About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

In defense of criticism (and skepticism)

by Massimo Pigliucci

My friend Benny (who produces the Rationally Speaking podcast) really hates the word “skepticism.” He understands and appreciates its meaning and long intellectual pedigree (heck, we even did a show on that!), but he also thinks — based on anecdotal evidence — that too many people apply a negative connotation to the term, often confusing it with cynicism. (And notice, to make things even more confusing, that neither modern term has the philosophical connotations that characterized the ancient skeptics and the ancient cynics!). On the contrary, I really like the word, and persist in using it in the positive sense adopted by David Hume (and, later, Carl Sagan): skepticism is a critical stance, especially toward notions that are either poorly supported by evidence or based on poor reasoning. As Hume famously put it, “A wise man ... proportions his belief to the evidence” (from which Carl Sagan’s famous “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”).

Now, why on earth would skeptics be associated with (the modern sense of) cynicism, an entirely negative attitude typical of people who take delight in criticism for the sake of criticism, negativity for the sake of negativity? I blame — at least in part — Francis Bacon. Let me explain.

Bacon was one of the earliest philosophers of science, and his main contribution was a book called The New Organon, in purposeful and daring contrast with Aristotle’s Organon. The latter is a collection of the ancient Greek’s works on logic, and essentially set down the parameters for science — such as it was — all the way to the onset of the scientific revolution in the 16th century. Bacon, however, would have none of Aristotle’s insistence on the superiority of deductive logic (which is, among other things, the basis of all mathematics). New knowledge is the result of reduction (explaining a complex phenomenon in terms of a simpler one) and induction (generalization from known cases). Bacon thought of his inductive method as having two components, which he called the pars destruens (the negative part) and the pars construens (the positive one). The first was concerned with eliminating — as far as possible — error, the second with the business of actually acquiring new knowledge.

It’s a nice idea, as long as one understands that the two partes are logically distinct and need not always come as a package (they did in Bacon’s treatise). Think of it in terms of the concept of division of cognitive labor in science. This is an idea famously discussed by Philip Kitcher, who explored the relevance of the social structure of science to its progress, arguing that such structure — once properly understood — can be improved upon to further the scientific enterprise. The basic idea, however, is familiar enough, even in everyday life: some people are good at X, others at Y, and we don’t ask everyone to be good at both, especially if X and Y are very different kinds of activities.

The same goes, I think, for Bacon’s partes destruens and construens: he may have pulled both off in the New Organon, but the more human knowledge progresses, the more it requires specialization. We have physicists and biologists, geologists and astronomers. Not only that: we have theoretical physicists and experimental ones, and even those are far too broad categories in the modern academy (e.g., theoretical atmospheric physics requires approaches that are very different from those deployed in, say, theoretical quantum mechanics). Why not, then, happily acknowledge that some people are better at constructing new knowledge (theoretical or empirical) and others at finding problems with what we think we know, or with how we currently proceed in attempting to know (Bacon’s correction of “errors”)? Indeed, this division of cognitive labor may even reflect different people’s temperaments, just like personal preference and style may lead one to pick a particular musical instrument rather than another one when playing in an orchestra (or to become a theoretical or experimental physicist, as the case may be).

What does any of the above have to do with the perception problem from which skepticism (allegedly) suffers? Well, skeptics (and, hum, philosophers!) are in the criticism business, and nobody likes to be criticized (including skeptics and philosophers). But we may cut some slack to critics if they also propose ways forward, constructive solutions to the problems they identify. This, I think, is a mistake. Criticism is valuable per se, as a way to engage our notions, show where they may go wrong, and help (other) people see ways forward. Criticism — pace Bacon — is inherently constructive, even when negative, because it allows us to make progress by identifying our errors and their causes. And it can be highly entertaining: just read a good (negative) movie, book or art review, or perhaps watch an episode of the (now ended) Bullshit! series.

This under-appreciated role of criticism, incidentally, may also be responsible (in part, i.e. egos and turf wars aside) for the continuing diatribes between philosophers and physicists, where too often the latter do not appreciate that the role of philosophy is a critical one, with the discipline making progress by eliminating mistaken notions rather than by discovering new facts (we’ve got science for the latter task, and it’s very good at it!).

So, my dear Benny and other fellow skeptics, let’s reclaim the term skepticism as one that encapsulates a fundamental attitude that all human beings interested in knowledge and truth should embrace: the idea that mistakes can be found and eliminated. It’s not at all a dirty job, and we are able and ready to do it.


  1. Philosophers that are primarily in the criticism business are there because they've not learned (and not been taught) to properly philosophize.

  2. I became aware of the so-called Skeptical Movement only relatively recently (two years or so ago). With much of what I heard espoused by skeptics I was of course already familiar: atheism (or at least agnosticism), an appreciation for the epistemic authority for science, and an appreciation for evidence-based reasoning in general. However, I recall being surprised by other stuff. E.g., I remember hearing about the debate on evidence-based medicine (or science-based medicine) on Steven Novella's podcast The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe for the first time and being dismayed: I thought to myself 'My god! A debate on whether to base medical claims on the best available evidence?! If not on evidence, upon what else are medical professionals and policy-makers going to base decisions?!'

    In all whilst I find the term 'skeptic' to be less than ideal, I am absolutely delighted to see the relative popularity of the Skeptical Movement, in particular as it has grown in the last two years.

  3. I should add that after hearing about the debate about evidence-based medicine versus so-called alternative medicines made me realize how out of touch I was with current affairs. As Massimo can attest, the ideas which permeate the Skeptical Movement are old and familiar territory for Western analytical philosophy. But rarely do we see philosophers engage the wider popular community. In this Massimo should be lauded. Whilst I have significant qualms with his political and ethical philosophy (and, I suspect, with his view on the philosophy of science in general), Massimo serves an important role as an emissary to the popular community on behalf of us philosophers. His commitment to evidence, reason, and logic is admirable.

    1. Eamon,

      much appreciated, in the usual spirit of occasional disagreement and constructive dialogue.

    2. On the flip side, and per Eamon's comment, I think more of the so-called "professional skeptics" of today would benefit from actually knowing something about philosophical skepticism. Hume certainly did. Shoulders of giants, and all that.

    3. Gadfly,

      I agree. Whilst I am a firm supporter of the Skeptic Movement, I unfortunately find that most though certainly not all skeptics are much too naive philosophically. Following Massimo I think more (good) philosophers should engage the Skeptic Movement.

  4. I have been a member of the skeptical movement for a long time and am happy to call myself a skeptic. But I also consider myself a cynic and I think the two are compatible.

    First I have to define cynic. A dictionary I looked at defined it as "a person who believes that people are motivated purely by self-interest rather than acting for honorable or unselfish reasons:" I don't like that definition. People are way to complicated for a single motivation to describe all their behavior. As I use the word, a "cynic" is someone who is always aware of the possibility that people are motivated by self-interest.

    Cynicism is actually very common. Most people believe that some politicians are motivated by self-interest. Many people will say that all politicians are always motivated by self interest. As a rational cynic I think this goes to far and that the people who say this are really motivated by distaste for the policies advocated by "mainstream" politicians. (This gets a bit self referential because someone is bound to say I'm saying this because I support some politicians.)

    Everyone I know in the skeptical movement is cynical about creationists, climate change deniers, alternative medicine practitioners, people who claim to talk to the dead, and many more issues. I deliberately omit paranormal researchers from this list because I personally believe that they tend to be sincere.

    A pet peeve of mine is that Obama likes to bash "cynics" for things that aren't cynical at all. For example from a 2008 campaign document "That’s why I’m asking you to stand with me, that’s why I’m asking you to caucus for me, that’s why I’m asking you to stop settling for what the cynics say we have to accept. In this election - in this moment - let us reach for what we know is possible. A nation healed. A world repaired." There is nothing cynical about the statement that "you must accept ...". In fact, I think Obama is hinting at a cynical position here without really saying it: something like "My opponents are motivated by something other than the correctness of their arguments". His ability to say this kind of thing without people realizing what it implies is what makes him a brilliant politician. (For the record I supported him in 2008 and am supporting him now. )

    1. What's wrong with self interest? Don't people cooperate for mutual self interest?

  5. Skepticism has its place, as does faith.

    "Religion without science is blind. Science without religion is lame.” - Albert Einstein

    1. Boiling down to faith in the unscientific?

    2. My emphasis is on balance and integration. I see faith and reason working in tandem.

    3. Reasonable faith? Works for me.

    4. Alastair & Roy,

      How are you two using 'faith'? If by 'faith' you two mean 'belief in that for which there is insufficient evidence', I can't imagine 'faith' being reasonable at all -- in fact, per this definition, faith is downright irrational. If by 'faith' you two mean something else, I would like to know what that something else is.



      Where did you find that Einstein quote?

    5. @Eamon - The Einstein quote is from a letter to Eric Gutkind, just sold a few years back from a private collection for over US$400,000. See Einstein Gutkind letter

      Notwithstanding the quote, the letter contained mostly anti-religious sentiment.

    6. DaveS,

      Thank you for the reference.

    7. Eamon, I have no faith in the unreasonable. Or for that matter in the reasonableness of your average skeptic.
      Example? Advice from a philosopher of reason:
      "In the pragmatic way of thinking in terms of conceivable practical implications, every thing has a purpose, and its purpose is the first thing that we should try to note about it." Charles Sanders Peirce
      What we have here as well as on most other popular blogs, however, are skeptics that flat out deny that the above advice serves any purpose at all.
      Faith serves an unreasonable purpose. But you can't reasonably put it that way here.

    8. @ Eamon

      > Merriam-Webster defines "faith" as "firm belief in something for which there is no proof" and "complete trust."

      Faith and reason work in tandem. You have beliefs for which you cannot prove with absolute certainty. And without these beliefs, you would not be capable of engaging in rational discourse. In fact, you would not be capable of functioning in everyday life. Every logical argument is based on some premise which is ultimately taken on faith. Science itself is based on something taken on faith - induction. In philosophy of science, this is known as the "problem of induction." So, this idea that faith and reason are incompatible approaches is actually a false dichotomy.

    9. @ Roy

      > Reasonable faith? Works for me. <

      You got it.

    10. Ah, but how well does complete trust in reasonable religion work?

    11. Einstein was ableist...

    12. @ miller

      Einstein's religious views were ambivalent.

      "Einstein used many labels to describe his religious views, including "agnostic"[3] "religious nonbeliever"[4] and a believer in "Spinoza's God."[5] He rejected other labels like "atheist" and "pantheist".[6]"

      (source: Wikipedia: Religous views of Albert Einstein)

    13. @ Roy

      > Ah, but how well does complete trust in reasonable religion work? <

      I guess fairly well if you can achieve it.

    14. This comment has been removed by the author.

    15. I deleted one of my dumber comments because I felt like one of those naysayers that used to dominate the comment section at Neurologica Blog (maybe they're still there, but I hope not). In any case, I've just downloaded a Kindle book that says a lot about purpose (ours and nature's) and a more realistic view of duality than we're at all used to seeing here and elsewhere. It's called Incomplete Nature, How Mind Emerged from Matter. (Written by a Prof. at my alma mater). My habit is to never completely agree with any writing, but this one seems a lot closer to being right than usual. (Massimo will hate it.)

  6. Alastair,

    The lexicographers use common usage as one of the criteria for definition, and without question 'faith' is popularly used to connote 'firm belief in something for which there is no proof'. But there are dangers concealed in an uncritical acceptance of traditional habits of verbalization and philosophers wish to parse matters with a finer-grained edge in order to avoid these dangers.

    So, one may use 'faith' to connote a belief in something for which there is no proof, but this (1) fails to make meaningful distinctions which should be made and (2) engenders the question: What does one mean by 'proof'?

    Re (2) in mathematics and logic, 'proof' is very specifically defined, and in common parlance it is not. Generally, it tends to mean evidence sufficient to make one believe in the truth of some proposition. In which case the dictionary definition you cite is very near how I defined the term.

    Re (1) if you instead define construe 'proof' in terms of mathematical and logical proof, your definition of 'faith' does not discriminate between a belief in some proposition p which is based upon evidence which makes p more likely to be true than false (e.g. that vaccines are not correlated with let alone causally connected to incidents of autism) and a belief in some proposition for which there is very little or no evidence at all (e.g. that the earth is less than 12,000 years old).

  7. Alastair,

    Re: Science itself is based on something taken on faith - induction.

    I often hear this claim, but I wish I did not because it is absolutely baseless. To say, e.g., that our belief in induction is based on 'faith' is to be ignorant of volumes of great work on induction (and scientific methodology in general). See, e.g., the late Wesley Salmon's classic Foundations of Scientific Inference or Colin Howson and Peter Urbach's Scientific Reasoning: the Bayesian Approach or Howson's Hume's Problem: Induction and the Justification of Belief.

    That aside, I have in another post showed just one way in which induction is rational without any recourse to 'faith'.

    1. @ Eamon

      > I often hear this claim, but I wish I did not because it is absolutely baseless. <

      I disagree. Induction cannot be rationally justified without appealing to induction.

    2. Reason doesn't require faith. First, it is nonsensical to argue this position because your argument must itself depend on reason making your argument circular and invalid, a priori.

      Further, the 'certainty' of reason lies only in its tautologies, or rather, statements necessitated by the concepts contained within the definition. We can use our rational tools to then infer the epistic/ ontological probability of experiential 'facts'.

    3. Lastly, I'd like to add that a lot of people like to try to define "FAITH" as a vague and negative term. They assume that if you didn't consciously formulate the reasonable arguments etc. then you must be acting on faith. However, any implicit process, unconscious decision, etc. can NOT be said to be faith based because faith, as a matter of confidence, as a term relevant to religious faith, MUST be a conscious act. Also, our knowledge of neuroscience suggests that our unconscious brains are automatically making many similar logical inferences, so the point is moot either way.

      In the Newtonian Paradigm, it may have been more convincing when someone says, "HA! you have to take it on FAITH that our world is really euclidean! Just like I have faith in GOD!" Then Einstein came along! (By the way, using a one-liner from the big E himself does little more than quoting Newton on Alchemy.. Just because he was good at a lot of things, does not make him God - we still analyze over and over and over until we can find something wrong and make it better.

  8. Alastair,

    Here is a sketch of a defense of the rationality of employing inductive methods:

    Pace Hume we may agree that we cannot know a priori if nature is appropriately uniform so as to permit ampliative inferences. The challenge is that we must show upon what rational grounds may we reason inductively. We can, crudely, pragmatically justify inductive methods in the following way (this is not to imply, however, that this is the only, or even the best, formulation):

    If nature is not appropriately uniform, no ampliative inference will work, inductive or otherwise. If nature is appropriately uniform, some ampliative inference will work. If some ampliative inference will work, clairvoyance, extispicy, religious prophesy, or any other claptrappery under the sun may or may not work. If some ampliative inference will work, induction must work, since if any method works, the success of the method can be exploited inductively. So, e.g., if clairvoyance works, that is, leads, on balance, to more accurate forecasts, we can exploit clairvoyance inductively. In nuce, reason obliges that we reason inductively: in crude decision theoretic terms, we have nothing to lose, but but we have a world to gain.

    1. More to the point of how we must necessarily think, our subconscious thinking processes are primarily predictive, and must use inductive (and abductive) processes to achieve those probablistc purposes.
      And of course most arguments made to support the certainty of faith must be deductive.
      Induction does not support certainty.

    2. Roy,

      One really should not use 'faith' to denote evidence-based beliefs which are not quite apodictic, especially when 'faith' often carries the opposite sense in our culture.

      So, given how 'faith' is often used, there is not such thing as 'reasonable faith'. With W.K. Clifford I believe it is wrong everywhere and at all times for anyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence; agnosticism and ignorance are often the most appropriate doxastic attitudes.

    3. Eamon,
      Perhaps you should really learn to tell when someone is less than serious.

      Also when you wrote below: "Moreover, what counts as evidence must be in some robust sense intersubjective, and thus not as subjective as one might first suppose,"
      you really should learn to be less than serious.

  9. @ Eamon

    If your argument is that some beliefs are more rational than others, then I would agree with you. But what ultimately constitutes a rational belief is subjective and based on personal beliefs.

    1. Induction doesn't support certainty because it doesn't have to?

    2. Alastair,

      In the abstract, a belief in some proposition p is epistemically rational for someone S at some time t if and only if the evidence upon which S bases her belief in p at t makes the p more likely to be true than not.

      Of course there are subjective elements to much of this story, but whether a some set of evidence supports some proposition (in the sense that the evidence makes a proposition more or less probable) is an objective matter-- that is, there are objective features of the evidential relationships between evidence and beliefs. Moreover, what counts as evidence must be in some robust sense intersubjective, and thus not as subjective as one might first suppose.

    3. But essentially my point is this: You have used the term 'faith' in an haphazard way.

    4. @ Eamon

      > Of course there are subjective elements to much of this story <

      That was my point.

    5. @ Eamon

      > But essentially my point is this: You have used the term 'faith' in an haphazard way. <

      And my point is that faith is as indispensable as reason.

  10. P.S.

    Re Einstein's religious views.

    Who cares? Einstein was a remarkable theoretical physicist, but whether he was a religious believer of some sort or not means nothing. If he were a religious believer, I suspect he would be unable to defend the rationality of his beliefs-- no other theist has yet to do so.

  11. The questions of philosophy of skepticism are interesting but I also have a suspicion that a lot of the time when people react negatively to "skepticism" it is at least in part a matter of personality.

    People attracted to the label of being skeptics about silly things other people believe very often tend to be motivated to seek closure and are uncomfortable with ambiguity. That's the nature of skepticism, in the sense of the modern skeptical movement, to want to close out the books on unwarranted claims, not explore their nuances forever and consider all sorts of alternative ways of looking at them.

    The folks most rejecting of that modern skeptical mindset often seem to be those "Fortean" types more motivated to look for novelty to be further explored.

    Both have a reasonable claim to aspects of scientific inquiry, but at the extremes, each tends to think of the other as conducting inquiry in an inferior manner, either being too closed minded or too gullible. I think that often gets manifested in the philosophical stance they take toward inquiry.


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