Skepticism in Faith, Part 2: Logical Skepticism

For the first post in this series, click here.

We talked about a general skepticism of what we can know and how we know what we know in the last post. From this point on, we’re going to take the position that, despite our inability to be absolutely certain about our knowledge, we humans are capable of gaining “functional” knowledge of at least some things—that is, knowledge that approximates capital “T” Truth closely enough that we can reasonably rely on it.

Under that position, the next point of skepticism I’d like to discuss is a healthy skepticism about the ways in which we achieve knowledge and about claims made about the limits (or lack thereof) about certain paths to knowledge.

Let’s talk about science. I must first admit that science does an excellent job of telling us how the world works. However, I would argue that we must maintain skepticism about the extent of science’s ability to tell us about existence, particularly when it comes to the spiritual or metaphysical.

Reputable science requires implementation of the scientific method.[1] Under scientific method, the researcher/investigator must be able to create testable predictions about the object or process under study, a falsifiable hypothesis that may potentially be disproven through experimentation. If the predictions cannot be evaluated in a way that actually tests them, scientific method cannot be applied.

In a way, scientific method follows with a form of epistemological skepticism. Despite talk about the “laws” of physics and such, science doesn’t actually prove things in the way we laypersons tend to think of proof. Instead, science steadily disproves alternative explanations until we reach explanations that seem to be creeping ever closer to reality, but never absolute certainty (although close enough to treat it as such—by this point, Newton’s laws are as much a certainty as is possible).

Science, and particularly theoretical physics (which I greatly enjoy learning about so long as you don’t ask me to do any calculations), does often start with a theory based on observation and testing for refinement, but the testing of theories still involves attempts to disprove them to see whether they survive such analysis.

Here’s the issue where skepticism of the scientific method (as a general example of what I’m calling “logical” skepticism) comes in: some purport that science “proves” things that cannot be falsified by experimentation. Here’s a short list of examples:

(1) The existence of God. There’s not a scientifically testable hypothesis here. Yes, you can have a hypothesis, but it’s only as good as something like “I speculate that the color blue looks the same to me as it does to other people.”

(2) The materialist worldview. Again, this is a hypocritical application of science to try to “disprove” the existence of a spiritual reality; science isn’t equipped to answer those questions and those who use materialist to assert the absence of a spiritual reality have created an atheistic religion around science; a certain threshold of honesty has been crossed. To me, just the fact that there are very intelligent scientists who say “science made me a believer” and also very intelligent scientists who say “science made me an atheist” reveals the failing of science to definitively answer such questions.

(3) Near-death or mystical religious experiences. The problem here is in the name; it’s an experience, and thus not fully communicable between individuals. That said, the thrust of materialist science has been to “prove” that such experiences are actually the result of chemicals affecting the brain (ketamine for one) or electromagnetic effects on the same (the famous “God Helmet” experiment). Scientifically, those types of experiments are flawed in that they can demonstrate correlation but not causation (which takes us back to Mr. Hume, interestingly)—they can say, “we notice high levels of ketamine in the brains of people who later claim near-death experiences,” but they can’t logically claim that that means that ketamine was the cause. It could be possible that a near-death experience causes a release of ketamine in the brain; we just can’t know. Further, many experiments of this nature have been shown to be irreproducible, a key factor in scientific theory—a group of northern European scientists attempting to recreate the “God Helmet” study concluded that the results came from bad scientific method and the power of suggestion upon test subjects, not electromagnetic fields.

(4) Qualia. The “thingness” of subjective conscious experience. Both philosophy and science have thus far proved of little help in the analysis of experience. This is a natural consequence of the existential fact that we do not have the ability to share our own experiences with others and are therefore inhibited by the constraints of language from making deep comparisons of subjective experience between individuals.

Perhaps advances in science and scientific understanding will help us to answer some of the questions above with experiments I simply cannot conceive of with the knowledge available. However, I choose to believe that there is a damn good reason the most important questions are not readily answerable, and I think that that reason points to God’s purposefulness. I digress; we can discuss that another time.

It has become popular among certain scientists, like Steven Pinker, to create new fields of science starting from preconceived suppositions about the way the world works and using the new field to support those suppositions—“evolutionary psychology” is, I think, the foremost offender in this field. If you’re not familiar, evolutionary psychology seeks to explain modern human psychology as the result of greater or lesser degrees of evolution, in a similar way to the evolution of the human physiology. Now, admittedly, the theories of evolutionary psychologists could be absolutely true (though I strongly doubt it). The problem is that they sell the field as science. We don’t know enough about the psychology of ancient homo sapiens and his predecessors to do anything but speculate about the origin of our own psychologies, much less create a falsifiable hypothesis that can be tested—the conditions in which to test such theories have long expired. Interesting ideas to be sure, but it remains disingenuous to call them science.

It is only fair, as someone who believes in both science and faith and sees the relative boundaries for their application to certain questions, to apply the same sort of logical skepticism to faith.

At the end of the day, faith is the belief in certain answers to questions we cannot otherwise answer. That does not mean that we should look only to faith and tradition to answer every question about the world around us.

In the first of two points I want to make about logical skepticism in faith (with, of course, particular reference to Christianity), let’s talk about the Book of Genesis.

There is a trend among evangelical Christians, particularly in America, to believe in the literal truth of the Bible. Having read some of my other posts, you should know that I do not ascribe to, and passionately resist, such a belief as a necessary (or even beneficial) aspect of Christian faith.

Genesis gives us a creation story that, if read for allegory and metaphor, actually doesn’t clash much with what science tells us about the Big Bang, evolution and other well-supported theories about the physical origins of matter and life. Adam Hamilton has written some good work going through the ways in which faith and science coincide in Genesis; I believe that this is in his Making Sense of the Bible but I’m not sure as I write this post.

And yet, many Christians want to read Genesis as a literal explanation of Creation. Here’s where logical skepticism comes in:

First, let’s apply some logical skepticism to Biblical literalism in general. The doctrine asks us to believe that every book in the Bible was written directly by God through some form of automatic writing in the humans that penned it. I would not say that God could not do this (that would be foolish), but experience indicates that this doesn’t seem to be God’s usual modus operandi. Of course, using strict logic, this is not a question that can be definitively answered.

So, let’s consider some additional thoughts. When Jesus speaks, he usually tells stories and uses metaphor (see my earlier posts on Ambiguity in Scripture for an examination of how this makes his words more powerful and effective); rarely does he speak in a straightforward and plain manner—when he does, it is almost certainly a command to love.

If we want to result to hard literary criticism, we can note definite stylistic differences in books of the Bible, sometimes competing purposes or concerns (each of the Gospels recounts many of the same events but with different perspectives, motivations and goals) and even different underlying ideologies (like Platonism in Paul’s epistles). While God is certainly capable of using different approaches and different purposes between books, multiple authorial voices may be a better explanation.

Historically, we can point to the different periods of writing of the books of the Bible—Paul didn’t have access to the Gospels, for instance—and the long history of the compilation of the certain books that form what is accepted as the canonical Bible with the selection of certain texts over others, concerns about forgeries, dubious authorship and poor copies all along the way. We didn’t have the Bible as we commonly think of it until rather late in the 4th century.

One that needs little explanation: If we take Jesus’s statement that we ought to cut off body parts that cause us to sin literally, we ought to have a lot more amputees.

Again, none of this disproves the position of Biblical literalism and infallibility, but the evidence taken together makes it highly unlikely that such a position can stand under its own weight.

More important, because it applies not only to the question of Biblical literalism but to theology in general is that any theological system must maintain internal consistency; it should not contradict itself. When we take literally both the Old Testament events in which we are told that God endorses wholesale slaughter and Jesus’s command to love our neighbors as ourselves, we have problems in logical consistency.

I have heard many seemingly-commonly-held theological positions within Christianity that openly court such contradiction. Take “God cannot stand to be in the presence of sin”, for instance, a statement that is sometimes used to explain the need for Jesus’s redemption. The very statement is self-contradictory, because Jesus spends most of his time (all of it really) in the presence of sinners. If Jesus is wholly human and wholly God, the statement cannot stand. That it begins with “God cannot…” should be our first clue. We can’t rightly talk about “God could not”, though we might talk about “God does not” (or, correctly, “God does not seem to”).

To combine our skepticisms of both science and theology, when there is dispute between science and scripture, we ought to rely on the science to tell us how the world works and our faith to explain to us how existence works. I believe in evolution as the likeliest explanation for how humans became humans, but that doesn’t tell us why there are humans, or why, in a cosmic sense, there is life at all. I believe that we should incorporate new scientific understandings into our understanding of God—if God created the world in a certain way, why might God have done that? The synthesis of science and faith can do much more for us than vainly attempting to pit the two against one another.

But this brings me to the ultimate point: logical skepticism gives us some intellectual honesty. The tendency to question whether certain evidences prove something (much less how they prove it) protects us from logical fallacies.


[1] There are some competing theories of scientific methods, such as the “anything goes” approach espoused by Karl Feyerabend, but these I think are sufficiently held to be “out in left field” by the scientific community at large to be largely discounted.

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.