The Age of Skepticism

January 21, 2013

In light of certain events, I was reminded of one of my favorite quotes by the scientist and philosopher Blaise Pascal. In it he describes the inevitable end of extreme skepticism:

What, then, shall man do in this state? Shall he doubt everything? Shall he doubt whether he is awake, whether he is being pinched, or whether he is being burned? Shall he doubt whether he doubts? Shall he doubt whether he exists? We cannot go so far as that; and I lay it down as a fact that there never has been a real complete sceptic. Nature sustains our feeble reason and prevents it raving to this extent.

Pensées, SECTION VII, 434

I thought of this warning about skepticism after reading Salon magazine’s article on the latest conspiracy theories about the shooting at Sandy Hook elementary. While the existence of those who doubt that the events in Newtown, Connecticut occurred is shocking, it isn’t surprising. After all we live in an age where conspiracies abound – the official and well documented descriptions of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the 9/11 attacks, even the moon landings have all been questioned by a segment of the population. The foundation of such conspiracies rests on a pernicious distrust of authorities and the media as well an overblown sense of skepticism that proffers if one wasn’t present for the events themselves one can’t trust the accounts of others.

I have found that in many ways skeptics of Christianity are similar. Their arguments against the New Testament accounts sound very similar to the claims of the Sandy Hook truthers – that the accounts are inconsistent, that those giving the accounts aren’t reliable, that there are unreported facts which undermine the ‘official’ story or show that the story we are getting isn’t complete. The fact that people can question the reality of widely witnessed events days after they occurred show our inherent tendency to doubt; and the tendency of some to doubt no matter what facts are presented.

Now this isn’t to say skepticism isn’t useful as a part of a complete intellectual toolkit. Gullibility can be just as dangerous as skepticism. But skepticism alone isn’t sufficient to weigh the truth of a matter. Complete understanding includes a range of processes, from considering evidence, to personal experience, to knowing history and having some understanding of human nature. It also includes common sense, humility and yes, faith, which is the acknowledgement that even though we can never know all there is to know about certain events, we still must decide what we will accept as true. All these are employed by Christians in their decision to believe in Christ. Just as any rational person has sufficient evidence to accept that Kennedy was killed by a single madman, and that a group of fanatics flew planes into the World Trade Center buildings, that men walked on the moon and that a young disturbed man killed twenty children at Sandy Hook elementary, one also has sufficient evidence to believe confidently that a man walked the earth 2000 years ago, healed the sick, was crucified, died and rose again.

Of course the skeptic will find room to doubt – especially in this age where skeptics reign. But the existence of numerous skeptics doesn’t change the reality of any of these events.

And while some healthy skepticism might help us avoid untruths, in the end skepticism alone doesn’t enable the intellect but untether it from any certain foundation.

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Observations

January 14, 2013

And occasionally one finds an atheist like British atheist and philosopher Tim Crane who makes sense:

“But what is undeniable is that we cannot understand our own culture unless we recognise that it was formed, for good or bad, as a Christian culture. It’s an illusion that we could somehow recover a human essence which is independent of the way it was created by culture. And the way western European culture was created was as a Christian culture, whether we like this or not. So to understand our own culture we must take into account its Christian roots, which may well be deeper than many atheists would like to acknowledge. Should religions be given special privileges? In the abstract, the answer to this question must be yes. If an atheist society (and I am assuming that the UK, at least, is an atheist society) is going to tolerate religions, then it is hard to imagine how this toleration would not result in special privileges. Orthodox Jews may not work on Saturdays or Friday evenings, Muslims and Jews may kill animals for food in a certain way, many religions will have the privilege to educate their children in their own way, and so on.”

Cambridge Philosopher Tim Crane in a recent interview at 3ammagazine


Good Reasons to Believe

January 14, 2013

I enjoyed this recent clip from a discussion at a Cornell forum titled The Finite and the Infinite: Two Scientists discuss Nature, Knowledge, and Faith with MIT nuclear physicist Ian Hutchinson and  Cornell theoretical chemist Roald Hoffmann. In it Ian Hutchinson briefly gives five types reasons for believing in God, which include arguments, evidences, immediate personal experiences, organization and utility.  I think it is important that he highlights all five because understanding what is true requires not only that we find some evidence to justify our belief, but that the claims we are considering are inherently consistent across a range of thought processes – that is that the logic is consistent with the evidence, which is consistent with one’s personal experience as well as with history and the ability to apply the knowledge.

This explains in large part why I am a Christian – I have found the truth claims for Christianity to be consistent when considered from several different angles. It is a holistic thought process. That is why I came to eventually abandon materialism and naturalism as viable philosophies. A clip from the discussion is below:


Observations

January 12, 2013

To the degree someone claims the universe can come into existence uncaused, to that degree they reject science as a means of understanding the origin of the universe.

And to that degree one can reject anything they say as unworthy of serious consideration.


Motivation to Care

January 7, 2013

There was an interesting piece in the NYT’s in late Dec. concerning the ‘Humanist’ response or in this case, non-response to the Newtown massacre. It appears to confirm what many Christians have often said – there is no substantive comfort in atheism when faced with grief and loss. Interestingly certain secularists acknowledge this shortcoming:

“It is a failure of community, and that’s where the answer for the future has to lie,” said Greg M. Epstein, 35, the humanist chaplain at Harvard and author of the book “Good Without God.” “What religion has to offer to people at moments like this — more than theology, more than divine presence — is community. And we need to provide an alternative form of community if we’re going to matter for the increasing number of people who say they are not believers.”

Darrel W. Ray, a psychologist in the Kansas City area who runs the Web site The Secular Therapist Project, made a similar point in a recent interview. As someone who was raised as a believing Christian and who holds a master’s degree in theology, he was uniquely able to identify what humanism needs to provide in a time of crisis.

“When people are in a terrible kind of pain — a death that is unexpected, the natural order is taken out of order — you would do anything to take away the pain,” Dr. Ray, 62, said. “And I’m not going to deny that religion does help deal with that first week or two of pain.

“The best we can do as humanists,” he continued, “is to talk about that pain in rational terms with the people who are suffering. We have humanist celebrants, as we call them, but they’re focused on doing weddings. It takes a lot more training to learn how to deal with grief and loss. I don’t see celebrants working in hospice or in hospitals, for example. There are secular people who need pastoral care, but we abdicate it to clergy.”

In an attempt to protect atheism from responsibility for any wrongs committed by atheists, secularists are quick to point out that the term atheism is descriptive, not proscriptive. But when it comes to positive actions like caring for those in need atheists are quick to take credit for ‘being good without God’. This might work when it comes to feeding the hungry or raising money for a charity, but when it comes to offering hope to the bereaved or dying, atheism obviously has nothing to offer. Like it or not, when one faces the finality of death, existence apart from God is always nihilistic; and there is certainly no hope or comfort in nihilism. Of course this is quite different for the Christian who is commanded to “mourn with those who mourn” and who have hope to offer beyond the grave.

That fact that Christianity offers hope to those who have suffered tragic losses doesn’t in and of itself prove Christianity true, but it does demonstrate that the lack of faith represents a significant loss. And given the fact that humans have a universal need for such comfort and hope, it demonstrates that there is a deeper aspect to human life that atheists simply don’t comprehend.


Observations

January 3, 2013

“Supposing there was no intelligence behind the universe, no creative mind. In that case, nobody designed my brain for the purpose of thinking. It is merely that when the atoms inside my skull happen, for physical or chemical reasons, to arrange themselves in a certain way, this gives me, as a by-product, the sensation I call thought. But, if so, how can I trust my own thinking to be true? It’s like upsetting a milk jug and hoping that the way it splashes itself will give you a map of London. But if I can’t trust my own thinking, of course I can’t trust the arguments leading to Atheism, and therefore have no reason to be an Atheist, or anything else. Unless I believe in God, I cannot believe in thought: so I can never use thought to disbelieve in God.”
—C.S. Lewis
The Case for Christianity, p. 32.


Free Will and Evil

January 1, 2013

As often happens during times of great tragedy of the sort we saw recently in Connecticut, there are a number of questions about how a good God could allow such events to occur. I personally think much is explained by the existence of free will and how if God did intend to create mankind as creatures with free will, inherent in that act was at least the possibility they would do acts that lead to the suffering of others. This video is a succinct presentation about the connection between free will and evil, and how it frames our view of the goodness of God.

I would further contend that we intuit this connection between free will and evil actions. For example when one considers much modern fiction, when the plot involves humans creating a self-aware artificial intelligence, more often than not the intelligence turns on its creator, i.e. man. From HAL of 2001 a Space Odyssey to Skynet in the Terminator movies or the intelligence that oversees The Matrix we see there is an inherent realization that whenever an intelligence can choose to operate outside the parameters for which it was designed there is the possibility it will use that power to destroy.

In fact, I would argue the notion of evil is much more problematic from the perspective of atheistic philosophies like naturalism and materialism than it is for the Christian. As no actions within those philosophies can be considered inherently evil, and as those beliefs render free will illusory, there is no ultimate explanation for why we categorize some human actions as evil and others as good. If there is neither intention for our behavior nor a plan for our existence then our actions merely are what they are, no different than the behavior of any other organism on the planet.

A Christian has no such dilemma; our belief is rationally superior to atheism because it can coherently acknowledge the horror of suffering and reality of evil, empathizing with the sufferers while gently and lovingly affirming the goodness of God.