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Posted by on Apr 13, 2013 in Philosophy, Religion, Skepticism | 3 comments

Daniel Loxton on skepticism and atheism (1)

One thing that I’ve changed my mind about over the last few years is the best remit for the movement that we know as scientific skepticism. Some of this may well come up at TAM, but for the moment let me say that I’m all in favour of a division of labour, and I can see merit in organising a movement around the (let’s face it, somewhat suspicious and critical) investigation of alleged phenomena that are 1. anomalous within the current scientific picture and 2. open to fairly straightforward kinds of empirical study.

Just how far we should consider an alleged phenomenon scientifically “anomalous” is another matter. However, definitions do not have to be especially sharp, or tight, to give a fair indication of the subject matter. As with so many other things, I am happy for there to be grey areas as to what is and what is not an apt topic for investigation by scientific skeptics. (Let’s leave aside the definition of science – for example, whether for current purposes it should include part of the humanities.)

I don’t see a sharp line between ordinary science and the investigations and advocacy activities of scientific skeptics. But the latter will be focused on claims coming from outside of science that, if true, would challenge the current picture of the world that science has pieced together. Think of investigations into allegedly paranormal phenomena or into claims about alternative medicines based on principles wildly at odds with our best scientific theories (homeopathy is an obvious example). Think more generally about claims that would tend to be labelled “pseudoscientific”. Dividing science from pseudoscience may not be straightforward, and there are, again, grey areas, but often we can label a body of claims as pseudoscientific without too much controversy. In all, there is a reasonably clear role here for people who wish to investigate (what would generally be regarded as) pseudoscientific claims.

All of this suggests a remit for the Scientific Skeptic movement that is relatively narrow. It may deal with a vast range of topics, from fake medicine to cryptozoology to parapsychological claims… and many others that we could list. But it can be marked off quite clearly from, say, the various forms of philosophical skepticism. The latter are not about suspicion/investigation of claims about scientifically anomalous phenomena. Often, philosophical skepticisms involve scrutiny and rejection even of highly plausible and seemingly non-anomalous claims, such as claims about our knowledge of the external world, popular beliefs about morality, and so on.

It might be very interesting if there were an intellectual and cultural movement based on philosophical skepticism, perhaps a bit like ancient Pyrrhonism; however, it would be a different sort of thing from the scientific skeptic movement that we currently have. Philosophical skeptics may be correct about some things, but even if they are I see no reason why the issues they raise should be of any special interest to participants in the scientific skeptic movement. About all the latter have in common with philosophical skeptics is the use of reason and logic – their targets for scrutiny are radically different.

I would have taken a different view about this even a couple of years ago, but I think I now have a deeper and clearer understanding of what is at stake.

I can also see why it makes sense to have a division of labour between scientific skepticism and skeptical scrutiny of the claims of religion. Defending this would be more complicated, and I think the division of labour is mostly a pragmatic and historical one. Still, it makes sense to me to have a movement that is focused on the (suspicious, etc.) investigation of certain kinds of phenomena that fall more obviously under pseudoscience than under religion. This could get very complicated, in fact, since I actually do think that science tends to undermine religion, and that there is a kind of incompatibility between the two (or at least enough tension to make glib talk of their “compatibility” highly misleading). Nonetheless, religion is a complex phenomenon that is rather different from pseudoscience, even if there’s a degree of overlap.

I discuss in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State why religion is so resistant to scientific refutation in practice, even if the two are intellectually incompatible. That is, religious believers have various resources for sustaining their beliefs even if science is against them. In 50 Great Myths About Atheism, Udo Schuklenk and I will discuss at some length why we think science and religion are not straightforwardly compatible, and why we think science does tend to undermine religious belief (both over time and for individuals who take what science is telling us seriously). All the same, the relationship is sufficiently messy and complex that a religion cannot be investigated and debunked (or confirmed) in anything like the straightforward way that applies to investigation of, say, specific claims about the efficacy of homeopathic medicine. All in all, there seem to me to be good pragmatic reasons to keep larger issues to do with the truth of religious doctrines out of the scientific skeptic movement, while focusing on reasonably precise claims about scientifically anomalous phenomena, whether they come from religion or anywhere else. Again, I thought about this differently even a couple of years ago, but I do get to change my mind on some things.

In all, you might think I’d now be sympathetic to views such as those expressed by Daniel Loxton in a recent post about (scientific) skepticism and atheism. Well, yes, I’m more sympathetic than I’d have been not all that long ago. There are good historical and pragmatic reasons, I think, to avoid confusing them. In theory, you could be an atheist while not being especially concerned about, let alone suspicious of or interested in investigating, claims about scientifically anomalous phenomena. You might even believe that some of these phenomena are real. Conversely, you might be sceptical about all of the anomalous phenomena that are popularly believed in (psi, extraordinary cryptids, scientifically dubious therapies, etc.) while managing to retain some kind of theistic belief. I could put a case as to how both of these things could be possible, in some cases, without a great deal of cognitive dissonance. Moreover, scientific skepticism as a movement has a particular history and heritage that is, to say the least, mixed in its relationship to religion.

But Loxton goes too far, particularly when he refers to his atheism as “my personal non-scientific theological beliefs”. This is misleading in just about every way, and no such claim (that atheism is a set of personal non-scientific theological beliefs) is required to carve out a distinctive and useful space for the scientific skeptic movement to operate. In context, it is misleading to call atheism “personal”, “non-scientific”, a “theological” position, or even “beliefs”!

The word I chose is “misleading”, not “false”, since some kind of defence could probably be given for each of Loxton’s words. However, each of them has problems, and the cumulative effect is to distance atheism from scientific skepticism far more dramatically than can be justified. Yes, they don’t simply entail each other, but it’s not a coincidence that they so often go together.

If Loxton had said, “My own scientifically informed philosophical view on the question of God’s existence,” I would have been fine with it. But if he’d used those words it would have suggested (I think rightly) that atheism and scientific skepticism have at least some affinity after all. Surely we shouldn’t deny that. More about it tomorrow.