Today I am enjoying the privilege of sitting in on some high school senior religion classes (through virtual conferencing software) and taking the role of non-believer, challenging the students on what they believe, especially in regards to the resurrection.
Some may think it difficult to take the role of the skeptic but I find it to be astonishingly easy. So easy, it reminded me of some observations about skeptics and their arguments- or more precisely, the wind that carries them- that I’ll share now.
It’s easy to be a skeptic because it is much easier to not believe something as to believe it. Skepticism has no non-arbitrary stopping point. That is, full blooded skepticism will naturally morph into cynicism. There is no objective point where any kind of argument, piece of evidence, or logical deduction must coerce belief. This is a point I raise in this post. Many skeptics construe their skepticism as an act of courage, as though being willing to question everything shows a brave streak that others do not have. To a point, there is courage… and in a way, yes, there is something to that.
However, if it is brave to question everything it is braver still to believe anything. Let me illustrate.
Let’s say we are debating the location of a particular car. Person ‘Bob’ says the car is in location X. Person ‘Steve’ is not convinced. Now, there are an infinite number of places that the car actually could be but there is only one place that it actually is. If Bob points to location X, Steve need only only retort that it might actually be in location Z or Y or BB, or H, or ALKJDKLJDF, ad infinitum. Steve can strictly only be refuted on any particular point by traveling to one of those points to see if it is actually there or not. If it isn’t, Steve”s worldview is left basically intact, because rather than conceding the point he can always raise the possibility that it could be somewhere else.
Bob, on the other hand, is making a definitive statement that he is prepared to back up. In sum, negative assertions exist in infinite numbers but positive assertions are bound to narrow, finite realities.
Now, I know that you are saying that in this scenario Bob can make his case simply enough to Steve by showing him to location X, and thus Steve will be compelled to stop his dispute. This would be rational, but this would not be the spirit of skepticism that I’ve observed related to discussions of God and Christianity. If a person does not want to accept something, pure skepticism allows them an infinite number of escapes.
So, Steve, upon being given the exact location of the car and the opportunity to examine it, can still say such things as…
- “Maybe the car only appears to be there. It could be a hologram.”
- “The car could be a hallucination that we are sharing.”
- “Perhaps we are both encased in a life sustaining device ala the Matrix where in reality we THINK we can feel and touch the car, but in fact, this is just a trick of our mind.”
- “Space aliens have implanted this experience because they want us to reveal technological secrets to them so they can invade us.”
- “Given a nearly infinite amount of other, parallel universes, it could be that the car is actually located in another of the universes but because of some, yet undiscovered, quantum law, an image of it is able to present itself to our minds but it is physically located in some other universe.”
- “The car is not here. You are not here. The universe is not here. It is all a function of my singular mind- solipsism is actually true, and there are many who agree!”
And so on and so forth. If this sounds ridiculous, you are looking at variations of skeptical arguments that I have actually heard. For example, I had an atheist tell me that even if Jesus really did rise from the dead, this could be explained as an alien abduction. Note, he didn’t actually believe this. His point was simply that he could come up with a naturalistic explanation and any naturalistic explanation is preferred over a supernaturalistic one. And how many times have the implications derived from contemplating the ‘agreed’ facts about the origin of the universe- apparently at a discrete point in time in our history, from nothing- been parried by the skeptic by invoking the multiverse?
As a case in point, consider Stephen Hawking’s recent determination that ‘something can come from nothing.’ Ie, the universe could have just ‘popped’ into existence, uncaused.
Well, obviously if someone is prepared to believe such a thing, than believing anything about anything and nothing about everything is welcome. For example- you think you are reading this post… in fact, the universe just popped into existence a micr0second ago, replete with the appearance of age and the illusion that you have been living out a life this whole time. In fact, it just ‘popped’ into experience, fully formed with its mature nature and your recollections- uncaused.
This isn’t bravery or courage when one has descended to that level of thinking. If anything, it is the opposite- it is pure cowardice. The really brave thing would be to admit that by all appearances, the universe had a discrete beginning and its madness to think that it came into existence without a cause. Everything else we know with beginnings have causes- why the exception for the universe? Gone is the day when the atheist could posit that the universe is eternal. The scientific evidence points to something else, but as we see in this scenario, the skeptic can still find a way to question and doubt and as this example illustrates, is perfectly willing to go well beyond science and well beyond what we could ever, in principle, know as an empirically verifiable fact.
In saying all this, I do not contend that all belief is warranted or that arguments for belief in a particular thing are very good or well substantiated. I don’t mind rigorous evaluation of truth claims. However, I am saying that the skepticism of the atheist is only courageous insofar as there is a realistic place on the spectrum of questioning where he would be willing to settle on something definitive as true and real. As a corollary, someone who is willing to finally make up their mind that something is true and real and is ready to change their life to reflect that conclusion also exhibits courage and bravery, and this courage and bravery is of a different character than the courage of questioning. The latter, as I have argued, can go on and on forever, while the former must eventually choose a hill to stand on, and on that hill, possibly ‘die.’
I said early on that there is no non-arbitrary break between free wheeling skepticism and outright cynicism. I stand by that (bravely). To keep someone from becoming a simple cynic one will have to pick a place where one will be willing to give their provisional assent. And then… and this is key… hold firm to that, consistently, wherever it leads you and whatever consequential implications follow from doing so.
For example, if you choose to accept as true that which is empirically verifiable, and reject that which is not, then you know that things that have beginnings have causes- and the universe had a beginning. Will you accept this implication or will you chuck out your standard now that it has produced a conclusion that threatens your atheism?
I give this as an example of what I mean, and it should not be construed as exhaustive. For example, I might also ask: what of the things you believe are true and real that you have not demonstrated empirically?
Ok folks, be brave out there.