How Should I Be A Sceptic -- a first question of feasibility

[Introductory note from Jason Pratt: the previous and first entry in this series of posts can be found here.]

Sometimes when the topic of religion (or theology, or philosophy, or metaphysics...) rises in conversation, one person will wave off the discussion with this type of dismissal: 'There isn't much point discussing such things, because such discussions cannot, by their very character, reach true answers.'

This person might also declare that anyone can argue validly to anything; or that an infinite number of true answers are possible. This type of person will express himself in several different ways; but his main position is that such discussions cannot be useful. [Footnote: I distinguish, however, between such a person and a person who wants to make some positive use of a claim that an infinite number of exclusively true answers are possible. I will discuss such a positive proposition later.]

Sometimes this tactic represents a head-in-the sand approach: the person doesn't want to discuss such things; so he excuses himself from the conversation on this ground, without really having thought out whether this proposal holds water or not. [Footnote: there is a difference, however, between a person who directly holds a belief that no metaphysical belief can be regarded as true; and a person who makes such a claim because he himself hasn’t got a clue how to effectively judge between claims. The second person ought to say rather, that he has no idea which religion or philosophy is most true, rather than say no religion or philosophy can possibly reach adequate truth.]

By default, this position ends a debate before it has begun, by erecting a fortress mentality. However, I presume that you, my reader, do not hew to this sort of 'defense', or else you would never have picked up this [currently unpublished] book! If yet you do, and have somehow mistakenly reached this page, then let me say before you throw the book away: you are only deceiving yourself. You do have opinions about this general topic; those opinions do have grounds (of one sort or another); and if your opinions can only be preserved by pretending the grounds do not exist, then your position is perilous in the extreme--furthermore in other topics I suspect you would consider such willful blindness to be irresponsible. [Footnote: I do not spare some of my Christian or otherwise theistic brethren from this reprobation; a point I will develop more fully in following chapters.]

But it would be uncharitable, as well as false, to presume that all adherents of this tactic are taking an escape pod out of the conversation. Instead, such a person might be attempting to show charity: she does happen to hold a fairly strong and (as far as she can tell) well-grounded belief in a philosophical proposition set, which she knows her potential sparring partner disagrees with; and she also thinks this potential opponent will lose badly if they get into this discussion; and she happens to be a friend of this other person (or at least wants the general back-and-forth of discussion on other topics to continue without a serious emotional hitch). Therefore, to spare her comrade potential discomfort, she begs off with a bit of a white lie.

I can respect this use of the tactic; but it might require ignoring the question of whether the sparring partner would be better off with a clearer understanding of reality, which the user of this tactic could have been in a position to provide. Then again, perhaps this person would even agree with me about this principle, yet (understanding her own limitations) would still defuse the dispute because she doesn't think she herself can do necessary justice to the topic. Not only can I respect, I can admire this restraint--provided this is not a smokescreen for the escape pod I first described. At any rate, a person who uses this tactic out of charity would (secretly) agree with me that such discussions are not inherently useless; whereupon she could excusably skip the rest of this chapter [and the journal entries built on it].

Thus I reach, by elimination, the third category of person who might try this tactic: the person who really does believe that such questions are inherently unanswerable so that any dispute on these questions must be ultimately useless (even if occasionally entertaining--like a bit of swashbuckling stage theatrics!)

Unlike the facetious or charitable dodging of similar proponents, this person poses me a real problem. At the very best, even if I produce an ironclad argument, and even if he agrees it is ironclad, he will not accept the conclusions--and quite rightly, if he is correct and such questions cannot be adequately answered to any degree whatsoever (any possible appearances otherwise notwithstanding.)

He might agree that my argument looked interesting, was well-designed, and perhaps helped him think along some lines he had never considered before. But in the end it would all be for nothing, because he would be coming to the discussion with a fatal strike already leveled against anything I might say.

I do not think any positive argument-to-come, concerning God's existence and character (pro or con, to any degree), can be designed to defend against that lethal presumption. This is a notion that (strange as it may sound) transcends an argument about God, because it calls into question the very ability of such an argument to be what it claims to be.

Thus, I have a vested interest in trying to reconcile and communicate with this type of person before I continue. I do not want unstated presumptions of this sort lurking in the background to justify any flat rejection (or worse, outright misrepresentation) of what I will say later.

And, of course, there is no reason at all for me to continue if this person does happen to be right!

So, how might a pesron reach this position as a conclusion?

Perhaps this person has drawn an inference from his perception of the actual state of religion, philosophy and metaphysics: a wide, wild and bewildering admixture of beliefs ranging every possible topic, each with advocates who (in effect) claim their belief reflects reality as well as, or better than, any of the others. [Footnote: Ironically, this would also include proponents who are overtly trying to avoid claiming this! I will be discussing various reasons and stances of this sort later.] Furthermore, if he looks into past eras he will see the same conglomeration except with different players who often have different practical stances.

If, on the other hand, he looks into other purportedly 'rational' fields, such as chemistry or mathematics, he may find some disagreement concerning three or four options on a limited range of topics, but by and large the general principles at stake are not in contention (or at least don’t seem to be so) among those thinkers.

And when he looks at fields where, because of intrinsic characteristics, final answers are in fact few and far between, and/or numerous discreet theories may equally well fit the facts at hand (such as in psychology or history), he sees nearly the same sprawl of theories as he perceives in metaphysics.

From these facts, he not unreasonably concludes (especially if he has no strong stake himself to defend, perhaps) from the resemblance of final effect, that metaphysics must be a topic where either no satisfactorily 'correct' answers may be obtained; or where an unknown number of discreetly opposite theories may sufficiently account for any data we have, thus giving us no reason to choose between them other than aesthetic taste, or something of that kind. And so, being an honest and self-critical person, he refuses to allow his own aesthetic taste to dictate what 'must' be objectively true.

I can certainly imagine myself working along those grounds; and I sometimes get this impression from correspondents and critics.

Please note that these people (by definition of the type I am describing here) are quite honest, and have drawn what seems to them to be the best decision possible from the evidence. I have as much respect for them as I do for someone who begs off the question to save the feelings of her friend.

But, I think they are making an honest mistake; and I have concluded this for the following reason:

The assertion (or conclusion, whatever the actual form of the contention) that 'No useful and/or true assertions or conclusions may ever be reached in philosophy, religion, etc.' is a self-contradictory statement, because the proposer has made a tacit exception in favor of the bit of philosophical truth he is advocating at the moment.

Let us say I am one of these negative agnostics (as I will call them). [Footnote: I also recognize a type of negative agnostic who goes this route in order to protect himself from having to recognize particular truth claims that he finds bothersome; but unlike the first category he insists on interfering in metaphysical discussions anyway. Such spurious opposition is merely a willful bar to serious discussion, and does not deserve to be more fully addressed.] I look around at the plethora of 'evidence' I have previously described, and I draw the conclusion: 'No useful and/or true conclusions may ever be reached in philosophy, religion, etc.'

What am I doing? I am making an exclusively definite statement about the character of reality: it definitely is (I think) such that no one can ever be correct in making exclusively definite statements about it.

But I am contradicting myself! If the character of basic reality is such that no one can ever be correct in making a definite statement about it (either as a conclusion or as an assertion), then neither can I be correct in making that definite statement about the way reality is!

Such a negative agnosticism therefore is self-defeating; for if it was true I would never have discovered it, nor would I be formally capable of asserting or defending it--I would literally have 'no reason' to accept or propose it as true!

So at least one definite aspect of ultimate reality may be discovered, or at least truly asserted.

The negative agnostic could now change his stance slightly and claim that only one thing can be definitely stated about reality: any other statement (except this one) about reality cannot be true even if it happens to look that way.

My first problem with this contention is that it relies on an unstated presumption: that no other cause for the wide range of positions in philosophy could be possible. How does our negative agnostic know this? The only definitively true statement we can discover about reality is that no other definitive statements about reality are possible; and we know this because no other explanation for the state of affairs can be true? But this is only saying the same thing over again, using a different grammatic construction to make the second statement seem like something different from the first statement.

I myself can imagine at least one other potential cause for our situation: the issues are subtle and deeply mixed with emotional associations in our minds, as well as with socio-historical and familial associations. This could easily explain a vast number of viewpoints, while still allowing the possibility that one viewpoint is truly more accurate than the others. [Footnote: Also, I happen to believe we have at least one set of supernatural enemies who have an interest in keeping us as conflicted as possible; but I understand that my sceptical reader won't buy this yet, and scepticism on this point doesn't eliminate other hypothetical causes being true.]

Furthermore, upon close study, it isn't difficult to find common themes shared by representatives of otherwise different viewpoints: a Muslim would agree with me that there is only one God, upon Whom all else depends and Who is the ultimate standard for our ethical judgments. We would disagree (in some cases very seriously) about certain metaphysical and historical questions, but we would agree about that. [Footnote: Come to think of it, we would largely agree in principle about the Enemy, too...!]

Shared viewpoints can be found linking all sorts of religions and philosophies to each other. So, we are not presented with a multitude of utterly exclusive views of reality; and even if we were, this might still be a result of subtle and emotional issues.

I can only record that I see no good reason to conclude that the only explanation for the proliferation of philosophies is that no philosophical position can be definitively true. (Barring that statement itself, of course!) The negative agnostic might reply that he just feels that if one of them (say, Christianity) represented the best truth, then some sort of provision would have been made to ensure that this truth (or a subcategory of it) was as clear as daylight to everyone--thus the dissension among the ranks shows that such discussion must be ultimately useless.

I would reply that if I attempted to ground any one given 'definitive' proposition about reality on a feeling such as this, our negative agnostic would either cut me off at the knees (knowing full well that such feelings, although objectively real experiences, are not valid grounds for such a proposition); or he would find his own intuitive feeling directly conflicting with it, whereupon he would have no way to distinguish which view reflects reality 'better'.

Therefore, I conclude that at least one definite characteristic of reality may be discovered; and I conclude that we have no clear grounds for concluding that the only definite characteristic of reality is its inability to otherwise be discovered. [Footnote: An opponent who merely ‘asserts’ (not ‘discovers’) such a characteristics, will be covered later.]

This opens a first door to a potentially meaningful discussion on this class of subjects.

I will in fairness note that the negative agnostic could, in the end, become another type of agnostic: he has fairly looked at x-number of philosophies and, to the best of his ability, has come away with no clearer understanding of what reality ultimately is than when he started. The difference for this agnostic, is that he would recognize the limitation to be one of his own, not necessarily a limitation of the topic itself. Presuming he is honest about this, I would consider this view (which I will call positive agnosticism) to be self-consistent as far as it goes; at least it does not nail shut the door to inquiry before the inquiry can begin. But then, for all he can tell before my analysis really gets started, he might not get that result from this book. So I am free to proceed.

[Next week: but, isn’t there another set of tactics, similar in ends if not in means to those of the negative agnostics--among religious believers themselves?! Yep; so I need to think about them, too.]


Jason Pratt said…
Back when I first posted this chapter, I hadn't realized that without dropping in a comment I wouldn't be registered in the blogger system for comment alerts--despite being the author of the post!

So, here's the registration. {wry g}


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