Skeptics

Giles Fraser:

Is not falsified a good argument?

What does proof of love look like? In Shakespeare’s play, Othello wants proof of Desdemona’s love for him. Because his love for her is so vivid, so all-consuming, his life has become intolerable in its vulnerability and dependence. And being a soldier, he is not used to that. But what would firm and solid knowledge be in this situation? Iago plants a terrible thought in Othello’s head suggesting that while her love may not be provable, it is surely falsifiable. Infidelity would be solid evidence of Desdemona not loving Othello – it would constitute that desperately needed “ocular proof” (act III, scene 3). And so evidence of infidelity is sought as means of anxiety reduction for Othello’s furious insecurity. Thus the tragedy begins a course to its murderous conclusion.

This was the start of my argument at a pub gathering of the Westminster Skeptics last Monday night. I had little idea what to expect from a group of sceptics other that they styled themselves as promoting an “evidence-based approach”. And I assumed that, for some, an “evidence-based approach” was going to mean hostility to all things religious. So I thought I’d try and argue for a more sceptical approach to scepticism, pinching the arguments of the philosopher Stanley Cavell, and suggesting that what Othello is all about is the ways in which scepticism, and indeed the “evidence-based approach” generally, can sometimes work with a very diminished conception of what it is to know something. Indeed, that through the demand for “ocular proof” we can turn intimate others into distant strangers.

Another’s love is not something that is susceptible to empirical scrutiny in the same way as knowledge about cancer or thermodynamics. To know it is a different sort of knowing – Cavell calls it acknowledging – and there is no scientific test for it. For the most part, the sceptics disagreed….

What I respect about the sceptics – and not all of them are science-fiction reading Dawkins geeks – is that they recall the church to the full scale of its proclamation: the word and works of God. They won’t let us camouflage such claims behind a (waning) reputation for general benevolence and being expert drinkers of tea. Much of the atheism I experience in the parish is little more than shoulder-shrugging indifference. You don’t get that with the sceptics. They sting the church into a defence of the full ambition of its calling. Amazingly, unlike many in the church, they actually want to talk about God.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://whatyouthinkmatters.org/blog Andrew Wilson

    This is brilliant. Thanks for posting, Scot!

  • Rodney Reeves

    “Much of the atheism I experience in the parish is little more than shoulder-shrugging indifference. You don’t get that with the sceptics. They sting the church into a defence of the full ambition of its calling. Amazingly, unlike many in the church, they actually want to talk about God.”

    Love this. Sometimes doubters are the ones who want belief more than the rest of us.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    I consider myself a skeptic. I can’t imagine it being any other way.

    But that does not drive my whole existence, it simply informs my judgments.

  • T

    What an interesting and rich little piece. Nice find.

  • Tim

    Scot,

    I think that if the issue is framed between belief in the Christian God and no God at all, then much of what you say could well have merit. But even among the “skeptics”, this issue is not necessarily framed in just this one dimension. They would assert, rightfully so I would gather, that you are just as skeptical of other religions’ claims as they are of yours, they just go one religion further. So what argument would you advance in this context? Do you not consider the internal witness of the Buddhist’s experience of nirvana and any divine visions they may receive as insufficient evidence for the truth of Buddhism? Would you not consider the deep sense of profound illumination and validation claimed by many Mormons as insufficient evidence for the truth of Mormonism? Would you not consider the purportedly transcendent experiences, and even witness of dramatic miracles (including faith-healings) by many Hindus as insufficient evidence of the truth of Hinduism?

    With respect to your evaluative stance toward these other religions, are you acting in accordance with what you are recommending to these “skeptics”?

    Should perhaps you would attribute your skepticism to these other religions incompatibility with orthodox Christian religion, would you then feel you ought be dramatically more credulous of these other religions if you were not yet Christian? Would your stance then be considered inadvisable?

    I would be interested in how you would frame appropriate engagement with religious ideas from this broader context.

  • Tim

    …the above should have reflected your having posted Giles Fraser’s thoughts. Apologies.

  • http://www.geekpreacher.com Derek W. White

    Hey, watch thos “science fiction geek” comments. Some of us resemble that remark!


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