Skepticism and Tolerance

Posted on August 19, 2011


I am getting increasingly exhausted trying to reconcile my views with the skeptical movement. I, like most skeptics, am frustrated by the pervasiveness of such unscientific nonsense as climate change denial, high-school creationism and conspiracy theorists. I am, however, continually distressed by the constant unnecessary antagonism displayed by some of the movement’s biggest names. Case in point: Jen McCreight’s recent post about epistemic relativism in the feminist movement. McCreight is responding to to a post on Feministe, which argues for the role of absolutism and certainty in social repression. I don’t entirely agree with the Feministe post even though it does make an interesting political point. The full broadside of scientism that McCreight responds with, however, is exactly the reason that I keep waffling on whether to call myself a skeptic or not.

I have to first give credit where credit is due: McCreight was remarkably quick in correcting an error she made about the definition(s) of skepticism. I was looking forward to calling her out on what really was an elementary philosophical mistake, but she robbed me of the opportunity by being very receptive to criticism on that account. So kudos on that.

The rest of the post, however, still leaves me with plenty to work with:

“The idea that we can’t definitively know what’s 100% true, therefore we must accept all people’s views of reality as equally valid is fucking ridiculous. You can’t simultaneously accept that there is no god and that the Christian God is sitting up in the sky hating on gays, just like you can’t simultaneously accept that gravity exists and doesn’t exist. Reality is independent of whatever delusional ideas our brains come up with”
I’ll grant that there is an external reality about which we can be either right or wrong. But things get a whole lot tricker when we ask how exactly we can know anything about this reality. The philosophical skepticism presented in Feministe is one of the most basic problems of epistemology, and philosophers have been trying to solve the problem ever since Rene Descartes first formulated it. They haven’t had any luck. Most people who think about such things have reluctantly concluded that there is no solution. We might be dreaming or living as a brain in a vat or manipulated by an evil demon, and if we were there is no way we could know about it. These possibilities render it impossible to be certain about anything, because any evidence or reasoning we use to interpret the world could potentially be flawed.
The relevant question then becomes whether this abstract philosophical challenge has any relevance to the real-world question of how we deal with people who have different interpretations of how the world works. Since McCreight is almost certainly thinking about religion, I’ll use that as the example. If we can’t prove that our senses and reason are accurately depicting the world to us, then we can’t expect to accurately perceive all the causes behind any given phenomenon. I can use a gravitational measurement to accurately predict the falling time of a dropped ball and declare that I have found a naturalistic explanation for projectile motion. This evidence, however, will give me nothing to say in response if my friend insists that tiny invisible demons are actually pushing the ball downwards at an acceleration proportional to the mass of the earth and the ball, and to the inverse of the distance between them squared. Seasoned skeptics will reflexively argue that the demons violate Occam’s Razor, but whence cometh Occam’s Razor? There is no evidence or logic available to suggest that the universe is necessarily simple. This leaves us at an impasse between the natural and supernatural explanations for the dropping ball. There is no conceivable piece of evidence that can conclusively prove or disprove either the theory of gravitation of the theory of invisible demons.
You could respond to this dilemma by placing the burden of proof on the demonic explanation, but what evidence is there that this should be the case? What reason is there for naturalism to be the default explanation other than the heartfelt feeling on the part of skeptics that the world should function in a materialistic way? The best thing to do at this stage to follow the advice given at Feministe: Drop it. Go your separate ways, maintain your separate explanations, and don’t murder each other over it. Any attempt to force your epistemic presuppositions onto somebody who does not share them is going to be either a grave injustice or a waste of time.
Moving on:
“Science is the antithesis of dogma. We don’t base our views of truth and reality on whatever idea pops into our poorly evolved ape brains. We collect evidence, perform experiments, and repeatedly try to correct our view of the world so it’s close and closer to reality.”
This is naive. Sure, science can do some great things. Its discoveries have cured diseases, built skyscrapers, and flown us to the moon. It is, furthermore, nearly unique in its ability to bring about such practical, real-world outcomes. But it’s silly to think that the scientific method is capable of neatly bypassing all social interests, grudges, political biases, economic motivations and, yes, religious faiths of scientists. Scientists are people, and people are notoriously bad at objectivity.
To take a historical example, consider the case of Louis Pasteur. Pasteur is widely considered to be the father of microbiology, and he did indeed do amazing things with the early microscope-mainly through angry confrontations with rival philosophers. One of Pasteur’s first victories was in a battle with Felix Pouchet over spontaneous generation. Pasteur, due to his Catholic conviction that there had only been one creation of life (see the religious bias?), fought a game of experimental chess with Felix Pouchet, whose political radicalism lead him to believe that life constantly emerges from non-life. The question was finally decided when Pasteur demonstrated his famous swan-necked flask experiment in front of a royal committee, showing that broth, sterilized by boiling yet ventilated through a restricted opening, would not ferment. That sounds pretty conclusive, until you learn that Pouchet actually had a decisive counter to Pasteur’s experiment. He had discovered how to mix a broth that would ferment after being boiled and sealed. The judging commitee, however, did not see this experiment. They were traditionalist catholics like Pasteur, and so at the moment of truth they refused to let Pouchet perform his experiment, instead taking Pasteur’s demonstration as the final proof.
We now know that Pouchet’s broth contained a rare microbe that can withstand boiling temperatures, but this fact was only discovered recently by historians, and was  totally unknown while Pasteur’s views were being written into science textbooks. Pouchet’s valid, perhaps even conclusive, challenging evidence was left unrecorded due to the biases of the judging committee. This is not the first time that such biases have affected the course of science. James Watson’s account of the discovery of the structure of DNA is also instructive of this fact, as are the political circumstances around Arthur Eddington’s experimental proof of general relativity. The history of science is full of cases where the self-correcting effect in which McCreight places so much stock fails miserably. This is not to say that science is not useful, but only that we have to acknowledge its limitations.
“To claim that that science is bunk, or worse, just another religion, is to obviously not understand how skepticism, science, or the universe works. You may label yourself as a skeptic, but you’re the complete opposite.”
I like to label myself as a methodological skeptic, but that does not mean that I want to enforce the skeptical worldview on everybody around me. It also does not mean that I am foolishly optimistic about the epistemic value of science. I am no relativist-I recognize that science has a self-correcting mechanism that, while not perfect, is useful. I also realize that science is useful in helping us to live happier, healthier and more convenient everyday lives. Science alone can even form a kind of spirituality-a spirituality to which I myself adhere-in which the naturally unfolding universe and our tiny yet amazingly improbable place in it is all we need to have meaning in our lives. No fairies in the garden and all that.
But despite holding to these principles which I think of as skeptical, I have no interest in forcing them onto other people. I will fight against religious dogma when it inspires bigotry or violence, but I have no qualm with religious people who simply happen to see a supernatural entity behind all the same physical interactions I observe to occur without one. The rationalist spirituality is not the only valid spirituality, and if fairies in the garden give somebody comfort, hope and serenity then I have no business exterminating them in the name of epistemic conformity. If being nice to people regardless of their fundamental beliefs renders me unskeptical in McCreight’s book, then so be it. Maybe I’ll just make up another new definition for the word.
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