gain information. 

That’s why I get so irritated at the kind of bullshit I saw directed at Dr. Phil in this article today. 

Dr. Phil McGraw, a well-known TV personality and generally likable guy, drew the ire of feminists and liberals all over the country by posing the question on Twitter, “If a girl is drunk, is it okay to have sex with her? Reply Yes or No to @DrPhil #teenaccused”

To me, it was clearly a question asked with the intent of provoking conversation, and possibly to demonstrate how many people may answer in the affirmative. That in itself would have been a worthwhile endeavor – demonstrating how many people potentially believe that it’s quite find to take advantage of vulnerable women. Shit, if you’re truly interested in bringing attention to mass victimization, then you such a demonstration should be welcomed!

But no….

Instead Dr. Phil was fucking cruci-twied.

“You know good and goddamn well that “asking” when a girl “deserves” to be raped is a destructive question in itself. #DrPhilQuestions

— Rad-Femme Lawyer. (@femme_esq) August 21, 2013 ”

“If Dr Phil asks a hateful misogynistic question, is it okay to rename him Dr Landphil?#DrPhilQuestions — Harold Itzkowitz (@HaroldItz) August 21, 2013

“If a TV Shrink makes my daughter feel guilty b/c she was date raped while drunk, can I punch him in his dick? #DrPhilQuestions @DrPhil

— Patrick (@QuadCityPat) August 20, 2013

This is just another instance in a long list of manufactured outrage by hard-left politically correct alarmists that are so goddamned concerned with “appearing” concerned that they are willing to martyr an ally to their cause. Sometimes a question is asked as a lead-in. Sometimes it’s asked in order to ensure all interlocutors are on the same page before moving the conversation forward. Sometimes a question is a statement phrased as a question.

The salient point of all this is the uncharitableness with which any and all apparent violations of political correctness is returned. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist or an amatuer blogger to understand that Dr. Phil might have been asking that question not for the purpose of actually gaining information, but as a lead-in to a larger discussion of victimization. And that would’ve been a great discussion to have, if only these fucking politically correct asshats would’ve let him have it.

The Switched Analogy Fallacy

Hey there boys and girls! I’d like to tell you all about a new and exciting fallacy that you can use when you need to apply a healthy dose of incredulity and demagoguery into your rebuttal because you have no substantive refutation. Since this one is new (and exciting!) it is sure to confound your opponent and impress all your supporters, at least for a short while until people figure out what you’ve done. But by that point, the argument will probably be over and you will have probably appeared to have prevailed, so yay!

The name I’ve given to this fallacy is the “Switched Analogy Fallacy”.

Analogies are frequently used in academic and intellectual discourse in order to demonstrate the application of an abstract principle by attaching it to concretes. It’s an effective method, because abstractions, by their very nature, only contain cognitive value when applied to concretes. (Imagine trying to teach a child what the number “Two” means without pointing to two things. It would indeed be difficult, and unnecessarily so.)

So we use analogies to attached abstracts concepts and principles to concrete existents. This is normal, It’s practical. It’s useful. It makes sense. Just about everyone does it.

But analogies aren’t used only to compare concretes. You can use analogies to compare concepts, abstractions, concretes, and relationships (among other things).

To use an analogy to compare a relationship, one must use two existents that relate to each other in some way. Then, one must use two other existents that relate to each other in the same way. For the analogy to be effective, the relationship between the first pair of existents must be similar in principle to the relationship between the second pair.

As it is the relationships that are being compared to each other, the existents used in the analogy are not relevant to the analogy. They are relevant to the particular relationship being described, but not to the analogy between the two relationships being compared.

For example, if a mother were explaining the concept of maternal protection to her young child, she might use an animal as an example. “Dear, did you see how that mama-hen got aggressive when we came near her eggs? That’s exactly how I would get if anyone tried to hurt you.”

Notice that the mother was comparing the relation ship between hen and eggs to the relationship between herself and her child. Would anyone question that this is a useful and appropriate analogy? Would anyone suggest that a mother was comparing her child to eggs? I doubt any honest person would.

But some feminists would. I can show you example after example.

So, here’s the tactic… If you are discussing, say… feminism, with these types, and you find a situation in which an analogy is perfectly appropriate and very useful in order to compare one relationship to another, what they will do is to very incredulously accuse you of comparing the existents.

Here’s an example from an actual conversation I had with a group of feminists at a now-defunct blog a few years back. We were discussing Hugh Hefner. Their position was that he is a sexist misogynist who looks down on women. The specific argument I was addressing went along the lines of “He clearly looks on women contemptuously because he surrounds himself with them.”

I made an off-the-cuff reply that the argument was a non-sequiter. After all, surrounding yourself with something doesn’t mean you hate it. Does a shepherd hate sheep?

Cue the outrage. I was hit by a howling cacophony of flame-voices accusing me of comparing women to sheep.

They were all proud of each other, with not one of them picking up on the fact that they’d switched the ideas being compared. I was comparing the relationship between one being surrounded by another type of being to the relationship between another being surrounded by another type of being.

I was comparing relationships; not the specific objects that were relating to each other, but the relationships themselves. The beings I used were irrelevant – it was the relationship that needed to be comparable.

But it’s a fantastic tactic for feminists, because any time you attempt to compare a man’s relationship to a woman with another relationship (using any existent at all), they can accuse you, using all the outrage they are able to muster, of comparing women to <whatever>. How dare you!

They switch the concepts being compared. You’re comparing relationships. They accuse you of comparing existents.

To put this fallacy in plain language:

Takes two existents A and B, and label the relationship between A and B as R(1).

Then, take two other existents X and Y, and label the relationship between X and Y as R(2).

Finally, demonstrate that R(1) and R(2) are similar in principle.

Enter the fallacy: Feminist “F” scolds you loudly for comparing B to Y. But you didn’t do that. You were actually comparing R(1) to R(2).

See how nicely that works? It invokes OUTRAGE and INCREDULITY! WOO HOO!!!!

But most importantly, it avoids the actual argument. And that’s critical, particularly when you realize how weak yours is.

So boys, girls, and feminists all over the world… remember your good old uncle Kacy the next time someone tries to make a valid point using a practical, useful, and completely valid analogy. Make the Switched Analogy Fallacy part of your rhetorical repertoire. It will save you all kinds of embarrassment, and score a copious amount of rhetorical points among your feminist friends!