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May 09 2013

What is a testable claim

I’m watching the Jamy Ian Swiss video from last Saturday (Orange County freethinkers; you know the drill), trying to figure out what all the fuss is about – his fuss among other fusses.

One claim of his that I don’t understand, though it’s possible that I will once I’ve watched the whole thing. At 23:42:

If you believe in god based on faith, that in and of itself is not a testable claim. We have no debate with that.”

Yes it is. If you “believe in god” then “god” must have some meaning. Once you know what the meaning is in the particular case, then it becomes a testable claim. Even if you say “god” means something large and abstract like Love, it’s still testable. Maybe it’s possible to make “god” so very large and abstract that it no longer is testable, but then…it’s not really “god” that you believe in, you’re simply using that word to name something else, because the word gets respect and deference.

Tell me why that’s wrong.

36 comments

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  1. 1
    chigau (違う)

    Every time “god” interacts with the mundane, we of the mundane should be able to interact right back.
    Like Ghostbusters.

  2. 2
    Argle Bargle

    We’re back to the question I have to ask every theist when discussing atheism vs theism: “What’s your definition of god?” Disproving the god who causes an overpaid athlete to catch a ball thrown by another overpaid athlete is doable. Disproving the vague sort of god who got the universe running and then faded into the background is much harder.

  3. 3
    alexgabriel

    I think we can devise a God-claim that’s untestable. For example, I could claim a god exists who values skepticism and designed the universe precisely to look undesigned, so as to give people no reason to believe in him. A cosmos without that god would look exactly the same as a cosmos with him, so there claim is untestable. The point, of course, being that untestable claims deserve dismissal.

  4. 4
    alexgabriel

    the claim*

  5. 5
    Aratina Cage

    That does bring up a good point about how wrong some of the typical atheist rhetoric is. Faith is often cast as believing things without evidence, but it isn’t really that. When I was an ignorant, delusional theist, I didn’t think there was no evidence in support of gods. The fact of the matter is that the evidence against the existence of the god I believed in was unknown to me and even withheld from me or glossed over by religious propaganda. You had to go looking for atheistic impressions.

    Religious people don’t often knowingly or purposefully keep evidence refuting their belief on hand for young people to learn about. Faith is more of an ill-gotten null hypothesis of religious practitioners that finds tenuous support from coincidences. :) There is what a believer would call evidence for their beliefs, but it isn’t sound or objective or unbiased or critical in the slightest, and that is where the oomph of faith pushes in with this need to believe more than you have evidence for.

    So Swiss’s contention that people hold an untestable belief in a deity is probably not true in most cases. Faith isn’t untested; people who have it test it all the time in their own faulty ways. Learning all the problems with those tests is a huge part of becoming an atheist . . . and a skeptic.

  6. 6
    Improbable Joe, bearer of the Official SpokesGuitar

    I guess the claim “I believe in God” isn’t testable, because you’d have to be psychic to know for sure? But “we have no debate with that” is a statement against skepticism. I sure as hell have a “debate” with the idea that you can and should just believe things for no good reason, and that skeptics as a whole don’t have an issue with it. Does that apply to Bigfoot too, or just the theistic suckers who JREF and other “skeptic” organizations can soak for cash?

    This is the “skeptical movement” we’re supposed to care about, filled to the brim with bigots and represented in speeches by intellectual lightweight cowards? We’re better off without them.

  7. 7
    Eamon Knight

    If you “believe in god” then “god” must have some meaning.

    This. If X exists, then in principle at least it must be possible to detect X’s presence or absence. It’s incoherent to assert that X exists, but never interacts with the physical universe in any way, ever.

    (To forestall one obvious objection: abstractions like numbers and concepts “exist” as patterns of neural activity in physical brains.)

  8. 8
    Steve LaBonne

    What this whole dodge is really about for these people is that they’re terrified of having to examine some of their own unquestioned belief systems, such as sexism and libertarianism..

  9. 9
    Improbable Joe, bearer of the Official SpokesGuitar

    Eamon Knight,

    “Exists” has a specific meaning, especially when applied to persons or person-like entities. Numbers and other abstractions don’t “exist” in the same way you and I do. Adding weird qualifiers that appeal to nonsensical and undemonstrated concepts like “exists outside of space and time” make the god idea meaningless BY DEFINITION, and belief in such absolutely something skeptics should have serious issues with.

    Speaking of Bigfoot: people who believe in Bigfoot are being leaps and bounds more reasonable than people who believe in gods. After all, we know for a fact that lots of large furry creatures live in the woods all over the planet. We discover new species of critter all the time. It is not entirely irrational to believe that there is a slightly different variety of critter out there that hasn’t been discovered, and certainly doesn’t require creating an entirely new and entirely nonsensical category of existence to prop up Bigfoot belief.

  10. 10
    YOB - Ye Olde Blacksmith is a Spocktopus cuddler

    Does anyone know if there is a transcript of this talk somewhere? I’d like to know what was said exactly ( horses mouth, and all) but I’m hearing impaired.

  11. 11
    Asher Kay

    It’s incoherent to assert that X exists, but never interacts with the physical universe in any way, ever.

    Nailed it. And of course no-one who believes in gods argues this, because it would be completely empty.

    Some scientific skeptics are arguing, in effect, that it’s fine to debunk individual claims about god interacting with the physical world, but *not* fine to conclude that there is no god-who-interacts-with-the-physical-world.

    What if we took that approach with homeopathy? Should we say that it’s impossible to debunk homeopathy as a whole because some individual claim of homeopathic efficacy might end up being true in the future? The reason why we dismiss it as a whole is that homeopathic remedies do not have a causal basis that allows them to interact with the physical world (i.e. there’s no such thing as water memory or whatever the causal mechanism is supposed to be). God isn’t really different from this, in terms of causal efficacy.

  12. 12
    Ophelia Benson

    Joe @ 6, right, but JIS didn’t say “‘I believe in god’ is not a testable claim”; he said “If you believe in god based on faith, that in and of itself is not a testable claim.” “That”=belief in god based on faith, in general, as opposed to one person’s “I believe in god.” So it’s not about one other mind, it’s about generic belief in god based on faith. If you see what I mean.

  13. 13
    Eamon Knight

    @9: Yes, I’m aware that, in attempting to preempt arguments along the lines of “non-physical things like numbers exist, therefore so could gods”, I’m glossing over a large chunk of philosophy re the ontology of abstractions. Hence my employment of scare quotes.

  14. 14
    Aratina Cage

    Speaking of Bigfoot: people who believe in Bigfoot are being leaps and bounds more reasonable than people who believe in gods. After all, we know for a fact that lots of large furry creatures live in the woods all over the planet. We discover new species of critter all the time. It is not entirely irrational to believe that there is a slightly different variety of critter out there that hasn’t been discovered, and certainly doesn’t require creating an entirely new and entirely nonsensical category of existence to prop up Bigfoot belief.

    No they are not more reasonable! A few non-human primates living in North America do not account for any of the mythical Bigfoot tales, not a single one. Bigfoot is pure myth. Stop giving that myth any credence.

  15. 15
    Improbable Joe, bearer of the Official SpokesGuitar

    Aratina Cage, ummm…. huh?

  16. 16
    Ophelia Benson

    Blacksmith @ 10 – I don’t know of one (if I did I probably wouldn’t have watched! although it’s useful to have an idea of his way of delivery). I made notes though, so here they are pending a transcript.

    jamy ian swiss – psychic con artists etc and the damage they can do

    set up skeptics organization – had to figure out what they wanted to do & be about. countless discussions over the years about the meaning of skepticism. what is it, what do we mean by it.

    less interested in what X believed than in how he thought, why he believed. “I believe scientific skepticism is about how to think., not necessarily about what to think.” c. 14:30

    skeptic group in DC founded 1988, his thing

    randi – a world where charlatans can’t get rich by deceiving people.

    much emphasis – NO SACRED COWS ALLOWED

    our movement

    “I think I know something about what it means to be a skeptic” as individual & part of movement

    quotes Drescher on the skeptic movement – “to reduce the dissemination of untruths”

    all about testable claims

    we do that well; no one else does

    where consumer protection and scientific expertise

    specialized knowledge of nonsense – what scientists lack – c. 22 mins

    many orgs have said they’re solely int in testable claims and hold no position on faith-based claims.
    “not because we give faith-based claims a pass, but because arguing faith claims doesn’t really get us anywhere; it’s not our bailiwick. And there are other groups, atheist groups and humanist groups, doing that part, and oftentimes doing it very well.”

    it’s imp to get the distinction

    “if you believe in god based on faith, that in and of itself is not a testable claim. We have no debate with that.” 23:42

    “but if you claim that prayer works, that’s a testable claim, and that’s where skeptics will immediately enter the argument.”

    not interested in 101 reasons not to believe in god, “that’s not my thing”; more int in testable claims.

    all we can do with faith-based claims is say well that’s not enough for me, because that’s an evidence-based statement

    but faith-based is fiction. they have evidence – blind watchmaker etc – sure sure we say that’s not good ev – but that doesn’t make it not ev to those people. it IS ev, it’s just weak ev.

    randi was out front on the fake bomb detectors

    28:30 on the three movements – sec hum and atheism

    32 new atheism, 4 horsemen (yawn)

    new ath activists want to impose new aims on skepticism, like atheism. I & others beg to respectfully differ.

    skep is about how to think than what to think.

    “tell a man” oh shut the fuck up [that last is my editorial comment]

    atheism is skepticism about one particular paranormal claim

    skeptics are not anti-atheist

    skept movement is about method not conclusion

    40:28 snide joke about skepticism+. identity politics. insistence on redefining the skept movement.
    skepticism is not atheism or secular humanism

    Bill Maher as an example of an atheist who is not a skeptic – “fuck Bill Maher”

    do you think TAM is hostile to women?

    countless thought-leaders in the skeptic movement dj drescher

    READ MY LIPS – THERE IS NO FUCKING GOD

    then lots of shouting about how we must unite. no mention whatsoever of endless harassment of women.

  17. 17
    SC (Salty Current), OM

    If you believe in god based on faith, that in and of itself is not a testable claim. We have no debate with that.”

    I’ve discussed the specific god-as-testable-claim issue many times in the past, so I won’t bother repeating that. But this is just a shockingly dumb statement whether it refers to god or any other claim. We [skeptics] have no debate with beliefs based on faith? We sure as hell do! Skepticism isn’t about any particular claim or category of claims. it’s an epistemic standpoint defined in large part by its complete rejection of faith.

  18. 18
    YOB - Ye Olde Blacksmith is a Spocktopus cuddler

    Thanks, Ophelia! For @16 and everything else!

  19. 19
    SC (Salty Current), OM

    “tell a man” oh shut the fuck up [that last is my editorial comment]

    hee

  20. 20
    notsont

    No they are not more reasonable! A few non-human primates living in North America do not account for any of the mythical Bigfoot tales, not a single one. Bigfoot is pure myth. Stop giving that myth any credence.

    And yet Bigfoot is still several orders of magnitude more believable than pretty much any religion. At least bigfoot does not require all of science to be wrong.

  21. 21
    Eamon Knight

    atheism is skepticism about one particular paranormal claim

    Where “one particular” = “the single biggest, longest running, most institutionalized and socially privileged of all time”.

    Feel free to argue that it’s too big and diffuse a target, taking it on is politically unpopular, that skeptical and secularist energies are better spent taking down the most obvious and pernicious specific effects of religion (faith healing, creationism, subjugation of women, LGBT persecution….), and that we’d have the cooperation of moderate religious people on that. That’s a pragmatic argument that I could respect. But the mantra “skepticism can’t address the untestable” applies to an almost-null set of theism, and just provides cover for the other 99%.

  22. 22
    screechymonkey

    What’s so funny to me is that, back when I used to read Randi’s SWIFT posts regularly, he would mention frequently how paranormal claimants would change their claims or come up with excuses why a particular test or study failed. Everything from “well, it doesn’t work in a scientifically controlled setting” to “Randi is a powerful psychic who can suppress other people’s abilities.” He used to describe these paranormal beliefs as “unsinkable rubber ducks.”

    Taking Swiss’s argument at face value, Randi should have had nothing further to say about such claimants. Certainly he shouldn’t have been poking fun at them or dismissing them as “woo.” But he did (and, I would say, justifiably — when someone keeps moving the goalposts to avoid admitting they’re wrong, that should get called out).

  23. 23
    notsont

    skepticism can’t address the untestable” applies to an almost-null set of theism, and just provides cover for the other 99%.

    Does anyone even care about this mysterious untestable god? The only time I ever see it brought up is in defense of people claiming they have a right to oppress some other group of people because their god told em so.

  24. 24
    screechymonkey

    Does anyone even care about this mysterious untestable god? The only time I ever see it brought up is in defense of people claiming they have a right to oppress some other group of people because their god told em so.

    I see it come up in two contexts:

    A. People who are effectively atheists but don’t want to call themselves that trying to justify themselves.

    B. Believers (usually Christians) trying to “win” a debate with an atheist. (The method is usually: 1 Define “atheism” as = “absolutely 100% certain proof that no god exists.” 2. Invoke the possibility of the mysterious untestable god. 3. Therefore, atheism (as redefined in step 1) is wrong. 4. Declare victory. Bonus points for saying “atheism is just another religion,” and/or “I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist!”)

  25. 25
    evilDoug

    randi – a world where charlatans can’t get rich by deceiving people.

    Oh lordy, there’s a fine bit of (presumably) unintended humor. I take it the poor man is unfamiliar with Wall Street and the banking trades.

  26. 26
    Eamon Knight

    Does anyone even care about this mysterious untestable god?

    Apart from a few ultra-modernist theologians like John Shelby Spong? No, not really.

  27. 27
    Margaret

    “if you believe in god based on faith, that in and of itself is not a testable claim. We have no debate with that.” 23:42

    “but if you claim that prayer works, that’s a testable claim, and that’s where skeptics will immediately enter the argument.”

    So Swiss is saying that “if you believe in a god based on faith, you are not making any explicit claims that are testable and I’m going to give you a pass on any implicit claims by assuming you are one of the fraction of a percent who believe in a god that does not interact with the physical world. Only when you go on to make an explicit claim that the god you believe in does interact with the physical world will I actually apply my skeptical thinking.”

  28. 28
    Steve LaBonne

    Screechymonkey @ 24

    People who are effectively atheists but don’t want to call themselves that trying to justify themselves.

    This perfectly describes almost all the liberal Christians and UU types that I have met. Especially the ministers, whose training gives them much more insight than most of their congregants have into just how stupid anything describable as a traditional religious belief really is. But give up the game (or gravy train)? Never!

  29. 29
    Improbable Joe, bearer of the Official SpokesGuitar

    Just so everyone knows… me and Aratina Cage are STILL talking about Bigfoot on Twitter, so this has been extra-useful. Thanks Ophelia! *grins*

  30. 30
    Asher Kay

    Having listened to Swiss’ talk, I think he’s creating more confusion with the “process vs. conclusions” thing. The “process” he’s talking about is a process *for reaching conclusions*. The real argument wrt “testable claims” is whether the process he’s talking about is capable of reaching a conclusion about the existence of gods.

    To me, the “values” issue is much more convincing. The values canonized by a movement are the ones necessary for carrying out its mission. If the mission is to empirically evaluate supernatural and pseudo-scientific claims, then there is room for a whole range of conflicting values, and canonizing any one set unrelated to the movement’s mission doesn’t serve much of a purpose.

    But some values are just basic, even if they’re not part of the activism. It doesn’t bother me if the skeptic or atheist movements do not engage in feminist activism in the world at large. What bothers me is that they are not active enough about aggressive and threatening sexist behavior within their movements. Not every movement needs to be a feminist movement (although I’d be happy if it were so), but *every* movement needs to renounce and expunge people who engage in abusive behavior.

  31. 31
    Ophelia Benson

    Ahhhh that’s a very good point. I hadn’t thought of it quite that way before (which is odd, since I and others have been pressing the point about aggressive and threatening sexist behavior within our movements for ages now). No it’s not that I expect you to go join a feminist picket line somewhere, but yes I do expect you to oppose aggressive sexism in the movement.

  32. 32
    Ophelia Benson

    Joe – heh I saw that. BigFoot is actually a good deal less obviously absurd than other kinds of woo. The other species of great ape were unknown to science until well on in the 19th century, so it’s really not a supernatural claim to think there could be another hiding in the Cascades. Taking that video seriously seems pretty out there, since it does not look like any other great ape and does look like a human in a costume…but the concept of an undiscovered ape is not like alien abductions or Sylvia Browne’s interior decoration of the afterlife.

  33. 33
    Kevin

    Ophelia: I think you have to make a distinction between those things that could be proven true and those things that could never be proven true.

    All of the cryptozoology stuff could be proven true…just bring us a carcass or a live specimen. Even aliens with anal probes could be proven true…again, a dead alien with an anal probe in his hand will do just fine, thanks.

    The afterlife? Ghosts? Demons? Angels? Gods? Can’t possibly be proven true. They are incoherent on their face. Oh sure, you can’t falsify them, either. Because you can’t falsify non-existent things. But why do you need to? They’re nonexistent by definition.

  34. 34
    deepak shetty

    True story
    My brother had asthma when he was younger. we tried the normal medicines , none worked for my brother. When he was 11 , an uncle said why not try homeopathy, it cant hurt (in addition to the normal medicine). My parents did and my brother has not had an asthmatic attack since then.

    Now then did homeopathy work for my brother – is this a testable claim now?
    For the “skeptics” like Jamy Ian Swiss I can deploy religious defenses ( I never said homeopathy has to work all the time because even homeopathy must be subservient to GODs will and its sort of like prayer , it doesnt work when tested , but it does work! and gods ways are mysterious- or this particular homeopathic doctor muttered the right spiritual verses , and you know the spiritual supernatural verses cant be tested – or how do you test a one off miracle with the empirical method? or the homeopathic ways are mysterious and I really really have faith in them).

    I think skeptics who aren’t skeptical about religion are abusing the term “skeptic” and giving the entire mo

  35. 35
    Sastra

    I heard the speech at TAM so I didn’t feel like watching it again, but Swiss’ argument seemed to flip-flop around so much that at the time I got the impression that he was arguing that theists should be welcomed into the skeptic movement on the same terms we would welcome otherwise reasonable proponents of alternative medicine or deniers of global warming — so that we could work to set them straight. No sacred cows. We all come in on the same terms. Since I thought that was his message, I thought it was a fine speech. But that may have been my confirmation bias. I’ve admire Jamy Ian Swiss since I discovered we both loved Alan Cromer’s Uncommon Sense.

    From your notes:

    less interested in what X believed than in how he thought, why he believed. “I believe scientific skepticism is about how to think., not necessarily about what to think.” c. 14:30

    Yes … which is why I share everyone’s confusion on why Swiss is apparently giving a free pass to believing things on faith. Faith is a vice — it’s not a humble request for personal “space.” The problem isn’t the conclusion — it’s the method. And the problem with the method isn’t just epistemic; I think there’s also a moral issue involved here. When you insist that you know things by some method which leaps ‘beyond reason’ then you can’t reach out and persuade nonbelievers. You’ve essentially demonized them. I would much rather be told I am wrong because I made a mistake than be told that I am wrong because I have closed my heart to all that’s loving and good — but they don’t judge me for doing that. Faith is passive-aggressive on multiple levels.

    I have heard some atheists say that skepticism needs to focus on God because ‘nobody’ believes in the sort of silly woo the skeptic organizations currently attack. I waver between envying these sheltered people and being relieved I do not live in a bubble. I felt the same way when I heard Lawrence Krauss use “vitalism” as a good example of a belief which nobody holds any more. Haha.

    If Swiss’ main point had just been a ‘many tents’ argument and a plea that oh yes, people DO believe in psychic powers then there’d be no argument from me — or from most of his detractors.

    I have to ask: were there really “additions where he(Swiss) called me (PZ) stupid and a liar?”

  36. 36
    Asher Kay

    I have to ask: were there really “additions where he(Swiss) called me (PZ) stupid and a liar?”

    He did not mention Myers by name. He said:

    Anyone who continues to insist to you that skeptics are afraid of religionists; afraid of calling out organized religion; or that skeptics as a movement are anti-atheist — anyone who makes these claims to you is either stupid or… a liar.

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