The Pitfalls of the Hyper-Skeptical
by Brian Forbes
(c) 2015

This is a continuation of my thoughts on position positioning, and is meant to be read after that.  This is not an exhaustive list of reasons for why skepticism can be problematic.  As a method, it can be good.  We all know that there are lies floating amidst the teachings of men, and we know that if we believe everything we hear, we will be led astray and taken advantage of.  But there is also danger in being too skeptical.

I am often asked the question, "Why, then, do [insert off the cuff statistic above 90%] of scientists say that evolution is true?"  My answer is that when you start with naturalism exclusively, and you are "not allowed" to use untestable solutions to the problem (i.e. fairies), any answer that you come up with is going to be natural.  Naturally!  It's a form of circular reasoning.  The real question is why up to 10% of scientists don't.  The strict scientist isn't even supposed to take the word of other scientists.  They are supposed to test for themselves to see that the claim is true.  And, of course, this epistemology leads only to knowledge being known through the scientific method.  I'm thankful that most people don't accept that science is the only way to know things, or else we wouldn't be able to point to abstract and untestable things like political office.  We know from watching con men that things like police authority come through trust and not through any testable method of discernment.  That's why officers get things like badges, which, for most people, are difficult to make.  And if someone started manufacturing police badges and uniforms so that they could exercise police authority over the populous, the genuine authorities would take personal offense and bring these people to justice. The police would likewise look to the pretended authority of the courts, who in turn look to the imaginary authority of the legislature, who, in turn, looks to the impressive, yet fake might of the military and its commanding officer.  Imaginary... riiight.  We know that these offices exist, but we can't demonstrate it scientifically, because it's not a matter of science at all.  It's a political truth, i.e. something we choose to believe on faith.   Is there a balance between accepting the art of the con vs. only accepting truths that you can observe with your own eyes and test with the scientific method?  I believe there is.

A couple years back, I went to a talk where the speaker was discussing her research into the potential sciences.  She criticized what were deemed pseudosciences.  I was a little bit shocked when she claimed that all of chiropractic medicine should be tossed out, because it wasn't scientific enough.  During the break I asked my friends what they thought and if they thought she was being a little too skeptical.  One of my friends said to ask her.  I said that I wasn't about to.  During the question and answer period, my so called friend pointed at me and said I was afraid to ask my question, if it's possible to be too skeptical.  I threw my hat at him across the aisle as he grinned back at me.  She answered that it was not possible to be too skeptical, and, by implication, that the whole of chiropractic medicine is unscientific.  I think this is a great place to draw a line.

A couple of days ago, I sat down with a long time friend, and we discussed the philosophy of atheism vs. Christianity.  I had a vested interest in this guy, because he had been in my small group in his youth.  He had no difficulty telling me that he was agnostic.  I asked if he was living like an atheist, or more like a Christian.  He qualified his answer and said that in some ways like a Christian and in other ways like an atheist.  For instance, he said, he could talk to a transgender person about their life without any kind of judgment.  I told him that 1 Cor. 5 forbids Christians from judging  an unrepentant transgender atheist too, and that he could use that if a Christian ever made a non-believer feel unloved.  So, in that way, he was being more Christian than most Christians.  We camped out on this idea for a while - that you can't actively live an agnostic lifestyle.  Before we parted company, I urged him, even if he didn't actively believe in his mind, that he should exercise faith.  He should live his life as if he did believe in God and the afterlife.  If he lives actively as an atheist when he is an agnostic, he will give the demonic principalities authority over his life, and he will be subject to them in the end.  

We talked at length about confirmation bias, which, ironically, was brought up by him.  I quoted Anselm of Canterbury, "...I believe that I might understand."  He said that I wasn't helping my case, because I'm starting with confirmation bias.

The discussion moved to whether atheists have morals.  He took offense when I said that it's impossible for atheists to have morals.  He said that his morals may be based on something different than mine, but they are based in something.  I said, no, not so.  Morals are absolute, and if there isn't a universal King of the Universe to enforce them, all we have is opinions about what might have been morality.  In an atheistic world view, morals don't exist, only opinions about right and wrong.  I contend that if he is making up what he believe to be right by looking inside himself and comparing it to the culture of his day, the chances of him being absolutely and objectively moral are very slim indeed.

Yesterday, I was processing what we had discussed.  I feel like God prompted me with the wisdom of insight.  In the same way that scientists regularly reject supernatural explanations, agnostics will regularly come to actively doubt God.  Think about it.  If your standard for accepting something as true is that you can touch, taste, smell, hear, or see it, in what way would you be able to sense the supernatural?  You would have to rely on what is commonly called the sixth sense.  You would have to say, "I feel God is here."  Or "God may be prompting me."  For the skeptic, these things are never adequate, because they start with doubt.  They put their bar high enough that it would literally take fire from heaven, as happened with Elijah, not the first time, not the second time, but the third time before the proper reverence is given. (2 Kings 1)  And even then, the Pharisees and Pharaoh saw miracles, and they misdirected the credit for them.

I believe I've found the answer to the question that once puzzled me.  Agnostics will often become atheist or remain agnostic until they are finished with life, not because they have looked at religion and found it lacking in evidence.  It is because they have chosen to place the bar of evidence in the wrong place.  I'm not saying it's too high, but that it's measuring the wrong thing.  If you start out expecting scientific (i.e. repeatable, observable) answers to your supernatural questions, you will always be lacking evidence in the end.  You're looking in the wrong place.  If you want to have evidence for God and the supernatural, you can't expect it to come in the form of natural occurrences, and when you end up seeing them, you may misinterpret them as being a part of the magical black box called the brain.  You may say you imagined it, or you were high on a natural chemical.  If you are determined to doubt, when you have supernatural experiences, you will doubt them, because it's your a priori posture.

On the evidence, if I'm honest, I would say that when you actually entertain the idea that God doesn't exist and actively doubt miracles, and you look at the face of an ape and see the similarities and ignore the differences, atheism seems plausible. On the other hand, if you actively believe the miracle stories, look at the differences between species vs. the fossils they have in the archives, etc., Christianity seems plausible. If you completely empty your mind of all prejudice, you can be convinced of anything, literally. Because if you doubt anything, it's only because you've chosen to keep some aspect of your former mindset. For example, do you trust your senses? Do you trust your ability to reason? If you have an answer to either of those, you have a bias. You didn't clear your mind enough. And to the extent that you do clear your mind, you can fill it with quite literally anything. And you can make excuses for anything you choose to believe. And if you try hard enough, you can come up with a whole set of self consistent beliefs that are, to your mind, rational. And all of that comes out of your choice to believe or doubt, i.e. your standard for truth. Your starting point pretty much determines your destination. You start a journey, and the first step pretty much dictates where you are going to end up.

There's another word for doubting your upbringing that is slightly better than what an agnostic does.  It's called being a seeker.  They don't default to doubt.  They default to, "I don't know yet, but I aim to find out."  I'm not at all saying that people need to be seekers and not agnostics.  What I am saying is that confirmation bias is strong no matter who you are, and choosing to be a seeker is likely going to result in a different result than starting your journey as an agnostic.  If you start your study of chiropractic with a desire to do it for people, you will see and accept a lot more evidence in favor of it.  If you start with the aim of falsifying it, you will find evidence to support that.  And in this world where anyone wearing a police uniform could actually be a con man, we do have to pick a starting position.  If you choose to be an agnostic, you will probably end up like Michael Shermer of The Skeptics Society.  If you start out as a seeker, you may live your life as Nathan Wheeler of TruthMeFree did.  Both did experimentation, and both came to very solid conclusions.  The difference was not in the logic or the evidence, but in the attitude.  We have to plan out our lives with a choice to vindicate our preferred position.  If we start our journey with the aim to doubt our position, we will succeed.  I have no doubt.