How Should I Be A Sceptic -- a summary of results

[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.]

Having followed a path throughout this section that leads to the question of evidence, I am now ready to proceed with my positive argument. However, before I begin my next section, let me summarize where I am.

As I said near the beginning of this book, my goal for this section is merely to level the playing field so that misunderstandings about religious propositions don't lurk undisclosed in the background, inspiring unwarranted and spurious opposition. In the process, I have necessarily had to pare off certain propositions here and there. But I have at least followed one of my core positions for this chapter: no matter how complicated the proposition, if it is built on a fundamental misunderstanding of the implications of propositions, then the proposition ought to be rejected.

This does not mean I necessarily reject absolutely everything proposed by the adherents of the beliefs that I have had to treat rather shortly in this section. As I explained back in Chapter 1, I am still obligated to recognize at the very least where I agree with them and to thereby acknowledge real credit of theirs on those issues. Furthermore, it is in principle possible that many of their subordinate points may be valid taken as themselves, and might even be deductively valid if grounded using different foundational principles.

Surely the most obvious illustration of my potential relationship with these people and their beliefs, involves my actual relationship with some of my Christian brethren. I think some of them ground their positions (often without them realizing they are 'grounding' anything!) on some drastic misunderstandings; nevertheless, I actually agree with them on virtually all of their ultimate positions and very many of their subordinate ones. I just don't think they can get there from where they start.

Relatedly, an ontological dualist and I will rapidly come to many serious disagreements; but we also share a few common beliefs (sometimes even for the same reasons). The ontological dualists perhaps make a better example, because I think their core proposition of multiple-IFs, ends up becoming really a proposition for a single IF, if I follow through the implications of their position. I suggest this is one way that reconciliation can take place between myself and at least some of the advocates I have mentioned in this section.

Meanwhile, the advocates with whom I am least likely to find common ground, are the ones who explicitly or implicitly deny their (and my) own rationality (whether or not they are technically on 'my side'). But that should not be surprising: digging a philosophical hole, jumping in, and pulling it in after you, not only leaves no bar to further progress by me but also leaves no means for common dialogue (and thus no means of having, much less finding, 'common ground') between us.

In most cases, however, very many of my opponents should still be on board as viable opposition. I submit that if I had started this book sceptical of Christianity, I would still be a sceptic. But what kind of sceptic would I be?

I would be a sceptic who recognizes that it is entirely possible to discover at least something regarding religious (or anti-religious) propositions. I would not be what I have called a "negative agnostic". I would understand that the statement "discussions about religion can reach no useful answers" undercuts itself, and so cannot be true. If I was an agnostic, I would have reached my agnosticism by evaluating competing claims and finding none of them satisfactory--all of them would, in my opinion, have major problems, including naturalistic atheism. [See first comment below for a deferred footnote here.] But I would therefore be affirming that in principle useful answers one way or another could be discovered (just that, as far as I could tell, nothing I had seen yet had sufficiently accomplished this).

Very closely related to this, I would be a sceptic who does not accept that all statements about God are equally false. I would understand that such a statement refutes itself, because I myself would be claiming thereby to make a true statement about God. My claim would thus end in a necessary contradiction.

Closely related to that, I would be a sceptic who does not accept that all statements about God can be equally true. It cannot be equally true that God really exists in a particular fashion, and also does not really exist in that fashion. Various religions and anti-religions make exclusive claims about what is true or not true about God, Nature, man, etc. To accept that they all hit the mark equally well, I would have to be willing to accept flat contradictions.

Closely related to all of the above points, I would be a sceptic who understands the devastating effect of requiring necessary contradictions in a theory. I would understand that contradictions are propositions which borrow their seeming force from the coherency of language, not from any other sort of reality they may seem (on the face of it) to represent. [Footnote: for that matter, sometimes a contradiction won't even involve a merely grammatic coherency of language!] However, I would also fairly recognize that a properly paradoxical claim is not a true contradiction, but only looks like one--it points to a further link to be discovered which reconciles the apparently exclusive claims of the paradox. Of course, I would check extremely closely to ensure that a proposed 'paradox' really is a paradox and not a contradiction claimed as 'paradox' to deflect analysis (and thus save the theory by cheating). The paradox invites further analysis, in the real hope of truly reconciling the (merely) apparent conflict. I would obviously be on the lookout for requirements of contradictions in religious theories; but if I was a fair sceptic I would also keep a sharp watch for theories from any anti-religious side of the aisle which require necessary contradictions.

Furthermore, as a sceptic, I would keep an eye out for circular argumentation as support for a conclusion, on any side of the aisle; because I would understand why such methods lead a thinker precisely nowhere.

I would be a sceptic who understands that a successful system check of a theory grounded on a hypothesized proposal does not necessarily exclude other theories from being true explanations; and I would also understand that a failed system check does not mean that a given attempted conclusion must necessarily be false. Also, I would be ready to apply this concept both to theories I sympathize with, and to ones I oppose.

As a sceptic, I would be rather suspicious of theories which require that I accept anything without analysis; and this would include theories which hinge on accepting documents as normative without such confirmational analysis. At the same time, if I was going to be fair, I would be ready in principle to acknowledge when documents have details that can be historically corroborated. That would not mean I would be suddenly ready to believe everything else the purported author has claimed; but I would be ready to revise my opinions (to at least some degree) about why and how those documents were produced. [See second comment below for a deferred footnote here.]

Although I might not have started with an understanding of the intimate interrelationship between religious beliefs and reasoning, I think that after studying how we develop beliefs in other venues I would be prepared to reject any attempts (by any side) at divorcing the two concepts. As a sceptic, I think this means I would fairly conclude that religion is not necessarily a private assertion separated from the 'real' 'practical' world by some kind of negatively spiritual ditch. If I did think that, then I might be justified in blowing off the whole proceeding as not having any possibility of relevance for myself. But once I check how beliefs develop in other topics, I would be ready to allow that religious beliefs might possibly be something other than isolated psychological effects. To put it another way, in order to be fair I would deny that "only believers believe their beliefs are based on something other than belief" (as a respondent once dismissively told me). At best such a position would be fatally contradictory to my own beliefs, whatever they are as a sceptic! (It might also be grossly unfair game-rigging if someone showed up for the discussion who really did have reasons other than sheer wish-fulfillment impulses.)

Closely related to the last few points: as a sceptic I would not accept that a flat assertion functions as a belief. Of course, it could easily (and very often does) reflect a developed belief. But that isn't the same thing as being a belief in and of itself. Put another way, I would see such a position as being perhaps the ultimate in wish-fulfillment: to claim reality is such-n-such a way with no justification for this claimed truth other than my mere say-so. As attractive as that position might be to my nature (especially to my ego and my sense of self-preservation), I would still reject it not only for fairness' sake but also because I am not sure I could even reach that position (much less maintain it) without contradicting myself. Put yet another way, if I brutely claim 'no reasons' for holding a stance (no matter what pious coloring I give it using religious-faith language), then I also have 'no reasons' why I should not hold a different stance (much less 'no reasons' why something other than my assertion cannot be true.)

As a sceptic, I would not advocate the concept of an infinite regress. I would understand that this position either denies a real ground to any conclusion (rendering all theories invalid, especially any theories of mine concerning infinite regressions!), or if examined carefully actually turns out to be itself grounded on an Independent Fact. This would also, in passing, close off yet another potential attempt at claiming that 'all religious ideas are equally true/false, therefore I can safely ignore religious questions'.

As a sceptic, I would not advocate the existence of multiple Independent Facts. I would not, for instance, be a ontological dualist, either in terms of a God/Nature dualism or a God/Anti-God dualism. I would understand that the implications of such a stance either cancel themselves out in practice, or else in practice actually reflect the existence of some type of IF above and beyond the entities for which (or for Whom) I was previously claiming that title.

Putting together, to some degree, many of the previous points: as a sceptic, I would not propose that we can discover nothing useful and/or true about the IF. I would understand that such a proposition immediately contradicts itself: if it is impossible to discover true things about the IF, how did I discover that? And I would be extremely leery about proposing that the one possibly discoverable characteristic about the IF is that nothing else can be discovered. For example, there is a good chance that if I was not a Christian, I would be a philosophical naturalist. (More likely a neo-pagan naturalist than a naturalistic atheist, though--at least aesthetically...) And virtually any philosophical naturalist will affirm that true things can be discovered about Nature--which, for the philosophical naturalist, is the IF. [See third comment below for a deferred footnote here.]

[Next time: the leveled playing-field (and the end of the Section)]


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

Not that I have found anything against naturalistic atheism here in my first section, of course. Nor am I saying I have developed a position of positive agnosticism in this section. I am only saying that if I ever became an agnostic, this is the type of agnostic I would be: I would not be an negative agnostic.
Jason Pratt said…
.......[second deferred footnote here]

To use an extreme example, if I started with the position that the authors of the New Testament cared virtually nothing for historical accuracy, I would have to be ready to revise that opinion--and any conclusions I had based on that opinion!--to whatever degree that evidence to the contrary was clearly demonstrated to me.
Jason Pratt said…
.......[third deferred footnote here]

I would also, by the way, consider the naturalists who have surrendered the claim that science can discover true facts about Nature, to be people who recognize irreconcilable problems in naturalism but who are unwilling to advocate something other than naturalism. As a sceptic I would be very suspicious of such claimants; as suspicious as I would be of people who claim to be theists but who deny that true facts can be discovered about God.

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