How Should I Be A Sceptic -- evidence from reasonable scepticism to reasonable belief

[Introductory note from Jason Pratt: the previous entry in this series of posts can be found here. A continually updated table of contents for all entries so far can be found here.

I ended the previous entry (which continues chapter 12), by asking, "If I was a sceptic, what kind of evidence would I accept?"

Please note that this is one of those entries which might not necessarily be agreed to by all Cadre members.]

I will presume I am not in the grip of a strong emotional pull toward some belief. I do not (speaking actually as a Christian) deny that God can and does convict many people through a process that doesn't seem, at first, to have much to do with analysis. But I think that sooner or later the converted sceptic, whether to or from a religious belief, should face questions of coherency and intelligibility in the new position he is taking. Otherwise, I cannot see how he would be acting responsibly. I think it is easier for errors (or ‘heresies’, religiously speaking) to hide behind overt inscrutability than behind dense logic; indeed, the density of a train of thought can only hide an error by being difficult to work through and thus effectively inscrutable to people who lack the tools and training to sift through the claim. But that kind of inscrutability can, in principle, be effectively 'seen-through', to discover real strengths and weaknesses; while the overt inscrutability of 'mystery' claims (improperly so-called, for ‘mysteries’ involve new knowledge, not un-knowledge or currently-held secrets), or of 'glorious contradictions', never pretended to be intelligible. But this also means they are humanly indistinguishable from error. That means it would be entirely up to God (insofar as a religious belief goes) to provide an emotional impulse so powerful that people are headed off from false beliefs. And this obviously is not the case; if God exists, He does not (regularly) do that.

Some of my Christian (or other theistic) brethren might say that He never compulses, but He does always provids enough information in this life for someone to know which is the true belief, so that a rejection of it is due to willful rebellion. Perhaps He does--I am certainly not convinced that this is how He works in regard to a set of religious doctrines per se--but by advocating even this, these fellow-believers have abandoned a 'faith-not-reason' stance: for they are now saying that people are faced with a rational choice and are responsible for analysis of something as part of accepting or rejecting truth.

And, at bottom, that is exactly what I have been proposing throughout this section; we would only be differing in regard to what God provides for the analysis.

But if He provides one thing, we cannot automatically exclude the possibility that He would provide something else to help people to the same critical point. [See first comment below for a deferred footnote here.]

So, sooner or later I should honestly and responsibly check evidential claims, if I care about whether I follow a true belief rather than a false one. And if I was a sceptic who cared about believing true claims rather than false ones, I would be acting responsibly to require sufficient evidence of some kind. Psychologically speaking, different people will require different levels of 'evidence' before they choose to accept a belief. But if I wanted to maximize my chances of choosing the most 'realistic' belief--the one that most closely matches the way reality 'really' is--what kind of evidence should I responsibly look for?

Let me go a bit further: as a 'sceptic' I am not sitting around in some positivistic vacuum, even for purposes of argument--only newborn babies who have never thought at all, yet, are in that position, among living, conscious persons. Even if I am a 'sceptic', then I already have a definable opinion of some sort (with attendant reasons of varying strengths) for believing (or doubting) reality to be a certain way. The question should be: what kind of evidence might I responsibly require to actively reject my (sceptical) belief and accept another view of reality as being more accurate?

As I think about it, it becomes clear that not just any evidence will do. The best type of evidence would need to have the following characteristics:

a.) It must be evidence I actually have access to, and that I can clearly detect that I have access to.

b.) It must be evidence that is clearly distinctive without question-begging. It might take a lot of detailed and difficult study to ascertain that some documents claiming to be God-inspired are more historically grounded than others (especially if I am a sceptic); and even then, that conclusion doesn't immediately demonstrate that the documents may be trusted to convey metaphysical truth. If my brethren have trouble understanding this concept from the sceptical point of view, let me remind them that historians have demonstrated Homer's Iliad contains quite a few accurate historical details; but virtually no one (especially an advocate of one of the Big Three Theisms) accepts this to mean the truth of the Greek divine pantheon as represented in the Iliad has thereby been solidly established.

c.) Ideally, it must be evidence which can in fact provide a solid foundation from which a deductive argument can be developed; because only a deductive argument can be functionally exclusive. [See second comment below for a deferred footnote here.] This would be important to me as a sceptic; because I am not being asked to reinforce a belief I already have, but instead to reject a belief (or beliefs) I already have in favor of another belief; and this requires some type of exclusive conclusion. Furthermore, it is, perhaps, technically possible that the deductive argument will not exclude my belief I am being asked to reject; the result may be parallel and complementary to my own belief, in which case you (the believer) would be unfair (and making a logical misstep) to ask me to give up my belief. So if I am asked to reject my belief in favor of the alternative, the alternative must be functionally and formally exclusive.

d.) The argument deduced from this evidence must be valid. If the logical pathway from the evidence to the conclusion is broken, then by default I should not be expected to reach that conclusion via that pathway.

I think these general guidelines are fair ones for an apologist (of whatever belief, religious or non-religious or anti-religious) to work within when arguing a position with an intelligent, informed sceptic. These are the general guidelines I would apply if I was a sceptical opponent of Christianity; and they are the general guidelines I do apply as a Christian when I am asked to reject part or all of my beliefs for an exclusive alternative!

Having established these parameters for my positive argument, it is time for me to finish this section.

[Next time: what kind of sceptic should I be]


Jason Pratt said…
.......[first deferred footnote here]

Typically, a Christian would say the critical point of belief (i.e. after this one would be “a Christian”) is our acceptance of God-in-Christ being (in various ways) the necessary means of our relationship to God, and our acceptance of at least certain parts of the 'New' and 'Old' Testaments as being historically reliable. A Muslim, for one contrasting example, would probably say the critical point for belief (i.e. after this one would be “a Muslim”) is the acceptance of the existence of God as the only God, and the acceptance of Muhammad as the Seal of the One-God's Prophets; which would, as a corollary, involve the acceptance of the Koran as the ultimate revelation of God's will--through Muhammad--to the world.

As for me, I will let my forthcoming positive argument explain what I believe and how I believe it and why, without here promoting a specific type of criteria-point for classification-identification among various specific religions. Besides, it may be discovered that God, if He exists, is more interested in helping people to critical points other than what ‘religion to believe is true’. (Though that might be one of God’s goals, too.) Or I might discover that God has no such goals, or no goals at all, or doesn’t even exist at all.
Jason Pratt said…
.......[second deferred footnote here]

An abductive argument, which suggests a hypothesis and then tests system integrity of theories drawn from that hypothesis (especially in conjunction with evidential data), does not exclude other alternatives, even if successful. It only provides a working option. An inductive argument, on the other hand, arrives at an expectation of likelihood from repetition of conjunctions--someone trying to exclude black swans on the basis of their routine experience of white swans, wouldn’t only be making a formal error in induction; she would be setting herself up for a surprising refutation of fact.
Goliath said…
"How should I be a skeptic"?! You don't control what I do, you xian fundie son of a bitch!

I would rather burn in hell for all eternity than spend a nanosecond worshipping the abomination that is your god!
Jason Pratt said…
For what it's worth, I don't believe your attitude is necessarily a bad one to have, Gol--until it leads you into reactively excoriating someone, without fair process first.

Otherwise, if the teachers I admire the most (Lewis and MacDonald) can respect people taking your position, then I can, too. And it never really hurts to be reminded that I have no advantage even over Satan, in my sinning.

Anyway, I hope you have a better week than you've had so far.


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