The Values of Rational Empiricism


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A couple of days ago, a friend of mine and I were chatting online (hey, Kat!), and the subject of values, in this case those of skepticism, came up.

I’d like to deal with this in a bit more detail here, and let me first clarify what I mean with the concept.

First, these are the values deriving from the nature of modern rational empiricism itself, the full scope of human reason and science it derives from.

I do not in any way mean to pretend or imply that these values are universally and consistently held by the particular peeps who may or may not claim membership in the vibrantly diverse and often contentious worldwide rationalist community, since being individuals with their own quirks and personalities, the idea of the consistent skeptic, like that of the saintly pious believer, is a myth, and one that should have been put to rest long ago. No demographic is truly uniform in behavior or thinking. Except one: the dead.

We are all complex and often conflicted mixtures of behavior, greedy at one time, generous at others, occasionally withdrawn and introverted sometimes, in another instance congenial and extroverted. Human behavior is not easily quantifiable to a static pigeonholed score on a stock personality test.

We all have our moments…We humans can be justly seen, each one of us, as both moral angels and devils, merely for being what we are, with both great gifts and baggage from our evolutionary past.

But in my reading of the works and writings of prominent rationalists, both living and departed, there are a number of themes, call them virtues, ethics, values, or a rationalist code of unwritten principles of conduct, that recur again and again, though it should not be thought that this code is necessarily consciously adhered to by all who deem themselves freethinkers, skeptics, atheists, agnostics, humanists, anti-theists, and others who act to promote rationality and clear thinking.

The first, and most apparent is the worth applied to the twin siblings of science and reason, to the scientific values of curiosity, empiricism, and the progress through science and reason of human understanding, and this I think is antithetical to the more conservative or fundamentalist religious thinking, to which at best, reason is the handmaiden of faith, serving the ends of faith, and handily dismissed when not.

In most highly conservative sects, curiosity is regarded as dangerous, even sinful, and presumptuous, and empiricism, with it’s reliance (to an extent…) on sensory data (pure and augmented by instruments and other tools), reason, experimentation and its penchant for testing claims against the world itself, fatally misleading and unreliable to those of a faith-based mindset because the close association of these to the flesh and the flawed world of appearances.

There is also the value of intellectual honesty, a concern for seeking the truth of a matter, and once again, that of reason. These are some of the things that attracted me to skepticism.

Despite the partisanship that shows itself in some of the rationalist community, like with the whole accommodationist-confrontationist debate, the thing I like about most other rationalists is that I can truly, most of the time, engage in meaningful, constructive argument with them, unlike some fringe-believers I’ve met online and in person who have a tendency to try to try to hijack the argument, misrepresent their sources, commit logical fallacies, and engage in the very sort of personal attacks and tomfoolery they claim to receive from skeptics.

But that last is anecdotal, and derives only from my own experience. Skeptics may occasionally be jerks, but they at least put some effort and care into using rational argumentation over sophistry.

Mind you, the very nature of skepticism, the need to look into claims and evaluate the the evidence, and arrive at the most reasonable explanation for a claim, assuming that anything really happened as claimed that requires explaining, transcends individual skeptics, and I think is due to the way the rationalist community operates:

It’s part of a generally accepted process, a method, a means to an end, not a matter of personal ‘attitude’ or belief — generally accepted because it’s been shown by collective experience over time to work.

It gets results…

Like scientists in the wider community of research workers, those skeptics who do not abide by basic standards of honesty, including the intellectual honesty to admit when they are mistaken when this can be shown to be true by others, are quickly exposed by the same and subjected to the very criticism skeptics are well-known for.

For better or worse.

Compassion and understanding are important too. But while not required of skeptics, these traits are often found in the very best of our lot, and though being skeptical will not necessarily make you a better person, being a better person almost certainly has a role in being a better skeptic.

It’s important to remember that nobody has exclusive access to objectivity, truth, and rationality.

The only requirement is that truths about the world be demonstrable and demonstrated to a reasonable audience using their full abilities of critical judgment and the competence and knowledge-base to assess the data.

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6 thoughts on “The Values of Rational Empiricism”

  1. Some really good points here. I am of the opinion that values (not matter what you call them) are a social construct and a choice. Moral behaviour serves an evolutionary purpose in that we are social creatures and nice people make friends. But I agree the “truthfulness” of the skeptic community appeals to me very much on an emotional level. I know it’s subjective, but I’m cool with that considering the rest of my thinking is usually objective. At least I try to be šŸ™‚
    Damn our big brains, do you think kittehs consider their situation this much?

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