Top Skeptic’s Commencement Speech

Here’s an amusing commencement speech from Michael Shermer, the founder of the Skeptic’s Society.

The Meaning of Life, the Universe, and Everything

Of course, I agree with the man on most points and find his speech highly interesting and entertaining. However, there is one point on which I would like to disagree. Dr. Shermer quotes a bumper sticker, that reads, “MILITANT AGNOSTIC: I DON’T KNOW AND YOU DON’T EITHER”.

Presumably, he believes this to be the skeptic’s default stance. However, in this case, I think he has failed to exhibit true skepticism. It is my opinion that a true skeptic would require credible information in order to give credence to an hypothesis. For example, I do not believe a skeptic would truly consider the possibility that there are elusive fire-breathing dragons somewhere on earth.

It is my strong opinion that a skeptic would require a shred of evidence in order to give any credence to such a possibility. Skeptics doubt. That is the defining characteristic. I think that when presented with a claim, a skeptic’s first response would be doubt. This might be expressed as “why should I believe that?”

Such is the case for god.

When I hear claims of the existence of god, my response is “why should I believe that?” It may be expressed as “show me the evidence.” Either way, there is no evidence. There is not even reason to postulate the existence of god.

So, enjoy reading the speech. I hope you find it informative, educational, and entertaining. However, when you get to this one small subsection which is definitively not the main point of the article, read it with the skepticism that Shermer himself would advocate. Ask for yourself whether you feel there is enough reason to even consider the hypothesis of god. Ask for yourself what is the skeptical position on the subject of god.


6 Responses to Top Skeptic’s Commencement Speech

  1. bobbo says:

    That was a nice little read, thanks for posting it Scott.

    I’ll confirm what you already said–definition of agnostic. I lean your way too but must concede its entirely definitional?

    Your position and mine could even be called: “Preconditionalist” in that there must be “some evidence” before a belief system even applies, as in “I believe” or “I am agnostic” or “Its an established (provisional) fact.”

    Belief without evidence I think is “faith?” And I was thinking that status arises 99.99% of the time thru communication from a person or book rather than direct experience/evidence?

    Experience, aka, scientific method.

    Good to think about these things from time to time.

  2. I agree bobbo. For an example of something where there is enough evidence (actually just barely enough) to give me reason to be agnostic, see String Hypothesis. I don’t personally like to call it a theory because I think it’s not nearly at that level yet. AFAIK, there are two main reasons to give some thought to String Hypothesis at this point. 1) The scientists had not yet gotten around to trying to work in gravity to the equations and it just popped out of them, i.e. might have predicted gravity had we not already known about it. 2) It predicted the glueball, a particle made of one or more gluons with the ends of their strings touching and making a circle. The glueball is listed among the standard particles. So, that would be an example of something for which there is a shred or two of evidence and some real reason for consideration. The God Hypothesis does not have even a shred of evidence in support, so I take it as false.

  3. bobbo says:

    You take the god hypothesis as false? How can you do that when there is not a shread of evidence either way? Go back to your own definition.

    I think you mean to say the god hypothesis does not rise to the level of a “true” or scientific hypothesis? False being to overread it.

    Hypothetical: there is life on other planets. There is not a shread of evidence either way. Is it false? Or not a true hypothetical or just a hypothetical with no evidence for it? How does agnosticism fit in his hypo?

    Well, “I Believe” there is no god, and there is life on other planets. No proof for either one. Go figure.

  4. bobbo,

    Are you kidding? After all of those arguments you’ve had with Mister Mustard over on Dvorak Uncensored, you can say that?

    I believe there is no Santa Clause.
    I believe there is no Zeus.
    I believe there is no teapot orbiting around the sun between Earth and Mars.
    I believe there are no ghosts.
    I believe there are no flying unicorns, at least on Earth.
    I believe there are no gods.

    All of these statements are equal to me and have the same reason behind them.

    As for life on other planets, there is evidence that at least one planet in the universe has life on it. So, life on other planets becomes not an extraordinary claim, as supernatural creatures are. I know of no reason to believe there is life on other planets. However, there is evidence of the basics of organic chemistry from space. So, life may exist elsewhere.

    Given how quickly single celled life evolved on this planet, there is a shred of evidence to believe that life may exist everywhere conditions are conducive to it. Europa may be able to give us the answer to that. Multicellular life, on the other hand, took 4 billion years to occur. So, perhaps it is very unlikely.

    However, the real thing to keep in mind is that life on this planet is indeed proof positive that there is life in the universe. So, now it is a question of how much there is, not whether it exists at all. Does that make sense? Does that make life in the universe a different question than god(s) in the universe?

  5. bobbo says:

    No, I don’t keep in mind every argument with Mustard. (Poor soul!)

    My statement was life on OTHER planets.

    Just trying to tease out the difference if any between being a skeptic vs agnostic vs preconditionalist. Slim pickings so I’ll leave it unless something else comes to mind.

  6. bobbo,

    My statement was about life on other planets too. I’ll try to reword it and see if it makes sense yet.

    There is life on THIS planet. Therefore, there is life in the universe. Therefore, life on other planets is a real possibility. I think life that creates radio waves may be fairly unusual given the length of time it took before we did and the likelihood that we will kill ourselves off with our technology. But, life in general, especially unicellular life, is probably likely to exist elsewhere. If it ends up existing on Europa, it will be strong evidence that it may be almost everywhere it can be.

    God on the other hand is something for which there is no evidence anywhere in the universe. And, logic even dictates that were one or more gods to exist, especially prior to the start of this universe, we would need to take a long and serious look into the subject of god origins.

    As yet, not only is there no theory to explain the pre-existence of god, there is no evidence to support the claim that any such creatures exist. So, even the skeptical position is to look at the data (none) and say that there is no such thing. If a shred of evidence miraculously (literally) appears, then I will change my opinion. Thus far, despite searching for thousands of years, no such evidence is forthcoming.

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