Friday, May 22, 2009

Skepticism about scepticism

I’m going to make a few basic observations about skepticism.

1.There’s a tug-of-war within the bosom of skepticism. If a skeptic treats every possible source of knowledge as dubious, then he lacks a frame of reference to treat any source of knowledge as dubious. So, as a practical matter, he has to treat one or more sources of knowledge as reliable in order to have a base of operations from which to treat other possible sources of knowledge as dubious. To avoid self-refutation, every skeptic must be a selective skeptic.

2.A certain amount of well-placed skepticism is a good thing. In a world where error abounds, and conflicting beliefs compete for our allegiance, gullibility is a vice.

3.Can we move this beyond sheer pragmatism? Well, a Christian can ground the necessary and sufficient conditions of knowledge in the providence of God. You and I don’t have to have all the variables under our control. God does.

The question is whether God sees to it that people know what they need to know when they need to know it.

Here I don’t necessarily mean what they need for themselves. Rather, I mean what they need to fulfill God’s plan for the world.

4.Epistemology was originally devised by pre-Christian pagans (e.g. Plato, Aristotle, the pre-Socratics). That isn’t all bad. Due to natural revelation and common grace, pre-Christian philosophers made some worthwhile observations.

But the first people to speak to the issue frame the issue. They set the agenda for subsequent thinkers.

For Plato, truth was all-important. Hence, the avoidance of error was all-important. How can we know anything? How can we distinguish truth from error?

For Plato, the only objects of knowledge are timeless truths. Mutable objects can’t be objects of knowledge.

Even today, contemporary epistemology reflects these ancient priorities. As one reference work puts it, “Defined narrowly, epistemology is the study of knowledge and justified belief. As the study of knowledge, epistemology is concerned with the following questions: What are the necessary and sufficient conditions of knowledge? What are its sources? What is its structure, and what are its limits? As the study of justified belief, epistemology aims to answer questions such as: How we are to understand the concept of justification? What makes justified beliefs justified? Is justification internal or external to one's own mind? Understood more broadly, epistemology is about issues having to do with the creation and dissemination of knowledge in particular areas of inquiry.”

And this emphasis–the pursuit of truth, the quest for certainty–is also reflected in various religious epistemologies.

The Catholic Magisterium represents an attempt to secure knowledge within a narrow domain. Same thing with Scripturalism.

Of course, one of the ironies of these religious epistemologies is their ineffectuality. Consider Cheung’s occasionalism.

That’s a belief-producing mechanism. But it’s not a true belief-producing mechanism. It’s also, and equally, a false belief-producing mechanism. It’s a completely indiscriminate belief-producing mechanism.

Cheung delights in fingering all of the erroneous beliefs which he thinks most professing believers, as well as unbelievers, entertain. So his occasionalism does nothing to eliminate or even reduce, the plethora of erroneous beliefs.

5.A fundamental problem which all of these strategies share in common is their failure to appreciate the value of error. They value truth, and rightly so, but they failure to see the value of error.

6.Does it sound counterintuitive or even impious of me to talk about the value of error? But suppose, if instead of starting with Plato, we start with Scripture. With Bible history.

If you study Bible history, you’ll quickly see that human error plays a pivotal role in history. It’s a factor in historical causation. God uses human error as an instrumental factor to advance the chain-of-events and fulfill his overarching purpose.

Let’s take a few examples. It was a mistake for Eve to trust the Tempter. That false belief triggered a chain-reaction. As a result, the family tree of humanity branched of in a completely different direction than if Adam and Eve had never sinned.

Yet that was part of the plan. Eve’s mistake was a way in which God was implementing his plan.

Joseph had a prophetic dream. He was tactless enough to reveal his dream to his siblings. They resented the dream, and attempted to thwart the dream.

That was a miscalculation on their part. They set in motion the fulfillment of the dream by trying to avert the dream. That was a divinely intended outcome, including the means.

Pharaoh underestimated Yahweh–with devastating results. But that tactical error was instrumental in the realization of God’s design.

Sennacherib decided to attack Israel. That turned out to be a strategic miscalculation of the first order (2 Kg 19:35).

The Sanhedrin convicted Jesus of a capital offense. This was its way of nipping a messianic movement in the bud. Unwittingly, the Sanhedrin was playing into God’s hands.

God deludes a subset of humanity (2 Thes 2:10-12).

It’s easy to come up with secular examples as well. Hitler was winning the war until he invaded Russia. Likewise, Japan was a successful warrior culture until it made the fatal mistake of attacking a superior opponent on December 7, 1941.

9/11 backfired on Al-Qaeda. The papacy mismanaged the Reformation.

Error has a strategic role to play in God’s governance of the world. Error is a good thing–it is place. It’s a good thing when Hitler overreaches. It’s a good thing when Bin Laden overreaches.

It’s not a good thing if everyone were wrong all the time. But the avoidance of error is not all-important. That depends on the individual. It’s a good thing that some people are deluded. That limits their capacity for harm. They make unforced errors which weaken their influence. Their blunders serve as a check on their own ambitions. And, in the providence of God, their erroneous beliefs and corresponding actions can be the very means by which God furthers his itinerary.

A Christian epistemology should learn from Christian historiography. It should learn to appreciate the utilitarian value of false beliefs in grand scheme of things.

1 comment:

  1. I don't believe it was an error to write this blog post.