Skepticism, at its core, is a consistently inconsistent position. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. To really answer skepticism, first we should set out to define it. Not-so-unshockingly, this is more difficult than asking Siri. While Siri does have a thought:
“generally any questioning attitude…”
A skeptic only needs to deny this and assert his own version of skepticism. Don’t believe me? Ask Dr. Michael Shermer[i]. Shermer shares in his ‘Skeptical Manifesto’ three different definitions of skepticism[ii]. Here they are for simple reference.
Types of Skeptics
- (common usage) One who, like Pyrrho and his followers in Greek antiquity, doubts the possibility of real knowledge of any kind; one who holds that there are no adequate grounds for certainty as to the truth of any proposition whatever (Oxford English Dictionary, Vol. 2, p. 2663).
- One who doubts the validity of what claims to be knowledge in some particular department of inquiry; one who maintains a doubting attitude with reference to some particular question or statement.
- (Shermer’s preference) One who questions the validity of particular claims of knowledge by employing or calling for statements of fact to prove or disprove claims, as a tool for understanding causality.[iii]
Shermer points out that two of these definitions provide less benefit to progressing humanity and, ultimately, abandon the intent of skepticism: “these usages leave out one important component: the goal of reason and rationality.” Or, you might say, Shermer is skeptical of other varieties of skepticism.
I often hear, “Oh, you’re a skeptic, so you don’t believe anything?” No, I believe lots of things, as long as there is reason and evidence to believe. – Michael Shermer
At first glance, it’s easy to find Shermer’s skepticism rational. In fact, it’s easy to see how each of the three definitions of skeptic are different (and therefore require a different tactic to respond to their claims), but allow me to illustrate why that is not the case.
Is Skepticism Logical
First, let’s examine reasoning and rationality. It would be reasonable, and rational, to conclude that pencils exists. In other words, it is far more reasonable to conclude a pencil exists than it is to assume all pencils are imaginary (ie. the existential world does not exist). G. E. Moore, a Cambridge philosopher, describes the absurdity of using reasonability in determination of truth. Consider the following:
If P, then Q
If P, then Q
Therefore, not P
In this logical syllogism, P represents a skeptical argument and Q is the consequent nonexistence of the pencil. Moore uses this argument to highlight the absurdity of skepticism:
Is it, in face, as certain that all [the skeptic’s assumptions are true, as that I do know that this is a pencil and that you are conscious? I cannot help answering: It seems to me more certain that I do know that this is a pencil and that you are conscious, than that any single one of these…assumptions is true…And how on earth is it to be decided which of the two things it is rational to be most certain of?[iv]
In other words, simply asserting that things are rational and reasonable does not make them actually rational or reasonable. In the syllogism above, skepticism rationally produces unreasonability.
Shermer, and other skeptics of his ilk, understand this so they appeal to an outside ‘source’ or foundation as a guide for their skepticism. Here is Shermer’s take on the matter:
Skepticism is itself a positive assertion about knowledge, and thus turned on itself cannot be held. If you are skeptical about everything, you would have to be skeptical of your own skepticism.
How Does it Line Up
But what’s fascinating about this view of skepticism, is that if skepticism acknowledges it cannot stand on its own merit, why do rational skeptics appeal to it? If you ask Shermer, it’s because the scientific method seeks objectivity over personal insight, but it was his own personal insight that led him to distrust personal insight.
To put it in simple terms: A skeptic distrusts personal opinions except the personal opinion that distrusts personal opinions.
It’s logically contradictory.
The Answer Is
Therefore, in order to answer skepticism, the answerer must turn to the questioner and ask, “How did you come to that conclusion?”[v] Whether the skeptic is highly skeptical, moderately skeptical, reasonably skeptical (or any other variant of skeptical), the answer must turn to an inner appeal – a feeling. This raises two vital questions:
- Which scientific method measures feelings?
This question is important because it denies the skeptic the ability to appeal to the scientific method, especially since their skepticism is undergirded by feelings.
- Which of your feelings are true about the world?
A tough skeptic may say, none of them. A moderate skeptic may list a couple. Truth be told, according to C.S. Lewis, our deepest desires (not our mere skeptical feelings) reflect features of reality that exist to satisfy them:
“The Christian says, ‘Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or to be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that country and to help others to do the same.”[vii]
In short, answering skepticism is as easy as remembering ACL (A Clear Lens!):
- How do you know anything?
- How skeptical are you?
- How did you arrive at that position?
Challenge the response:
- If your answer is true, will that explain other things you know to be true?
- Have you taken this position to its logical conclusion? Did you get an answer? If yes, are you really skeptical? If no, why did you stop?
Leverage the truth:
Christianity is based on thoughtful examination of reality. If the existence of the external world is uncertain, the apostles could not have known that Christ was crucified, buried, and rose from the dead.[viii] Descartes, Moore, and other philosophers have concluded reality is knowable. It is through honest examination that we can be introduced to Jesus. We are not called to a blind faith, but a careful and thoughtful journey. I hope this finds you well and stimulates you to know more.
[i] Founding Publisher of Skeptic magazine, columnist for Scientific American, contributor to Time.com, Presidential Fellow at Chapman University. More here: https://www.skeptic.com/about_us/meet_michael_shermer/
[ii] Two of which he refutes, by the way.
[iv] Moore, FFS, 226, emphasis in original, FROM: Evidence That Demands A Verdict, 660.
[v] Greg Koukl, Tactic. *Highly Recommended!
[vi] Rene Descartes, Meditations
[viii] Evidence that Demands a Verdict, 662.