Skepticism–How to Doubt–Part II
Descartes’ philosophy started a revolution in popular thought. What made it so powerful? Two aspects of Descartes’ philosophy set the stage for the advancement of atheism. First, Cartesian philosophy overturned the basic nature of reality.
A New Order of Being
What would you do if you were in Descartes’ position? What is real–so real that no one can question its existence? What is so real that even you cannot question its existence?
Most of us, when we ask this question, start with the reality of the physical world. As we study the physical world we are amazed at its complexity. Mammals are such complex animals. But as we look at smaller animals an astonishing degree of complexity remains. Even the single cell are amazingly intricate. Did this design happen by accident? Even science says, “No way!” Our study of the physical world draws us toward God.
But Descartes turned his thoughts to another direction. He did not trust his education. He knew scholars often disagree. How could there be certainty in education if scholars disagree? He abandoned theology because it was too difficult to understand. He discarded customs, emotions (passions), and opinion due to their lack of order. Logic and Mathematics contained a multiplicity of laws. These laws “often furnish excuses for evil-doing.”
The only proper guide, according to Descartes, is reason. Using reason, Descartes discarded one idea after another. All of them could be doubted, except one: “I think, therefore, I am.” Descartes rejected the reality that comes from above. He dismissed the creation God placed at his fingertips. He accepted his own reason as the ultimate source of reality and truth.
At this time Descartes just started studying philosophy. Amateur philosophers say crazy things all the time (consider Richard Dawkins, for example). Francis Bacon wrote, “A little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion.” Why did this random thought from an amateur philosopher transform our society? First, it tells my ego exactly what it wants to hear.
Descartes placed self in the center of the universe. What a huge boost to the ego! No longer am I just one person among billions. “I think, therefore, I am.” My ability to think becomes my reality. Nothing else can be proven—only my own existence because I think. And I am the center of my universe. I am my universe.
Am I exaggerating? Do people in our society really think like this? Are they the center of their own universe? Look around. What do you see? We live in a society of self-absorbed people. For example, rock singer Kurt Cobain once said, “I don’t care what you think unless it is about me.” A popular fast-food restaurant has the slogan “You deserve a break today.” We all seem to have a runaway sense of self importance.
And yet I continue to live in a world filled with other things. What do I do with these things? Well, I have the power to decide. I decide how they fit into my world. And it is my world. No one can tell me what to do. To use the words from the poem Invictus, “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.” It’s all about me. No one else matters. Descartes’ philosophy is powerful because it tells me what I want to hear.
But it does not change the truth. We continue to endure our little, tiny lives. We can convince ourselves that we can take on the whole universe—and win. But nothing has changed. The Bible is correct when it says, “Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away.” (James 4: 14, NAS)
If I am just another nobody, how can I find meaning for my life? God is able to give meaning to my life. In Psalm 8: 4-8 the Bible tells us where we stand in God’s Kingdom.
What is man that You take thought of him,
And the son of man that You care for him?
Yet You have made him a little lower than God,
And You crown him with glory and majesty!
You make him to rule over the works of Your hands;
You have put all things under his feet,
All sheep and oxen,
And also the beasts of the field,
The birds of the heavens and the fish of the sea,
Whatever passes through the paths of the seas.
Man is not the center of the universe. God is the true center of the universe. However, this true center—this loving God—has a special place for you and me. He also wants a relationship with us. How fantastic is that!
A New Standard for Truth
Second, according to Descartes, everything we can know begins with reason. The new standard for truth is reason—my reason. If we accept this standard for truth, there is no absolute, objective truth. My journey through life will impact my thoughts, ideas, beliefs.
If my own reason is the standard for truth, then there is no truth. My truth for today becomes my opinion. Tomorrow my truth may change. According to the emperor/philosopher Marcus Aurelius, “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.”
Friedrich Nietzsche wrote,
“Truth is a mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, anthropomorphisms . . . truths are illusions of which we have forgotten that they are illusions, metaphors which have become worn by frequent use and have lost all sensuous vigour . . .. Yet we still do not know where the drive to truth comes from, for so far we have only heard about the obligation to be truthful which society imposes in order to exist” from, “On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense”.”
Nietzsche, the atheist, believed truth is just your perspective. He also believed truth is secondary to power. He wrote, “All things are subject to interpretation. Whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.” In other words, the loudest voice or the strongest arm decide truth for any given time.
However, people continue to desire truth. As Nietzsche wrote, “Yet we still do not know where the drive to truth comes from.” Rejecting God, people still try to find—or even to create—truth.
Thomas Paine wrote in The Age of Reason that truth is science. The truth of God is expressed through Nature and revealed through science.
It is from the study of the true theology [Nature] that all our knowledge of science is derived, and it is from that knowledge that all the arts have originated. . . . The principles of science lead to this knowledge; for the Creator of man is the Creator of science; and it is through that medium that man can see God, as it were, face to face.
Nietzsche wrote there is no truth. Thomas Paine believed truth is revealed through Nature. Do those ideas have much in common? Not really. That’s the point. With reason in charge we can search anywhere for truth. That may sound like a good thing to some people. But most people search for truth in the wrong places.
If we find truth, we stumble over it by accident. As Winston Churchill said, “Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing ever happened.”
Skepticism and Atheism
Atheism take to skepticism like a duck to water. Let’s face it. Most atheists have little use for the truth. They do not believe in the existence of truth. Truth is an illusion or an opinion. If they have no commitment to the truth, why should they have any qualms about telling lies? It’s no fun, they think, to be limited by truth. It’s a lot more fun to make things up as you go along.
When an atheist gets in an argument with a Christian, the atheist can make up any lie that sounds convenient. His motivation is to win the argument. One way to win is to plant doubt. But the Christian wants to find truth. He feels a responsibility to answer truthfully. The atheist does not.
Atheists often use skepticism to deny the existence of anything that gets in its way. They create false questions. They provide no answers. For example:
• Can God create a rock that is too big for Him to move?
This is a nonsense question. This question assumes our God is limited by time and space. The question makes no sense within the infinity and eternity of God.
• Science cannot find God. How can you say He exists?
Science is able to deal with only a small portion of reality. Also, science is a method. It is a fact-finder. Science cannot provide meaning. A world-view is required to give meaning to the facts of science. Atheism and Christianity are world-views. Atheism cannot find God in science. It refuses to look in the right places. But when Christianity fills science with meaning, evidence for God overflows every corner of Creation.
• Did Jesus ever exist? He’s a historical myth made up by the early church. Right?
This is just blatant historical ignorance. If Jesus is a myth, how do you explain the existence of the church? The early church was created by people who walked and talked with Jesus. Most of these people died for their belief in Jesus. If people invent a myth, do they follow that myth into the jaws of death? I don’t think so. Why would so many people die for a lie?
Skepticism is a fun game to play. Atheists can play it all day long. But skepticism is a signpost leading away from the road to truth. It causes a person to wander endlessly in a desert of doubt.
Skepticism, Where Is It Going?
What is the point of skepticism? It does not create anything. It tears down rather than building up. Skepticism has no doctrines. It does not search for truth. Skepticism causes doubt and despair.
Søren Kierkegaard asked this question in his book Fear and Trembling. He also commented on the growth of skepticism during his day (Nineteenth Century).
Every waiter with a speculative turn who carefully marks the significant progress of modern philosophy, every lecturer in philosophy, every tutor, student, every sticker-and quitter of philosophy—they are not content with doubting everything, but “go right on.” It might, possibly, be ill timed and inopportune to ask them whither they are bound; but it is no doubt polite and modest to take it for granted that they have doubted everything—else it were a curious statement for them to make, that they were proceeding onward.
When skepticism destroys a person’s belief, to what does that person move? How can he “move on?” His belief is gone. He is moving through the slough of despair. Down his road of destruction looms the pit of the abyss.
This is the true heart of atheism: darkness, death, and despair. But the abyss will not win. It is an insignificant nothing. God is truth. According to the Twentieth Century theologian Karl Barth:
Man can certainly keep on lying . . . but cannot make truth [into] falsehood. He can certainly rebel . . . but he can accomplish nothing which abolished the choice of God.
God is life and light and love. God’s Kingdom is infinite. It abides forever. Skepticism can doubt that. Skeptics can say God’s Kingdom does not exist. But that changes nothing. Truth is truth.