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Musings of a Closet Skeptic

Opening the door a little wider to share some thoughts

by Arthur L. Kohl

 

I have been a skeptic all my life.  However, I found out at an early age that expressing skepticism about commonly accepted beliefs resulted in arched eyebrows, obvious disapproval, and shocked questions such as, “Don’t you believe in anything?” As a result, I learned to keep my mouth closed while my mind was open. Of course, family and close friends are well aware of my ideas and opinions, so sharing some of them with a wider audience is merely opening the closet door a little farther. The thoughts presented below generally pertain to religion, which is not surprising since organized religions represent the most widespread and socially acceptable belief systems. Like most skeptics, I take a dim view of many other popular beliefs, such as astrology, extrasensory perception, past lives, channeling, etc.; however, these beliefs are regularly and adequately debunked in the pages of Free Inquiry, the Skeptical Inquirer, Skeptic Magazine, and other publications, and so are not discussed here. I do not claim that any of my ideas are original, but I hope that their presentation will strike a harmonious chord with others. 

Beliefs of a Skeptic

Of course, even a skeptic must have some beliefs that can act as a framework for evaluating his or her own and others’ ideas. These are some of the key beliefs and assumptions of my philosophy:

1.The universe actually exists. This is an important assumption. If it is all a dream, all bets are off with regard to any attempt to understand it. Furthermore, there is a unified reality; what is true for me is also true for you.

2.There are natural laws that govern all physical processes, and there is only one set of these laws, not one for science and one for religion. Several, such as the first and second laws of thermodynamics and the law of gravity, are well established, although, of course, they are always subject to modification as our understanding of the universe expands. A very important function of science is to verify and upgrade the known laws and develop new ones as required to explain new observations.

3.As far as I know, the theory of evolution has not yet acquired the status of a natural law; however, I am quite convinced of its validity. Certainly changes do occur in successive generations of living organisms. There is ample evidence that this has happened in the recent past in isolated communities, and it appears to be happening now to produce insecticide-resistant pests and bactericide-resistant bacteria. It is inconceivable to me that changes that result in a survival advantage would not eventually become the dominant form.

4.If two statements are mutually contradictory, they cannot both be correct. This may seem obvious, but is often ignored, particularly by those religious believers who would like to display their tolerance of other religions by stating that every religion represents the truth for its adherents. Unfortunately, in many cases this is not possible, e.g. either Jesus Christ was the divine son of God or he was not. In a logical world, both positions cannot be true. Orthodox believers tend to be more in tune with the law of contradictions by stating that their belief system represents the only real truth while all others are false. Unfortunately, the laws of probability are against them; e.g., if there are ten equally plausible religions, there is, at best, only a 10 percent probability that any one of them is exactly correct. Of course, there is a very real possibility that none of them is.

5.For every effect there is a cause. No exceptions to this law of cause and effect have been observed to date. However, it is not clear how this law could have operated in the very beginning. Assigning creation to a supernatural being avoids the need to face this extremely difficult question. In fact, a strict interpretation of this law leads to the conclusion that the universe has no beginning, because before the beginning there would be nothing, and absolute nothingness could hardly generate a cause for anything. Of course, even if a God is assumed to be the creator, a true skeptic would want to know what caused God to exist.

6.The laws of probability are alive and well. How often do we hear that some observed occurrence must be supernatural because the odds of it being pure coincidence are extremely low? (e.g. one house left standing when all others in the area are demolished by a hurricane, or one cancer patient recovering after the doctor says the case is terminal). In fact, even if the probability is only one in a million, these odds indicate that one house (or patient) will be spared out of every million affected, and no supernatural intervention is needed. One probability law that is particularly difficult to accept is that the dice (or coins, etc.) have no memory. It is hard to believe that, after one hundred rolls of the dice with no 7 appearing, the odds of getting 7 on the next roll are no better (or worse) than before.

7.Honesty is the best policy. This is not a law of nature or logic, but it is a belief that leads to the conclusion that it is O.K. to admit that you do not know (or understand) something. The apparent human need to know the cause of all observed phenomena has probably been a major factor in the development of religions and other belief systems. Throughout history and in various societies, stories have been made up to explain the unknown. Many of these are highly imaginative and fanciful, but become a liability when people refuse to give them up in the face of well-substantiated explanations, or refuse to admit that, in all honesty, they do not know the answer.

8.The brain is not a perfect computer. It has many weaknesses, including a tendency to fill in the blanks in order to generate a complete picture or story from a sketchy one and a strong resistance to giving up beliefs even when presented with irrefutable evidence of their inaccuracy. Furthermore, it is very susceptible to suggestion and is subject to the influence of illogical emotions. Of course, it has many wondrous attributes including the ability to examine its own weaknesses.

Nonlaws

Just as the laws of nature, logic, and probability provide a reasonable basis for skeptical analysis, it is important to note that some other commonly accepted perceptions are not covered by known laws. For example:

1.Although every occurrence must have a cause, it is not required to have a meaning. This is difficult to accept, because most of us would like to believe that everything that occurs does have a meaning or at least a purpose. It may be a relief not to have to worry about the meaning of life, but it is very disconcerting to think that there may actually not be one. Of course, we cannot say that there is no meaning, only that there is no current law of nature that requires one.

2.There may not be justice. Again, most of us would like to believe that misdeeds are## eventually punished in this world or somewhere else, and that good deeds are rewarded. Unfortunately there is no natural law that requires this to be true, and there is a vast amount of evidence indicating that, in this world at least, true justice is quite rare.

Negative Virtues

Some so-called virtues such as faith, loyalty, and consistency can have strong negative attributes. “Faith” implies the belief in something that is not proven to be true. (It does not require faith, only logic, to accept something that is well proven.) Typically, faith comes about as a result of the teachings of a parent or charismatic figure or the acceptance of statements in a respected document. People possessing the “virtue” of faith believe in a vast array of propositions, some undoubtedly true, but many clearly incorrect. Although faith provides some benefits such as giving the faithful a feeling of security, the negative effects of relying on faith are numerous. Particularly onerous examples are the misplaced faith in a healer that may cause a seriously ill person to avoid competent medical treatment and blind faith in a cult leader that can cause followers to commit suicide (as did the very faithful members of the Jonestown and Heaven’s Gate cults).

Loyalty can be highly valuable from the standpoint of a group, but may have negative effects on society as a whole. Undoubtedly, in primitive societies, loyalty to the family or tribe had strong survival benefits, and quite possibly resulted in a genetic tendency to resent outsiders. In modern societies, this tendency has contributed to family feuds, gang turf battles, and warfare between ethnic group’s and countries. Even  hate crimes can be blamed on the loyalty gene run amok. Most hate groups express extreme loyalty to their own nationality, ethnicity, and/or religion.

A cold logical look at our loyalties to professional athletic teams reveals the ridiculous side of this virtue. Each team is made up of paid athletes, from all over the world. For reasons other than loyalty, the team is assigned or transferred to a specific city. Suddenly, people in this city become loyal supporters of the team, cheer for it in competition with other professional teams (even when these other teams contain athletes from the first team), and in extreme cases get into fights with the fans of another team.

Consistency is a highly overrated virtue. We denigrate a politician who changes his position, and even the word turncoat to designate someone who switches to the opposite party or way of thinking has a negative connotation. However, human progress requires the acceptance of new ideas and the abandonment of old ones. Scientists are often required to discard a pet theory when test data prove it to be false, and to accept a competing theory when the data indicate it to be more plausible.

A very human characteristic related to faith, loyalty, and consistency is our tendency to select one side or the other of a controversial issue, then strongly defend the selected position. This characteristic may be carried to extremes where supporters of the other side are demonized and their arguments ignored even when the original issue is not clear-cut, and the majority of people on both sides are not very far apart.

Consider abortion, for example. Extremists on the right may consider the spilling of semen a catastrophe, the discarding of an extra fertilized egg by a doctor a murder, and an early miscarriage a death in the family. Extremists on the other side may say that a woman should have full control over her own body and can therefore elect to have an abortion at any time in a pregnancy right up to childbirth. Most reasonable people on both sides of the issue would not agree with either of the extremes, so in reality they disagree only with regard to when an abortion should be considered acceptable to society, e.g. sometime between fertilization of an egg cell and viability outside the womb. In the end, society must make an arbitrary (though highly considered) decision, much like it sets an arbitrary speed limit for automobiles.

The arguments become highly charged by the use of the words unborn baby versus fetus and the debate over when life begins. The first argument is pointless because everyone knows what is inside the pregnant woman, and what it is called does not affect the issue. The debate over when life begins is equally immaterial because it has no answer. Life is not an isolated event. It is a river that flows from one generation to the next. A living sperm and living egg unite to form a living zygote. When does life begin for a geranium plant produced from a cutting? A human baby is not a flower, but the example shows the difficulty of identifying the precise start of a new life. In this case, continued debate seems to lead more to polarization than to resolution.

Religion, God, and Prayer

From a strictly logical point of view there is no need for a separate category of learning called “religion.” Any events mentioned in the Bible (Old or New testaments), Book of Mormon, Qur’an, etc. that actually happened represent history and could be researched and reported as such. Any supernatural phenomena believed by the faithful represent science if they actually occurred as reported, and myth or imagination if they did not. The laws of logic and nature are intended to be all-inclusive and should cover religious as well as secular ideas and phenomena. These laws can be changed if necessary to encompass any so-called supernatural events that are adequately proven. In this respect they differ from religious dogma, which tends to be rigidly fixed.

The debate over the existence of God can be considered to be primarily a semantic problem based on the definition of God. Both the theists and the atheists claim to know the answer; in fact, no one really knows whether or not God exists. Only the agnostic is being completely honest. If the universe has always existed, there is no real need for God; however, the concept of something existing forever is hard to comprehend, and it seems more comfortable to assume that the universe did have a beginning and will have an end. Since logic requires a cause for any effect, we have only to define God as the driving force or trigger that caused the universe to come into existence. With this broad definition, there are very few atheists.

Of course, a God that meets the minimum requirements of the above definition, one who pulled the trigger to start the universe, and then stepped back to let it evolve on its own, is not very satisfying. Such a God would not interfere with life on Earth, and would certainly not violate his own natural laws to convey favors on those who obey and pray to him or to punish those who do not. So most true theists have assigned continuing supernatural powers and many human characteristics to their Gods.

Many people believe in the power of prayer and regularly pray that God will be kind to them and their loved ones. This seems like an innocuous request, but its repercussions may not be so benevolent.  Unfortunately, bad things do happen to people, so if some are given favored treatment as a result of their own or someone else’s prayers, others (who do not get prayed for) must accept more than their share of misfortune. Consider, for example, two seriously ill babies. If a million people pray for one and no one prays for the other, would God actually give preferential treatment to the prayed-for baby and allow the other to die? I personally could never accept such an unjust God, and, therefore, cannot accept the efficacy of prayer in such a situation. Of course, such reasoning does not preclude psychological or other benefits for the one doing the praying.

There is a remarkable similarity between organized religion and alternative medicine. Both have been around for a long time; in fact in some societies they are interrelated (e.g. medicine men, witch doctors, faith healers, etc.). In our current society, both are “sacred cows” as far as our lawmakers are concerned, and both are allowed to make all sorts of unproven claims. Both are based on faith and anecdotal evidence, rather than proven facts; and both provide some benefits to society, although the net benefit-to-cost ratios cannot readily be determined. As suggested for religion, there is no real need for a separate category called “alternative medicine.” If it works, it is good medicine. If it does not work it is not medicine at all.

Man Vs. the Lower Animals

The Judeo-Christian-Islam religions profess that man is created in the image of God and is vastly superior to any of the  lower animals. This raises several questions, particularly if evolution is accepted. Without even considering that there are many very different forms of man today, there is the question of when in evolution did the God-to-man image reproduction occur? Did Neanderthal man, for example, look like God, or does only Homo sapiens?

 Modern technical inventions such as the airplane, television, computers, etc. are often cited as evidence of the vast superiority of man over other animals. However, since the comparison covers all humans and all animals, a fair evaluation must compare a primitive human society with a relatively intelligent group of animals. When one looks at a gorilla mother holding the hand of her offspring while picking berries and compares this scene to the lifestyle of some aborigines or to early Homo sapiens, the gap does not seem so great.

The vast technical advancements of modern society can be attributed in large part to one small advantage over other animals—the ability to record information for future use. When the total supply of knowledge was limited to human memory, technical advancement was severely limited. After the invention of writing and other forms of record keeping, science and technology took off. The effect can be likened to the development of an airplane. Many small steps and improvements can be made, and the contraption will not fly. Finally one minor increase in engine efficiency or other factor, and the apparatus can take off and fly through the air. It appears to be vastly superior to the earlier models although the actual difference #may be quite small.

Faith and Believing

In the early development of the human animal, believing clearly had survival benefits. Babies who believed their parents that lions should be avoided had a substantial advantage over those who had to find out the hard way. As a result, the tendency to believe what we are told is apparently an inherited genetic factor. In fact, for children, believing what is told to them by an authority figure is still a very useful characteristic (e.g. “Do not touch the fire!”). Unfortunately, a child’s power of critical evaluation does not develop as rapidly as its memory, and children readily pick up unproven beliefs from their parents and others. Some of these, such as Santa Claus and the tooth fairy, are readily discarded as the children mature. Others, such as a belief in the religion of their parents, are not so easily rejected. Beliefs are also picked up from books, gurus, friends, and other sources at any stage in life and can be very difficult to discard. The ability to critically evaluate childhood beliefs and avoid accepting new beliefs in unproven doctrines may be an important measure of maturity.

Clearly the stronger a person believes that his worldview or religion is right (and therefore all others are wrong) the more trouble it causes society. One need only read a newspaper, listen to a radio, or watch television to become aware of many examples of societal problems caused by religious extremism. If it is accepted that extreme religiosity is harmful to society and the harm decreases as the religion becomes more moderate, then a logical question is: Does the improvement continue all the way to zero religion, or is an optimum reached at some modest level of religiosity?

Even a confirmed atheist must admit that religions provide some benefits to the believers (and to society in general). Just as the belief in Santa Claus may make children behave more civilly (to ensure gifts at Christmas) so a belief in heaven and hell may induce Christian, Jews, and Muslims to follow a socially acceptable moral code. Numerous other benefits can be attributed to religion, from charitable acts to providing a meeting place for compatible people. A moral dilemma for the skeptic is: Does the end justify the means? If the religious teachings are unproven (or actually erroneous) do they still provide a net benefit to society?

On Being a Skeptic

Being a skeptic is not being negative. It is being absolutely honest and willing to face the hard facts. It is a willingness to accept new concepts that are adequately proven even when they require the abandonment of old beliefs, and, of course it is a willingness to admit it when we do not know or understand something.

If the characteristic of accepting unproven beliefs is genetic, it must have been an important survival tool, because so many people have it. Certainly more people believe in some kind of religion than in none at all. In fact, I would not be surprised if more people believe in astrology than do not. If most people are believers in unproven dogmas, then believing can be considered to be normal and being skeptical not normal, which probably explains any tendency of skeptics to remain in the closet. (Who wants to be considered abnormal?)

As pointed out earlier, one of my conclusions is that it is O.K. to admit that you do not know something. However this does not prevent one from being awestruck by the vastness and complexity of the universe. A skeptic may forgo the security of a firm belief system, but enjoys the privileges of questioning accepted concepts, and changing his theories to fit the latest factual information. He can always hope to add some small increment of understanding to the fund of human knowledge.


Arthur L. Kohl is a consulting chemical engineer and technical writer.  


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