Sunday, April 14, 2013

Practical Skepticism

I use "practical" here in an effort to make clear that the skepticism I would like to consider is not what is sometimes called "philosophical" skepticism, or at least skepticism as conceived or applied by certain philosophers which, I think, is a skepticism which is insignificant to those of us who struggle to get by in the world.  Whether we can "really" have knowledge of anything, or of the truth of any proposition, is I'm sure interesting (to some in any case) but this is of little concern in our day- to-day affairs, where the doubts we face are encountered and not generated as grist for philosophical mills which seemingly are always grinding.  But, for what purpose and to what effect do they grind?

Purpose can be rather important in our lives, and effects as well.  And in the play of purposes, conduct directed towards them and the effects of that conduct, practical skepticism can be of considerable value.  One can usefully doubt certain claims and question certain conduct in circumstances in which such doubts or questions may be addressed and eradicated, or answered.  When they can't be, however, it isn't clear just what one achieves by being skeptical, if that skepticism is active, if I can use that word (I have, in any case); in other words if one maintains that something is not true.  That's because the issue cannot be resolved, one way or another--the question can't be answered.  It would make more sense in those circumstances, I think, to be unconvinced; in other words, not to accept that something is true rather than maintain that it is not true.

It can be maintained that the existence of God is one of those areas where active skepticism does not seem to achieve much.  Nobody can prove God exists to a reasonable degree of probability as we lawyers say, nor can it be proved God does not exist.  If that's the case, why insist that God exists or does not exist?  More significantly, why insist that others believe, with you, that God exists or does not exist?

One can, or course, think that God exists or does not exist.  And many do.  One can assert that certain things indicate that God's existence is likely or unlikely, or suggest that God exists.  As to certain such claims, it can be argued that regardless, God's existence is not established.  But this should disturb we who believe, I would think, no more than it should disturb us people disagree with us on other matters the veracity of which cannot be determined.  Similarly though, and for the same reason, I would think that those who do not believe should not be disturbed that others do.

Now the atheist can assert that he/she is more reasonable than those who believe in God's existence, and in that sense "better" because he/she doesn't believe in something the existence of which can't be established.  And that is certainly true, if it is only reasonable to maintain that someone can only feel something is real, and exists, if its existence can be established in the same fashion as any subject or potential subject of scientific inquiry can be established.   But scientifc inquiry is not necessarily a pertinent basis on which to base belief in God, from the perspective of the believer.  So, such a view will leave most believers unimpressed.  It would seem an appropriate response for the believer to say to the atheist in that case:  "So be it."

The problem, though, is that too often there is more involved. God's existence or nonexistence is something many of us seem incapable of addressing in an abstract, dispassionate manner.  We're inclined to insist, proclaim, demand, even fight.  It seems a highly emotional, even irrational, concern of ours.  There are too many believers and atheists, and skeptics, who are evangelists of one kind or another.

Historically, though, the believers have been far more agressive than unbelievers in imposing or seeking to impose their beliefs on others.  This doesn't speak well of believers, and makes the aggressiveness of the "New Atheists" and their fellow travelers somewhat understandible.  There is no Inquisition, but perhaps there will be an Imposition, if the religious among us have their way. 

Perhaps our hope must be in a practical skepticism and the humility which it inspires.  "Presume not God to scan" said Alexander Pope, a phrase which has a new meaning now.  We are a presumptuous species in far too many ways.

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