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