Thursday, July 10, 2014

What Is Skepticism?

"A lot of people believe humans have had an affect on climate change, but I'm a skeptic."
"Most people accept evolution as fact, but I'm a skeptic."
"They say vaccines are safe and don't cause autism, but I'm a skeptic."

"You keep using that word.  I do not think it means what you think it means." 
~Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride

It's as if people think the word simply means "a dissenting opinion."  No.  Not even close.

There are a number of qualities that go along with being considered a skeptic, or someone who practices skepticism.


  • A skeptic is one who holds no claim above questioning.  If skepticism had a slogan, it would likely be "Question Everything".
  • A skeptic is one who holds no emotional attachment to a belief or set of beliefs.
  • A skeptic proportions degree of belief of a claim to the amount of evidence to support it.
  • A skeptic values evidence that supports the truth of a claim, as opposed to how good a claim makes the individual feel.
  • A skeptic is not interested in believing claims simply because they are comforting or make the individual feel good.
  • A skeptic is one who, and I must give credit to the author of this expression, Matt Dillahunty, wants to believe as many true things as possible and as few false things as possible.
  • A skeptic values evidently true beliefs over comforting beliefs.
  • A skeptic rejects claims that don't have sufficient evidence to support them.
  • A skeptic rejects the concept of absolute certainty wholesale.
  • A skeptic is one who does not hesitate to call into question any belief that they hold.
  • A skeptic is one who recognizes that any belief they hold they have any kind of emotional attachment to must be questioned most critically.
  • A skeptic strives to not hold any emotional attachment towards any belief that they hold.
  • A skeptic is always willing to listen to new evidence to the contrary of what they believe.
  • A skeptic will often seek out arguments against their own beliefs to evaluate them.
  • A skeptic strives to remove as many presuppositions as possible.
  • A skeptic, above all else, strives to know what is actually true.
  • As a result, a skeptic, above all else, must be very skilled in filtering out as much falsehoods as possible.
I don't know how you can confuse that with simply someone who has a dissenting opinion.  There is nothing in there about denying a claim when there is overwhelming evidence in support of it.

There is overwhelmingly supporting evidence that climate change is happening, and that humans had a lot to do with it.  There is overwhelmingly supporting evidence for evolution by natural selection, for "macroevolution", and for humans being part of the evolutionary tree.  There is overwhelming evidence that vaccines are safe and no evidence to support the claim that vaccines cause autism.  And if you want to be a skeptic, don't take my word for it!  We have the internet!  You can research this for yourself!

There is another misuse of this word that bothers me. And that is when it is used by someone to describe their degree of belief in a god.

"No, I'm not an atheist, but I'm a skeptic."

We have a very different understanding of both of those words... First of all, when that is said, it sounds an awful lot like you understand the word "atheist" to mean "someone who claims 100% certainty that god does not exist and won't call that belief into question", but that is for another post.

Secondly, what you're saying is probably not what I'm hearing.  Because I just explained what skeptic means to me, and what I would say what it should or does mean.

But what you seem to be saying is simply:

"I'm not certain that God does not exist, but I'm examining my faith."

No, sorry, those two things are not the same, and expressing that using the words "atheist" and "skeptic" are just adding confusion.

If you're not an atheist and you are a skeptic, that to me would mean that you are convinced that there is a god, meaning you are a theist, and that you have sufficient evidence that can be shown to anyone that would compel them, if they are also skeptics, to be convinced as well.  But that is never the case when this is said.

Another thing that really bothers me is when skepticism is portrayed as something that is bad or something to be feared.  Sometimes in the context it is used it sounds like it is meant to simply mean "questioning the existence of God", and as if this is something bad.  If you agree with that, then you are not a skeptic; see the list I made above if you don't understand why.

Skepticism is a very good thing.  Possibly the best thing.  I value skepticism more than my atheism.  If I had to choose between the two, I would choose my skepticism.  If there was sufficient evidence for a god, I would believe it existed, but as a skeptic, I would not hold any emotional attachment to that belief; it would simply be as a result of the evidence.  If there was evidence to support the claim that humans had no involvement in climate change, I would believe that claim.  But there isn't.  If the evidence led to the conclusion that we have not evolved, then I would believe that, but that is simply not the case.  If the evidence supported the claim that vaccines are unsafe, I would believe that, but that is not the case.  If the evidence supported the claim that vaccines cause autism, I would believe that, but that is not the case.  I'd rather be a skeptic and not an atheist than an atheist and not a skeptic.

Skepticism is awesome.  Skepticism leads to the greatest number of true beliefs and the fewest number of false beliefs as possible.

When will you decide that finding truth matters more to you than continuing to hold even your most cherished beliefs?