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SCIENCE, CRITICAL THINKING, AND THE NEW SKEPTICISM

Paul Kurtz, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, SUNY at Buffalo;
Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal,
Chairman; Center for Inquiry, Chairman

The Rising Tide of Paranormal Beliefs

We live at a time when science is making unprecedented progress on the frontiers of knowledge. Yet at the same time anti-science, pseudo-science, and belief in the paranormal are growing, challenging the viability of scientific inquiry.

The term paranormal was introduced by parapsychologists in the nineteenth century. It referred to phenomena which allegedly could not be explained by normal scientific means and existed alongside of or over and beyond normal science. Originally, this applied to extrasensory perception (ESP: telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, and the supposedly related phenomenon of psychokinesis), and questions of post mortem survival. J. B. Rhine (1895  1980) was instrumental in this use in the twentieth century: though he maintained that normal science was unable to cope with these phenomena, he nonetheless thought that statistical and experimental methods could describe and explain them, and he set up a laboratory to test his theories. Many questions were raised within the scientific community about this research: If there were significant deviations from normal probabilistic expectations, of guessing runs in Zener (ESP) cards, for example, could they be given alternative naturalistic explanations? Did such anomalous phenomena exist? Were psi phenomena real? Skeptics are doubtful of the claims of parapsychology.

The term paranormal was extended to still other anomalous events, which to many seemed mysterious and violated natural science and/or could not be explained in physicalist or materialistic terms. This referred to a wide range of demonic forces, which had been popular in the middle ages and earlier and came back into vogue  such as possession by diabolical preternatural entities, exorcism, poltergeists, hauntings by discarnate spirits, vampires, werewolves, and other patently mythological entities, now given new reality in the public imagination. This fascination with the occult no doubt was enhanced by the mass media, films, radio, and television which could use effective images, sound, music, and drama  from Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi to the X-Files  and made these phenomena seem real. Thus the lines between fiction and reality were becoming blurred.

Belief in the paranormal was also given impetus by the emergence of the space age, which began after World War II. As space probes by the United States and Russia accelerated, the popular mass media fantasized about the visitation of our planet by aliens from outer space and future human space travel. Gene Rodenberry's Star Trek enabled our imagination to soar. Today tens of millions of people worldwide claim to have seen unidentified flying objects, which they attribute to extraterrestrial beings. Erich Von Daniken in his popular book Chariots of the Gods? 1 postulated ancient visitations, which he claimed to see in the artifacts of ancient civilizations. A great number of UFO organizations and publications proliferated, spewing forth endless bombast and bunkum.

Dr. Edward Condon of the University of Colorado did a study of over 12,000 cases of UFO sightings. The conclusion was that there was no hard evidence for the claim of extraterrestrial origin. Many disciples of ETI-visitations nevertheless loudly proclaimed that there was a cover?up by all the governments of the world. Among the bizarre claims was that the space aliens had crash-landed in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947, and that these creatures were hidden from the public by the U.S. Air Force. (This later was shown to be due to the top-secret Air Force Project Mogul whereby sonar balloons were sent up to detect nuclear testing.) Immanuel Velikovsky in Worlds in Collision 2 maintained that the planet Venus had swiped the earth and this could account for the parting of the Red Sea and other Biblical stories. In recent years UFOlogy was confronted with many individuals who insisted that they had been abducted aboard these craft, that biogenetic experiments had been performed on them, and they returned to report their experiences. Again skeptics found serious flaws in the objective evidence for these claims.

Added to this fascination with space, astrology came back into vogue with virtually every newspaper and magazine in the Western world carrying astrological columns. To complicate matters, Michel and Francoise Gauquelin in France claimed to find new scientific evidence for astrobiology. Although they rejected classical astrology, they claimed that planetary configurations influenced an individual's personality, character, future profession and destiny. The Mars Effect, postulated a correlation between the position of Mars in the heavens at the time and place of birth and becoming a famous sports champion. This claim was investigated by skeptical scientists in Europe and the USA who concluded that the findings were due to the Gauquelins' selective bias.

The term paranormal was extended to other areas: monsters of the deep, such as the Loch Ness Monster in Scotland, and reports of the sightings of strange manlike creatures worldwide such as Bigfoot and the Abominable Snowman in the Himalayas, the Pyramids in Egypt and the lost continent of Atlantis. Indeed, anything bizarre or weird was considered to be grist for the paranormal mill  such as Charles Fort's report of frogs raining from the sky. Tabloid newspapers, pulp magazines, book publishers, sensational Hollywood movies and television shows all fed the public a steady diet of unsolved mysteries. And there were self-proclaimed psychics, such as Uri Geller, who claimed to have scientific support for his powers, and prophets, such as astrologer Jeane Dixon.

Most scientists were disturbed by these developments, which they encountered, not only in the mass media, but in the students in their classes and among members of their own families.

The Growth of a Skeptics Movement

It is within this cultural milieu as background that the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) was founded in 1976 and this immediately stimulated the creation of similar scientific organizations in other countries of the world  and thus a world skeptics movement was formed. The skeptics movement recommends three tasks: (1) That scientists should devote interdisciplinary research effort to investigate these paranormal and pseudoscientific claims. We asked, Could these alleged anomalies be given naturalistic causal explanations? (2) We encouraged researchers to bring the results of their inquiries to the attention of the public. We were eager to sponsor further research and to publish the findings. (3) Our long-range goal was public education of the aims of science, particularly an appreciation for scientific methods of inquiry and critical thinking.

Gratifying to us was the fact that the modern skeptical movement was immediately accepted by the scientific community. We had apparently crystallized a point of view that many scientists and educators felt was long overdue. A great number of the major science magazines and scientific bodies in the world welcomed our appearance and endorsed our programs. This included Science News, Science, Scientific American, The New Scientist, Nature, Science & Vie, etc. Moreover, the media found us so fascinating that they began to contact us as a source of information. Ranged against us, of course, are vast media conglomerates, which were interested in promoting and selling the paranormal to gullible consumers.

There had been other scientific efforts historically to investigate paranormal claims. The founding of the Society for Psychical Research in Great Britain in 1882 and in the U.S. in 1885 (by William James) was an important event. There had been many pro-paranormal groups which came into being, especially in the post-World War II period. But most of these groups mainly attracted believers, who were predisposed to accept the phenomena; the skeptics in their midst, were few and far between. CSICOP was the first body of scientists and academicians made up predominantly of skeptics, who were willing to investigate paranormal phenomena.

What Is Skeptical Inquiry?

How do present-day skeptical inquirers propose to deal with anomalous claims of the paranormal? Skepticism is surely one of the oldest intellectual traditions in history. It began with Greek philosophy in the fifth century B.C.E., and came to fruition in the Roman Empire when various schools of skepticism flourished. After a long hiatus during the Dark Ages it was rediscovered in the modern era, contributing to the growth of modern science, when scientists and philosophers began the quest for a new method of inquiry. Rejecting appeals to authority, tradition, faith, revelation, and emotion, they sought objective criteria for testing truth claims. Science could advance, they held, by questioning ancient unexamined premises and going directly to the Book of Nature.

Many mistakenly identified skepticism with universal doubt. The term skeptic derives from the Greek word skeptikos, which meant thoughtful, to consider, or examine, and skepsis, which meant both doubt and inquiry. Ancient skepticism was riddled with doubt about the nature of the world, or our ability to know it (for example, Pyrrho of Elis [360  270 B.C.E.]). Modern skepticism was unable to prove a person's own existence, the reality of external objects, the existence of God, or the foundations of ethical judgments (Rene Descartes [1596  1650], David Hume [1711  1776]). These forms of skepticism emphasized total doubt, which for some became equivalent to uncertainty, indecision, subjectivism, even nihilism.

Complete or universal skepticism took root in the ancient world before the growth of modern science. It was also influential at the beginnings of natural science and the Copernican revolution as skeptics questioned our ability to bridge the mind-body dualism or to know material substances. It became increasingly difficult, however, to defend this brand of skepticism in the face of the impressive strides of science. Both Descartes and Hume attempted to overcome unlimited doubt; and Kant sought to resolve the problems of skepticism and provide secure foundations for scientific knowledge. Since that time science has continued to progress. In the nineteenth century the Darwinian Revolution marked daring new explanations for evolution, and in the early twentieth century astronomy and nuclear physics, quantum mechanics and relativity theory introduced important new explanatory concepts. In the mid to late twentieth century came the discoveries of DNA, the mapping of the human genome, new theories of consciousness, and the growth of the behavioral and computer sciences. This does not deny that some residual skepticism about the meaning of our scientific theories is relevant. We need always to ask: Do our scientific concepts and theories describe something in the real world, are they simply constructs, or are both interpretations most likely applicable?

The key point for contemporary skepticism today is that skeptical doubt is related to inquiry. I have labeled this the new skepticism, for it is positive, not negative, constructive, not deconstructive, contextual, not universal. The philosopher Charles Peirce (1839  1914) pointed out that doubt is an integral part of the process of scientific discovery. We ask questions and seek to answer them, and the most effective way to do so is by using the methods of science, testing hypotheses by experimental verification and inferential logic.

Accordingly, some skepticism is essential in all scientific research. The lesson is clear: we ought to suspend judgment about a claim made until we have sufficient grounds for justifying it. Skepticism and inquiry are integral aspects of the same process; used together they have helped us to develop reliable knowledge. Any claims to knowledge, however, should be amenable to revision in the light of new discoveries of data or the introduction of more comprehensive theories. We need an open mind particularly on the frontiers of knowledge where unconventional or radical theories lay be introduced. Recognizing our fallibility, we should be ever-willing to modify our beliefs that do not stand the tests of objective scrutiny  30th in science and ordinary life.

The Agenda

Several controversial issues have confronted the skeptical movement since its inception.

First, how should we approach such phenomena? Would we simply be debunkers out to show by ridicule the folly of the claims that were made, or should we be serious investigators concerned with research into claims, dispassionate, open-minded inquirers? The answer was clear: We would have an open mind. Our chief focus should on inquiry, not doubt. Where we had investigated a claim and found it wanting, we should express our doubt and perhaps even debunk it, but this would be only after careful investigation.

Second, we asked what would be our relationship to pro-paranormal believers. We observed that there were hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of pro-paranormal magazines and organizations in the world, and that we were virtually the lone dissenting voice in the wilderness, as it were. We would be glad to engage believers in debate, but it would be our research agenda, not theirs. Accordingly, we decided that we wished by and large to pursue our own strategy, namely to encourage exhaustive scientific and skeptical inquiry.

Third, a most interesting development occurred, and this was unexpected: namely that scientific skepticism has become a genuine worldwide movement. Thus skeptical organizations now exist in United Kingdom, France, Germany, Belgium, China, Australia, India, Italy, the Netherlands, Hungary, Czech, Slovakia, Canada, Mexico, and other countries of the world. Today there are some 100 organizations in 40 countries.

We welcome our Russian colleagues and are glad to be working with you on problems common to the scientific community. Since science is international in scope, the critical examination of paranormal claims is also a matter for the global scientific community. This becomes all the more evident as the years go on, as the media has become globalized and paranormal programs and publications are now seen and read virtually everywhere. Accordingly, if we were to really do a service to scientific inquiry and cultivate the public understanding of science and an appreciation for the methods of scientific inquiry and critical thinking, then our efforts should be worldwide. We thus are pleased that Russian scientists and scholars are entering into cooperative dialogue with their colleagues throughout the world about these vital issues.

How Far Can Critical Thinking Be Extended?

Skeptics are committed to critical thinking. We wish to use the best tools of reason and science to evaluate truth claims. We are disturbed by the proliferation of untested paranormal and pseudoscientific claims. We wish to encourage research into these claims and to make this information available to the general public.

Our basic goal is to increase public understanding of science. This means that we wish to develop an appreciation for the methods of inquiry used in science. The methods of science are not esoteric, open only to specialists; they are continuous with common sense, the methods we use in practical life to evaluate claims to truth, and they draw upon factual evidence and reasons to justify them.

An integral part of the process of scientific inquiry is skeptical doubt. This means that if a belief or hypothesis is unsupported by evidence or contradicts a coherent framework of well-established beliefs, or if predictions made on the basis of a belief falsifies it, then we ought to reject the belief, or suspend judgment, and assume the role of the agnostic until it is warranted. If a belief cannot be adequately justified by an objective appeal to evidence and reasons, then so much the worse for the belief.

Although we say we are skeptics, this does not mean that we have closed minds; nor does it mean that we preclude responsible paranormal examinations a priori. On the current scene there are a wide range of paranormal beliefs that are extremely popular  including belief in psychic phenomena, psychic healing, psychic surgery, psychokinesis, ESP, telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, psychic detectives, UFO visitations, and abductions, claims of astrology and varieties of so-called alternative medicine, from therapeutic touch and Qigong to homeopathy. We have called for the rigorous investigation of these claims, and wherever possible, double-blind tests. Inasmuch as we do not think that the lion's share of these extraordinary claims have been adequately tested, we question their truth value.

Although skepticism is essential, in our view, in both science and practical life  it is equivalent to how an educated or reflective mind operates  in no sense are we denying that knowledge is possible. In the history of skepticism, many skeptics were considered to be negative, total rejectionists of the possibility of knowledge. The term skepticism was applied to each and every claim to truth. We do not imply that. We are committed to using the methods of the science; and we maintain that using such methods is the best way that we have for developing knowledge. Thus, unlike classical skepticism, we maintain that there is such a thing as reliable knowledge, both in ordinary life and in the sophisticated fields of science. Accordingly, many of us have preferred to focus on the term inquiry; namely, we wish to engage in inquiry into any number of questions on the borderlines of science. We say that until we investigate or inquire, and find supportive evidence and reasons for a claim, then we ought to suspend judgment. But we never deny the possibility of understanding nature. Thus the new skepticism is constructive and positive, and it leads in the long run to the progressive development of research and knowledge.

The skeptical movement worldwide (now twenty-five years old) has focused on paranormal anomalies and fringe sciences, simply because we did not think there is adequate impartial scientific investigation of these claims. What we are confronted with in the worldwide media is a barrage of pro-paranormal propaganda, in which gurus, psychics, astrologers, seers, prophets and healers, and their pseudoscience advocates, maintain that this, that, or something else is at the edge of a momentous breakthrough. We question these assertions. We say that extraordinary claims require strong evidence  but we find there to be a dearth of such evidence. Thus skeptical organizations throughout the world function as an interdisciplinary cooperative effort of inquirers evaluating these claims. Inasmuch as the media is global, we need a global response. We have had considerable success in our endeavors. Until we came on the scene there were very few if any efforts to test paranormal claims. I think that we can say that more research into the paranormal has been done in the last 25 years than ever before in history.

The central question that I want to raise here is, How far can skepticism and critical thinking be applied in life? The contemporary skeptical movement has by and large confined skepticism, science and critical thinking to a limited area  the paranormal. The reasons for this are practical and strategic, not theoretical. Because of the division of labor, we have developed expertise in this area, and we have brought psychologists, astronomers, philosophers, statisticians, magicians, and a wide range of other researchers, to examine and test paranormal claims. But can critical thinking broadly conceived be applied elsewhere, and, if so, how far and where? We use the term critical thinking synonymously with the method of reason or the method of intelligence, referring to cognitive inquiry. Although the most sophisticated application of critical thinking is exemplified in the sciences, its use surely goes beyond this. Indeed, the methods of critical thinking can be and are applied everywhere in society and life.

Let me reflect on its use in ordinary life. If your car breaks down, you will pull over to the side. You ask what happened and why, perhaps open up the hood; you may find that the battery is dead, that the car is out of oil, or that there is an electrical malfunction. Clearly, to understand what is happening and what can be done about it involves a reflective process. A person may not have sophisticated mechanical training and so his best remedy is to call a tow truck, take it to a garage and have an expert, who is schooled in mechanical problems, diagnose the symptoms and recommend repairs. The same process is used in dentistry. If a person has a toothache, he can try to gargle, or use dental floss, or brush his teeth, and hope that the pain will go away. If it persists, of course, he goes to a dentist, who takes x-rays, tries to determine if the tooth has a cavity, or has decayed, or the nerve has been infected or the gums are diseased. And so again a kind of process of practical thinking occurs. This is the same kind of thinking that happens in the developed sciences where you try to develop a hypothesis or theory, undertake laboratory experiments to test the hypothesis or theory, and appeal to peer review.

I reiterate a question for us is, How far can this method be extended? Bertrand Russell proposed a doctrine that he claimed appears to be widely paradoxical and subversive; namely, that it is undesirable to believe a proposition when there is no ground whatever for supposing it to be true 3. W. K. Clifford, in an influential essay, The Ethics of Belief, summed up his views in a bolder and more sweeping statement: It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence 4. Now both of these philosophers presented normative guides that they thought ought to apply in judging the truth of our beliefs. Perhaps they are too difficult to achieve in practice. The question can still be raised, Can the methods of science and critical thinking be generalized, and can their applications be extrapolated everywhere? Surely they are applied in the natural, biological sciences; where at least in principle, we have evidential criteria for judging their adequacy. Much of this use of skepticism is selective and contextual, applicable thus far to limited fields.

The history of science dramatizes the historic opposition of conservative forces to the advance of science. First, the natural sciences had to battle against theological censorship  but the Copernican Revolution in the end prevailed. Similarly for the extensions to biological science  and the difficult time that the Darwinian Revolution still has in backwater countries such as the United States. An analogous battle is going on about whether the mind, soul, or consciousness can be given a naturalistic explanation. We may further ask, Can critical thinking, science, and skepticism be applied to religion, economics, politics, and ethics?

Religion

No doubt the most controversial issue in the skeptical community at present concerns the question of whether we should apply the methods of skeptical critical inquiry to religion. This is an area, which I submit, is sorely in need of critical examination. CSICOP and other skeptical groups have declared that we would not deal with religion per se, but rather would concentrate on the paranormal. We would only deal with religion insofar as empirical claims are made that are testable. Until five years ago one perhaps could demark paranormal claims from religious claims. Clearly, when we are talking about psychics, we are referring to their alleged psychic powers: ESP, precognition, clairvoyance, etc. Psi phenomena, could be readily distinguished from other forms of religious or quasi-religious phenomena. Similarly in examining UFO sightings and UFO abductions, we were dealing with apparently observable evidence, which astronomers and other scientists could examine with care. Today, however, the lines between the paranormal and religious claims are fudged. For example, there is an enormous amount of interest in the question of communicating with the dead. Parapsychologists and paranormalists have been interested in this question for centuries. Today there is renewed interest, where ghostly sightings, haunted houses, mediums, psychics, channelers and spiritualists maintain that they can put us in touch with spirits in another realm. The term paranormal refers to that which is allegedly over and beyond the normal range of experience. Parapsychologists who used the term paranormal thought that the concepts of the existing experimental science did not apply, and that we needed to develop new para/em> explanations. We have denied that these explanations were para  whatever that meant  we said that we could extend scientific inquiry to examine them. I have recently introduced the term paranatural, because I think that virtually all supernatural claims can likewise be investigated using the methods of science. If we can investigate D. D. Home allegedly levitating over a street in London, or remote viewing at a distance, then we can also investigate the claim that someone is able to communicate with a dead person and is able to bring back messages. Similarly, we can investigate near-death experiences to see whether or not and to what extent these provide evidence for immortality of the soul and/or the existence of discarnate spirits. Past-life regressions and claims of reincarnation of previous existence are also illustrative of an overlap of the paranormal and the paranatural.

Can religion be investigated scientifically? My answer is that it has been investigated scientifically for well over a century, using the tools of psychology, biology, and sociology we can try to unravel religious phenomena in the present. And we can use archaeological, linguistic, and biblical criticism if we are dealing with claims of the past. Accordingly, all question that at least have some empirical basis are capable of careful evaluation. Thus the blithe assumption that religious phenomena transcend the ability of humans to investigate them seems to me to be profoundly mistaken.

One reason why people are reluctant to investigate religion is because it is considered dangerous to do so, for it is apt to provoke severe social disapprobation. Religious skepticism all too often has been vigorously punished. One illustration is what happens in Islamic societies where if one denies any of the historical claims of Mohammed, one is accused of being a blasphemer, and severe sanctions, including the death penalty, may result. That is an extreme illustration, but there are similar kinds of social ostracism, excommunication, and other forms of punishment that have occurred in other societies, including Christian, Judaic, Hindu, etc., where dissent is frowned upon. Should the skeptics movement today deal with religious question in the face of this opposition? Few people worry if we attack psychics and astrologers; they become rabid if we examine the claims of priests and mullahs. We have decided not to do so, except insofar as religious claims have a patently empirical testable content  such as the Shroud of Turin, stigmata, exorcism, claims of miracles, faith healing, etc. But we do not pursue these questions, in my judgment, only because we lack the expertise at present.

Many skeptics go further by agreeing with believers who maintain that religious questions are questions of faith, and that we cannot deal with questions of faith. This seems to me to be a dodge, because one can declare that he or she has faith in anything, and thus seek to exclude it from inquiry. Any claim, in principle at least, can be examined and this should not prevent us from investigating it, though I grant it may be dangerous in certain societies, such as the United States or Saudi Arabia today, to do so. I should add that there are many areas of the science of religion that have made great progress, such as the psychology, sociology or history of religious experience, and biblical archeology and biblical criticism, which provides devastating skeptical critiques of the so-called claims of historic revelation. This knowledge is often unknown to the general public.

Social and Political Policy

Another question that I wish to raise is whether or not scientific investigation and critical thinking can be applied to questions of social and political policy. The answer to this is again in the affirmative. One should not identify science simply with what happens in the physical or chemical or biological laboratory. In the last century and a half there have been a sustained efforts to develop psychology, the social and behavioral sciences in order to understand human behavior; and beyond that to apply this knowledge to human affairs. I think we need to make a distinction between the theoretical sciences, which are concerned with developing hypotheses and theories to causally explain how and why phenomena operate in the way they do, and the applied sciences where we take this knowledge and seek to apply it to concrete cases. Thus we use the theories and principles of the natural sciences in solving problems in engineering  we build bridges and tunnels or construct buildings and skyscrapers. In medicine the principles of biology and disease are applied to specific cases. Doctors seek to diagnose the illness of a patient and provide remedies for the symptoms. Similarly in education, we attempt to use the best scientific knowledge that we have in order to facilitate learning. In politics, we use public-opinion polls, and we examine the consequences and costs of alternative policies. Presumably policies can be changed in the light of critical inquiry. In the past century decision making in economics and the policy sciences have made great advances, and clearly the efforts to apply rational and empirical analyses to social problems have made great strides. There is also, I submit, a desperate social need to evaluate many scams in economics. For example, the gullibility of the public to accept the prophecies and recommendations of Wall Street gurus and investment analysts, or the huge credit rip-off of large banks charging exorbitant interest fees, or the sale of lotteries (you have greater odds of being struck by a bolt of lightning than hitting it big in the lottery), or the foils and entrapments of gambling casinos. Isn't some skeptical thinking essential about these traps for unwary consumers. Someone in our society needs to investigate the claims, if not us.

Ethics and Value Theory

Another area where a great debate has developed, particularly in modern philosophy is about ethics and value theory. The question has been raised, Can we apply science, skeptical inquiry, and critical thinking to ethical questions? Some skeptics  an extreme case are the emotivists and logical positivists  have denied that we can. They maintain that science deals with what is the case, but it cannot deal with what ought to be the case; it deals with descriptive statements not prescriptive or normative judgments. Here, they say, emotion, passion, and feeling play a predominant role. Many philosophers have held this position, from David Hume to early A. J. Ayer of Language, Truth and Logic.

This viewpoint, I submit, has overstated the case. Surely we recognize that in the fields of ethics and politics we do not have the same precision as we have in mathematics and the natural sciences. Nonetheless, I submit that reason does apply to ethics, that there is a logic of judgments of practice, that there are comparative standards for evaluating courses of action, and that we may say that some things are better or worse than other things. We grade courses of action all the time, and we use the best intelligence we can to do so by giving good reasons. Physicians, psychiatrists, educators are constantly involved in decision-making processes and often provide reasoned recommendations. The purpose of education in one sense is to enable people to analyze their choices and decisions and to make reflective ones.

John Dewey, whom many consider to be the leading American philosopher of the twentieth century, made a distinction between prizing, where we say that something is good, bad, right, or wrong, or has value to us, based largely on emotion, and appraisal or apprising, where our judgments are based upon a cognitive reflective investigation and where we seek to judge our choices by reference to a means-end continuum, by examining the conditions under which they emerge, and by testing them in terms of their consequences 5. Similarly, to claim that ethics is immune to reflective criticism, but is in the province of religious faith, is likewise fallacious. Indeed, there is a long tradition in Western civilization from Socrates, Aristotle, and Aquinas down to Kant and Dewey, which maintains that reason and cognition is applicable to ethics. So I suggest that it is indeed possible to apply the methods of critical thinking to ethics. Some would even imply that a scientific approach to ethics is applicable.

The best illustration of this today is the field of medical ethics, a new field perhaps thirty years old, in which physicians, philosophers, health practitioners, and ordinary people engage in a process of evaluation. Reflective inquiry is applied in order to evaluate various courses of treatment. Here the principle of the informed consent of a patient is relevant to determining his course of treatment and has emerged as a basic value. The movement for euthanasia and assisted suicide grew out of this reflective process.

Are There No Limits?

One can ask, Are there limits beyond which science, skeptical inquiry, and critical thinking cannot go? My response is that this is an open question and following the admonitions of Charles Peirce we should not seek to block inquiry by saying that certain things cannot be known beforehand. What I am defending here is methodological naturalism; and this is a normative recommendation. It is based on the recognition that the methods of science and critical thinking have had powerful uses in field after field. And that in comparison with other methods, such as faith, intuition, custom, emotion, authority, or tradition  which are widely used by people to support their beliefs and values  it has made enormous strides. Indeed, the entire process of reflective inquiry, education, and the progress of science, suggests that it is possible to reform our beliefs and to modify our values in the light of critical thinking. This is an ideal which we wish to use, and the test is pragmatic; namely, we cannot say a priorithat this, that, or something else is immune to critical thinking. Thus, we should not prevent or preclude inquiry into the sacred areas of society. The fairest method is an open method of inquiry, in which we seek constantly to apply human ingenuity to understanding nature, ourselves, and solving human problems.

Attacks on Critical Thinking

Today the attacks on critical thinking and science come from many sources. First are the paranormalists who say that certain areas are beyond normal scientific inquiry and that they transcend the ability of human beings to understand them. There is allegedly a paranormal-spiritual realm over and beyond the world of nature. Those of us within the skeptical movement know that this is a questionable extrapolation. We know that claims of the paranormal can, and indeed have been, examined by impartial observers, and that on the basis of inquiry we can end up with naturalistic explanations for abduction, regression, mediumship, etc. In many cases these claims are based upon deception and self-deception  as in the case with channelers and mediums such as John Edwards, Sylvia Browne, and James Van Praagh. Surely we cannot say that anomalous phenomena are a mystery and/or that they are due to an occult causes or miracles. To say this is to confess our ignorance of the causes, but, we say, we wish to keep the doors open to natural explanations.

Second, there are those who argue that supernatural areas are beyond the range of human intelligence and understanding. I submit that paranatural claims are capable of naturalistic inquiry, and that wherever possible we should submit these claims to careful critical investigation, and not shy away from free inquiry. We have illustrated this in the areas of faith healing, which we deny needs any miraculous interpretation.

There is a third area, however, today in which there is a good deal of skepticism about the validity of science especially in the universities. I am here referring to postmodernism, which offers a devastating critique of the methods of science. Modernism and science go hand in hand. In rejecting modernism they reject science. For at least 500 years the methods of science, reason, and critical thinking have had a powerful impact on the planet. It has led to an expansion of our knowledge of the universe and the biosphere and to the great technological applications that have benefited humankind. Yet these are often denigrated by postmodernists.

I wish to deal briefly with some of these criticisms.

(a) One form of this extreme skepticism about the objectivity of science is by philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend and others who have held that there is no method of science, that science does not provide us with objective knowledge, that science is one mythology among others, and that the scientific narrative is no better than any other kind of narrative. Influenced by German philosopher Martin Heidegger, French philosophers such as Derrida have taken up the critique of science.

Postmodernism seems to me to be profoundly mistaken, because we do have reliable knowledge; and on the basis of this knowledge we have been able to explain phenomena, to make predictions, and to create technologies that have had an impact on global civilization. I agree that there is no one method of inquiry; but there are surely strategies of inquiry. I reject the notion that science is subjective or relativistic and insist that its hypotheses and theories are capable of independent verification, and that there are some standards for testing and warranting its principles. Clearly, scientific knowledge is not absolute; it is changing and fallible; it can be modified in the light of new evidence and more comprehensive theories. But to say this does not imply that we have ho knowledge in the sciences. At one point Feyerabend said that astrology was as true as astronomy. Martin Gardner replied, he would only believe this only if astrologers could make predictions on the basis of their horoscopes, and if witches could fly on their broomsticks. He prefers the observed data and confirmed theories of astronomy to those of astrology.

(b) Another form of the postmodernist critique is multiculturalism. I recently lectured at Iowa State University. I was surprised when an anthropologist in the audience got up and attacked my defense of scientific inquiry. He said that primitive cultures were as true in their pictures of the universe as scientific culture. He indicted modern science because it expressed the dogmas and biases of Anglo-Saxon white males. It left out the insights of African culture and the feminist outlook; therefore, he insisted, we have to be open to alternative perspectives. My response was that although it is the case that the culture context in which explanations emerge are relevant to understanding them, that gender and ethnicity undoubtedly color our interpretations, and that we need to appreciate the pluralistic insights of many cultures (regretfully, Western colonialism often rejected the customs of the lands that they occupied), nonetheless, science is an effort to provide objective grounds for claims, and this transcends the limits of culture. Indeed, science is universal; it is an expression of world civilization. Whether we come from India or China, Japan or England, the United States or Russia, Latin America or Africa, we are still dealing with a common world and the methods of scientific inquiry are effective everywhere. Information technology, antibiotics, the principles of mechanics and mathematics, apply to all sectors of the planetary society  it is not simply a Western male-dominated outlook. The proof of the pudding is in its eating.

Conclusion

To say that we ought to extend the methods of critical thinking is to make a normative proposal. We are suggesting that the methods of inquiry that have been successful in science and technology and have transformed the globe, ought to be applied elsewhere. We need to use them  as we have  to investigate paranormal claims. But they can and indeed should be used in religion, ethics, economics, politics, the social sciences, and in ordinary life as well.

Given the division of labor, I am not suggesting that we transform the present skeptical movement  which has focused on paranormal and fringe science  so that it deals with all questions; but mere suggesting that the methods that we have used so effectively in our own area of expertise, should be used by others in the various areas of human interest. Again I am not talking about negative or totalistic skepticism, but the selective and constructive application of skeptical inquiry into a wide range of human interests as a source of reliable knowledge and practical wisdom.

Our motto is that we wish to apply reason, science, and free inquiry to every field of human interest. I can find no overriding reason why we can not.


Erich Von Daniken, Chariots of the Gods? (London: Souvenir; New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1969).

Immanuel Velikovsky, Worlds in Collision (New York: Macmillan, 1950).

Bertrand Russell, Skeptical Essays (London: Allyn and Unwin, 1928), p. 11.

W. K. Clifford, Contemporary Review, 1887. See also his Ethics of Belief and Other Essays (London: Watts, 1947).

John Dewey, The Theory of Value and Valuation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1939); The Quest for Certainty (New York: Milton, Balck, 1929), chapter 10.

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