The blaXson Files

PB attacked skeptics and their “ridiculous”, “more rational than thou” attitudes. Lumping skeptics, positivists, objectivists together, he argued that it is in fact just blind orthodoxy, not rationality. He argued that skeptics use words like “rational” and “reasonable” tendentiously, that they distort things, that any “anecdotal” evidence is immediately ruled out as totally irrelevant, along with sundry other attacks on the skeptical approach: though he did admit that he didn’t believe in fairies.

As part of this article, he accused my theory of knowledge of being circular, in that the only knowledge I would accept as such is objective knowledge, and I define knowledge as objective knowledge.

Blaxson is not PB’s real surname.

I sometimes wonder whether PB and I are truly on opposite sides of the fence, and his article “Beyond Scepticism” (TableAus, June 1996) prompts me to wonder again.

I’ll ignore all except one of his jibes at me, as they miss the mark (read what I’ve written if you don’t believe me: life – and TableAus – is too short to keep going over old ground). The one is his remark that my definition of knowledge is circular. In fact, my claim that knowledge can be gained only by the use of reason to integrate the data from our senses (the results of experiments are a subset of this, and science is a further subset of that) is a consequence of the fact that reality is hard. For “those who have just joined us”, by that I mean: things in reality are what they are, irrespective of our beliefs, our perceptions or even our existence. Those interested in the details may look up my early Philosophical Reflections. Those who still disagree may attempt running blindfolded through a forest, upon which they will soon discover exactly how hard trees are.

That aside, the essence of Peter’s article is that irrational skepticism is, well, irrational. By irrational, I mean beyond what is justified by the rules of reason (i.e., the rules of deductive and inductive logic). Now, Peter seems to give all the flack to skepticism while allowing irrational beliefclear skies (I was going to say free rein, but as this is a Mensan audience I don’t dare mix my metaphors). However, since he admits to disbelief in fairies, and after all a belief is a belief whether skeptical or credulous, perhaps that’s just because his particular target is skepticism.

In that case, the essence of his argument is that irrational skepticism is just as bad as irrational credulity. And with that, I wholeheartedly concur.

Peter goes astray in various places. He criticises AM’s valid attack on quantum mystics, as if criticism per se were the sure brand of infamy. Of course, ridiculing something that is ridiculous is perfectly fair. To use a Christian analogy, to claim one is the Son of God is blasphemy – unless one is the Son of God! And so it is with argument: to attack something justifiably is justifiable!Peter himself accepts this principle, since he spends most of his article ridiculing skeptics, with precisely the same tone which he finds so irritating in them. As for the rest, I’m sure the Skeptics are able (and willing!) to fight their own battles re his criticisms of their methods.

So as far as I can see, Peter and I agree that all beliefs must be judged in the light of the rules of evidence. We just disagree on what those rules are. So can’t we kiss and make up? (Just kidding!!! A firm, manly handshake will do!)

The basic principle of knowledge is that no claim – positive or negative – has any cognitive value unless it passes the test of reason. Of course there are degrees. There is a continuum in the firmness of evidence, and a corresponding continuum in certainty from “I know this”, through “this isn’t proof but is suggestive enough to warrant more study”, to “go away until you’ve got something to say”. (The evidence is that psychic phenomena fall in the last category, but I’m interested here in principles not particular beliefs.)

Peter’s central error appears to be that he thinks the burden of proof lies with those who deny something, rather than with those who propose it. But as I’ve noted before, the burden of proof lies with he who proposes an additional thing that exists (briefly, because anything that exists must affect other things). If no valid evidence is presented for a claim, then it is an empty claim with no value, and deserves to be ignored. To those who don’t accept that, let me just say that I know, in my very soul, that I possess a unique and amazing psychic ability, by which the lifespan of anyone who gives me $1,000 is extended by one whole year. Naturally, this is not limited by space, time or causality: if sadly you drop dead one second after mailing me the cheque, be assured that you’d have died a year earlier if you hadn’t! SO ACT NOW BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE!

© 1996, 1997 Robin Craig: first published in TableAus.