Tag Archives: skepticism


Snippet // GK Chesterton on belief via a system of truths

A while back I posted something about how my approach to deciding what is ‘true’ or what I believe is based not so much on skepticism, but on my ability to integrate a new piece of information into the system of truths I already believe (or my ability to adapt the system around new information). I’ve increasingly realised that this systematic approach to truth makes it a little harder to speak about why I believe what I believe in a sort of succinct way to people who don’t believe things I believe, be they foundational (like that Jesus existed, claimed to be divine, and his death and resurrection are a form of proof for this claim), or secondary sorts of things that flow out of those core beliefs.

I think GK Chesterton articulates the challenge this presents pretty nicely in Orthodoxy

“When once one believes in a creed, one is proud of its complexity, as scientists are proud of the complexity of science. It shows how rich it is in discoveries. If it is right at all, it is a compliment to say that it’s elaborately right. A stick might fit a hole or a stone a hollow by accident. But a key and a lock are both complex. And if a key fits a lock, you know it is the right key.

But this involved accuracy of the thing makes it very difficult to do what I now have to do, to describe this accumulation of truth. It is very hard for a man to defend anything of which he is entirely convinced. It is comparatively easy when he is only partially convinced. He is partially convinced because he has found this or that proof of the thing, and he can expound it. But a man is not really convinced of a philosophic theory when he finds that something proves it. He is only really convinced when he finds that everything proves it. And the more converging reasons he finds pointing to this conviction, the more bewildered he is if asked suddenly to sum them up. Thus, if one asked an ordinary intelligent man, on the spur of the moment, “Why do you prefer civilization to savagery?” he would look wildly round at object after object, and would only be able to answer vaguely, “Why, there is that bookcase . . . and the coals in the coal-scuttle . . . and pianos . . . and policemen.” The whole case for civilization is that the case for it is complex. It has done so many things. But that very multiplicity of proof which ought to make reply overwhelming makes reply impossible.

There is, therefore, about all complete conviction a kind of huge helplessness. The belief is so big that it takes a long time to get it into action. And this hesitation chiefly arises, oddly enough, from an indifference about where one should begin. All roads lead to Rome; which is one reason why many people never get there. In the case of this defence of the Christian conviction I confess that I would as soon begin the argument with one thing as another; I would begin it with a turnip or a taximeter cab…”

And a bonus. Which I love. On the centrality of paradox to the Christian faith, and how this is something good and not something to be resolved. He talks, first, about the humility the Gospel requires when it comes to an acknowledgment of our utter sinfulness, and the ‘pride’ required for Christians when it comes to saying that we are living, breathing, rulers of God who rule the world on his behalf.

“And now I began to find that this duplex passion was the Christian key to ethics everywhere. Everywhere the creed made a moderation out of the still crash of two impetuous emotions. Take, for instance, the matter of modesty, of the balance between mere pride and mere prostration. The average pagan, like the average agnostic, would merely say that he was content with himself, but not insolently self-satisfied, that there were many better and many worse, that his deserts were limited, but he would see that he got them. In short, he would walk with his head in the air; but not necessarily with his nose in the air. This is a manly and rational position, but it is open to the objection we noted against the compromise between optimism and pessimism — the “resignation” of Matthew Arnold. Being a mixture of two things, it is a dilution of two things; neither is present in its full strength or contributes its full colour. This proper pride does not lift the heart like the tongue of trumpets; you cannot go clad in crimson and gold for this. On the other hand, this mild rationalist modesty does not cleanse the soul with fire and make it clear like crystal; it does not (like a strict and searching humility) make a man as a little child, who can sit at the feet of the grass. It does not make him look up and see marvels; for Alice must grow small if she is to be Alice in Wonderland. Thus it loses both the poetry of being proud and the poetry of being humble. Christianity sought by this same strange expedient to save both of them….

“In so far as I am Man I am the chief of creatures. In so far as I am a man I am the chief of sinners. All humility that had meant pessimism, that had meant man taking a vague or mean view of his whole destiny — all that was to go. We were to hear no more the wail of Ecclesiastes that humanity had no pre-eminence over the brute, or the awful cry of Homer that man was only the saddest of all the beasts of the field. Man was a statue of God walking about the garden. Man had pre-eminence over all the brutes; man was only sad because he was not a beast, but a broken god. The Greek had spoken of men creeping on the earth, as if clinging to it. Now Man was to tread on the earth as if to subdue it. Christianity thus held a thought of the dignity of man that could only be expressed in crowns rayed like the sun and fans of peacock plumage. Yet at the same time it could hold a thought about the abject smallness of man that could only be expressed in fasting and fantastic submission, in the gray ashes of St. Dominic and the white snows of St. Bernard.

“Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious. The Church was positive on both points.”

And finally, on just how difficult “Orthodoxy” actually is.

This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy. People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad. It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way and to sway that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic. The Church in its early days went fierce and fast with any warhorse; yet it is utterly unhistoric to say that she merely went mad along one idea, like a vulgar fanaticism. She swerved to left and right, so exactly as to avoid enormous obstacles. She left on one hand the huge bulk of Arianism, buttressed by all the worldly powers to make Christianity too worldly. The next instant she was swerving to avoid an orientalism, which would have made it too unworldly. The orthodox Church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox Church was never respectable. It would have been easier to have accepted the earthly power of the Arians. It would have been easy, in the Calvinistic seventeenth century, to fall into the bottomless pit of predestination. It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic. It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s own. It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob. To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom — that would indeed have been simple. It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.


Handing in my Skeptic’s Card

handing in my skeptics card

I’m not the skeptic I thought I was. Forgive me for a slightly self-indulgent post musing on how I think, but this has come as quite a shock to me. It might make a change from wading through umpteen thousand words about what I think…

I’m not a skeptic.

This may not surprise you, given that my day job is to convince people of the existence of a supernatural being who sent his supernatural son (a son who shares his being) into the world he made to die and be raised from the dead. Many people think this particular sort of belief in the supernatural defies skepticism because it defies evidence and seems unbelievable (so shouldn’t be believed). I am skeptical about this sort of blanket dismissal of a particular worldview and its approach to evidence. I am skeptical about skepticism. But the fact that I’m not a skeptic surprises me.

For a long time I have described myself as a skeptic. I’ve understood my approach to truth claims as skeptical. I have understood skepticism as a core part of my epistemology (how I seek to know stuff). I’ve seen this as completely consistent with my Christianity, which I still believe is reasonable and evidence based.

I’m not really announcing a massive change in how I think I know things, just how I describe myself, particularly when it comes to discussions about Christianity. I’ll no longer play the “I’m a skeptic too” card.

There are many varieties of skepticism, many definitions, some more technical than others. What I’m talking about is skepticism as wikipedia defines it.

Skepticism is generally any questioning attitude towards knowledge, facts, or opinions/beliefs stated as facts, or doubt regarding claims that are taken for granted elsewhere. Philosophical skepticism is an overall approach that requires all information to be well supported by evidence.”

The bold bits are particularly what I’ve been coming to term with, mostly it’s about the optimistic posture I’ve found myself taking to truth claims and what I consider to be evidence that supports these truth claims. Some of the tools of skepticism still form part of how I piece together my view of the world – tools like critical thinking, rational thought, logic… I still employ these in my approach to new information. But one thing I’m dissatisfied with when it comes to skepticism is that it is so negative. I’m much more inclined to take bits of information and see how they integrate into what I already understand about the world than see each bit of information as something to be rejected, or, if it passes, placed alongside other things I have evidence for as another factoid.

I have come to realise is that skepticism does not excite me. It doesn’t light my fires. It’s not the posture I want to adopt towards learning about the world. It’s not how I want to position myself when it comes to people who come forward with new information that challenges my thinking. I don’t want my default to be doubt, I want it to be seeing if the thing will fly. If it will fit with what I understand about the world, if it will add colour, depth, and life. I’ll still reject stuff that is wacky and nonsense, but the approach to that rejection won’t begin in the same place. Which is weird. Realising this has been a bit of a paradigm shift for me.

Most people – skeptics included seek to organise the facts they accept into some sort of systematic view of the world. I’m not wanting to paint skepticism as holding to a bunch of disconnected facts without seeing how they fit together, but truly skeptical people must always doubt that they’ve got the fit right. They must question both the merit of a particular fact, and, simultaneously, the merit of the frame they try to use to hold it.

I’ve decided that for me, a systematic view of the world actually helps me organise and accept facts. And I’ve decided I’m committed to many approaches to new data prior to applying the skeptical approach to the world. So I can’t call myself a skeptic. It turns out, the system by which I organise new information has been there all along – it’s been how I identify myself all along. It’s my faith. My belief that the world is best explained when the God who made it is present. This system guides my presuppositions, but not because the system tells me it should. I don’t think. I think I have good reasons to go with Christianity as the organising idea on philosophical, aesthetic, logical, and evidentiary grounds. I am skeptical about other organising ideas having the same explanatory power as Christianity.  But to be frank, even if I think I chose the system through a skeptical approach based on evidence, I can’t escape the truth that given my upbringing Christianity is something like the default for me – so I have to keep exploring the possibility that other options will do it better. The way to assess this is how well a particular view integrates all the available data, the facts about the workings of the world, that I have come across and been convinced are true.

This isn’t skepticism. It’s freeing to admit this.

New facts don’t force me to toss out the system, but they will shape how I understand the workings of this system. I like this description, again from wikipedia, of ‘Knowledge Integration‘… this strikes me as much more fun, stimulating, and worthwhile. It also describes my intuitive approach to thinking about stuff much better than boring old skepticism.

Knowledge integration has also been studied as the process of incorporating new information into a body of existing knowledge with an interdisciplinary approach. This process involves determining how the new information and the existing knowledge interact, how existing knowledge should be modified to accommodate the new information, and how the new information should be modified in light of the existing knowledge.”

I want to know stuff. I want to see how all the different streams of information, all the different facts, all the different fields of scholarship – from philosophy, to science, to the arts, to theology, can be integrated in a coherent and exciting way. One of these fields of knowledge has to provide the organising framework for the others. I think that’s just how it works. For me, this is theology – Christian theology – it helps me make sense of the world. As CS Lewis says:

“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” 

I’m liking this quote more and more.

I’ll stick with Christianity until I find a better look out point from which to view the world (and I’ll continue to allow my presuppositions to be challenged, though I admit to finding the intricacies and aesthetics of Christianity quite compelling). I’m probably too far gone. I just don’t know what other system accommodates and explains the Jesus event, and the emergence of Christianity post-crucifixion with the same power as Christianity. I think Christianity offers the best explanation of world history, the human condition, and our ability to do science and know anything as real. I think Christianity is the most coherent philosophical and ethical framework. I think the Bible’s story, centred on Jesus, is, aesthetically speaking, the best narrative to live by. But I’m open to other ideas.

Warranted Belief

Mikey keeps posting quotes from this philosopher guy Al Plantinga (wiki). It turns out the book he’s quoting from – Warranted Christian Belief – is available in its entirety online. And free.

Might be worth a read if, like me, you keep getting in over your head in philosophical arguments with atheists. It’ll save you reaching out for the succor offered by a quick Google. And it’ll give you an intelligent “scholar” to quote…

Here’s a (long) quote on historical criticism – particularly on why it’s hard to argue with people who presuppose that the miraculous accounts in the Bible are mythical because they are miraculous, and why this shouldn’t be convincing:

The Troeltschian scripture scholar accepts Troeltsch’s principles for historical research, under an interpretation according to which they rule out the occurrence of miracles and the divine inspiration of the Bible (along with the corollary that the latter enjoys the sort of unity accruing to a book that has one principal author). But then it is not at all surprising that the Troeltschian tends to come up with conclusions wildly at variance with those accepted by the traditional Christian. As Gilkey says, “Suddenly a vast panoply of divine deeds and events recorded in scripture are no longer regarded as having actually happened.” Now if (instead of tendentious claims about our inability to do otherwise) the Troeltschian offered some good reasons to think that, in fact, these Troeltschian principles are true, then traditional Christians would have to pay attention; then they might be obliged to take the skeptical claims of historical critics seriously. Troeltschians, however, apparently don’t offer any such good reasons. They simply declare that nowadays we can’t think in any other way, or (following Harvey) that it is immoral to believe in, for example, Christ’s resurrection on other than historical grounds.

Neither of these is remotely persuasive as a reason for modifying traditional Christian belief in the light of Troeltschian results. As for the first, of course, the traditional Christian knows that it is quite false: she herself and many of her friends nowadays (and hundreds of millions of others) do think in precisely that proscribed way. And as far as the implicit claims for the superiority of these Troeltschian ways of thinking go, she won’t be impressed by them unless some decent arguments of one sort or another are forthcoming, or some other good reason for adopting that opinion is presented. The mere claim that this is what many contemporary experts think will not and should not intimidate her.

Does skepticism neccessitate atheism?

I am a skeptic. Proudly. I treat all truth claims with an element of distrust – and many with disdain. But I am also a Christian. And by definition a theist, and a believer in the supernatural. My skepticism extends to all other religious claims – and many claims made by subsets of Christianity. What the relationship is between Christian belief and belief in the realm of ghosts, spiritual warfare and other supernatural issues is a matter for another post. Maybe.

I think I might have previously linked to this Clive James piece on the value of skepticism – if not, I apologise. It’s mostly about climate change skepticism, though a little bit about golf ball chips (a phenomena that occurs if you have a golf course next to a potato farm).

Skepticism is great – but if you hold onto it counter to the evidence you’re not a skeptic – you’re an idiot.

The golf-ball crisp might look like a crisp, and in a moment of delusion it might taste like a crisp, and you might even swallow the whole thing, rather proud of the strength it took to chew. But if there is a weird aftertaste, it might be time to ask yourself if you have not put too much value on your own opinion. The other way of saying “What do I know?” is “What do I know?” .

Which rather tangentially brings me to the purpose of this rant. I read this article on the Friendly Atheist about the relationship between skepticism and atheism – obviously they’re linked… it’s not rocket science to suggest that most atheists are skeptics. It comes with the territory. But do all skeptics have to be atheists?

A series of posts around the atheist blogosphere suggested that the two are inextricably linked – that atheism is a logical by product of skepticism.

It started with a speech at a camp for skeptics…the speaker then had to defend his claim from some criticism…

But because I have yet to see good evidence — philosophical, scientific, or otherwise — to support religious claims, I live under the assumption there is not a god or gods above,  making me an atheist. I am still open to evidence, just with rigorous philosophical and scientific standards. A perfect example to sum up the co-existence of these labels comes from what Jacob posted in the comments to his piece. “You ask if I am agnostic about Zeus. Yes. Fairies. Yes.” But, then, Jacob is also an aZeusist, and an afairist. That is, he lives without belief in Zeus or fairies.

The problem with all these assertions – and in fact every skeptical assertion – is that it is based on one’s personal standard of evidence. Which is a personal decision. And it should be. If you want to cover your eyes, block your ears and bury your head in the sand to avoid any “evidence” that may change your opinion on any matter – then that is your choice. And I will laugh at love you even if you are wrong.

So, in the post on the Friendly Atheist the writer made this rather bold claim…

I’ll use ’skepticism’ to mean the attitude that one should scale confidence in a belief to match the evidence, and ‘atheism’ to mean the lack of belief in a god. With these definitions, the two are clearly related.

Here’s another quote from that piece.

If a person is skeptical, we expect them to embrace atheism because that’s where the evidence leads.

Only when you set fairly narrow parameters for “evidence”… I think by “evidence” you mean that’s where an understanding of the world based on scientific naturalism leads.

For some of us scientific naturalism is a good starting point, but not an end point.

Since the principle of skepticism requires religion to be treated with scrutiny, how should the movement deal with the fact that scrutiny leads to atheism?

What this post is actually saying – and the root of the problem – is that these atheists, who are skeptics, have found the evidence wanting when it comes to the question of God – but not all skeptics have put the same faith in their particular evidential methodology.

Here’s how I think those quotes could have been more honestly framed – from a skeptical standpoint – I’ll bold my changes.

If a person is skeptical, I expect them to embrace atheism because that’s where I think the evidence leads them.

Since the principle of skepticism requires religion to be treated with scrutiny, how should I deal with my opinion that scrutiny leads to atheism?

Note the similarity to the quote from Clive James’ piece – what do I know? That’s the question that should be being asked in this case. Skepticism is a subjective philosophical position that requires convincing evidence – not some sort of objective standard.

For me, I am a skeptic when it comes to scientific naturalism’s ability to answer all of life’s questions, and I am convinced by the evidence of God’s word, my observations of human nature, and my experience as a believer.