Friday, 11 December 2015

The changing meaning of the word skepticism.

Modern skeptics of the paranormal often appeal to a quote made by the late Carl Sagan that  “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence".  However, I believe that originally to be a sceptic (I'll spell with a "c" for the original sense and a "k" for the modern sense), was to not simply accept the prevailing beliefs of one's culture, but to question them to see if these beliefs stand up to scrutiny. Crucially, no particular stance was taken.  The prevailing beliefs may or may not be true, but the sceptic avoided simply assuming that they are true, and indeed avoided simply assuming they are false. What they attempted to do was apply reason and evidence and reach tentative provisional conclusions in that way.

In contrast, skepticism in the sense in which it tends to now be currently used, at least as regards the "paranormal", has a supposition that modern science together with its implicit metaphysical assumptions, has successfully broadly painted a picture of what reality is like.  Lots of the details need to be filled in for sure, but in its broad outline skeptics assume it is essentially correct.  And, in general, the background beliefs of the intelligentsia regarding reality are shaped by the message that modern science seems to convey.

Now of course there are certain phenomena which are not consonant with such background beliefs and the conception of reality they entail e.g. apparitions, telepathy, the notion of an afterlife and so on.  Hence, when people claim to experience such things, the supposition of the skeptic is to assume that explanations consistent with the prevailing beliefs of one's culture are sufficient to explain the phenomenon concerned.  This is so even if such normal conventional explanations might be highly convoluted and implausible.  This is because no matter how implausible such conventional explanations might be, they do not rival the implausibility of accepting any paranormal phenomena -- or so skeptics maintain.  Any explanations not consistent with their beliefs are deemed to be controversial and extraordinary.  In order to accept a given anomalous phenomenon for what it seems to be, the evidence, to use Sagan's words, would need to be "extraordinary". 

So, in a nutshell, a skeptic assumes prevailing beliefs held by the intelligentsia are correct, and consequently he or she has a propensity to dismiss out of hand alleged phenomena inconsistent with such prevailing beliefs.  To describe modern skeptics as deniers is perhaps too strong.   But it certainly seems to me that modern skepticism is in many ways quite the opposite of the original meaning of the word scepticism.

Of course, a skeptic could argue that we are justified in subscribing to those beliefs informed by modern science.  He could also argue that the results obtained in parapsychology fall far short of the reliability of the results obtained in physics (as in the case of all "soft" sciences, including psychology and sociology). 

Two points should be made:

First of all, this doesn't justify the hijacking of the word "skepticism" to label this approach.

But secondly, and much more importantly, there is a stubborn misconception regarding what science actually does.   It tends to be conflated with a particular metaphysical interpretation of reality, an interpretation which itself cannot be justified.  More importantly, unless we presuppose materialism -- a metaphysical position which seems to me to be simply untenable -- science leaves out the existence of consciousness in its description of reality.  This includes our normal perceptions from our 5 main senses. Yes, we can describe the neural correlates of a conscious experience such as a visual perception. But, even in principle, we cannot derive the experience itself, even from a thorough scientific understanding of the brain.  So, if normal perceptions are in principle inexplicable, how on earth can we claim that extrasensory perceptions are ruled out by science?   I suggest only by assuming philosophical materialism.  And materialism, apart from its unintelligibility, is not derived from science, but is a certain metaphysical stance.

Other blog entries by me might be of interest in this regard:

Science, the Afterlife, and the Intelligentsia
Science, the Afterlife, and the Intelligentsia
Do scientific explanations actually explain?
Science and the Afterlife
A very brief introduction to subjective idealism

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