A Skeptic’s Thoughts on Belief and Reason


Since I started really thinking about what I believe over and prior to the past several years and examined my reasons for much of what I held to be true despite their now-obviously questionable nature, I’ve been forced to discard many of those beliefs — and good riddance to them I say.

I have my sacred cows, my little irrational beliefs and habits, of course, as do we all, but I know what they are and accept at least on an intellectual level that they are simply not true, that I hold to them for relatively poor reasons at best, and contrary to my most rigorous rational thinking. I am, like everyone, ruled by both thought and by emotion to varying degrees.

I believe that this supports an observation by Dave Hume, who said that, “Reason is and only ought to be the slave of the passions,” or something like that, and anyone with the cognitive ability to interact with reality fits that observation, yes, even the most skeptical of us all must obey this rule, for nobody can be completely skeptical about absolutely everything and still be functionally human.

Yes, I’m biased… You’re biased… We’re all biased… Get over it and move on…

It’s human nature to reflexively suppose that if we don’t know about something then it doesn’t exist, including an explanation for anything we see which we lack direct and immediate understanding of at the time we see it. It’s a common error, a logical fallacy called the argument from ignorance — the making of a false inference from negative evidence, from a lack of data. This we can all do if we aren’t wary.

This is one of those little things that makes critical reasoning so useful — It gives us a motivation to seek out and learn things, to add to our knowledge and correct our personal misunderstandings and misgivings about what really is over what merely serves as a paliative for us.

Every one of the more than 6 billion people on Earth has the same general sort of evolved ape brain, regardless of the individual quirks, functionality, conditions, and experience of a given brain…

But critical thinking skills are not only for the use of an exclusive intellectual minority — they are for anyone and everyone who is willing to learn to ponder more even about things we ordinarily take for granted.

The only person I can ever surpass is myself, and I’ve come to think about things a bit more deeply and learned to think them over more carefully than I have prior to the last four years.

Questioning yourself will do that, and that’s a good thing. I’ve always been argumentative, even with myself as a youngster, even as a believer of certain claims that long ago I held quite dogmatically.

It was good to free myself from having to know things for certain, good to get it through my head that I didn’t have privileged access to metaphysical certainty. Reason and truth can come from any source, not just the ivory halls of credentialed academic researchers, as I’ve learned over the past few years.

Do I hate anybody’s god?

Do I fear the paranormal?

Poppycock to both. Absolute rubbish. Garbage.

I no more hate or fear such things any more than I loath or dread pixies, green-skinned Orions, dragons, purple people-eaters, or the alien gods of Howard Phillips Lovecraft.

It is simply not possible to hate or fear anything not part of my reality equation.

I may as well quake in terror of the the terrible implications of thunderball-farting orange intangible leprechauns with horns sneaking up invisibly from behind me and goosing me with etheric toothpicks.

I know — that was really pushing it — but it illustrates my point.

I’m a non-believer in anything which cannot be shown real, not a disbeliever in that which can. When it’s shown to be real, when it’s shown to be true, I’ll believe it, and not before — No goalposts need be kept out of reach or moved.

Abject denial out of hatred or fear strikes me as being absurd, contrary to the mode of inquiry practiced by other skeptics, those more expert, much better at it than me.

Now and then in the skeptical literature, the question of fraud comes up. What is my position on this?

From my present understanding, most alleged reports of paranormal events are just instances of the mistaken perception of, identification of, and inadequate documentation of ordinary phenomena by untrained witnesses in unfamiliar observation conditions.

Purposeful deception is a very serious accusation, and one I try very hard to avoid making. It should never be leveled until evidence for it is apparent. And it doesn’t matter whether the accused is a skeptic, scientist, fringe-proponent or anyone else — Any such accusation is equally fallacious, and possibly libelous as well, when assumed a priori before an inquiry is even made, and this is true regardless of the attitude, views, beliefs, or position of the accused or accuser.

Human beings are sufficiently capable of making errors in perception, memory, introspection and reason that it is usually not necessary to invoke dishonesty as regards claims made. Usually.

Fraud, in intent as well as deed, is typically uncovered by insiders of a given field rather than those without — Most of the evidence of purposeful deception in parapsychology research was uncovered by other parapsychologists, and every incident of fraudulent research in even mainstream science was likewise revealed by (*gasp*) scientists, never non-scientists.

Neither science, nor skepticism, nor any other valid and useful approach to seeking the truth is served by making truly unfounded aspersions on the honesty or character of others. Rule #1: Avoid overvaluing the fraud or ulterior motive hypothesis without obvious cause — Use with caution.

Perhaps I’m being naive, but I find it more useful to lean towards the “sincere but mistaken” hypothesis unless it is evident that the one under scrutiny really is an intentional fraudster, or an example of the well-known phenomenon of the pious fraud — someone who really believes their claims, but is willing and self-deceived — and deceiving — enough to cut a few corners to support their belief.

I’ve found that I can never honestly suppose myself to know all that I need to, to deceive myself to think that what I know now is all that there is, and that my final understanding of anything that can be known is complete. Why should I want such a tiny, parochial view of the world, a universe restricted by my own cognitive limits rather than wryly thumbing its proverbial nose at my incredulity and ignorance?

I’m quite aware of the fact that there are things undreamt of in anyone’s and everyone’s philosophy, especially mine.

O Noes… I believe that edification and growth as living stardust given the gift of thought through chemistry and evolution should happen throughout life, and should only end when our last spark of life has been extinguished.

A reality in which what is is not defined by what I can believe or imagine or observe is much more interesting to me, because as time passes, I find the curve-balls the universe tosses my way much more entertaining. If I were to make one wish, whether seriously or in jest, it would be this: May final knowledge of anything and everything forever remain out of reach.

About Troy Loy

I seek to learn through this site and others how to better my ability as a person and my skill at using my reason and understanding to best effect. I do fractal artwork as a hobby, and I'm working to develop it to professional levels, though I've a bit to go till I reach that degree of skill! This is a crazy world we're in, but maybe I can do a little, if only that, to make it a bit more sane than it otherwise would be.

Posted on Thursday, 12:19, September 30, 2010, in Ravings & Rants and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Quoting…
    …Purposeful deception is a very serious accusation, and one I try very hard to avoid making. It should never be leveled until evidence for it is apparent. And it doesn’t matter whether the accused is a skeptic, scientist, fringe-proponent or anyone else — Any such accusation is equally fallacious, and possibly libelous as well, when assumed a priori before an inquiry is even made, and this is true regardless of the attitude, views, beliefs, or position of the accused or accuser.

    Human beings are sufficiently capable of making errors in perception, memory, introspection and reason that it is usually not necessary to invoke dishonesty as regards claims made. Usually.
    …end quote.

    You have many times stated here that science is the only ‘dogma’ that is self correcting. For any of your readers who don’t read Science News, they recently had an article explaining the whys of two papers they had to print retractions of dealing with glucose handles on cancer DNA. Some eager beavers were yelling that the scientist in question was commiting purposeful fraud, and that the institute involved was aware of it including the director. It turns out that although there was a bit of drama involved with somebody else trying to commit blackmail and some notebooks going missing, the institute in question was already trying to verify the work through replication, a process initiated by the original scientist after there were questions on the outcomes by another bright mind.. The end of a long story was that under specific conditions in the original work, by this molecule binding here and not there, another molecule was coming into play and generating a false positive. An honest design flaw in the original experiment, found by the original lab, after the ‘flag was thrown’ by the original scientist, who then lost a chance of tenure at his current university. Then the original papers were promptly pulled.
    I would like to see the parawhatevers do such a procedure just once…….

    Like

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