This is the third in a four-part series on Christian epistemology titled “Radical faith meets radical doubt: a Christian epistemology for skeptics” by John G. Stackhouse, Jr.
By John G. Stackhouse, Jr.
We are near, it seems, “peak skepticism.” We all know that the sweetest character in the movie we’re watching will turn out to be the serial killer. We all know that the stranger in the good suit and the great hair is up to something sinister. We all know that the honey-voiced therapist or the soothing guru or the brave leader of the heroic little NGO will turn out to be a fraud, embezzling here or seducing there.
“I read it on the Internet” became a rueful joke as quickly as there was an Internet. Politicians are all liars, priests are all pedophiles, professors are all blowhards: you can’t trust anyone or anything.
Notre Dame philosopher Alvin Plantinga shrugs off the contemporary storm of frightening doubt, however, with the robust common sense of his Frisian forebears:
Such Christian thinkers as Pascal, Kierkegaard, and Kuyper…recognize that there aren’t any certain foundations of the sort Descartes sought—or, if there are, they are exceedingly slim, and there is no way to transfer their certainty to our important non-foundational beliefs about material objects, the past, other persons, and the like. This is a stance that requires a certain epistemic hardihood: there is, indeed, such a thing as truth; the stakes are, indeed, very high (it matters greatly whether you believe the truth); but there is no way to be sure that you have the truth; there is no sure and certain method of attaining truth by starting from beliefs about which you can’t be mistaken and moving infallibly to the rest of your beliefs. Furthermore, many others reject what seems to you to be most important. This is life under uncertainty, life under epistemic risk and fallibility. I believe a thousand things, and many of them are things others—others of great acuity and seriousness—do not believe. Indeed, many of the beliefs that mean the most to me are of that sort. I realize I can be seriously, dreadfully, fatally wrong, and wrong about what it is enormously important to be right. That is simply the human condition: my response must be finally, “Here I stand; this is the way the world looks to me.”
In this attitude Plantinga follows in the cheerful train of Thomas Reid, the great Scottish Enlightenment philosopher. In his several epistemological books, Reid devotes a great deal of energy to demolishing what he sees to be a misguided approach to knowledge, which he terms the “Way of Ideas.” Unfortunately for standard-brand modern philosophy, and even for most of the rest of us non-philosophers, the Way of Ideas is not merely some odd little branch but the main trunk of epistemology from Descartes and Locke forward to Kant.
The Way of Ideas, roughly speaking, is the basic scheme of perception by which the things “out there” somehow cause us to have ideas of them in our minds, and thus we form appropriate beliefs about them. Reid contends, startlingly, that this scheme fails to illuminate what is actually happening. In fact, Reid pulverizes this scheme as simply incoherent—an understanding so basic that most of us take it for granted, even if we could not actually explain it. The “problem of the external world” remains intractable. We just don’t know how we reliably get “in here” (in our minds) what is “out there” (in the world).
Having set aside the Way of Ideas, Reid then stuns the reader again with this declaration: “I do not attempt to substitute any other theory in [its] place.” Reid asserts instead that it is a “mystery” how we form beliefs about the world that actually do seem to correspond to the world as it is. (Our beliefs do seem to have the virtue of helping us negotiate that world pretty well.)
The philosopher who has followed Reid to this point now might well be aghast. “What?” she might sputter. “You have destroyed the main scheme of modern Western epistemology only to say that you don’t have anything better to offer in its place? What kind of philosopher are you?”
“A Christian one,” Reid might reply. For Reid takes great comfort in trusting God for creating the world such that human beings seem eminently well equipped to apprehend and live in it. Reid encourages readers therefore to thank God for this provision, this “bounty of heaven,” and to obey God in confidence that God continues to provide the means (including the epistemic means) to do so. Furthermore, Reid affirms, any other position than grateful acceptance of the fact that we believe the way we do just because that is the way we are is not just intellectually untenable, but (almost biblically) foolish.
Thus Thomas Reid dispenses with modern hubris on the one side and postmodern despair on the other. To those who would say, “I am certain I now sit upon this chair,” Reid would reply, “Good luck proving that.” To those who would say, “You just think you’re sitting in a chair now, but in fact you could be anyone, anywhere, just imagining you are you sitting in a chair,” he would simply snort and perhaps chastise them for their ingratitude for the knowledge they have gained so effortlessly by the grace of God.
Having acknowledged the foolishness of claiming certainty, Reid places the burden of proof, then, where it belongs: on the radical skeptic who has to show why we should doubt what seems so immediately evident, rather than on the believer who has to show why one ought to believe what seems effortless to believe. Darkness, Reid writes, is heavy upon all epistemological investigations. We know through our own action that we are efficient causes of things; we know God is, too. More than this, however, we cannot say, since we cannot peer into the essences of things. Reid commends to us all sorts of inquiries, including scientific ones, but we will always be stymied at some level by the four-year-old’s incessant question: “Yes, but why?” Such explanations always come back to questions of efficient causation, and human reason simply cannot lay bare the way things are in themselves so as to see how things do cause each other to be this or that way.
Reid’s contemporary and countryman David Hume therefore was right on this score, Reid allows. But unlike Hume—very much unlike Hume—Reid is cheerful about us carrying on anyway with the practically reliable beliefs we generally do form, as God wants us to do. Far from being paralyzed by epistemological doubt, therefore, Reid offers all of us a thankful epistemology of trust and obedience.
But do Christians need to resort to such a breathtakingly bold response to the deep skepticism of our times? My last post offers an answer.
John G. Stackhouse Jr. is the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver, Canada. He is the author of Need to Know: Vocation as the Heart of Christian Epistemology.
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Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. In the article below he looks at health-care reform. See Lim’s previous OUPblogs here.
After attempting a pivot to jobs, the Obama administration has realized that a hanging cadence on health-care will not do. Perhaps they should never have started it, but closure is what the administration now must have. An encore after the strident audacity of hope on health-care reform was temporarily dashed after the election of Scott Brown to the Senate.
In the immediate aftermath of that election, Democrats were in danger of exchanging over-confidence for excessive humility. After Obama’s historic election the year before and Arlen Specter’s party switch, Democrats were overtaken by hubris that Obama’s tune of change could be used to overturn Washington and to compel it toward a Progressive utopia. But just as Democrats were foolhardy to think that 60 votes in the Senate gave them invincible power, they somehow thought after the Massachusetts Senate election that 59 made them completely impotent.
In the media, we hear, conversely, about the conservative comeback in hyperbolic terms. On Saturday, Glenn Beck, not Sarah Palin or Mitt Romney, delivered the keynote speech in the largest annual conservative gathering, the CPAC conference. If Beck’s stardom exceeds that of the winner of the CPAC straw poll this year, Ron Paul, it is because the conservative movement, charged as it is, remains a movement in search of a leader. It is also a movement, as Beck’s criticism of Progressive Republicans in his speech reveals, which is not exactly in sync with the Republican party – the only machine capable of taking down liberal dreams.
And so a Democratic comeback on health-care reform is afoot. With one vote shy of a fillibuster-proof majority, Senator Harry Reid has opened the door to the Budget Reconciliaton process that more Progressive advocates of health-care reform like Governor Howard Dean have been pushing for a while. While it is not clear that there are 50 votes in the Senate for the public option, assuming that Vice-President Biden will cast the 51st, what is clear is that Democrats are much more likely to push through a liberal bill with the veto pivot sliding to the left by ten Senators.
In the White House too, we see a coordinated move to bring Reconciliation back as an option. Obama used his weekly address on Saturday to lay the ground work when he warned that “in time, we’ll see these skyrocketing health care costs become the single largest driver of our federal deficits.” He said this because in order to use Reconciliation, Democrats must show a relationship between health-care reform and balancing the federal budget.
No one in Washington believes that Thursday’s Health-care Summit will magically generate a consensus when in the past year there has been nothing but partisan bickering. If so, the President is not being naive, but signali
Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. In the article below he looks at Obama’s health care debacle. See his previous OUPblogs here.
As the wise saying goes “if you’ve nothing good to say, don’t say anything.” But President Barack Obama went ahead anyway with a prime time press conference, and as Bill O’Reilly was right to observe on Wednesday night - he said practically nothing specific about what the shape of the health-care bill would look like and viewers were left scratching their heads.
President Obama wanted to let Congress take ownership of the bill, rather than hand them a fait accompli (as Hillary Clinton did back in 1993/4), I hear Democrats chant in his defense. But if Obama wants to stay on the side-lines, then he should do so consistently. Either be genuinely deferential to Congress and stay out of the picture until a consensus emerges, or take complete ownership of the agenda - don’t try to do both. Yet the president is back in the limelight doing prime-time press conferences, and attending town hall meetings in Cleveland and such. Obama should decide which way he wants to go. If he is the salesman-in-chief, then he has to have something to sell, if not his consumers would be left completely befuddled as to why he’s putting on a show for no particular reason at all.
Liberals are mad that Obama didn’t throw a few more punches at Republicans. I think many are unwilling to admit the more pointed fact that he just didn’t do a very good job at all, because he didn’t have much to say.
So Wednesday’s press conference was a squandered opportunity. We are not in 2008 anymore when Barack Obama would announce that he is giving a speech and the whole world would stop to listen. The clock is ticking on his presidential luster, and the next time he says “hey, listen to me,” it’s going to be that much harder.
Let us be clear why health-care reform has stalled, at least till the Fall. Because the Congress, and in particular the Senate Finance Committee could not agree on a way forward. I don’t see why the President and his advisers thought that a prime time press conference last Wednesday night would have gotten things moving. In fact it probably achieved the exact opposite, when we heard on Thursday morning from Senator Harry Reid that a Senate vote before the August recess would not be possible. The president’s time would have been better spent persuading his former colleagues up on the hill in private conversations to compromise on a bill. When they’ve got a bill and all/most are united, then go out and do the media blitzkrieg, by all means. Wednesday night just wasn’t the time for that.
So it looks like the Permanent Campaign is back. The President has chosen to go back to campaign mode, selling himself. Because without a specific plan to sell, all his public appearances amount to going public for the sake of going public. This strategy belies a serious misunderstanding of American politics. Personal approval ratings do not translate to public support for specific policy proposals (not that they were forthcoming) - the president should have known this by now. They barely even translate into congressional support for presidential policies.
This error - of going public with nothing specific to sell - was compounded, and probably encouraged, by a complete underestimation of the push back from the conservative wing of the Demcoratic party (the “Blue Dogs”) worried about spiraling deficits. These were the people Obama should have been talking to. And given he’s still out town hall-ing and speechifying, I’m not sure he fully understands what came over him.
To make matters worse, Obama had to pour fuel over the fire of the Henry Louis Gates controversy during the press conference, accusing the Cambridge police of of a “stupid” arrest when he had incomplete possession of the facts. Have something to say about anything all the time has become the rhetorical ethic of the modern presidency. Obama’s observance of this ethic was a disastrous distraction to what little point he had to make at his press conference. The news cycles are now spending more time covering the Gates controversy than they are covering the health-care debate.
I’m afraid to say - though this is water under the bridge - that Hillary Clinton would have known better. This week, for the first time in his fledgling presidency, Obama looked like a total novice in Washington. His 4th press conference was a waste of time, and probably the first time since Obama broke onto the national scene in 2004 that his rhetorical wizardry had fallen so flatly on death ears. He seems to have bought the bad conventional advice - whenever you’re in trouble, just go out and give a speech - wholesale. The president should take heed:
1. The public is less attentive between election years and he must have something meaningful to say if he wants to keep their attention.
2. Especially on a complex issue like health-care where there are too many details to cover, the media is much more likely to jump at an opportunity to take the path of least resistance to cover something juicier, like Henry Louis Gates and racial profiling.
2. Just because the public (still) loves Obama doesn’t mean that they will love what he is doing as president (and not as presidential candidate).
3. It is often more important to talk to members of Congress - the people who actually pass legislation - than to deliver speeches around the nation where the only tangible return of applause is a fleeting sense of psychic gratification that one is loved.
President Obama, it’s crunch time. Stop yakking.
Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. In the article below he reflects on the economic stimulus bill. In the article below he reflects on how the Republicans are doing in the Obama administration. Read his previous OUPblogs here.
The unity and clarity of message exhibited by the Republicans this past week seemed to suggest that they have found their role as loyal opposition in minority. This may be, but Republicans have an uphill battle before them. This week in politics, it was the President who won.
Bipartisanship only became a governing keyword in the 20th century because of the frequency of divided party control over the different branches of government. The fact is there is no need for
bipartisanship when a majority exists in the Congress, and the Republicans know it. This is why they have tried to make a virtue out of bipartisanship as an end in itself, decrying the way in which the economic stimulus bill was passed.
Yet Republicans were complaining about a 1,100 page bill that nobody had perused at the same time that they were arguing that it was a bill of pork and spending. Here’s the problem: the more Republicans made a stand against the process by which their input was stymied, the less credibility they had making a stand against the substance of the bill. So the wisest Republicans focused most of their attack on the process, because accusing the Democrats for not consulting with them is a face-saving strategy on the off-chance that the stimulus package actually works. In 2010, we shall see if their gamble paid off.
The truth is it is not easy being in the minority. In the run-up to the passage of the bill in the Senate, everywhere we heard that 60 was the new 50. But this may have been a higher bar than was necessary for the Democrats to cross. The fact is 50 may well have been enough, given the high political cost the Republicans would have had to bear if they filibustered a bill in a moment of perceived economic
emergency. As it is, Democrats are already accusing the opposition party for becoming the obstructionist party.
The President has only stood to gain from the Democrats’ victory in Congress. When the revised conference bill passed in the House, Congressional Democrats lavished praise on the president, even though they were the ones who had crafted and delivered on the bill. All the president did was go on the road in the final days before passage to sell it. This is hands-off leadership that has benefited him, because the cries of foul from the Republican aisle are mostly being leveled on congressional Democrats, not the president. But Obama’s gain does not come without strings. Both Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid know that he needs them, so it is unclear for how long he would be able to stand above party in his hitherto futile effort to chase the ghost of bipartisanship.
For now, President Obama has won the battle, and the honeymoon is still his to enjoy. The stimulus package may have more spending than tax cuts in it, as Republicans assert, but congressional majorities agree with him that such spending is necessary. Without income support (making up $100 billion of the bill), unemployed workers would be forced to reduce spending, thereby causing a vicious contractionary circle. If the federal government did not offer support to cash-strapped state and local governments (making up $250 billion of the bill), more jobs would be lost, or so modal opinion seems to hold. The Daschle and Gregg nomination embarrassments reveal the danger of making lofty promises on the campaign trail that the reality of government may not permit, but they also pale in comparison to the significant achievement of passing the biggest economic stimulus package in US history. If the president’s fortunes tell us anything, they suggest that the Republican minority have not yet found their