You Can’t Judge an Argument by Its Conclusion

I had promised myself that I would spend less time ranting about the problems of the activist community, but I was so disappointed and frustrated during a Twitter exchange with Melody Hensley (of CFI-DC, caveat: she was speaking for herself, not necessarily CFI) the other night that I felt it prudent to bring it up once again, or at least a part of it.

First, I want to address the tired complaint that traditional skeptics exclude “the god question”.

Yup, we do. But before you roll out the silly paragraphs in which you substitute “God” and “religion” with “ghosts” and “the paranormal”, understand this: we also don’t address “the ghost question”.

Or “the psychic question” or “the Bigfoot question” or “the angel question”.

Statements such as “There are no ghosts” with claims that this is more than a personal conclusion are not good scientific skepticism*. Neither is “All psychics are fakes”. Neither is “there is no God”.

I can’t tell you if ghosts exist. I can tell you that I don’t believe in ghosts. I can explain why I don’t believe in them. I can give you alternative explanations for the noises coming from your attic. I can discuss reasons that you might ‘feel’ that ghosts exist. But I cannot prove to you that there are no such thing as ghosts.

I can devise an experiment to show that your dog is not psychic, but I can’t prove that psychic energy doesn’t exist.

I can explain the mechanics of sleep paralysis and the nature of memory, but I can’t say for certain that aliens did not abduct you if you remove the testability of your claim by adding things like “they reset the clocks”.

I cannot prove that there is no dragon in your garage if it does not interact with the world in measurable ways. I can only say, “I am not convinced.”

What I personally believe about these things is irrelevant. It is poor skepticism, poor science, and poor reasoning to include my beliefs in a discussion of your claims. (NOTE: “Belief” is defined in my posts as “that which one holds to be true”.)

I will not speak for everyone who has “harped” about this issue, but I can tell you that this has always been my bottom line in these arguments, so those who would take it out of context and build straw men like “she says that religion is off-limits”, don’t bother.

What I really want to talk about is about here is why this isn’t good skepticism. I’d also like to refute the tired argument that only atheists are good skeptics.

Since there are several versions of this argument and I acknowledge that they carry different meanings, I am also arguing against the following claims:

  • Only atheists are rational.
  • Theists/Deists may be good skeptics when it comes to other areas, but they are not skeptical about religion.
  • Agnostics and theists/deists do not ‘go far enough’.
  • There are no reasons to believe in/is no evidence for the supernatural.

The problem with these claims is that they are based almost entirely on a conclusion – the conclusion that there is no god (atheism). It is human nature to judge the validity of arguments by the believability of the conclusion. example, consider the following syllogisms and decide whether each is valid or invalid:

Some students are tired.
Some tired people are irritable.
Therefore, some students are irritable.

All dogs have four legs.
Daisy is a dog.
Therefore, Daisy has four legs.

If I study, I will get a good grade on the exam.
I got a good grade on the exam.
Therefore, I studied.

If you are like most of my students, you identified the first and third as valid, but the second as invalid. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. An argument is valid if and only if the conclusion logically follows from the premises. Validity is not truth. This is important, because none of us actually knows with 100% certainty what is and is not true.

When we assume that we know what is true, we fail to evaluate arguments on their own merits. If it we were wrong, we perpetuate and strengthen our misguided beliefs instead of discovering our errors.

To know how strong a conclusion is, we must examine two things: 1) the validity of the argument that produced it and 2) the strength of the premises.

The validity of the argument lies only in its logical progression, so we can evaluate this without going beyond what is presented. However, the strength of the premises is another matter. To evaluate those, we must consider their sources. In science, some are conclusions of other arguments (often previous research) and we must evaluate that research to know how strong the premise is. Others are a matter of observation, which is subjected to interpretation and induction. For example, in the famous syllogism about Socrates mortality, the strength of that conclusion relies on the assumption that the premise “All men are mortal” is accurate. Since not all men have died, we don’t actually know with 100% certainty that all men are mortal. We accept it based on a large number of observations and converging evidence, but certainty is not possible.

In my examples, the second syllogism is logically sound, but most people reject it because they “know” that not all dogs have four legs. Perhaps you’ve seen or heard of a three-legged dog (I met one once named “Tripod”) or you have knowledge of how it could occur. This does not make the argument invalid, but it does address #2, making the conclusion unsupported. We cannot determine if it is true from this argument.

The first and third arguments are invalid because the logic is unsound. We may “know” that the conclusions are true, but we can’t know that based on these arguments, so if we want to convince others we need to come up with better evidence/arguments.

The tendency to judge conclusions based on current beliefs is a product of how our brains evolved and developed – a side-effect of what makes us successful organisms. It is human nature, it is wrong and must be overcome if one is to be consistently rational (This, by the way, is a bit of a pipe dream, but I think it’s a good goal).

This problem pops up in a host of cognitive tasks and is a manifestation of the most influential of human frailties: the confirmation bias. This makes it extremely resistant to correction, especially in real-world contexts. In my experience, the concept of “validity” is difficult for many people to grasp because of this problem.

So, going back a few paragraphs, note that I wrote, “The problem with these claims is that they are based almost entirely on a conclusion – the conclusion that there is no god (atheism).”

Reason is about the validity of arguments, so judging a conclusion as valid or invalid without examining the argument is itself an irrational act. Without the argument, your only yardstick is your own belief about the truth of that conclusion. Although we have reasons for our beliefs, so do the people whose beliefs we’re evaluating. Everyone thinks that their beliefs are well-reasoned and accurate. That’s why they believe them!

If you find their conclusion unbelievable, then by all means, be skeptical, but to call it “irrational” without evaluating the argument is to say that you are 100% certain that there is no rational argument. That is the very definition of arrogance and it is not scientific.

Science does not tell us what is (true). Science tells us what is likely (to be true) and, in most cases, how likely. It does so by making arguments. Science is shared knowledge, not because it tells us facts, but because we can discuss the evidence and logic processes behind why we should be reasonably certain of many things. Although science is both a process and a set of knowledge (I’ll call them ‘facts’), the facts in that set are the products of the process. This may include negatives such as “my dog is not psychic” and “vaccines do not cause autism”, but testing is required to make such conclusions scientific.

Science is not about those facts, though. It’s about the process of discovery. When scientists make arguments (by publishing papers), they cite previous literature by noting the findings and, in some cases, describing how those findings were produced. They do not list facts; they discuss evidence.

Scientists don’t judge conclusions. Scientists judge arguments. Scientists look at the whole argument – the assumptions, evidence, and methodology that make up the premises as well as the logic that holds them together – and judge if the conclusions logically follow from those premises.

Likewise, scientific skepticism is about testing claims, examining evidence, and providing natural explanations for the evidence. If there is no evidence to examine, there is nothing to discuss.

Because science ignores untestable claims and because some scientists (e.g., Carl Sagan) have discussed the reasonability of belief without evidence, many people oversimplify the issue (as Melody did in this Twitter conversation) by making the statement that belief in God is within the scope of scientific skepticism because “You don’t believe something without scientific evidence”.

This is misguided for several reasons, but the two main reasons are:

  1. The assumption that most or all religious belief is completely blind faith is simply wrong. “Evidence”, scientific or otherwise, comes in all manner of forms. In a 1998 study conducted by the Skeptic Society, the most popular answers among believers for why they believe in God involved empirical evidence and/or reasoning (you can find this in Michael Shermer’s How We Believe). These people certainly think that they have good reasons to believe. How people interpret evidence varies a great deal. Most real-world questions are very complex and what seems an obvious conclusion to one person may seem ridiculous to another. Skepticism is about how we interpret evidence, how we reason, and how we consider alternative explanations, not about the conclusions we eventually draw.A good example of interpreting evidence is the study that prompted me to send a tweet to Melody in the first place. She’d first shared a link, then tweeted it again, this time directly to Daniel Loxton, editor of Junior Skeptic, with the comment “More good news about atheists that you might find hard to believe:” Only Melody knows what she meant by the comment, but when I read the study I was disappointed to find that it is not “good news about atheists” at all. I will include details in a post to follow shortly, but the gist is that article’s spin is a very loose interpretation of the findings that fails to mention some sobering facts. Its overgeneralizations and assumptions are criminal. For example, the study reported doesn’t involve atheists. Researchers measured religiosity, then divided participants in half (“more religious” and “less religious”), a common practice in social psychology. Sure, there were atheists among the “less religious”, but we don’t draw conclusions about a part of a sample. Furthermore, taking the three studies as a whole, the ‘more religious’ were more compassionate and more prosocial than the ‘less religious’ half. In essence, anyone wanting to spin the findings another way could easily do so by noting that the less religious half onlyacted prosocially when moved to do so by compassion, whereas the more religious were consistently prosocial. This is not a finding that atheists are better people and, quite frankly, I am sick of people trying to prove such nonsense. Promoting the fact that one can be good without God does not require atheists to be morally superior and, as this study shows, it is a good thing that it doesn’t.Again, we all think that our beliefs are well-reasoned, but what’s more interesting is that people tend to assume that those who disagree do so because either they “need to” (In that same Skeptic Society survey, the most popular reasons believers gave for other people’s beliefs in God involved the stereotype of comfort and meaning to life.) or they are not as rational.
  2. Even if there was literally zero evidence, the “null hypothesis” argument is an oversimplification of a concept borrowed from statistical rules and applied to the assumption that science makes that every hypothesis is testable. Science makes this assumption, but it also acknowledges that the assumption could be wrong by excluding the possibility of 100% certainty and by limiting its scope to testable hypotheses. You cannot invoke science as an answer to claims it cannot test, nor can you claim that someone’s conclusion is wrong because science cannot test it; that’s circular reasoning unless you’re saying that science is the only way to know something. By that logic, people cannot be scientific thinkers and also have morals**. Science (shared knowledge) may ignore the supernatural, but people (personal knowledge) do not and cannot use scientific processes to examine every question and still manage to function in the world, so if you want to attack person knowledge as wrong, you’ll have to do better than “it’s not scientific”.

So, what about the other versions of this claim?

Are atheists more rational than believers? Probably on average, considering the other variables which are correlated with atheism. However, given how poorly all human beings are at reasoning, that isn’t saying much.

Is atheism rational? I can’t answer that. Atheism is a conclusion. Whether it’s a rational conclusion depends on why the individual drew that conclusion.

Is religion rational? Again, I can’t answer that and neither can you. It’s a conclusion. Whether it’s a rational conclusion depends on the reasoning of the individual and the evidence they considered.

From what I know about how human beings process information, I can see a great many valid arguments for the existence of God that would be perfectly rational. They’d have to have some extraordinarily well-supported premises in order to convince me, but lacking support for those premises won’t make them irrational. Reasoning well does not require convincing others.

As I’ve said twice now, everyone thinks that their conclusions are the ‘right’ conclusions. So what makes your conclusion (that there is no God) better than someone else’s?

If your answer is “mine is well-reasoned”, that’s not a comparison. See two sentences back.

To know that you are “right” and they are “wrong”, you actually have to examine their argument/evidence. If you haven’t examined their argument, then who are you to tell someone that they are irrational? Who are you to tell them that they have no evidence when you haven’t even bothered to ask them what their evidence is? This is exactly what you’re doing when you claim that any belief in a god is “irrational” or make a blanket statement about the intelligence or cognitive abilities of those with religious beliefs. It’s elitist, arrogant, bigoted wishful thinking.

You cannot judge an argument by its conclusion, no matter how unbelievable the conclusion seems to you.

Finally, the following is a list of things that I have NOT said. In fact, I do not believe that any of the people accused most of making these statements actually has:

  • “Religion is off-limits in skepticism.” There are plenty of testable claims related to religion, but test the claims and discuss the evidence rather than attacking belief in them.
  • “Stop talking about ‘the god question’.”I have no problems with debates about the existence of God. What I have a problem with is criticizing conclusions as rational or irrational without examining the argument that produced them and calling such criticisms “skepticism”.
  • “Stop promoting secularism.” I am a strong advocate of secularism, but promoting atheism is, in my opinion, no different from promoting any other set of conclusions. Freedom from religion requires freedom of religion. Removing religion from government does not mean taking it away from its citizens.
  • “Atheism is not the only valid conclusion of properly-applied skepticism.” I did not say that it was, either. Hopefully my discussion explains why that question is not relevant.

I had planned to ignore Melody’s accusations that my criticisms are ‘mean-spirited’, but I cannot do that, either. It certainly is mean-spirited to attack people, but that is not what I have done. You won’t find a personal comment about Melody here. If it is mean-spirited to address (or even attack) what people say and do, especially when one finds what they promote to be harmful, then our whole business is ‘mean-spirited’.


*Given that all of the major organizations in skepticism have adopted scientific skepticism, this is what I’m discussing. If you would like to argue that activism should go beyond scientific skepticism, please do so elsewhere. For that matter, this post is not even about limiting scope for practical and strategic purposes, which is an entirely different cup of tea.

**Yes, I am aware that Sam Harris claims that science can tell us what is moral, but so far his arguments fall far short.

NOTE TO WOULD-BE COMMENTERS: Please do not comment if you have not actually read (not skimmed, READ) the post. Also, before you write a comment about how Dawkins and others (i.e., persons whose credentials you think I should not question) argue that science refutes the existence of God or should include “the god question”, I recommend a thorough review those arguments (that means more than reading a couple of blog posts by bystanders or comment threads). Their treatment of the subject is much more considered than the oversimplification I’m addressing here and their arguments are not as shallow. Finally, if your plan is to quote from Sagan’s Demon-Haunted World, you might want to read the whole book first.


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28 comments to You Can’t Judge an Argument by Its Conclusion

  • It is amazing the number of people who think you can logically prove a negative. So many people need at least a class in introductory, informal logic.

    Add to that, that many CFI types are now going down the primrose path of an over-reliance on neuroscience (not an issue tackled here, other than the brief Harris reference, but still an issue) to talk about things like “religious brains” and “atheist brains” and we’ve got fun. It’s part of how Mooney’s latest book falls far short too.

    Finally, related to this, as far as the evolution of religious mindsets, a lot of people need to read Scott Atran (I mentioned his main book on this issue to you on FB), Pascal Boyer, or both.

  • It is amazing the number of people who think you can logically prove a negative.

    Well, let’s be fair – you know that’s a bit simplified (then again, so is a lot of my post). I wrote about evidence for negatives, but I understand what you mean. I’m just trying to head off any “What about this?” counter-arguments.

    I can’t bring myself to read Mooney after “Unscientific America”.

  • Daniel Schealler


    Bitter taste in my mouth, as a lot of this applies to me.

    So… Yes, yes. Fine.

    I’ll be more circumspect in future.



  • Sharon Hill

    I am guilty of many faulty thinking processes but a few years ago I suddenly realized how sucky I was at it and tried to learn, not to just stick to my guns. It’s been wonderful.

    What saddens me most right now is the inability of so many skeptics (many women) to take fair criticism as some personal attack. I hate criticism but I understand its not always personal and there is usually some important point in there I should think about.

    It takes a long long time to become wise. But admitting that we’re all at least a little bit wrong is a necessary step and the only way you can ever hope to understand things better and be less angry about everything.

    This is a print-keep-highlight-reference piece. Thanks Barb. It helps me understand.

    You are a marvelous teacher.

  • This is actually a response to your Monty Hall post. I apologize for putting it here, but the option for me to comment on that post doesn’t seem to exist and I wanted to bring up a point about Monty’s knowledge, and how much it matters.

    You probably already understand the point that I’m making, but just in case:

  • Corey

    I stopped reading the article when it became mired in antiquated thinking, and mistated the function of scientists. The truth is that scientists are rarely trained in formal logic or the formation of syllogisms. Science is not based on these types of arguments. When the author here says that the only way to evaluate an assertion is to look at the form of the argument and the truth of the premises, that is true– when you’re dealing in a pure logical vacuum, such as with standard categorical syllogisms. The problem is that valid syllogisms with true premises can be formulated to produce absurd conclusions. Much has been written on this subject in the last few decades. Back to science, science operates on the basis of empiricism, which uses logic, but does not depend upon it. What matters in science is that an assertion can be demonstrated through method and prediction, and those results have to be repeatable. Science rarely advances itself (perhaps never?) because a scientist invented a clever syllogism. So the author is mixing aristotle with einstein, and it just doesn’t work. Syllogisms are great for determining how many legs a cat has, but lousy for actual discovery and dependable knowledge.

    Though I agree that we should say things like “i’m am not convinced of your ‘yahweh’ or ‘odin’ or ‘mithra’ or ‘zeus,’ for lack of evidence and the contradictory nature of the claim,” instead of “there are no gods.”

    • Corey

      Also, false predictions mean a false hypothesis (this is why it is misleading to affirm that one cannot prove a negative, because science says that we can most certainly test a claim and that we should discard claims that can’t be confirmed). And it is for this reason that people believing in any specific gods are neither skeptics nor scientists. Using generalized claims and no real scientific evidence to support specific claims is a classic error in reasoning…. and science.

      There must be “something out there.”
      That “something” must be something like a god
      There is only one god, the god of hebrew folklore
      Thus, I have good reason to believe in yahweh the hebrew god, and don’t say i’m not a skeptic because you can’t disprove me.

      Sounds pretty skeptical to me!

      (sorry for the double post).

      • I would like to respond to your comments, but I stopped reading them when it was clear that you hadn’t read the post.

        Snark aside, commenters rarely make good arguments against things they have barely skimmed and this is no exception. Of course, reading thoroughly now that you’ve formed such an aversion to the content you didn’t read isn’t likely to help.

    • The syllogisms in the post are merely used to demonstrate correct logical argumentation and contrary to your very incorrect claims scientific methodology is totally dependent on correct logical argumentation.

  • I absolutely love the penguin sillygism! (I just made that word up!) If I steal it to whom must I credit it?

  • laursaurus

    Oops! hit enter by accident and this isn’t the post I meant to comment on anyway.
    But!!! I did read it 😉

  • Michael

    I find this article mostly childish in that it all it is saying is dont be dogmatic, think things through and be skeptical, listen to the arguments and respond to the argument not the person or the conclusion…..yeah no shit, I mean its good to be reminded everynow and then but this is skepticism 101

    “are plenty of testable claims related to religion, but test the claims and discuss the evidence rather than attacking belief in them.” – no shit? really? I would never have thunk it

    Maybe the author is attempting to address the comments regarding mocking religion that have arisen lately. I think the author misunderstands the point of the mockery, the mocking is not an argument against a theist position, its a well proven method of demystifying what is considered an off limits subject for many people. I feel much like when I read Alain de bottons book religion for atheist, he states things like “What many atheists dont realise is that we can borrow from religion, we can still have ritual, tradition, beautiful buildings, morality and community..” – no fkn shit alain, really, we can still have tradition and community without religion?@!@?

    its frustrating because this article has the same arrogant style of pointing out the obvious and the most basic fundamental points and writing like what they are saying has some depth or hasnt been addressed before a million times

    • Perhaps it is Skepticism 101 and perhaps that’s part of why I feel so frustrated about the fact that I so many don’t seem to get it. I wasn’t responding to mockery, but I was responding to very real statements made by people who don’t think that these points are obvious; they disagree with them.

      I don’t think it’s as obvious as you say, though. Simple, maybe, but if it were obvious, we’d all live by it. Clearly we don’t.

      • Michael

        Thansk for the reply, I understand your frustration regarding this, I too get frustrated but more about the difference between colloquial and definitive talk.

        When I’m at the pub and I say there is no such thing as god, it doesnt exist….you can bring up all the million ways in which this is not correct, just because you have no evidence blah blah blah

        If I’m in the court room (For some unknown reason) I would respond differently, pointing out that I am only ever 99% sure of anything, I could be a brain in a vat for all I know.

        But for all intensive purposes I walk talk and act like their is no god and you have given me no good reason to do otherwise.

        I cant prefix every sentence with a statement about the in’s and outs of my world view, its unpractical, its redundant and it is completely uselss.

        This is what irritates me, the “null hypothesis”, you first state that before we start talking about russells tea pot or sagans dragon that we acknowledge that we are not 100% sure….

        Whoever is 100% sure of anything is obviously mistaken and maybe you are right that is outside the realm of science (I doubt it tho) but are claims about teapots outside of reason or logic or common sense?

        Not only that but just because something might have a 1% chance of being true that doesnt mean I have to 1% believe it

        its outside of science you cant test., its just an opinion then?

        you cant offer any proof, you cant offer any good reasons, you cant offer any evidence…guess what mofo? I 100% dont believe it, I recognise that there is a 1% chance it could be real – that isnt a good reason to believe hence I 100% do not believe, its not like i have a choice about being reasonable about my belief, the evidence wasnt supporting of the claim, i cant half believe it just to be fair or to keep from being called dogmatic, i jst dont believe

        actually not only do i not believe some claims, i think others are so unlikely that i will say that it is not true – see russels teapot, and I am pretty sure i am justified in saying that it is not true in the same way that i am justified in stating that vegemite is not delicious – some will disagree and say thats only my opinion…no shit, back to the point of Im not going to prefix every damn sentence with an explanation about the finer points of my world view

        Your article did seem to advance the view that if a claim is completely absurd and has no proof or evidence and there is no good reason to believe it that we should refrain from expressing our opinion – when people express opinion they usually say it as if its fact because thats how our language is structured in this society, you dont often hear people saying “Well it is my opinion that Islam is not a part of the NWO secret plan to overtake the worlds nations and make them eat sausage” – no you can and are well within your rights to say somethign like “F-off thats bullshit mate, its not true at all”……..but you cant disprove it right? its outside the realm of science because it is so secret that only the in club no about it and they have developed magic force fields that kill insiders who tell the outsiders that its true, etc, etc

        sometimes nonsense is just nonsense and sometimes we are allowed to say that

        • Not only that but just because something might have a 1% chance of being true that doesnt mean I have to 1% believe it

          This post isn’t about what you believe. It’s about what you (or someone else) insist about other people’s ability to reason based solely on their beliefs, without knowing anything about why they believe them. It’s not about “expressing an opinion” and I never said you shouldn’t. It’s about making assumptions about others’ opinions. It’s about being open-minded and humble enough to remember that you could be wrong, no matter how unlikely that seems to you, because it’s entirely true.

          This post isn’t about what you say when you’re shooting the shit in the pub with your friends, either.

          And NOTHING I write here is about what people do and do not have “the right” to say or do. It’s not about what’s “allowed”. Criticism is not “telling people what to do”.

          Honestly, I had thought that you’d read the post, but after reading this comment, I have to wonder.

          • Michael

            I read the article, I have read on 3 seperate occasions now so please dont be so immature to resort to what might be considered a personal attack rather than a comment on what I said.

            It still seems to me at least that your whole article is stating “I cant tell if X exists because it is outside the realm of evidence, reason and logic….”

            I dont understand why you claim that you can be skeptical about real bullshit but theoritical bullshit is off the table. It just doesnt appear to be very skeptical, i mean if you lived your life as a skeptic you surely wouldnt believe theoritical bullshit for no other reason than you cant prove it… definition thats not skepticism

        • It still seems to me at least that your whole article is stating “I cant tell if X exists because it is outside the realm of evidence, reason and logic….”

          It’s not. The “whole article” is about judging arguments by their conclusions.

          The point about testability (which is only a small part of this post) is that the answer to any untestable question is totally irrelevant. Science and scientific skepticism are epistemologies.

          I can’t say any of this more clearly than I have in less than 5000 words (and that would probably still not do it). People actually go to school for years to learn this stuff and continue to learn nuances for most of their lives, yet enthusiastic newbee skeptics reject it simply because it doesn’t fit with what “sounds right” to them or what they’d like the field to be. I won’t argue it anymore.

  • Ok, so I’ve read this a few times now, each time absorbing a little more of what I think you’re saying. It’s certainly possible that I’ve still misunderstood something. Though I’ve read and agree with Dawkins and Sagan, I don’t have those books in my possession anymore, so I won’t be quoting them. I share your disbelief over the “atheists are more compassionate” debacle.

    You seem to be arguing a few different things. I’m just going to focus on one of them, which I think is summed up by these two statements:
    1)”Reason is about the validity of arguments, so judging a conclusion as valid or invalid without examining the argument is itself an irrational act. Without the argument, your only yardstick is your own belief about the truth of that conclusion.”
    I agree with you here, though I will put an asterisk on that and come back to it. *
    2) “I can see a great many valid arguments for the existence of God that would be perfectly rational. They’d have to have some extraordinarily well-supported premises in order to convince me, but lacking support for those premises won’t make them irrational.”

    By this reasoning, if our penguin were to reconstruct his argument to be logically valid but based on false premises, he would be making a rational claim:
    All black and white things are old TV shows.
    Penguins are black and white things.
    Therefore, all penguins are old TV shows.

    This argument, while valid, is not sound. If someone told me that they believe penguins to be old TV shows, I would conclude that their beliefs are disconnected from reality. This is what I mean if I say that something is an “irrational” or “unreasonable” belief. There is room to accept that a person can be rational and still be wrong because their premises are wrong and they do not realize that. I think this is what you’re saying in general, but we’re perhaps bumping up against semantics here.

    For example, the argument for god from morality is valid, but at least one of the premises is unsupported. There are a number of version of this, but here is one:

    Moral norms have authority.
    If they have authority, there must be a reliable motive for human beings to be moral.
    No such motive could exist, unless there was an omniscient, omnipresent, wholly just agent to attach sanctions to behavior under moral norms.
    Therefore, there is a God.

    I can appreciate that a rational person who believes all of those premises can rationally believe that there is a God. (Actually this particular argument doesn’t fully justify God as most Christian theists envision Him, only the existence of a being with the ability to enforce moral law. This argument does not lead us the ability to be a Creator, for example.) However, the 3rd premises is not hard to pick apart. I can think of a number of ways for people to be reliably motivated to obey moral law.

    So the person making this argument is convinced, and I am not. Now what? It’s true that we cannot achieve 100% certainty in anything, but this should not paralyze us in our attempts to understand the world. I cannot be certain, in that sense, that a man who claims to be immortal is making a false claim. He might even have a valid argument:
    Everyone in my family is immortal.
    I am in my family.
    I am immortal.

    There is a negative value judgment to be made about this person’s conclusion. I would call it irrational, despite the existence of a valid argument in his logic. I would also call it unreasonable and delusional. Now, you have me on a technicality here. I have not done the proper, formally skeptical thing and asked this person for proof that his family is immortal. There is, I suppose, some vanishingly small chance that this person has a sound argument in support of his immortality. This where we get to the asterisk from before:

    *I have a belief, well justified by inductance, that there is no need whatsoever for me to take this person’s claim seriously. I also have a belief that if I happen to be wrong, I will hear about it in the news before very long because, if true, this claim shakes the foundations of everything we know. Now, I’ve heard your point about the irrelevance of my beliefs, and I agree that this not the actual practice of actual scientific skepticism, but a method that I have devised for not wasting my time with serious examination of silly claims.

    I think living a skeptical life requires the marriage of skeptical examination with heuristics, based on well supported beliefs and time-tested methods (inductance), for determining which claims warrant our time. I disagree that there is no value judgment to be made, however, or that it is wrong for someone to refer to this man’s claim of immortality as silly (or some other pejorative) without conducting a deeper investigation. Someone above mentioned the “brain in a vat” problem. It’s true that I can’t disprove that claim. I cannot be 100% certain that the world even exists, but we cannot cripple ourselves with so much doubt that we lose our ability to effectively investigate the world. Ditto for perpetual motion machines. If my neighbor tells me that he’s making one in his garage, I’m not going to invest much time in investigating it. His claim belongs to a class of fundamentally implausible and endlessly recurring claims for which no one has ever provided a convincing argument or demonstration. His claim is wasting my time, and his; it deserves ridicule, and will receive it. I try to make the distinction of not being disrespectful to a person while criticizing a belief, but that is another matter.

    It may be that this is the part where you say that I am arguing for a kind of skepticism other than scientific skepticism, and that you have asked that this argument be made elsewhere. I’m just saying that if you’re criticizing activists, you’re criticizing real people who must make reasoned choices about what to spend their time and resources on. After enough time experiencing a gale of supernatural claims with no substantial evidence, bad logic and/or unsupported premises, I believe we are justified in shouting “ENOUGH!” into that howling wind. I have no doubt that if someone does come up with a sound argument, evidence, or demonstration for the existence of a god or some other supernatural phenomenon or a perpetual motion machine, that this groundbreaking discovery will be so explosively broadcast to the world that it will be impossible to not hear about it. That’s a belief, yes, but it’s one that makes the world practically navigable. It sounds to me as though you are at least partially arguing against this. Please correct me if I’ve misunderstood you.

    I would like to ask a question – in the case of the penguin who believes that he is an old TV show based on a valid but unsound argument, what concise pejorative value judgment would you be willing to make, if any, about what that penguin believes? Silly? Unreasonable? I gather that you’ve already crossed “irrational” off the list. Certainly his belief is not on par with the belief that I am mortal. How would you describe the two far ends of that spectrum in the case where both arguments are valid? What name do you give this penguin’s nonsense?

    • Normally, I would discourage long comments like yours Because I really don’t want my blog to take on a forum-like atmosphere, but this is well-considered, interesting, and relevant, so I don’t want to leave it unanswered. I also greatly appreciate that you’re trying to understand my post and my motivations for writing it.

      I think I can put us on the page with a few short replies.

      1) My choice of the word “sound” may have been poor because I meant “logically sound” or “valid”, which does not involve truth.


      This argument, while valid, is not sound.  If someone told me that they believe penguins to be old TV shows, I would conclude that their beliefs are disconnected from reality.  This is what I mean if I say that something is an “irrational” or “unreasonable” belief.  There is room to accept that a person can be rational and still be wrong because their premises are wrong and they do not realize that.  I think this is what you’re saying in general, but we’re perhaps bumping up against semantics here.

      It is close to what I am saying, but what I find problematic in the analogy is that I am not just saying that they could be rational because their premises may be “wrong”, but that it is inherently wrong to assume that their premises are wrong without knowing what their premises are. It is perfectly acceptable and even prudent to be skeptical. After all, “Penguins are old TV shows” is an extraordinary claim (in fact, it’s a testable one, so it’s not a good analogy, but let’s pretend that it isn’t.)

      Most of the rest of your comment involves discussing premises and logic, but I am not criticizing that practice and where it takes you will vary a lot.

      What I am criticizing is the practice of accusing believers of untestable claims of being irrational simply because one thinks their beliefs are silly (which you restated in your comment accurately). But I would also caution that it is arrogant to simply assume that their premises are wrong before you’ve seen/heard them, too. As soon as we do that, we’re closing our minds to the possibility that we might be wrong. And, again, drawing one’s own conclusions is not a problem. It’s insisting that others’ conclusions are irrational simply because they don’t match that is problematic.

      Something else I did not say is that there are testable claims that Skeptics regularly refute and rightly so. For example, the claim that vaccines cause autism has been tested and refuted via scientific consensus. A statement that the claim is wrong is empirically supportable. A statement that there are no ghosts or there is no God is not. The most we can say is “I have not seen convincing evidence”.

      3) Regarding the value judgement I’d be willing to make about the penguin: that’s not relevant, at least not my personal judgments. I might find his ideas silly, but to assume that they are unreasonable (again, assuming it was untestable) without evidence of his reasoning processes would itself be unreasonable. There are plenty of true things that seem silly. If you can’t think of any, try studying psychology for awhile. People are amazingly self-contradicting! :)

      So, while I might hold the personal belief that his conclusion is silly, my claim to certainty that he is wrong is misguided.

      • Thanks for the response. I can agree with most of that, though I take an extremely dim view of claims that are untestable, particular those that seem designed to be untestable. I don’t think I’ve arranged my thoughts clearly enough on this point, however, so I won’t argue it.

  • Shelley Mountjoy

    Thank you for writing this post. You would think something like this – essentially a Skepticism 101 – would be unnecessary. However, this particularly quote sums up the need:

    Is atheism rational? I can’t answer that. Atheism is a conclusion. Whether it’s a rational conclusion depends on why the individual drew that conclusion.

    I met so many atheists at various events for the many of the same reason believers are in church… born in the faith, dated someone who didn’t believe, etc… and then somehow assert the conclusion that simply because they don’t believe in something silly like gods, they have cornered the market on critical thinking. This is a serious problem in our community.

    • Michael

      Could it be that skeptics that are theistic are just as bad at skepticism as atheists who are not skeptics.

      I cringe a bit when people say that skepticism cannot address the god question, are these people really being skeptical or are they just limiting their skepticism to testable claims.

      Why is being skeptical of testable claims praise worthy but skepticism towards untestable claims frowned upon? surely skepticism can address both with varying degrees of certainty? if skepticism absolutely cannot address the russels tea pot (Its 50 50 whether its true) then I might suggest that people are promoting a skewed view of skepticism for some agenda other than what they claim, possibly more to do with public relations that thinking critically

      • Daniel Schealler

        “Could it be that skeptics that are theistic are just as bad at skepticism as atheists who are not skeptics.”

        No, that’s treating the conclusion as the argument.

        I don’t like ‘good’ or ‘bad’ skeptic as the distinguishing term.

        ‘Skilled’ or ‘unskilled’ are more meaningful.

        ‘Consistent’ and ‘inconsistent’ is also good.

        So, if we assume that a theistic skeptic does not have sufficient reasons to justify assent to theism, it is possible that they are actually highly skilled and trained in critical thinking, but are simply inconsistent: In their view, religious beliefs are waived of the requirement to be skeptically justified prior to assent.

        Note that it is possible that a theistic skeptic might have good reasons for either why they assent to theism in the first place, or as to why they feel that theism is entitled to a waiver.

        I’m yet to come across a theist that has been able to actually give a satisfactory argument to either effect… But that’s the thing. What is to be considered is the argument of the skeptic.

        We don’t know how skilled or consistent a given skeptic is towards a given subject until we hear their arguments.

        The gist of the article (if I have read it correctly) is that we shouldn’t pre-judge that an argument can be dismissed on the basis of the conclusion alone. We need to consider the argument itself, because it might turn out to be the one that provides an actually sound justification for that conclusion.

        I’m not exactly holding my breath or anything as regards theism. But if we’re going to be skilled and consistent skeptics, I think that this is the stance we should adopt.

  • Ben Radford

    Good piece, and well-laid out explanations. That’s what I try to explain to people about skeptical investigation, that I do not investigate (and cannot answer) questions like whether or not ghosts exist. I investigate specific claims about specific cases, not universal propositions. It’s easy to forget that, as you point out, everyone thinks their beliefs are well-grounded and reasonable.

  • MichaelD

    Ok after reading 4 other unrelated posts, this post was actually what I was interested in reading. Thank you for your thoughts on this issue I’m going to go mull it over.