Giles Fraser at Westminster Skeptics: a rambling review

Tonight I went to WestSkep, at which Canon Dr Giles Fraser was speaking on “Being suspicious about the Skeptics“. Now my regular readers, yes both of you, will have noted that I prequelled this event in an earlier blog post. In the event, Dr Fraser turned out to be more interesting than I could have anticipated. He’s a very impressive speaker and, despite the audience really wanting to give him a bloody nose at times, he skipped through the questions with the ease of a prize fighter.

A full, nuanced review is beyond my capabilities, even when sober, so here is a collection of random observations and interesting (to me, at least) comments that I collected from the evening. Please note my careful use of scepticism as distinct from skepticism. I mean them to refer to two totally different concepts. Fraser underlined that he understood scepticism well, but was less clear on skepticism, not least because he had never attended an event.

Fraser’s talk started with scepticism proper, ie Descartes. Descartes wanted to know how he knew that he wasn’t a brain in a vat under the supervision of a bad demon. His response was that he knew that he existed because he had thoughts: cogito ergo sum. Fraser observed that Descartes then proved the existence of God in three different ways, all of which ultimately are flawed. Hume was the next great sceptic. Fraser said that Hume found it hard to reconcile his own scepticism with the fact that, on occasion, he liked to go out drinking with his friends and play backgammon with them. Clearly scepticism has its bounds! He then moved on to Cavell, who famously observed that scepticism means you turn those closest to you into strangers.

Fraser then asked us to consider Othello, as a demonstration that there are limits to the situations to which the scientific method can be applied. Othello wanted to know whether Desdemona loved him, and looked for evidence. Unfortunately the best evidence, as with a scientific theory, is that she doesn’t. Othello searched high and low for evidence of her infidelity. And, of course, thanks to Iago’s treachery, he finds it in abundance. Fraser aimed to demonstrate that, in some cases, the evidence based method can be used to control and possess others. In such situations, it is bad.

There were then lots of questions. I won’t attempt to cover them all, but some of the more interesting observations or discussions that followed included:

  • There was a discussion about whether religion or atheism was the better default position. Does religion presume more than atheism or is it vice-versa? Fraser answered that, personally, he uses religion as a receptacle for things he doesn’t know about rather than using it to answer questions or gain knowledge.
  • Someone asked about an ultra-sceptical approach to the world. Does Descartes mean that we need to assume lots of things? Is the concept that there are other people in the pub listening to the talk an assumption, or is it reasonable knowledge? Fraser was unconvinced that such a position can reasonably be considered an assumption.
  • Someone asked whether Othello should have been more sceptical. Wouldn’t that have revealed the plot against him? Here I wish that Fraser had lived up to his talk’s title and been more suspicious. It’s easy for us to laugh at Othello’s lack of scientific method, because we’ve read the whole play and know the terrible conclusion. How do skeptics know that they themselves are truly being sceptical enough when approaching questions about the world?
  • Dr Evan Harris, the self-styled patron saint of the evidence-based method as a means to control others, asked some pointed questions about whether it’s appropriate for religion to be taught in schools. ¬†Amusingly, Fraser agreed with him, noting that religion is taught so badly that it often becomes a “machine for the production of atheists”.
  • David Allen Green asked whether someone who believes in the Christian God is, by definition, an atheist to all the other Gods people believe in. Doesn’t this make Christianity some sort of rounding error in a true atheistic position? Fraser reminded him that this was an early Roman attack on Christianity. It was suggested that Fraser doesn’t believe in the God of the Bible, which Fraser emphatically rejected.
  • Someone asked whether there were some situations in which it would be appropriate to seek evidence for love. However the questioner failed to entirely make his point, coming across as someone who was trying to force the evidence based method into a situation where it didn’t really make sense. Fraser wasn’t trying to define a set of circumstances where EBM is never appropriate, but simply to show that there are some situations where it doesn’t work. Therefore we need to always be suspicious of it. Related to this was a question that sought to get Fraser to define some of his terms better so that there could be a debate on common ground. But Fraser wasn’t having any of it. Defining terms is the sort of whiny crap first year philosophy students like to get up to… usually the sort of first year students who fail to make it into the second year due to their lack of academic rigour.
  • Crispian Jago highlighted the apostle Thomas, who had behaved skeptically in demanding to see Jesus’s wounds and – in Jago’s view – been treated badly by the Church for it. Fraser scoffed at the very idea, noting that Thomas was a saint, quite possibly the highest honour the church can bestow.
  • The strangest question of the night belonged to a young lady who, as well as talking about duck sex, suggested that it was inappropriate to take children to church because it tends to want to instil absolute truths and might constrain their inquisitive minds. As the parent of two young children, both of whom go to Sunday School, I can only presume she has no children of their own. Their Sunday School has never demanded that they accept Bible teachings without question and they ask me thousands of questions every day, just like almost every child does.

Overall it was an interesting discussion, and Fraser acquitted himself well. As with other SITP discussions, I found the debate didn’t answer the title of the talk, which was a bit frustrating. I’d have liked him to turn the focus on skepticism a bit more. Skepticism, for me, is ultimately deficient because it fails to recognise that it is a view of the world that operates on a reduced instruction set (ie the EBM). This fundamental axiom of skepticism is never justified, yet it is used to exclude other ways of arranging the world such as religion.

Furthermore, skepticism is an inadequate way of resolving real problems in the world. OK, so EBM tells us that vaccination doesn’t cause autism. But does that, in itself, justify the mass-vaccination of billions of people against their will? No, skepticism cannot help us answer questions of this sort. Raised this evening was the issue of eugenics, which can be easily justified on scientific grounds but is intolerable under even the most basic ethical frameworks. Another example might be global warming, where it makes sense to avoid it, but not at any cost. To answer these questions, we need to recognise that they are typically resolved in the social, political and emotional arenas. They cannot be answered using science alone. It would have been provocative, for sure, but Dr Fraser didn’t really do enough this evening to explain why we should be suspicious of the skeptics.

Other reflections on tonight’s talk: serious and not-so-serious.

Skeptical atheism, religion and politeness

It’s long been a concern of mine about the skeptics movement that some skeptics find themselves unable to behave civilly when confronted with religious people. So it’s with some interest that I see that David Allen Green has published a civility and inclusion policy¬†that seeks to address the very real problem that some skeptics seem to believe themselves so infused with their quasi-religious fervour that, quite literally, anything goes. Even the essential moral obligation to treat fellow human beings with dignity.

I coin the term ‘skeptical atheism’ as the form of atheism which aggressively seeks to put down religion, often in disparaging, rude terms, rather than the mere expression of personal disbelief in God. God is often a great comfort to people at critical points of their lives. To deny that, even in kind terms, would be improper. To do so in the strident, carping tones of the skeptical atheist is totally unacceptable.

From a personal point of view, I ended up at religion as a result of the study of science. I found that there were simply too many questions that science was unable to answer. This is inevitable given its narrow instruction set, which insists that experiments must be reproducible. Science also tends to be more comfortable with theories and hypotheses that support the existing literature rather than contradict it, even when the possibility must always exist that the existing literature is flawed. Therefore science doesn’t build in a linear fashion, but lurches forward in a series of catastrophic revolutions.

Demand for reproducibility and an absence of wonder in the scientific literature means that religion is excluded almost by definition. Unfortunately, skeptical thought falsely treats the lack of need for religion as proof that it doesn’t exist. But we know that this line of reasoning must be false, due to the nature of knowledge acquisition itself. Descartes acknowledged that, from first principles, the only thing you can know is that, because you think, you exist. Beyond that, you’re having to take things on faith. You must trust that your eyes aren’t deceiving you, that your memory isn’t flawed or being tampered with, and that scientific laws and constants don’t vary. Worse than that, so much of the body of scientific knowledge is built upon experiments that most skeptics have never observed and – indeed – don’t actually understand. Ultimately their argument becomes that they trust [insert your favourite celebrity skeptic here] more than they trust a religious leader. While you could construct some arguments from first principles as to why this might be desirable, it’s certainly not qualitatively different, as skeptical atheists seem to believe.

Some of these issues may get aired on Monday June 25, when Canon Dr Giles Fraser, formerly of St Paul’s Cathedral and now of St Mary Newington, presents at Westminster Skeptics on the subject “Being suspicious about the Skeptics.” I urge you all to attend. And it will be a very significant and potentially serious test of Green’s civility policy. It’s only a few weeks old; let’s hope it can have a long and happy life.

Scientists do not have a monopoly on assessing evidence. A Hackney SITP review

Last night, I went to a Hackney “Skeptics in the Pub” event. The big draw was lawyer David Allen Green, aka blogger Jack of Kent, who was speaking on the subject “Scientists do not have a monopoly on assessing evidence“.

The good parts. David is a charismatic and entertaining speaker. The main thrust of his talk was interesting: he wished to disabuse those present of the notion that the legal process is a quest for “the truth”. Instead, the law wishes solely to dis/prove legal liability. Having found that someone is liable, it can then do things to them. Fine them. Make them do community service. Send them to jail. Whether someone is liable therefore depends solely on assessing evidence in accordance with the law as laid down. The truth isn’t so much a consideration.

David illustrated this thesis with a catalogue of cases, all of which will be familiar to the Skeptics movement or to readers of his blog or his New Statesman writing. For example, it matters not that we all know that Paul Chambers never intended to actually blow Robin Hood airport sky high. Liability was established under the law, so bad things can be done to him (there’s a further appeal due in February).

That contrasts with science, which believes that it (and usually scientists believe only it) aims to get at the truth.

It’s certainly an interesting perspective. Unfortunately, that’s as far as he went with it. I was waiting for him to develop it further, but he spent a lot of time wallowing in the past, without really explaining what the implications for his thesis were. It’s good to play to the gallery at times, of course, but I would have welcomed a deepening of his hypothesis.

Both law and science rely on models. The scientific model aims at truth, if you’re a scientific realist, or perhaps usefulness, if you’re an anti-realist. The legal model aims at establishing liability (as David explained). A major difference between science and the law is that where science finds discrepancies between “truth” and its model, it will change the model (this is a gross simplification for the purposes of keeping this blog post short!). Because the law isn’t concerned with the truth, this can’t happen. However, egregiously unfair cases may lead to the law being changed or “bent” to produce a temporarily or permanently fairer outcome, as perhaps happened in the Simon Singh case. Exploring why we operate law and science differently would have been interesting, especially if you were to contemplate whether you could run them the same way. Further, it would have been illuminating to look at other disciplines, such as history, economics or accountancy, to determine whether they follow the legal or scientific model, or whether they have an alternative approach. (My starter for ten is that history is more scientific, accountancy is more legal, and economics has aspects of both.)

As I say, it’s a pity that David didn’t go there. But it was an enjoyable evening in a great venue with excellent company. It’s well worth keeping an eye on their future agenda.