June 8, 2010

B. Alan Wallace and his Criticism of Skeptics

Hi, I hope you've all had a good weekend. It was my birthday over the weekend and I had a pretty good time, but at the same time found something I had to post about. Criticism of skeptics always interests me, whether it is someone saying that they aren't open minded or that they are really denialists, but B. Alan Wallace takes aim at skeptics 'faith' in what science has already proven. A quote from him that he used on Skeptico episode 23, is that, " They [skeptics] are skeptical of other things but not of their own beliefs, scientific materialists are as skeptical as religious fundamentalists."

Well I'm really not afraid to characterize myself as both a skeptic and a scientific materialist, given what the evidence has shown so far and as soon as some evidence, that meets the burden of proof, comes along to show that there is more than materialism to the universe than I will consider it and possibility change my opinion on the matter. Now that that is out of the way, I'll just summarize Wallace's opinion that he presents on Skeptico episode 23, and on The Skeptics Guide to the Universe Episode 73.

Wallace's main point can be summed up by the quote on the Skeptico episode 23 page where he is noted as saying, " This is what bothers me about many of the so called skeptics, they are defending the status quo, which doesn’t take a whole lot of guts frankly. They are about as skeptical as Billy Gramm.” He goes on to further say that, " The greatest impediment to scientific progress is not ignorance, but the illusion of knowledge, the belief that something is known."  

Before I talk about those quotes I'll just reference part of the conversation Steve Novella had with Wallace on the Skeptics Guide to the Universe, that really goes along the same lines as what has already been stated. Some parts of the conversation have been skipped and some ideas have been slimmed down, but I haven't changed the meanings of anything either person said.

Novella – No one has demonstrated the quantum effects are meaningful at the level of the brain.
Wallace – I thought you folks were skeptics and you should be skeptical of that point.
Wallace – You demonstrated a complete lack of skepticism when you said that we know that quantum mechanics doesn’t play a part in brain function.
Novella – I did not say that. I said so far no one has demonstrated that quantum mechanics have any effect on brain function. There are no mysteries that we need to go beyond the brain model to solve.
Wallace – I find that profoundly unskeptical.
Novella – It’s not unskeptical. What’s the mystery?
Wallace – I’ll go back a bit and you call tell me what demonstrates an equivalent rather than a causal relationship between brain function and subjective experience.  
Novella – That is inappropriately shifting the burden. Can you show me an example where consciousness can exist outside of brain function?
The topic then is shifted, and gets more in depth about brain function and I encourage it to be listened to but those are the points I really want to talk about. 
What is really telling from the summation of what Wallace has said is that he has either taken the view that 1. That the past evidence doesn't mean anything or 2. That people should surround themselves in hyperbolic doubt rather than a reasonable level of doubt. 
I say this because with 1. he can write off the fact that Steve Novella asks him constantly about evidence and he either changes the subject or fails to provide that evidence, but still holds his view. This first position would also allow him to say you aren't being skeptical, not questioning that idea, because the evidence for that idea is besides the point for Wallace. No amount of evidence would convince Wallace of anything.
Which really leads into the second point that Wallace may live in a world of the hyperbolic doubt described by Descartes. This means that it is possible that everything we know is wrong and you really can't trust anything, so any beliefs you come to are just as likely to be true. 
The problem with either Wallace view is that science has been able to make predictions about the future, and has proven to be reliable enough to put trust into. Evidence does matter and hyperbolic doubt isn't necessary. This is not trust in any individual scientist, but trust in scientific consensus and the methods of science.  
That leaves Wallace's criticism that skeptics aren't being skeptical of scientific evidence, really without warrant. Skeptics have found the most reliable knowledge and method and have taken that as a starting point. They can still doubt science, especially where there is some controversy between the results/interpretation of results, but they don't have to have hyperbolic doubt about every fact just like people trust gravity by not leaving their homes via the window.

This is where I'd just like to make one point through an example with the use of evolution. A person can look at the topic of evolution and either believe that all the evidence is wrong for or has been misinterpreted by many different fields for evolution; They are in the midst of a conspiracy of gigantic proportions to convince people of evolution, or they can hold the view that what all the evidence points to seems to be consistent and able to make sense of all the given information. One view just seems more reasonable to me than the other. There is no reason to seriously doubt evolution given what is known today and to suggest that people aren't being skeptical if they don't doubt evolution doesn't follow. They have already taken a look into the issue and made a decision based on evidence, as any good skeptic should.

Thanks for reading
-The moral skeptic 


  1. Indeed. I really enjoyed the B. Alan Wallace interview in SGU podcast #73. Mostly because I love a good fight.

    Wallace is clearly very intelligent and articulate. He didn't run rings around Steve, but the digression was painful at times, trying to follow the shifting claims and rebuttal. Actually I think around 3/4 of the way through the interview either I lost track or Steve lost track of what was being argued, and it went a bit downhill from there. That guy is slippery as a snake, and close to the end I heard somebody saying "Oh, man!" in frustration. I think it was either Jay or Bob (hard to tell the difference between Jay, Bob and Evan on the podcast).

    The root of Wallace's argument is that there's some component to consciousness which is non-physical, and our physical brains use that. Steve's point, quite rightly, was that there is no evidence out there which indicates this, and that the evidence we do have indicates that such a duality is unnecessary.

    I'd go further and say that we don't yet understand how functioning neurons (and the other brain structures) result in consciousness and sentience but there is no indication yet that we won't eventually understand that, and furthermore we believe the neuronal model is powerful enough to implement the observed features.

    Steve Novella did respond much more thoroughly on his Neurologica blog than I have done above. It's a good read.

    I was surprised in Podcast 73 after the interview nobody commented. One reason may have been that the interview ran way too long, and there wasn't time to talk about it any more. Another reason may be that Steve edited out all the post-interview swearing and, at the end, nothing was left!

  2. Yeah I think they also didn't want to talk after the podcast and make it seem like they were keeping the conversation going without including Wallace in it.

    They were kind of accused of doing that with Neil Adams, so I think they wanted to avoid it.

    Thanks for the lengthy and well written comment.

  3. Well said, Mr Odds. Very good summarized fight between Novella and Wallace. What is intriguing at the beginning of that podcast is re-thinking about those basis skeptics take and, from my point of view not knowing where he came from, Wallace seem to begin shaking the whole structure but he fails miserably in the end.

  4. Wallace questions the materialistic view point, which all sientific evidence is based on. So, obviously he will not be convinced by evidence drawn from methods based on this materalistic view point.

    Sorry for the poor English, btw, I'm Norwegian.