Almost All My Opinions Remain Disputable

Almost All My Opinions Remain Disputable August 10, 2009

In a previous post I discussed part of my thought process in leaving Christianity and then contrasted my experience in Christianity, spent desperately trying to rationalize what were apparent falsehoods, with my experience of thinking free of faith ever since:

it took me (and is taking me) years to painstakingly develop my own constructive conception of the world, of knowledge, of ethics, etc.  But I know why I think everything I think because I embraced as radical a skepticism as I could manage ten years ago and have only let myself accept each idea as I have seen sufficient reason to make it clear and indisputable to me.

And The Natural Lawyer offered provocative and fundamental challenges, which I will likely take several posts to even begin to answer:

If I understand you correctly, your statement cannot be true. For you did not embrace a radical skepticism upon “seeing sufficient reason to make it clear and indisputable” that you should do so.

This is a really interesting challenge which I am not sure I have encountered exactly in this form before and so I am really grateful for it.  After I have established some preliminary points in this post, I will come back to this objection in a post of its own and then address the rest of Natural Lawyer’s provocative challenge to me (which you can read by following the link above).  He raises a number of ideas, each deserving their own substantial treatment.

In the meantime though, I will admit right that I should have used a different word than “indisputable” when describing most of my positions since I hold very few positions to be even close to indisputable.  And probably the closest I get to indisputable views are nearly indisputable ones—views about which, after a great deal of thought and investigation, I think I am so unlikely to be in error that I might as well think them beyond dispute even though there may be some theoretical possibility that they can be refuted which I presently do not foresee.

I do not hold many of these nearly indisputable positions at all actually (though there are some).  In fact, that is one of the freedoms and challenges of thinking post-faith for me.  I very consciously feel the freedom (and responsibility) to hold the vast majority of my philosophical positions with tentativeness and an honest uncertainty.  I have changed my mind or withheld assent to believing in difficult questions quite a bit.  I am open to counter-evidence about nearly everything and will listen to counter-arguments about even those things which I am rather confident there are no adequate challenges.

So, not everything I think now is something that I know clearly and indisputably to be true.  In fact, my skepticism remains healthy enough that there are a number of matters about which I hold either no opinion or only self-consciously provisional views.  There are many questions I can think of on which my thinking evolves rapidly and unexpectedly with each new article or book I read or each new conversation I have or class lecture I give.  In fact, in the last year I have learned enough and reversed my positions on enough philosophical questions that I am pretty sure a number of my posts on this blog would have been out of character for me just a year ago.  Ideas which are very new to me or which I only recently embraced after years of resistance can be found all throughout my recent writing.   Changing one’s mind, or at least making some significant critical revisions and refinements of one’s retained views, is an inevitable part of any honest intellectual life that is genuinely engaged in exploring the world rather than filling out a preconceived “worldview.”

So most of my positions are tentative and open to dispute.  The vast majority of my beliefs are taken on the immediate but fallible authority of my senses, my memory, and my everyday inferential abilities.  And these can be disputed in a number of conceivable ways on any given point despite their overall reliability.  I also have a large number of beliefs which I hold simply on the authority of proven experts and, accordingly, those beliefs will not change until expert opinion changes and at such point will change appropriately rapidly.  I cannot pretend to know better than experts about matters on which I am not an expert.  Some of their beliefs may even be false, but I am not in a position to justifiably claim I know which of those beliefs are the false ones or the true.  When it comes to issues on which experts disagree and about which I am not an expert, I would be kidding myself to pretend I had reasons to think confidently one way or another and so am happy to say that I simply do not know the answers to those questions and that any ideas I might have would be just speculations.

In matters I have studied to some extent, I have some positions that I hold tentatively and which I openly seek to confirm or correct from all manner of potentially enlightening sources.   There are other views about which I think myself more convinced and which I therefore hold relatively confidently.  I think of these views as rather defensible because I am convinced by them myself—I cannot see my way around them and they account for my experience and my understanding of concepts, etc. in the most thoroughly explanatory way.  Feeling myself passively forced by clarity of perception or logical conclusion to assent to these positions, I provisionally but nonetheless strenuously advance, and sometimes even advocate, these (theoretically disputable) viewpoints to see just how persuasive others find them.  Then through others’ challenges or alternative positions, I find myself constantly refining or even altering or abandoning even these views on whose behalf I feel confident enough to debate.

All of these attitudes should, I think, be relatively uncontroversial ones.  Where I see major controversy lurking between people of faith and me is in the question of how presuppositions and beliefs held on faith fit into the  ethos of my intellectual life which I have sketched above.  The position that I hold to be least disputable is that faith (as distinguished from virtuous forms of trust, fidelity, and reliance on authorities and established paradigms) is ethically and epistemologically completely impermissible.  The decision to hold any of one’s presuppositions or faith beliefs as somehow a matter of fate with no possibility for objective reconsideration is a disingenuous attempt to believe however one wishes and displays a contempt for the truth that is epistemically impermissible (in categorical terms) and is ethically impermissible (by most ethical standards properly conceived).

So, in subsequent posts, I will defend my “nearly indisputable” foundations from which I do the rest of my thinking and derive my skepticism, offer my challenges to “presuppositionalism” taken both as the view that we are incapable of fully and thoroughly reexamining our fundamental beliefs, and, worse, that beliefs with untested presuppositions can be held to be rationally justified.  I will also take several posts to describe and evaluate several possible meanings of the word “faith” from the perspectives of both epistemology and ethics.

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