Strand 1 Statement 3 by Skep Sheik

This is a response by Skep Sheik to the response by Stephanie Zvan to the Strand 1 Opening Statement by Jack Smith. All of the Opening Statement by Jack Smith and all of the response by Stephanie Zvan is quoted within this response.

By Skep Sheik (with input from a working group including these individual volunteers: Jack Smith, Renee Hendricks, Aneris F. Nord, Thaumas Themelios, and Skep Tickle, but not necessarily reflecting the entirety of each of their views)

JS – The subject of this opening strand, first of 5 strands, is: ‘How we can work together on core issues on which we broadly agree, including promoting reason, critical thinking, science, skepticism, atheism and secularism in the real world’. I speak as an individual member of ‘the atheist/skeptic community’ and recognize that other members of that community will not agree with me, or not on every point. What I say here is consistent with my understanding of core features of atheism and skepticism. The primary purpose of this dialogue is to find common cause on which we can work together while accepting diverse political and social beliefs. We first need to identify core areas of agreement and of disagreement. I think the following are core to atheism and skepticism and have served the community well for many years; on which of these do we agree, and on which do we disagree?

SZ (1) I agree that this is a fair characterization of the purpose of this portion of the dialog. I think it would be useful to define the term ‘community’ wherever it is used, however, as it is often a source of confusion.

(1) It may make communication cumbersome if we attempt to define commonly used words such as community. Perhaps we can agree to specify if we mean any fairly well delineated community, for example the members of one particular national atheist society or another.

JS – We stand for equality for all. We believe that all humans should be treated equally as people, with no inherent superiority of one over the other, as there is no rational basis for such claims of inherent superiority. Addressing areas of inequality such as seen in religions, cultures, and laws is done on the basis of these principles.

SZ (2a) I agree with some reservations. The first reservation is that treating people all the same is not the same thing as treating people equally. This becomes obvious when one sees arguments from opponents of marriage equality who claim that everyone is already treated equally under the law because everyone already has an equal opportunity to marry someone of the opposite sex. Prescriptions for equal treatment that dont include consideration of how different people want to be treated are not merely meaningless but likely to drive away people who could, and other circumstances would, be happy to work with us.

(2a) Could you give a different example here to illustrate what you mean? The question of marriage equality is not one that is an issue within the atheist community – with almost no exceptions we support equal marriage rights for all.

SZ (2b) The second reservation is that treating people equally has-and as far as anthropology and primatology are currently telling us, have always had-exceptions carved out for those people who act in ways that damage the community (at whatever level ‘community’ is defined for the purpose). We in industrialized societies tend to agree that this description should include people who are overly physically aggressive and cheaters. There is less agreement on what other violations of the social contract may also fairly invite sanctions.

(2b) Im not sure that primatology or anthropology have much bearing on the current issue but agree that violations of the social contract may invite sanctions which ideally should be applied fairly, and that there is not complete agreement between societies on what those violations or sanctions should be.

JS – We seek to establish real truths from untruths, for without this discernment we end up with religions, dogmas, and demagogues poisoning our society. We establish truth through the application of logic, evidence-based reasoning, critical thinking, skepticism, and scientific inquiry. Our competence in this truth-seeking endeavour is the most valuable asset we have.

SZ (3a) I agree and disagree. We dont only seek truth for reasons that are that dramatic or noble. The basic reason we seek truth is that, without it, were flailing ineffectually in the dark. Curiosity drives us to seek truth. The desire to predict and control the world around us drives us to seek truth.

(3a) Scientifically driven skeptics like us may pursue truth for different reasons compared to others in society. We agree that curiosity serves as an impetus for some people; so may a desire to explain the world around us. While desires to predict and control the world around us may serve as an impetus for some people, those reasons seem less likely to be widespread among atheists & skeptics.

SZ (3b) Additionally, ‘dogma’ here seems to be used in a limited sense that may cause confusion later if not unpacked now. On top of the common meaning of ‘a point of view or tenet put forth as authoritative without adequate grounds’, ‘dogma’ is also that set of common agreements or principles that underlie our work. For example, the Freedom From Religion Foundation treats the desirability of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as dogma. That idea is the foundation of their work, and they dont devote energy to exploring whether the idea is true. Dogma is not necessarily a bad thing, nor is it escapable. Any dogma must be examined on its own to determine whether it is problematic.

(3b) We agree that ‘dogma’ can refer to foundational principles and that any dogma must be specifically examined to determine whether it is problematic. When it is clear that there is more than one definition of a word, it is erroneous to assume that only one of these definitions will be understood by all. This question of how we treat words that have differing definitions, particularly definitions that are not shared by people living in different countries, is an important point that we will address later.

SZ (3c) I am unwilling to put competence at truth-seeking above other-Ill call them ‘virtues’ for lack of a better word. It is certainly important, but making it our primary consideration has come to be recognized as a bad idea. Placing the collection of knowledge above all else was the kind of thinking that led to the Tuskegee experiment. Researchers uncovered a great deal of truth about the progression of untreated syphilis, but they did so at the cost of the health and lives of people who did not volunteer to be sacrificed for truth. In response to this and other travesties, weve instituted safeguards intended to curb unchecked truth-seeking. Putting truth-seeking above ethics and compassion is deeply troubling.

(3c) I dont see any disagreement amongst the atheist community on the importance of ethics in biomedical research.

JS – In our pursuit of truth, we must test our beliefs in the forum of open and free debate. Nothing is left off the table; all claims can – and sometimes must – be fully examined and tested to determine the best evidence, arguments, and explanations. We can do this without rancour or dismissal and it is a key requirement in achieving our objectives: freeing this world of the terrible injustices we see all around us.

SZ (4a) Im not sure who ‘we’ is supposed to represent here. I cant tell precisely what this is advocating for, so Ill cover the most likely interpretations. If this is a statement that the scientific process should be as open as possible-given the ethical constraints Ive already discussed-I generally agree. Where I disagree in that case is that science is supposed to be a cumulative process. Once consensus has been reached on a particular topic through that process, its typically time to shelve that topic and move on until we come across information that doesnt fit the models. Continuing to study geocentric models of planetary and stellar motion at this point would not advance our pursuit of truth. Debate does not go on forever on a topic without the introduction of substantial new information.

(4a) This description of science seems at odds with that typically seen in a research environment. Scientists do not shelve topics and move on to the next subject. Nothing is proven absolutely in science and even topics that seem certain are being constantly tested – for example the recent experiments testing the idea that some particles might be able to exceed the speed of light in a vacuum. The principle that every hypothesis must be open to falsification is the primary means we have to distinguish science from pseudoscience. In other words, I agree that the scientific process should be as open as possible, and disagree that science is supposed to be a cumulative process in which a topic is shelved once consensus is reached.

SZ (4b) If this is intended to suggest that individuals must test all their beliefs through debate and that this process will lead to understanding the truth, I strongly disagree. When people who are taught to debate are taught to be equally comfortable taking either side of an argument, we are looking at a process designed for winning, not truth. If we want to arrive at truth through give-and-take, we need a more collaborative process in which the goal is not to win.

(4b) This is rather confusing and perhaps would be better expanded so that the meaning is made clearer. Certainly we cannot expect the scientific method to determine every aspect of our lives (for example regarding the love we have for family and friends, taste in music, literature, etc.) These are questions about emotions. Again, many political questions are based on personal values that have an emotional rather than empirical basis. It is best to separate out value-based questions from those that have an empirical solution.

SZ (4c) Additionally, we have long since passed the point at which every person could be well educated on every topic for which we have accumulated evidence, if such a time ever existed. I could debate with someone on whether a call made in a hockey game was a good one, but since I dont know much about the rules of hockey, debate would not be productive. What would be productive is listening to expert consensus (or disagreement) on the topic or pursuing a course of education. When discussion is used as a pedagogical tool, it is guided by someone who is educated on the topic.

(4c) We agree that no one person can be well educated on every topic for which we have accumulated evidence. A person who is not educated on a topic is most likely at a disadvantage compared to someone who has proven expertise. In terms of debates between groups of individuals, however, this point is often moot. Experts often exist on both sides of debates and so any one side attempting an argument to authority will simply face another authority on the opposing side who simply disagrees.

In your reply to this response, could you please comment on whether or not you agree with the ideas in part 4(c) from Jack Smith’s opening statement: “Nothing is left off the table; all claims can – and sometimes must – be fully examined and tested to determine the best evidence, arguments, and explanations. We can do this without rancour or dismissal and it is a key requirement in achieving our objectives…”

SZ (4d) It is also frequently reasonable to expect that the uninformed opinion will be dismissed. When the crank sends their ‘theory of everything’ letter to physics departments at universities around the world, we do not expect the physicists there to suspend their research and/or their teaching in order to carefully rebut the letter. We expect them to throw it away or keep it to laugh over. The presence of an idea is not enough to compel debate on that idea.

(4d) We don’t disagree on this point, although it is important to distinguish uninformed from unqualified. For example someone who does not have a formal degree in a subject can stimulate a debate through the introduction of empirical evidence – for example finding a new fossil or identifying a previously undiscovered comet.

JS – We recognize that personal feelings have limited utility when determining objective reality. However, this does not ignore the fact that emotion and personal experiences are crucial components of being human and determining values. Further, these are important components in supporting cohesion and unity within our community.

SZ (5) I agree.

JS – We believe that ethics is a valid area for discussion and debate While morality is an important part of our lives, by its nature it is highly subjective and dependent on values. We therefore feel, in the interests of mutual cooperation, that it is appropriate to consider the best in others, give the benefit of the doubt, and assume others are acting in good faith.

SZ (6a) I agree with reservations. Im not sure what the last sentence has to do with the first two, so Ill treat it as unrelated for the purposes of this reply. My reservation on debating ethics is that, as with any other sort of debate or discussion, will generally be most productive if done, or at least led, by people trained to debate ethics. This is a field that has experts. We should make use of them.

(6a) This is a fair point – although it should be noted that there is not a universal agreement between these experts and that the field itself is one of change.

SZ (6b) I agree that making immediate judgments about those we are dealing with is not helpful. I agree that when one can, one should generally err on the side of charity in judgment. At the same time, however, not everyone is in the same position to risk that kind of error. Sometimes the consequences to trusting and having that trust betrayed are too much. Given this, it also behooves those who desire to be trusted to create an environment in which risks are reduced.

(6b) This statement is rather unclear and specific example are required before we can determine whether we agree or not about those particular situations.

JS – We believe that in order for us to be effective we should strive to avoid: Imposing political or social beliefs on others. We can of course form our own social and political groups within the movement but they have no inherent right to impose those beliefs on others.

SZ (7) I am confused by this statement. I dont understand how people are able to impose their beliefs on others in this context.

(7) Political beliefs are often based on value judgments of the individual in question. While we may not be able to force people to think the same way as us, we may be able to enforce our personal values on their behavior – for example the moves in certain countries to restrict the right of marriage to men-women unions or imposing laws on society that makes it illegal for individuals to satirize authority or religious figures. In both cases the value judgments of one group are being imposed on the community as a whole.

JS – Attributing motives or character traits on others. Ad Hominem fallacies serve no good purpose in reasonable dialogue.

SZ (8a) I agree with reservations. The more interactions we have with people, the more information we have about how they behave. Granting some charity and proceeding cautiously in how we interpret this knowledge is one thing. Declining to draw any conclusions from it is quite another and not productive in our search to understand and be effective in the world around us.

SZ (8b) Additionally, I have some concerns that ad hominem argumentation not be confused with insults or observations relevant to an argument, but that can be discussed later if necessary.

(8) These last two comments bring up a topic deserving of a more detailed discussion. We shall expand on it in later submissions.

JS – Dismissing others in a dialogue if they do not follow our own beliefs. Our strength is in our diversity. We should try to work together, irrespective of differences of opinion, as long as equality for all remains a core principle.

SZ (9) I generally disagree with this. I do agree that diversity is a strength, but that is not the same thing as claiming that we all must work closely enough together that we are in dialog. To borrow an aphorism, sometimes good fences do make good neighbors. Sometimes we simply accomplish more by limiting the amount of time we spend in conflict with each other.

(9) We are in agreement, then: that diversity is a strength but that is not the same thing as claiming that we all must work closely together.

JS – Commenting on others without accepting a right of reply. The right of reply is fundamental to any open society. If we criticise others then others have the right to respond to that without being personally attacked for doing so.

SZ (10) I agree with reservations. This is more generally covered under free speech and, thus, is subject to the same restrictions that other speech is. Im not sure what ‘personally attacked’ is meant to mean here, but I will note that a stipulated ‘right of reply’ would not be a right to have ones reply be the last word in a discussion or a right to not be criticized for the form or content of the reply.

(10) Again, the question of the protection of free speech online and exactly how to do so are subjects that deserve more space than a simple comment here. We shall provide more detail in future posts. At present it shall suffice to say that we support the right of a private individual to moderate their own online space as they see fit, and we agree that a stipulated ‘right of reply’ would not be a right to have one’s reply be the last word in a discussion, or a right to not be criticized for the form or content of the reply.

JS – Ignoring the feelings of others. However we should not use our feelings to shut down valid and genuine debate and discussion. How many times have we heard theists say we should never attack their beliefs as it hurts their feelings? Allowing this would put us into a position where we are hostages of our own making.

SZ (11) I agree that it will not help us to work together to ignore the feelings of those with whom were working. I am confused as to what ‘valid and genuine debate and discussion’ is intended to describe. I dont think this can be discussed until we agree on the circumstances in which debate is useful (see #4 above).

(11) We may come to the conclusion that it is impossible to reach agreement over which subjects are open to debate. But agreeing to differ on that question would at least be progress from the current impasse.

JS – Shutting down all forms of criticism. Criticism has been a mainstay of free debate for hundreds of years. Satire, caricature and critical commentary are a valid human response to any issue and have been for millennia. its even on the walls of ancient Pompeii. While everyone has the right to their own protected spaces that does not provide the right to censor others outside those spaces.

SZ (12a) As with imposing beliefs, I am confused as how this censorship is supposed to be accomplished. I dont know of anyone in our overlapping movements with the power and reach to shut down ‘all forms of criticism’.

(12a) Within a closed network censorship of views is simple to achieve – the heretical individual is simply ‘Expelled’. Luckily the internet is less a small pond than a vast ocean, with those trying to stop dissenting voices playing the role of Canute on the shoreline.

SZ (12b) I agree that satire, caricature, and critical commentary are common human responses. I am unsure, however, what ‘valid’ is meant to convey in this context. All these things can be illuminating or can serve to obscure the truth. They can be proportional, productive, reasonable-or none of those things. They are all simply means of communication. Talking about them collectively tells us nothing about their content, and this is the important part of any communication.

(12b) Indeed. But satire is often a mixture of politics and art, and in neither case have we a simple means of determining validity. We weigh value judgments, personal taste or sense of humor. The question, perhaps, should not be the validity of such posts, but whether they cross some agreed line – for example: would they be considered clearly offensive by someone not personally invested in the debate? This topic will be expanded upon in future contributions.

JS – We see the issues as a clash of ideas between those who wish to impose a particular political and social ideology, and those who wish to maintain the rationalist principles that have served us well for so many years. This kind of imposition will necessarily divide the movement and weaken it. It will set up an us vs. them mentality which distracts from our core aims. It will alienate our friends and allies who would otherwise wish to support us, but will be discouraged if they do not hold the same political beliefs. It will impose unelected political leaders and encourage schisms.

SZ (13a) I have a number of problems with this point. Above, it was suggested that attributing motives is unhelpful, yet this entire view of the conflict is predicated upon ascribing motives to others. Additionally, even if anyone wished to impose any ideology, it has not been demonstrated that this could be done. I dont see anything to be gained in opposing a hypothetical that is also, as far as I can tell, impossible.

(13a) The fact that the imposition of sectarian values is a practical impossibility does not, unfortunately, immunize us from the negative results of attempts to do just that.

SZ (13b) The extent to which any fundamental disagreement can distract from a movements work is the extent to which the parties involved insist that the issue must be continually debated. The secular and skeptical movements already contain several fundamental disagreements that were successfully resolved by schism. Working apart much of the time allows us to work toward common goals even when we have conflicts, as I noted in my opening statement. Beyond that, not insisting that there be constant friction lets us more easily work in concert when the need for numbers arises.

(13b) If this is an argument for a multiplicity of approaches then we are in full agreement.

SZ (13c) I am also unclear on how this idea of ‘unelected political leaders’ is supposed to happen. Is this intended to refer to being persuasive? If so, I fail to see the problem, particularly in movements that value skepticism and rationality.

(13c) The herd of cats is a prevailing metaphor of the skeptical/atheist movement for good reasons. While individual organizations within the worldwide community, American, Irish, Indian, Ugandan etc, may have leaders, any attempt to assume spokesperson roles for the overall movement is bound to fail.

JS – People with similar interests will tend to congregate and should have spaces in which they can communicate and work together cooperatively. We do not seek to control anyones space, the policies in others spaces, or their expression of their beliefs and values. However, when people in one such space criticize or challenge other people, we feel its important for them to accept rebuttal or presentation of counter-evidence in accordance with the core principles outlined above.

SZ (14) I disagree. Accepting rebuttal in the same space that a criticism was made is at most a courtesy. It is neither an ethical imperative in our world of easy access to publishing nor a universal practice. As a courtesy, it is expected that it will be taken away when abused. When we criticize creationists, we are not required to host a Gish Gallop in return. Those who write about antisemitism should be under no pressure to publish racist comments. When we criticize a climate change denialist, we are not required to allow them to spread their astroturfed disinformation in our space. No less than the blogs editor for Scientific American routinely deletes comments from denialists of multiple stripes. These are extreme examples, but they do illustrate the general point.

(14) We agree that moderation of a personal website should be under the control of the owner of that site. In line with this we agree that it is up to the owner of such space whether they allow rebuttal or criticism on their space. Our major issue is the attempts to silence criticism that is hosted elsewhere.

JS – Failure to reach a common ground on these issues puts at risk our efforts in achieving our common goals.

SZ (15) I disagree. Again, we do not have to work closely together to work on common goals.

(15) There is a difference between reaching a common ground on certain issues, and working closely together. As an example the secularism of western Europe involves both non-religious and religious moderates who agree on a common ground of opposition to state imposition of religion, yet the same groups do not tend work closely together.

JS – We can work together by following the principles core to atheism/skepticism and remembering we are each and all fallible humans, each with one life to live and with an equal right to self-determination. We owe it to those who are hurting, suffering, and dying in this big wide world of ours.

SZ (16a) I agree that we should follow our principles. I agree that we should remember we are each fallible. I agree that we have an equal right to self-determination. I am unsure how having just one life fits into this list or how most of these fit in with working together. I would request further elaboration.

SZ (16b) Promoting reason, critical thinking, science, skepticism, atheism, and secularism is worthwhile, necessary work. I would disagree that any individual owes it to anyone to do specifically this work. There is other humanitarian work that is just as necessary and just as worthwhile. One of our challenges going forward is making people feel that ours is the worthwhile, necessary work on which they want to spend their time.

(16) Would you agree that among people who identify as skeptics and freethinkers, we owe it to each other to apply critical thinking and skepticism to the methods that those in our community are using to do the work they consider worthwhile and necessary?

And we disagree if you are saying that “making people feel that ours is the-work on which they want to spend their time” is a widespread goal among atheists and skeptics.

JS – I welcome your comments about this statement and your efforts to help the atheist/skeptic community identify and hopefully expand our ‘common ground’.

SZ (17) I welcome your comments in return.

One Response to “Strand 1 Statement 3 by Skep Sheik”

  • Ariel says:

    As an answer to the question “how censorship is supposed to be accomplished”, we read:

    (12a) Within a closed network censorship of views is simple to achieve – the heretical individual is simply ‘Expelled’. Luckily the internet is less a small pond than a vast ocean, with those trying to stop dissenting voices playing the role of Canute on the shoreline.

    At the same time we have:

    (14) We agree that moderation of a personal website should be under the control of the owner of that site. In line with this we agree that it is up to the owner of such space whether they allow rebuttal or criticism on their space. Our major issue is the attempts to silence criticism that is hosted elsewhere.

    Agreed to (14), with reservations concerning the last sentence in the quoted fragment, which is unclear to me (see below).

    Not able to agree or disagree with (12a) without additional clarification of the intended meaning.

    Explanation of my reservations. What is meant by “closed network” in 12a? Do the same rules apply to “closed networks” as to personal websites, i.e. do you think that it is up to the moderators of the “closed network” whether they allow rebuttal or criticism on their space? If no, why? If yes, how can it be your example of a censorship?

    Moreover, if the major issue is “the attempts to silence criticism that is hosted elsewhere” (last sentence in 14), there is still an unanswered question how such silencing is supposed to be accomplished (and what does it really consist in). 12a doesn’t answer it, unless you make a convincing case for the claim that personal websites should be treated differently from closed networks (with the last belonging to the category of “elsewhere”).

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