How Should I Be A Sceptic -- preliminary clarifications

A sceptic, in perhaps the broadest sense, is a person who does not immediately accept a proposition, but questions it. In this sense, I can see (and so believe) that any good thinker, including any good Christian, ought to be a ‘sceptic’; so long as the questioning is intended for understanding, and not for the sake of throwing as much fog as possible.

In perhaps the most limited sense, there is a philosophical (or, rather, sophistic) position known as ‘scepticism’, where the intent is to call everything into inextricable question (even “intents” themselves). I will be discussing variations of this position later.

Usually, though, I use ‘sceptic’ in a more moderately broad (though not the broadest) sense, to refer to people who do not already agree with me on many important (even “crucial”) details. This seems more polite than calling such people ‘unbelievers’ (for many people who disagree with me may in fact believe in God, even as I believe in God, in some fashion); or ‘infidels’ (which has connotations of treachery).

At any rate, all of my writing is in honor (and love) of the positive sceptic: the one who questions in search of (perhaps better) answers, and who is willing to believe whatever can be found to be true--even if she doesn’t yet know what that is.

It may be rightly asked, then, why I believe Christianity to be true. I don’t only mean that this may be rightly asked by a sceptic (though that, too); I mean that I may rightly ask this in proper self-criticsm! Which I have frequently done, and continue to do, in order to head off self-complacency and to help identify any mistakes I may be making at any given time so that I can correct those.

But of course, if I do this, then it means nothing as an exercise unless I play fair: I must be prepared to alter my own beliefs if I find better light to walk by. Otherwise, I am not being faithful to truth--only to my own beliefs.

Admittedly, if I turn out to be the final fact of all existence, upon whom all truths (including the truths of my own existence) depend for reality, then that would not be improper!--but then again, I might not be (let us say) God Almighty, either! If I am not, then I am dependent upon supervening facts of reality, whatever (or whomever, or Whomever) those are; and, to put it mildly, I will not be acting in best conjunction with that reality, if I am willingly unfaithful to truth in preference to my own beliefs.

All of which is an initial (and very partial) illustration of the breadth of topics that will be covered, one way or another, explicitly or implicitly, in deciding what to believe as true in what is called a person’s “worldview”. Put more briefly, these are some of the topics of the discipline of “metaphysics”.

To say the least, most people do not rigorously engage in such belief-polishing (and/or correction). Not that it doesn’t still happen, but most of time people are barely cognizant of the process; they’re doing it, but they are in no position to explain what they are doing or how--not unlike the way that I may be fairly skilled and efficient at playing a computer game, without having much-or-any real understanding of what is happening in the software and hardware.

By tautology, though, someone who sets themselves to rigorously consider what they should believe, will (or should ideally) be rigorously considering what they should believe. This is what I did back in late 1999 through early 2000; and this series of posts will be based on a book I wrote as part of that exercise.

(The book is not published, by the way; nor have I seriously sought either to publish it or to have it published. I use it more as a private notebook. I have, however, already posted up a long series of entries based on chapters later in that book, which can be found beginning here.)

The very first thing I obviously discovered, is that I already believed very many things to be true: I was enlisted (and had enlisted myself) on the side of the existence of a particular ‘sort’ of God, since my early childhood. The next obvious thing is that there can be a difference (though not necessarily so) between how I came to believe these things to be true, and how-and-why I may believe them to be true now, today. Indeed, if I look more closely I will find that I am bringing particular notions to the table even if I provisionally set aside the larger notions of God’s existence and character.

This is nothing for me to be nervous about: you (my reader) also have certain understandings of God (or of 'theology' or at least of something regarding truth) which you are bringing to the table. I probably disagree with some of those understandings. But I hope you will be pleasantly surprised to discover I agree with you more often than you expect. In fact, this is one of my key hopes; because without common grounds, I can have no way even to successfully communicate. If you cannot understand why I believe what I do, then why should I expect you to accept that I have argued validly to a conclusion different from what you believe? At the same time, if you (truly) understand why I believe what I do, then you might be able to effectively (and properly) refute me!

So it will be expedient for me to highlight commonalities of belief, for both our sakes.

However, this may involve clearing away some misunderstandings which would otherwise block our efforts.

I do not say these would (necessarily) be willful misunderstandings, either on your part or on mine. A misunderstanding can easily result from incomplete information, or from a logical mis-step in discovering the implications of the information, or even from a mere misconception about a piece of data. But though inadvertent, such misunderstandings do have results in our consequent understandings about what to believe to be true. You or I might decide that Argument A cannot be true 'because' Proposition Z about God (for instance) prevents it from being true; yet Proposition Z may be a misconception.

It seemed best to me, then, to spend time first, before beginning a positive argument about what I should believe to be true for my “worldview”, leveling the playing field, so to speak. How many decisions could I preliminarily make about what to believe while still keeping a maximum number of potential options for belief open?

As it happens, quite a few!--the material ended up providing my second longest section of chapters! But at the time, I didn’t know that this would be the result.

Where to begin, though, in leveling the playing field? How should I begin in being a good sceptic?--for, in my heart, I also wanted to be able to approach matters of belief in as much solidarity as I could find, with those who did not already believe what I believed to be true.

Well, the most basic place to start seemed to be with myself; just as, when stepping forth to climb a mountain or ford a canyon or swim an ocean, I have to (obviously!) move myself along through examination and action. But examination, of myself and my surroundings, with an eye toward such a venture, includes checking for obstacles in the way of such a venture. What if I myself am one of the obstacles? Are there ways in which that could be true? If so, I had better deal with those now!--or else I will be tracing a path to nowhere! (Or worse.)

Self-reflexively turning the tables upon myself, then, my own first suspicion would be: ‘Aha! He is going to sneak in some presuppositions, so that when he "begins" his "main" argument, his conclusion will have already been built-in from the start!'

After all, I have seen other writers try exactly this tactic. So, I made a resolution not to do such a thing, and to watch out against doing such a thing.

And in hindsight, I can report that I must have had at least some good success at this; for, so far as I can see, none of the issues I eventually raised in this section provided evidence or argument exclusively for the existence of God (especially as I understood, and today still understand, God).

Put another way, if I was (for instance) an honest and well-informed atheist, I would argue the exact same points which I ended up arguing in this section. I would not want my atheism to depend upon the positions I will be arguing against.

Hopefully, then, an atheist (or a pantheist, or polytheist, or agnostic, or rival theist) will be as close as possible to perfect agreement with me by the end of this section, and yet still be what they were when they started.

Of course this works both ways--or it had better work both ways; otherwise I will be cheating! And so I reach a next warning against myself: if I argue 'x is true' and a denomination or some other group or individual agrees that 'x is true', then I should fairly admit that I agree on that issue. This way I can fairly claim to have a difference of belief with other people, too: my opposition when our truth-claims collide will not be due to reluctance on my part to find actual agreements with my opponents insofar as I can.

Moreover those agreements should not primarily be for ‘my own’ benefit, as ammunition for my own defense; but for our benefit together. Otherwise I will be led into selective abuse of agreements, and thus into abuse of those with whom I am disagreeing: it will not be about us, in an interpersonal relationship, but only about me.

To give a working example: I should accept the Roman Catholic Church to be some bearer of the truth, if I believe the existence of all things depends upon God. And I would also be obligated to agree that Jews and Muslims are being true to that extent, insofar as they claim the same thing. [Footnote: Of course, my agreement with the Roman Catholic Church goes much further than this. Then again, so do my agreements with many forms of Judaism and Islam.]

Or, to give a more complex example, involving both agreement and disagreement: as a Christian, I have no problem believing that Mormons are doing their best to follow Jesus; and I have no problem believing that Jesus knows this, and accepts their faithful loyalty and devotion. And certainly a Mormon will agree with me on this!--sins aside (which of course we will both agree we should be penitent about.)

Yet, I very strongly disagree with the Mormons who believe God was once a mortal human like us, causally dependent on and derived from Nature (whether this Nature or another one), who essentially 'developed' into Deity. If I conclude that God did not develop up from a derivative creature produced by Nature, I am obligated to conclude that Judaism and Islam (or even a nominal deism such as held by several of America's "Founding Fathers") are closer to being the truth, on this point, than the 'Latter-Day Saint Christians'. But, I do not accept this strenuous disagreement between us to be an excuse for me to ignore or discount or disrespect the agreements (such as they are) that we actually have. Nor should I treat such agreements as being only tools for my own ideological convenience.

So, if I think proposition X is correct, I am obligated to admit that other people who share a belief in proposition X are also correct on that score, and thus to acknowledge some real credit on their part, independent of whatever ideological use (or inconvenience!) I may find in recognizing that shared agreement. If I don't, then I am the one who is willfully burning a potential bridge, of communication and understanding, between those people and myself. To say the least, such an action on my part cannot be done in legitimate conjunction with any goal or duty to interact with persons as persons; at best I could only be trying to make them react to my mere stimulus: the same as if I was trying to enslave them by a dark enchantment.

Of course, rigorously speaking I might discover later that this is in fact all I can be doing; mimetically enchanting other humans in a competition of domination. I only record here that this is where I am beginning. I leave it to my reader to decide whether you will appreciate this in principle, or not. For there might be deep logical corollaries involved in recognizing an argument to be an argument between persons!

Until such time as I can examine that notion further, I will simply note here that if all I am doing is trying (so to speak) to coat you, my reader, with paint so that you will fluoresce when exposed to ultra-violet light, then I am not really presenting arguments to be judged. Attempting to only induce a memetic reaction may be much safer for me; but it denies and traduces your own existence as a person. At best, any ‘argument’ I attempted to make would be the same as making ‘love’ to a plastic doll; it could only be a pretense (at best) on my part, even if the doll was very complex and efficient in its reactions.

Thus, if I present an argument to you, I choose instead to be at least consistent with the immediate implications of doing so: I will treat you as a person, and let the corollaries fall out where they may from that treatment.

It will be work; and where we truly oppose one another it can be only uncomfortable work. I will hope, however, that I can find enough common ground for it to be tolerable work--and that in the end it will have been worth an opponent's time and effort, whatever the outcome.

Of course, for an opponent who dismisses my attempts with an airy wave of the hand and a platitude (my opponents will probably be quite familiar with similar tactics coming from my side of the aisle), it will not be work at all and probably not uncomfortable!

And so I come to the topic of my next chapter.

[Next week: but, is there even any point to discussing such topics at all?]


Anonymous said…
Jason Pratt,

Why don't you selfpublish your book via It is easy and gives you an opportunity to get feedback.

Are you going to address more issues next week like:
- How did you apply sceptism when becoming a Christian?
- Can Yahweh believing Christian objectively investigate miracles of an other religion?
- Can an atheist who denies all gods objectively investigate miracles of any religion?
- How would a sceptic Christian investigate the claims that a star announced the birth of Jesus and Alexander the Great?

And most importantly; is faith and sceptism compatible?

BK said…

Do you have a resource that shows that there was a star at the birt of Alexander the Great? I have heard that, but I have never found a legitimate source that backs that claim up.
Jason Pratt said…

Actually, I own my own small publishing company already. {g} Lulu is certainly an inexpensive way to go, but when I do decide to publish it (which I do not expect to be for decades yet--something like this needs polishing for much longer than I've had it) I'll be going through my current contractor at the time (whomever they are. Right now it's Bookmasters, but that could change.)

Some quick answers to questions:

{{How did you apply sceptism when becoming a Christian?}}

Ah!--a very good question. Of course it depends on the kind of scepticism we're talking about (see the first few paragraphs above.) As a matter of practical practice I am more interested in why (or whether) I should continue to believe Christianity to be true (or x-set of nominally identifiable 'Christian' claims, to be more precise), as an active contemplation today; but I will be covering my original belief-forming process, too, both for continuity sake and for comparison. (This will be coming up in entries not far from now, but it may not be the immediate next entry. I'm going in a topical progression.)

Meanwhile, I am one of those persons who decided when I was 7 years old that what I was being in taught in Sunday School about Noah's Ark (for instance) didn't quite add up. {g} So I learned early to do my own work; and this is also how I got into the habit of thinking such things were positively interesting rather than something to be scared of. (To a 7-year-old everything counts as interesting. {s!})

I pledged my loyalty to Christ and became a penitent of my sins in May of 1980, when I was about 9-1/2 years old, but I have never ceased being inquisitive, and self-critical of my own understanding. That includes ante-ing up my own beliefs and putting them at risk, on the possibility that something else other than what I am believing at any given time may be truer to believe. I don't restrict this process to my religious beliefs, and neither do I exclude them from it.

{{Can Yahweh believing Christian objectively investigate miracles of an other religion?}}

I will not be discussing miracle claims of particular religions (mine or others) for a very very very very {g} long time; I mean for purposes of belief-acceptance. There are a huge number of other topics to be considered first in logical priority, I think (and have found). I will be discussing various challenges inherent in assessing religious claims (including miracles) as I go, however; including with sympathy to sceptics (in the broad-middle sense mentioned above.)

However, if I must answer briefly, it would be: a YHWH-believing Christian is exactly as capable of objectively investigating miracles of another religion as an atheistic Buddhist is capable of doing so (including miracle claims of Christianity). {g} In what sense (or senses) this is proper and true, I will be discussing along the way.

{{How would a sceptic Christian investigate the claims that a star announced the birth of Jesus and Alexander the Great?}}

The whole series provides a large-scale answer to this.

Meanwhile, keep in mind that the pagan magi who show up in the GosMatt story are obviously working in a tradition where births of kings generally are foretold in stars. I think such claims are interesting, and I have no particular compunction in principle against it having happened for Alexander or any of many such kings; including Augustus himself if I recall correctly. The question of literary borrowing in order to invent a competitive/comparative incident is a whole other ball of wax; and that question should be distinguished from the other. e.g. did the Matthaean author (or his community) borrow from Augustus Caesar's birth? (Rather more likely than from Alexander's, btw.) Did Augustinian oracles borrow from Alexander's? These are different questions than whether stars announcing births are (a) possible (in a non-accidental way) and (b) something we should be expecting to happen in such-n-such a case. Nor are the challenges mutually exclusive of each other: getting answers to one kind of question might not constrain the kind of answers we can properly get to the other set.

{{And most importantly; is faith and sceptism compatible?}}

Depends on the kind of scepticism, of course, and on how the kinds are being applied. I mentioned no less than three kinds at the beginning of my entry. Obviously I think faithfulness and belief (concepts I will be discussing later) are entirely coherent with the broadest type (first mentioned); and are still coherent with the third kind I mentioned, although they will tend to color each other in regard to topics.

(For example, obviously I am sceptical of atheism, compared to an atheist, in that third sense of scepticism; which is hardly incommensurate with my faith in any sense. {g} But I acknowledged the same relationship to hold for people who believe differently than I do, too.)

Anonymous said…
Mr. Pratt, I just want to say that I look forward to other insights you may have on this matter because this particular article was engaging and well thought out.

That's all I really wanted to say :)
Jason Pratt said…
Thanks, M. {g}

I'm running a bit behind this week. (Busy-ness back at 'work' work.) But I set up about half of the next entry this morning while waiting on some other stuff, so I should be ready to post in the next couple of days. (Probably not tomorrow though. Still catching up at work.)


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