Skeptics should be willing

Seen on Twitter:

What a joke #UpForDebate is. Skeptics should be willing to revise any and all of their beliefs given sufficient reason, argument, evidence.

Really? All? Are we sure? Our beliefs that genocide is wrong? Our beliefs that Hitler should not have tried to kill all the Jews? Our beliefs that it’s wrong to beat small children? Our beliefs that torture is not permissible? Our beliefs that murder is wrong? Our beliefs that assault is wrong?

So we’re just back to #UpForDebate again.

No, really. We don’t have to put everything on the table. It’s ok to see some things – in fact many things – as moral progress, and a ratchet, and to treat them as settled.

Some self-styled skeptics really don’t get this. (Others do get it, and accept that skepticism isn’t the only or best tool for analyzing morality anyway.) Some self-styled skeptics think being skeptical of homeopathy and being skeptical of basic human rights are exactly the same thing. They are mistaken.


  1. Seven of Mine, formerly piegasm says

    If only self-professed ~skeptics~ ever actually were willing to engage honestly with reason, argument and evidence.

  2. Stevarious, Public Health Problem says

    If only self-professed ~skeptics~ ever actually were willing to engage honestly with reason, argument and evidence.

    Have any of these ‘secular anti-abortionists’ even attempted to address the body autonomy argument? I’ve been looking and I can’t find it.

    It’s hard to consider them honest or reasonable when there is an argument that makes all of their arguments irrelevant and they go around just pretending it doesn’t exist.

    Hell, just the fact that they use the misleading and deceptive name ‘Pro-Life’ kind of gives the game away.

  3. Desert Son, OM says

    Ah, hyper-skepticism: The recursive, self-fulfilling, incessant need to ignore extensive, significant evidence and cases long-since-successfully-made-and-made-again under the insistence that such evidence and cases have not yet reached the hyperskeptic’s own arbitrary threshold as part of an effort to continue to draw attention to themselves over and above all other considerations, including the health, safety, and integrity of other people. Adjunct component: Unwillingness to turn said hyper-skepticism upon their own hyper-skepticism

    Sort of like conspiracy theorists but substitute smugness for paranoia: No matter what evidence you demonstrate, what effective arguments you make, what context you describe, what case has already been shown true time and again, well, “No, way, man, now they’ve gotten to you, too!

    Still learning,


  4. M can help you with that. says

    Clearly, it’s anti-skeptical to ever consider any opinion “wrong” — everything must always be #UpForDebate, except the transcendent fact that everything must be #UpForDebate.

    Unless you’re talking about things that everybody (read: me) knows is definitely true or false, in which case that’s just ridiculous.

  5. Seven of Mine, formerly piegasm says

    Have any of these ‘secular anti-abortionists’ even attempted to address the body autonomy argument? I’ve been looking and I can’t find it.

    The closest I’ve seen is one dude over on Pharyngula who had basically gotten there but was working very hard at not admitting that’s where he was. We got him to frame it in terms of self defense which is derivative of bodily autonomy so he was on the right track. But then he kept conflating the personal impulse to defend oneself with the right to self defense in order to circumvent the logic and that’s where the thread died.

  6. Al Dente says

    Elsa Roberts @3

    Also, ironic how they are so unwilling to turn that skeptical lens on things they like and benefit from. Hmmm. Do I smell hypocrisy?

    Certain topics are forbidden on the JREF and other organized skepticism blog boards. Thou shalt not question whether gods exist, whether libertarianism is tenable and if there are viable alternatives to capitalism. Discussion on these and similar questions are “upsetting” to the commentariat on those boards.

  7. Callinectes says

    Can’t we, though? Even as an exercise? We know that our conclusions won’t change, we have pretty robust bases for them already. If they are settled, and I think they are, then that debate is going to be a quick and brutal smackdown, which I think would be far more effective than simply ruling it out that discussion. Why do we have to be the ones who get so weary at their bullshit? Why can’t we make them weary for a change?

  8. says

    I like playing radical fallibilist, so sure: anything and everything we know — scientifically, morally, philosophically — we know might be wrong. But that doesn’t mean that every damn-fool question someone comes up with must be taken seriously. We dismiss flat-earthers, creationists, racists, homeopaths, anti-vaxxers, et al, as some combination of crackpots and liars-with-an-agenda. By rights, “pro-lifers” should be in the same category.

    Sure, in a class on moral philosophy we probably need to talk about why we believe in human rights and condemn genocide — ethics are *worth* understanding the basis and history of, so that we can make *better* ethics, and ethics for novel situations. And science classes should deal with the exploded ideas of past centuries, so we understand how we got here. But outside, it should require astoundingly novel data to make us re-open those questions.

  9. Callinectes says

    Is it different from an educational perspective? I don’t necessarily mean in the classrooms, especially given how pressed for time they are already. But while the questions are long closed for us, young people may not always be in that position because they haven’t had or heard that discussion yet.

  10. A. Noyd says

    It’s a fucking “dissembly line,” is what. Once you deal with one dishonest dipshit, the next comes trundling down the conveyor belt with all the same bogus arguments that don’t quite cover their misogyny or racism or whatever, and everything begins again.

  11. Seven of Mine, formerly piegasm says

    @11 Callinectes

    These are not young people who just haven’t heard the arguments yet. They’re dishonest shitheads who are just not amenable to the idea that women are people.

  12. Blanche Quizno says

    Christians should be willing to revise any and all of their beliefs given sufficient reason, argument, evidence. #UpForDebate


  13. Blanche Quizno says

    “Skeptics should be willing to revise any and all of their beliefs given sufficient reason, argument, evidence.”

    Who gets to decide whether the “reason, argument, evidence” are “sufficient”?

  14. Blanche Quizno says

    “Why can’t we make them weary for a change?” – Callinectes

    Because, Callinectes, they will never grow weary. Their lives depend on their fantasies being true, so they will argue to the death. They define their identity in terms of their belief, and when science provides evidence their belief is wrong or, at least, flawed, science must be wrong. Because they cannot consider the alternative, that they have devoted their entire lives to a falsehood (or many falsehoods). This is so important to them that they will stop at NOTHING to discredit and destroy science.

    Over Christianity’s existence, it has only thrived when it could coerce and brutalize everyone else into at least playing along. These poor saps are stuck with an archaic belief system that they can’t sell in today’s modern world any more than you can sell buggy whips or rotary-dial phones, and they have defined themselves in terms of that archaic belief system to the point where, without that, they are *nothing*. And they have *nothing*.

    Thus, they have every incentive to malign and discredit science – it’s not like they’ll ever get anything (personally) out of science, you see. They turn on the light, and sit down at their computer, and connect to the Internet, and tell us all just how wrong, faulty, and misguided science is. Jesus will reward them for doing so, you see.

  15. carlie says

    Can’t we, though? Even as an exercise?

    Fighting for your own right to be fully human is not an exercise that is good for one’s mental health. That’s like saying I want to exercise my hand muscles by working on an assembly line doing repetitive motions with heavy weights for 12 hours straight. That doesn’t get you stronger, it gets you carpal tunnel.

    The nice thing about the fact that writing exists is that people who haven’t gone through the arguments before can just be pointed at where it’s already all been laid out for them. The problem is that each of them thinks they’re a special snowflake and somehow what they have to say is substantively different than what hundreds of people just like them before them have said, so they deserve to be dealt with personally and can’t be bothered to go read something else.

  16. cubist says

    sez blanche quizno:

    “Skeptics should be willing to revise any and all of their beliefs given sufficient reason, argument, evidence.”
    Who gets to decide whether the “reason, argument, evidence” are “sufficient”?

    Yep. The bit you quoted is actually not bad—a skeptic absolutely should be willing to revise any belief, on the basis of a sufficiency of reason/evidence/argument/whatever. As a guiding principle, yeah, I can get behind that quote… but the quote does kind skip over the question of what constitutes “sufficient reason, argument, evidence”. Bit of a hole, there.
    Just for grins, let’s say the belief is “women have the same degree of bodily autonomy as men”. Exactly what would count as “sufficient reason, argument, evidence” to revise that belief?

  17. says

    Reason #372 I won’t identify as a “Skeptic”. Hell, I’m not big on overtly identifying as anything, given that I’m white-male-hetero-cis-etc… But if asked, because of reasons like this, I’ll answer in the negative. I’m not a “Skeptic”.

  18. says

    Let’s play Debate Club:

    Resolved: Callinectes is a horrible, pathetic excuse for a human being, and probably tortures kittens and other small adorable animals.

    I mean, I don’t agree with that. But can we spend a few weeks discussing all the ways that Callinectes MIGHT be a horrible person, for the sake of debate, open inquiry, and free speech? Let’s make sure we hunt down the real name of the person behind the “Callinectes” persona, and share our entirely hypothetical assertions with everyone that Callinectes knows. Maybe it is possible that Callinectes plucks the wings off of flies? I don’t know that it is true, but it is up for debate and we should ask their friends and family and employer, just to be safe.

    I would NEVER actually do any of this crap, because I understand that invoking “up for debate” is no excuse for being a horrible human being. So Callinectes… would you now reconsider your position?

  19. Stevarious, Public Health Problem says

    Correction, Joe: We have to spend the next 40 years asking these questions. We also have to treat the idea that he can be made into a slave against his will as punishment for these infractions like it’s a real, serious proposition – a proposition that is actually law in a large number of places in the world. And we have to bring this subject up again and again every couple of weeks, too. Sometimes we’re going to treat it as a foregone conclusion that he should absolutely be made a slave, and that people who suggest otherwise aren’t just wrong but morally bankrupt. And every single time, we’re going to bring up the same goddamn stupid arguments that have been debunked a hundred times already as if they are brand new arguments, deserving fresh new consideration.

    Because, you know, why shouldn’t we? Just as an exercise? Surely there’s some value in that.

    I realize that Callinectes may not have had any ill intent in asking this question. But this is what the question MEANS. And it’s just plain exhausting.

  20. chrislawson says


    That statement “skeptics should be willing to revise any and all of their beliefs given sufficient reason, argument, evidence” is true in one sense, and would make a nice decorative motto, but it’s also an impossible demand to fulfil in real life. There are an effectively infinite number of propositions that can be tested, and while it’s nice to say that any of one’s beliefs should be up for challenge, there are some that just aren’t worth revisiting. For instance, whenever I hear someone say “Evolution violates the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics”, I know from experience that this person is full to the eyeballs with BS. Should I really reassess evolution/2LoT every single time some fool repeats this stupid, stupid fallacy?

    And in this particular case, the trigger is the Secular Pro Life group, which as we now know is just a front group for a religious anti-abortion organisation. And they have presented no new arguments, just dressed up old ones, including ones that are outright false (e.g. that abortion causes breast cancer). This makes any kind of “debate” pointless. They’re not interested in honest inquiry or debate. Any attempt to engage with them will be an exercise in shooting down an unending stream of errors and emotional appeals. We know this because that’s what’s on their website.

    Add to this the fact that women in the US today are facing a huge, well-resourced anti-abortion movement that is doing everything it can to remove abortion access. And Secular Pro Life is a self-admitted part of that movement. You might as well be debating “that slavery should be reintroduced” except that there are no serious political forces agitating to reintroduce slavery in the US, while there are many such groups trying to criminalise abortion.

    And finally, you should probably do some reading on modern media-based marketing/persuasion research. Start with the Overton Window. Good luck.

  21. Blanche Quizno says

    C’mon, everybody, don’t hammer Callinectes into the ground. His/Her questions/perspectives could easily be interpreted as naive/ignorant/unaware. I think that we can, here, give Callinectes the benefit of the doubt, while still commenting – impersonally – on the topics s/he raised.

    Come on. Be nice. We can afford to be, here at least.

  22. Blanche Quizno says

    “Just for grins, let’s say the belief is “women have the same degree of bodily autonomy as men”. Exactly what would count as “sufficient reason, argument, evidence” to revise that belief?”


    Any further questions??

  23. leni says

    Skeptics should be willing to revise any and all of their beliefs given sufficient reason, argument, evidence.

    How are we supposed to discuss this intelligibly with wishy-washy words like “skeptic” and “should” and “any” and “argument” just being tossed about with no discussion? So you just decided that those words mean what they mean? No discussion at all? I don’t even know if I can believe your letters, and you want me to just unconditionally accept this sentence?

    Whatever, word nazi.

  24. Callinectes says

    I didn’t realise the context was the actively harmful anti-human crap back in our faces again. The examples in the OP seemed like historical issues and ethics, and I kinda imagined these debates as being a Christmas-lecture style discussion reopening these issues not with the expectation of changing them but reminding people what the reasons are for the stances we have, the justifications we have for them (ie ones that don’t come out of holy books) and how they refuse more recent bullshit for the benefit of the as-yet uninitiated. I thought, naively, of the school debates I remember, which were about similar topics, and preparing for them was how we learned about them. I was quite good at them, and was never able to take a side that I didn’t personally believe in, unlike some others, and we never expected those who did to genuinely hold those views.

    I did not know, from the post, that this was proposing that we open the barricades once more for the putrid wave of dehumanising assaults currently festering on our doorstep.

  25. says

    Skeptics should be willing to revise any and all of their beliefs given sufficient reason, argument, evidence.

    You know what we should also be willing to do? Recognize when the arguments are shit and refuse to waste our time on them; call people on their crap when they try to defend the indefensible with hand-waving about open-mindedness and free speech.

    Moreover, not every position should be discussed in every forum. E.g. there’s a reason creationism isn’t discussed in major peer-reviewed science journals, and shouldn’t be.
    Likewise, discussing the removal of basic human rights from half the population shouldn’t be discussed in any polite way or in the context of any kind of actual policy changes. These ideas simply don’t merit that kind of legitimacy.

  26. says

    Stevarious #2

    Have any of these ‘secular anti-abortionists’ even attempted to address the body autonomy argument? I’ve been looking and I can’t find it.

    Depends. Does not having a clue (or deliberately strawmanning) what bodily autonomy means count as addressing it? How about repeating the same objections over and over (the fetus will die, you’re related to it, it’s only temporary) as if the bodily rights argument doesn’t utterly void them all, and then ignoring it when people point out this fact?

    Oh, maybe you meant actually acknowledging the argument made and responding to it in a manner that either showed that it was incorrect or how it might be compatible with an anti-choice position? No, I’ve never seen anyone do that.

  27. Amy Clare says

    Ooh ooh this is like that time the Leeds Skeptics had a meeting entitled ‘Should anything be exempt from skeptical enquiry?’ or something along those lines, which included people saying it would be OK to ask ‘Are women *really* equal to men?’ as a topic for a fun skeptical debate. How we laughed.

  28. qwints says

    @Stevarios #2

    I’m sure “A Defense of Abortion” has been cited at some points in this discussion, but for context – here’s a link:
    “A Defense of Abortion” Thomson (1971). There have indeed been responses to the bodily autonomy argument, and if you want to find them just through papers citing them. The most common ones are implied consent, parental duty and active/passive distinctions. Others, like Peter Singer, simply deny that bodily autonomy is inviolate. I’m sure you’ve seen those arguments dealt with in the recent threads.

  29. hjhornbeck says

    qwints @32:

    The most common ones are implied consent, parental duty and active/passive distinctions.

    The one worthy of greatest consideration is implied consent, and even that’s deeply flawed. Someone with a fully functional uterus only spends 1/12 of their life fertile, ergo pregnancy is not a direct side effect of sex. It also argues in favor of abortion for non-consentual pregnancies, such as incest or contraceptive failure, and is thus nearly indistinguishable from many people’s definition of pro-choice.

    Parental duty is circular, parents have a duty to care for their children because we say they must care. It also ignores parental care to existing children; if keeping your children from poverty is considered a parental care duty, then abortion for economic reasons is justified. Also, many people forget that bodily integrity is narrow, only covering the physical body. That right is severed with the umbilical cord, hence why the bodily integrity argument can’t be used to justify infanticide or neglect.

    And active/passive is arbitrary. We never touch anything, there’s always an “air gap” caused by electromagnetic forces. Every action we do is the result of a indirect action, so to argue for a sharp boundary between active and passive action is ridiculous.

    This also leads to the anti-choice movement’s dirty secret: they’re fine with “killing the unborn” when it’s politically expedient. I haven’t heard of a mainstream anti-choice group that would deny care to an ectopic pregnancy through abortion, but I dare you to get them to admit that’s an abortion. I’ve tried, and it’s HILARIOUS how badly they squirm! “Killing the unborn” by removal of part of the fallopian tube isn’t killing anything, according to them, but “killing the unborn” by administering an anti-cancer drug is unequivocal murder.

    Something to remember, in case you cross paths with someone holding the anti-choice view.

  30. corwyn says

    Nope. Being a skeptic means never having 100% confidence in *anything*. Because skeptics hold some things with a 99.999% confidence and others with a 1% confidence only means that some are more likely (in that skeptics mind) to produce fruitful inquiry or debate, not that none of them are sacrosanct. Once you claim to have 100% confidence in something you are claiming to have infinite evidence, and have left the ranks of skeptics.

    None of this of course means that any particular skeptic needs to participate in a debate they think is likely to be fruitless.

  31. qwints says

    I meant to say – look through papers citing Thomson’s paper.

    corwyn, I’m not sure what 100% confidence in a value judgment means. That seems to be unhelpfully mixing the language of empirical science with ethics. I can’t conceive of any reason, evidence or argument that could make me reconsider whether the experiences of people matter in some way. I don’t think that a belief in human dignity requires confidence intervals.

  32. says

    Yes, what qwints just said.

    Mind you, I should have spelled that out in the post. Skepticism is about epistemology; it’s not useful for ethics, where you want something more like critical thinking.

    Or not, but at any rate my point in the post was that moral commitments are not the same thing as factual claims and there are some that just should be commitments, period. Certainty doesn’t come into it because it’s not factual; it’s a should, not an is.

    Genocide? Right out. No 1%, no nothing. Just no.

  33. screechymonkey says

    Skeptics should be willing to revise any and all of their beliefs given sufficient reason, argument, evidence

    With an important exception, of course:

    Guys should not do that? #NotUpForDebate

  34. zibble says

    Skeptics should be willing to revise any and all of their beliefs given sufficient reason, argument, evidence

    I don’t think this sentence is wrong.

    What Terry on Friendly A doesn’t seem to get is that he’s saying something horrid by implying that the standard, trite pro-life garbage represents “sufficient reason, argument, or evidence” to reconsider the bodily autonomy of women and significantly hurt American medical care, the poor, and America’s entire social progression in the process. I am willing to rethink these strong beliefs of mine in the light of good arguments – I am not willing to coddle garbage arguments and pretend they’re legitimate just because they’re popular.

    The fact is, the inability to manage pregnancies is the biggest thing that keeps populations ignorant, desperate, and resentful – the very things that perpetuate religion. It is not a coincidence that Christianity is so infused in the pro-life movement, despite the total absence of any anti-abortion language in the Bible. Overturning Roe v Wade would be the greatest boon to American Christianity in the 21st century, which makes it all the more ludicrous for atheists like David Silverman or Terry Firma to be defending it.


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