Evaluating a Premise: Don’t be a “Mere Skeptic”

This is the last of the initial series of discussions I am putting forward about evaluating premises in an argument – or more colloquially, evaluating anything that somebody tells you is true. We’ve gone through a variety of nuances so far – about properly evaluating probabilities, when people do and do not need to justify what they say, and even the nature of knowledge itself. A lot of this is based upon not coming to conclusions too quickly. This post is exactly the opposite.

There is such a thing as being too critical. As many have done before, I give such people the label ‘skeptics‘. The reason I do so is that skepticism refers generally to being doubtful about something – normally until sufficient evidence is provided, of course. But skepticism can go too far. Flashing back to a previous post, being skeptical of properly basic beliefs is, I would say, either a sign of philosophical ignorance or intellectual dishonesty. If you have not read my posts that discuss properly basic beliefs, imagine a person trying to convince you that they don’t exist, or that you don’t exist, or that the buildings and trees and animals around you don’t exist. Properly basic beliefs are, very broadly, those things that are at this level of undeniability. To attempt to reject these is taking the principle behind skepticism much too far.

So then, what are the implications of skepticism to evaluating arguments? The difficult part of this question is attempting to define what exactly is the right amount of evidence required to justify believing something – I am not going to try to do that here, because that is a difficult question. It is easier to lay out some criteria of things to avoid. So, let’s lay out a few things to avoid in “being skeptical.”

(1) Make sure that it is at least possible for someone to give you enough evidence to convince you.

(2) Defeating an argument requires bringing forth an alternative.

I will explain each point in order. The first point ought to be obvious, I think, but there are people who have de facto rejected this. Let’s give an example. Michael Shermer is a prominent atheist speaker and debater, and he promotes what is colloquially known as Shermer’s last law – that “any sufficiently advanced extraterrestrial intelligence is indistinguishable from God [1].” If you just think about this for a minute, you realize that one implication of the claim here is that any evidence that could point to God’s existence also points to extraterrestrial intelligence, and this serves as an escape route. To see what I mean – suppose that God does in fact exist. Not necessarily the Christian God, but some “capital G” God. Then Shermer’s last law makes it impossible to produce evidence of this God’s existence, because any and all evidence is explainable another way – via extraterrestrial intelligence. Therefore, Shermer’s last law produces a clear bias against the idea of God existing. This contradicts (1). We should never do this. Whatever way we view the world, we should not believe anything that prevents us from being corrected if we happen to be wrong.

The second point is easier to explain. You can’t really disprove a person by saying “well I think you’re wrong” every time they say something. You can’t just say no to everything – there must be something on the basis of which you say no to other things. You can’t honestly say “no” to something unless you believe “yes” about that thing. In the context of religion, you can’t unequivocally reject Christianity unless you can establish something to take its place – and you can’t reject atheism unless you can establish something to take its place.

Everything included in this article can be summarized quite quickly – make sure that nothing you currently believe prevents you from being corrected. If something does, then that belief is probably incorrect. Christianity provides multiple routes of disproving it, as does every organized religion that I know of, as does classical atheism. Let’s all do our best to be honest about what we believe and why we believe it.

[`1] https://michaelshermer.com/sciam-columns/shermers-last-law/

2 thoughts on “Evaluating a Premise: Don’t be a “Mere Skeptic”

  1. I don’t think it’s necessary to have something in mind that replaces a religion in order to reject that religion. The above should be true if religion is replaced by any collection of ideas. If replace allows replacing by just the negation then your remark it tautologically true of course. I’m response to the concept of properly basic beliefs, people should have a little doubt about everything and I think that there would be disagreement about what is properly basic.

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    1. I’d agree with the first point – in the context of an inference to the best explanation you need sufficiently strong counter-evidence, but you certainly can demonstrate something is false by showing its negation to be true. Although when the nature of evidence is not strictly logical in nature, I think care must be taken. As regards your second point, basically I’d agree… although I don’t think it would ever be appropriate to doubt, for instance, that my beliefs are not randomly generated and are (even when I correct) at least largely based on some external reality. But a little doubt and openness to being corrected is entirely appropriate, yes

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