An Atheist Reads Evidence That Demands a Verdict
Part Four: Truth or Consequences
Chapter 35: Answering Skepticism
- McDowell begins by defining what skepticism is:
- “the belief that any reliable or absolute knowledge is impossible, and any aspects of the supernatural are unattainable by any individual.” (Josh McDowell, THE NEW EVIDENCE THAT DEMANDS A VERDICT, p. 627)
- Right off the bat, we have a problem. Judging by this definition, it seems like McDowell is propping up a straw man to box with in this chapter. But maybe I’m being too picky. Afterall, sometimes it’s difficult to come up with a definition of a belief that will satisfy everyone who holds that belief. We have that problem with defining atheism. You might say atheism means believing there is no God. Others might say, no, atheism means not believing there is a God.
- Of course, most atheists presumably agree that both of those definitions of atheism are better than McDowell’s definition, that atheism means believing you have absolute knowledge that there is no God. So let’s see how McDowell’s definition of skepticism compares to how that word is defined by more objective sources. First, here’s how it’s defined by Merriam-Webster:
- an attitude of doubt or a disposition to incredulity either in general or toward a particular object
- a: the doctrine that true knowledge or knowledge in a particular area is uncertain
b: the method of suspended judgment, systematic doubt, or criticism characteristic of skeptics
- doubt concerning basic religious principles (as immortality, providence, and revelation)
(“Skepticism”. Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 8 Oct 2013 from www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/skepticism)
- Not quite McDowell’s definition, but that’s only one source. How does Wiktionary define skepticism?
(“skepticism”. Wiktionary. Retrieved 8 Oct 2013 from en.wiktionary.org/wiki/skepticism)
- (US) The practice or philosophy of being a skeptic.
- (US) A studied attitude of questioning and doubt
- (US) The doctrine that absolute knowledge is not possible
- (US) A methodology that starts from a neutral standpoint and aims to acquire certainty though scientific or logical observation
- (US) Doubt or disbelief of religious doctrines
- Again, it doesn’t sound like quite the same thing Josh McDowell is talking about in his definition. But let’s make sure. One more. Here’s skepticism as defined by the Free Dictionary:
b. The doctrine that absolute knowledge is impossible, either in a particular domain or in general.
- A doubting or questioning attitude or state of mind; dubiety.
a. The ancient school of Pyrrho of Elis that stressed the uncertainty of our beliefs in order to oppose dogmatism.
c. A methodology based on an assumption of doubt with the aim of acquiring approximate or relative certainty.
- Doubt or disbelief of religious tenets.
(“skepticism”. The Free Dictionary. Retrieved 8 Oct 2013 from www.thefreedictionary.com/skepticism)
- What is the point of looking up the definition of “skepticism” three times? The point is that it’s not a difficult word to define, that there’s general agreement on what it means, and that nobody — not the people who write dictionaries, not skeptics themselves — defines skepticism as the belief that reliable knowledge is impossible, or the belief that the supernatural is unattainable. Nobody other than apologists setting up straw man arguments, that is.
- Skepticism is not the denial of the possibility of reliable knowledge. It’s not even necessarily the denial of the possibility of absolute knowledge, although practically speaking most skeptics do accept that absolute knowledge about the world is impossible. And it’s not the belief that the supernatural is unattainable, because that would presuppose the existence of the supernatural. And most skeptics don’t believe in the supernatural, because there’s no evidence for it, and skeptics don’t believe in things for which there is no evidence. That’s what makes them skeptics.
- Now, then. McDowell summarizes the main tenets of skepticism as expressed by David Hume:
- All knowledge is derived through either the senses or reflection on ideas that are true by definition (such as in mathematics), and
- Causality cannot be observed but only believed based on custom
- And to these pillars of skepticism, McDowell offers the following replies.
- First, McDowell says, skepticism is self-defeating. He quotes St. Augustine, who writes that someone who doubts is certain of the truth of the fact that he doubts, which means that in order to doubt truth, he has to believe in truth.
- By quoting St. Augustine here, McDowell at least demonstrates that he is innovating nothing by dishonestly redefining terms to suit his arguments. To the contrary, he’s carrying on a proud Christian tradition.
- Still making the argument that skepticism is self-defeating, McDowell quotes Gordon Clark, who defines skepticism as “the position that nothing can be demonstrated,” and our old pal Norman Geisler, who describes skepticism as an attempt to suspend all judgment about reality, and discourage all attempts to discover the truth.
- There are a few things going on here, none of which reflects particularly well on McDowell and his quoted experts. First, as I mentioned previously in this series, a concept — or a thing represented by a concept — isn’t automatically disproven just because you can define or describe it a way that is circular or self-defeating. You can ask “Should we be skeptical about skepticism?” and pat yourself on the back for your cleverness, but you haven’t refuted skepticism. To the contrary — most skeptics would probably say “Yes, we should be skeptical about skepticism, in the same way we’re skeptical about other things.” If it turns out there’s some better, more reliable method of approaching the world, I want to know about it. Although before I embrace that method, I will need to see some evidence that it works better. I’m still a skeptic at this point, afterall.
- Also, notice how the experts McDowell quotes have been forced, like McDowell himself in his opening definition, to distort the concept of skepticism into a kind of universal, permanent agnosticism in order to argue that it’s self-defeating. Only people with beliefs threatened by skepticism seem to define skepticism in this way.
- Next, McDowell takes issue with the notion that all knowledge comes either from sensory experience or reflection on ideas. His issue: the knowledge that knowledge is derived from either the senses or reflection comes from neither the senses nor reflection.
- McDowell quotes Ravi Zacharias, who says:
- “Hume’s contention that, in order to be meaningful, all statements should either be a relation to ideas, i.e., mathematical or quantity, or else should be of experimental reasoning based on questions of facts is itself based neither on mathematical fact nor on experimentally established fact. Therefore, his very definition of a meaningful statement, on his own terms, is meaningless.” (Ravi Zacharias, CAN MAN LIVE WITHOUT GOD?, p. 200)
- I dealt with this in my series on I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist. Those of you who watched that series might remember when I was discussing Norman Geisler’s claim to have refuted empiricism as a college student by arguing that the verification principle was excluded by itself, using an argument similar to the one Zacharias uses against Hume in that quote. Geisler’s argument there failed for the same reason Zacharias’s argument fails here. And that reason is, Hume’s statement that propositions must be either derived from sensory experience or from reflections upon ideas in order to be meaningful is experimentally demonstrated.
- Notice that Zacharias doesn’t tell us where Hume’s proposition — which is the verification principle, practically speaking — does come from, if not from experience or reflection. I guess Hume just made it up, perhaps to support his baseless anti-supernatural bias.
- I’m not David Hume. But I agreed with him before I ever heard about the verification principle or read his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. If there’s another way of gaining knowledge about the world besides experience, I would genuinely like to hear about it — because I can’t think of how else I’d ever know about it! (See what I did there?)
- Kant conceived this as the analytic–synthetic dichotomy. There is knowledge that is true by definition; and there is knowledge that is true because it corresponds to reality, and that can only be known through experiencing reality. I knew this was true before I had any familiarity with Kant, either. How? From my experience with reality. This is one of the wonderful things about philosophy. It can tell us what we already know, but with more elegance and clarity than most of us ever would have found on our own.
- Everything I have ever known is either true by definition or derived from experience. That’s how the world works. I know that through my experience with the world. It is an empirically derived principle. It has been experimentally demonstrated to my satisfaction and well beyond. I don’t know what the fuck Zacharias is talking about, and I wonder if he does.
- McDowell next turns his attention to Hume’s ideas about causality.
- “The result of Hume’s skepticism of causality would be that no events are connected.” (McDowell, p. 632)
- Only if you selectively read the passage of Hume that McDowell himself quotes earlier in this chapter:
- “‘Twould, therefore, be in vain for us to pretend to determine any single event, or infer any cause or effect, without the assistance of observation and experience.” (David Hume, AN ENQUIRY CONCERNING HUMAN UNDERSTANDING)
- Hume’s point is that reason alone is insufficient for establishing causality. Hume doesn’t deny that events have causes. He argues that you can’t establish a cause-and-effect relationship between two events using reason alone. You need observation and experience. He also points out that, no matter how often you may experiment to determine the cause of a particular effect — a rock falling, for example — you can never be absolutely certain of the effect of a particular cause or the cause of a particular effect observed. You can only speak in terms of probability, not certainty.
- In conclusion to this chapter, McDowell again quotes the admired and influential philosopher Norman Geisler, from his book Introduction to Philosophy:
- “While skepticism is not defensible as an epistemological position, it is of value. It acts like a burr in the epistemologist’s saddle, demanding that any claim to knowledge is based upon adequate evidence and is free from contradiction or absurdity.” (Norman Geisler, INTRODUCTION TO PHILOSOPHY, p. 100)
- That demand that claims be based on evidence and free from contradiction or absurdity is not merely a useful side-effect of skepticism — it is skepticism, which Geisler asserts is not a defensible position. Yes, you heard me right — this man wrote a book titled Introduction to Philosophy. Look for it on the library shelf right next to Introduction to Realism by Rene Magritte.
Chapter 36: Answering Agnosticism
- McDowell again opens with a definition of agnosticism — and a much better one than the one he tried to pass for skepticism:
- “the belief that man ‘either does not know or cannot know. . . . In theology the theory is that man cannot attain knowledge of God.’” (McDowell, p. 634)
- McDowell moves from Hume to Kant in this chapter, first summarizing Kant’s philosophy, which McDowell claims results in agnosticism.
- Kant, McDowell tells us, argues that there is a distinction between the actual world and the apparent world (that is, what we perceive as the world through our senses), and that we can never know the thing itself, but only what our senses, as interpreted by our minds, tell us about it.
- To argue against Kant, McDowell again turns to that Aristotle of the modern age, Norman Geisler. Geisler (whom McDowell refers to at one point as “Professer Geisler” — I guess he’s one of the few good, trustworthy professors) employs his trusty Road Runner tactic (which is apparently the only argument he knows) to declare that Kant’s agnosticism is self-defeating:
- “The fundamental flaw in Kant’s hard agnostic position is his claim to have knowledge of what he declares to be unknowable. In other words, if it were true that reality cannot be known, no one, including Kant, would know it. Kant’s hard agnosticism boils down to the claim, ‘I know that reality is unknowable.’” (Norman Geisler and Peter Bucchino, WHEN STUDENTS ASK)
- Kant’s position boils down to this: statements about reality are only true if they correspond to reality. But the only way we can experience reality is through our senses, which are interpreted by our brains. Which means we are never actually seeing/hearing/touching/tasting/smelling reality itself, but impressions of reality created by our brains, based on sensory input. Therefore, we can never be absolutely certain that our beliefs about reality are true – we can never be certain that the things we sense actually are as we sense them. And that is agnostic. It’s also a fact, by the way. We’re stuck at the mercy of our senses, there’s nothing we can do about it.
- But that doesn’t mean we’ve given up knowledge. We can know things about reality — we just can’t know them for certain. That’s one of the reasons why skepticism is so valuable and so necessary — the fact that we can’t have certain knowledge means we have to check things out, look for evidence, look for confirmation, so we can at least have reliable knowledge. Reliable knowledge is knowledge that has been tested, knowledge that has been shown to be consistent, shown to work. And whether Josh McDowell, or Norman Geisler, or Ravi Zacharias, or whoever else, like it or not, it’s the best we can do.
Chapter 37: Answering Mysticism
- Another chapter, another definition. Mysticism, says McDowell, is
- “the belief that direct knowledge of God, of spiritual truth or ultimate reality, is attainable ‘through immediate intuition or insight [the subjective] and in a way different from ordinary sense perception or the use of logical reasoning’” (Norman Anderson, CHRISTIANITY AND WORLD RELIGIONS, p. 37)
- A pretty good definition, probably because Norman Anderson, who McDowell quotes for it, was himself quoting Webster’s Dictionary. Makes me wonder why, since Anderson himself offers no unique insight into the subject in that quote, McDowell didn’t cut out the middle man and simply quote that dictionary definition himself. The mind of an apologist . . .
- The particular form of mysticism McDowell addresses in this chapter is Zen Buddhism, as described by D.T. Suzuki.
- Of the three philosophies examined in these chapters — skepticism, agnosticism, and mysticism — I would bet mysticism is by far the least commonly held among critics of Christianity. So of course the chapter devoted to refuting mysticism is twice as long as either of those other two chapters.
- I am not a Zen Buddhist. I am not a mystic. I have no desire to defend the ideas of D.T. Suzuki’s presented by McDowell in this chapter. Some of those ideas are: that there are two types of knowledge — the knowable and the unknowable (which must be intuited rather than learned through experience), that reality is illusory, that mystical experiences are beyond description or expression.
- I don’t believe there are such things as truly mystical experiences to begin with, nor do I accept that there is mystical, unknowable knowledge which represents some truer, more ineffable reality than the one we can sense.
- Nevertheless, there are some things about the way McDowell chooses to respond to Suzuki’s Zen teachings that strike me as hypocritical. For a start, there’s McDowell’s complaint that Suzuki defines Zen in such a way as to render it immune from criticism:
- “Suzuki says that Zen is self-authenticating and not at all concerned about criticism of its contradictions.” (McDowell, p. 647)
- Sound like anyone else we know?
- McDowell doesn’t outwardly present Christianity as above criticism, but if you follow his arguments all the way down, that is essentially what he says. Things are true because the Bible says they’re true, the Bible is perfect and free from contradiction, and if you find a contradiction that can’t be harmonized away, you can always appeal to the perfect, conveniently non-existent, totally unfalsifiable original autographs. If he’s always got that in his back pocket, how is his version of Christianity not just as above criticism as Suzuki’s Zen philosophy? The only difference is, McDowell doesn’t openly present it as such.
- But here’s the one that really makes me laugh. McDowell takes issue with Suzuki’s assertion that there are two types of knowledge — knowable and unknowable — that describe two different levels of reality.
- McDowell quotes David Clark and (wait for it) Norman Geisler, from their book Apologetics in the New Age, where they object to the mystics’ positing a higher realm of experience, one that is superior to the physical, empirically knowable world we live in, one from which the higher, ultimate truth is derived. They argue that even that higher realm, which mystics claim transcends rationality, requires us to draw a logical distinction between it and the empirical world in order to meaningfully define it, which means even knowledge of it, in all its reason-shattering transcendence, is ultimately dependent upon logic and empiricism.
- Wow. Could you write a better refutation of Christian mysticism than that? The thing is, Christian apologists don’t call their thing mysticism. They call it divine, they call it revelation, but essentially what they believe is that there is another realm than the one we experience every day, a higher realm, that is the ultimate reality containing the ultimate truth, a reality and a truth that transcends the physical and logical rules of our world. And furthermore, they believe we can experience this reality — or at least communicate with it, receive knowledge from it — via a process that bypasses our senses. How can you listen to Christians describing hearing God speak to them, feeling moved by the Holy Spirit, feeling as though they’ve received a word from the Lord, without concluding that this was a mystical experience? Or would be, anyway, if it were real and not the product of a delusion.
- And if McDowell (and Clark, and Geisler, who is inexplicably the author’s go-to authority for this shit) are right about the mystical experiences of a Zen Buddhist being ultimately rooted in the empirical and therefore subject to the same rules of logic evidence as everything else (and I think they are), then the same must hold true for their own religious beliefs. In I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, Norman Geisler crowed about refuting empiricism. How fitting, then, that he relies on it to refute mysticism and in the process unwittingly refutes his own religion as well. So that’s where Josh McDowell picked up the habit.
Next: Conclude Part Four: Truth or Consequences, and book
Chapter 38: Certainty vs. Certitude
Chapter 39: Defending Miracles
Chapter 40: Is History Knowable?
Concluding Material (The Four Spiritual Laws)