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Philosophical skepticism and what skeptics really do

This is the text of a talk given to the philosophical discussion group Philo Agora in Sydney on March 12, 2014. It was reproduced in the June, 2014, edition of The Skeptic.

Brief biography: I am a skeptic, an atheist, a writer, and a general know-it-almost-all. I studied philosophy at university, but my principal interest was and is philosophy of science. I write a regular column for Australasian Science magazine, I have a hobby web site at where people can find out more about me than I probably should reveal, I am a committee member of Australian Skeptics Inc, was the President a few years ago, and I write for their magazine. In real life I am a semi-retired IT consultant.

The word "skepticism" means different things to different people. To philosophers it means a search for the possibility of knowledge, to people in the modern skeptical movement it means a search for the truth, to people who should rightly be called "deniers" it is a disguise they use to pretend to be something they are not.

The talk will look at these three uses of the word with examples of the way it is applied to the activities of the various groups and users. I'm a skeptic but not a philosopher (although I studied it for some years at university), and I hope I'm not a denier, so I will be concentrating on what I know best, which is the practical application of skeptical or critical thought to everyday life.

In philosophy, skepticism is a problem to be solved. The problem is whether it is possible to know anything at all, and some very bright minds have addressed the problem over the centuries. We know that we perceive the world indirectly, mediated through experience, but how can we know that our perceptions match reality? The existence of optical illusions, for example, shows the role that experience plays in perception. For those senses where we directly interact with reality (taste and smell) we seem to only be able to describe the experience by analogy – just look at the language of wine tasting where all descriptions are of the form "this is like …". This brings us to another problem for philosophical skepticism which is the apparent agreement between observers as well as the constant existence of things both between observations and when nobody is observing.

The resolution of philosophical skepticism allows for many forms of investigation – aesthetic, religious, logical, rationalism, empiricism, … . An example of a religious resolution is the one best known and usually cited by non-philosophers – Bishop George Berkeley's solution to the problem of things existing between observations by positing that if minds are needed for perception then there must be a universally-present mind, therefore God exists. I know that some of my atheist friends would say that this is ridiculous, but it's a perfectly valid hypothesis. It's logically consistent but a bit hard to prove. I'll talk more about atheism later, but I need to point out that one area I have of disagreement with a lot of hard-line atheists is that the argument "God does not exist" is not good enough. I've been told for example that Thomas Aquinas was a fool because all of his five proofs for the existence of God can be refuted by the statement "There is no god". If Aquinas was a fool I'm surprised that I was able to find my way here tonight, because I have reason to believe that he was smarter than I am.

I'm not going to say much more about philosophical skepticism because I don't want to get into areas where you people will know a lot more than I do and it wouldn't need the overarching mind of God for you to all get the common perception that I'm out of my depth. I bought this book () after a talk by Antony Grayling at Embiggen Books in Melbourne and when I was talking to him later he made the point that the book wasn't about what I might think skepticism is. I responded that he was correct, although I had studied philosophy back in the late Middle Ages. I know that Grayling can express himself clearly (his collection of essays titled contains some of the best philosophical arguments for atheism that I've seen), but it is interesting to note that the clearest writing in this book seems to be when he is quoting Bertrand Russell. In much of the rest he has turgidity cranked up to 11.

One thing that isn't going to go away is the matter of semantics. Words mean different things in different contexts, but I'm hoping that we can agree on what at least some words mean and also agree that these meanings are common to both philosophy and skepticism. If we start arguing about what words mean we will be here all night. Maybe all century.

I'm going to talk about what I'll call "practical skepticism". This is based on empiricism, materialism and realism, so it's like philosophical skepticism except that it has more restrictive rules and makes certain assumptions. The existence of a constant reality that is the same for all people (with exceptions for various disabilities, of course) is taken as a given. It also agrees with Russell that logic and mathematics are a priori conditions and are immutable. 1+1 always equals 2, statements A and Not(A) cannot both be true at the same time. The project is to attempt to ensure that as far as possible everyone's perceptions and interpretations of this reality are both truthful and the same. It is based on evidence, and evidence that can be verified.

Practical skepticism, which I'm going to call just skepticism from now on to save time, evolved from philosophy.  It is still looking for fundamental truths but doing it in a different way.

There are three main threads of skepticism – science, what could be called "consumer affairs", and critical thinking.

Science is the ultimate search for truth about the universe, and has its own stream of philosophy called, appropriately enough, Philosophy of Science. Every now and then someone announces the death of philosophy and its replacement by science, but these people don't really know what they are talking about.

I have to disagree with them as this shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between philosophy and practical science – philosophy is about what science is, not how it is done on a daily basis. It is the way to determine the difference between science, pseudoscience and nonsense, a way of deciding whether what we think we know is related to reality, or just an illusion, or maybe a mistake.

Philosophy is about language, how it is used and what it is used for. Science uses what is called "first order language" – it talks directly about what is observed. Philosophy uses "second order language" – it talks about what it means to say something and whether what is said relates to reality. Both are necessary – knowing things and knowing why and how we know them. It is the philosophy of science that allows us to trust science, and it isn't going to go away.

Critical thinking is about the analysis of evidence and the application of those a priori things I mentioned earlier. If something is logically unsound then maybe it isn't true. If the maths don't make sense then maybe the concept doesn't make sense either.

Here are a couple of examples of how application of simple rules of arithmetic can show flaws in arguments without the need for extensive research.

  • Last week I gave a talk about Bitcoin and I am continually being told that this form of currency is poised to take over world financial markets. All I have to know to refute that is that the total value of all Bitcoins in the world is about 11% of the cash circulating in Australia and less than two months sales for the Coles supermarket chain.
  • A few years ago I was sued by a multi-level marketing company for reporting the fact that they had been found by the Federal Court to be operating an illegal pyramid scheme. As part of the proceedings I had to display a notice on my web site saying that I was being sued and what an enormous part of the Australian economy MLM is. Doing some arithmetic on these impressive numbers showed that the average sales per year for participants was $2,400, which turned into $48 commission paid. Four hours of working at the minimum wage stacking shelves at Coles. But MLM relies on people not being able to do arithmetic.

I'll say more about consumer protection later when I talk about what organised skeptics do with their time

I have to say something about atheism. There seems to be a perception in the community that skepticism necessarily leads to atheism. This not so, and there are many paths to nonbelief in gods. Certainly, many people take this route because they see no evidence for the existence of gods so they place them in the same category as visiting aliens or monsters in Scottish lakes. Personally, I see no evidence but I'm an atheist, and as far as I know always have been, simply because I have never felt the need for a personal god looking over me and what I do. As a true skeptic, of course, I will immediately become a believer as soon as I see some evidence, but I'm with Bertrand Russell on this one who said when asked what he would say to God if he suddenly found himself at the Pearly Gates being asked why he had not believed: "Not enough evidence, God".

Martin Gardner, one of the founders of the modern skeptical movement called himself a philosophical theist because he said it made him feel more comfortable believing in an after life. He was heavily criticised for this by many people, but he said that it was a personal opinion which he did not encourage anyone else to adopt.

Going back the other way, being an atheist doesn't imply also being a skeptic. I've mentioned the illogical arguments that some atheists have used against theologians and believers, and some of these arguments would not look out of place coming from people who think that the only explanation for crop circles is alien invasions.

There is a big overlap between skeptics and atheists, but being one doesn't mean you have to be the other.

I'm a member of a freethinkers group that was established partly because of some of the conflict between atheist and skeptic groups. We are both and neither, with a don't ask, don't tell policy when it comes to beliefs, although I imagine that the majority are skeptical atheists, or even atheistic skeptics.

So, what do we do as practising practical skeptics?

What we used to worry about decades ago were things like ghosts, UFOs, perpetual motion machines, the Turin Shroud, spirit guides, astrology, telekinesis, mind reading, … and these are still matters of interest (particularly in the US), but they occupy a lot less of our time these days.

Most of what we do today is not so much debunking the traditional targets but teaching people about scams, fraud and beliefs that can cause harm. The big issues are "alternative" medicine, the anti-vaccination movement (more about that later), scams like the power bracelets that made you stronger, frauds like John Edward who is about to make another tour of Australia exploiting people's emotions, and so on.

You can see the variety of our interests by reading the Australian Skeptics' magazine or my regular column in Australasian Science magazine. Or you can even look at our web sites – Australian Skeptics at or mine at

Finally I want to talk about fake skeptics – people who have co-opted the word to mean something else. This might be a battle that we can't win, mainly because climate change deniers have been so successful at appropriating the word that we are frequently asked if Australian Skeptics reject the idea of climate change. (Unfortunately some of the membership does, usually for political reasons. The public face of the WA branch was proudly denialist. We always reply that we follow the science, and the science says the climate is changing and there could be severe and maybe catastrophic consequences if we don't listen.)

This issue raised itself this week when the rabidly anti-vaccination organisation, the Australian Vaccination Network, changed its name after a long battle with agitators and the state bureaucracy to the Australian Vaccination-Skeptics Network. At the moment we are applying a silver-lined cloud approach to this, hoping that the public will associate the word "skeptics" in the name with denialism, not a search for the truth.

I'll be happy to expand on the campaign against the AVN if anyone wants to ask me about it. The ex-President tried to take out an Apprehended Violence Order against me for being critical of her child-endangering activities, so I have some strong opinions on the matter.

So, to finish I'll go back to the original question – the difference between philosophical skepticism and skepticism as she is spoke.

It might look like they are different things, and they are, but both have the same goal – to know that what we know is real. As I say when I'm put on the spot about being a skeptic – a skeptic is someone who likes his facts to be correct.

Oh, and here's a note for those who want to complain that the spelling "skeptic" is an intrusion of Americanisation into our lives. It is an Americanisation of an Anglicisation of a Latinisation of the original Greek Σκεπτικός. You can spell it "skeptik" if you want to be pedantic.

Thank you.

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