Narrow Skepticism

How do you know the South Pole is cold? Have you been there? Or do you, like me, just believe the multiple sources that make the claim?

Most of us don’t have a problem stating such things as fact. But if you really push your imagination, you could come up with some fanciful scenario where the South Pole is actually nice and temperate, and the sources you trust as authoritative were themselves misinformed, or maybe even lying to conceal some secret. However unlikely the scenario, I don’t think the possibility - no matter how remote - can be disproven until you’ve been there. BUT WAIT! Who’s to say on the trip down there you weren’t drugged, or put in a virtual reality machine? Or perhaps the boat landed on a different landmass that is cold and the captain claimed it was the South Pole but it’s really not. Or maybe… or maybe..

What I’m describing here is the maddening position of the radial skeptic. Those guys that Plato called earth giants. It’s a maddening position because it can undermine all rational discourse if one side continually pushes it in a debate. Critics of the radical skeptic say that the philosophy leads to a world with no absolutes, no Truth, (capitalized to emphasize a universal applicability) and a complete break-down of reason. While some radical skeptics may travel those roads, I’d like to make a case for a form of skepticism that can accommodate the idea of a complete lack of true knowledge, but still functions as a stable platform for analysis, debate, morality, and all the other niceties of human interaction. I’ll do that in my next installment. First, I’m going to show a third rout that most modern so-called skeptics take.

A problem I’ve found with many skeptics is that they only claim to be skeptics without truly embracing the position’s ramifications for ALL ideas. In other words they pick and choose who or what to be skeptical about based on their personal proclivities. Take for example Michael Shermer, the author and public face of Skeptic Magazine. He wrote in Why People Believe Weird Things:
Skepticism has a long historical tradition dating back to ancient Greece when Socrates observed: “All I know is that I know nothing.” But this is not a practical position to take. Modern skepticism is embodied in the scientific method, that involves gathering data to formulate and test naturalistic explanations for natural phenomena.

Mr. Shermer has just clearly shown his biases and the direction he is pointing his skeptic’s squirtgun. He will consider all things natural, and doubt all things that fall in every other category of human life. In other words, he accepts a priori that the consensus of our physical senses are accurate enough to postulate theories that don’t need skepticism. (Such as evolution or chemistry) But that all the other stuff that happens in the world of morality, ethics, religion, philosophy, relationships, etc. are so much bunk to be dissected with a materialist toolbox. This is the modus operandi of the atheist, and I gotta say: I’m skeptical about this approach to life.

As far as I can tell, the issue is that atheists work exclusively with material processes, so evidence corroborating one's claim is subject to a high level of consensus. In other words, others can touch, taste, hear, smell, feel or see the same evidence. This is great and fine, and I'm thankful for all the wonderful things this has brought about in our world. But when one deals with philosophical/religious concepts, such consensus is much harder to come by for obvious reasons. Yet even the most ardent atheist's arguments are grounded in some philosophical framework that has religious ramifications. So I think their posture towards the spheres of life outside the material universe (such as philosophy) is inconsistent.

One cannot apply all the same methodologies and tools towards philosophical critique as one applies to the sciences. To do so and then dismiss the results due to the shoddy outcome is like using a hammer to paint a wall, and then declaring all painted walls to be ridiculous. Clearly your hammer won't work well and the results will be ugly and ridiculous. A materialist will have all sorts of neat tools in his toolbox, but none of them function like a paintbrush.
The irony is that all atheists live in a world that has been beautifully painted, but simply don't value the work that has gone into the project. In fact, the very podium they stand on -jeering at the painters from- is decorated by philosophers and theologians throughout the ages.

But these analogies don’t resonate with the materialist skeptics like Shermer. They want EVIDENCE for the claims that they are attacking. But the "evidence" for philosophical or theological claims are not a materially manifest, so it falls outside of the little box they've built for themselves. The evidence is ideas. There can be corroborating physical or historical evidence as well, but those only "work" when they are plugged into the larger framework of a philosophical/religious system. Shermer and others caricature this evidence as merely authoritative pronouncements from a religious power structure; and that may be the faulty reasoning of some portion of religious people. But those authorities would have no sway over people’s minds if there were no explanatory power in the systems that they oversee.

If all religious claims concerned natural processes (Such as many animistic, shamanic and polytheistic religions) then by all means, the skeptic should declare their materialistic jurisdiction. I agree with my atheist friends that all gods-of-the-gap must go. But please don't pretend that a materialist toolbox has all the tools necessary to produce a fully fleshed-out plan for human flourishing. It doesn't. Those atheist that do flourish, (and I'm hoping they all do) do so thanks to a structure of living that is largely invisible to them due to its incorporeal nature. The values that drive humans to do good to each other, (such as love, self-sacrifice, family, etc.) were cultivated in religious and philosophical contexts and only make rational sense in those spheres.

I realize that a big part of the atheist project involves transplanting those values into a material framework; and more power to them. But their underlying philosophical views are poisonous to the roots since values require non-physical evidence. If love is nothing but chemical processes than there is no reason to value it over mold on bread. And once one is in a situation where love becomes less-than-fun then there is no way to anchor it as a value to be adhered to. The system will collapse. At least that's my prediction. Take it for what it's worth. Or don't.

So while I like the stance of the skeptic, I really don’t appreciate Shermer and company using the word simply as a club to beat on specific targets. The fact that he outright dismisses Socrates’ most basic assertion: “All I know is that I know nothing”. is telling, and ultimately damning to his entire body of work. A true skeptic, I contend, would embrace this maxim no matter how much it hurt their ability to make other people look like idiots.

A true skeptic will be just as skeptical of scientific claims, our processes for data collection, our biased attempts to collect said data and form theories, our senses, our organizational structures that choose which theories get aired and which get buried, etc. And as I’ve tried to demonstrate, perhaps they should be skeptical of materialist philosophy as much as they are skeptical of other philosophies. And most important of all, a real skeptic should be skeptical of their own biases, predispositions, intelligence, importance, and desires. Until Mr. Shermer does this, I think he should be honest about his affiliations and stop calling himself a skeptic.



_____ Commenter1:______________________________________________________

Same tired old arguments from yet another True Believer.

This entire article is a straw man argument. He paints a ridiculous caricature of Shermer (or any other skeptic), that's obviously indefensible, and then simply proclaims that this accurately represents the thought processes of a man he's never met, and obviously does not know very well.

Thanks for the sagely advice on following the scientific method. You might want to revisit it yourself.


_____Joshua Foreman:_______________________________________________

I don’t know how you define a “True Believer”. It sounds like you mean a fundamentalist, which I most certainly am not. I get more heat from Christians than I do from others. I chose to highlight Mr. Shermer in this article simply because he is a public face of a school of thought that I’m critiquing. If I falsely represented his views please point out where and I’ll retract any errors.


_____ Commenter2:______________________________________________________

Just a quick comment about your opening line:

I understand how the heat from the sun radiates as well as the effect of the tilt of the earth. I have seen it on small scale as well as through images. I have traveled to different areas of the earth, so I understand how the climate works first hand.

I do not merely accept the south pole is cold because someone told me to.

Thats cool that you do though.

Just curious, now that ive read your whole article. Whats with the hard-on for Shermer? You haven't referenced a single thing that he has written that you're criticizing. Instead you just make insulting remarks about him. Very odd indeed.

Methinks you have a crush on him, am I wrong?


_____Joshua Foreman:_______________________________________________

Haha.. well, I will admit that Shermer has a sort of roguish charm to him. He is by no means an ugly man. But that is neither here nor there. I did not single him out as a target to attack. I picked him because he is a public face that represents a school of thought that I’m critiquing. And in fact I DID reference a single thing that he wrote, complete with a link to the book it’s from, a link to his personal website, and a link to his magazine. I’m certainly not doing him any disservice by publicizing him so much here! I also did not make any insulting remarks that I’m aware of. I’m critiquing a philosophy that he uses, but that’s hardly a personal insult, is it? (Especially if my critique is as pathetic as you think it is!)

“Just a quick comment about your opening line...”

Yes, yes, my point is not that there isn’t ample evidence supporting any particular claim. Only that every conceivable proof you could proffer can be undermined by a radical skeptic. Your extrapolating from specifics (small scale observation) to general is subject to biased interpretation. The tilt of the earth is only known to us via technologies that could be faulty or interpreted wrongly. Or you could simply be insane and all your travels could be hallucinations. Now of course I don’t believe any of these things. I agree with your method of gathering information and the scientific consensus. My point is not to attack ‘science’ or common sense. My point is to illustrate that one cannot defeat a radical skeptic because every piece of evidence you have is contingent on elements that could be illusory.


_____ Commenter3:______________________________________________________

You say: "The values that drive humans to do good to each other, (such as love, self-sacrifice, family, etc.) were cultivated in religious and philosophical contexts and only make rational sense in those spheres."
So how do you explain these same values when they appear in non-humans? We materialists suspect that these behaviors may have evolved and existed before humans as we know them.
I'm skeptical that you're as skeptical of the materialists as you claim. When you get sick do you go to the doctor? When you want to be entertained do you use electronics? You're benefiting from the rich bounty of advances made by the self-correcting tool of science. The cool thing is that if science is wrong about these supposedly supernatural issues it will self-correct.
But if you're wrong will you self-correct?

I think not. But I freely admit I could be wrong. I just need to see the evidence to support your position.


_____Joshua Foreman:_______________________________________________

“But I freely admit I could be wrong. I just need to see the evidence to support your position.”

And the point of this article is that a materialist will not seriously consider the evidence to support my position. A materialist must be skeptical about materialism in order to enter the realm of meaningful communication with a non-materialist. Just as a non-materialist must be skeptical about “spiritual” things in order to meaningfully communicate with a materialist. Both positions are full of fundamentalists who just won’t consider what the other side has to offer. Both have made straw men of the other side and chopped them up time and time again, thinking they have won. I seek to avoid that approach, (though I can’t do it perfectly) by avoiding fundamentalism altogether. Therefore I appreciate feedback like yours and anyone else who will critique my attempts and help me to better understand a real position rather than a straw one.

“The cool thing is that if science is wrong about these supposedly supernatural issues it will self-correct”

Yes that is cool. But often these paradigm shifts take generations.

“But if you're wrong will you self-correct? I think not.”

If I am wrong about the existence of a transcendent something there will never be any confirmation or denial. I don’t think you can give any evidence that there was once an uncaused effect. (The beginning of time/space/matter) If you come up with one, please let me know. If the entire debate takes place in the materialist sphere, then any questions or evidence that occur outside of it, (“before” time/space/matter) are automatically out of bounds. And thus no meaningful debate can occur. We are simply at: “Uh-huh!” “Nuh-uh!” “Uh-huh!” An infinite regress if you will.

“You're benefiting from the rich bounty of advances made by the self-correcting tool of science.”

I hoped to make clear that I’m not attacking science or the scientific method. My critique is deeper, and applies to all human knowledge claims. The quagmire of epistemology is my battlefield.

“So how do you explain these same values when they appear in non-humans? We materialists suspect that these behaviors may have evolved and existed before humans as we know them.”

I agree that these behaviors evolved and existed before humans as we know them. I agree that they are the product of evolution. (Though is see an Ultimate reason behind that process.) But it’s simple to see a difference between these behaviors of love, family and self-sacrifice as expressed in the animal kingdom, and the same behavior getting interpreted as values in human society. Our cultural inclinations and institutions enforce a certain amount of adherence to them, yet as a species we have proven time and time again that we often hate them. Human males typically want to maximize the number of mates they have and minimize the amount of responsibility they take for offspring. This may work out fine for animals with very short pre-adult periods. But once a certain threshold of complexity in social structure is reached the lack of a father is catastrophic. There are many theories about the purpose and evolution of the human social apparatus, but one thing I think few sociologists would argue with is that we need these structures to reign in the male impulse to mate and leave. My point is that you cannot rely on merely animal instinct to provide a society that allows humans to thrive. An ordering of values is necessary. And without a transcending system for ordering those values, an individual will follow their bliss, (animal instinct) which very often means selfishness, violence, and incomplete family structures.


_____ Commenter4:______________________________________________________

Correction: Michael Shermer is a materialist, which is entirely compatible with skepticism.

Foreman asserts a pragmatic view of religion's utility akin to William James who said "On pragmatic principles we cannot reject any hypothesis if consequences useful to life flow from it. Universal conceptions, as things to take account of, may be as real for pragmatism as particular sensations are. They have indeed no meaning and no reality if they have no use. But if they have any use they have that amount of meaning. And the meaning will be true if the use squares well with life’s other uses."

In other words, non-materialist can be skeptics if they hold the position that religion maybe useful if we don't assert its positions as true or attempt to falsify them. There is absolute truth and 'truths' (beliefs) that make our life better. However, basic logic tells us that non-materialist skeptics are a subset of skeptics, so the op has commited a basic fallacy.


_____Joshua Foreman:_______________________________________________

“basic logic tells us that non-materialist skeptics are a subset of skeptics, so the op has commited a basic fallacy.”

This is hardly common knowledge. It depends on how you order your philosophical arguments. For instance, I consider myself agnostic BEFORE Christian. That is, my acknowledgement that true Knowledge is not attainable informs all my Christian beliefs, not visa-versa. (If one is looking for Truth before doctrine I think this is the only rational position.) If one is truly a skeptic, I think that approach should supersede and inform one’s materialism or non-materialism. When it happens the other way around you get Shermer and company. Their materialism informs and directs their skepticism.


_____ Commenter5:______________________________________________________

Everyone wants to feel like Mr. Know-it-All. We're all retards. Even the smartest human being who ever lived is a pip-squeak, speck-of-dust dumb-ass who knows barely anything.

I really hope things like UFOs are real so that certain 'skeptics' will crap their pants.


_____Joshua Foreman:_______________________________________________

I agree that we are all retards. I however don’t wish unintended bowel movements for anyone.


_____ Commenter6:______________________________________________________

what bothers me most about shermer is his unwavering certainty that his skills of observation are superior to anyone else's. ____________________________________________________________________

_____Joshua Foreman:_______________________________________________

This is the position of every fundamentalist.


_____ Commenter7:______________________________________________________

It's Straw Man City up in hurr.


_____Joshua Foreman:_______________________________________________

Please, I welcome you to be specific.


_____ Commenter8:______________________________________________________

There's an old joke in legal circles: "If the law is against you, argue the facts. If the facts are against you, argue the law. If both are against you, call the other lawyer names." Mr. Foreman has obviously heard this one as well.

Yes, Mr. Shermer can be supremely annoying...but that does not, in itself, invalidate his position. In the end, people tend to believe what they need to believe and they often resort to ad hominem arguments when they can't refute opposing positions in any other way and that's OK, it offers a good way of separating the poop from the fertilizer. At least for those folks who have a brain and actually use it.

At least Mr. Shermer isn't half as arrogant as most of his critics.


_____Joshua Foreman:_______________________________________________

I can’t tell if you are accusing me or Shermer of name-calling. I don’t believe that I called him anything. (Here in the comments section I did refer to him as a polemicist. But aren’t we all sometimes?) And you are right, he does not come off nearly as smarmy and arrogant sounding as a Jillette or Dawkins. Oh wait, I’m afraid I misread your last sentence. You’re saying HIS critics are arrogant. Sounds like name calling to me.


_____ Commenter9:______________________________________________________

Skepticism in fact goes back farther than Plato and Pyrrho - skepticism goes back at least as far as Buddha!

Protagoran relativism and Pyrrhonistic skepticism have their place in philosophical discussions, but they have little application to engineering.

There's nothing inconsistent with being a Pyrrhonistic skeptic with regard to philosophy and also applying other philosophies to other aspects of life.


_____Joshua Foreman:_______________________________________________

I agree, and I don’t want to sound like I’m saying you have to be 100% anything. I’m critiquing the use of selective skepticism that is driven by an underlying, unexamined philosophy.


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