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Respecting the Right to Believe, without being uncritical about It

Vermeer The Allegory of the Faith

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My view as a skeptic is that the right of others to believe as they choose should indeed be respected, but let’s not confuse the right to believe with uncritical respect for or assent by silence of others about the belief itself.

Also, in respecting the rights of others to believe, I claim for myself the right to free expression, of free speech, and the right to respectfully inform others to the best of my understanding, without bullying or condescension, by whatever lawful means available, when a claim leading to a belief can and has been shown erroneous, or at least inconsistent with itself or the truth of what it concerns.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, though, and needed to get my thoughts in order, hence this particular post.

It’s not my right, nor my interest, to coerce or deceive someone into believing or not believing something. I’m not out to make people “not believe,” or any similarly absurd canard.

My focus is on the claims themselves, not the beliefs. Nor is it my interest to relieve someone of the burden of faith, only giving them the means to relieve themselves of the burden of credulity, to accept things by way of good judgment on the basis of the reasons given for them.

To me, dogma, in the sense of holding a claim, proposition, or principle infallibly true on the pronouncements of authority, is anathema, and its antithesis is modern skepticism. Dogma excludes the freedom to question.

It’s mistaken to confuse claims with beliefs, or faith with trust. They are very different things indeed, as I will attempt in my own clumsy way to explain, my somewhat limited understanding being ever more evident as I continue.

I distinguish faith from trust, and when I use these words, I have very specific meanings in mind.

A claim, simply put, is a proposition or statement that something is true or false, at least to a degree, whereas a belief is the acceptance of that claim, a position taken on it, whether this acceptance is critical or uncritical in nature.

Faith, as I use the term, involves belief without (or even in spite of) sufficient evidence, and in this sense is inherently non-rational if not irrational at times.

Trust, in the sense of putting stock in the relevant and true expertise, or in the friendship and the general goodwill of others we know, is based upon evidence, the evidence of reliable honesty and past successful performance or advice of those we come to call trustworthy.

I’m hoping that this entry has made clear my perspective on this, and though I can’t speak for other skeptics without their say-so, I strongly suspect that I’m not at all exceptional in this.

There’s no silly rule saying that you have to be a baby-eating ogre, or at least a jerk, to be skeptical.

You Can’t Trust Science!

My thanks for this go out to Ken P. of the blog Open Parachute, and the Guardian. This is bound to ruffle a few feathers. Not for the ideologically thin-skinned…

A Weekend Conversation

I had a good conversation with a friend of mine over the past weekend, and while it started on the subject of a set of miniatures that he had recently bought at a convention, it quickly evolved, rather than devolved, a good thing in any case, into a talk on what he’s rather well-versed in — history.

In particular, we discussed the societal conditions and circumstances influencing the development of science from the 18th century onwards. We discussed some of the factors responsible for the scientism of the 18th and 19th centuries, and how the science of the period was then, just as it is now, influenced more or less by the social pressures and prejudices of the times, specifically those conditions that no longer apply to the present day.

First we talked about early paleontology and its origin, as with other sciences back then, as a pastime of the wealthy and those with wealthy patronage, for then, as now, cutting edge research requires funding. Of course, this was before the days of public funding for research, and a situation that led to the even today popular-but-now-erroneous image of the gentleman scientist. We discussed the social climate’s effects on rigidity and resistance to new ideas, again, conditions differing from the present.

There was the initial refusal during the 18th century to accept the existence of meteorites, much of it being due to an intellectual reaction against any claims that smelled even remotely like superstition, and probably the dominance at the time of aristocratic France on scientific thinking, the French having inherited the mantle from the previous holder during the last couple of centuries, Italy.

There appears to have been a sort of class-bound prejudice against accepting ‘old wives tales from unlettered commoners’ that stones fell from the sky, a situation that was resolved by the results of the French Revolution, when the aristocracy was overthrown and it was now the ‘unlettered commoners’ who were running the show.

On pain of committing an argument from authority, hopefully more of an argument by authority, I trust a good portion of what my friend tells me, for in my experience, he gives me leads to follow up on, and tends to be rather consistent in his factual accuracy when I check up on the leads.

Is this faith?

I would say not — it’s trust, but not blind trust. It’s trust based on the evidence of prior and relatively consistent accuracy in his statements, and so far he’s gotten a good batting average. It’s always a good idea to doubt when given sound reason, but without it, doubt becomes not skepticism, but irrational cynicism and contrarianism.

My friend and I have widely differing views on a number of matters, especially politics, but it’s a good indication that he’s being objective, and probably correct, when both he and I can agree on matters of politically-charged topics like history, and when he can state and address to my satisfaction my positions and any objections I may have to what he says.

Is he merely being a tricky fellow, merely pretending to accurately state and address my views like a skilled lawyer?

I doubt it, and for a good reason: It’s entirely inconsistent with what I’ve known about him over the years, since he’s far too straightforward and sincere, maybe even blunt, about his views and opinions and hasn’t ever shown a shred of duplicity in his motives. Again, doubt should be exercised when and where it’s appropriate, not as a knee-jerk reflex against anything that conflicts with one’s personal ideology and prejudices.

There’s a fuzzy but real demarcation between being a skeptic and being a denier along a continuum of attitudes and intellectual strategies, and in the arguments they use, not just the label. Fnord.

Taking Exception to Doubt…

Human beings, jumped-up monkeys that we are, especially those of us who have a strong commitment to any sort of belief system or doctrine, tend to take exception to anyone who expresses doubt toward those statements we make that deal with said belief system, sometimes to the point of vilifying those who disagree.

This is a shame, since there’s a lot of difference in the world, and precious few people who actually agree on most matters, much less on everything. To some it is sheer arrogance and unbridled cheek to question something that to the one being questioned, seems as obviously true, as necessary of proving, as the existence of trees, to paraphrase a psychic I know.

In some cases, this vilification of non-believers involves the use of such operative terms as ‘devils,’ even if the one so using it is a practicing Roman Catholic, and the ‘scoffers’ are a committee appointed by the Church to investigate the occurrence of an alleged miracle who do not rule in favor of the claim.

Sh*t happens…

Let’s face it, disbelief at one’s claims can be frustrating, and can lead to indignation, annoyance, smoldering anger, even festering hatred, at the temerity of doubters to what we know for a fact is absolutely true.

Personal experience, despite the numerous fallacies it is subject to, can be very persuasive, sometimes profoundly so. It upsets us when our claims, true or false, are not uncritically accepted when we make them, even and especially when friends are involved, because this implies a sort of betrayal of our trust.

As a skeptic of both the paranormal and religion, I do not have faith in the religious sense in the nonexistence of the paranormal, nor in the nonexistence of gods. My view is that I simply have yet to hear any good arguments, or be shown any compelling evidence for the reality of either. The burden of proof rests upon the claimant that these things are so.

I must stress that I do not know that neither exists, but at this time do not have enough information, nor reasons, to come to a positive conclusion yea or nay as to the reality of either.

My Troythuluness would like the paranormal to be true, but right now it just isn’t a part of my reality equation, likewise divine beings. I remain skeptical of their existence until the evidence gives me good reason to accept them as true. Real evidence, using acceptable standards of sufficiency, not just necessity, more than just a mountain of unsubstantiated anecdotes, for even a mountain of worthless evidence is still worthless.

Adding a million zeroes together is still zero…

Yes, it is indeed possible for every single instance of personal testimony to be the result of human error or dishonesty, and to paraphrase Daniel Loxton, the oft-repeated argument “where there’s smoke there’s fire” needs to be permanently laid to rest — not that I’m holding my breath on that ever happening.

Also in dire need of being taken out and executed for failure is the old saw “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” when indeed it can be when put in context with what evidence where should logically be found, and it certainly isn’t evidence of presence either. Granted, it’s not conclusive proof of absence, but in science nothing can ever be proven conclusively, only to varying degrees of credibility, at best just shy of a probability of either 0 or 1.

What does this lead up to?

In a few of my criticisms of individuals and ideas on this blog, I suspect that I have occasionally been guilty of a bit of impropriety, a wee bit of unfairness. This is not seen by me as a good thing. This is not only the blog of a skeptic, but a skeptical blog, and I’ll leave any unprofessionalism to the opposition, thank you most kindly!

I’ve come a long way since I began this blog on December 28, 2008, but I have a way to go before I can be considered a seasoned skeptic by anyone. I’m in the process of updating some of my older topical posts written before I’ve gotten to where my writing ability, such as it is, is now.

Where I have erred, I shall free my mind from the clutter of error. Where I have willfully insulted, I shall avoid doing so gratuitously, and if possible, to make amends. But if despite my own efforts, some believers in certain… non-scientific concepts still take issue, still find themselves grievously offended at what I post, then the perceived offense from this point on shall exist only in their own minds, not anywhere in the world ‘out there’ or in this tiny region among the yawning electrons of cyberspace.

Let those who demonize their critics continue to do so if they feel so impelled. It matters not, as their demons exist only in their own fantasies, not on this writer’s blog.


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