Here is a thought exercise for skeptics, as well as an open invitation for them to post any responses in the comments.
In episode 8 of the Drunken Skeptics podcast, there was a segment in which my co-host Michelle and I had a short debate about the skeptic position towards supernaturalism. I took on the role of criticizing the skeptic position (the believer) and Michelle’s role was to defend it (the skeptic).
Skeptics can find examples of exchanges between skeptics and believers. One such example, is the website, Thinking Critically, in which Jeff Randall has posted articles of such interactions (1, 2, 3) in a series called The Believers Brain. And I think this is important because being familiar with opposing arguments, ranging from the wildly absurd to the more sophisticated, can be good preparation for when one finds ourselves in similar circumstances. And while many of us may not be interested in debating (such as myself), I do think there is value in at least being familiar with how these exchanges could play out.
And so, I tried to create three new (and hopefully, interesting) arguments that are in response to the skeptical position about supernaturalism in this faux debate. In the segment, we sort of explain what we meant by supernaturalism, which was pretty much a generic description (phenomena that is outside the realm of science, or can’t be explained or proven conclusively by science) – but with a nod towards three heavyweights: the existence of God, miracles, and ghosts. But we avoided getting into specific examples, because we wanted to focus on logic and reason.
As an aside, typically when having a discussion about supernatural phenomena, I think it’s important that the skeptic challenges the advocate of supernaturalism to come up with a working definition – otherwise, the skeptic could end up chasing tautologies and equivocation fallacies all over the place. It may not be a deliberate act on the believer’s part, but rather just the result of a cluttered mind and a lack of critical thinking. But for this debate, Michelle and I had hammered out a working definition beforehand – which she brings up in her rebuttal to my arguments.
So, in order to give context to the three arguments, it’s necessary to review the modus operandi of skeptics when it comes to dealing with supernatural claims. I summarized it the following way:
The skeptic position seems to be officially that there is insufficient quality evidence that prove these things exist. Some skeptics admit that their opinion on these things are provisional – and can (and will) change when good evidence comes along. But conversely, some skeptics are a bit bolder, and matter-of-factly state that these things do not exist – and no such evidence could exist to make them change their mind. Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers asserted this at an event in which you can listen to on the Pod Delusion website.
So the arguments that I made are as followed:
1) There are phenomena that occur of which scientists can’t explain. Skeptics reply that just because something is not explained, doesn’t mean it’s unexplainable. So I asserted that this skeptic argument is fallacious. Specifically, it is the Argument to the Future fallacy – which states that this skeptic’s response is valid because a natural explanation will eventually be known. But isn’t this reasoning often made by charlatans and quacks who are trying to sell a service or product to the public that does not have scientific or empirical support. Are skeptics making the same, flawed, argument?
2) Science is provisional. It updates its theories based on new evidence. And skeptics adopt a similar stance – accepting claims when new evidence arrives to support them. However, when believers of supernaturalism offer evidence, the skeptic will reject it for either being lousy evidence (which is appropriate) or flimsy evidence (which may not be appropriate). That is, if a skeptic can’t refute the evidence, it’s still not sufficient for them to accept a claim. Why can’t skeptics accept it provisionally? This is a double-standard, holding supernatural phenomena to a higher standard than natural phenomena, of which some of it – has shown to be ever-changing (i.e health/nutrition claims, for example).
3) As scientific research of neurophysiology continues to show the many ways in which cognitive processes of the human brain can be fallible (for example, the tricks on our senses, such as hallucinations and hypnogogia) skeptics now have an “out” – a default explanation – for explaining observed supernatural phenomena. “It’s a brain quirk.” This sweeps claims of supernatural phenomena that may blip into the range of our sensory perceptions under the rug.
So what do you think? What are your replies to these arguments? What mistakes in reasoning am I making, and am I using fallacies or bad logic of my own?
If you’re interested in listening to the debate, you can listen to or download the episode here (the segment starts at 8:15).