On being skeptical of skeptics

Freddie DeBoer on his blog L’Hote posts an interesting response to Sam Harris’s TED talk, which I wrote about here.

The entire post, titled “Skepticism and the Last Dogma,” is worth reading, as are the readers’ comments that follow. I think he makes an excellent point about the need for a “true” skepticism — one that guards against the arrogance of unwarranted certainty — but also seriously misapprehends Harris’s argument. Here are some of the salient points:

This is the kind of skeptic that Sam Harris is: he is skeptical of competing claims of truth and accuracy, but not of his own capacity to judge, nor of the human capacity to create intellectual structures that make that judging correct. Certainly, this is what the edifice of modern skepticism represents: a skepticism that first flatters the intellect of the skeptic in question, and the human mind in general.

I’ve always felt that the kind of skepticism that is most valuable, that is to our pragmatic benefit, is the skepticism that begins the skeptical enterprise at the human mind, the classical Greek skepticism that regarded any real certainty as dogmatism. Not because it is true, or even because it is superior, but because epistemological modesty seems to me to be an entirely under appreciated tool for the practical prosecution of our lives and our arguments. You can of course read a vast array of literature making this same point, from people far smarter and better argued than I am. You can read people like Sextus Empiricus, the Buddha, David Hume, George Berkeley, Nietzsche, Jacques Derrida, Richard Rorty…. Not because they are gurus who will point you towards truth, but because what they have to say may help you along your way.

For me, I would merely put it this way: that we do not encounter the physical universe unmediated but through a consciousness mechanism and sensory inputs that seem to be the products of evolution. And the belief (however you want to define a belief) in evolution makes the idea of those consciousness and sensory mechanism being capable, no matter how long the time scale, of perfectly or non-contingently ordering the universe around us seem quite low. Evolution does not produce perfectly fit systems, it only eliminates those systems so unfit that they prevent survival and the propagation of genetic material. A chimpanzee’s intellect is a near-miracle, capable of incredible things, but it will never understand calculus. I could never and would never say this with deductive certainty, but it seems likely to me that our consciousness has similar limitations.


All of history’s greatest villains were people who were certain. From Pol Pot to Hitler to Stalin to the Spanish Inquisition, the conquistadors, the progenitors of the Rwandan genocide, the Ku Klux Klan…. They all had it all figured out. […] What the world needs isn’t yet another muscular certainty that seeks to impose itself on all. What it needs is doubt, I think.


Among the few necessary social functions that religion performed, and that we now are lacking in a post-theistic world, is the enforcement of a certain humility. There is no god, but you and I are still dust, we always were.

First, here’s where I disagree.

DeBoer, I think, is wrong about Harris’s stance. Harris is not championing a deluded certainty equivalent to that of history’s greatest villains; that kind of certainty is itself dogma, and Harris is dedicated to criticizing dogma of any kind. Here’s how he addresses the issue on his website:

People of faith often claim that the crimes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot were the inevitable product of unbelief. The problem with fascism and communism, however, is not that they are too critical of religion; the problem is that they are too much like religions. Such regimes are dogmatic to the core and generally give rise to personality cults that are indistinguishable from cults of religious hero worship. Auschwitz, the gulag and the killing fields were not examples of what happens when human beings reject religious dogma; they are examples of political, racial and nationalistic dogma run amok. There is no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too reasonable.

And in his book The End of Faith:

…the most monstrous crimes against humanity have invariably been inspired by unjustified belief. This is nearly a truism. Genocidal projects tend not to reflect the rationality of their perpetrators simply because there are no good reasons to kill peaceful people indiscriminately. Even where such crimes have been secular, they have required the egregious credulity of entire societies to be brought off. Consider the millions of people who were killed by Stalin and Mao: although these tyrants paid lip service to rationality, communism was little more than a political religion. At the heart of its apparatus of repression and terror lurked a rigid ideology, to which generations of men and women were sacrificed. Even though their beliefs did not reach beyond this world, they were both cultic and irrational. (p.79)

Further, DeBoer, like many others, makes the mistake of crediting religion with “the enforcement of a certain humility.” Perhaps many believers have a genuinely humble attitude in their dealings with others and in their daily lives. But religious belief itself rests on unprovable claims about the workings of the universe that are far more arrogant than any claims made through patient scientific inquiry. Again, from Harris’s website:

When scientists don’t know something — like why the universe came into being or how the first self-replicating molecules formed — they admit it. Pretending to know things one doesn’t know is a profound liability in science. And yet it is the life-blood of faith-based religion. One of the monumental ironies of religious discourse can be found in the frequency with which people of faith praise themselves for their humility, while claiming to know facts about cosmology, chemistry and biology that no scientist knows. When considering questions about the nature of the cosmos and our place within it, atheists tend to draw their opinions from science. This isn’t arrogance; it is intellectual honesty.

DeBoer is also wrong to accuse Harris of failing to question “his own capacity to judge [and] the human capacity to create intellectual structures that make that judging correct.” Harris, in fact, devotes an entire chapter of The End of Faith to exploring the nature and limitations of consciousness, and approaches the endeavor with as much humility as you could ask for:

And so, while we know many things about ourselves in anatomical, physiological, and evolutionary terms, we currently have no idea why it is “like something” to be what we are. The fact that the universe is illuminated where you stand, the fact that your thoughts and moods and sensations have a qualitative character, is an absolute mystery — rivaled only by the mystery, famously articulated by the philosopher Schelling, that there should be anything at all in this universe rather than nothing The problem is that our experience of brains, as objects in the world, leaves us perfectly insensible to the reality of consciousness, while our experience as brains grants us knowledge of nothing else. Given this situation, it is reasonable to conclude that the domain of our subjectivity constitutes a proper (and essential) sphere of investigation into the nature of the universe: as some facts will be discovered only in consciousness, in first-person terms, or not discovered at all. (p.209)

And where DeBoer cites Sextus Empiricus (presumably referring to his writings about the philosophy of Pyrrho of Elis) as an example of “the classical Greek skepticism that regarded any real certainty as dogmatism,” which he sets up against what he imagines Harris’s stance to be, he seems to be unaware that Harris actually appreciates this perspective as well; in the chapter notes to The End of Faith he says: “This position has rarely been accorded the respect that it deserves in the West […] most philosophers have not recognized Pyrrho’s innovation to be the empirical turn toward profundity that it genuinely was” (p.292).

Far from arrogance, then, and far from setting up humanity as the ultimate arbiter of what is knowable about the universe, Harris shows throughout his writing a genuine humility in the face of the fact that, as DeBoer puts it, “you and I are still dust, we always were.” As Harris himself puts it at the conclusion of his book:

Man is manifestly not the measure of all things. This universe is shot through with mystery. The very fact of its being, and of our own, is a mystery absolute, and the only miracle worthy of the name. (p.227)

I think what critics of Harris, Dawkins, et al. fail to understand is this: Claims based on scientific investigation (including claims in the field of moral values) do not, or at least should not, rest on unquestioned presuppositions about the superiority of any perspective on reality, but rather on the exact opposite: that is, on a thorough and persistent questioning of the facts as well as our perception of the facts. Such an approach won’t lead us to Absolute Truth, whatever that is, but it is so much better at getting us closer to the right answers than any “authoritative” pronouncements (be they religious or secular) made on the basis of unexamined assumptions.

And this, finally, is where I agree with DeBoer, despite his grossly unfair characterization of Harris’s position: True skepticism arises out of humility and modesty, out of an awareness of our own limitations in knowing the universe.

Michael Shermer, the director of the Skeptics Society, understands this. In his book Why People Believe Weird Things he devotes a chapter titled “How Thinking Goes Wrong” (viewable here, and worth reading in full) to detailing the problems not just with pseudoscientific thinking but with scientific thinking as well — in fact, with thinking in general — so that we can guard against the fallacies that anyone, even skeptics and scientists, can fall into.

Like Harris, Shermer is far from arrogant about the virtues of skepticism. He acknowledges what DeBoer points out in his post: that many skeptics, being human, succumb to the all-too-human tendency to reflexively sneer at viewpoints they consider unenlightened. But skeptics must also recognize how their own thinking is shaped, by society, psychology, history, and culture — and in doing so, avoid the mistakes of those who draw careless conclusions.

Skeptics have the very human tendency to relish debunking what we already believe to be nonsense. It is fun to recognize other people’s fallacious reasoning, but that’s not the whole point. As skeptics and critical thinkers, we must move beyond our emotional responses because by understanding how others have gone wrong and how science is subject to social control and cultural influences, we can improve our understanding of how the world works. It is for this reason that it is so important for us to understand the history of both science and pseudoscience. If we see the larger picture of how these movements evolve and figure out how their thinking went wrong, we won’t make the same mistakes. The seventeenth-century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza said it best: “I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them.” (p.61)

Carl Sagan, of course, has some wise words on this subject, as Shermer quotes in the epigraph to his book:

It seems to me what is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas. If you are only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you. You never learn anything new. You become a crotchety old person convinced that nonsense is ruling the world. (There is, of course, much data to support you.)

On the other hand, if you are open to the point of gullibility and have not an ounce of skeptical sense in you, then you cannot distinguish useful ideas from the worthless ones. If all ideas have equal validity then you are lost, because then, it seems to me, no ideas have any validity at all.

–from “The Burden of Skepticism,” Pasadena lecture, 1987

Skepticism, as Shermer frequently says, is a method, not a position. When practiced well, it shouldn’t lead to the complacent notion that we can’t know anything for certain and that it’s useless to even try.* Instead, it should lead us to take the utmost care in making our conclusions; to constantly compare notes; to try to disprove claims, and only accept (and always accept provisionally) claims that have withstood all criticism to date; to try to synthesize our myriad subjective perceptions into a more comprehensive, and hopefully more reliable, whole; and to recognize that, working carefully and with all humility, there are truths to be known about ourselves, our existence, and the awesome reality around us. We’ll never know it all. But with patient skepticism, we can identify which paths are less likely and more likely to lead to a greater understanding of what Ursula Goodenough calls Cosmos and Ethos, the warp and weft of the universe.


*By the way: This notion is often attributed to Socrates, who is commonly believed to have said something like “All I know is that I know nothing.” As Priscilla Sakezles explains, this is a misquote, and a misunderstanding of Socrates’ position.

(h/t The Daily Dish)

(Image h/t Skeptic.com)


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