Lessons in Skepticism from Schmoyoho
January 29, 2013
At its core, skepticism is the commitment to oneself not to be duped. A good skeptic seeks to avoid being duped, but in the event that he or she is being duped, strives to discover and remedy the dupe. Identifying the dupe often results in mixed emotion. Being duped often results from adhering to beliefs for non-epistemic reasons, like wishful thinking, the desire to be loved, or gold. The duplicitous belief is often pleasant, and tightly clung to. Yet, once recognizing the dupe, a good skeptic experiences joy in being wrong about one less thing. This post examines two lessons in skepticism illustrated by the Schmoyoho YouTube channel.
We’ve all given Manti Te’o a lot of flak lately. His story is that he was duped into believing he had an online girlfriend, when in fact such a person did not exist. We are all laughing at him for it, and calling him a liar. That’s not really fair. Most skeptics know exactly how it feels to be duped into believing we have a special personal relationship with someone who isn’t real. Most of us used to be religious.
With this in mind, check out this video by Schmoyoho, and feel the sympathy flow forth from your cold skeptical heart.
For those of us who used to believe in God(s), we can attest that that the pain and feelings were real, even if the object of those feelings was not. We know that feel, finding out everything we believed to be reality isn’t reality at all. Such a discovery is overwhelming, disappointing, and unbelievable at first. Like Manti said, your whole world is telling you one thing, whether it be that you have a pretty online girlfriend that you’ve never met, or that there’s a magical leprechaun in the tree, or that an all-powerful creator of the universe whom you’ve never met cares about you deeply. It’s the same thing. It’s an earth-shattering realization to discover that there is no such thing. I embrace the Manti Te’o story as a symbol for losing one’s faith in a personal relationship with god(s). This not only helps me to empathize with Manti, but with all those believers still under the duping penumbra of religion as well.
Everything in their world is telling them that God(s) are real (aside from atheists, of course), and the feelings are all real. When a Christian feels pain at not being worthy of God’s forgiveness, it is a real pain, caused by this relationship they’ve been encouraged to have all their life with this nonexistent person. It breaks my heart. It makes me wish I could snap my fingers and give them the gift of skepticism. But I know that wishing I have some power does not mean that I have that power. I know that my positive thoughts and prayers have no causal efficacy. To believe such things is to be duped, and I refuse to be duped.
Instead, I’ll try to illustrate the danger of letting non-epistemic reasons guide one’s beliefs. Rather, I’ll let Schmoyoho do so.
Whether it be gold, or the promise of eternal reward, a non-epistemic (non-evidential) reason is not a good reason to believe something. As the song illustrates, it is important to consider competing hypotheses: It might be a crackhead who got into the wrong stuff, rather than a leprechaun. Rather than God speaking to you, it could just be your imagination, or your internal monologue, or a partial complex seizure.
Be wary of crude sketches, representations, and records of the entity in question. Be wary of crowds joyfully affirming your non-epistmically supported belief. These things do not constitute evidence. A raucous mob, enticed by reward and novelty, is no more evidence for the existence of God(s) than is the crowd above evidence for leprechauns. It is still more likely a crackhead who got into the wrong stuff.
Be wary of those seeking to capitalize on the duped in their belief. The Pat Robertson’s, Ray Comfort’s, VenomFangX’s and Uri Geller’s are nothing more than fake Irish charlatans with fake magical flutes.
The humor in both of these videos reveals the underlying hypocrisy of our society: Being duped into believing in a fake online girlfriend or getting excited about a leprechaun is somehow more shameful than being duped into thinking the creator of the universe is your personal friend with whom you have daily conversations. Fundamentally, there is no difference between the three beliefs. The subjects of these videos, our former believing selves, and those who still believe all suffer from a dupe. The leprechaun people at least have currently living ‘eyewitnesses,’ and Manti at least saw photographs of the person he thought he loved, and at least received communication from her that came from somewhere outside his own head, if not from the person he thought. Can theists say as much? Sadly, they cannot; yet they laugh at Manti and the leprechaun folks.
The lesson here is to fight the wishful thinking, and accept the possibility that you are being duped. This is difficult. Who wants to believe that his or her girlfriend isn’t real? Who wants to believe that it wasn’t a leprechaun? Then there would be no romance. Then there would be no gold. Then there would be no heaven. Life without these things may seem scary at first, but with enough intellectual courage, one can accept reality for what it is, and seek the good things that really do exist to be obtained.
But seek with epistemic caution. Reality can really hit you hard, Bro. This guy knows what I’m talking about.
About the Author: Seth KurtenbachSeth Kurtenbach is pursuing his PhD in computer science at the University of Missouri. His current research focuses on the application of formal logic to questions about knowledge and rationality. He has his Master's degree in philosophy from the University of Missouri, and is growing an epic beard in order to maintain his philosophical powers. You can email Seth at Seth.Kurtenbach@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter: @SJKur.
#1 Matt Gerrans (Guest) on Tuesday January 29, 2013 at 6:44pm
All make sense in general, but in this case the guy had something significant to gain by having a tragic back story (or several different ones, apparently). That's why I am very skeptical about his claim that he was duped. There are also some inconsistencies in his ongoing stories that tend to support the idea that he was in on the scam.
#2 Seth Kurtenbach on Tuesday January 29, 2013 at 8:24pm
That's a good point, thanks for mentioning that side of the coin.
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