How Should I Be A Sceptic -- the leveled playing-field

[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.

This is the final entry of the section, and concludes a summary of positions reached in previous entries. I recommend reading at least the previous entry first. I concluded that entry with a paragraph where I stated that even as a sceptic "I would not propose that we can discover nothing useful and/or true about the IF."]

Closely related to this, as a sceptic I think I would discount worldviews (atheistic, pantheistic, theistic, whatever) that require the IF to be an abstract generality. The implication of such a worldview, when followed through, ends by denying the existence of the IF--or else holding such a worldview in name, I would still end up contradicting myself by treating the IF (after all) as a particular highly concrete thing. Put another way, I would understand that the implications of the relationship between the IF and 'derivative' things (even if they turn out to be parts of the IF considered as separate for purposes of convenience) require by default that the IF must be the most real and (in some way) minutely articulated, complex thing in existence. So, for instance, if I was a philosophical naturalist, I would consider the field of Nature (taken as a whole) to be by default the most real, minutely articulated and complex thing in existence. It is not a generality or an abstraction--it could not be an 'abstraction' for the very simple reason that it is by default (per the naturalism philosophy) the Total. More to the point, I would understand that generalities and abstractions and relationships describe things: they are adjectives, not nouns (even if we for convenience often treat them as nouns). It is nonsensical to claim there is an entity corresponding to Pink. Pink describes the attributes of something.

Closely related to that, I would as a sceptic reject theories which require that I do not exist, or that my thoughts must be illusionary, or something of that sort. Such philosophies can only get going by immediately positing and overtly embracing contradictions; and at the best this means I can have no reason to believe them to be true. Put more bluntly, if I really did not exist then 'I' would not be in a position either to discover this for myself or even to flatly assert it!

As a sceptic, although I would perhaps consider the question of derivative gods interesting, I would be much more concerned (at least at first) with discovering the characteristics of the IF. Put another way (for instance, in terms of typical Greek mythology), I would consider the question "Does Zeus exist?" to be subordinate to the question "Is Chaos the fundamental grounding aspect of reality?" Otherwise I would only be putting the horse behind the cart.

As a sceptic, I would be extremely suspicious of philosophies which require the IF itself to be both sentient and non-sentient; again, because deep internal contradictions are necessary to propose this belief, and also because when this type of belief is put into practice it eventually 'collapses' into a practical belief in either a SIF or an n-SIF anyway.

As a sceptic, I would try to treat metaphors fairly and realistically. When reductive metaphors are used, I would try very hard to remember that we should not then subsequently refer back to the distinctive characteristics represented by the reductive metaphor. For instance, although I might have to speak for convenience as if molecules and atomic particles made choices and initiated actions, I would be extremely careful not to hang argumentative points on the requirement that they did those things (assuming I didn't really think they did those things--which, by the way, I don't). People who talk as though parameciums and other microscopic lifeforms 'choose' and 'act' don't always think this is what microorganisms 'do'; yet sometimes these same people will require their metaphor to be literal--that more is going on than what they would otherwise propose was going on. I would always be on the watch for that kind of fudging, be it from supernaturalistic theists or atheists or pantheists or whomever--and I would especially be on the watch for it in my own arguments.

Yet, I would as a sceptic also understand that most of the time when we use metaphorical language we mean more, not less, than the language indicates. The biologist who speaks of a paramecium 'deciding' to go thataway for food probably means less than his imagery suggests--most biologists don't consider paramecia to be capable of conscious choices and other actions, but only capable of automatic reactions and counterreactions. But such use of metaphor (though important) is relatively uncommon. More often, we mean more than the imagery suggests. Language is necessarily reductive, so we have to use similar words for multiple meanings. For example, by 'reductive' in the last sentence, I don't mean that language makes real things smaller. I mean something more complex and nuanced than my language indicates. And I would also play fairly by not requiring that people somehow abandon metaphor and 'talk plainly'. It can't be done; the effort to do so results in choosing other metaphors (without realizing they are metaphors) which are often less efficient at helping the idea across than the original metaphor. On the other hand, sometimes it isn't a bad idea to restate the contention using different imagery and then using a comparison of the two images to help correct and refine the perception of the idea I am trying to communicate. This same process takes place on a somewhat larger scale when analogies are used to help illustrate a previously developed argument.

[Footnote: I would, of course, be on the lookout for the so-called 'argument from analogy' where the analogies only illustrate a blanket assertion--the argument only being presumed to have been made--but I would also be careful not to fall off the horse on the other side and accuse someone of arguing by analogy simply because he happens to use a number of illustrative analogies.]

As a sceptic, I would be very interested in 'evidence', for both my own side and another's. But I would require the burden of proof to be on the instigator of the debate (although if I was going to counter-convince I would need to be ready to marshal my own arguments and evidence).

Also, if I was going to be fair, then as a sceptic I would recognize that a purported supernatural event would very probably leave evidence not much (perhaps not any) different from a natural event. The good news (if I happened to be a naturalist) is that this usually cuts both ways. If a city buried by volcanism is found near the Dead Sea, or another city in Mesopotamia turns up the base of a large ziggurat with attendant documents suggesting that a confusion of language prevented the ziggurat from being completed, then although I might be inclined to accept that the historicity of these accounts in purported scriptures has more strength than I originally allowed, I am not necessarily obligated to assign a supernatural cause to the natural effect--no more than I am necessarily obligated to accept the existence and character of the Greek pantheon after Troy's existence and history are finally corroborated by archaeologists. Then again, if on other grounds I was persuaded that something exists which could be expected to exert supernatural influence to produce those effects, and if the stories tended to match in metaphysics the characteristics of the entity in question, I would be much further along the road to accepting the accounts as presented in the documents. Similarly, if the Greek pantheon could be established metaphysically, I might decide to take Homer's stories as being even closer to history than I originally thought.

So the evidence would have to be something that didn't depend solely on (purported) historical documents; because how I interpret those documents is always strongly affected by my trans-historical beliefs. This is true, even if that trans-historical belief reduces simply down to: "My parents and teachers (and/or preacher) told me so, and I find them to be otherwise trustworthy."

Therefore as a sceptic, I would require that the evidence in favor of, for example, a Sentient Independent Fact (SIF) should be of a type closely related in character to the proposed SIF--and that I should be able to figure out this close relation from inferences about the evidence (not have it dictated to me as an unexaminable premise). In other words, if I thought reality had only two dimensions (length and width) and did not have depth as a third dimension, I would require evidence from the 3-D proponent that some kind of 3-D effect takes place where I can detect it.

I might possibly allow that the effects would be immediately represented in terms of a 2-D effect, and so not hold this necessarily against the 3-D proponent. [Footnote: When a sphere progressively intersects a plane by passing through it, the 2-D man would see a circle grow from apparently nothing and shrink back to apparently nothing--he would not see what we would consider to be the 'shape' of a 'sphere'.]

However, I would at the same time require that this proposed evidence should not be effectively reducible (or fully explainable) in terms of 2-D causes. If the evidence can be explained that way, then although I might still allow that the evidence might perhaps still be explainable by a 3-D cause, I cannot see that I would be under any fair obligation to exclusively accept the 3-D cause over the 2-D cause. The evidence must be such that in principle it cannot be the product of 2-D causes--even if I am naturally restricted from directly perceiving the 3-D cause by being an entity with 2-D perception.

Similarly, the evidence for supernatural ultimate sentience should be such that the evidence cannot in principle be fully explained as a product of the Natural system (taking into account whatever characteristics of the Natural system we can discover, or at least agree upon). Otherwise, although I might allow that the evidence could perhaps be caused by the SIF, I would be under no fair obligation I am aware of to accept the existence of the SIF rather than accept the explanation of purely non-sentient natural causation.

I think this leaves a wide range of potential opposition to Christianity. I can see myself holding these views, and still being an atheist (of various sorts); or some type of polytheist; or perhaps a positive pantheist; or a nominal deist (God created Nature, but has never interfered with it afterwards). I could still be an agnostic (although not an 'intrinsic' agnostic). I think I could be a Jew or Muslim, or an adherent of any of a number of theisms which oppose (to whatever degree) Christianity. I could even be a Mormon, I think.

But I am not any of these. I am an orthodox Christian. And now the time has come for me to begin to build, if I can (or not, if I cannot), a positive argument for the existence and characteristics of God which, although some of my opponents may also find it useful, will (in hindsight) exclusively answer the question: "Why do I think Christianity is true?"

[Coming eventually: Section Two, Reason and the First Person]


Jason Pratt said…
Note: it'll probably be a while before I begin posting Section Two entries. Aside from badly needing a vacation from posting for a while (a chronic illness of mine has been acting up this week and is likely to continue for an indeterminate period of time), there are a couple of smaller projects I want to work up for the Cadre Journal first (if I can); and I have a novel to be writing this summer; and I have at least one chapter toward the end of the next Section that I'm not satisfied with the structure of, yet--while the basic thrust is (I think) correct, the whole chapter needs major redrafting.

There's a reasonably good (though not certain) chance, then, that I won't be returning to the series before September or even later in the autumn. (It's conceivably possible I might not even get back to the series before the end of the year. I just don't know; it'll depend on how my writing schedule and illness goes.)

Until then, keep in mind that I've already posted up the vast majority of material for Section Four (the other longest section of chapters, with this section.) Links can be found at the update page, as noted at the start of all these entries.

Thanks to the Cadre group at large for allowing me to post up huge books' worth of material as journal entries, meanwhile. {g}

Dillie-O said…
Enjoy your break!!! I'll be waiting for the next updates. More importantly, I'll be rereading all the older posts to continue to grasp things better.

Reading all of this has been an excellent refresher for myself and I hope for others too. Keep up the great work when you get to it again!!!

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