July 9, 2013

A Rational Skeptic's Manifesto

English: There are no symbols that represent s...
English: There are no symbols that represent skepticism. This is one symbol that can be used to represent skepticism, skeptical inquiry, critical thinking, critical inquiry, and truth-seeking. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I am writing this with the hope that it will be the first in a series of posts I'd like to write on the important subject of skepticism. What I want to do in this series is try to articulate my approach to skepticism. I will not be content merely to give a definition of skepticism or to consider it in some abstract way; I want to show how I try to apply skepticism in my life. I'd like to do this because I am recognizing that skepticism is far more important in making me who I am than atheism has ever been. It is not just that skepticism was my path to atheism; it is that even today I feel like skepticism separates me from some of the other atheists I have encountered online and in real life.

I recognize that this is going to be challenging for a few reasons, not the least of which is that I have to decide on the tone the series will take. You see, I am torn between adopting a descriptive tone (i.e., merely describing my position without advocating anything for anyone else) vs. a more prescriptive tone in which I do advocate aspects of skepticism for others to consider. You can see my ambivalence in the title where "rational" is juxtaposed with "manifesto" - two terms that one rarely expects to see together.

Since I'm not sure I can do both simultaneously and manage to produce anything readable, I'm opting to err on the side of a prescriptive tone. I think "manifesto" sounds kind of catchy, and I know I'd rather read something written with conviction instead of disclaimers. With this in mind, I will suggest that there are certain things we probably should be able to expect from someone who is operating as a skeptic.

What is Skepticism?

My focus in this series will not be on definitional issues; however, it is important to begin with a shared understanding of what I mean by skepticism. When I refer to skepticism, I am thinking of the broadest possible version of philosophical skepticism (i.e., the general expectation that all information is supported by evidence). To make this a bit clearer, I'll use the common lay definition of skepticism as referring to both:
  1. an attitude of questioning claims (i.e., purported knowledge, facts, opinions, or beliefs) that are presented as being factual; and
  2. doubt with regard to claims that are accepted uncritically in some circles.
I am not interested in getting bogged down in philosophy here because my focus is going to be on the practical application of skepticism. Thus, I think this definition should be more than sufficient to get us started.

Skepticism and the Scientific Method

Those with scientific training or who have read your share of books by scientists like Carl Sagan and Michael Shermer are already intimately familiar with the central role of skepticism in the scientific method. It would not be an exaggeration to say that it underlies the entire enterprise of hypothesis testing that drives science forward.

Regardless of your science background, I'd be willing to bet that virtually all of you are already more familiar with scientific skepticism than you may realize. After all, this is what comes to mind when we think of the modern skeptic movement. Scientific skepticism is concerned with critically examining beliefs from a scientific perspective. Those who use the scientific method to debunk claims about astrology, faith healing, creationism, homeopathy, psychic abilities, and the like are doing scientific skepticism. The distinction between science and pseudoscience relies on scientific skepticism.

While it is certainly true that one can be an atheist without being a skeptic, scientific skepticism is quite popular in the atheist community today. Many atheists pride themselves in at least trying to resist the irrationality and over reliance on personal experience that characterizes faith. I'd suspect that an overwhelming majority of atheists have been influenced by skepticism at least to some degree.

What's Next?

With this introduction out of the way, I am planning for future posts in this series to be brief and to focus on various aspects of skepticism and its application. I think that this strategy will be more successful at generating discussion than trying to do this as one massive post that nobody would bother to read.

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