Paul Kurtz – Skepticism of the Third Kind

March 10, 2006

Paul Kurtz, considered the father of the secular humanist movement and a founder of the worldwide skeptic movement, is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo. As chair of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), the Council for Secular Humanism, and Prometheus Books, and as editor-in-chief of Free Inquiry magazine, he has advanced a critical, skeptical inquiry into many of the most cherished beliefs of society for the last forty years. He is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and has been featured very widely in the media, on topics as diverse as reincarnation, UFO abduction, secular versus religious ethics, communication with the dead, and the historicity of Jesus.

In this interview with DJ Grothe, Paul explores the history of skepticism, defines various types of skepticism, and highlights what he calls “skepticism of the third kind”.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, March 10th, 2006. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry. I’m DJ Grothe a point of inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank affiliated with the State University of New York at Buffalo with branches in Manhattan, Tampa and Hollywood. Each week on point of inquiry, we look at some of the most central assumptions of our culture, focusing on three research areas first, pseudoscience and the paranormal. Second, alternative medicine. And third, secularism and religion. We do this by drawing on CFI as relationship with the leading minds of the day, including Nobel Prize winning scientists, public intellectuals, social critics and thinkers and renowned entertainers. On today’s point of inquiry, I speak with Paul Kurts, founder of CFI, about what he calls skepticism of the third kind. But first, Tom Flynn asks, did you know? 

Did you know that the English word skeptic is derived originally from the Greek word skeptic’s Thai, which means to examine carefully? Did you know who said skeptic does not mean he who doubts, but him, who investigates or researches as opposed to he who asserts and thinks that he has found it was the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno in 1924. Did you know that in addition to the Center for Inquiry is growing network of CFI communities in cities across the United States? There are almost 100 local skeptical organizations around the world supported by SYK Up the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. A group which is headquartered at the Center for Inquiry. For Details or to get involved with the skeptic group in your city, go to w w w dot Saika dot org. That’s c s i c o p dot org. And click on International Network of Skeptical Organizations. 

Hi, I’m Barry Carr, executive director of Psych up here at the Center for Inquiry. We’re celebrating our 30th anniversary this year, making the world safe for science and skepticism and dealing with fringe science and paranormal claims. We publish what I think is an essential magazine, The Skeptical Inquirer. This is the magazine for Science and Reason. The March April issue is now on the bookshelves and can be ordered online at w w w psych up. That’s CSICOP dot org. Or about calling our toll free number one 800 six three four one six one zero. Subscribing to the Skeptical Inquirer helps us continue to advance science and reason in our society that I’m so sure that you love this magazine. They don’t want you to have a complementary issue. To see what we’re all about. To get your sample, copy the Skeptical Inquirer. Just call one 800 six three four one six one zero. You mentioned the point of inquiry podcast and ask us for your free copy. We’ll get it right out to you and you can begin enjoying skeptical inquire. Thank you. 

It’s a pleasure for me to be joined in the studio of Point of Inquiry today by Paul Kurtz, again considered the father of the secular humanist movement, also a founder of the worldwide skeptic movement. He is professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo. As chair of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal that psych up the Council for Secular Humanism and Prometheus Books and is editor in Chief of Free Inquiry Magazine. He’s advanced a critical, a skeptical inquiry into many of the most sacred cow beliefs of our society for over the last 40 years. He’s a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and has been featured very widely in the media on topics as diverse as reincarnation, UFO abduction, secular versus religious ethics, communication with the dead and on and on. In this discussion today, Paul is going to explore with me skepticism. Let’s begin, Paul, by defining what is skepticism. 

Well, very nice to be on your program again, D.J. skepticism is something that it’s urgently needed. In the United States and various parts of the world today. It’s the best therapy against nonsense. And we’re overwhelmed by nincompoop, free and gullibility. 

And so the skeptical attitude, the reflective mind is essential for any educated person. 

Does skepticism mean that you have to be a sourpuss or curmudgeonly person who just doesn’t believe in anything and is always grouchy about any claim? 

As a matter of fact, no, indeed. I think the best form of skepticism is wit. Because a comic is able to see the illogic of people’s actions and beliefs. So no idea. In fact, some people get angry at me. They say I’m a Ghostbuster and I’m killing all the joy in life. No, I think it’s fun to point out the fallacies of the sacred cows in society. And that’s humorous. Of course, they don’t like humor. 

So I’m not a sourpuss. So as sweet puts, you’re a sweet puss. I’ll quote you on that. So skepticism does not equal cynicism? 

Not at all. You know, the term skepticism comes from the Greek term skeptic coast to doubt or to question and to inquire. And I think doubting is the beginning of all inquiry and the beginning of knowledge. And it’s essential for anyone who wants to develop his understanding and appreciation for what we learn about the world. OK, so doubting is the beginning. It’s surely not the end. Bill, it’s not the end. That’s the key point. It’s the beginning of inquiry. But one should not get mired in doubt and then say, oh, no knowledge is possible, as some extreme skeptics have said historically, before we get into the discussion about skepticism and its definitions, its history. 

I’d like to let our listeners know that you could get a discounted copy of Paul Kurtz’s books, The New Skepticism and Skepticism and Humanism at Point of Inquiry dot org. So let’s get into this. Paul, do you think that people believe more in the paranormal and the supernatural these days or less? I mean, would you say that all the work that you’ve done over the past 30 years at PSI COP and the Center for Inquiry and the work that people like James Randi, Carl Sagan and others have done? Has that work turned the tide? Do people believe in it less now than ever before? 

You know, sometimes I feel like the little Dutch boy putting his thumb into a hole in the dike and that the whole thing is going to overwhelm us. I think the tide of irrational believes continues throughout human history and that there are always new, irrational, outrageous polices replacing others. So I think skepticism is essential. You simply can’t refute quotes, debunk, explain something and then go home. No unique, constant gadflies. That was the role of Socrates out there examining claimed and trying to find out if they’re true or false. 

So would you say that the belief in the paranormal is on the upsurge worldwide? Are these faith healers growing in Eastern Europe? Alternative medicine hucksters in Mexico brought to light recently because the events surrounding Coretta Scott King’s death, that was unfortunate when so many people have taken in and as very dangerous in the area of medicine. 

I think that the I founded the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the paranormal along with others in 1976. At that time, there was a high tide of belief in how astrology you have. Biology and psychic phenomena, monsters of the deep. And I think we made an important contribution because we sought alternative, prosaic, natural explanations of this phenomena. 

Yes. So we made progress in that area. But the worse not done, the work’s never done. Memory is short. There’s always the new generation. And so, you know, I’ve said many times I feel like I’m shooting at unsinkable rubber ducks at a carnival. You shoot it down once it comes up again. So you have this constant task of examining claims ever, you know, in a fair minded, open minded and particularly for the lovely new generation emerge with with questions about everything. Yeah. You always need a gadfly presence. 

Now, people may hate him or her. They ask the wrong question at the wrong time. But we ask define what you mean. Why do you say that? What are they. What’s the evidence and what’s the reason? And that’s the role of the doubter. 

OK, so let’s get on to the definition of skepticism. You’ve written that there are three kinds of skepticism. What are they? Well, if you look at skepticism historically, it began in ancient Hellenic civilization of Greece. 

And then there was a school of skepticism in Rome borrowing from the Romans. And that was, if you will, complete skepticism. One form of that pyro of Ellos and Sextus empirics. In other words, people thought there was no such thing as knowledge. You could know it was true or false or no such thing as moral values. So that, let’s say the first kind is, if you will, complete skepticism. That’s one form. 

And is the reincarnation of that kind of radical doubt these days in the academy? Postmodernism. 

Yes. Postmodernists are skeptical about many things that I would not be skeptical of, particularly modern science. But so you have that throughout history. You have the people who say, I can’t accept anything is true. And incomplete indecision leads to nil ism and that it becomes pathological, which you can’t live that way. 

These radical skeptics of all knowledge reject that. 

Anything can be done. Yeah. Yeah. And it’s a phase. And, you know, the best illustration of that is Rene Descartes. People said he used to put the cart before the horse, but the Carter was the famous French philosopher in the 17th century. And he said that he began by doubting everything, denying that he exists, that God exists, that there is an external world. Then he tries to reconstruct knowledge. So some people do go through that phase. And I think some kind of, if you will, of exhausting skepticism sometimes is essentially human history. But that’s only the first phase. You can’t stop there. What’s the second? The second is what has been called. I’ve called in my book The New Skepticism, and others have called it mitigated or hypothetical skepticism. 

And David Hume, that wonderful Scotch philosopher, the greatest of the figures of the English enlightenment, David Hume said, When I go down and I try to pursue the nature of knowledge to the end, I cannot get anywhere. I reach an impasse. I don’t know what’s true, what’s real. But then he says, When I go down to meet my friends and we’d drink something at the pub and we get involved in discussions and we play cards or what have you. Then I come back into the real world. So in other words, even if sometimes the ultimate nature of reality is unknown, we have to live and act as if it’s true and we make predictions. Yes. So we do have knowledge. 

So he was saying something like, even if you’re a radical skeptic, you’re not going to step in front of a bus. Yes. Or a horse and cart. Buggy. 

Exactly. You’ll have to live and act. And even though there’s a kind of skepticism about the ultimate nature of reality, still, we live in the finite world and we make choices and have to act upon the best knowledge we have. 

That’s the second kind of skepticism you’ve written about, the third kind of skepticism you’ve called it, I guess, after Close Encounters of the third kind, skepticism of the third kind. He has close encounters of the third kind is meeting creature to meet his face. I’m skeptical about it, but no, I’m talking about this. 

Third kind of skepticism is essential for the reflective mind. It’s the mark of the educated person. Namely, you can’t accept everything at face value. You have to be willing to doubt and in fact, you have to stimulate inquiry. So the main point is the quest for knowledge inquiry. And you begin afresh, if you will. 

Right. You’ve called this not just skepticism. It’s skeptical. Inquiry. Inquiry. Yes, not doubt, it’s not skepticism, it’s an active seeking after the truth. 

Well stated. And so inquiry is the key notion, not doubt. But that’s part of it. But the inquiry investigating, searching for knowledge. The open mind willing to explore and discover what’s out there. Yes. 

And so one of the magazines we publish here is called Skeptical Inquirer. Not the skeptic. Not the doubter. But to emphasize an active seeking after the truth. 

Yes. I think many people allied to what I what has been called a skeptical movement, which I in one sense helped to generate. Call her magazine skeptic. I think that’s a mistake because we’re more than skeptics. In other words, there is such a thing as reliable knowledge, and the relationship of skepticism to science is basic. 

Skeptical doubt is part of the scientific method and the great discoveries that we’ve made is because first we questioned, we questioned assumptions, we questioned theories and hypotheses. But then we go on and test them and confirmed them. Inquiry is key. 

Inquiry is key. Yes. Yes. And many people don’t want to inquire. As I said earlier, we’re surrounded by great number of irrational beliefs, by nonsense, by gullibility. Many people swallow hook, line and sinker. And you see this, you know, the great need for skepticism is in the area of politics, particularly in America today, where the public is taken in by political propaganda spewed out on cable networks without reflection. And so you have to be very skeptical of the those who want to sell a political bill of goods. Yes. And that’s one illustration. Of course, the best illustration is religion. Yeah. 

Well, in fact, in the history, the skeptical enterprise, you you’ve kind of divided up the work between looking at the paranormal psychopathy. One of the organizations here at Center for Inquiry used skeptical inquiry to just look at claims of UFOs, things that go off of the paranormal, things that go bump in the night, ghosts, cryptozoology. 

And that term paranormal was borrowed from the parapsychologists. Who said that then? You can’t explain this phenomenon in terms of empirical science. So you need something besides science. You say Para is an addition to beyond the noise on normal. And so we said, well, wait a minute, let’s look. So we looked we investigate the E.S.P and clairvoyance and telepathy and all these other so-called PEMRA claims. And we found, I think, causal explanations, perfectly natural and normal phenomena, which led us to doubt many of the basic assumptions of parapsychology. 

But then especially the history of all of this, the contemporary skeptical movement looking at religious claims was another matter, I guess, because Psycho had what maybe religious supporters who still wanted to look at UFOs and psychics but didn’t want to question the existence of God. On the other hand, there was the Council for Secular Humanism, which, in addition to promoting non-religious, kind of an ethical worldview, also looked skeptically at religious claims. Why was there this initial division of labor? 

Yes, there is something about the United States of America today in which people are very fearful or very reticent about questioning religious claims. Now, maybe there’s something positive about that. We ought to tolerate all points of view. Therefore, should we tolerate the Scientologists who believe in to be in your contract for reincarnation, tolerate a Muslim terrorists, tolerate every sect. 

There are over 2000 United States. Anything goes. Anything is true. And so my answer is no. We need to question. It’s very important that we do so. 

But but our friends in the skeptical movement, many of whom were atheists, thought we should not examine the claims of religion, faith, healing, the Shroud of Turin or any other such revelation. And I said, though, look, skepticism is a method of inquiry used in the sciences. It’s the mark of the intelligent, educated person. So we ought to be prepared to apply this powerful tool everywhere, including politics and economics and morality and especially religion. And that’s what free inquiry did. 

I’d like to remind our listeners again that you can purchase a copy, a discounted copy of Paul Curtsies Books. The new skepticism and skepticism and humanism at point of inquiry dot org. Has it become more acceptable to look into religion skeptically these days? 

Well, I think it depends on where you were in various parts of the world. People do question religion. But in the United States, for a variety of sociological reasons, they do not. But I think people are now confounded by the conflict of religious beliefs. If you don’t criticize religion, then who is true? Muhammad receiving revelations from Gabriel or Jesus or Moses or Joe Smith, the founder of Mormonism. 

So in other words, it seems to me that the intelligent person should be prepared to raise questions in every area and not considered blasphemous to do so. 

So no questions should be off limit. No issues should be taboo. 

I think I’m prepared to say that yes and no. I agree that it’s the right. I’m in a right place. If you’re at a lovely cocktail party, then you may not want to raise the most profound questions before the hostess. So it depends. 

But I think that, yes, set in a free, open society and an obligation to science, we ought to be prepared to raise questions even if they are uncomfortable. They you know, that may be dangerous. 

Well, as his evinced by some of the world’s leading skeptics of Islam, they ride under pseudonyms. Our own Ivan walks rights under a pseudonym for fear of his safety of a fatwa. 

But, of course, it goes back to Socrates, the first great father free inquiry who was condemned to death by the Athenians for questioning the good corrupting the youth of Athens, making the better appear of the Wirth’s divine. 

She also by Jesus. Remember, Jesus was condemned ever to accept the account of the New Testament by the elders of the temple because he was questioning the. The Old Testament that that time he accepted the Old Testament. And he was bringing forth a new religion. So those on the frontiers often suffer from the establishment when they raise serious questions. 

Of course, the charges leveled against Socrates were, well, we think they are false charges. He wasn’t corrupting the youth. He wasn’t questioning what is good. He was instead encouraging people to ask for themselves why they believe what they believe. 

But the Athenians didn’t accept that. And he was condemned to death. He drank the hemlock. It was a close vote. He set a close vote. He tried to persuade them. But in any case. So that the great tribute historically is to Bruno, who was burned at the stake and Galileo was placed under house arrest. And now Charles Darwin, long after he died, his beliefs have been thoroughly rejected by large sectors of population. So you ought to be prepared to question. On the other hand, you ought to find reasons and evidence. Look, the point I would make is skeptics are not negative. We’re not naysayers. We’re not debunkers. We’re not cynics or nationalists. We do want to oppose hypocrisy and can’t. Deception and illusion. And we emphasized the need for the tests of evidence and rationality. In short, we believe that critical inquiry is the best way to frame are our questions and to seek solutions. So with reflective intelligence, that is the virtue that we’re emphasizing. 

In your 30 years of investigating the paranormal, of speaking in the media about this or that claim, whether it’s UFOs or psychics or astrology. Have you ever come across one episode or claim that really gave you pause, really stumped you? 

Yes, a lot of things I do not know. Clearly, a lot of things is a beyond explanation today, but this doesn’t mean that we read in an hour call, cause if I sometimes give this illustration when I go to my drawer, I can find maybe 20 pairs of socks. But I got five single socks and I can’t find a match. Where are the others? So should I go to the washing machine at night, pull it open and say, where’s the occult monster that is eaten these socks? The other five socks? Why were they lost? Well, you say no, that’s ridiculous. But it illustrates the point. If you’re ignorant of the causes does not entitle you to read in the supernatural or an article cause you should suspend judgment. And so the position of the agnostic is. Is a responsible position. And there are many such areas where we don’t know. But therefore, we all we want not to leap in fool’s leap in where a skeptic enquirers do not want to tread with belief. 

What’s next for skepticism, Paul? 

Well, I think we need to develop into the schools critical attitudes. We need courses on critical thinking. And that’s happening. And and particularly we need that on the large area of the media. 

And it’s very difficult today. So we have to cultivate in the American public or the publics anywhere and appreciation to doubt. But is being told to you sold to you, offered to you by political, economic, religious leaders and a doubt what they say until you can find support for it. Do not swallow hook, line and sinker what everyone wants you to believe. Stand aside. Forget the madness of the crowds. Be independent in your own thinking. Be courageous. Do not cave in to the forces around you and try to excise your intelligence by doubting. 

What’s the future, would you say, if you were going to prophesy for a moment, I know that’s probably against your. 

I’m not a prophet, but I can make predictions. I think the range that the growth of science will continue, of education will continue. We’re part of a planetary global community. The great universities and schools that in the long range, I think that reason will prevail. Now, there are setbacks and you have the new madness of the new irrationalities that sweep humankind. 

But you always need courageous people willing to say no. What’s your effort? It’s a can you support it to prove what you say? And I think that’s very important. 

OK, so, Paul, we’ve talked about the future of skepticism. You seem rather optimistic. What’s the future of the skeptical movement as it is, even if it’s not as well organized as we would want? Not as big as we want. 

Well, skip the movement. Now, I think existant above 40 or 50 countries of the world. They have magazines. We have organizations we meet at from time to time. And that movement was, you know, in a 30th here. I began by questioning the paranormal. Obviously, we have to go beyond that because there are always new tyranny’s and new systems of belief that beguile human beings. And you need skeptical midwives, as Socrates says, or gadflies. 

So I think that we have to turn our attention to other issues as well. We need in society independent men and women who will stand against the tides and investigate claims that are made. And so therefore, I think we need to apply skepticism in a positive, constructive, affirmative way to political areas, economic areas, to moral questions, and especially to the area of religion. And were we to do that, then I think this would continue. Constructive contribution. And that’s what we try to do at the Center for Inquiry. The center of inquiry is committed to science reason and free inquiry. But part of that is the importance of doubt and the need for questioning and the need to inquire into fundamentals. 

So where do you see this scientific inquiry going? 

Well, I think, as I say, we where do we want to go? I think that we really want to develop a kind of dialog worldwide about the need for a scientific and rational inquiry and to deal with fundamentals which are unexamined. 

And I think that I think that is growing. In other words, I I think the evidence strongly suggests that that message resonates with people in North America, in Asia, Africa, Latin America, Europe, and that is something that we will continue to pursue. I’m very optimistic about the future development of of skepticism as part of the inquiry movement. 

You’re talking about the these international outposts of skepticism, of critical inquiry. These are the branches of the sun. 

Maybe the outgrossed is the United States today we face, but now in the Middle East and everywhere. Yeah. So we are developing in many parts of the globe. Yes. 

I’ll end by asking a question to elicit an uncharacteristic answer for you. What makes you most pessimistic about the future? 

Well, you can never predict the new Sunaj, me or a Katrina. And you can never predict what will befall humans on the planet Earth. I mean, I think existence is contingent and precarious and there are always new things. Global warming, new threats, worldwide conflagrations, but long range. The human species has prevailed. And we’ve been making tremendous progress. 

And so I have confidence, but with the use of reason and science and goodwill that we will prevail. Though there may be ups and downs, but more range, I think our future is up. Our future is progressive. And the improvement in the amelioration of life on the planet Earth will continue. 

Thanks for joining us again on point of inquiry, Paul. Thank you very much for having me. Delighted to be here. 

You’ve seen the headlines, Paranormal Goes Primetime Vatican hosted conference on Intelligent Design, More clinics to offer alternative medicine. Christian Fundamentalism Drives U.S. Extremism. These stories sum up the immense challenge facing those of us who defend rational thinking, science and secular values. What one adviser to the Bush administration dismissed as the reality based community. Who could have imagined that reality would need defenders? The educational and advocacy work of the Center for Inquiry is more essential than ever. And your support is more essential than ever. Show your commitment to science, reason and secular values. By becoming a friend of the center today, whether you are interested in the work of psychology and skeptical Inquirer magazine, the Council for Secular Humanism and Free Inquiry magazine, the Commission for Scientific Medicine, or a Center for Inquiry on campus. By becoming a friend of the center, you’ll help strengthen our impact. If you are just learning about CFI, take a look at our Web site. W w. W. Center for Inquiry dot net. We host regional and international conferences, offer college courses and conduct nationwide campus outreach on our Web site. You’ll also find information regarding our new representation at the United Nations and important national media appearances. We could not pursue these projects without your support. Please become a friend of the center today by calling one 800 eight one eight seven zero seven one. Or visiting w w w dot. Center for inquiry dot net. We look forward to working with you to expand our reality based community. 

Thanks for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry. Join us next week for a discussion with Susan Jacoby about free thought and skepticism in American culture. Views expressed on point of inquiry do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry dot org or by visiting our Web site. Point of inquiry dot org. 

Point of inquiries produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York. Executive producer is Paul Kurtz. Point of Inquiry’s music is written and composed by Emmy Award winning Michael Weill. Contributors include Tom Flynn, Lauren Becker, Benjamin Radford, Joe Nickled, David Capsule and Sarah Jordan. I’m your host, DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.