Skepticism in Faith, Part I: Epistemological Skepticism

I’ve said before, and will likely say many times again, I believe that a skeptical approach is essential to true faith, as it causes us to test ourselves and our beliefs. In this series of indeterminate length, I want to look at a few types of skepticism and why they are helpful to us. We start with epistemological skepticism.

If you haven’t studied formal philosophy (and why would you; you want to have a job, right?), epistemological skepticism is a pretentious way to say doubt (skepticism) about human knowledge (the study of which is called epistemology). I am of the opinion that is highly unlikely (perhaps impossible given the limits of our understanding) that humans have perfect knowledge of any aspect of reality.

Let me borrow an example from eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume. Let’s say you have a billiards table and balls on the table. When you shoot pool, you rely on the expectation that the angle and speed at which the cue ball hits your target ball will determine the direction and speed of that target; this is simply vector physics.

But think about that exchange for a minute. Why do you believe that hitting the target ball with the cue ball—or hitting the cue ball with the pool cue for that matter—will result in the struck object moving? Because every time you have done it before, that’s how it’s worked. In fact, every time you’ve applied force to any object in the physical world, it has reacted in relation to the intensity and direction of that force.

Now ask yourself whether that experience proves the relevant laws of physics. If your answer is “yes,” you’re unfortunately wrong. What you have is a one-hundred percent correlation between the cue ball striking the target ball and the target ball moving in a specific way. Correlation is not causation. You cannot prove that the balls might not do something different the next time they are struck, or that it is steady coincidence that they have moved in the way that they have.

Now, on the one hand, this is an argument ad absurdum.[1] You “know” that that’s how physics works, you’ve relied on that your whole life and regardless of what I say here, you’re going to continue to rely on that. You should; it would impossible to live a reasonable life without relying on that expectation.

On the other hand, it does pose some important questions: how do we know what we know? Do we know what we think we know? In short, the causalities that we rely on are really high levels of correlation that strongly imply but do not prove causality. This is just one example, and epistemological skepticism as a whole is doubt about our ability to accurate understand reality for what actually is.

Epistemological skepticism keeps us humble—it reminds us that we may only have good approximations of answers and not answers themselves. Such a thought requires us always to revisit our ideas to determine if they may be improved, if we may edge just a little closer to actual reality, understanding that we remain ever within a cloud of uncertainty around the actual point of truth.

If we humans through our own efforts can never know exact truth, do we have any access to capital “T” Truth? God’s omniscience understands all things as they actually are and God’s omniscience allows God to reveal that Truth to us according to divine will. Hence scriptures that tell us God’s understanding surpasses human understanding as the stars are far above the earth and that God’s wisdom makes fools of the (human) wise. We have, in modern society, lost much of the mystical and intuitive practice of the Christian faith.

On the flipside of this, skepticism about the quality of our knowledge also helps us discern what might be a revelation from God and what might be us fooling ourselves, or engaging in wish fulfillment, or trying to cover our own desires with God’s permissions.

More important, this kind of skepticism makes manifest the importance of where we put our faith and belief. If there’s little or nothing that we can be absolutely sure of, what statements of truth do you believe so fervently as to call them Truth and live as if they are absolutely true?

Such questions, I hope, make it clear why the Bible warns us not to judge others—can we really be so sure that our judgments are right? If this skepticism leads us to try to live in peace with one another despite our differences, it is priceless.

For the next post in this series, click here.


[1] Admittedly, there is a circular logic to the strictest of epistemological skepticisms—if we can’t know anything, how can we know that epistemological skepticism is a valid position? Like most philosophical statements, there is a rabbit-hole to be leapt down here into a wonderland of nuance and complexity. I’ll leave it to you to investigate further if you are so inclined.

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