A Rightly-Ordered Skepticism

An Apologetic for a Rightly-Ordered Skepticism
by Tom Schmidt

What do you think of when you hear the word “skeptic”? The first thing that comes to my mind is someone who is skeptical of religion, the Bible, supernatural, or belief in God. A skeptic is one who bravely bucks religious dogma for scientific truth, who courageously rejects fears of Divine Judgment to champion the notions of humanistic progress. The skeptic is a naturalist: someone who rejects any claims to what cannot be proven by scientific investigation and empirical evidence. At least, this is what I generally think of when I hear the word skeptic.

Yet, all of us are skeptical of some claims, and common sense would tell us this is a good thing. Unless we want to be naïve and fooled by the latest fads or boasts of politicians and salesmen, we should doubt the credibility of some statements we hear. In other words, there is a right kind of skepticism, one that leads to TRUTH and away from falsehood. That is skepticism in its best form! Skepticism in this sense is employed by all—the religious and irreligious—and it is for this kind of skepticism that I am going to make an apologetic in this paper. As I do this, I will argue that there is such a thing as a rightly-ordered skepticism and that Christianity alone can lead us there.[1] As a Christian, this is my conviction.[2] Perhaps you are wildly skeptical of such a claim! Bear with me, and hear my case for a rightly-ordered skepticism.

A rightly ordered skepticism involves three components: a foundation to stand upon that provides a coherent and logical metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical framework; a heart that embraces loves; and a head that chooses humility. These three components lead to a rightly ordered skepticism. There is such thing as a wrongly-ordered or misguided skepticism.[3] Such a skepticism may error because it lacks a foundation upon from which adjudicate truth from falsehood, or it goes astray because the attitudes in its heart are self-focused, or it makes mistakes due to a mind clouded with pride. Such a skepticism is driven by prejudice or self-interest, rather than a commitment to discovering truth. Surely, we have all have encountered the individual who is skeptical because of his own dogmas and preconceptions, rather than from a sincere love of truth. And likely, if we’re honest with ourselves, we all have seen our own hearts deceive us and lead us in the past.

So, what does a rightly-ordered skepticism look like? It begins with a foundation to stand upon.

A Foundation to Stand Upon: Metaphysics, Epistemology, Ethics
First, a rightly ordered skepticism has a proper foundation to stand upon which equips it to adjudicate truth[4] from falsehood. This foundation has three parts which work together to form a coherent worldview, or framework for understanding all of reality. The three parts are metaphysics (the ‘what’ of existence), epistemology (the ‘how’ I know anything), and ethics (the ‘ought,’ morals, right and wrong).[5]

A foundation is essential if I am to be skeptical of anything: from claims of those who think they have the best product, to claims of politicians who think they know how to fix our problems, to claims about my spouse when she says she loves me. Interestingly enough, every skepticism I level at another has built in factors I must first assume to be true. In other words, to question any claim, I must rely on prior particular presuppositional commitments. I believe that it is here that we see how a Christian worldview provides the foundation necessary for one to even be skeptical about anything and that all other worldviews must assume the Christian position to make skeptical inquiries. As we now begin to look at this foundation of metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, it will be help to contrast the Christian worldview with a secular or naturalistic worldview, in order to show how only a Christian worldview can lead to a rightly ordered skepticism.

The first piece of our foundation is metaphysics. The skeptic of Christianity has to assume many things metaphysically, before he/she can be skeptical of anything. He must assume that he exists and is not the figment of someone else’s imagination. He has to assume what he perceives with his senses actually exist and that he is not simply a brain in a vat being probed by electrodes. He can’t prove these things and has no way of know these things are not true, because there is no communication from outside or above humanity that can tell him this; all he has is an evolved brain which generations ago was an ape and before that a fish and before that slime and before that star dust—there is nothing that can definitively tell him anything about reality. Furthermore, he must assume that his memory is reasonably reliable—at least that it grants him access to truth—and that all of his memories were not merely implanted in his brain five minutes ago. It is impossible from an atheistic perspective to prove this one way or another. If there is no one above humanity—like God—to tell us these things, how could we ever know them? The Christian, on the other hand, can tell you why he is real, why the world is real, why all of history is not an illusionary memory implanted in his head, and why it would be foolish to think otherwise. God created the world, He made us in His image, he made our senses to work with the world, he created our ability to use memory and trust it. The Christian has a foundation that warrants him to trust these things, while the unbelieving skeptic has to assume the Christian position, which he then, ironically, often uses to criticize Christian belief.

The next piece of our foundation is epistemology. This is the field of knowledge: how we know what we know. We see here that to be skeptical of any claim, one also has a myriad of epistemological presuppositions in place, presuppositions again that naturalism cannot warrant. First, one has to assume the laws of logic exist and lead us to truth. But the laws of logic are immaterial, universal, and unchanging. A naturalistic universe cannot account for the laws of logic. In addition to this, any attempts to side-step the issue of logic fail. One such attempt at this is to claim that the laws of logic are merely human social constructs, but the problem with this is that to make that very statement (that logic is merely a social construct) one has use logic, and assume the hearer will use logic, as though it were not merely a human social construct but that it is unchanging, universal, and real. Another problem with knowing is the naturalistic understanding of reason. How do we account for rationality and reasoning and human freedom to make conscious decisions? Wouldn’t Darwinian evolution lead us to think that we are merely a slave to our genes or nature?  If we are merely evolved apes enslaved to our genes, how could we ever be free to think or make rational choices? An additional problem for the naturalist has to do with what is known as the problem of infinite regress. That is, all knowledge claims are based on other knowledge claims: how do I know my name is Tom? Because my mom told me. How do I know my mom told me? Because I remember her doing so. How do I remember doing so, because I remember doing so, etc. For any knowledge claim, there is the problem of infinite regress. One way to put it is this: due to the problem of infinite regress, we finally cannot claim to know anything absolutely—only contingently—unless we know everything or we know someone who does who has granted us knowledge to such facts. Another problem with knowing is the problem of uniformity of nature—how do we know the world will be like it is today, tomorrow? How do I know that water will boil at the same temperature today as it does tomorrow? If we live in a random chance universe, how do we know things will be uniform? What reason do we have to believe they will be?

The Christian worldview can account for laws of logic: these immaterial, universal, and unchanging laws reflect the One who has all of these qualities Himself—God is spirit, omnipresent, and unchanging! God has made the world to function the way it does and has allowed us, as His image-bearers, to use logic. The Christian worldview accounts for reason and rationality as we are not merely evolved beasts enslaved to our genes and environment, but we are rational creatures made in God’s image. The problem of infinite regress is also solved as the Christian does not need to know everything, but he knows God who knows everything; God has made us in such a way that it is rational for us—everyone, including non-Christians—to assert they know things and not cave to epistemological futility. And the Christian worldview can tell you why the uniformity of nature exists, because we worship a rational God who delights in order and beauty; we do not live in a random chance universe, but one that is set up and sustained by an all-powerful and all-knowing infinite God.

The third piece of the foundation is ethics. Here again we see the shortcomings of a naturalistic worldview which cannot tell us why we ought to be skeptical of particular claims, or even why we ought to do anything at all! A naturalistic worldview is one in which there is no divine Law-Giver, only subjective moralities of individuals and societies. Yet, if there is no objective morality—moral standards by which all humans are accountable to regardless of their opinion—then, as Dostoevsky once said, if there is no God, then all is permissible. Why is lying wrong? Why should I care about deceitfulness or accusations of deceit? Why should I pursue truth at all and not power and pleasure acquired by deceit? The atheist has to assume to the Christian worldview—that we ought to tell the truth—but can never account for it. Yet the skeptic constantly derides the problem of religious individuals promoting myths to gain a following. But we must ask if atheism is true, then so what! Who cares! Christianity alone can give the foundation for why truth is virtuous and deceit wicked regardless of any human opinion, and why misleading others and believing or promoting lies is evil and should be rejected. A Christian worldview gives us a compelling ought to reject that which is false and to pursue a rightly-ordered skepticism. A naturalistic worldview can complain about religious leaders promoting myths, but in the end all it can ever be is merely the opinion of one individual over another.

These three pieces (metaphysics, epistemology, ethics) work together to form a coherent, logical worldview to stand upon. This allows one proper warrant to make adjudications, and not merely empty assertions or skeptical criticisms.

A Heart of Love: “Love believes all things” (1 Cor 13:7b)
A foundation to stand upon will not necessarily lead one way from an unhinged or twisted skepticism. The one who wields a rightly-ordered skepticism must also have a heart of love. A heart that loves God, love others, and loves truth will keep one’s skepticism in check and away from the errors that flow from an absence of love.

Jesus, more than anyone else, displayed a rightly-ordered skepticism. He did not naively submit to the religious powers of his day (Pharisees and Sadducees), but constantly exposed their errors and distortions of truth. He taught that all of God’s law could be summarized in loving God whole-heartedly and loving one’s neighbor as oneself (Matthew 22:34-40). A heart that loves the One who gave it the foundation to stand upon, the very tools necessary to make any skeptical inquiry, is in line with God’s design for humanity. This leads us to enjoy God, enter into his wisdom, and to wield our skepticism to the very place that most leads us into falsehood: our sinful nature and sinful tendencies to doubt God. A heart that loves God doesn’t veer off into glibly making judgements about God’s providential ordering, but seeks to love God even though the trials and painful situations.

The heart of love also displays a love for one’s neighbor. Paul insists that “love believes all things” in 1 Cor 13:7b. This doesn’t mean that we naively and uncritically embrace any statement another makes to us, but it does mean that in general, guided by the ultimate authority of Scripture and lesser authority of reason, we believe the statements of another made to us. A heart of love leads us to believe another’s testimony, instead of rejecting it. The lover believes the statement, ‘I love you.’ Here we see a vital link between love and belief. Unbelief here destroys love. If we say, ‘You can’t possibly love me, you must be cheating on me,’—even though there is not reasonable evidence for such infidelity—the gesture of love is rejected. If we, ‘You can’t possibly love me, because I am un-loveable,’ we make a similar mistake and love is abandoned for hatred for self. Love for others, by believing their statements, leads us away from an unhinged criticism.

Love for the truth also plays an important role. For we must love what is true, not simply not what is convenient or love of what makes us look important or advances our agenda. If we do not love the truth, we can surely end up being unfairly critical of postures and positions that effect what we hope will turn out for our best.

Thus, here we have seen that a heart of love (love for God, love for others, love for truth) is vital for any who hope to possess a rightly-ordered skepticism.

A Head that is Humble and Not Clouded by Pride
A final component to our rightly-ordered skepticism is humility. There is nothing like pride and arrogance to cloud our judgment and lead us into irrational and foolish endeavors. The proud person thinks he can do no wrong and any criticism against him is not founded on truth, but an attempt to knock him down. But a humble person is open to criticism from others and does not have his judgement distorted from prideful thoughts.

Now as we argue for humility, we are arguing for it in how we perceive ourselves as opposed to how we hold our convictions. G.K. Chesterton once said in his book ‘Orthodoxy’ that “what we suffer from to-day is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed” (“Orthodoxy” p 38). What we need is not uncertainty about things that ought to be questioned based on our Christian foundation for thinking, but a recognition of how easily we can be puffed up with our own success and achievements.

A humble head will lead us into a rightly-ordered skepticism and away from a foolish proud censoriousness. Surely, we can all recognition how easily pride can lead us into error and wrong-headed skepticism of others.

Ultimately, a Christian humbles himself under the recognition that all knowledge and wisdom begin with a proper fear of God (Prov 1:7). The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom and knowledge; it is not a cowering in terror of being abused, but is rather rightly beholds God awe-full majesty, unmatched power, absolute authority, perfect wisdom, unsurpassed beauty. This humbles us and leads into right judgments of ourselves and others.

Conclusion: A Rightly-Ordered Skepticism
The only rightly-ordered use of skepticism is a Christian skeptic. Only the Christian worldview can give us the foundation of metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics to stand upon and consider truth claims. Only the Christian worldview’s view of love for God, others, and the truth can steer us away from the errors which come from selfishness. Only the Christian worldview’s embrace of humility away from pride and in submission to the one true God, can lead one from the errors which flow from thinking too highly of oneself. It is here that a rightly-ordered skepticism is found, and here where truth can be pursued and laid hold of.

All of us long for truth, and skepticism, when approached rightly, is an lay of that which is real. The story of the gospel teaches us that God Himself is truth and a truth-telling, but that all of us have been deceived by sin to doubt Him and His Word. Our hearts have embraced what is false and this has led us away from God. But God in his great mercy and love sent His Son Jesus Christ, who is ‘the way, the truth, and the life’ (John 14:6) to rescue us and bring us into the truth. He taught that the truth would set us free (John 8:32). Truth in the end in found in a person, in the person Jesus who loves us and transforms to be lovers of truth.

[1] Augustine once argued for a ‘right ordering of loves’: that there is a proper way to order what we love as supreme in life. So this ‘rightly-order skepticism’ in some way is a play on words of that. I’m also greatly indebted to Mitch Stoke’s book “How to Be an Atheist” where presents a similar idea when he argues for a “sober skepticism.” One of his main contentions is that atheists are not skeptical enough about some of the beliefs promoted in the name of science.
[2] Before I begin, it would be helpful to address an unfortunate misunderstanding. Contrary to the arguments of some, Christianity is not an invitation to BLIND BELIEF and abandonment of the use of mind and reason. In fact, Christianity invites us to use our reason as we explore its truth claims, and it shows us how to use our reason rightly as we live our lives for Christ. Jesus himself is the best model of a right use of discernment and was highly skeptical of the religious elites (the Pharisees and Sadducees) who used their power and pedigree to impress and oppress others.  He never encouraged a “blind faith” for his followers, but called them to be both “innocent as doves and shrewd as serpents” (Matt 10:16). By calling for this, he was calling for a purity and a discernment: something all Christ-followers strive for. Furthermore, becoming a Christian is not an embrace of myths. We see this in the Apostle Paul, who insisted on the truthfulness of the historical event of Christ’s resurrection from the dead (1 Cor 15:7); he left no room for Christians to embrace religious myths. Along with this, there is also an encouragement in the New Testament to be aware of false teachers and religious mystics who are “puffed up without reason by their sensuous minds,” (Col 2:18). That language seems to encourage a proper skepticism of individuals who abandon reason for a prideful and sensuous thinking.  The Christian knows that not every spiritual or religious claim is to be glibly accepted, but rather tested according to the gospel and the Scriptures. Finally, a Christian worldview is also skeptical of any other worldview that rejects God as the foundation for all knowledge and wisdom (Prov 1:7; Jas 3:17)]. Thus, we see that Christianity is not an invitation to a blind leap in the dark, but a right use of reasoning that allows for discernment.
Mitch Stokes in his book “How to be an Atheist” makes similar points when he argues for a “sober skepticism” (24-26). He says that unbelievers often conflate belief in God with belief in things that are “pseudoscience” which leads one to assume that if one is a skeptical, then there is no room for belief in God. He says “This is a real shame and in any case seems to me misguided. Epistemic caution does not (or does not obviously) require skepticism with respect to God’s existence” (26). You can believe in God and not be naïve!
[3] Stokes is insightful in seeing the appeal that skepticism has for many, but also the error in it: “The luster that many people see in skepticism—that it’s iconoclastic, heroic, and antiauthoritarian—is really not part of skepticism proper. If I’m skeptical about something simply because I don’t like someone telling me what to do or because I fancy myself a modern Prometheus, I’m simply being childish. Anyone who wishes to be thought of as an independent thinker is usually neither” (28).


[4] When I speak of truth, I’m referring to that which corresponds to reality, to the way things really are.
[5] You may wonder why a foundation is necessary at all. Why even deal with these kinds of topics? Can’t I just be skeptical of others? Surely, we can, but, if we step back and are honest with ourselves, such skeptical claims cannot withstand their own skeptical approaches; they crumble and fall beneath the criticisms leveled at others. Surely, much better is a skeptical claim built upon a foundation which provides a basis to be discerning of others’ ideas. Just as a professional guitarist has a foundation from which to adjudicate other guitar performers in way that has warrant, as opposed to an untrained musician, so we, if our skepticisms are to have any weight, must show our metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical grounding, or else all we have is an empty criticisms or opinions lacking any persuasive power.

 

Christian, husband of Rach, Church Planter,musician,

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