Postmodern Scepticism

Dr Ben Holloway, Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

In the last post, I examined ‘brain in a vat’ scepticism. There are many other ways to be a sceptic, but a particularly common contemporary form is more postmodern in nature. A postmodern sceptic 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 at truth.

If (A) is true, then we cannot be objective about what is true or false. What we believe isn’t merely the result of reasoning. Our beliefs are caused by our upbringing, the kind of psychologies we possess, and the culture in which we live.

If (B) is true, then we are not obliged to believe anything on the basis of someone else’s evidence or reasoning. There aren’t any rules of reasoning that apply universally. Hence, one cannot appeal to argument and reason to make one’s case.Someone trying to speak to somebody who has a box on their head with the word "pomo" (short for postmodernism) on it, so that they can't hear.

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) and (B) are true, then one cannot objectively assess a claim or its evidence. Hence, then there is no point offering an argument for such claims since there is no normative method of reasoning available to arrive at truth. The apologist is stuck.

How is the apologist to respond? One option is to accept the sceptic’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. Another option is to continue to offer evidence to support our views with the hope that the sceptic will somehow come to realise that the apologist is right.

Neither of these options are any good for apologetics. The first option assents to the sceptical 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 sceptic. The testimonies of believers are very important. However, a story doesn’t necessarily 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 doesn’t have to provide evidence for its truth. Of course, some testimonies might also include arguments and evidence, but merely telling someone how one came to believe something doesn’t involve offering any reason to think what is believed is true.

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 sceptic 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 (B). If one can show that (B) is false, one can then begin to employ a defence of the claims of the Christian faith.

How do we go about refuting (B)? Recall that (B) tells us that there are no universally applicable means to reason. We might all reason in entirely different, incompatible ways. There is simply no way to tell who is using the correct rules.

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 law of non-contradiction says that no proposition can be both true and false. The sceptic 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 counterexample to the sceptic’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 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 apart from the law of non-contradiction. Much of our lives depend on them. 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. 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 merely assume it is clearly 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 and so doing is a necessary condition for justice.

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 even if (A) is true, it doesn’t follow that we cannot be objective. (A) is the view that our psychology, sociology, or autobiography determines what we believe. We can accept that those factors have a great deal to do with what we believe. If a person is brought up in a Christian household, it is highly likely that she will have many Christian beliefs.

So, we can accept that everyone has a conceptual grid largely shaped by psychology, sociology and 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 sceptic claims that one cannot avoid applying one’s scheme in every instance. But this is false.

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 sceptical 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 very little common ground. Their worldviews would be ‘incommensurate.’ They don’t overlap. However, that is not all we have to go on. There are common elements, because the two people (while believing very little in common) share a common set of intellectual capacities. Both can reason from data to explanations. Both can use logic in weighing the strengths and weaknesses of arguments. So, the second reason to reject scepticism is that though we might hold to incommensurate beliefs, we don’t have incommensurate methods of reasoning.

The sceptic 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. 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 views 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 living in America, you wouldn’t say, “well, I’ve never been, 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 from knowing what has happened to me or what I thought. Hence, one doesn’t have to share an experience to know anything about it.

If that is true about us and the gospel writers and their readers, 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 sceptic without ignoring or accepting his scepticism. Once one has shown that (B) is false and that we are not incapacitated by (A), the apologist can move on to defend the Christian faith using arguments and evidence.

As with many of my posts that contain applications to apologetics, I draw much from my professor, John Feinberg. His book, Can You Believe It’s True (Crossway, 2013), was responsible for removing some of my own residual scepticism. Indeed, the postmodern mindset described by Feinberg was one I once found very difficult to overcome. The book is not in print at this time, but you can still get it from some book dealers. I recommend it.