Skepticism and Consensus

Bertrand Russell on Skepticism

“Nevertheless the opinion of experts, when it is unanimous, must be accepted by non-experts as more likely to be right than the opposite opinion. The scepticism that I advocate amounts only to this: (1) that when the experts are agreed, the opposite opinion cannot be held to be certain; (2) that when they are not agreed, no opinion can be regarded as certain by a non-expert; and (3) that when they all hold that no sufficient grounds for a positive opinion exist, the ordinary man would do well to suspend his judgment.”

– Bertrand Russell, “On The Value of Scepticism”

Of related interest, see the article by Tom Nichols on the death of expertise.

 

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  • The Eh’theist

    The Russell quote is always helpful. Puts things in perspective.

  • BJams

    Does this quote imply that all non-experts in religion should probably be agnostics?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      I’m not sure that I understand the question. Russell is talking about matters of scholarship, and I am not sure how, in your view, scholarship about religion relates to whether or not one is an agnostic. It is certainly the case that a great many religious people who learn about religion (whether their own or that of others) from scholarly sources become more agnostic about at least a great many matters, if not about everything.

      • BJams

        To simplify Russell’s quote above, he seems to be saying, “If the experts can’t agree, reserve judgment. Or, at least, admit your position on the matter is uncertain.”

        Very few religious people are experts on their own religion, of course. I’m asking (since I assume you agree with Russell’s statement) if this lack of agreement among religious experts on the existence of God — let alone the nature of God — means you believe non-experts should be uncertain in the veracity of their own beliefs?

        I think it’s an interesting question because the vast majority of believers (even in secular places like America) assert their beliefs are certainly true (http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/11/04/americans-faith-in-god-may-be-eroding/).

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          Well, most people who consider themselves experts on God agree that God exists, even if they disagree about many of the details and attributes of God. But I don’t think that is what Russell was referring to – I think he would regard the claim of anyone to have expertise about God with skepticism, as it is a very different matter than academic expertise about religion.

          • BJams

            I think Russell would do that, too. I just don’t see how that relates to the quote above. Is that in reference to point (3) about “no sufficient ground for a positive opinion”?

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

            I understand Russell to be addressing expertise in the sense of scholarship and research, and the issue of people who call themselves skeptics being skeptical of the consensus of experts on matters of science, history, etc.

          • BJams

            That makes sense. I assumed there was a more direct religiously-related point to your post, I suppose. Thanks for your time.

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

            There is. There are large numbers of people who spread misinformation about matters of religion, whether their own or others’, because they reject the conclusions of scholars about such topics.

          • BJams

            Yes, it seems like people can rationalize anything. It always amazes me how many atheists will claim to know beyond any reasonable doubt that Jesus wasn’t real, or Christians who claim evolution is a hoax.