Critical Thinking

A Skeptatic Dialogue, Part 1

Quentis and Firmatio: A Skeptatic Dialogue, Part 1


Quentis: Okay, if you jump three times, you can fly.

Firmatio: That sounds dubious to me.

Quentis: No, really. My grandmother told me about it, and her grandmother told her. It’s a family tradition that goes back thousands of years.

Firmatio: I’m pretty sure you’re wrong.

Quentis: Ah, but how do you know? How can you know anything?

Firmatio: It’s obvious, people can’t fly.

Quentis: But how can you know that? How can you actually know that people can’t fly?

Firmatio: If you try it, you won’t be able to.

Quentis: But I have tried it. It worked for me. I jumped three times, and on the third time I hovered for longer than I should have. I know it. I felt it. I stayed in the air for longer than should be possible. Who are you to argue with a tradition that has been practiced for thousands of years? How can you know that I am wrong if you haven’t tried it?

Firmatio: You can’t fly.

Quentis: This is a truth that has been known since ancient times. That fact that this has been done for thousands of years proves that it is true.

Firmatio: No it doesn’t.

Quentis: So you’re saying that just because its old doesn’t mean it’s true?

Firmatio: Yes.

Quentis: I don’t believe you. You don’t have the ancient knowledge that I have. Let’s try a different approach. If you told 10,000 people to jump three times, and none of them flew, do you think that should convince me it isn’t true?

Firmatio: Of course.

Quentis: Why?

Firmatio: Because it was tested.

Quentis: But I tested it myself and it worked for me.

Firmatio: That was just you. 10,000 other people tried it and it didn’t work.

Quentis: So, my evidence is my own experience and the tradition from my family, and your evidence is a test of 10,000 people. You think your evidence is stronger?

Firmatio: Yes.

Quentis: Let’s go over what we’ve established. First, we can test things. You know that I am wrong because you can test it yourself, or test it with thousands of people, and see that it doesn’t work. Second, not all evidence is equal. A study of 10,000 people is stronger evidence than a story from one person or even a bunch of really old stories from people who lived long ago.

Firmatio: I guess so.

Quentis: The fact that this knowledge has been practiced for thousands of years isn’t actually evidence that it is true. It’s an argument from antiquity. Just because something is old doesn’t make it true. Just because my grandmother told me it is true, and her grandmother told her, doesn’t mean it is.

Firmatio: Yeah.

Quentis: Just because it is a traditional practice going back thousands of years, that if you jump three times you will fly, that doesn’t make it true?

Firmatio: Yes, you said that already.

Quentis: So I did. But I still think you are wrong. I can fly. I know it. It’s natural. Flying in an airplane is an unnatural thing.

Firmatio: What does that have to do with it?

Quentis: It has everything to do with it. Airplanes are unnatural, we should be flying by more natural means, like jumping three times.

Firmatio: We already established that you’re wrong. You can’t fly.

Quentis: But it’s natural. Natural things are better for you because they’re natural.

Firmatio: I don’t know how to respond to that.

Quentis: Ask me about my evidence.

Firmatio: What is your evidence?

Quentis: My evidence is that it is natural.

Firmatio: That’s not evidence. It has nothing to do with flying. Flying isn’t natural.

Quentis: Flying by jumping is more natural than flying in an airplane, therefore it’s better.

Firmatio: No, it’s not. It doesn’t work.

Quentis: I’ll concede on this. The fact that it is natural doesn’t make it true either. It’s not evidence. We’re talking about the naturalistic fallacy, just because something is natural doesn’t make it better. Arsenic and cyanide are both naturally occurring substances, but if you eat them you’ll die. Natural doesn’t mean better, and being natural isn’t any kind of evidence that something works. Like you said, it has nothing to do with it.

Firmatio: Yeah, it was kind of a ridiculous example.


Continued in Part 2.

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Jay teaches English in Asia and loves skepticism and teaching above all else.

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