Skepticism vs. Faith
Today I was thinking a little bit about the reasoning process I see quite a few Christians use. Quite frankly, every Christian I have ever known – including myself – used this reasoning. It goes like this:
So far, all my experience shows me that Christianity is true. Therefore, I should believe Christianity until it is proven false. But because it is wrong and / or uncomfortable for me to doubt, I should do everything in my power to first eliminate my doubts. Leaving the faith requires a serious increase in my doubt, therefore I will work to defend the faith and leave only if I cannot: I will start with the assumption I am correct and only leave if proven wrong.
The inevitable result of this thinking is this: the person works intentionally to invent an explanation of their faith that is unfalsifiable. Why? Because an unfalsifiable faith is the only faith that can never be doubted because no evidence can ever contradict it. Unfalsifiable propositions are the holy grail of any faith system, because it makes the object of their faith omnipotent.
I see this regularly. A believer, when pressed to provide a reasonable and demonstrable test for their faith will inevitably shy away from a… well… reasonable and demonstrable test. Instead, any test and all surrounding definitions of God must be calculated and invented so that their faith will not collapse even if the test fails. Ultimately, the believer is only seeking their own selfish comfort when – ironically – selfishness and personal comfort is the one thing Christianity so lavishly preaches against.
This is the reasoning of faith: it is reasoning backwards. It is the opposite of skeptical thinking, which is probably why believers are fundamentally opposed to any form of free-thinking or skeptical thought: it would be the bane of their faith. Why? Because skepticism would begin with doubt – and to doubt is to lack faith. Therefore, skepticism is bad when it comes to faith claims. Skepticism, bizarrely, is good when it comes to everything else. Is this a double standard?
For example, William Lane Craig refuses to apply any skeptical thinking to the personal revelation of the Holy Spirit in His life. He starts with the presupposition that the revelation is accurate until proven untrustworthy. But it is impossible to prove a personal revelation false, because it is 100% personally subjective. Therefore, William Lane Craig has defined his faith in such a way that it is completely unfalsifiable and this puts him at complete ease without a single doubt [Please see John Loftus' book Why I Became and Atheist for an example of quotes from William Lane Craig that confirm this - I'm going off memory at this point].
Necessity is the mother of invention. Doubt is uncomfortable. Humans recoil from discomfort. Therefore, humans naturally invent ideas that eliminate doubt. People doubt when they encounter experiences that contradict their current worldview. Therefore, to be in complete intellectual comfort, invent a worldview that cannot be contradicted by any experience or avoid experiences that could contradict your worldview.
There are two ways to do this:
1) Faith: conceive a metaphysical view of reality that explains every possible experience. “With God anything is possible.” Therefore, with a belief in God you have summed up every possible experience that could ever occur. If the faith is defined right it cannot be falsified, and therefore the person holding the faith holds a form of omniscience,where they never once have to genuinely say “I don’t know” and thus suffer discomfort. Why? Because they are able to “describe” everything by invoking God. For example: “I don’t know why this happened, but I know that God has a purpose.” This is saying absolutely nothing, but it gives the person who says it a feeling that they do know what is going on and relieving them of almost all responsibility to put any hard work into actually figuring out the series of cause /effect relationships that lead to the particular experience so that they can avoid it in the future. Faith can be summed up with: “I know because I believe, and I will not stop believing until proven wrong.”
2) Skepticism: constantly refactor your view of reality to match your experience and the cumulative experience of mankind. This assumes human perception – especially your own – is prone to error and that there is no validity to a human hypothesis until proven correct by rigorous tests. We do not accept something until it is proven true time and time again and all potential human bias or error is weeded out. It is the opposite epistemological viewpoint to faith. Skepticism can be summed up with: “I don’t know, now let us find out: and I will accept whatever the test reveals – even if it is to my own harm.” Why? Because discovering the truth – despite any present harm – is the best and most accurate way to invent methods to avoid a greater amount of harm in the future.
This is why people of faith always say “prove that X does not exist”. They start with the presupposition their claims are correct until proven false.
This is why skeptical people always say “prove that X does exist”. They start with the presupposition that claims are false until proven true.
People naturally waver between both skeptical and faith-based positions depending on the perceived threat level of being wrong or being right.
[My God, I am so thankful our justice system is a skeptical one, not a faith based one! Sorry, shameless plug...]
Now, here is where things get really interesting! By definition, both sides of the debate have a genuine moral right to think that the other side is arrogant – if they are correct.
Arrogance is a view of oneself that is higher than it should be. It is perceiving the value of oneself as greater than others perceive your own value. [This is why believers never see God as arrogant, because they perceive Him to be the most valuable thing. Therefore regardless of how highly He thinks of Himself, He is right!]
Therefore, distrust of an omniscient being is arrogant, because it is trusting oneself too much. As such, a person of faith thinks a skeptic is arrogant to think he “knows more than God”.
Unwavering trust of one’s own understanding is also arrogant, because it is trusting oneself too much. As such, the skeptic thinks that a person of faith is arrogant because he claims to know facts about a Being who is supposedly “wholly other”. How arrogant it is for a person to claim on the one hand that God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts and on the other hand to claim to have any inkling as to what God is thinking!
What an impasse! How can we resolve it? We must demonstrate that one epistemological viewpoint causes the least amount of error and therefore reduces potential for harm – and we must stick with it.
In one sense you cannot falsify a skeptical viewpoint because the skeptic is not making any claims, except that you should not accept something until it has been demonstrated to be true. So in another sense, the only way to “falsify” a skeptical viewpoint is to demonstrate that the skeptic can trust the claim in question. So then, the burden of proof always lies on the part of a person making a claim.
Faith says “prove it is false”. Skepticism says “prove it is true”.
It is in the best interest of the skeptic for a claim to be demonstrable because a skeptic feels most comfortable when he cannot be coerced into accepting that which he perceives could cause him harm.
It is in the best interest of a person of faith for a claim to be unfalsifiable because the person of faith feels most comfortable when they cannot be coerced into rejecting something they perceive could cause them harm.
Faith works by threatening harm to a person if they do not accept a proposition without question right now because time is of the essence.
Keep in mind, both epistemological viewpoints have evolutionary advantage, which is why both have evolved! If we were always skeptical, we would end up destroying ourselves because we would be demanding a higher standard than is possible when time is of the essence to avoid some harms. If we always accepted things by faith, we would be gullible to any claim and would assuredly be taken advantage of all the time and suffer harm as well. A balance between both in our ancestors has been necessary to avoid death.
So then, we can only resolve this impasse if the faith claims are either falsifiable by human test or if the faith claims are demonstrable by human test [edit: I'm not sure this makes any sense any more, and I did not realize it until MS Quixote's comment.]
Oh, I might add, if God is really good and understands man’s epistemological dilemma, He would have no problem with His creatures putting His existence to the test. After all, what does he have to lose? But this means that ones faith has to be genuinely falsifiable, which means a person must open themselves to doubt. A test is, by definition, falsifiable. A test that always come out true is – well – not even a test.
Here is the kicker: the skeptic seems to hold the final responsibility of setting up the test, to eliminate the tendency of the individual making the claim to tweak the test in the favor of their claim. The key here is to not want the test to say anything. Most believers, sadly, whine when a skeptic sets up the test, because it means the skeptic could potentially be right. And believers do not want to be wrong because they perceive time as of the essence and admitting they are wrong presents a whole new set of faith-based threats (like potential of hell). [But then again, think doubting Thomas. Why was he - the skeptic - allowed to set up his own test?]
So now just think about those claims Christian’s make about “putting God to the test”. They will say to pray, and see if God answers. Well, is this falsifiable? Not at all, because if the prayer request does not come true, the Christians can just say God said no. If the prayer comes true, they say God said yes. God answers no matter what! It’s a miracle! But we cannot know what God’s supposed answer is until after the results come in, and then what is to keep someone from accusing the believer of post hoc inserting an answer into God’s mouth [per Joe's comment]. At this point, God’s answer is solely dependent upon the believer’s interpretation.
God always answers prayers because Christians have invented prayer in such a way that it is unfalsifiable.
So to all the Christian readers: do you want a perfect faith – one that will never fail you? I’ll help you. Here is your task: define God and every aspect of your faith in such a way that no evidence could ever contradict it. As long as your mind never perceives a single experience in your life as at odds with what you believe, you will always be at complete ease and have perfect peace that this world can never take away.
Never mind that this is just complete invention and backwards reasoning.
I recently received a comment on YouTube that perfectly captures this type of thinking:
“…He means that we aren’t to read the NT manuscripts with an unbelieving skeptical presupposition/assumption. If Christ thought of the OT as inspiried even though there were textual variants, so should we. We are to START the study of variants with a reverence for Christ and interpret things in light of that, instead of starting with a skeptical non Christ honoring presupposition.” (link)
Begin with trust. Never doubt. Interpret all data so that it confirms what you already believe to be true.
If we are truly not supposed to lean on our own understanding, my thinking would be that we should honestly test everything (like the apostle Paul says) – even our faith claims. And by test it, I mean put it through every conceivable personal hurdle other skeptical people can imagine: and only once it has past other skeptical people’s tests should we consider it wise to claim it is truth. Otherwise we are leaning on our own understanding!
[BTW, because it is smartest to assume a claim is false until proven true, we should prove God exists before believing in Him: not believe in Him until proven false. Unless, of course, you want to buy into all that threat nonsense about hell and damnation, which, of course, are dependent upon God's existence! Only one question: why does God not want us to put His existence to the test? Is He insecure about it? The truth is that our only enemy at this point is time.]
Do not believe, and then wait until proven false (faith). Prove something true, and then believe (skepticism).
Unless, of course, there is no time to create a test. Then… well… I feel I have summed up the entire human condition.