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Oct 14 2013

You can’t get there from here

An aphoristic little tweet got my attention an hour or so ago -

Think like a skeptic, act like a humanist

That might seem like a good recipe, but it isn’t. You can’t act like an X unless you also think like an X. Thinking and acting don’t bifurcate that cleanly – how could they?

No, it’s more difficult than that. Life isn’t easy. You have to combine the two, in thought and action.

I think about this in general a lot, and in particular especially right now because I’m on a panel discussing the two at the CFI Summit weekend after next.

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Plenary session: “Humanism and Skepticism: Separate or Joint Agendas?”

Panel discussion chaired by Ronald A. Lindsay. The Panel: Barry Kosmin, Ophelia Benson, Daniel Loxton, Mark Hatcher, Ray Hyman, and Michael De Dora.

I’m going to be saying joint, not separate. But there’s a certain kind of skepticism (or at least a kind of skeptic) that sees humanism as a betrayal of skepticism. I think the aphorism is a reflection of that. The idea is that humanism is credulous and/or dogmatic, and that’s why it should be banished from thinking, where only skepticism should rule. You know the drill – “feminism is a religion” blah blah blah.

I say it’s the other way around. It’s not that humanist (aka moral, liberal, egalitarian) thinking is corrupted, but that purely skeptical thinking is inadequate.

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  1. 1
    Nathaniel Frein

    The pure skepticism you describe makes no sense to me, because at some point you have to say “I’ve observed enough and collected enough data to reasonably make a decision”. My skepticism lead me to humanism because enough of my observations, and enough of the data I’ve read, and enough of the anecdotes points to humanism as being, has pointed to humanism as the best way for everyone to live full, meaningful, happy lives.

    But even more, I don’t think you can live a life of “pure skepticism”. Because that would literally mean a life on hold, constantly collating more information because you can never “be sure”. Everyone eventually makes a decision, conscious or otherwise, to act on the data they’ve collected.

  2. 2
    SC (Salty Current), OM

    But there’s a certain kind of skepticism (or at least a kind of skeptic) that sees humanism as a betrayal of skepticism.

    This is baffling. Why would anyone be doing skepticism if it doesn’t have broadly humanistic ends? What would be the point?

  3. 3
    Ophelia Benson

    I don’t really find it baffling. Annoying, often, but not baffling. There is an intellectual interest in looking at bullshit, and why people are taken in by it, and how they are, and what makes the bullshit bullshit, and so on. I find it interesting myself.

    There are also humanistic reasons to be interested, but they’re not inextricably linked.

  4. 4
    sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d

    Why would anyone be doing skepticism if it doesn’t have broadly humanistic ends? What would be the point?

    People don’t always have a point in doing things: They just happen.
    Some people exercise their critical faculties and become sceptical about what they were told as children and just keep rejecting arguments and don’t stop disbelieving everything. They finally end up with nihilistic egotism as the only view of the world they find logically acceptable.

  5. 5
    rnilsson

    Oh. Not having cleaned my glasses, I first misread that as “Panel discussion chained by Ronald A. Lindsay.” which seemed surprisingly blunt. Must have had a speck on my specs.

    Have fun and go tell’em! Yours is such a clear, analytical mind.

  6. 6
    Ophelia Benson

    sc @4 – Exactly.

  7. 7
    UnknownEric the Apostate

    Not having cleaned my glasses, I first misread that as “Panel discussion chained by Ronald A. Lindsay.”

    That’s the sound of the skeptics workin’ on the chain… paaaa-nel.

  8. 8
    SC (Salty Current), OM

    There is an intellectual interest in looking at bullshit, and why people are taken in by it, and how they are, and what makes the bullshit bullshit, and so on. I find it interesting myself.

    Sure, there’s an individual intellectual interest, but we’re talking about organized skepticism, right? I mean, if organized skepticism were to be solely about these investigations as a hobby or interesting diversion, then people should be explicit about that, and the people who care about making a positive difference in the world can indeed go elsewhere.

    But I don’t think that is the argument. I can’t imagine that being an argument from James Randi, for example, who fought to expose those defrauding people and cultivating credulity. Or from Michael Shermer, who wrote a book about Holocaust denial. Or from anyone involved in promoting MMR vaccination. (I also think there’s a clear current of “Bad epistemic practices are harmful generally and this is why we need to understand them” in most of the skeptical literature, which is a humanist argument.) This isn’t to say that I agree with their “positive” political vision, but that I think they have one, into which their skeptical activities are seen to fit. I don’t think the general tendency has been to present skepticism as a personal hobby or fun diversion.*) I think it’s more that a number of people want to ignore the humanistic message and ends that underlie many of their own skeptical activities in order to reject those humanistic goals they find threatening.

    *Again, if that’s the direction some people want to go, then they should be upfront about it.

  9. 9
    SC (Salty Current), OM

    The title of the session clearly suggests an agenda, when it refers to skepticism as…an agenda. “Agenda” has to mean something beyond gatherings of hobbyists.

  10. 10
    Ophelia Benson

    Unknown Eric – well notice the panel is 2.5 hours, starting at 8:30, i.e. after enough quarts of coffee to start doing a panel at 8:30. I am SERIOUSLY trying to decide exactly how shaming it is to tiptoe away from a panel to take a piss. So yeah, chain panel is not far off.

  11. 11
    Ophelia Benson

    SC – well it is the argument from some people. Maybe the rank and file more than the movers and shakers, but it’s out there. Purists of skepticism, as you might say.

  12. 12
    UnknownEric the Apostate

    well notice the panel is 2.5 hours, starting at 8:30, i.e. after enough quarts of coffee to start doing a panel at 8:30.

    Yikes. I’d make it 20, maybe 30 minutes before I’d have to make a beeline to the restroom.

  13. 13
    SC (Salty Current), OM

    SC – well it is the argument from some people. Maybe the rank and file more than the movers and shakers, but it’s out there. Purists of skepticism, as you might say.

    Yikes. Well, I think the panel discussion should begin with those who are arguing that they’re separate “agendas” being required to define what they believe skepticism’s agenda is. If they define it as pure hobbyism, having nothing to do with any agendas beyond that, then they can have their niche. (They should probably be asked if they disagree with the various arguments making the case for skeptical activities in humanistic terms from prominent skeptics over the decades.) If their understanding of skepticism’s agenda has any politics in it that could be understood as humanistic, then they need to defend their selectiveness about trying to exclude particular humanistic ends while retaining others. I don’t see how they can.

  14. 14
    Ophelia Benson

    I predict it will be neither of those. It will be that skepticism has its own agenda, or set of agendas, which are epistemic rather than political.

  15. 15
    Michael De Dora

    Looking forward, Ophelia :)

  16. 16
    Ophelia Benson

    Ditto, Michael! Except for the part about having to conspicuously walk off for a restroom break…

  17. 17
    rnilsson

    2½ hours? And they talk about humanism? No, that’s just cruel and unusual. Call me a skeptic; that’s my philosopee.

    BTW, re #5 I tried and failed to find the ‘Allo ‘allo clip where one of the German officers proudly declares something in a similar vein, and then tries and fails to dislodge the piece of cheese that René of the café had kindly persuaded them to put in their ears while Madame Édith would “entertain” with her “singing”, but actually in order to prevent them noticing that the piano was silenced by the British Airmen hiding inside. Complicated plot!

    Maybe someone else remembers it. Plays on endless loop in my head now.

    (Muahahahaa)

  18. 18
    Ophelia Benson

    Everybody agrees, good, so we should be able to extort agreement that a break is allowed. And if not it’s just flounce out anyway, however disruptive.

  19. 19
    Brian E

    There’s a saying (or something) in psychology, ‘first behaviour, then belief’. The idea being, if you do something, even if you think you can’t, then once it’s done a few times even if only partially, you’ll come to believe you can do it. That’s an oversimplification, but so is the saying.
    So

    Think like a skeptic, act like a humanist

    could be a psychologists advice to a skeptic, who wanted to become a humanist. Act like a humanist would act, and soon enough, you’ll be thinking/believing as a humanist.
    That quote reminded me of that saying, hence my pointless post.

  20. 20
    rnilsson

    But I’m just a speckled spectator; I can quit whenever. Honset!

  21. 21
    rnilsson

    @Brian E: That sounds horridly close to Neuro-Linguistic Programming <shudders>
    “Tell yourself you can be a millionaire walking on burning coals, and join the BBQ after.
    Oh, and ignore that hypothalamus tumor, it will only give you bad ideas.”

  22. 22
    Brian E

    Tell yourself you can be a millionaire walking on burning coals, and join the BBQ after.
    Oh, and ignore that hypothalamus tumor, it will only give you bad ideas

    Then I explained it poorly, or too simplified. It’s not like that. It’s about things that you want to do, and that you can do, but have negative beliefs about doing it. It’s a bit like when someone says ‘recycling, we don’t believe int that, and so no recycling happens. But if enough or even on person does it, and the world doesn’t collapse, then people see that it can be done, do it, and believe it is doable. Or something. I’m poor at explaining stuff.

  23. 23
  24. 24
    Brian E

    Actually, this link explains it better

    For example, severe shyness in social situations (social phobia) may come from the person thinking that other people will always find them boring or stupid. This belief causes the person to feel extremely anxious in social situations.

    The aim of behavioural therapy is to teach the person techniques or skills to alter their behaviour. For example, a person who behaves shyly at a party may have negative thoughts and feelings about themselves. They may also lack social skills.

    Behavioural therapy teaches the person more helpful behaviours. For example, they may be taught conversational skills that they practise in therapy and in social situations. Negative thoughts and feelings reduce as the person discovers they can enjoy themselves in social situations.

    http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/bhcv2/bhcarticles.nsf/pages/Cognitive_behaviour_therapy

  25. 25
    Ophelia Benson

    That’s connected (I assume) to things like the fact that smiling actually makes you feel more cheerful, and scowling does the reverse. Performances of being friendly and nice, such as service personnel have to do, aren’t completely performances – the performing it makes you be it at least somewhat. I think. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen reports of research on this.

    It always reminds me of that dopy song in “The King and I” – which is true, however dopy. Pretend you’re not afraid and you’ll feel less afraid.

  26. 26
    SC (Salty Current), OM

    I predict it will be neither of those. It will be that skepticism has its own agenda, or set of agendas, which are epistemic rather than political.

    I don’t think that holds up, and not just because the practices of believing are inherently political. Loxton, for example, wrote a book for children about evolution. He’d have to engage in some real gymnastics, and make himself look pretty bad in the process, to try to make a case that evolution education for children has nothing to do with any humanistic agenda.

  27. 27
    Dunc

    Why would anyone be doing skepticism if it doesn’t have broadly humanistic ends? What would be the point?

    As an intellectual dick-measuring contest, to prove to themselves that they’re better than “those people”.

  28. 28
    rnilsson

    So, the 2½ after-coffee panel stint is just a ruse to get to measure willies? Wonder who will lose in that contest.

    Oh, intellectual d-m contest! That’s completely different.

  1. 29
    Going? » Butterflies and Wheels

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