Re: Skepticism - its uses and abuses

From: Don Winterstein <>
Date: Tue Dec 13 2005 - 03:31:58 EST

Sorry about my tardiness on this thread--my ISP has been out to lunch. But skepticism for me has been like a constant companion, and I can't resist commenting here.

Iain wrote:

"...It seems to me that skeptics want to blow everything away....
I guess what I'm saying is why can't one be skeptical but selectively so - the package seems to be that you have to be critical of everything, and corrode away faith and everything else."

Perhaps my most memorable lines of poetry are the following from C. Day Lewis:

    In heaven, I suppose, lie down together
    Agonised Pilate and the boa-constrictor
    That swallows anything: but we must seize
    One horn or the other of our antitheses.

Various news reports suggest most Americans are like boa constrictors in that they swallow just about anything. In contrast, most of my colleagues and friends at work were like agonised Pilate without the agony: They didn't believe any "truth" other than what they could infer from scientific discoveries. The ones that did believe largely kept their mouths shut.

For most of my adult life I've actively sought reasons to doubt. I was a long-term subscriber to Skeptical Inquirer and even tried Free Inquiry until I got tired of the emotional diatribes against religion in any form. I sought reasons to doubt because I wanted to be sure my peculiar set of beliefs was not illusory. There's been a lot to accommodate, but my beliefs have stood the test, and I've now cancelled my subscription to Skeptical Inquirer. Time to start entertaining reasons to believe.

Observation: I've found it much easier to be skeptical about matters where I have some degree of expertise, and about matters that are of highest importance, than about matters I'm only incidentally familiar with or involved with. If some commentator makes what seems to be a particularly good argument on some such incidental topic, I find myself often ready to buy in; but over the years I've come to realize that, if the argument sounds particularly good, I need to suspend judgment until I've heard the other side. When I was refereeing papers for geophysical journals, if the authors were claiming significant results, I considered it my job to show where they'd gone wrong and reject the paper. (At the time my field was pretty new and pretty hot, and lots of work was being done by people who hadn't mastered the fundamentals; hence results were more often spurious than valid. Skepticism was justified.)

It's easy to find reasons to reject the whole Judeo-Christian witness. Karen Armstrong in her intro to A History of God portrays herself as having done so despite her time as a nun; and I without my "religious experience" would be spiritually very much like her at the time she wrote that intro. Instead, I like to accept as much of the J-C witness as I can, and at times I've asserted that the NT witness was reliable because its authors were moved by the Spirit of Truth, and we today know the same Spirit. But then what shall we say about the YECs who seem to deliberately misrepresent data in order to make their points? Are they also moved by the Spirit of Truth? Were the gospel writers similarly willing to distort and exaggerate to make their points? If so, how can we believe? Why should anyone believe?

Doubt is good, provided you have an unassailable fallback position. If you don't, perhaps its best to stick with looking for reasons to believe. But people can't always control doubt; sometimes it simply must run its course.

Doubt can also lead one to seek answers from God. But there are no guarantees, despite Matt. 7:7-8. Or so Karen Armstrong would likely tell you. (Apparently now she considers herself not an atheist but a "freelance monotheist.") I claim that answers from God are possible.

Jesus certainly seemed to encourage unquestioning faith. This aspect of his teaching continues to nag at me: If you have childlike faith in Jesus, aren't you likely also to have childlike faith in Joseph Smith, etc.? The Apostles, of course, quickly became aware and taught that you don't believe just anybody (e.g., I John 4:1). So everybody is encouraged to ask questions. A big question that's not always easy to answer is how you are supposed to get answers. Most Christians seem to look to local authorities and their own traditions--and the answers they get seem to be adequate more often than not. But I could never have trusted such answers.

As for skepticism about medical remedies, alternative or not, it's fully appropriate as long as you're healthy. The practice of medicine is always in a state of flux, and the recommended procedures and remedies change from year to year. Many respected medical schools now are also taking seriously some of the alternative treatments, especially those that have been applied over long periods in countries such as China. But if you get sick, you need a solution and often don't have the luxury of doubting--unless or until the offered remedy doesn't work, in which case you find something else to put your faith in. Overall, detailed, long-term studies using statistical analyses of results of treatments on thousands of patients seem to lead to genuine progress.

Received on Tue Dec 13 03:31:11 2005

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