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Skepticism

Skepticism, Criticism, Iconoclasm, and Deconstruction

Skeptical Theism: New Essays

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Given that we meet evils in every quarter of the world, could it be governed by an all-good and all-powerful deity? Whilst some philosophers argue that the problem of evil is strong evidence for atheism, others claim that all of the evils in our world can be explained as requirements for deeper goods. On the other hand, skeptical theists believe in God, but struggle with the task of explaining the role of evils in our world. Skeptical theism tackles the problem of evil by proposing a limited skepticism about the purposes of God, and our abilities to determine whether any given instance is truly an example of gratuitous evil. This collection of 22 original essays presents cutting-edge work on skeptical theistic responses to the problem of evil and the persistent objections that such responses invite. Divided into four sections, the volume discusses the epistemology of sceptical theism, conditions of reasonable epistemic access, the implications for theism, and the implications for morality.

Protagoras on Knowledge of God

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Eusebius tells us that it was the opening sentence of Protagoras’ treatise on the Gods, and it is attested by numerous citations. It runs as follows: “About the gods, I am not able to know whether they exist or do not exist, nor what they are like in form; for the factors preventing knowledge are many: the obscurity of the subject, and the shortness of human life.” The last words have sometimes been omitted, but they are important. They indicate the ground upon which Protagoras took up his position and the nature of his agnosticism. All that mattered to him was what could be known; and the Greek word (eidenai) that is used twice in this sentence means, precisely, knowledge: not belief, not faith.

Bill Maher on Religious Certitude

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I don’t use the word “atheist” about myself, because I think it mirrors the certitude I’m so opposed to in religion. What I say in the film is that I don’t know. I don’t know what happens when you die, and all the religious people who claim they do know are being ridiculous. I know that they don’t know any more than I do. They do not have special powers that I don’t possess. When they speak about the afterlife with such certainty and so many specifics, it just makes me laugh. People can tell you, “Oh yes, when you get to Paradise there are 72 virgins, not 70, not 75.” Or they say, “Jesus will be there sitting at the right hand of the Father, wearing a white robe with red piping. There will be three angels playing trumpets.” Well, how do you know this? It’s just so preposterous. So, yes, I would like to say to the atheists and agnostics, the people who I call rationalists, let’s stop ceding the moral high ground to the people who believe in the talking snake. Let’s have our voices heard and be in the debate.

Our Kind of Skepticism

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I come lastly to a third type of intellect, in which Twofold Truth presents itself in a moderate and altogether commendable shape; in which the disparity is not so much antagonistic as complementary, and the result of its functions is not disunion and hostility so much as a broad comprehensive solidarity. For our purpose we may call intellects of this class ‘dual-sighted’ or ‘two- eyed.’ … This ‘double-sighted man’ is by no means the synonym of the nickname common in Puritan history, ‘Mr. Facing-both-ways.’ It rather implies the possession of faculties which enable the observer to see every object in the solid, substantial manner, in the full relief, and with the true perspective that pertain essentially to all double vision. It is the instinctive power and tendency to discern a specific object or a given truth not merely as it is in itself or in one of its prima facie aspects, but in its completeness as a whole and relatively to all its surroundings. We see this quality in the artist who simultaneously with the perception of an object also sees all its different phases as well as its relations to surrounding objects; or again in the general who apprehends by a single glance of his mental vision all the characteristics, bad as well as good, of a given position or military movement. So the philosophers I speak of catch every truth or doctrine, not in its simple and uniform, but in its complex biform or multiform aspect. They are men to whom every affirmation suggests, if only as a possibility, a negative; who intuitively meet every dogmatic pronouncement with an objection, just as a painter infers shadow from light. These are the men who in my judgment have rendered the best service to the progress of knowledge by their comprehensive vision, their cautious Skeptical attitude, their fearless criticism. …

50 Simple Questions for Every Christian

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Written in a respectful and conversational style, this unique book is designed to promote constructive dialogue and foster mutual understanding between Christians and non-Christians. The author, a skeptic and journalist, asks basic questions about Christian belief. What is the born-again experience? Why would God want to sacrifice his only son for the world? Do miracles really happen? How reliable is the Bible? What is the rapture? Why isn’t everyone a Christian? Each question is followed by commentary and analysis that is skeptical and tough but never argumentative or condescending. Christians will find the book useful as a basis for developing their apologetics, while skeptics will welcome Harrison’s probing rational analysis of religious claims. ~ Publisher’s Description

Twofold Truth

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This is a long but exceptionally eloquent and learned dialogue between a group of thoughtful friends in the late 19th century. Dr. Trevor poses the question “whether what is demonstrably true in one subject or from one point of view can be false in another or from a different standpoint?” Their dialogue bookends Trevor’s formal paper, where he argues that whatever may be the case in reality, at least within our own deliberations, “we cannot without the most gratuitous mental suicide allow the subjective co-existence of antagonistic convictions both claiming to be true at the same time”. Trevor begins by noting the severe limits of our knowledge. “The thinker rightly regards himself and his knowledge as a small islet in the immeasurable ocean of the unknown.” He unsparingly traces a history of the ecclesiastic autocracy of theological dogma until reason got its foot in the door and began an insurrection, asserting itself against the “Roman” church as the singular arbiter of truth. Nonetheless, he argues, the phenomenon of competing considerations is not just a byproduct of religious authority, but rather an inescapable aspect of being human, coming at us from many angles: “the Known and the Unknown, individual man and collective humanity, Intellect and Emotion”. Trevor therefore commends the thinker who has “double vision”, the ability to see and integrate various sources of evidence, who is always reticent and reflective, even in conviction. Though it requires treading through some rather dense prose, the discussion of these “Christian skeptics” is a feast of language and thought. At times it captures the spirit of Afterall.net better than I ever could have in my own words. ~ Nate

The Sacredness of Questioning Everything

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Questions make new worlds possible, asserts author Dark (The Gospel According to America), a key premise in this thought-provoking meander of reflections on, and challenges for, living an engaged life of authentic Christianity. The well-read author draws insight and inspiration from a broad range of sources — Shakespeare, Ursula Le Guin, Johnny Cash and James Joyce — in calling into question the status quo, received history and conventional theology. Dark brings to his writing the kind of energy, offbeat enthusiasm and commitment to relevance that must make his high school English classes exciting places for inquiry and exploration. That each page yokes keen observation to practical application with wisdom and compassion inclines the reader to forgive the book’s bewildering organization and abstruse section headings. Questions for further conversation at the end of each chapter will be useful for groups eager to put Dark’s appeals into action. The author’s passion for social justice, clarity about the sacred obligation of taking nothing at face value and confidence that unsettling questions yield rich rewards for both individuals and communities is convincing and moving. ~ Publishers Weekly

Religulous: Uncut Reflections

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If you consider a wide sampling of the reactions to Bill Maher’s and Larry Charles’ Religulous, two distinct themes emerge. On the one hand, reviewers consistently note that the filmmakers were deliberately manipulative in their survey of religion: in whom they chose to interview and feature, in asking baited questions, and finally, in their merciless splicing and dicing in the editing room. And so, not surprisingly, religious people come off as goofy, gullible, and worse. On the other hand, a number of reviewers note what they take to be an earnest search by Maher to understand people of faith. As Maher puts it himself at the outset, his quest is to understand how otherwise intelligent and rational people can continue to believe in fantasies like talking snakes and a virgin birth. It’s a worthwhile question, and there are moments in the film when Maher displays some genuine curiosity about it. Nonetheless, these two observations about Religulous are incompatible. And regrettably, by the end, it is clear that Maher and Charles set out not on a quest for understanding, but rather to proof-text their presumptions. Religulous is funny enough, and at times thought provoking. On the whole, however, Religulous is a “mockumentary”. A hit-piece. It is a quest that begins with a predetermined destination in mind and manages to arrive there by scrupulously avoiding any detours that might have derailed the script.

Oxford Handbook of Skepticism

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In the history of philosophical thought, few themes loom as large as skepticism. Skepticism has been the most visible and important part of debates about knowledge. Skepticism at its most basic questions our cognitive achievements, challenges our ability to obtain reliable knowledge; casting doubt on our attempts to seek and understand the truth about everything from ethics, to other minds, religious belief, and even the underlying structure of matter and reality. Since Descartes, the defense of knowledge against skepticism has been one of the primary tasks not just of epistemology but philosophy itself. The Oxford Handbook of Skepticism features twenty-six newly commissioned chapters by top figures in the field. Part One contains articles explaining important kinds of skeptical reasoning. Part Two focuses on responses to skeptical arguments. Part Three concentrates on important contemporary issues revolving around skepticism. As the first volume of its kind, the articles make significant contributions to the debate on skepticism. ~ Product Description

Bill Maher on Trying to Make Faith Reasonable

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This is the idea that people have in their heads, that somehow you can have a person who sounds very rational and can hold his own in a conversation about whether religion is silly or not. And I just disagree with that premise. If you’re defending the story I just described, you are going to come out sounding ridiculous no matter who you are and no matter how intelligent you are. We interviewed Francis Collins in the film. He’s the man who mapped the human genome, he’s a brilliant scientist. But he says some pretty cuckoo things, some things that are just factually wrong and make him look foolish. I said, “We don’t even know for sure whether Jesus lived,” and he said, “We have eyewitness accounts.” I said, “No, every scholar agrees that the gospels were written from 40 to 70 years after Jesus died.” And he said, “Well, that’s close.” That’s close to an eyewitness account? Forty years after somebody dies, 2,000 years ago? This idea that there’s somebody out there who can make a case for this and make it sound reasonable, that just doesn’t exist.

Tim Keller on Doubt and Doubting Doubts

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A faith without some doubts is like a human body without any antibodies in it. People who blithely go through life too busy or indifferent to ask hard questions about why they believe as they do will find themselves defenseless against either the experience of tragedy or the probing questions of a smart skeptic. A person’s faith can collapse almost overnight if she has failed over the years to listen patiently to her own doubts, which should only be discarded after long reflection. ¶ Believers should acknowledge and wrestle with doubts — not only their own but their friends’ and neighbors’. It is no longer sufficient to hold beliefs just because you inherited them. Only if you struggle long and hard with objections to your faith will you be able to provide the grounds for your beliefs to skeptics, including yourself, that are plausible rather than ridiculous or offensive. And, just as important for our current situation, such a process will lead you, even after you come to a position of strong faith, to respect and understand those who doubt.

Christopher Hitchens on Scientific Naturalism

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And here is the point, about myself and my co-thinkers. Our belief is not a belief. Our principles are not a faith. We do not rely solely upon science and reason, because these are necessary rather than sufficient factors, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason. We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, openmindedness, and the pursut of ideas for their own sake. We do not hold our convictions dogmatically: the disagreement between Professor Stephen Jay Gould and Professor Richard Dawkins, concerning “punctuated evolution” and the unfilled gaps in post-Darwinian theory, is quite wide as well as quite deep, but we shall resolve it by evidence and reasoning and not by mutual excommunication.

Skepticism: An Anthology

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This anthology contains the principal texts of the skeptical tradition from its origins in antiquity to contemporary philosophy. Selections include the writings of both well-known and lesser-known but influential philosophers of the Western tradition who either advanced skeptical views or dealt with skeptical issues for other philosophical or religious purposes. An introduction on the origins, kinds, and significance of philosophical skepticism puts the various readings in the context of the history of Western philosophy. The editors have also added brief discussions of each philosopher and text included in the anthology, plus a selected bibliography, which lists the main secondary literature on ancient, modern, and contemporary skepticism. This collection is ideal for introductory philosophy courses and courses on intellectual history, or for any reader interested in an influential school of thought, which challenges the nature of philosophy itself.

Philosophical Skepticism: From Plato to Rorty

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Philosophical Skepticism provides a selection of texts drawn from the skeptical tradition of Western philosophy as well as texts written by opponents of skepticism. Taken together with the historical introduction by Landesman and Meeks, these texts clearly illustrate the profound influence that skeptical stances have had on the nature of philosophical inquiry. 1) Draws a selection of texts from the skeptical tradition of Western philosophy as well as texts written by opponents of skepticism. 2) Spans centuries of skeptical and anti-skeptical arguments, from Socrates to Rorty. 3) Includes essays by Plato, Cicero, Diogenes Laertius, Descartes, Hume, Kant, Kierkegaard, Russell, Quine, Nagel, and many others.

Why People Believe Weird Things

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In this age of supposed scientific enlightenment, many people still believe in mind reading, past-life regression theory, New Age hokum, and alien abduction. A no-holds-barred assault on popular superstitions and prejudices, with more than 80,000 copies in print, Why People Believe Weird Things debunks these nonsensical claims and explores the very human reasons people find otherworldly phenomena, conspiracy theories, and cults so appealing. In an entirely new chapter, "Why Smart People Believe in Weird Things," Michael Shermer takes on science luminaries like physicist Frank Tippler and others, who hide their spiritual beliefs behind the trappings of science. Shermer, science historian and true crusader, also reveals the more dangerous side of such illogical thinking, including Holocaust denial, the recovered-memory movement, the satanic ritual abuse scare, and other modern crazes. Why People Believe Strange Things is an eye-opening resource for the most gullible among us and those who want to protect them. ~ Book Description

On Pascal

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On Pascal, like other titles in the Wadsworth Philosopher’s Series, offers a concise, yet comprehensive, introduction to this philosopher’s most important ideas. Presenting the most important insights of well over a hundred seminal philosophers in both the Eastern and Western traditions, the Wadsworth Philosophers Series contains volumes written by scholars noted for their excellence in teaching and for their well-versed comprehension of each featured philosopher’s major works and contributions. These titles have proven valuable in a number of ways. Serving as standalone texts when tackling a philosophers’ original sources or as helpful resources for focusing philosophy students’ engagements with these philosopher’s often conceptually daunting works, these titles have also gained extraordinary popularity with a lay readership and quite often serve as “refreshers” for philosophy instructors. ~ Publisher’s Description

Skepticism and the Veil of Perception

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Since Descartes, one of the central questions of Western philosophy has
been that of how we know that the objects we seem to perceive are real. Philosophical skeptics claim that we know no such thing. Representationalists claim that we can gain such knowledge only by inference, by showing that the hypothesis of a real world is the best explanation for the kind of sensations and mental images we experience. Both accept the doctrine of a ‘veil of perception’: that perception can only give us direct awareness of images or representations of objects, not the external objects themselves. In contrast, Huemer develops a theory of perceptual awareness in which perception gives us direct
awareness of real objects, not mental representations, and we have non-inferential knowledge of the properties of these objects. Further, Huemer confronts the four main arguments for philosophical skepticism, showing that they are powerless against this kind of theory of perceptual knowledge.

Can Theists Really Think?

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Jeffrey Jay Lowder, founder of the Internet Infidels, offers a welcome clarification of the term ‘feethinker,’ in his article, “Is ‘Freethinker’ Synonymous with ‘Nontheist?‘” He ultimately agrees with Bertrand Russell that what defines a freethinker is not the content of his beliefs, but because “after careful thought, he finds a balance of evidence in their favor.” In principle, then, Lowder concedes that a theist could be a freethinker. His unremarkable conclusion is noteworthy because it demurs from the pervasive opinion of many skeptics that the defining characteristic of religious people is their unthinking credulity. Consider, by way of contrast, the Freedom from Religion Foundation’s ‘nontract’ (sic), “What Is A Freethinker?” Still, Lowder rejects the possibility that an Evangelical Christian could be a freethinker. Considering Lowder’s familiarity with the recent flowering of excellent Christian scholarship, especially in philosophy, his denial of Christian “free thinking” is, in the end, a bit puzzling.

Paul C. Vitz on Freud

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Freud makes another strange claim, namely that the oldest and most urgent wishes of mankind are for the loving protecting guidance of a powerful loving Father, for divine Providence. However, if these wishes were as strong and ancient as he claims, one would expect pre-Christian religion to have strongly emphasized God as a benevolent father. In general, this was far from the case for the pagan religion of the Mediterranean world-and, for example, is still not the case for such popular religions as Buddhism and for much of Hinduism. Indeed, Judaism and most especially Christianity are in many respects distinctive in the emphasis on God as a loving Father.

Kim Walker on Loss of Faith

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It’s a familiar story now. Young Christian was born into a God-fearing household. He learned to read from an illustrated children’s Bible (one of those with the sex and nastiness carefully bowdlerised). He went to a Christian school. He joined a Christian group in college. He got into an argument with an atheist and found his knowledge of the Bible wanting. He set out to study the Bible in greater depth, so he could answer the atheist’s objections all the better. He found the Bible hopelessly flawed and suffered a crisis of faith. He went to his church so his faith might be restored, but found no convincing answers for his questions. He left the church, convinced that there was something wrong with him, which made him unable to believe and left him eternally damned. He discovered that there was life after religion, and that it wasn’t all bad, and that there are more things in heaven and earth than his priest ever told him about. Now he calls himself an atheist.

Faith of the Fatherless

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Starting with Freud’s “projection theory” of religion-that belief in God is merely a product of man’s desire for security. Vitz argues that psychoanalysis actually provides a more satisfying explanation for atheism. Disappointment in one’s earthly father, whether through death, absence, or mistreatment, frequently leads to a rejection of God. A biographical survey of influential atheists of the past four centuries shows that this “defective father hypothesis” provides a consistent explanation of the “intense atheism” of these thinkers. A survey of the leading intellectual defenders of Christianity over the same period confirms the hypothesis, finding few defective fathers. Professor Vitz concludes with an intriguing comparison of male and female atheists and a consideration of other psychological factors that can contribute to atheism. Professor Vitz does not argue that atheism is psychologically determined. Each man, whatever his experiences, ultimately chooses to accept God or reject him. Yet the cavalier attribution of religious faith to irrational, psychological needs is so prevalent that an exposition of the psychological factors predisposing one to atheism is necessary. ~ Book Description

Skepticism: A Contemporary Reader

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Recently, new life has been breathed into the ancient philosophical topic of skepticism. The subject of some of the best and most provocative work in contemporary philosophy, skepticism has been addressed not only by top epistemologists but also by several of the world’s finest philosophers who are most known for their work in other areas of the discipline. Skepticism: A Contemporary Reader brings together the most important recent contributions to the discussion of skepticism. Covering major approaches to the skeptical problem, it features essays by Anthony Brueckner, Keith DeRose, Fred Dretske, Graeme Forbes, Christopher Hill, David Lewis, Thomas Nagel, Robert Nozick, Hilary Putnam, Ernest Sosa, Gail Stine, Barry Stroud, Peter Unger, and Ted Warfield. The book opens with a thorough introduction that outlines the skeptical problem, explains the dominant responses to skepticism, and discusses the strengths, weaknesses, and unresolved issues of each response, providing undergraduate students and nonphilosophers with the background and context necessary to understand the essays. Skepticism: A Contemporary Reader serves as an ideal text for courses in epistemology and skepticism and will also appeal to professional philosophers and interested general readers.

Thomas Nagel on Nonrational Rationality

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Suppose you become convinced that all your choices, decisions, and conclusions were determined by rationally arbitrary features of your psychological makeup or by external manipulation, and then tried to ask yourself what, in the light of this information, you should do or believe. There would really be no way to answer the question. Because the arbitrary causal control of which you had become convinced would apply to whatever you said or decided. You could not simultaneously believe this about yourself and try to make a free, rational choice. Not only that, but if the very belief in the causal system of control was itself a product of what you thought to be reasoning, then it too would lose its status as a belief freely arrived at, and your attitude toward it would have to change. ¶ Doubt about your own rationality is unstable; it leaves you really with nothing to think. So although the hypothesis of nonrational control seems a contingent possibility, it is no more possible to entertain it with regard to yourself than it is to consider the possibility that you are not thinking. I have never known how to respond to this conundrum.

The Demon-Haunted World

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Eminent Cornell astronomer and bestselling author Sagan debunks the paranormal and the unexplained in a study that will reassure hardcore skeptics but may leave others unsatisfied. To him, purported UFO encounters and alien abductions are products of gullibility, hallucination, misidentification, hoax and therapists’ pressure; some alleged encounters, he suggests, may screen memories of sexual abuse. He labels as hoaxes the crop circles, complex pictograms that appear in southern England’s wheat and barley fields, and he dismisses as a natural formation the Sphinx-like humanoid face incised on a mesa on Mars, first photographed by a Viking orbiter spacecraft in 1976 and considered by some scientists to be the engineered artifact of an alien civilization. In a passionate plea for scientific literacy, Sagan deftly debunks the myth of Atlantis, Filipino psychic surgeons and mediums such as J.Z. Knight, who claims to be in touch with a 35,000-year-old entity called Ramtha. He also brands as superstition ghosts, angels, fairies, demons, astrology, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster and religious apparitions. ~ Publishers Weekly

David James Duncan on Gullibility

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All Ellen G. White knew, Pete said, was how to hornswoggle religious people — who are the most hornswogglable people on earth — whereas a good bookie knows how to hornswoggle gamblers, who are nothing but a bunch of hornswogglers themselves. Find yourself a prophet with the gifts of a good bookie, Pete says, like Krishna in the Bog of Vod Geeta, and maybe you got something.