The Skeptical Homeopath

Imagine, if you will, a person who believes in the power of homeopathy to heal. He’s had a number of experiences that lead him to believe that homeopathy is more than just a placebo. He doesn’t quite know how to explain why it works, he just knows that it does work. This person is no fool. He doesn’t believe every homeopathic claim without regard. He will apply the core tenets of skepticism to examine claims and will discard those where there is a perfectly natural explanation. But where there is no explanation and homeopathy has been used he accepts that this is a result of the the power of homeopathy.

Now, imagine a Christian who believes in miracles. She’s had a number of experiences and heard the testimonies of genuine and reputable people. She doesn’t know how it works only that, occasionally, it really does work. She’s no fool either. She understands skeptical thinking. She won’t accept any and all miracle claims and is aware that there have been many, many bogus claims in the past. But when she sees examples of miracles where there is no natural explanation and the miracle is done in the name of Christianity she accepts that this is a genuine miracle.

In both of these examples, the people are acting perfectly skeptically within their predefined set of beliefs. They are applying the techniques properly and should be commended. But in both of these examples there are two fundamental flaws which, when combined, render the process of skepticism almost useless.

First, if a magician performs a trick and you can’t think of how it could possibly have been done you are usually happy to shrug and say you simply don’t know how he did it. But we are pattern-seeking creatures and it often doesn’t sit well with us to say we don’t know. Especially when the claim seems genuine. We have to find an explanation. In both of these examples our Christian and our homeopath have not been content to simply say “I don’t know” in the absence of a natural explanation and have defaulted to the explanation provided by their predefined beliefs. Which is perfectly understandable given that they have good reason for their beliefs.

Or do they?

This leads me to the second flaw. We have to ask how the homeopath came to the conclusion that homoepathy is actually effective (beyond placebo) in the first place. Did they use the skeptical method? Or could they just not think of a natural explanation and so jumped to the conclusion that homeopathy must therefore be genuine? What about the Christian and her miracles? Was she displaying good critical thinking when she decided that there is a supernatural God capable of supernatural miracles? Why not be content with an “I don’t know” instead of attempting to fill the unexplained with what the unexplainable?

Skeptical thinking breaks down if your premise was not built using the tools of skepticism in the first place.

As an example of this, in a recent blog entry over at Beretta, the author posts three examples of miracles he believes to be genuine at the same time as taking some pains to point out that’s he’s skeptically-minded. One of them was of a man with a lump of some kind being prayed for who is then shown to have no lump. A commenter pointed out that the man is wearing a different shirt later on (which gives us no idea of how long it’s been since being prayed for or what has happened between) whereupon the author wisely agreed and subsequently withdrew his endorsement. But what if the man happened to be wearing the same shirt days, weeks or months later when the two videos were stitched together? How would he ever have discerned whether this was a fake or not?

Skepticism recommends that you should settle for “I don’t know” over a supernatural and unexplainable explanation. Sure, you sometimes have to temporarily choose an explanatory model in the absence of good evidence but if you’ve chosen one that relies on no known natural laws you really owe it to yourself to spend every minute of every waking hour doubting and re-examining your beliefs because:

“Man, once surrendering his reason, has no remaining guard against absurdities the most monstrous, and like a ship without rudder, is the sport of every wind. With such persons, gullibility, which they call faith, takes the helm of reason, and the mind becomes a wreck.” – Thomas Jefferson 1822

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10 Responses to “The Skeptical Homeopath”

  1. [...] miracles, in passing reflection (all I’ve got time for at the moment) on some recent posts by Damian and [...]

  2. In both of these examples, the people are acting perfectly skeptically within their predefined set of beliefs.

    Well, maybe not perfectly. They may be disregarding the sincere beliefs of skeptics who are operating outside of their set of beliefs. The conflicting sincere beliefs should be cause to suspend one’s predefined set of beliefs long enough to more dispassionately weigh the opposing views. They may also be disregarding the possibility of coincidence. They may not be asking if the rate of healing with Homeopathy and prayer is the same as the rate of healing without homeopathy or prayer (discounting the placebo effect of course).

    We have to ask how the homeopath came to the conclusion that homeopathy is actually effective (beyond placebo) in the first place.

    We are all superstitious to a some degree. We are wired that way. We are wired to find patterns in our environment so we can predict cause and effect. But we are not perfect at recognizing cause and effect, we may “see” patterns in perfectly random data… which is actually a pretty good working definition of superstition. We humans are not the only creatures prone to this flaw. There is a famous lab experiment that shows that pigeons will believe their actions cause a corn kernel to drop – even though the kernel actually drops at perfectly regular intervals and is quite independent of the pigeon’s actions (see Skinner’s experiment.

    Skepticism recommends that you should settle for “I don’t know” over a supernatural and unexplainable explanation

    In an attempt to be as even handed as I can, I would omit the “supernatural” constraint here. Skepticism would urge you to prefer “I don’t know” over inventing an explanation, but skepticism wouldn’t require you to abandon your belief in the supernatural per se. The distinction is that I wouldn’t want to preclude the existence of the supernatural a priori with a definition of what it means to be skeptical, but rather I would come to doubt the supernatural as a result of skeptical thinking.

  3. Damian says:

    Hi A3 and welcome back!

    Well, maybe not perfectly

    I was careful to put it in the context of their predefined beliefs and was being a bit generous by saving the criticism of their homage to skepticism until later.

    It’s funny you mention Skinner’s experiment. Just a couple of weekends ago I was talking with my Dad about this very thing. It’s a fascinating insight into false pattern recognition and, looking back, I can see it in myself. (There’s been some criticism of the study which, if true, would be quite ironic in that it may have been an example of META false pattern recognition!)

    In an attempt to be as even handed as I can, I would omit the “supernatural” constraint here. Skepticism would urge you to prefer “I don’t know” over inventing an explanation, but skepticism wouldn’t require you to abandon your belief in the supernatural per se.

    I can’t think of a single example where a belief in the supernatural didn’t come about because a person wasn’t content with an “I don’t know”. Can you?

  4. Hi, Damian! I’ve been lurking all along, but I’ve been super busy with work – it’s great to have all the business but it sucks to have so little free time. Anyway, that’s why I haven’t been commenting much here or elsewhere for fear that I might get involved in a fast-moving thread and then not have time to keep up.

    I can’t think of a single example … Can you?

    I started several times to type out an example, but in every case it only took me a couple of sentences to arrive at a point where the person could have been satisfied to admit he just didn’t know. So I guess I’m at a loss – I can’t think of a single example. :D

  5. Glenn says:

    “I can’t think of a single example where a belief in the supernatural didn’t come about because a person wasn’t content with an “I don’t know”. Can you?”

    You can only say this because of certain denials that you make. Think of the example where people were persuaded because of the resurrection of Jesus – oh wait, you deny that. Think of where God appeared to and spoke to Moses… oh, you deny it. Think of a case where, say, the Apostle John had a vision of Jesus… wait, you explain that another way (or deny it). So like it or not, your beliefs about what is real and what is not control your assessment of whether or not there has been “a single example” of the kind you refer to.

  6. Damian says:

    Glenn, I have to confess that for all practical purposes if I were in the position where someone I knew well died before my eyes and then was alive again three days later I would probably believe it was a miracle. I probably wouldn’t be applying skepticism properly because I would be positing a cause for which I had even less of an explanation but I’m human and those are the kinds of leaps we make. Being properly skeptical I would make Thomas look like a cheap sell-out with my days and weeks of questions about exactly what happened.

    However, I’ve not had this experience and I personally don’t believe that the man named Jesus who is the root of many of the stories in the New Testament ever *did* rise from the dead. I think that the whole myth is a result of rumour-based Chinese whispers and perhaps even outright fraudulent rewriting of history. As do I with miracle stories of Moses and John and, for that matter, of Muhammad’s night journey to the 7th heaven on a Buraq in c.600AD or of his splitting of the moon. But where you and I might agree on the probable falsity of the Muhammad story we don’t in the ones where you have already accepted the possibility of miracles because of your particular religion. This is inconsistent skepticism.

    I’m kind of glad you took the time to comment here because it was your examples of token skepticism that lead me to write this entry in the first place. Tell me, are you able to identify what might have been wrong in your process when you put forward those three ‘miracles’ as genuine only to find that one of them was dubious at best? (I’m not knocking you personally because I’ve done the same in the past. I find that learning from our mistakes leads to better methods of discovering truth about the world and how it works)

  7. Glenn says:

    Damian, i realise that you’ve not had the experience. But you grant, I assume, that if someone did have the experience would not be in a position of merely not being content with “I don’t know.” On the contrary, the first thing (they believe) they were presented with was the procalamation that God had acted, which was consistent with their observations.

    It is untrue that believing one miracle claim but not another is inconsistent skepticism. Consistency does not require that one beoieve every miracle claim – or reject every miracle claim – or everyday scientific claim. That’s like saying that because you don’t agree with BOTH Einstein AND Lorentz on relativity, you’re being inconsistent. Why believe a thing like that? This is strange way to label things.

    On reflection I am positive you will see that this is a mistake. Should I now ask how you can avoid making it again in future? ;) No need.

  8. Damian says:

    Glenn, answer this for me: why don’t you believe that Muhammad split the moon and why do you believe that Jesus died and came alive again?

  9. ropata says:

    Damian,
    Obviously the Muhammad story is inconsistent with the grand narrative of Christianity. That doesn’t make Glenn or myself inconsistent. After much personal analysis, review, and questioning many have concluded that the Gospel is basically accurate. Insinuations of credulity or inconsistency simply reveal the accuser’s lack of imagination.

    you really owe it to yourself to spend every minute of every waking hour doubting and re-examining your beliefs
    Actually unbelievers owe it to themselves to make a sincere and humble approach to the Creator to ask for grace to understand who He really is. You may be surprised by the result.

    Here’s a good critique of excessive skepticism:

    We live in a culture that has, for centuries now, cultivated the idea that the skeptical person is always smarter than one who believes. You can be almost as stupid as a cabbage, as long as you doubt. The fashion of the age has identified mental sharpness with a pose, not with genuine intellectual method and character. Only a very hardy individualist or social rebel — or one desperate for another life — therefore stands any chance of discovering the substantiality of the spiritual life today. Today it is the skeptics who are the social conformists, though because of powerful intellectual propaganda they continue to enjoy thinking of themselves as wildly individualistic and unbearably bright.

  10. Glenn says:

    Damian, people have seen the moon, and it aint split.

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