I take skepticism to be a kind of virtue—a habit of thought that is directed towards a particular end. According to Aristotle, a virtue is, “…a state that decides, consisting in a mean, the mean relative to us, which is defined by reference to reason, that is to say, to the reason by reference to which the prudent person would define it. It is a mean between two vices, one of excess and one of deficiency” (Aristotle 1999 25; EN II.7.15, 1107a1-4). Understanding skepticism as a kind of virtue that is relative to us, to our ends, makes great sense of how it is that we form beliefs and when we ought to suspend our judgment. For instance, we can let the evolutionary biologists slug it out over whether natural selection favors “group” selection or “kin” selection. Us laymen, and women, can merrily withhold judgment until the facts are in and the dispute is settled. Siding with Wilson, over Dawkins, seems imprudent and overly credulous. And what great end is achieved by deciding the issue too hastily? Instead, we duly dial up our skepticism and resist belief formation with it comes to such scientific mishegas. Within the context of science, skepticism is a healthy attitude to take.
If skepticism is a state that consists in a mean, we see that the deficiency of credulity is something to be avoided. On the other side, in excess, we sense that there is a kind of hard-nosed skepticism that is equally vicious. We might imagine a person who refuses to assent to a belief even with all of the evidence staring him down—like the man who keeps checking his iron and stove before he leaves the house, because he refuses to trust his short-term memories of turning them off. After the third or fourth check, we begin to wonder if he suffers from some sort of compulsion.
But how is it that I, as a Christian, can also laud skepticism as a virtue? Aren’t Christians, by definition, credulous? Perhaps I somehow guard my faith, quarantining it off from creeping doubts while remaining skeptical of all other sorts of woo woo. Not at all! Like many Christians who are interested in apologetics, and the philosophy of religion, I crave learning about the best objections to my beliefs. I want to understand opposing world-views as best as I can. But this raises another important question. Why don’t I suspend my judgment until all of the facts are in? Why shouldn’t I treat Christianity like the Dawkins-Wilson kerfuffle, and wait until the evidence is in and the matter is settled?
For me, the answer comes from William James in his essay “The Will to Believe” (1896). There, James lays out various criteria for when it is permissible to form a belief even when the evidence is not definitive on way or the other. Understanding James’ essay is the first step towards undermining the old “Default Position” line given by so many atheists today. In a nut shell, James argues that it is reasonable for one to form a belief, so long as that belief is a) a living option, i.e. relevant and not clearly or demonstrably false, b) forced, i.e. the belief presents itself as something to accept, or go without, and c) momentous, i.e. utterly life changing (see 1896, n.p.). Whether evolution is directed towards “groups” or “kin” selection (yawn) simply does not meet these criteria. Believing Wilson, or Dawkins is not forced on us, as we can withhold our judgment. Whichever position happens to be correct will not profoundly change one’s raison d’être—at least it isn’t apparent that it should. Contrast this with whether I should have waited to propose to my girlfriend until I had definitive evidence that I ought to marry her. She might never have become my wife. I came to trust and believe that I should marry her, a decision that was very much living, forced, and momentous.* Analogously, my choice to be in a relationship with Christ is a decision that I could suspend until further evidence, but then the opportunity to have such a life-changing relationship might just slip through my fingers, i.e. I could die tomorrow.
Lately, I’ve encountered many atheists define themselves as “lacking a belief in God”. In understanding atheism as a lack of belief, such atheists avoid the messy trouble of trying to argue soundly for God’s non-existence. In simply lacking a belief, they make no claim and so carry none of the onus in disproving God’s existence. And while I sweat away carrying my burden by constructing obscure and overly-metaphysical proofs, they can simply fall back on the skeptic’s position of demanding evidence every step of the way—evidence to their satisfaction. It is that last part that is the kicker, and it there that my discussion of skepticism becomes relevant. When I ask what would satisfy my atheistic friends, they’ll blurt out the oft-repeated Saganism “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”, or its Humean cousin “A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence”(see Hume 2010, 170). And while these dictums sound nice and rational, they are in fact ill-defined and, as I will argue here, arbitrary.
When atheists appeal to something like the above two imperatives, they are no longer treating skepticism as a virtue when it cited as the justification for disbelief as the general default position. As such, the “lack-of-belief”-atheist treats skepticism as a universal and absolute normative epistemological principle—what I call “deontological skepticism”. It should be noted that if skepticism is absolute duty, then there is no excess in skepticism—it pervades the system. According to deontological skepticism, one should suspend judgment on any and all beliefs until sufficient evidence is presented. But is this position rational? I contend that it is not rational, and is in fact arbitrary. This might seem like a shocking claim, especially for those within the “Skeptic Community” who so often equate skepticism with rationality. But if deontological skepticism is arbitrary, then it lacks a foundation in reason. The argument is as follows:
- Either the normative principle underpinning deontological skepticism is entirely subjectively determined, or it is not entirely subjectively determined.
- If deontological skepticism is entirely subjectively determined, then the subject does not appeal to any principle beyond herself in determining the nature of sufficient or compelling evidence.
- If the subject does not appeal to any principle beyond herself in determining the nature of sufficient or compelling evidence, then the decision to accept a deontological principle of skepticism is arbitrary.
- If the normative principle underpinning deontological skepticism is not entirely subjectively determined, then a deontological principle appeals to objective, i.e. mind independent, facts to determine the nature of sufficient or compelling evidence.
- If a deontological principle appeals to objective, i.e. mind independent, facts to determine the nature of sufficient or compelling evidence, then objective facts must be accepted prior to and without regard for a deontological principle of skepticism.
- If objective facts must be accepted prior to and without regard for a deontological principle of skepticism, then the choice to accept those facts is not based upon any principle that would objectively determine whether there is sufficient or compelling evidence for those facts.
- If the choice to accept those facts is not based upon any principle that would objectively determine whether there is sufficient or compelling evidence for those facts, then the decision to accept a deontological principle of skepticism is arbitrary.
- Therefore, the decision to accept a deontological principle of skepticism is arbitrary.
- If the decision to accept a deontological principle is arbitrary, then deontological skepticism is not rationally defensible.
- Therefore, deontological skepticism is not rationally defensible
Basically this argument, a dilemma, reveals the fact that the principle that is appealed to by the deontological skeptic must be exempt from skepticism itself. But there cannot be a justification for this exemption, as the deontological skeptic claims to subject all beliefs to this universal skeptical principle. Skepticism, as a principle, cannot sustain itself.
The alternative, that skepticism is a virtue, has the virtue [pun intended] of being an intellectual habit that stands as a mean relative to contexts. As a virtue, the mean is ultimately determined by our end. But what is our end? As William James notes, “Believe truth! Shun error!-these, we see, are two materially different laws; and by choosing between them we may end by coloring differently our whole intellectual life. We may regard the chase for truth as paramount, and the avoidance of error as secondary; or we may, on the other hand, treat the avoidance of error as more imperative, and let truth take its chance” (1896, n.p.). I think this perfectly illustrates why skepticism must be a virtue. We are all trying to navigate through life believing as many true things as possible, while avoiding as many errors as we can. Flourishing intellectually requires striking a balance between these two “laws”. And this means that we need the art of a virtue, not the science of an inflexible maxim. Insofar as skepticism is a virtue, a Christian can express it while balancing it against the theological virtues of faith, and hope. Under this view, skepticism is not the foundational principle of one’s epistemology, so it is not subject to the same dilemma as sketched out above. Instead, it is a skill that one acquires in light of realizing that one’s end/telos requires heeding to both of these two great laws. And so it is our end that becomes the foundation and impetus for adopting a skeptical attitude if and when the circumstances call for it. Contextualized in this way, skepticism is understood as a filter whose permeability depends upon the kind of beliefs in question. The alternative view offered by the lack-of-belief atheist is, ultimately, irrational in that it places skepticism at the foundation—as the same dense membrane through which all propositions must pass. Yet it never questions the membrane itself! This is a kind of insensitivity that leads one to the presumption that the default position for any matter is one of disbelief. But the fact is that we shouldn’t always begin with doubt. So often, we rightly begin with a more credulous attitude—and work things out from there.
The question might remain: what if I’m wrong about Christianity? I think James said it best, “For my own part, I have also a horror of being duped; but I can believe that worse things than being duped may happen to a man in this world…” (1896, n.p.). Indeed, I could imagine worse things, namely missing out on the possibility that Christianity is true.
*My wife objects to the depiction of our marriage as forced.
Aristotle. 1999. Nicomachean Ethics. 2nd ed. Trans. T. Irwin. Cambridge, MA: Hackett Publishing Company.
Hume, D. 2010. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Ed. T.L. Beauchamp. New York: Oxford University Press.