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Demarcating Skepticism

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Hermes
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« on: January 30, 2013, 16:09:05 PM »

Debates have from time to time arisen on this forum regarding the limits of what constitutes skepticism.  An aspect that has been the topic of periodic focus is atheism and whether skeptics should promote it at all.  More fuzzy issues such as economics and politics, where skepticism might or might not lead one to a necessary conclusion, also come to mind.  Perhaps we need to review what we believe skepticism to be all about.

In a nutshell, I would summarize skepticism as:

•   the pursuit of truth by means of assessing evidence in a suitably structured manner;
•   the pursuit of truth by means of sound logic;
•   the development of norms founded on such truth;
•   and the promotion of all the above.

The implication is that promoting the pursuit of truth alone would be inadequate and needs to be supplemented by the promotion of the resultant norms.  On that basis I am convinced that skepticism has every right to criticize and oppose religion.  There are also instances where skepticism gives clear guidelines on social, political and economic issues.  In such cases, we should join the debate.  At the same time we should keep in mind that skepticism has no predefined dogma and that convictions not derived from the skeptical process do not belong under the heading of skepticism.

Different perspectives on this topic have recently been expressed by P Z Myers in A common complaint I hear a lot nowadays… and by Steven Novella in Bigfoot Skeptics, New Atheists, Politics and Religion.
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BoogieMonster
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« Reply #1 on: January 30, 2013, 16:26:44 PM »

Isn't skepticism just an epistemological view? One in which we value evidence and logic over other factors?

That almost inevitably boils straight into the debate on religion and many other things. For instance the religious will argue for religion based on factors the skeptic does not view as valid, like "desirability" or "the experience".

Our Metaphysics informs our Epistemology, and those inform our logic, and those inform our ethics, which informs our aesthetics and political philosophy, etc....

To me it's strange to say that skepticism "pertains to religion more than economics". Because to me skepticism is a framework for evaluation that can be applied to any subject. Also skepticism does not have a "necessary conclusion", it is a filter for conclusions, but it does not provide conclusions.

The tricky bit for me is, when is one being OVERLY skeptical? Is a conspiracy theorist not an extreme skeptic, having a threshold for evidence so high as to be unattainable?

In that light, I do note that skeptics tend to be pragmatic in their approach to knowledge, so pragmatism is probably a very common trait amongst skeptics.
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Rigil Kent
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« Reply #2 on: January 30, 2013, 16:39:07 PM »

I think your nutshell captures the essence, Hermes. Skepticism is less about the truth than about the pursuit of truth: that wonderfully humbling process of continuous correction. Brazen declarations - and therefore religion - stands completely opposite this process.

Can you explain a bit what you mean by "norms" ?

To me it's strange to say that skepticism "pertains to religion more than economics". Because to me skepticism is a framework for evaluation that can be applied to any subject.

I share this view. It's always tickled me pink how the same guy who is skeptical as heck when buying a used car, can switch of the same enviable skill when sitting in his pew come Sunday.

R.
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Hermes
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« Reply #3 on: January 30, 2013, 16:49:34 PM »

Can you explain a bit what you mean by "norms" ?
I mean ethical and moral standards.
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BoogieMonster
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« Reply #4 on: January 30, 2013, 17:00:14 PM »

I have issue with the last point you have.

Quote
  and the promotion of all the above.

I wouldn't say promoting skepticism is a component part of skepticism. Much like trying to sell a bike is not a part of the bike.

EDIT: Not only can't I read but I can't type today.
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Hermes
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« Reply #5 on: January 30, 2013, 17:16:32 PM »

I wouldn't say promoting skepticism is a component part of skepticism. Much like trying to sell a bike is not a part of the bike.
In the linked article by Novella he expresses the opinion that skepticism is a movement.  If you hold the view that it is "just an epistemological view", then the promotion thereof would not form part of the concept.  A movement would imply some form of promotion.
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Zulumoose
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« Reply #6 on: January 31, 2013, 08:47:01 AM »

Skepticism is an outlook, a habitual way of evaluating a proposition and moving forward. It is by itself separate from what might be termed the 'skeptical movement' which is a group of people interested in promoting the value of skepticism and rational thinking in general, partly in reaction to the negative things associated with the promotion of illogical concepts to the gullible.

I think it is quite valid to say that skepticism is more applicable to religion than economics, because the central claims of all religions suffer from total lack of what a skeptic would see as valid evidence. Economics however can have many opposing schools of thought, each with mountains of extremely valid evidence to support their view. Economics is a real and fluid set of concepts, forever debatable, since markets are influenced by opinions and emotions as much as by the various interpretations of hard facts. You cannot nail down many failed economic concepts and say they are without merit and unsupportable, neither can you take a successful economic concept and say it will always be valid. 
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Hermes
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« Reply #7 on: January 31, 2013, 11:03:55 AM »

I hope this revision will satisfy the pedantics about semantics:

Debates have from time to time arisen on this forum regarding the limits of what constitutes skepticism.  An aspect that has been the topic of periodic focus is atheism and whether skeptics should promote it at all.  More fuzzy issues such as economics and politics, where skepticism might or might not lead one to a necessary conclusion, also come to mind.  Perhaps we need to review what we believe skepticism to be all about.

In a nutshell, I would summarize the aims of a skeptical movement as:

•   the pursuit of truth by means of assessing evidence in a suitably structured manner;
•   the pursuit of truth by means of sound logic;
•   the development of norms founded on such truth;
•   and the promotion of all the above.

The implication is that promoting the pursuit of truth alone would be inadequate and needs to be supplemented by the promotion of the resultant norms.  On that basis I am convinced that skepticism has every right to criticize and oppose religion.  There are also instances where skepticism gives clear guidelines on social, political and economic issues.  In such cases, we should join the debate.  At the same time we should keep in mind that skepticism has no predefined dogma and that convictions not derived from the skeptical process do not belong under the heading of skepticism.

Different perspectives on this topic have recently been expressed by P Z Myers in A common complaint I hear a lot nowadays… and by Steven Novella in Bigfoot Skeptics, New Atheists, Politics and Religion.
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BoogieMonster
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« Reply #8 on: January 31, 2013, 11:30:57 AM »

I'll agree to disagree.

I can believe abortion is acceptable without canvassing for abortion.
I can believe in women's rights without being a feminism activist.
I can apply skepticism without belonging to a "movement".

In fact I don't think I've ever been one for "movements".

On second thought, I'm even of the opinion that your second last item is also not necessary to encapsulate skepticism.

...  I guess that is what you are trying to avoid: Endless disagreement about what constitutes skepticism.

I think you could get more consensus by being more minimalistic. Cut the fat and more people will be able to agree.

Are you trying to get to the next step of logic by establishing this as an axiom?

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Hermes
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« Reply #9 on: January 31, 2013, 12:07:53 PM »

I'll agree to disagree.

I can believe abortion is acceptable without canvassing for abortion.
I can believe in women's rights without being a feminism activist.
I can apply skepticism without belonging to a "movement".

In fact I don't think I've ever been one for "movements".

I do not think we have a disagreement on the above.  Of course you can have a skeptical disposition without becoming actively involved in promoting skepticism.  However, in reality your contributions to this forum are a mild form of activism.

Quote
On second thought, I'm even of the opinion that your second last item is also not necessary to encapsulate skepticism.
I have changed the wording to "the aims of a skeptical movement".  I would find it half-baked to promote truth but not the resultant morality.

Quote
I guess that is what you are trying to avoid: Endless disagreement about what constitutes skepticism.

I think you could get more consensus by being more minimalistic. Cut the fat and more people will be able to agree.
The purpose of this debate is not to get everybody to agree with me, but to stimulate ideas of what we are about and where we are heading.

Quote
Are you trying to get to the next step of logic by establishing this as an axiom?
No.  Establishing an axiom takes more.
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Hermes
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« Reply #10 on: January 31, 2013, 12:40:40 PM »

There is a distinction between the skeptical approach stemming from authors like Carl Sagan and mere incredulity.  We make reference to our baloney detection kits, we are on the outlook for flaws in logic, we rely on scientific methods, etc.  To argue that conspiracists might be “too skeptical” would misrepresent what is meant by the form of skepticism portrayed on this forum and by the skeptical movement at large.  This creates confusion when reference is made to “global warming skeptics” for instance.  I am not convinced that “skeptics” is the most appropriate term by which to describe ourselves.
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BoogieMonster
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« Reply #11 on: January 31, 2013, 14:53:12 PM »

However, in reality your contributions to this forum are a mild form of activism.

Maybe, but it's certainly not compulsory.

Quote
The purpose of this debate is [...] to stimulate ideas of what we are about [...]

Ok. So what you're about (movement) is not necessarily what "we're" about.

But I have a question about this movement stuff (genuinely). When is something a movement, and when am I "part" of that movement? If my kid gets subjected to discrimination at school and I complain to the principal? If I come out publicly? If I sometimes mention my athiesm to set the mileu of a story?

But see, right there I already make an error, I'm conflating atheism with skepticism. So, if/when the answers for the above is "yes" (and I don't say they are), then that would make me part of an "atheist movement". And that's something I think you can make a "movement" around.

But skepticism, as I've said, can apply to EVERYTHING (imho) by virtue of it being a general approach (Salute). It could maybe be an over-arching movement. Which as sub-components can have different movements centered around vastly different things.... It can also find itself invoked on different sides of the same argument, especially if you're faced with contradictory evidence. Heck after our gun-control discussion I'm still a bit bobble-headed because I constantly see evidence for both sides.

My approach to the evidence is a skeptical mindset (and you'll often see me play devil's advocate or debate just to elucidate), but it doesn't hold that everyone will come to the same conclusion.

So, I find it difficult to understand how you'd sum up a "vision" of the direction a skeptical movement can take when the scope is so large.

Herding cats, is what I'm getting at, I guess.
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Hermes
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« Reply #12 on: January 31, 2013, 15:47:08 PM »

I would say one may talk of a "movement" when a significant number of people start acting in consort around a common concept.  Beyond this forum we link up to others, to blogs, we exchange information, we have SITPs, all in pursuit of skepticism.  That seems to qualify as a movement in my opinion, but I am aware of it that the point is debatable.  There is no formal membership of a movement and it is obviously not compulsory to behave in a specific way.  In stead of asking whether an individual "is part" of a movement, one should perhaps rather look at whether said individual "takes part" in it.

I fully agree that skepticism has wide application.  Yes, it can be an over-arching movement with sub-components.  I believe that there are instances where the conclusions drawn from a skeptical process as we practise it will necessarily lead to certain conclusions.  To name but one example, I cannot fathom a proper skeptical approach leading to the conclusion that creationism represents the true history of the universe.  In many other cases such as economics, as Zulumoose as pointed out, skepticism is unlikely to yield a unique conclusion.

There is no cure-all and skepticism will not solve all problems, but it can certainly assist in improving the quality of decision-making and that is an aim, if not a "vision", to pursue in its own right.  It would be a pity if the moral impact of such truth then be neglected.
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Brian
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« Reply #13 on: January 31, 2013, 17:11:36 PM »

Wonder if "demarcating Skepticism" isn't an oxymoron? Huh?
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Hermes
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« Reply #14 on: February 01, 2013, 12:21:29 PM »

Wonder if "demarcating Skepticism" isn't an oxymoron? Huh?
An interesting question ...

I am inclined to think that issues such as the appreciation of beauty and emotions may fall outside the ambit of skepticism.  One could of course conduct a scientific survey and conclude (say) that 55% of people prefer orange flowers to yellow ones, but the individual satisfaction experienced from observing a beautiful object would not usually be the product of skeptical reasoning.
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