What you are about to read are my notes from an academic presentation that I gave at Ridgeview Classical Schools as Plenary Speaker for their Humanities day. I gave this talk along with Shawn Lorenzen who covered 2 more mistakes. While this is not my normal blog fare, for those of you majoring in science or philosophy, I hope it stimulates some discussion! Enjoy!Download the companion prezi presentation here.
Top 3 Mistakes Smart People Make
Mistake #1: Smart people often assume that Skepticism is the default intellectual stance.
“Modern skepticism is embodied in the scientific method, which involves gathering data to formulate and test naturalistic explanations for natural phenomena. A claim becomes factual when it is confirmed to such an extent it would be reasonable to offer temporary agreement. But all facts in science are provisional and subject to challenge, and therefore skepticism is a method leading to provisional conclusions. Some claims, such as water dowsing, ESP, and creationism, have been tested (and failed the tests) often enough that we can provisionally conclude that they are not valid. Other claims, such as hypnosis, the origins of language, and black holes, have been tested but results are inconclusive so we must continue formulating and testing hypotheses and theories until we can reach a provisional conclusion.” (Emphasis mine)
In Mistake #2 we will look at whether science and skepticism can be used together. For now, I want to stay on the point of modern skepticism as a foundation for knowledge.
The key to Modern skepticism is to continuously and vigorously apply the methods of science to navigate the treacherous straits between “know nothing” skepticism and “anything goes” credulity. Here is Shermer in his own words: (skip to 4:50)
It is important to note that, as Shermer says, Skepticism is a positive assertion about how we are to obtain knowledge. Even Shermer acknowledges that Skepticism isn’t a default stance. That is to say, if we are going to accept Skepticism, we have to have good reasons for doing so among other competing views of knowledge such as Coherentism and Foundationalism.
(I should note also that, according to Shermer, there is an ethical commitment that we “should” adopt Skepticism among competing theories. Smart people often feel obligated to tell others what they should or should not believe.)
Shermer acknowledges that the criteria for Cartesian skepticism is far too strict, (“that we can be skeptical of skepticism”) and I think that he is right. Ironically, the very reasons he gives to reject Cartesian or Methodological Skepticism are the same reasons we think that Shermer’s skepticism is untenable.
To begin, we believe that Skepticism in any form is self-refuting. A self-refuting statement is where the criteria offered in the statement negates the truth of that statement. For example: Writing english sentences is impossible. or I do not exist.
But Modern skepticism falls under the same sword.
We have seen that traditional skepticism is self refuting. “Anything that we cannot be certain of cannot be known” <— how can we know this?
“Anything that cannot be proven by science cannot be known” <—-this statement cannot be scientifically proven!
But let’s lower the bar a bit. Maybe what Shermer means is something like “Anything that cannot be proven by science, we should be skeptical of” <—-we still cannot prove this by science and thus we should be skeptical!
This is important because, as Shermer acknowledges, Skepticism is a positive view on knowledge and it must be able to promote a view that is not only coherent, but true! However, as we can easily see, both Methodological Skepticism and Shermer’s more science based Skepticism are self-refuting or at best self-defeating – they set up criteria for truth of which they themselves cannot bear the weight.
Second, as if it weren’t bad enough that Shermer’s skepticism is self-refuting, his new Skepticism collapses into complete relativism where objective truths simply don’t exist or at best are unknowable. Remember, his criteria:“A claim becomes factual when it is confirmed to such an extent it would be reasonable to offer temporary agreement”
Here I would point you to Robert Chisholm’s article on the Problem of the Criterion where he asks: 1) How do we come to know things, and 2) How do we know when we know something? Because Shermer’s method only offers temporary agreement, nothing is ever known for sure because their is always the possibility of it being disproven- Even modern Skepticism! What is so amazing is that Shermer seems to begrudgingly admit this, and thus abandons Skepticism as it is traditionally known. Listen to what he says in his Skeptic’s Manifesto:
Skepticism is itself a positive assertion about knowledge, and thus turned on itself cannot be held…Nor does skepticism produce progress. It is not enough simply to reject the irrational. Skepticism must be followed with something rational, or something that does produce progress.
And if that weren’t bad enough, he quote Carl Sagan in the same way:
“An anti-something movement displays a purely negative attitude. It has no chance whatever to succeed. It’s passionate diatribes virtually advertise the program they attack. People must fight for something that they want to achieve, not simply reject an evil, however bad it may be.”
Mistake #2: Smart people often assume that Science can reveal all truth about reality.
In his seeming abandonment of real skepticism, as we have seen Shermer finds rest in the sciences.
After various attempts to define what he calls a “rational skeptic” he lands with:
One who questions the validity of particular claims of knowledge by employing or calling for statements of fact to prove or disprove claims, as a tool for understanding causality.
In other words, skeptics are from Missouri — the “show me” state. When we hear a fantastic claim we say, “that’s nice, prove it.”
Again, the only reason why I assume Michael Shermer doesn’t feel the need to prove skepticism is because he assumes it as a default stance.
This sort of modern empiricism manifests itself in statements similar to what we would expect to hear from Shermer “Science or the scientific process can reveal anything and everything that we need to know about reality.”
This conviction that science can resolve all questions is known as “scientism”
I hope by now you are starting to see that Shermer has shifted tactics on you. The questions he starts out asking, are philosophically different than the questions he ends with. He starts by trying to convince you that Skepticism is the best epistemological view (or philosophy of knowledge) that you can (and should) adopt. But he ends by affirming that Skepticism falls short and abandons his philosophy for a scientific methodology – and that any knowledge gained by science is small and slow. In short, I can see Shermer serenading the Scientist with the classic Aaron Neville song: “I don’t know much, but I know I love you…”
Let’s look a bit deeper then at Scientism. Some other versions of Scientism include:Epistemic Scientism – The view that the only reality that exists is the one science has access to.
Ontological Scientism – entails epistemological scientism, but that nothing is real but material particles and their interaction.
Value Scientism – The view that moral values can be explained in terms of science.
Whichever form of Scientism is affirmed, the basic idea is that reality is known only through the sciences. Shermer makes the claim that science is the method by which we escape our own biases and rely only on results – thus giving us a true picture of the world whether we like that picture or not.
The big picture here seems to be experience, refined by science = reality.
Shermer has been on the hot seat long enough, so let me use a few other examples from prominent intellectuals.
Alex Rosenberg, a Duke University professor, and unashamed scientismist says that “Evangelical Scientism rests on three main ideas:
- The facts of microphysics determine everything under the sun (beyond it, too);
- Darwinian natural selection explains human behavior; and brilliant work in the still-young brain sciences shows us as we really are. Physics, in other words, is “the whole truth about reality”; we should achieve “a thoroughly Darwinian understanding of humans”; and neuroscience makes the abandonment of illusions “inescapable.”
- Morality, purpose and the quaint conceit of an enduring self all have to go.