Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Skepticism and Blind Faith

Dallas Willard is a philosopher at USC who's an expert in Husserl's phenomenology. His popularity in Christian circles, however, is due to his excellent books on spiritual living; I highly recommend them. In one of these books, Hearing God, he makes an interesting point near the end regarding skepticism.

The test of character posed by the gentleness of God's approach to us is especially dangerous for those formed by the ideas that dominate our modern world. We live in a culture that has, for centuries now, cultivated the idea that the skeptical person is always smarter than one who believes. You can be almost as stupid as a cabbage, as long as you doubt. The fashion of the age has identified mental sharpness with a pose, not with genuine intellectual method and character. Only a very hardy individualist or social rebel -- or one desperate for another life -- therefore stands any chance of discovering the substantiality of the spiritual life today. Today it is the skeptics who are the social conformists, though because of powerful intellectual propaganda they continue to enjoy thinking of themselves as wildly individualistic and unbearably bright.
This is an interesting point. Skepticism is the refusal to believe; how exactly is this intellectual? How is it rational or wise? As he says, an unintelligent person can doubt something just as easily as an intelligent person; so how could doubting be a sign of intelligence or of rational method?

It seems to me that skepticism is essentially blind faith that something is false, and any form of blind faith is not rational. Of course, someone could come up with an ad hoc proposition that no one would believe, like Russell's orbiting teapot or a flying spaghetti monster. The rational response to such suggestions is not to remain undecided; it's to not believe them. Doesn't this prove that skepticism, doubt, is the fallback position in terms of rationality?

The problem with this is that we do have a reason to disbelieve such claims: they are ad hoc, and the more ad hoc or contrived a claim is, the less likely it is true. The degree to which it is ad hoc is the degree to which it is implausible. This is particularly evident with the absurdly ad hoc propositions mentioned above: we react against such suggestions because they are completely contrived. It's not merely that we have no reason to think they are true; we think, for whatever reason, that they are just "made up," and this is a specific reason to think they are not true.

However, this gets into burden of proof issues, and my understanding is that these issues are notoriously difficult to resolve. It's food for thought, though.

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