The Problem of Skepticism
We live in a day and age fraught with skepticism and disbelief. Ours is a world filled with profound and deep uncertainty. Incidentally, it is a day very similar to the times of Jesus Christ. Perhaps you can imagine seeing it for yourself.
Watch the think clouds of dust as they rise into the air. View the people as they shuffle impatiently about. Behold the teeming crowds as they press closer in to see him: “What are these wonderful signs?” they thought. “Surely this man is a fraud!”
So it was that the Jewish people dismissed the man called Christ. More than that, they killed him by nailing him to a cross. Similarly, today, the situation is sadly, very much the same. “How can anyone believe in the claims of the Gospel?” many wonder. And so a skeptical, doubting, disbelieving world, carelessly dismisses Jesus Christ as being just another teacher.
But is this altogether wise?
Some time ago, I was sitting at a coffee table, waiting for my vehicle’s oil to be changed at a local, regional, Toyota dealership. The car being worked on had previously belonged to my grandfather. (Sadly, grandpa passed away later that same day.) As I sat there waiting, I glanced at a nearby television. My eye caught sight of a slogan for a national cable outlet. The name of the network was “The Science Channel.” And emblazoned into the logo were the two words: “Question Everything!”
As I read the phrase, I couldn’t help but chuckle inwardly. “How quaint,” I mused. “And how altogether predictable.” For here before me was one of the most popular cultural watchwords of our time. “Don’t ever take anything at face value,” we are warned. “Always be prepared to discover the hidden agenda.” We thus remain foolishly prone to a woefully misguided and grossly uncritical mindset. For we guard our skepticism, clinging to it resolutely as though it were, somehow, the only way for us to be kept from being tricked or perhaps hoodwinked by myth or ideology.
But is this truly a fitting mindset? Can we hope to discover anything by means of such a fallow ethos? Or, put another way, is our skepticism really the most effective way for us to decide whether something is ultimately true or false?
It would seem that the patrons of the "Science Channel" would have us say yes. It seems that they would prefer we view doubt as the only sure way for settling anything as fact. Yet a closer look at this pan-popular philosophy just might reveal a different side to this kooky cultural mindset.
Why do I say this? Allow me to explain...
The Philosophy of Skepticism
Skepticism, by design, is a poorly conceived system. This is something which leading thinkers of centuries ago recognized to be true. For from it's very early beginnings, prominent Greek philosophers of antiquity recognized that skepticism was nothing more than a never-ending gauntlet of questions which never ultimately yield any conclusive certainties. It is therefore a great wonder to me that skepticism has survived as long as it has amongst thinking people. For at the end of the day, skepticism must inevitably fall (dare I say in worship) at the feet of one of three great problems:
the infinite regress;
circular reasoning; or...
the axiomatic argument.
Of course, to the lay reader, the above description sounds overly academic. It is therefore often overlooked on the grounds of it’s superficial complexity. I however, disagree with such hasty surmisings. For even the average person can grasp the titanic errors of skepticism.
In fact, I would push the argument even further than that. I would say that the impasse currently facing skepticism is so great an issue and so mountainous a problem, that any clear thinking person, upon recognizing the problems, would thoughtfully contemplate abandoning his skepticism entirely.
So friend, let’s have a look at the true face of skeptical doubt, shall we?And let's see what we might learn in the midst of our searching for the truth.
The Infinite Regress
The first challenge facing skepticism is the problem of the “infinite regress.” Essentially, this is the difficulty that arises from the demand that everything be proven by something other than itself. In other words, justifiable proofs are demanded for everything, without limitation. Remember? It’s the famous skeptic's watchword: “Question Everything!” There is therefore no proper stopping mechanism which causes the incessant torrent of questions to cease.
Of course, this is obviously intellectually unacceptable, a point which eventually gave rise to more conservative and rational philosophical positions within western thought. For as the ancient Greeks quickly recognized, if everything must be proven, than nothing can be proven, a problem which arguably dismantles the position.
To illustrate this problem, think about the common word “define,” along with its various cognates, “definite” or “definition.” The key term in all three cases is “finite.” In other words, to define something is literally “to make it finite.” It is to give a short, limited explanation for the thing we are discussing.
Conversely, if proofs are seen as the only valid test of knowledge, we would therefore have to admit that nothing could ever be “defined.” But if nothing can be defined, than nothing can be known. All human knowledge therefore becomes sacrificed on the altar of skepticism—a reductio ad absurdum of the position.
Thus, with this problem in hand, where does the skeptic turn next? The answer is that he must now face the failure of his argument.
Hence, the second problem for skepticism is the profound roadblock of circular reasoning. Once again, the problem here is very easy to see. For the one thing that the skeptic never seems to question is his own skepticism. He is therefore every bit as “illogical” as the Christian he accuses. For when questioned why doubt should be seen as the only valid key to knowledge, the skeptic (due to the previous conundrum) is unable to give a simple, clear answer. For in every case, the explanation would require an additional explanation. Thus, without abandoning his views, the skeptic can never state or “define” the reason for his doubt or disbelief.
For this reason, the skeptic must provide something called a “tautological answer." By definition, this is simply a redundancy in propositional logic. This means that the skeptic must admit that his skepticism is the reason for his skepticism, which is a bit like saying: “I doubt because of my doubt.” It would be like declaring in a court of Law: “Your honor, MY BELIEF that there is further evidence is the proof that further evidence exists!”
Hence, in summation, the skeptic must offer something called a self-referential answer. In other words, he must answer in a way which ultimately undermines his own “anti-faith” position. As a result, skepticism is made a flimsy, tottering, self-defeating system. For the theory becomes the proof of the argument. Without a proper footing, it folds like a house of cards.
The Axiomatic Argument
For this reason, the skeptic must now submit to the only remaining option—an agreed upon axiom. In other words, he must agree to some kind of acceptable premise upon which he rests all his final arguments and conclusions. These would be things the skeptic CHOOSES not to question. For without settling upon some kind of a premise he exempts from formal proofing, he cannot escape the inevitability of the first two conclusions.
Sadly, skeptics typically shy away from such sublimity. For they insist that the situation is not nearly so dismal. "I don't question everything!" they forcefully retort. "I simply question the rationality of faith!"
Yet in speaking in this way, skeptics are demonstrating a profound ignorance of the foundations for their own belief systems. For no philosophical view can be logically grounded unless it is rested upon the bedrock of some kind of axiom which is inherently resistant to conventional proofs.
Incidentally, the historic refusal to submit to this argument is the reason why some skeptical philosophers eventually turned to questioning their own existence. Because the classical system offers no clear stopping point, some skeptics eventually lost belief in all hope of fruitful inquiry. Others questioned the existence of the universe itself, going as far as to question whether knowledge is even fundamentally possible. For with no way to stop the incessant questions and queries, a sort of "madness" eventually seemed to replace critical thinking. Indeed, how can anything be known with any certainty if everything must be constantly proven?
Some time ago, I encountered this problem personally. I was engaging in gospel discourse with a few curious seekers. I was encouraging them to take seriously the claims of Jesus Christ to his life, his death, and his resurrection. As I did, I noticed a third man overhearing our conversation. He seemed to be hanging on our every word. So without a second thought, I invited him to join us. “Do you believe in the existence of God?” I asked him.
The man responded in a way I’ll never forget. He broke down crying bitter tears of pain. Through multiple choked sobs, he managed to pronounce his worldview: “There is no way to know!” he cried. “And there’s so much pain in the world! How can we ever be sure of anything?”
Flushed with concern, I continued to speak with him. I learned that he had been a lifelong, practicing skeptic. He had taught himself to always “question everything.” He was an atheist who had just recently undergone an unspeakably painful loss. One of his closest friends had died leaving behind a wife and three children. The poor woman was now left with no answers to her pain. She was beyond consoling; near to despairing of life itself. The fellow was therefore burdened with grief, with nowhere to turn amidst the anguish in his soul.
After explaining the situation, the man stood up shaking from his seat. He seemed unable to look me straight in the eye. He then proceeded to head towards the door. He almost made it before I stood and stopped him. “Friend,” I said, “Would please permit to pray for you before you leave?” I then bowed my head and asked for Jesus to be present in the midst of the hurt. As I did, the sobs increased as the man was touched by the hand of the one the Scriptures call “The Man of Sorrows.”
Friend, this is the only means of escape for the skeptic. He must see that there is no solution for his problems in himself. He is stuck, fooled by an elaborate lie that somehow the answers to his problems will surface amid the sea of internal questions. Yet deep inside, he knows that there are no answers. He knows that there are no certainties in life if everything must be questioned. He is therefore left to battle his own soul, which torments him deeply in times of grief.
This is why I teach seekers that skepticism is better described as a phycology malady rather than a philosophical system. At times, I have commented that we might do well to treat it as a disease. I therefore encourage people who suffer from this mindset to abandon such thinking and become rational people.
Rationalism, formally speaking, systematically holds that we resist skepticism by giving place to axiomatic arguments.