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4th Wave Skepticism – Foundations – Part 2

Posted by Don McLenaghen on September 5, 2012

In Part 1, I tried to provide a definition of the terms Atheism, Skepticism, Humanism and Socialism. That done, what about all this talk about “waves” and “plus”?

We can find in these movements commonality and diversity.

1st Wave Atheism is an atheism based on two original foundations:

Lack of indoctrination – we are all born atheist (i.e. you grew up not knowing the idea of a god),

Doctrinaire contradictions – Some religions are innately self-contradictory in their text (i.e. Bible contradiction) or their practice (i.e. Inquisition).

1st Wave achieved the goal of being able to live a life without a deity. However, for the movement to evolve they had to base their belief on a solid foundation. Lacking this “rationale” for disbelief you would often find great thinkers like Pascal, Descartes and even Kant, rejecting atheism because ultimately there was no ‘proof’ against religion than there was for it. There was a time when the ‘mysteries’ of life were most logically ‘answered’ by appealing to deities and the supernatural. In fact, much of what we call ‘alt-med’ was an appeal to ‘supernatural’ or ‘pre-discovered’ principles as a rational reaction to the unknown.

The goal of 1st Wave Atheism was to provide a ‘reason’ for disbelief.

1st Wave Skepticism was based on the philosophic understanding of the logical limits of knowledge. This provided a mechanism to reject EVERYTHING. However as a practical matter this does not do much work in the real world. We may, philosophically, acknowledge we cannot be sure of anything but at some point we must ‘bite the bullet’ and proceed as though we did know.

The accomplishment of 1st Wave Skepticism is the discovery of a set of tools, logic, which can be applied to discover the world around them. The goal of 1st Wave Skepticism was to find a way past the nihilism and uncover a way to establish a foundation upon which knowledge can be attained.

2nd Wave Skepticism, in my understanding, was achieved by the rational or theistic skeptics. Their accomplishment was to add rational thought to our skeptic tool kitBy acknowledging that some ‘axioms’ must be accepted for knowledge to be established they asserted a foundation upon which knowledge can be achieved. The rational aspect of this phase was that such axioms could not simply be asserted but had to be ‘well-reasoned’ and that just arbitrary selections or appeals to history or authority were not sufficient.

As referred to earlier great thinkers like Pascal, Descartes and even Kant rejected atheism because there was ultimately no more ‘proof’ against religion than there was for it. This created the conditions, for the goal of 2nd Wave skepticism, to find some way to assess and evaluate the results of reason and logic. The cosmological and ontological arguments for god expressed rejection of ‘blind’ faith in favor of one that was based in reason. The protestant revolution reflected this skeptical view of ‘appeal to authority’ in favor of a rational approach to religion.  Ultimately, 2nd Wave skepticism ran into the same problems as 1st Wave – reality. Although well-reasoned, the axioms of Descartes were ultimately arbitrary and based on cultural indoctrination/biases. What was required was a mechanism to reconcile the theoretical beliefs with the reality of the observable world.

3rd Wave Skepticisms’ great achievement was the scientific method. This provides the self-correcting mechanism upon which the hypothesis derived from reason could be assessed. There would still be a need to ‘assert’ axioms but having been asserted; the logical outcomes of those axioms could be measured against the empirical evidence of the real world’ thus providing a way to reject failed ideas, modify old ideas and generate new explanations for phenomena.

It is here where 2nd Wave Atheism becomes entwined with 3rd Wave Skepticism. Skepticism could now provide a rational and defendable refutation to the theological assertions of religion. It also shifted the onus of proof from the atheist who had to proof the non-existence of ‘god’ to the religious who had to defend their axiom that god exists.

At this point in time, I think it logically inconsistent (and perhaps psychotic) to be both a 3rd Wave Skeptic and NOT be an Atheist. From my point of view, atheism is a descriptor of someone who is a skeptic in the same way it is  the descriptor of believers in “the round Earth”, “Sun centered solar system”, etc. and unbelievers in “ghosts”, “Hollow Earth”, etc. The term, atheist is no more an independent belief than ‘climate change’ is independent of environmental science; the former is just a logical derivative of the latter.

The Blue-grass Blade,1903 issue – a freethought newspaper

3rd Wave Atheism, now a subset of skepticism, could take the confidence gained upon the foundation of scientific skepticism and come out of the closet. The New Atheist movement was a clarion call that it was okay to be an atheist…that it was no longer a dirty word; in fact it now had the ‘moral’ high ground thanks to 3rd Wave Skepticism. 3rd Wave Atheism, oddly, provided the dynamic impetus for a similar awakening in the skeptic community…a feedback look of confidence if you like. Co-evolving with the activism of atheism was the activism of skepticism as applied to non-religious topics (i.e. alt-med, etc). Conferences like TAM would have been unthinkable a generation ago.

I could do a similar analysis for humanism which would similarly subsume secular humanism as an aspect of scientific or 3rd Wave Skepticism. However, these subsumed movements are not pure; thus there is a need for a next wave.

I use the term purely not in a divisive sense; simply that there are members of the atheist community who are, at best, inconsistent in the application of scientific skepticism (re: Bill Maher).  Secular Humanism has as its theological partner Religious Humanism; which shares numerous views about a multitude of social issues including LGBT rights, civil rights, etc.

This is the history of the movements from my perspective.

I have chosen not to ‘join’ the “A+” movement but to instead write under the banner of 4th Wave Skepticism. Why skepticism and not the other “isms”?

I feel skepticism is the ultimate foundation upon which all these movements are progress. Skepticism provides the tools or methodology upon which we derive the other beliefs. For example, we can reject Catholic religion with certainty because we have used the skeptic tool kit to both reject its claims of validity as well as understand the onus of proof rest on the church not us. This is how any good skeptic should approach any of life’s questions, such as humanism, socialism, equality, etc.

Many have called on our movement to splinter into various ‘sub-groups’ to address the various social ills of our times. The argument whether the movement should splinter is irrelevant because it is inevitable. There will be “A+ for social justice”, “Humanist poverty committee”, “Poli-skeptics”, etc. However, at the heart of all these is still “Skepticism”.

There is more work to be done now at the foundation level before we, as a movement, can accomplish these new goals. The Skeptic movement itself cannot truly move on until it has learned to deal with the internal difficulties that current plague our movement. We cannot honestly reach for lofter goals while denigrating/side-lining/ignoring/silencing our own. Once united, our movement will need new goals to help create a better world; that is why I will be focusing on 4th Wave Skepticism.

I may address the skeptical schism in another post. I will explore my vision about the future of skepticism as it branches out from the physical sciences to the social science to a methodology for governing a society in future articles.


One Response to “4th Wave Skepticism – Foundations – Part 2”

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