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A Challenge to Skeptics

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Many atheists and agnostics argue that they cannot believe in God because they can’t accept an idea based on faith. They prefer to only entertain ideas and beliefs that can be proved through reason and/or science. They are “skeptical.”

However, I would like to argue that most skeptics are not nearly as skeptical as they think they are. I will even go so far as to say that skeptics are not as skeptical as they ought to be.

Many people will argue against God because God is not testable by science. That is to say, we cannot reach the idea of God empirically, through the use of our five senses and controlled experimentation. These people seem to say that if it cannot be empirically proven, we cannot definitively say it is true.

Whatever we think of this approach, it makes the presumption that empiricism is the surest way to truth. If empiricism disproves something consistently, it must be false, and if empiricism cannot test something, there’s no way to know that it’s true.

Now the question: is empiricism trustworthy? Just because something can be sensed and hold up under experimentation, does that mean it is true? This shouldn’t be a troubling question. We just need to test the hypothesis.

Except we can’t.

You cannot prove empiricism empirically. There is no test to prove empiricism tells the truth.

The problem is obvious: if we cannot necessarily know anything to be true except through empiricism, and we have no empirical way of proving empiricism, then empiricism is not necessarily trustworthy. The argument caves in on itself.

To make this perfectly clear, the skeptic who only relies on empiricism must then be skeptical of empiricism itself.

Let’s push this a little farther.

You’re watching a soccer game. An athlete approaches the ball and swings his leg at it. The ball flies forward.

What made the ball move?

The kick, duh.

How do you know?

If you think I’m just spewing my own crazy idea, I’m not. This was an argument proposed by one of the most skeptical men ever to live: philosopher David Hume.

Hume argued that when you watch an athlete kick a ball, you have no way of “necessarily connecting” the two events. You don’t sense the actual connection between the two events, nor can you test it. Therefore, you have no definite way of knowing that the athlete caused the ball to move.

“Now wait a second, Hume!” you say. “I’ve seen athletes kick soccer balls hundreds of times. There’s no way the two aren’t connected.”

Did you know that every time ice cream sales increase, the number of deaths by drowning also increase? I’m serious, every time. Google it. By your soccer logic, that means that ice cream somehow causes people to drown.

Hume would probably accuse you of committing a fallacy known as cum hoc ergo propter hoc (with this, therefore because of this). In other words, you’ve mistaken correlation for causation. You’ve seen soccer balls move after they were kicked by athletes, so you assume that a kick causes a ball to move. Hume would say your notion that a kick makes a ball move is no more definite than the notion that ice cream causes people to drown.

What does all this mean? It means, if Hume is right, that you can’t be sure that A causes B. Does rain make the ground wet? Maybe. We can’t say for sure.

This should inspire a massive amount of skepticism toward science if this is true. Science is all about causes and effects. Hypotheses are formatted around the idea of “If A, then B.” But if Hume is right, then we have no way of knowing that A necessarily causes B.

All this to say that if you want to fully trust the scientific method then, according to Hume (an atheist, by the way), you have to presuppose that we can observe causation. Otherwise, you must be skeptical of the scientific method and every bit of knowledge obtained through it.

Real quick, let’s sum up what the point of all this is.

Many skeptics deny the existence of God because they think it requires too much faith. However, the very methods by which they reason and understand the universe, namely empiricism and causation, are concepts which themselves require faith. If the skeptic is to question God, he must also question these pillars of his own reasoning.

Now let’s give skepticism just one more little push.

If there is no God, then we are all simply, as Bertrand Russell put it, “an accidental collocation of atoms” from which life has sprung. There is nothing going on in your brain or mine that is not simply the product of chemicals.

What are these chemicals doing? What is the function of life?

The evolutionary answer is “to survive.” That is the primary function and, for lack of a better word, goal of all life on Earth. Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist and atheist of some note, famously coined the term “selfish gene,” a term which describes how our genes are primarily interested with their own survival and legacy. The reason we are the way we are is to ensure our own personal survival or the survival of our group.

This should lead us to concern. This means our brains’ primary function is ensuring our survival.

Let’s not miss the importance of that statement.

Your brain’s only “motive” for telling you the truth is to help you survive. If the brain could better ensure your survival by deceiving you into believing something that is totally false about the world, it absolutely would.

And how in the world do you know that it isn’t doing that right now?

“Hold on there,” you say. “If there’s a lion in the room, don’t we have a better chance of survival if we know the lion’s there and that it’s dangerous? Aren’t we best able to survive if we know the truth about the world around us?”

Maybe, but how did you reach that conclusion? You used your brain, which we just concluded has no problem with deceiving you.

If evolutionary biology is correct in its assessment of the human race, you should be skeptical of your own brain – the very faculty you use to reason that there is no God.

“But wait!” you might say. “Our brains could be telling us the truth, even if we can’t prove it.”

Yeah, you’re right.

But what you just said has no basis in reason or empirical evidence. It is not testable or observable. There are many who would call that faith.

There are some who are skeptical of all these things, but are you? Do you believe that everything you are sensing and learning could be false? If not, do you have an objective reason or is it an act of faith?

If it’s the former, I’d love to hear your argument. If it’s the latter, then I have one question.

How skeptical are you really?



Join the Discussion


This article has 5 comments. Post your own!

Lenoxus said...
Apr. 30, 2012 at 6:57 pm:

The bit about evolution impacting the accuracy of our ideas was highly confusing to me. It made almost no sense until I realized that the author was taking for granted that if our minds were created by an intelligent agent, they would ipso facto be trustworthy. Why should this be the case? Can it be proven on first principles that any creator of humans would both be able and willing to give us decent brains?

 

Any argument whose first premise is "Our brains might happen to ... (more »)

 
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Destinee This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Nov. 20, 2011 at 7:50 pm:
Bravo!!! Wonderful article. It is amazing how many people don't understand that methodologies to reaching the truth require faith themselves.

Extremely well put. Definitely one of my favourite articles. :)
 
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Looeee said...
Nov. 14, 2011 at 4:32 am:
Yeah...wow...your writing is amazing!!
 
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Jessica G. said...
Nov. 12, 2011 at 11:23 am:
Wow. There are no words. This article was fantastic and accurate. (I actually looked up that ice cream/drowning statistic). It was well-written and put things into perspective. Great.
 
CollinF replied...
Nov. 20, 2011 at 8:05 pm :
That was awesome. I've been thinking the same thing, but I could never seem to get it down on paper efficiently. You did it perfectly.
 
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