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Musings > Tuesday, 9 August 2011 03:11:46 EST

Thoughts On Belief

Keywords: religion, epistemology

There's a recurring debate in the skeptical community about what the skeptical position should be about religion.  I've talked about this issue before, but as I've had more discussions on the topic and thought more about it, I've found that I have more to say on the topic.

The basic question, it seems to me, is one of how does skepticism relate to belief.  Should all our beliefs be based in evidence?  What should we think about beliefs that have no evidence to back them up?  Certainly if people claim evidence that doesn't hold up to scrutiny science and skepticism are prime tools for pointing that out.  But what about when there's no claim to evidence, when people just believe something while acknowledging that they have no evidence and they make no claims.

For example, what about deists?  What should we think about them?  What does skepticism say about these kinds of beliefs?  Many people have argued that people simply shouldn't hold beliefs that are not based in evidence.  But is that a skeptical position?

I would argue that it's not.  Skepticism only forces us to look at the evidence, it doesn't tell us what we should think when there's a lack of evidence.  The idea that we should try to purge ourselves of any thoughts not rooted in empiricism is not a skeptical position.  It's a preference.  It may be a perfectly reasonable preference, and I wouldn't argue against anybody who held that as their goal, but it's not a goal of skepticism.

When I try to explain this to people I often get responses along the lines of "WTF! Are you trying to tell me that it's okay just to turn away from reality just because you feel like it?".  It seems to me that questions like this entirely miss the point of what I'm trying to say.  Perhaps my skill as a writer isn't good enough to explain this in a way that everybody can understand, but I'm trying my best here and maybe taking another crack at it will help to highlight my point.

I want to state quite clearly that the people some dub the "New Atheists" have some good points.  Religion shouldn't be a taboo topic of discussion, and I don't think anybody should feel the need to hold their tongue and avoid criticizing it.   I think that scoffing at religious beliefs is perfectly alright, but unless you're analyzing evidence based claims, it's simply not a skeptical activity.

But if there's no evidence for something, why should we believe it?  Shouldn't we apply skepticism to all of our beliefs and resolve to discard any beliefs for which there is no evidence?  Some people believe that this is the essence of what it means to have a skeptical mindset.  I argue, though, that while this is a perfectly reasonable mindset to adopt, it's not necessary for skepticism.

Does it seem like I'm being contradictory?  Like I want to have it both ways?  If so, then I still haven't explained myself clearly enough.  Maybe an example will help.

I believe that other sentient, tool-using life forms exist somewhere in the universe (outside of our solar system).  I'll even be more specific and say that I believe that such life forms exist somewhere in our very own galaxy.  I may not believe that they came here in our ancient past to give our ancestors magic carpet rides, but I believe that they exist.

The problem is that I have no evidence for this belief.  None whatsoever.  It's purely a belief I hold because that's what I feel is the case.  I could tell you that the sheer scale of just our galaxy, not to mention the entire universe, leaves me awestruck to the extent that it doesn't seem possible that we're all alone.  But that's an argument from personal incredulity, and it's not evidence of anything.

I could talk about how we've discovered new ways that life can survive in extremely harsh conditions, and how we've now found a number of planets around other stars.  But these are just facts that are in accordance with my belief, they're not evidence for that belief.  It's kind of like if I told you that I own an oven and a cake pan.  Are those two facts evidence that I'm a master chef?  No, they're not.  Certainly if I were a master chef I would probably own an oven and a cake pan, but you couldn't conclude from my ownership of these items that I am a master chef.

We don't yet have enough data about how life forms to draw any conclusions about how likely it is.  The formation of life could very possibly turn out to be so incredibly unlikely to happen that we are probably the only planet with life in the entire universe.  And even if that's not the case, we also don't have enough data to determine how likely it is for life forms to develop tool use and sentience.  Even if the universe is teeming with life, it's still perfectly possible that this development is so unlikely that we're the only ones ever to have evolved in that direction.

No matter how you look at it, I just don't have any evidence for my belief that other sentient, tool using life forms exist in our galaxy.  But I suspect that many of you who read my blog hold the same belief that I do.  Should we be brutally honest with ourselves and disavow these thoughts as not evidence based?

Well, you can if you like.  But I don't want to sit on the fence.  I think it's perfectly alright to put your coin down when there's no evidence.  I fully acknowledge that there is no evidence, and therefore I don't feel like I need to take this belief too seriously.  I would argue that it's when people take their beliefs too seriously, and fail to acknowledge uncertainty, that we run into problems where people resort to any wild justifications.

Certainly there's something alluringly neat and orderly about the position that we should avoid any beliefs not based in evidence.  But I don't think that this is a position that's required for skepticism.  Seeing as I hold at least one non-evidence based belief myself, I'd be a hypocrite if I said otherwise.  So I'm perfectly alright with deists, or any other theists who make no claims to evidence for their beliefs.

To me, skepticism is all about looking at the evidence for claims.  If you present no evidence, then there's nothing to be skeptical about.

And again, don't think that I'm telling people not to make fun of or criticize religious beliefs.  I enjoy listening to that kind of thing myself, as long as it doesn't get mean spirited.  But criticizing religious beliefs that make no claim to evidence has nothing to do with skepticism or critical thinking.

I think we make a mistake when we broaden our idea of skepticism so that it must necessarily include atheism as a prerequisite. 


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