Apologetics,  Ben Holloway

Replying to a Skeptic Without Becoming One

A skeptic might make the following claims:

(A) What we believe is determined by our psychology, sociology, and autobiography.

(B) There is no normative, universally applicable method for arriving truth.

If (A) is true, then we cannot be objective about what is true or false. If (B) is true, then we are not obliged to believe anything on the basis of someone’s evidence or reasoning.

Apologists are supposed to show that claims such as “God exists” or “Jesus rose from the dead” are true and that those who believe such things are rational to do so. Moreover, apologists must assume that it is possible to come to believe these claims on the basis of objectively evaluating the evidence for them.

However, if (A) is true, then one cannot objectively assess a claim or its evidence. If (B) is true, then there is no point offering an argument for such claims since there is no normative method of reasoning available to arrive at truth.

Thus, the apologist is stuck.

Our current response to such a predicament is to take one of two options. One option is to accept the skeptic’s view and, instead of offering reasons to believe any Christian claims, we tell our stories, show the positive psychological effects of our faith, or invite unbelievers to join a Christian community to see what it is like.

The other option is to continue to offer evidences to support our views with the hope that the skeptic will somehow come to realize that the apologist is right.

Neither of these options are any good for apologetics. The first option assents to the skeptical position; the second ignores it.

To be clear: there is nothing wrong with doing either if we don’t think of them as answers to the skeptic. The testimonies of believers are very important. However, a story cannot tell you if something is true. It might tell you how a person acquired a belief, and it might provide psychological support for a belief, but it does not provide evidence for its truth. Neither is it wrong to state one’s reasons for believing something. It is important to do so. But doing so without first addressing (A) and (B) leaves a skeptic able to dismiss one’s arguments for the Christian faith on the grounds which (A) and (B) supply.

Fortunately, there is a third way. In Can You Believe It’s True? Christian Apologetics in a Modern and Postmodern Era John Feinberg argues that what apologists ought to do is refute (A) and (B). If one can show that (A) and (B) are false, one can then begin to employ a defense of the claims of the Christian faith.

How do we go about refuting (A) and (B)?

The first thing to do is argue that we all have an obligation to be logical. If one can show that there is a method of reasoning that is applicable to everyone, then (B) is false.

Feinberg suggests we begin with a basic law, the law of non-contradiction. The skeptic suggests that there is no universal means of establishing what is true. But if there are rational laws that everyone has to follow, then such a law would serve as a counter-example to the skeptic’s position.

Why, then, must we follow the law of non-contradiction? The first reason Feinberg gives is that there cannot be logically contradictory states of affairs in the world. For example, it is not possible for me to be teaching a class at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in North Carolina and at the same time be drinking a cup of coffee in a cafe on the Champs-Elysees in Paris. The point is: laws of thought aren’t merely a matter of what minds ought to do; they are grounded in the way the world actually is. If there cannot be a contradictory state of affairs in the world, and thinking is supposed to be about the world, then we ought not to believe contradictions.

The second reason we ought to obey the laws of logic is that our ordinary use of language is intended to correspond to states of affairs in the world. If there are logically contradictory states of affairs in the world, then we would expect our ordinary use of language to correspond to them. But it doesn’t.

In order to use language effectively, both speaker and hearer must assume that there can be no logically contradictory state of affairs in the world. If we did not then communication would be impossible. I could promise to be in class at 12:30 and this could allow for me not to be in class at 12:30 (since contradictions are possible). This would make communication ineffective (and impossible). 

Of course, there are many more rules of thinking we should avoid apart from the law of non-contradiction. Much of our lives depend on thinking logically. For example, Feinberg points out that justice depends on logical thinking. Feinberg asks us to imagine a scenario in which an African student and an American student apply for a job and the African student is turned down on the grounds that American students are better than African students. Wouldn’t the African student be right to ask why American students are better than African students? To assume it is wrong. But if we don’t have to be logical, the African’s question does not require an answer. Clearly, the African’s question does require an answer (not to give it is to beg the question, a logical fallacy). Thus, we are obligated to obey the laws of logic. 

Once one has shown that (B) is false, that there really are some methods of reasoning that are universal and normative, one has to show that (A), the view that our psychology, sociology, or autobiography determines what we believe, is also false.

In order to refute (A), one must show that we can objectively evaluate claims. Feinberg gives two reasons. First, he accepts that everyone has a conceptual grid largely shaped by psychology, sociology and one’s personal autobiography. However, Feinberg claims that it does not follow from that fact that we cannot objectively evaluate evidence for a claim about the world.

Feinberg argues that there is a difference between having a conceptual scheme and applying it. For example, I have a conceptual scheme bestowed on me by my upbringing in British society. I have been inculcated according to a particular paradigm. Now, just because I have been brought up British with British categories it does not follow that I will always apply that scheme in every instance. Indeed, I have changed my mind about several things over the course of living in America and my change of mind has not been solely due to sociological or psychological causes. Indeed, I have changed my mind on several matters due to objectively evaluating arguments.

It is possible to objectively evaluate a view only if it is possible to avoid applying a preconceived conceptual scheme. The skeptic claims that one cannot avoid applying one’s scheme in every instance. But this is false.

Take another example. Let’s suppose I have a Newtonian worldview and I am confronted with some data. I immediately interpret it according to that worldview. I see everything mechanically. However, I am not forced to do so by my paradigm. I can be aware that I have a mechanistic paradigm and be aware that it is not the only paradigm in existence. And I have certain intellectual capacities available to anyone with any paradigm with which to garner implications from available data. I can allow the evidence to lead me away from beliefs that I might prefer to keep.

Feinberg’s second response to the problem relies on the distinction between content and method. He claims that what one needs in order to reject the skeptical view is not necessarily that we can objectively establish the content of one’s beliefs, but that we only have to be able to objectively establish the methods by which we arrive at them.

Let’s say two people hold entirely different worldviews. And let’s say that there is very little (if anything) that is common to both people. If that is all we had to go on, then there would be no common ground. Our worldview would be ‘incommensurate.’ However, that is not all we have to go on. There are common elements because the two people (while believing very little in common) both share a common set of intellectual capacities. Both can reason from data to explanations. Both can use logic in weighing the strength and weaknesses of arguments. So, the second reason to reject skepticism is that though we might hold to incommensurate beliefs, we don’t have incommensurate methods of reasoning. 

The skeptic might reply that one cannot know objectively because no one can see things from another person’s point of view. Indeed, the more fragmented our culture becomes the more our perspectives differ. Surely, the more the psychology, sociology or autobiography differs between non-believer and apologist, the less plausible finding any common ground becomes.

In reply, it should be said that just because we live in different times or cultures, it does not follow that we cannot understand what another person in a different time and culture is saying.

This follows from the first couple of points. But it is worth mentioning especially in response to the problem of incommensurateness. 

Let’s take an example of two people with very different perspectives: Us living in the 21st Century and the gospel writers living in the first century. Just because you and I live at a different time and culture than a person who lived at the time of Christ, it does not follow that you and I can have no knowledge about the worldview of the people who lived at the time. We can know about their time and beliefs from what we read, from archeological discovery, and from other details left to us in other writings. We are not ‘cut off’ entirely from their time and culture. We might have to work to find out about them, but we can genuinely know what they are talking about. 

Perhaps someone might say that we can never really have their perspective on matters. A worldview is all-encompassing. Thus, to see things as they did, we must have their worldview. But we don’t, so we can’t!

There are two problems here: The first is that we are not talking about knowledge of acquaintance. We surely cannot have a direct acquaintance with the experiences of a person living in the first century. But that surely doesn’t rule out knowing about their experiences. If I told you about my experiences as a Brit, you wouldn’t say, “well, I’m American, how can you possible expect me to understand.” You might not be able to experience what I have experienced, but that doesn’t stop you knowing what happened to me or what I thought. 

The second reply involves understanding why someone might think that there is no way to know what a person living in first century Jerusalem knew as he knew it. The real meaning of a text is only possible if one can interpret it from the perspective of a first century Jerusalem dweller. Again, the reason for thinking so involves the idea of incommensurate paradigms. I just cannot think like a person living in Jerusalem in the first century. Thus, I cannot really know how he meant what he said even if I can come to a degree of confidence about his message. I can’t believe like him. Thus, I fail to really understand him. 

The first thing to say is that I don’t need to see things his way in order to know what he means in a sentence. However, the problem is deeper. It is essentially the idea that every paradigm affects every concept and belief. The thing is all or nothing. Thus, no concept is shared between me and the writer. But this is false. Perhaps everything in reality is connected with every other thing. But it does not follow that I cannot know any part without knowing every part. I do not have to have the mind of the one who writes in order to know the meaning of one of his sentences.

If that is true about us and the gospel writers, it is surely true about a Christian and a non-believer. We might not be able to experience the world as the other person does, but that does not prevent us accessing the meaning of what they say and whether what they say is true.

If all of this is so, then we have a way to reply to the skeptic without ignoring or accepting his skepticism. Once one has shown that (A) and (B) are false, the apologist can move on to defend the Christian faith.

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.