Saturday, June 26, 2010

Purity and skepticism

PZ Myers usually gets it 100% right. Every now and again, though, I have to nitpick. His latest essay, Should skeptic organizations be atheist organizations? is 99% correct, but he's vague and imprecise about what I consider to be an important point. Myers notes that Christian astronomer and skeptic Pamela Gay is
not a skeptic in all things, though: she's also a Christian. This is not a problem, because there is no such thing as a 'pure' skeptic who applies critical thinking to every single aspect of their lives, so of course she can be a member in good standing of the skeptical community — but let's not pretend that she's applying skeptical values consistently. Again, this is not a problem for her, shouldn't be a problem for us, but it does become a huge problem when people start demanding special exemptions from criticism for religious thought.
Myers mentions again his discomfort with purity, wanting a middle ground between "demand[ing] perfect purity from all skeptics, or shut[ing] up about the foolishness of religious belief."

I suspect that Myers is aiming at the idea that skeptics should give each other (and everyone else) a certain degree of social permission to be wrong. No one is always right, of course, and many honest and sincere skeptics have beliefs that are not just controversial or mistaken, but positively delusional: I myself once believed that it was a matter of settled truth that capitalist representative democracy was The One True Way. On the other hand, Myers correctly insists that skepticism entails that all beliefs, including religion, be subject to scrutiny, criticism and, more importantly, mockery and praise as appropriate.

Myers, however, is not very clear about what he's praising and what he's mocking. He says, for example, that it's "not a problem" that Gay is "not a skeptic in all things," because "there is no such thing as a 'pure' skeptic who applies critical thinking to every single aspect of their lives." But what precisely is "not a problem"? Is it not a problem that Gay holds what many skeptics consider a delusional belief? Or is it not a problem that Gay refuses to apply skeptical thinking to her religious beliefs? I would agree that the first shouldn't be a problem: we should all be free to hold and argue incorrect beliefs, because we should be convinced that an idea is incorrect only after open and honest argument.

But Myers' language forces the second interpretation. Everyone refuses to apply skepticism to something, therefore Gay's own refusal to apply skepticism specifically to her religious beliefs is not a problem. But if her refusal is not a problem, then why should that refusal deserve mockery?

I'm reminded of my time in the Kerista commune. The commune had a fanatical devotion to "purity", which the leader used to manipulate the members. A common tactic was to label advocates of the losing side of a debate as "impure" because they did not hold the adopted position innately; had they held the correct position innately, they never would have argued against it. Once labeled as impure, you had to submit to public humiliation or leave the commune. Of course, one was therefore very careful to always advocate the winning side of a debate (i.e. the side the leader was on). Insistence on purity of specific ideas actually destroyed consistency of method.

Skeptics should insist on purity of method: we should apply skepticism and critical thought to all of our ideas, without exception. We should not consider it impure to have or advocate an incorrect or even delusional idea, but we should consider it impure to continue to affirm the belief once it has decisively been demonstrated false.

It's also important to understand what skepticism is and is not. Skepticism is not a method for generating ideas, it's a method for filtering out bad ideas. A pure skeptic is not and cannot be, therefore, someone who holds all and only those beliefs generated by the skeptical method.

Furthermore, even as a filter for bad ideas, skeptical criticism is expensive in thought and time. Similarly, a pure skeptic cannot be someone who has subjected each and every one of her beliefs to full scientific scrutiny; there isn't enough computing power and time in the universe to do so. Good enough is usually good enough, and just that some belief has not yet been obviously contradicted by the facts is usually good enough.

But it's possible and desirable to be completely committed to the the skeptical filter. When someone has applied the filter and critically examined some idea, and that idea has been found wanting, it is the ethical obligation of every skeptic to at the very least profess agnosticism about the idea pending the examination of further evidence. And there is a point when an idea has been found so decisively incorrect that even holding agnosticism becomes perverse.

Indeed it is precisely the free adoption of the ethical obligation to always follow the skeptical filter that defines a skeptic.

In much the same sense, you break the law unintentionally or accidentally and still call yourself law-abiding. You might be skating on thin ice, but you could even break the law intentionally (perhaps in a moment of weakness, or as an act of civil disobedience) and still call yourself law-abiding. But you absolutely could not call yourself law-abiding and stand up in court and say, "this law should not apply to me." Even if you comply with ten thousand laws, to explicitly argue that even one law — a law you recognize as valid and that you admit to breaking — should not apply to you would make a mockery of the label "law-abiding".

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