Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Skepticism's Naturalistic Bias

The Skeptics Society is an organization that describes itself as "a scientific and educational organization of scholars, scientists, historians, magicians, professors and teachers, and anyone curious about controversial ideas, extraordinary claims, revolutionary ideas, and the promotion of science." Their purported mission is "to serve as an educational tool for those seeking clarification and viewpoints on those controversial ideas and claims." On their "About Us" page they attempt to clarify the definition of a "skeptic." According to the Society:

"...skepticism is a method, not a position. Ideally, skeptics do not go into an investigation closed to the possibility that a phenomenon might be real or that a claim might be true. When we say we are 'skeptical,' we mean that we must see compelling evidence before we believe."

As far as this definition goes, I would label myself as a skeptic. After all I do not believe in the resurrection of Christ as a matter of blind dogma. I have evaluated the evidence and firmly believe that there is "compelling evidence" that Jesus did indeed rise from the dead. I appreciate that such a claim requires extraordinary evidence. But as the Skeptics Society definition says, I do not go into the investigation "closed to the possibility that a phenomenon might be real" and I believe that compelling evidence demonstrates that this extraordinary claim is in fact true.

People who label themselves as "skeptics" (or "free thinkers," as the latest fad seems to be) like to think that they approach questions with true objectivity, not bringing their own presuppositions or biased worldview to bear on the question. In reality, I believe that so-called skeptics are just as influenced by biased presuppositions as they claim their opponents are. Specifically, their history betrays a naturalistic bias. They are not "closed to the possibility that a phenomenon might be real" so long as a naturalistic explanation for that phenomenon can be found. If the evidence points to a supernatural explanation, skeptics will discard it on that ground alone.

Take the following quote, also taken from the Skeptics Society's "About Us" page:

"Modern skepticism is embodied in the scientific method, which involves gathering data to formulate and test naturalistic explanations for natural phenomena. A claim becomes factual when it is confirmed to such an extent it would be reasonable to offer temporary agreement." (emphasis added)

According to this comment, skepticism limits itself to evaluating only "natural phenomena." If that were true, it would make perfect sense to limit your search to "naturalistic explanations." After all, the definition of a "natural phenomena" is something with a "naturalistic explanation."

But skeptics do not limit their opinions to natural phenomena. Take a few examples from the Skeptics Society's website.

Their home page has the following two quotes:

"Shermer exposes frauds and debunks paranormal quackery from acupuncture to out-of-body experiences, and more on his YouTube Channel!"

"In this 14-minute introduction to skepticism, Dr. Michael Shermer (Executive Director of the Skeptics Society) discusses why people believe weird things and elaborates on the power of belief systems."

Does this sound like Dr. Shermer (the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine) is limiting himself to explaining "natural phenomena"? Isn't "paranormal" by definition not "naturalistic"?

Their website also contains a book review of 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, a fictional story by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein which, contrary to the appearance of its title, actually uses fiction as an attempt to disprove the existence of God. Look at some of the comments that found their way into the review:

"As is suggested in Goldstein’s title, many individuals still turn to a work of fiction called the bible for their answers to life’s big questions."

"36 Arguments for the Existence of God not only delivers what the freethinking reader wants from a philosophical novel, but is a must-read for any skeptic who wishes to arm him/herself with thoughtful ammunition in the ongoing battle to end religious irrationality."

Again, isn't the existence of God a supernatural question?

Finally, Volume 15, Number 3 of Skeptic Magazine contains an article titled "Magic, Skepticism & Belief: An Empirical Study on What Magicians Believe About the Paranormal and letters titled "When Religions Go Bad", "Christianity and the Southern Cross" and "I Could Be Wrong About God, Could You?"

Please understand that I am not suggesting that people who label themselves skeptics should not chime in on these topics. Of course they should. The marketplace of ideas demands that competing viewpoints be given equal voice so that intelligent people can evaluate them on their merits. The problem is that skeptics worship at the altar of the scientific method and only open themselves up to naturalistic explanations. That is fine if you are limiting yourself to evaluating natural phenomena. But they do not limit their inquiry in this way. They equally delve into the realm of the supernatural, but they continue to limit themselves to naturalistic explanations.

This is an unjustified methodological limitation. If your goal is to discover truth you have to broaden your horizons to include both natural and supernatural potential explanations, all the while being true to the original definition of skepticism that "we must see compelling evidence before we believe." But nothing in the requirement for compelling evidence per se eliminates supernatural explanations. I understand that most skeptics probably believe that they are open to these possibilities, but their comments often betray the truth.

The Skeptics Society admits that a skeptic looks only for "naturalistic explanations." That in and of itself shows why their methodology is inadequate for opening yourself up to all possibilities of "truth." If you are not interested in learning the truth and would rather go through life wearing a set of naturalistic blinders, that is certainly your prerogative. But if so then understand that you will never be able to arrive at answers in arenas for which your methodology is ill-suited.


DagoodS said...


How does one differentiate when to seek out a supernatural as compared to a natural explanation? We would arguably be even more scientifically advanced if our ancestors looked for naturalistic explanations for seasons, transmission of disease, earthquakes, planetary movement and life development. We were held back by the concept such things had “supernatural explanations” due to our shortcomings in knowledge.

Why continue to embrace a historically bad method?

Secondly, don’t you think it is preferable to first look for a naturalistic explanation? Or do you think David Copperfield really can make the Statue of Liberty disappear by supernatural magic, or John Edwards really does have supernatural physic powers to talk to people who are dead?

Ten Minas Ministries said...

I have no problem looking for a natural explanation first. As I said, I would embrace the requirement that supernatural explanations require "compelling evidence."

I would also agree that looking SOLELY for supernatural explanations is a "historically bad method." However, the opposite extreme is an equally bad method. In this and many other arenas it is an unfortunate tendency of many people to overreact to an overemphasis of one extreme by jumping to an equal overemphasis on the opposite extreme.

Yes, throughout history people have often been too quick to jump to supernatural explanations. To some extent this continues to occur today (while I believe the intelligent design movement has some things to commend it, many times ID proponents are equally guilty of jumping farther than their evidence supports). But that alone does not mean that supernatural explanations should per se be excluded from consideration.

A ready example often used by "skeptics" comes to mind. Suppose I propose that the second law of thermodynamics should be used to explain everything in the universe. All things should move toward entropy. Moving from a state of less order to more order is not possible. Therefore evolution (which proposes moving from disorder to order) cannot be possible.

The evolutionist quickly replies that evolution shows that in this arena nature actually moves from disorder to order, not to entropy as the second law would imply. Therefore it is incorrect for me to apply the second law of thermodynamics to this arena. I am overusing it as an explanation for reality.

OK, I reply. Since the second law of thermodynamics does not apply to everything (because it does not describe the development of complex organisms), it must not apply to anything in the universe whatsoever. Am I justified in jumping from one extreme to the other? Of course not. The truth is that even though I was unjustified in resorting to the second law of thermodynamics as an explanation for the development of complex organisms, it would be equally erroneous for me to jump to the other extreme and suggest that the second law has no application whatsoever.

All I am suggesting is that a true "skeptic" should remain open to the possibility of supernatural explanations as well as natural ones. If you limit the range of explanations that you are willing to accept you may very well miss out on the opportunity to discover truth.

Thank you for your comment.


DagoodS said...


But how does one differentiate between when to look for a supernatural explanation as compared to a natural explanation?

Ten Minas Ministries said...

Who says you have to differentiate? Overall, we don't look for a solely "natural" explanation any more than we look for solely a "supernatural" explanation. To do either one would be limiting our possible options for discovering truth like I've discussed. We simply look for an "explanation" and leave ourselves open to where the evidence may lead.

Now as a practical matter, some methodologies lend themselves more to one perspective or the other. For example, the scientific method tends to be limited to natural explanations. Philosophy tends to be better equipped to explore supernatural explanations, though less equipped than the scientific method for exploring natural ones. The laws of logic carry over into all methodologies.

So in choosing which methodology we will begin with, we are inevitably choosing to look for either a natural or supernatural explanation. Perhaps we start by looking to see if we can come up with a natural explanation through the scientific method. But we must must have an open enough mind to understand that the scientific method may not be able to provide answers to all the questions of the universe. And whatever methodology we choose must not be the ending point if it does not provide us with an answer. If at first you don't succeed, try, try again and move on to a different methodology.

So you don't "differentiate" what you are looking for other than in the initial choice of a particular methodology as your starting point. But by the same token we need to understand that methodologies have inherent limitations, and to limit ourselves to one particular methodology will by necessity exclude the possibility of discovering truths that lie outside the realm of that methodology.

We can argue about whether or not philosophy, for example, demonstrates the likely existence of a divine being. That is a fair debate. My only point is that if someone is making a philosophical argument, you must answer them on philosophical grounds. You cannot simply say that the scientific method does not demonstrate God's existence. That may or may not be true, but even if it is so it does not exclude that conclusion being drawn through a different methodology.

I hope that answers your question. Thank you again for your comments. It is always a pleasure speaking with you. I don't think you and I necessarily disagree on this (although you can correct me if I'm wrong) because you've never been afraid to interact with me on scientific, philosophical or other grounds depending on the framework for the question at hand.


DagoodS said...

Er…you said we have to differentiate. If we are looking for a solution other than natural means, it would (I think) necessarily be different than natural means. Therefore, in looking at solutions, we would have to differentiate between a supernatural cause and a natural cause.

I am wondering how we know when to stop looking for natural solutions (as you are concerned skeptics are limiting themselves) and start to look for supernatural solutions.

Perhaps an example would help. I am not trying to tangent this off, and I am not interested in discussing this from a scientific standpoint—I am using this as an example to explain what I am looking for in a method.

We do not know how abiogenesis (life from non-life) occurred. Scientists are observing, analyzing and experimenting to determine how it could occur naturally. But at this moment, we don’t know. Do we:

1) Continue to look for a natural explanation? Or
2) Write it off as a supernatural explanation and stop looking?

In other words, what method do we use to differentiate, when looking at a problem we don’t currently have a solution, between:

1) There is a natural cause we don’t know yet; or
2) There is a supernatural cause.

What I am pointing out, is that historically, when looking at lightning, theists chose solution 2 (There is a supernatural cause) and were wrong. It was solution 1—a natural cause not known at the time. When looking at earthquakes, theists chose solution 2—supernatural cause. And were wrong. It was solution 1—natural cause.

When looking at germ theory, planetary movement, cosmology, mind, morals, on and on and on—theists chose solution 2. And were wrong again and again and again. We discover the natural cause again and again.

Today—2010—we reach a similar point just like all the others in history. There are things we don’t know. And…once again…the theists cry, “Look to a supernatural solution because you don’t know.”

What I am asking is this: What method do you propose where we skeptics can determine it cannot possibly be solution 1 (a natural cause we don’t know yet) and must be solution 2 (a supernatural cause.)?

And I agree with you that science will not answer all the questions we have. Ever. But why does not being able to answer necessarily mean there MUST be a supernatural solution? Can’t there be natural solutions we just do not know and never know?

Ten Minas Ministries said...

I disagree with your premise that modern day theists simply utilize a "God of the gaps" as Richard Dawkins likes to say. If we do not have a naturalistic explanation, I have no problem continuing to experiment and look for one. In the meantime, however, we should feel free to explore other methodologies such as philosophy.

I do not favor simply writing in a supernatural explanation when we cannot find a natural one, and I do not believe modern Christian apologists do either. I will avoid going off on a tangent to defend every single theistic argument out there, but I will point out that there are arguments, and they certainly amount to far more than “Look to a supernatural solution because you don’t know.” I believe that if anyone was to examine the arguments made by William Lane Craig, Norman Geisler, Ravi Zacharias, Gary Habermas or others, you will see that they are offering REASONS why they believe God is responsible for the creation of the universe, morality, etc. You may disagree with whether their reasons support their conclusion. That is desirable because it is how ideas are tested in the marketplace. But it is an unfortunately common technique of "skeptics" to simply claim that theists invent a God of the gaps when I do not find this to be true.

Modern day theists tend to do what I am arguing for. They will look for scientific explanations. If they find one, great. If not, they move on to other methodologies. If those methodologies turn up another explanation, great. If not, we simply say that we do not know the answer.

But this is the key. Christian apologists, myself included, will concede that our arguments do not prove supernatural intervention to 100% certainty. We find our arguments to be highly probable, but our certainty comes from the Holy Spirit, not from the arguments. As a result, I concede that even for a phenomenon that I believe (based upon the current evidence) to be of supernatural origin, it is a worthwhile pursuit to continue to look for a naturalistic explanation. After all, I do not claim 100% intellectual certainty. If a naturalistic explanation arises that has a higher degree of certainty, then I would concede that it should be accepted.

Getting back to the original point of the post, though, I refuse to disregard supernatural explanations "out of the gate," so to speak.

Thank you again.


DagoodS said...

Ten Minas Ministries: Modern day theists tend to do what I am arguing for. They will look for scientific explanations. If they find one, great. If not, they move on to other methodologies.
O.K. That is what I am asking for. What are those methodologies? What method do you propose skeptics use to determine a supernatural cause?

More: If a naturalistic explanation arises that has a higher degree of certainty, [than a supernatural explanation] then I would concede that it should be accepted.
But what method do you use to determine the probability of a supernatural explanation? Remember, supernatural, by definition, is outside natural. It is outside verification or observation. How do you come up with statistical probability of something you cannot observe?

If you cannot make such statistical probabilities, then comparing “degrees of certainty” is mere rhetoric.

For example, imagine (this is a made up statistic) if the strength of nuclear attraction was off by 1 in 10 to the 200th, the universe could not have come about. A theist could argue, “See? See how low the chance of natural explanation for the universe?” But in order to compare “degrees of certainty” we would need to know the statistical probability of a supernatural cause. Something we cannot determine? (Unless you answer my question as to a method on how to determine such a thing.)

On the natural cause side we have 1:10 to the 200th. On the supernatural side we have…we have….oh, that’s right--we don’t HAVE any such statistical probability because supernatural is unobservable to replicate such a probability.

What method do you use? What do you propose we use to determine the supernatural probability of _____????? Is “greater” than the natural probability of 1:10 to the 200th?

Ten Minas Ministries said...

Your comments demonstrate the bias to the scientific method that I have been discussing. Do you really only accept things as "true" in your life if you can demonstrate some mathematical statistical probability of their certainty? I'd venture a guess that you don't (whether or not you are willing to admit it).

When you are about to cross a street and see all sorts of traffic coming down the road, do you run statistical computations in your head as to the exact probability of being hit by a car versus successfully navigating the traffic a la "Frogger"? Do you pull out your iPhone and look up the frequency of automobile-pedestrian accidents on that particular roadway? I doubt it. Yet you still do not step into the street because you consider it to be "probable" that you will be hit if you do so.

Of course there is an element of subjectivism in this. What one person considers to be "probable" under this system another may not. Maybe one person thinks one oncoming vehicle makes it too probable that he will be struck. Perhaps for another it will take 10 cars (for an interesting case study of this phenomenon, just drive around downtown Baltimore sometime and see how willing some people are versus others to cross the street even when they don't have the walk signal).

The point is that we all do come to certain probability conclusions even without making the type of calculations you suggest. We have to in order to make it through life. The question of God is no different. We all make a probability determination of his existence and live our lives accordingly. Even people who have never opened up a single apologetics book live their lives either as if God exists or as if he doesn't.

As for the proper methodology, I have already mentioned one on several occasions: philosophy. In philosophical terms, this is a matter of seeing if we can agree on certain starting premises. Much debate can be had on which premises are appropriate and which are not. Sometimes these premises may be things that are derived by using the scientific method. However, if we agree on certain premises (because they are scientifically derived or because we find that existentially we cannot live life without them), then the discussion turns to whether or not the existence of God can be logically derived from those premises.

Therefore, observation, necessary presuppositions and logic can be an alternate methodology. No, this is not going to establish the type of precise statistical calculation that you seem to be demanding, but I believe that this bias is precisely the problem. We don't evaluate statistics for everything we believe to be true, and to require that type of precision on the question of God is betraying a bias in favor of the scientific method as the only means for knowledge when people do not limit themselves to that standard in other aspects of their lives.

Yes, people will disagree under this method as to whether something is "probable." However, everyone has a threshold that they apply in their every day lives. The key question is whether they are using the same standard when it comes to the question of God. I do not claim to be able to show God's existence to any precise percentage of probability. I do, however, believe that his existence can be demonstrated to the same existential standard of "probability" that people apply elsewhere in their every day lives. Whether or not I succeed in that task, of course, is up to each individual to decide.

Thank you again.


Ten Minas Ministries said...

Oh, and I also disagree that the supernatural is necessarily (as a matter of definition) beyond verification or observation. As often as theists are accused of creating a "God of the gaps", this seems to me to be creating a "naturalism of the gaps." God is a being. He is a being far above us and beyond our comprehension, sure. But he is a being. He is involved in the universe. He is sustaining this universe. Can we somehow scientifically measure his work in the universe (and show that it is his work as opposed to some as of yet undiscovered natural cause)? I don't know. It certainly doesn't appear that we have that capability.

But to say that his interaction with the universe is beyond verification or observability is like saying that the second law of thermodynamics is beyond observation or verification because it cannot be verified by a frog. Just because a frog lacks the ability to do so does not mean that it is definitionally unverifiable.

At best we can say that we do not know whether or not God's work is scientifically verifiable, but to craft a definition indicating that it is per se scientifically unverifiable is inserting naturalism into the gaps of our knowledge just as naturalists accuse theists of inserting God into the gaps of our knowledge.


DagoodS said...

Ten Minas Ministries: Can we somehow scientifically measure his work in the universe (and show that it is his work as opposed to some as of yet undiscovered natural cause)? I don't know. It certainly doesn't appear that we have that capability.
Thanks. That is what I was wondering all along.

Throughout these responses, you appear to agree:

1) Look for a naturalistic explanation first;

2) Historically people have been too quick to jump to supernatural explanations when it was really an unknown natural explanation;

3) You do not favor writing in a supernatural explanation when we cannot find a natural explanation; and

4) We do not have the capability to determine whether something is supernatural as opposed to a yet undiscovered natural cause.

What that foundation in hand, I am left wondering (rhetorically) why it is you are surprised people have a bias toward naturalistic explanations…

[Our interactions can become quite lengthy. I wanted to focus on this sole question. I feared any responses to frog statistics, or Craig’s arguments, etc., would only cause bloated tangents.]

Ten Minas Ministries said...

Regarding 3)
I do not favor ARBITRARILY writing in a supernatural explanation when we cannot find a natural explanation. I AM in favor of concluding a probable supernatural cause if the evidence warrants it.

If the scientific method does not yield up a natural cause, I say keep looking via other methodologies. If those methodologies suggest a supernatural cause, assume a probable supernatural cause. However, if those methodologies also do not yield up either a natural or supernatural cause, I am opposed to simply assuming the supernatural without evidence. That is the mistake that I concede has often been made historically.

The naturalistic bias I have been discussing says to never use other methodologies. Stop looking after the scientific method. Of course, considering the scientific method is not even designed to investigate supernatural claims, it is hardly surprising that skeptics don't find "compelling evidence" while using it. Therefore people who rely solely upon the scientific method are by definition limiting themselves to naturalistic causes because that is all their methodology will ever uncover. They refuse to even use the methodologies that could point to a supernatural answer, so it is hardly surprising when wearing these "blinders" that they do not accept supernatural causes.

Regarding 4)
I stated that we do not have the capability VIA THE SCIENTIFIC METHOD to determine whether something is supernatural as opposed to a yet undiscovered natural cause. That was my intention in inserting the word "scientifically" in my discussion of verifiability and I think that is consistent with my entire argument so far that the scientific method is not designed to yield a conclusion on supernatural phenomena.

I also said that because we are speaking of probabilities, I am open to the possibility that a natural cause could later be found even if I currently believe a cause to be supernatural. However, this is not the same as saying that we can NEVER conclude a probable supernatural cause.

Is an evolutionist entitled to believe that evolution is highly probable? As any biologist (or other scientist) will tell you, there is always some percentage chance that any scientific theory, including evolution, could later be proven wrong. Does the fact that the evolutionist concedes that this percentage may exist, no matter how small, somehow mean he or she cannot "conclude" that evolution is true? My concession is no different.

So yes, I find it puzzling that people who claim that they "do not go into an investigation closed to the possibility that a phenomenon might be real" utilize a methodology that by necessity is "closed to the possibility that a phenomenon might be real."

The Skeptics Society claims they are open to any claim being true, but they have "stacked the deck" in their methodology. They smuggle in a methodology that is not suited to investigate supernatural claims, then act triumphant when it doesn't back the claim up.

Limiting yourself to the scientific method while investigating supernatural claims is like using a reflex hammer to investigate whether someone has a fever. A thermometer, not a reflex hammer, is the proper tool for the job. If you want to know whether a patient has a fever, don't use a reflex hammer. If you want to know if the supernatural exists, don't use the scientific method.

The Skeptics Society proudly declares that we are fever free and they will steadfastly pound any opposition with their reflex hammer. All I am suggesting is that we should be willing to use the thermometer as well.

Chuck O'Connor said...

Ten Minas you said,

"However, the opposite extreme is an equally bad method."

Can you provide some examples?


Chuck O'Connor said...

Ten Minas

What humanistically useful technologies were built out of Christian philosophy? Thanks.

Ten Minas Ministries said...

Mr. O'Connor:

You raise some good questions and I will do my best to answer them. However, I think I need a little more detail to make sure that I am understanding your concerns correctly.

I believe I did provide an example of why jumping from one extreme to the other is a bad method using the second law of thermodynamics. Are you looking for an example specifically within the natural vs. supernatural discussion? I can give you one (the resurrection of Jesus), but I doubt we will make much headway in that discussion unless we address some more fundamental issues first.

Do you believe that in an effort to uncover truth we should not jump to extremes in any arena other than the natural vs. supernatural investigation? If so, what justifies carving out this one solitary exception without assuming a priori that supernatural explanations cannot be true?

As for your second question, please define what you mean by "humanistically useful technologies" and explain how this question bears on the question of the truth of Christian philosophy. Thank you.