Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Dialogue with a Skeptic

Below is an argument against agnosticism and skepticism, in the form of a dialogue.  More specifically, it is a refutation of the argument that we should all be agnostic skeptics on the ground that we are all fallible and therefore could possibly be wrong.

SKEPTIC:  Do you believe in God?

CHRISTIAN:  Yes, I’m a Christian.

SKEPTIC:  Well, you shouldn’t be, because there is not enough evidence to warrant belief in it.

CHRISTIAN:  Well, I think there is, based on what I have seen.  I think the objective evidence warrants acceptance of Christianity, and in fact warrants no other response.

SKEPTIC:  How do you know the objective evidence warrants that?

CHRISTIAN:  Well, I have looked at the evidence, and that is what it says.  I would be happy to share some of my reasoning with you.  First of all . . .

SKEPTIC:  No, no, that won’t be necessary.  I don’t need to look at your arguments.  I can already tell that they won’t prove what you think they prove.

CHRISTIAN:  Really?  How can you tell that?

SKEPTIC:  Let me ask you this:  Are you fallible, or infallible?

CHRISTIAN:  Do you mean, am I capable of being wrong?  Yes, I am capable of being wrong.

SKEPTIC:  And have you been wrong in the past?


SKEPTIC:  Well, there you go.  Since you admit you are capable of being wrong, and you even admit you have been wrong in the past, therefore you must admit that you could be wrong in your evaluation of your arguments for Christianity.  And therefore you really can’t know whether or not your arguments are any good, and so you should stop asserting things on the basis of them.  So you should stop making the assertion that Christianity is true.

CHRISTIAN:  Well, I admit that insofar as I am a fallible human being, I could potentially be wrong in my arguments for Christianity.  However, I have thought about these matters quite a bit, and it appears to me quite certain that Christianity is true.  So I should continue to believe and assert it.

SKEPTIC:  But you just admitted that you could be wrong!  If you could be wrong, how can you have any basis to claim that you are right?

CHRISTIAN:  My basis is that I have done my best to reasonably examine the evidence, and the conclusion that appears to me clearly to be true is that Christianity is true.  I admit that I have the potential to be mistaken, insofar as I am fallible; but I also assert that all the evidence says that I am not mistaken and that I ought therefore to continue to believe Christianity and assert that it is true.

SKEPTIC:  But if you admit that you could possibly be wrong, then you must admit that you can’t possibly have any basis to claim that you are right.  For if you are capable of being wrong, and you have been wrong in the past, then who knows whether this isn’t one of those occasions where you are wrong?  Who knows whether or not your arguments for Christianity really hold water conclusively?  They may seem to hold water to you, but you could be wrong!  You are fallible!

CHRISTIAN:  Let me ask you a question:  Are you fallible, or infallible?


CHRISTIAN:  I said, are you fallible, or infallible?

SKEPTIC:  Well, I’m fallible, of course.  I’m only human!

CHRISTIAN:  Have you ever been wrong before?

SKEPTIC:  Well, sure I have, lots of times.

CHRISTIAN:  Well then, according to your own reasoning, you have no basis to make any of the claims you have been making to me throughout this conversation.  It may seem to you that there is no basis for a fallible person ever to claim that he is right in any instance, but you are fallible!  You might be wrong!  And so, according to you, you can have no basis for that claim.  And since you must admit, to be consistent, that none of your claims have any basis, why should I pay any attention to anything you have to say?  You yourself tell me that you have nothing to say, and I am not inclined to argue.

SKEPTIC:  Um, well, I, uh . . . Now just a minute!  OK, I agree that I am fallible, and so there is really no basis for me to make any claims.  But it still remains the case that my position is a more modest and reasonable position.  I don’t claim to know that Christianity is not true.  I am merely an agnostic skeptic.  I take no position.  But you, on the other hand, are making a very large and dubious claim!  You are claiming that there is enough evidence to know that Christianity is true!  Since we both admit that we are fallible, and it follows that we don’t really know anything or have any basis to make any claims, it makes sense for both of us to give up making such grandiose claims and just be agnostic skeptics, doesn’t it?

CHRISTIAN:  You’re still doing it.

SKEPTIC:  Doing what?

CHRISTIAN:  Making claims.  You have now said multiple times that you don’t think you have any basis to make any claims since you are fallible.  So why do you keep making claims?

SKEPTIC:  I’m not making any claims!

CHRISTIAN:  Sure you are.  You just claimed not to be making any claims, for one.  And you’ve made a number of other claims.  For example, you have claimed that given the fact that we are all fallible, the rational and modest thing for us all to do is become agnostic skeptics.  That’s a pretty big claim.  You are asking me to give up my entire worldview and embrace a new one on the basis of a claim that you yourself acknowledge that you have no basis to make.  That seems pretty irrational to me.  I mean, here you are getting on to me for endorsing Christianity for insufficient reasons, while you yourself are openly and admittedly endorsing agnostic skepticism for what you admit are no good reasons at all.  If you have no basis to claim that I should not be endorsing Christianity, why don’t you stop asserting it and end this conversation?

SKEPTIC:  OK, you’re right.  I have no basis for any claim that I am making.  But neither do you!  You still haven’t faced that fact!

CHRISTIAN:  You’re doing it again.

SKEPTIC:  Doing what?

CHRISTIAN:  Making claims.  You just made two of them:  You claimed that you have no basis for any of your claims.  And you claimed that I don’t either.  But you yourself admit that you don’t have any basis to make any claims at all.  So why don’t you stop doing it?

SKEPTIC:  OK, let’s approach this a little differently.  Let’s stop talking about my claims.  Let’s focus some attention on your claims.  As I said, I admit that neither of us have any basis to make any claims.  Now, you want to try to twist me all up in a knot here and accuse me of self-contradiction for making claims when I say I have no basis to make claims.  But let’s put that aside for a moment.  What about you?  You are fallible too, and so you have no basis to make any claims.

CHRISTIAN:  Sure I do.  I have lots of good reasons to think that Christianity is true.

SKEPTIC:  But you’ve already granted that you could be wrong!  So how can you continue to assert that you have good reason to think you are right?

CHRISTIAN:  I don’t grant your assumption that only infallible people can ever claim to know anything or be right.  And neither do you, as is evidenced by the fact that you keep making claims as if you do indeed think you can know things even though you are fallible.


CHRISTIAN:  Let me put it this way.  The situation is like this:  I must start with how things appear to me.  What else could I do?  So how do things appear to me?  Well, on the one hand, I see what appears to me to be conclusive evidence proving Christianity to be true.  On the other hand, we have the fact that I am fallible.  Since I am fallible, I have the potentiality of being wrong.  Hypothetically speaking, looking only at my fallibility, it could potentially be the case that the evidence for Christianity is not nearly as conclusive as it seems to me to be (although the evidence clearly indicates otherwise).  But on the other hand, using the same reasoning, since I am fallible, I could potentially be wrong in my assessment that I am fallible.  How do I know that I am fallible?  I might appear to be fallible, but I could potentially be wrong!  No matter what position I embrace, no matter what belief I hold, no matter what assertion I make, since I am fallible (so far as I can tell), I could be wrong.  You are asking me to give up on what appears to me very strong and conclusive evidence on the one hand merely on the grounds that I am fallible and could potentially be wrong.  But, on the other hand, you are asking me to ignore the fact of my fallibility when considering the possibility that your agnostic skeptical conclusion could be wrong.  If my fallibility is important on one side, it must be important on the other side as well (so far as I can tell!), and so the two sides cancel each other out.  If I follow how the evidence appears to me and embrace Christianity, well, I could be wrong!  But if I abandon the appearance of the evidence and instead embrace an agnostic skeptical outlook on the basis that I am fallible, well, I could be wrong about that too!  Since no matter what I believe or do my fallibility will be there, it cancels itself out, leaving me with only one rational choice: to follow the evidence where it appears to me to lead.  And it appears to me, abundantly, to lead to Christianity.

SKEPTIC:  But you could be wrong!

CHRISTIAN:  So could you!

SKEPTIC:  But since you are fallible, you should embrace agnostic skepticism, for that is the only safe, rational, and modest choice!

CHRISTIAN:  So it appears to be to you.  But you could be wrong!  Right?

SKEPTIC:  Well, uh, I . . .

CHRISTIAN:  Look, no matter what course I take, I have only one option:  I must follow the evidence where it appears to me to lead.  If I embrace Christianity, I am doing so because I think that is where the evidence leads.  If I were to embrace your agnostic skeptical view, it would be because the evidence seems to lead me there.  So the agnostic skeptical position is in no better epistemological position than my Christian position.  So there is no advantage to embracing agnostic skepticism, particularly when the evidence seems conclusively to point instead to Christianity.  Or let me put it another way:  If my fallibility is not a problem in coming to the conclusion that I am fallible and that therefore I could be wrong, it cannot be a problem in coming to the conclusion that Christianity is true.  So the argument from fallibility is self-refuting.  If I take it seriously, it refutes itself as well as everything else.  But if it refutes itself, it is refuted and therefore wrong.  If I don't take it seriously, well, then, I don't take it seriously.  Either way, it is merely a phantom and not a real problem in the way of examining evidence and coming to conclusions, such as I have done with regard to Christianity.

SKEPTIC:  But how can this be?  Doesn’t it make sense that fallible beings could not know if they are right?  Doesn’t it make sense that they could not know if they really have a good basis for any of their claims?  Doesn’t the agnostic skeptical position seem to follow from human fallibility?

CHRISTIAN:  On a superficial level, it does seem to make sense.  But on a deeper level, it really doesn’t.  The problem with the skeptical position is that ignores an obvious fact of reality.  It ignores the fact that we really can examine reality and learn truths about it, and that we do this all the time.  Skeptics themselves are actually assuming this very thing, right at the same time they are denying it!  Skeptics are claiming to be describing a true feature of reality that they claim to know—the feature that no one can know anything.  But if it were true that no one could know anything, then no one could know the truth of skepticism either.  So in the very act of asserting that no one can know anything, they are at the same time asserting that people can know things!  Skeptics themselves don’t really believe their own skeptical claims.  And how could they?  They are absurd and contradictory, and they are patently false.  The right way of thinking about things is not "Well, it looks like such and such is true; but I am fallible, and so I could be wrong, and so I cannot come to any conclusions."  This is obviously false and self-refuting.  The right way of thinking about things is rather "So far as I can tell, the evidence seems to be pointing clearly enough in such and such a direction; and therefore, as I ought to follow the evidence wherever it leads as best I can, I ought to embrace that conclusion."  In my case, this means that since, as far as I can tell, I see the evidence clearly pointing to Christianity, I ought to follow that evidence and embrace the conclusion that Christianity is true.

SKEPTIC:  But I'm still bothered by the fact that you could be wrong.  And think of the consequences of being wrong about so important a thing as Christianity!  If you embrace, follow, and promote Christianity, and it turns out to be wrong, you will have caused harm to yourself and many others by leading them to embrace beliefs and follow practices that, if wrong, are harmful.  For example, let's say that Christianity turns out to be wrong.  Christianity says that homosexuality is an evil abomination, and on that basis Christians tell homosexuals that their sexual desires are actually sinful temptations that they need to oppose and that homosexual activity is a sin that they must repent of upon threat of eternal damnation.  On the basis of biblical teaching, Christians oppose the legal recognition of same-sex marriages, thereby preventing many people from being united in marriage to the person they love.  But what if Christianity is wrong, and in actuality there is nothing at all wrong with homosexuality?  In that case, Christians are causing unnecessary and grave pain and suffering to perhaps millions of people all around the world!  Since the stakes are so high, in this and in many other matters, doesn't it make more sense to go the modest, agnostic route and decline to embrace the conclusion that Christianity is true, or at least to publicize such a conclusion, in light of the possibility (however slim it may seem) that you could be wrong in your evaluation of the evidence?

CHRISTIAN:  But you are once again using selective argumentation.  You are failing to see that I could turn around and ask you exactly the same kind of question.  Let's say that the evidence is as it appears clearly to be and Christianity is in fact true.  But you, in the name of modesty and carefulness, have instead taken an agnostic position and refrained from embracing or promoting it.  Since in the Scriptures God commands everyone to embrace and follow his gospel, your position is not neutral; it is the rejection of Christianity.  You are disobeying God's command as it is recorded in the Bible.  Since Christianity is in fact true, you are by your choice of belief and lifestyle dishonoring God (which is the greatest evil) and doing spiritual harm to yourself and others.  Also, failing to promote Christianity or to identify as Christian will have the effect of encouraging other people away from it, particularly if you do what you just talked about and go around affirming unbiblical behavior like homosexuality.  Since Christianity is true, by following this course you are driving others away from God and thus again dishonoring God and also bringing spiritual harm and even eternal harm on other people.  And if it is true, as the Bible indicates, that all human societies are under a moral obligation to follow God's law as it is found in the Bible, then by encouraging the society not to base laws and policies on God's Word you are encouraging the society to dishonor God and encouraging the bringing of God's wrath down on the entire society.  And you are doing all of this on the basis of what is nothing more than a self-refuting, groundless argument!  The evidence clearly points in one way, but instead of following the evidence where it leads, on the ground that humans are fallible you go in the opposite direction and embrace an agnostic point of view, even though your argument from fallibility, if a good argument, strikes just as much against itself and your agnostic approach as it does against the Christian conclusion.  So taking all things into consideration, what you are really advocating is that we refrain from following the evidence where it really seems to lead and instead embrace a conclusion that the evidence points away from for no reason at all, even though if it turns out that the conclusion the evidence is pointing to is actually right you are bringing grave dishonor on God and causing the spiritual and perhaps eternal harm of yourself and possibly (potentially) millions of other people.  That doesn't sound like a modest, careful course to me.  To be blunt, it sounds more like reckless, immoral stupidity.  Surely the only reasonable and wise course to take, all things considered, including one's own well-being and the well-being of others, is to examine the evidence and to follow where it seems to lead.  And that is exactly what I am doing.  And it is what you should be doing too.

SKEPTIC:  Hmmm . . . Well, I do see your point.

CHRISTIAN:  And let me make one more important clarification.  I've acknowledged that, being fallible, I have the potentiality of being wrong.  But we must distinguish between our potentiality of being wrong, as we are fallible creatures, and the objective state of the evidence.

SKEPTIC:  What do you mean?

CHRISTIAN:  Although we are fallible in ourselves, yet in some cases the objective evidence for something can be so strong and evident that we can see clearly that we cannot be wrong in that case.  For example, I make the claim that 2+2=4.  Could I be wrong about that?  Well, simply considering my fallibility, we can always talk about a general potentiality of being wrong.  So you shouldn't take my word for anything as if I were infallible!  However, in the case of 2+2=4, the evidence that it is and must be true is so clear that I can see without a doubt that it must indeed be true and cannot be false.  So, really, I would say that I cannot be wrong about that, not because I am personally infallible, but because the objective certainty in the evidence itself is clear to me.  This sort of thing is what I meant earlier when I said that one of the big problems with the skeptical position that you are advocating is that it ignores an obvious and important fact about reality--the fact that, though fallible, we do indeed have the ability to examine evidence and come to clear conclusions.

SKEPTIC:  OK, granting that we can know that some things are true, such as 2+2=4, surely you wouldn't say that all claims can be made with objective certainty!

CHRISTIAN:  Of course not.  There are things we can know with certainty because the evidence is objectively certain.  There are other things that we can only know to a degree of probability, because the evidence only consists of an analysis of probability.  For example, I got on a bus this morning.  I got on that bus holding the belief that it would not explode.  Now, I would not have claimed to have had objectively certain knowledge that the bus would not explode.  My belief rather was based only on a conviction that it was highly unlikely that the bus would explode.  In the case of 2+2=4, I can see directly that it is true, and so my knowledge is objectively certain.  In the case of the bus not exploding, on the other hand, strictly speaking, all I saw was a statistical probability.  So, strictly speaking, my claim was not that the bus will not explode, but only that it is highly likely that the bus would not explode.  So, strictly speaking, I would not have been wrong if the bus had exploded.  My expectation would have turned out to be wrong, but my actual claim would not have been wrong; for even if the bus had exploded it would still have been true that this was an unlikely event from my vantage point before getting on the bus.  And that was all I was claiming.

SKEPTIC:  So with regard to your claim that Christianity is true--Do you consider that an objectively certain claim, or merely one of high probability?

CHRISTIAN:  I consider it to be objectively certain.

SKEPTIC:  Do you mean that you never, ever doubt that it is true?

CHRISTIAN:  No, I can't say that.  There were times in the past when I was far more troubled by doubts on this score than I am today.  But even today, my level of conviction is capable of wavering from time to time.  We have to distinguish between objective certainty in the evidence and subjective certainty in the believer.  I've known people who have doubted that 2+2=4, and yet it remains clearly the case that this is objectively certain.  Similarly, I can see clearly that the truth of Christianity is objectively certain, even though mood swings, irrational concerns, cloudy thinking, etc., can sometimes make it harder to see than at other times.  On the whole, by the grace of God, I am able to see reality clearly.  And my ability to do this has increased over the years with practice and maturity, thanks to God's preserving grace.

SKEPTIC:  So why do you think Christianity is objectively certain?

CHRISTIAN:  Ah, are we ready to look at some actual arguments now?

SKEPTIC:  I suppose so.  You've given me a lot to think about!

CHRISTIAN:  Very well.  First of all, consider . . .

ADDENDUM 7/21/15:  One of the fundamental mistakes of the skeptical argument is that it makes the unwarranted assumption that a person who can be wrong and who has been wrong before cannot know anything at any given time.  The argument, in addition to being self-refuting and incoherent (how do you even know if you've been wrong before unless you know now that you are right about what you now think you were wrong about before?!), functions as a smokescreen that obscures the evident fact that the validity of any claim at any moment in time is dependent not upon whether the person making the claim has been wrong before but whether the evidence and arguments that currently function as the basis of that claim are adequate to warrant it.  No matter how many times I have been wrong before, even no matter how stupid I may have been in the past, it is completely irrelevant unless right now I am misconstruing the evidence or being stupid.  If I make a claim right now, the only way you can evaluate that claim is to look at the arguments for it right now and see if they hold up.  Of course, if a person has tendency to continually be wrong about certain things, this should raise a healthy skepticism and an intention to examine his arguments for any current claims very carefully, but his wrongness (even continual wrongness) in the past is not sufficient evidence in itself that he is wrong now.

It may be in some cases that we learn from our getting things wrong in the past that a certain method of knowing is not useful and should be abandoned.  But whether that is the case in any given instance must be examined on a case-by-case basis with specific reasoning; we should not discount a method simply on the grounds that someone allegedly using it in the past has come to some wrong conclusions, if it appears upon present examination that we have reason to think that the method applied in the present case is yielding accurate results.  In fact, progress is often spurred on by our learning from the mistakes of the past in order to do better in the future.  A person who is well trained to learn from his past mistakes might be expected to be more likely to be right the next time after being wrong the previous time.

At any rate, the main lesson is this:  We must be specific and careful in our reasoning, and not allow ourselves to be carried to a conclusion by superficial reasoning based on vague generalizations and surface impressions, etc.

ADDENDUM 6/26/17:  See my brief follow-up post here, where I examine why the skeptical argument seems so plausible, despite its obvious fallaciousness.


Riley said...

I don't have a problem with the way this dialogue dismantles the "claims" or logic of the agnostic. However, I do not think it is true to consider the Christian faith to be knowledge just like any other type of knowledge like science or history. The Christian faith is a type of knowledge or wisdom analagous to science, but the difference is that it is infallible. Our faith in Christ must be infallible, at least in the major doctrines, since it is received by God's direct revelation in the Holy Scriptures and impressed on the soul by Him to an infallible assurance, unlike these other types of knowledge where evidence is built up using fallible deductive or inductive methods. I myself would never say to an unbeliever that my assurance that Christianity is true is fallible.

Mark Hausam said...

You raise a good point, Riley. I agree with you, but I did not make that clear enough in the dialogue. I have now edited and added to the dialogue to bring that out. How is it now?

Riley said...

In what you've added, you've made it clear that the truth of Christianity is objectively certain, and I certainly agree with that. As an exercise in logic and reason, I have no problem with the apologetic approach which examines evidences to build a case for God. (That puts me out of the strictly presuppositionalist camp.) But on the other hand, I don't think any Christian believes the truth based on this type of reasoning from evidence. Although this type of reasoning is useful in the academy, it's not the foundation of our faith. Knowledge of the truth of Christianity and its central tenets comes by God's self-revelation in Scripture which is rested upon by faith through the gracious operation of the Holy Spirit. That is what sets apart true spiritual knowledge from other kinds of knowledge or science. Also I do believe that it is possible for Christians to have an infallible assurance of the truth of Christianity, and of their own salvation, in this life.

Mark Hausam said...

" But on the other hand, I don't think any Christian believes the truth based on this type of reasoning from evidence. Although this type of reasoning is useful in the academy, it's not the foundation of our faith. Knowledge of the truth of Christianity and its central tenets comes by God's self-revelation in Scripture which is rested upon by faith through the gracious operation of the Holy Spirit."

I'm not sure we really disagree here. I would assert that the evidence for Christianity can come in two ways: intuitively and in the form of articulated arguments. For example, I can articulate an argument for why there must be a First Cause of the universe, but I think that this fact is at least sub-consciously evident to all intuitively. It is immediately evident from the creation, although it can also be spelled out in the form of an argument. If this intuitive, immediate grasp of the objectively certain evidence is what you mean when you talk about God's self-revelation in Scripture, then we are agreed. All people have this sense, which is why disbelief is inexcusable. But only through the work of the Holy Spirit are we brought to fully, from the heart, see rightly and embrace the truth.

"Also I do believe that it is possible for Christians to have an infallible assurance of the truth of Christianity, and of their own salvation, in this life."

I do as well. But I also grant that not everyone experiences this all the time, as I'm sure you would agree. I used to struggle with periods of doubt over Christianity somewhat regularly, but in the past ten years or so this has mostly gone away. The process of sanctification and maturity through grace continues on!

Mark Hausam said...

With regard to self-revelation in Scripture, I should add that the way I think this works is that the Bible matches up with what we know from general revelation such as to make it clear that it is indeed a divine revelation. This matching can be spelled out in articulated arguments, but it can also be grasped intuitively. When the gospel is heard, one can see that it is true because it is self-attesting--that is, it testifies of itself by matching up with reality--and so there can be no excuse for disbelief.