It’s pretty easy to side-track discussions of morality and ethical systems into one of two swamps: epistemological challenges and nihilism. They’re great conversation-killers, but it’s hard to do any thinking if your partner resorts to saying “how do you know that?” every time you say something, or adopts a position of perfect skepticism and simply attacks without ever establishing a position worth defending.
Usually, those strategies are best for skeptics when discussing religion. They work well, because religions tend to make a lot of claims of knowledge that are, frankly, suspicious. How does the believer know god’s will? How does the believer know they have a soul? Those are serious questions and they’re hard to answer, but they come with a problem – you may as well just be saying “I don’t believe you” while the believer is saying “I believe.” Yes, we get that, that’s the whole point of the discussion. How and why the believer believes is an important line of enquiry, but they’re obviously already convinced of those things and they’re going to just double down with more of whatever convinced them in the first place. Then it becomes easy for the believer to start trotting out inefabbable in response, and the whole discussion devolves into the skeptic saying “how do you know that?” over and over again.
Those of you who’ve studied your history of skepticism probably see religion since the renaissance as attempting to deflect nihilistic challenges from skeptics or, most likely, from other branches of the same religion that have unleashed skeptical tropes against their opponents in order to destroy their positions. Extreme skeptical tropes, such as those compiled by Sextus Empiricus, allow one to win an argument by demolishing all assertions at the expense of being unable to make any in return. For a believer, that’s very uncomfortable, but that did not stop pre-enlightenment catholics and protestants from deploying corrosive skepticism to obliterate each others’ claims to having any knowledge of the desires of god or what was truth. In those wars, certain ideas were left untouched because they are foundational assumptions without which christianity is shredded: god is love, the bible contains moral teachings, the bible is divinely inspired, we have souls, there is an afterlife, god cares about the actions of humans. During the wars of religion, the various sides clawed at each other but generally steered away from the doomsday arguments, so christians slaughtered each other in huge numbers over questions like “did Jesus have a navel?” while steering assiduously away from questions like “how do we know we have a soul?” Naturally, an atheist can choose to attack any of these assertions, which is why well-placed skeptical enquiries are painful to believers, when those believers stop pretending and take them seriously.
In most of the discussions I’ve had with religious believers, I have tended to adopt the basic skeptical stance, challenging them over and over again for the basis behind their claims of knowledge. It’s a lost cause, because they already believe that their claims of knowledge are justified, somehow, so they’ll just fall back on that justification. Fellow skeptics have doubtless experienced it: you ask a believer “if god is all-powerful why is there evil in the world?” and they’ll cheerfully fire back with “because of free will!” Ugh; of course that’s not an answer, but apparently it was good enough for the believer.
I would say my efforts here are doomed to failure, except that, to fail, I’d have to have an achievable objective. I’m not expecting any of this will de-convert believers; any believers capable of de-converting already have the mental tools that they need to do it themselves, and they will accomplish that in their own good time. Mostly what I am doing is exploring the consequences of accepting christian claims about god and their belief, and seeing where that leads. My feeling is that christians have gotten away with dealing great big shovel-loads of bafflegab, usually because they try to couple that with a local monopoly on violence – and that they unwittingly insulate themselves from any of the consequences of holding such a load of contradictory (and, as we shall see) outright wicked beliefs. Perhaps these ideas will serve as additional questions for further disturbing the comfortable, because christianity certainly seldom serves to comfort the disturbed.
If you’re a skeptic, you’ve probably encountered some of those “ten questions atheists cannot answer” lists, and I hope you’ve found them as irritatingly stupid as I have. Maybe these essays will boil down to be equally stupid and irritating; I don’t know, yet. I hope they’re a bit perplexing – as they have certainly perplexed me. “How could anyone believe that stuff!?” coming from a nihilist is both envy and a complaint. I suppose, then, I’ll be satisfied if I can just muddy these waters a little bit.
A note on procedure: I’m not going to capitalize “god” or “christian” because I’m lazy and I tend to get things wrong. I’ve read christian writings where things like “The Divine Will” and “Free Will” are treated as proper nouns, and it just seems silly and makes the writing look like a marketing puff piece: “New Free Will(tm) with ten times as much Epistemology from His Divine Self!” Treating these hypotheticals as proper nouns subtly implies that they are real, which is a trick I am not interested in giving over to the christians without a fight.
I will also avoid addressing nihilist challenges to the foundation of morality as a whole. Why? Because I’ve been there and done that all my life and I describe myself as a “moral nihilist” because I have not managed to assemble a plausible system of ethics that satisfies me. Therefore, I am going to play fast and loose, and pretend that there’s some kind of “right” and “wrong” that we can usefully refer to, and I’ll go from there. Put another way, if this was a game of Monopoly I’m going to start on Park Place. That seems like a bit of a cheat, but it’s actually nowhere near as bad as what the christians do when they glibly assert something like that they learn their morals from the bible. Oh, really? Which bible? How do you know that? etc. I will try to be somewhat rigorous regarding right and wrong by framing my arguments so that I think someone reasonable would be uncomfortable in saying “no, that’s acceptable” in defending christianity. I know that’s a risky move, because apparently some christians find Lot’s giving his daughters out as rape-toys is an ethical example, but I’d be being dishonest if I pretended that I could backstop what I am about to write with a sound, objectively quantifiable, ethical system.
In other words, I am not trying to write a philosophy paper that would withstand a challenge from a pyrrhonian; that’s like fighting a land war in Asia when you’re not Genghis Khan or Stalin. I’m going to drop these arguments, try to refine and defend them, and then summarize them, perhaps, as a list entitled “ten questions that christians won’t want to answer about their morals.” Except that, christians and their god being as immoral as they are, it’d be a longer list than that.
“Those of you who’ve studied your history of skepticism” – I strongly recommend Popkin’s excellent History of Skepticism from Savanarola to Bayle which starts with the ancient Greeks and rolls forward to David Hume, making a lie of its title. [amazon] Per Popkin, pyrhonnian nihilism (extreme skepticism) has left religion and philosophy a burned-over battlefield in ruins. It’s important to understand that process and why it works that way.
Skepticism, nihilism, and epistemology in a nutshell: nihilism is a form of skepticism – it depends on challenging all positive statements (or just a selected set) generally on epistemological grounds. So, I see the three things as connected like the strands in a braid; depending where you are in your skeptical enquiry, you will almost certainly be deploying epistemological challenges or nihilist tropes such as those formulated by Sextus Empiricus. If I sometimes seem to be lumping those things together, it’s because I see them as connected – and their connection with religion is on the interface between religious claims of knowledge and skeptics’ challenges to the same.
Popkin covers the pyrrhonians at length and understanding pyrrhonism’s relationship to skepticism is critical. “Read Popkin” is the short answer. A slightly longer answer is that the pyrrhonians developed a set of skeptical modes of argument (the “tropes” or “hypotyposes”) that are a framework for destroying other claims to knowledge. These were laid out by Sextus Empiricus, but they are much older and go back to Epicurus (my opinion) and, of course, Plato’s Socrates. The Socratic method is a form of skeptical enquiry that’s less weaponized than the pyrrhonist tropes. Let me give you an example of one of the skeptical tropes; the argument from authority. It goes like this: Every claim of knowledge rests on some other claim of knowledge, which rests in turn on another claim of knowledge. Thus, all claims of knowledge exist in infinite regress and we cannot ascertain their truth, therefore it is best to entirely withhold judgement in order to avoid making an error. If you are ever debating someone and they start saying “it appears to me now that…” or “it seems as though…” you may be talking to a pyrrhonist or someone who is posturing as one. Because, of course, the pyrrhonist pose is extremely irritating since it allows them to destroy any discussion without taking a stand on any particular point. Thus, they deal only with appearances, which allows them to claim to be being as honest as possible given their ignorance of everything. One final comment on pyrrhonian skepticism and then we’re done: the scientific method is an epistemological method that tries to beat the pyrrhonians by collecting observations (e.g.: “appearances”) to establish a cause/effect relationship: “it appears to me that every time I throw a ball it describes what we might call ‘a parabola.'” Eventually you establish a sufficiency of test results that you can establish as highly likely and even predictive. Without wanting to write long awkward sentences invoking the presence of an atmosphere and a gravitational field we can eventually say “when I throw a ball its course is that of a parabola.” Cziko’s book Without Miracles [wc] is about scientific epistemology and never mentions pyrrhonians but it’s basically an extended response to radical skepticism.
“a plausible system of ethics that satisfies me” – Pace Crowley, who almost got it right with “Do as thou will’t shall be the whole of the law.” But it comes out more like “whatever you can, you do.” That neatly allows us to side-step free will and the question of establishing an ethical system in a universe in which our will is constrained.
“with a sound, objectively quantifiable, ethical system” – I had to throw “quantifiable” in there because of all the irritating virtue ethicists, objectivists, and utilitarians who like to act as though they can fall back on some sort of “moral calculus” and – when you ask how it works – it’s just handwaving that boils down to “well that’s just my opinion, dude.” I don’t want to fight christian dishonesty with utilitarian dishonesty. (and, by the way, when did being vague become a virtue?)