Likelihood of Success

Ron Coleman’s pretty good blog

When “I don’t know” is heresy… and when it’s not

Posted by Ron Coleman on July 6, 2008

The brilliant Penn Jillette makes a living from being a skeptic. Skepticism, he reports in the LA Times, isn’t good enough for the “reality based community, however — not on matters central to the canon:Personification of Knowledge, Newark historic courthouse

[S]omeone asked us about global warming, or climate change, or however they’re branding it now. Teller and I were both silent on stage for a bit too long, and then I said I didn’t know.

I elaborated on “I don’t know” quite a bit. I said that Al Gore was so annoying (that’s scientifically provable, right?) that I really wanted to doubt anything he was hyping, but I just didn’t know. I also emphasized that really smart friends, who knew a lot more than me, were convinced of global warming. I ended my long-winded rambling (I most often have a silent partner) very clearly with “I don’t know.” I did that because … I don’t know. . . .

The next day, I heard that one of the non-famous, non-groovy, non-scientist speakers had used me as an example of someone who let his emotions make him believe things that are wrong. . . . Later, I was asked about a Newsweek blog she wrote. . . . She ends with: “But here was Penn, a great friend to the skeptic community, basically saying, ‘Don’t bother me with scientific evidence, I’m going to make up my mind about global warming based on my disdain for Al Gore.’ … Which just goes to show, not even the most hard-nosed empiricists and skeptics are immune from the power of emotion to make us believe stupid things.”

Is there no ignorance allowed on this one subject? . . . You can’t turn on the TV without seeing someone hating ourselves for what we’ve done to the planet and preaching the end of the world. Maybe they’re right, but is there no room for “maybe”? There’s a lot of evidence, but global warming encompasses a lot of complicated points: Is it happening? Did we cause it? Is it bad? Can we fix it? Is government-forced conservation the only way to fix it? . . .

[T]he climate of the whole world is . . . complicated. I’m not a scientist, and I haven’t spent my life studying weather. I’m trying to learn what I can, and while I’m working on it, isn’t it OK to say “I don’t know”?

Skepticism has been turned on its head; doubt becomes a thought crime. What is it called when that happens, exactly? I have always liked this guy.

I can’t give Jillette all the credit in the world for this thinking, however. His skeptical principles of knowing when not to know only go so far. Perhaps it really does matter whose ox is being Gored, because when it comes to other important matters arguably at least as complicated as global warming, Jillette is bold in his ignorance when in, fact, being so makes him feel good.

Writing elsewhere, Penn Jillette the humble skeptic confidently argues that he is “beyond atheism” because “Atheism is not believing in God. Not believing in God is easy — you can’t prove a negative, so there’s no work to do. . . . But, this ‘This I Believe’ thing seems to demand something more personal, some leap of faith that helps one see life’s big picture, some rules to live by. So, I’m saying, ‘This I believe: I believe there is no God.'”

Well, that’s actually atheism; you could look it up, Penn. More to the point, however, is the problem that he does not demonstrate with any kind of rigor that he has moved from “not knowing if there is” (and hence not believing merely by skeptical default; this is not principled atheism) to “knowing” (at least he calls it “believing”) there isn’t.

Frankly, based on his comments about global warming — “I’m not a scientist, and I haven’t spent my life studying weather. I’m trying to learn what I can, and while I’m working on it, isn’t it OK to say ‘I don’t know’?” — you would think he had enunciated the manner in which an intellectually honest person publishes an opinion on a topic that, like global warming, “encompasses a lot of complicated points.” Why doesn’t Penn Jillette apply the same level of intellectual rigor, honesty and humility to the mere question of God’s existence?

And why does Penn Jillette tell us, in contrast, that he believes affirmatively that there is no God?

Believing there is no God gives me more room for belief in family, people, love, truth, beauty, sex, Jell-O and all the other things I can prove and that make this life the best life I will ever have.

I told you: I really like Penn Jillette. But this just goes to show, not even the most hard-nosed empiricists and skeptics are immune from the power of emotion to make us believe stupid things.

(Hat tip, still and all, to Anthony Watts.)

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17 Responses to “When “I don’t know” is heresy… and when it’s not”

  1. Bad said

    Penn is mostly certainly wrong to take the affirmative position on a matter so utterly beyond any evidential meaning.

    But this thing about how you know best how to define “atheism,” is really getting exasperating.

    I don’t believe in any gods, and I find most of the arguments for gods anywhere from simply unconvincing to embarrassingly deceptive. So am I an atheist, yes or no? If not, then what is my classification, in regards to having a belief in gods or not?

  2. reader said

    The difference is there is actually some evidence to be considered for global warming and he acknowledges that. There is zero evidence of a god ever and a [xxxx]load of evidence for science.

  3. There’s also no evidence that you, “Reader,” are a real person, or even a hologram with enough guts to sign its name.

  4. I don’t believe in any gods, and I find most of the arguments for gods anywhere from simply unconvincing to embarrassingly deceptive. So am I an atheist, yes or no? If not, then what is my classification, in regards to having a belief in gods or not?

    I think you are an atheist, yes. Ultimately only you can say whether you’ve really thought about the matter and applied your best-faith effort and dealing with the arguments before coming to your conclusion. On the other hand, your mocking tone with respect to the question of whether God does exist — i.e., “gods” — does raise, for me, a serious question of good faith.

  5. Bad said

    I think you are an atheist, yes.

    Then why contradict yourself by insisting that atheist means only “one who affirmatively believes that there is no god?” Do you see how for atheists it seems more like a sort of game than an honest attempt at taxonomy?

    Ultimately only you can say whether you’ve really thought about the matter and applied your best-faith effort and dealing with the arguments before coming to your conclusion.

    That’s perfectly irrelevant. Whether I’ve thought about the matter a lot, or not at all, both are perfectly well compatible with not believing in something, and even to the same degree. If I don’t think about the matter at all, I’ll not come upon any reason to think it’s true. And if I make an exhaustive search of all possible claims, I might also simply never come upon any reason to think it’s true.

    Of course, I personally happen to have in fact given the matter a fair deal of thought, but that’s simply because I happen to be interested in philosophy, religion, and society: it’s not out of some obligation based on the fact that people insist that there must be a god.

    Penn is 100% correct that not believing in something is not a stance which requires any particular commitment to even care about the subject.

    On the other hand, your mocking tone with respect to the question of whether God does exist — i.e., “gods” — does raise, for me, a serious question of good faith.

    Ah, I see. I am “mocking,” because I don’t start off by acknowledging monotheism as the only option relevant to the definition of atheism.

    I’m ever astounded that anyone thinks even the nastiest of atheists can hold a candle to the blithe arrogance of even the nicest of theists.

  6. Bad, I posit three positions here:

    1. People who casually say they’re atheists without really giving the matter any rigorous thought, mainly because they are not capable of it. They are entitled to think of themselves however they want, but they are mainly just not intellectually serious about this issue.

    2. People who have given the matter careful thought and have really “worked out” a reasoned conception of non-belief in God. I happen to think Penn Jillette’s cutesy “not believing is not the same as believing not” approach is either a joke, or actually a description of (1) as “not believing” versus (2) here. They are entitled to think of themselves however they want, too, but very, very few of them have given the matter as much thought as they would almost any important and complicated, much less existential, topic before coming to a conclusion.

    3. People — of whom there are very few — such as Penn Jillette, who is unusually brilliant and unusually talented at logic, analysis and “debunking,” and who also writes readily of his willingness to admit when he is insufficiently educated to opine on a topic he does not understand; and yet who is, at the same time, irrationally hostile to even the possibility that a reasonable man could disagree with him on another topic — the existence of God — where he actually has never demonstrated genuine expertise in the subject by mastery or even discipleship of any of the relevant disciplines by which a person could answer that question — and who admits, as in the article I linked to, that he likes the emotional space “not believing” in God puts him in and essentially that this is his motivation for coming to the conclusion that he does.

    Of course, I personally happen to have in fact given the matter a fair deal of thought, but that’s simply because I happen to be interested in philosophy, religion, and society: it’s not out of some obligation based on the fact that people insist that there must be a god.

    There is no “obligation” to know what you’re talking about. It’s just a premise of having anyone care about what you have to say.

    Penn is 100% correct that not believing in something is not a stance which requires any particular commitment to even care about the subject.

    Maybe you mean in the sense of (1). I don’t consider that non-belief. I consider that non-thought.

    Ah, I see. I am “mocking,” because I don’t start off by acknowledging monotheism as the only option relevant to the definition of atheism.

    Of course it’s mocking. It’s obvious that you do it to be obnoxious and to offend those who believe in God. Why is it obvious? Because if you do not believe in God, or the existence of even a solitary deity (which you designate as “a god”), a fortiori you do not believe in multiple gods. You invest, however, in the extra key stroke to demonstrate that you concept of the idea of Divinity is as contemptible to you as paganism is to a monotheist.

    I’m ever astounded that anyone thinks even the nastiest of atheists can hold a candle to the blithe arrogance of even the nicest of theists.

    This must be another topic about which you believe one can form a full opinion without having the slightest idea of what he’s talking about!

  7. Bad said

    Note how every one of your positions is contains a description of something contemptible: are those the only 3 positions you think atheists can occupy?

    Of course it’s mocking

    No it’s not. I didn’t intend it to be mocking. I intended it to be as definitionally encompassing as necessary when I’m talking about MY lack of theism. It has nothing to do with contempt, and your leaping at that conclusion based on a bunch of thin inferences was unwarranted. But it does remind me of my days of having to deal with radical feminists.

    I happen to think Penn Jillette’s cutesy “not believing is not the same as believing not” approach is either a joke

    Then I simply don’t think you’ve given the matter very much thought. Or, at the very least, you think that god belief is somehow different and a special case amongst all other claims people make, that deserves special rules and special treatment.

    People who insist that a claim is true are obligated to provide reasons for thinking it true before they can run around trying to intimidate people by accusing them of not spending their time trying to prove that it isn’t true. And those of us who have thought about the question, and don’t find any of it convincing are not somehow less intellectual serious than those who do find it convincing.

  8. rjschwarz said

    I like Penn but some of the episodes of their Showtime show have used strawmen, using pot instead of heroin to show the drug war is crazy. Most drug legalization folks would admit there is a line in there somewhere. Their bit on illegal aliens was also flawed. INdicating that because it’s difficult to keep them out we should just stop trying and get over it. Maybe it’s impossible to be unbiased and funny in a half hour show but they slowly chip away at their credibility at times.

  9. Ara Rubyan said

    Skepticism has been turned on its head; doubt becomes a thought crime. What is it called when that happens, exactly?

    Um, just a wild guess, but how about “living in a country run by radical conservatives?”

    I’m just saying.

  10. Bookdoc said

    I believe it was Clarence Darrow who said “A man is a big a fool to say there is no God as to state that there is one as neither point can be proven”
    I may have gotten the exact quote wrong. I do belive that the basic ideas behind the Judeo-Christian philosophy are a great basis for building a civilization.
    By the way, I am a conservative (I hate to say Republican as they aren’t that conservative anymore) and an agnostic.

  11. Jack said

    I played with words a little bit to call them what they’re not
    For cold is better best described as not to limit hot
    A theist is a man of us who says he’s thought of God
    An atheist is not like that, he walks about unshod
    For you cannot not have thought of it unless you say you have
    And saying that you have just that just proves it best by halves,
    Taxonomy can tell you this and why not understand
    A thing is not and yet it is, but do not call it brand
    A moralist is no different see than amoralists are too
    And red is not a different shade, it’s just a type of blue,
    I played with words a little bit to call them what they’re not
    I killed them all with bullets see but fired not a shot,
    Truth is lies and words are green and warm is frozen hard
    But definitions in our speech are almost avant-garde,
    You cannot say a man can be by reason of his thought
    You cannot say a man must be by reason of his naughts
    But if he is and yet is not by clever twist of word
    Then how solid is his argument a shouting out unheard?
    My father said and I did hear, “That once men do proclaim
    Themselves to be yet undefined then indistinct’s the same
    As if a thing cannot be known unless it’s first agreed
    That everything is better not unless it’s not decreed.”
    And on that point I think I see what he was driving at,
    Just say the rabbit matters not, the magic’s in the hat.

  12. Bad said

    “I believe it was Clarence Darrow who said “A man is a big a fool to say there is no God as to state that there is one as neither point can be proven””

    I happen to agree with this. However, I also think that this line of thinking is often used to obscure the issues. Asserting that there is no god is simply unecessary, and one does not have to assert the opposite of a claim to not believe it.

    You can insist all you want that you’ve repaid a loan: I want to see evidence before I credit you for it. I don’t have to positively assert that you haven’t paid it to not believe that you have.

    And thus, agnostic atheism is perfectly reasonable when it comes to god claims. Do I know what’s true or even what’s possible or makes sense in that case? Not at all. But like any claim, I need a reason to think it true before I can say that I give it credit or affirmation. Without, I remain an atheist (or non-theist, if you prefer).

    “I may have gotten the exact quote wrong. I do belive that the basic ideas behind the Judeo-Christian philosophy are a great basis for building a civilization.”

    I happen to think that is grossly oversimplifies things. What those “ideas” are, and what are credited to them, seem to have evolved a great deal over time: pretending that ideas of liberty are free speech and capitalism are all natural and inevitable outgrowths of Christianity, rather than contingent developments in the west as a whole, of which Christianity was a part, but not the only factor, seems resolutely ahistorical and ideological.

  13. Jack said

    It seems to me that you say seems to me
    And then assert you know,
    It seems to me that you seem to me
    To have a great although,
    Where that you know and that you don’t
    It seems to you the same
    As saying that you don’t is true
    Is really quite the claim,
    You’ve never seen the other side
    Of cosmic destiny
    And yet you claim unless you do
    It’s truth will never be,
    Be patient man
    Your time will come
    For death will soon befall,
    And then just what you think
    You know
    Will prove itself in all.

  14. Bad said

    Ah Jack…

    I just can’t match you verse for verse
    yet as for substance: I can’t do worse

    It really seems you’ve spent no time
    on any matter but the rhyme

    In poem one, there’s naught but bluster
    is that the best that you can muster?

    Merely to insist that I
    have misued terms, which is a lie?

    My comments took specific stands
    which you failed in full to countermand

    and poem two: you offer nothing!
    there’s no response, there’s naught but bluffing

    you talk of “truth,” but merely claim
    did you not know that’s not the same?

    I never said I knew our fate
    its proof of yours which I await

    And thankfully, I do have patience
    just give me more than accusations.

  15. Jack said

    “yet as for substance: I can’t do worse”

    Oh, I don’t know, I wouldn’t sell myself so short iffin I were you.
    I suspect you can do a whole lot of Bad, or even worse, before it’s all over.

    But as for who is right about what you know,
    Just give it time friend.

    All things prove out in time.
    No one ever escapes time or what it teaches about what is never really escapable.

    But as for your argument, let’s have a little whirl, shall we?:

    You say it’s not that what you say is less than logical
    And yet you say it cannot be that evidence be culled
    For if you see it not as there then not as there it is
    And yet you cannot see the (w)hole you smartly never did,
    For if a man cannot find his brainstem through his ass
    It does not mean he has not shit with clever upper class
    A twist of phrase can make men sing when talking would be best
    By saying no means yes it’s not then East becomes the West,
    But what of that, it makes no count, this is the internet
    And truth be damned or shouted out it will not soon abet
    Just take my verse as clever words with which you’ll not agree
    It does not change what ever was or change what yet will be,
    An argument is like a match where men with tongues do roar
    And yet the Truth is like a fight that’s much more like a war
    Debates and wrestles in the mind they are for pleasant show
    But when men come upon the Truth then only do they know.

    Your turn.

    By the way, I like your verse.
    Your meter too. You show a lot of promise.
    Just work on your vocabulary a little.
    Sometimes I get the feeling you don’t quite have your definitions down straight.

  16. […] several blogs chimed in here, here, here and […]

  17. Bad said

    Ah well Jack, I still jsut don’t see the point of generalized denials that never engage with my specific points. What’s the purpose of conversing if the particular content doesn’t seem to matter very much to the person you’re conversing with, and they simply repeat over and over that you’re mistaken (but don’t say how), unaware of the truth, and that arguments are mere exercises?

    You believe what you believe, and you are unwilling to engage directly in a discussion about it. Fair enough. I still fundamentally disagree with your idea that you can simply “know” the truth upon coming to it, without any content to the knowledge. Knowledge is not really knowledge without an explicable “how do you know.” Otherwise, it’s just a feeling of knowing, which is not the same thing at all.

    “Sometimes I get the feeling you don’t quite have your definitions down straight.”

    As always, examples are helpful, so we can see directly if the “feeling” has merit.

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