On Skepticism October 14, 2008Posted by caseyww in Skepticism.
I suppose before we go any further, I had better answer a fundamental question about myself. Why doubt? Some may see what I’m doing here as a gamble with the highest stakes. Why risk my everlasting soul on matters that are probably beyond human comprehension anyways? Like Pascal, why not be safe and take the sure bet, defaulting to faith? Why be skeptical?
First, I believe the term ‘skeptical’ has frankly gotten a bad wrap. It is so often wrongly equated with ‘cynical’. Defaulting to blunt and clumsy denial of belief in general is the realm of the cynic, which, to me, reeks of bitterness and isolation. Skepticism really has no problem with the act of belief itself. However, skepticism does concern itself with the methods and tools which are appropriate to establish belief in the first place.
Simply stated, skepticism looks for adequate evidence before accepting a belief as true. ‘Adequate evidence’ is admittedly a slippery term that we may have to spend time in future blog posts parsing out. For now it’s sufficient to establish that there is a range of skepticism that we all fall into. We all look for evidence when making decisions; it’s just a question of how much evidence we require and of what quality. Like most things in life healthy skepticism is a balance between requiring too little evidence (gullibility) and demanding too much (blunt denial). Further, skepticism holds that all beliefs are open to modification, affirmation or even outright trashing as new evidence comes to light.
I would argue that, while the term ‘skeptical’ may still sound too abrasive for most of us to adopt outright, we are all still secretly skeptical at heart. Let me explain. Think of all the countless beliefs or faith traditions that you think are bunk. The beliefs which are available but rejected surely outnumber the scant few we actually invest in. Okay, now seriously, take a second and think of just one proposition out there in the world that you personally think is utter trash and hold on to that for me.
Whether it’s alien abductions or Joseph Smith’s golden plates or the claim that the Comet Hale-Bopp could have borne your soul to heaven’s gate with its 1997 passing, for these things most of us practice perfect skepticism and we do so easily. But let me ask, why do we find it so easy to dismiss these claims? Why didn’t more of us commit suicide back in 1997 as we heard the news reports about the Heaven’s Gate cult in order to join them on their ‘journey’? Why weren’t we also swayed?
The answer here is typically so obvious that it feels a bit elementary to even regurgitate for you. We just ‘knew’ they were wrong. Their claim about the spiritual implications of a comet ‘didn’t make enough sense’ to translate into such drastic action. These thoughts are so secondhand that they tend to pass unnoticed through our heads. Since we’re not even tempted to action by such wild cultish claims we don’t identify the rigorous test we subject these claims to. But there is an important underlying rational system here that each of us constantly taps into which is worth recognizing. We all have a filter for establishing truth which, for 95% of the propositions we hear, defaults to doubt before investing in belief. Let me rephrase that. For all those things we don’t already believe, scrutiny is inherently skeptical in that it starts at doubt and then sees if there is sufficient evidence to transition to belief.
This system is beautiful in its simplicity. We are constantly protected from acting on dangerous new beliefs by an underlying skepticism which naturally seeks tangible evidence before getting us into too much trouble. There is a problem here though.
Here comes the wrench. While our filters typically work perfectly on all those outside beliefs, we can have a very hard time applying the same standards for ‘adequate evidence’ to beliefs that have already been accepted. That is, we all have the tendency to loosen the standards for what constitutes ‘adequate evidence’ when it’s our personal beliefs that are being scrutinized.
Admittedly, this evolved tendency to stop applying close scrutiny to already accepted beliefs is almost essential. For example, we can’t constantly be assuaged by doubt over whether bread satisfies hunger or not. Once this belief is established we need to move on and focus our attention on more critical matters of truth and existence. Important things. Like whether chocolate is truly an aphrodisiac. You know, critical matters of faith! Seriously though, the bounds each of us individually sets around what is functionally true and what is not (ie. what we believe and what we don’t) allow us to focus most of our critical resources outwards where they can do the most good. However, the healthiness of this natural tendency is dependent on one thing:
Those beliefs that have made their way inside the bounds of belief must in fact be true.
Unfortunately, beliefs can often be let inside our bounds and subsequently go unchecked in error. In fact, when it comes to larger matters of belief (at least larger than chocolate) I would argue that the very nature of faith and religion often demand a lower criteria for what constitutes appropriate evidence. We often believe on the advice of authority alone or because of a highly subjective personal experience or sometimes because we have incomplete information or we misinterpret data. The reasons we can positively “know” things that aren’t actually so is a big subject that I think may also be another topic worth returning to in a later post, for now let’s move on.
To compound the issue we tend to treat beliefs like possessions. Even our vocabulary for talking about the act of belief betrays how possessive we can be over faith. We talk of holding, adopting or even buying a belief. You may even now be saying, “I don’t buy all this crap, Casey. This blog sucks.” I hope not. Anyways, the personal nature of belief itself can insulate us from being critical in those most important monumental decisions of faith where our worldviews are shaped.
I posit that it is for those beliefs that we hold most dear that we need to apply the highest levels of skepticism. It is precisely because these accepted beliefs are those which daily drive our actions and decision-making that we need to maintain the utmost level of intentional questioning about their validity, being always careful to demand appropriate evidence. Unnatural and sometimes uncomfortable vigilance.
In regards to my own faith, this is where I have taken a step back and restarted. I don’t want to commit the hypocrisy of submitting my traditional Christian faith to less scrutiny than I would the Heaven’s Gate cult just because it’s already been allowed inside my bounds of belief. The level of what constitutes adequate evidence for belief should be the same for both claims.
Further, if those beliefs we have accepted on the authority of our pastors or the personal experiences we have while singing together are in fact true then they should be never be threatened by this form of skepticism. Truth cannot be damaged by investigation. That which is transcendent by definition cannot be changed or affected by the healthy skepticism each of us practices for those ‘other’ 95% of propositions out there.
Okay, in conclusion, I was asked in the comments on the “Invitation” post which specific claims of Christianity I am skeptical about? In light of the way we’ve been discussing skepticism here I’d have to answer: All of them, but none of them more or less than I am about Islam and Heaven’s Gate or evolution and the existence of black holes. I’d like to redefine the question a bit if I can (which I know I can…oh the power of running the blog! Mua-ha-ha-ha!…). Instead, of asking which biblical claims I’m skeptical about it would really be more accurate to refocus the question on which claims have been believed or defended on inappropriate evidence. This is a fantastic question that unfortunately is meaningless unless we agree on what constitutes ‘appropriate or adequate evidence’ first. Let me then end this post by throwing the question back to you guys to see if we can work towards a consensus. How do you think we should define what constitutes ‘appropriate/adequate evidence’ for belief in general?