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Rationally Speaking
a monthly e-column by
Dr. Massimo Pigliucci

Author Biography      Column Index
# 63 July 2005 OK! I changed my mind (three times!) Join Discussion

As regular readers of this column know, I occasionally try to debunk the myth that skeptics are just a bunch of curmudgeons and naysayers, people who have a strong psychological need to feel superior and always right. As a small contribution to this demystification, let me tell you about not one, not two, but three (!!) instances in which I changed my mind about issues of concern to freethinkers and skeptics, and in the process try to learn when it is in fact reasonable to change opinion.




The first example is the most important from the point of view of my personal philosophy, and in fact it does concern an apparently subtle -- yet crucial -- philosophical point. A few years ago, the National Association of Biology Teachers changed their definition of "evolution" in a way that avoided any reference to the absence of undirected causes guiding natural selection. The change was prompted by complaints by prominent theologians, such as Alvin Plantinga, but was also endorsed by secular scientists such as National Center for Science Education's Eugenie Scott. I was outraged, and wrote a scathing letter to the NABT (and to Scott, I didn't bother writing to Plantinga), to the effect that this was setting a worrisome precedent of an educational organization caving in to religious pressure. My friend Genie Scott tried to explain to me that the change in wording was based on the distinction between philosophical and methodological naturalism.

Naturalism is the position that the world can be understood in natural (as opposed to supernatural) terms, and has become a focus for the wrath of creationists, which accuse scientists of attempting to sneak atheism into public education. But this accusation confuses the two forms of naturalism: a philosophical naturalist is, indeed, an atheist (or other non-religious individual), because that person has concluded (often based on reasoning informed by science) that there is, in fact, no such thing as the supernatural. Science does not need to make that bold philosophical claim, because it has the option of adopting methodological naturalism, i.e. a provisional and pragmatic position that all we need in order to understand reality is natural laws and phenomena. The supernatural may exist, but it does not necessary for explanatory purposes. The beauty of this distinction is that it shields science from the creationist accusation of being just another religion. Ironically, one can easily show that most human beings, most of the times, behave as methodological naturalists, including creationists! Say, for example, that your car doesn't want to start this morning. What do you do? You will likely not pray or ask your preacher, you will go to a mechanic. That is, you are assuming that there must be a natural explanation for the break down. Moreover, even if the mechanic will not be able to identify the problem and solve it, you will go and buy a new car with the conviction that there must have been a logical explanation for the break down, but that insufficient data were available to both you and your mechanic to pinpoint the problem. That is exactly the way science works, and it's a beauty.

At the time of the NABT controversy I thought that invoking the distinction between philosophical and methodological naturalism was a cop out, and I rebelled against it. Some of my colleagues, most notably Richard Dawkins, still think that way (he often refers to situations like these as instances of "intellectual bankruptcy"), but I have changed my mind. While I still think the NABT should have considered the matter independently of the interference of theologians (at least part of the motivation for the change was pragmatic, not philosophical), I owe an apology to my friend Genie: she was right, I was wrong. Of course, I am both a methodological and a philosophical naturalist, and I do see a logical connection between the two. But such connection is neither necessary nor a result of scientific evidence (pace Dawkins).

The second instance I wish to discuss also relates to the never-ending battle against creationism. When I first got involved in it, soon after having moved to the University of Tennessee (near the site of the infamous Scopes trial) in 1996, I began debating creationists in public. I have since done several debates against most of the major figures of that bizarre cultural movement (including Duane Gish, Ken Hovind, Jonathan Wells, and William Dembski, to name a few). But the number of debates I have engaged in has diminished to a trickle over the years, reflecting a change of heart I have had about the whole approach. Once again, Genie Scott was right (and, this time, on the same side of Dawkins!): debating head-to-head against creationists is a bad idea because most debate formats favor sound bites, and sound bites are easier and more effective for people who wish to attack science than for those who want to defend it. It is relatively easy to throw hundreds of apparently damning questions to a scientist in the span of a few minutes; it is very difficult for a scientist to seriously address even a few of those or, more importantly, to explain to the public how science really works (as opposed to the caricature presented by creationists). This is not to say that scientists shouldn't be engaged in the public arena to counter creationist claims; indeed, even Scott agrees that some public forums are acceptable for two-way encounters (usually media appearances with a truly neutral host and a conversational, rather than confrontational style). But the best strategy we have is to talk to the public directly, on our terms, and using the arsenal of tools available to science educators. So, please, don't call me again for future debates, OK?

Lastly, let's talk about this "Brights" thing. As some readers may know, the Brights are a recently emerged movement within the general area of freethought. Brights decided to call themselves that way because they (rightly) realized that most other terms (e.g., atheist, skeptic, etc.) tend to carry negative connotations that contribute to stigmatize non religious people and justify discrimination against them. So, the proponents of the Brights movement said, why not emulate the success of the Gay community and use a positive word to describe who we are? The initial response from many authors (including myself, in an earlier Rationally Speaking column) was very positive, even enthusiastic in the case of Dan Dennett and Richard Dawkins. The problem, of course, was pointed out immediately, and even the brave proponents of the Brights movement themselves acknowledged it and wrestled with it: going around affirming one's "Brightness" (even capitalized, as a noun, rather than in small letters, as an adjective) isn't exactly the best way to diffuse the image of intellectual snobbery that afflicts skeptics and freethinkers (the latter being another word of questionable usefulness in this context). Indeed, I have never actually introduced myself as a Bright to anybody. Therefore, while I wish the Brights the best future I can imagine, I'm no longer sure it was such a bright idea.

These three instances show not just that skeptics can and in fact do change their mind about issues. More importantly, it shows that such changes occur after careful consideration of arguments (and, where appropriate, empirical evidence). Changing one's mind is not a virtue in and of itself, because it can happen for very bad, or at least superficial, reasons. As Carl Sagan once put it, be careful not to be so open minded that your brain falls off! On the other hand, maintaining a position for the sake of consistency, or out of sheer stubbornness, negates the very essence of what David Hume called "positive skepticism." One last warning: I am open to change my mind again on any of the three issues discussed above, should new good arguments or evidence come my way...

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