The MU SASHA Blog

The official blog of University of Missouri Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists, & Agnostics

Dave’s Mailbag: “A question about your skepticism…”

B writes:

I just watched your 2 hour debate video and really enjoyed it! I thought you made some very rational arguments and definitely made your arguments more credible by giving sources and such. Overall a very thorough and superb debate on your part.

How far you take your skepticism? The part of the video when the kid said there is more evidence of  the resurrection of Jesus than there is of Julius Caesar. You disagreed and argued that there are books written by Julius Caesar, so his existence is more credible. Would you be skeptic that the books were forged? I mean there would be no apparent reason as to why someone would forge the books, and a document in religion to promote an agenda would be more likely forged, but would you still be skeptical? At what point is it logical to say that something is true? How much and of what kind of evidence is needed?

Thanks for your time.

My response:

Hi B! Thanks for your message. I appreciate your comments.

It’s certainly possible that Julius Caesar’s books are forgeries, but it’s highly unlikely. We have no reason to suspect that they were, unlike, for example, the many irreconciliable contradictions in the New Testament about the details of Jesus’s alleged resurrection. Caesar’s books are, for the most part, lost to history—all we have today is his journals from war, which don’t make any unlikely or outrageous claims. Contrast this to the fact that a resurrection as alleged would contradict everything we know about biology, medicine, etc. The whole thing is just dripping with obviousness as mythology.

So in a technical sense, I am open to the idea that Caesar’s books are forgeries. Being skeptical means being open to the idea that you’re wrong, and never claiming 100% certainty in your conclusions. I feel comfortable saying that I believe to a very high degree of confidence that Caesar’s books are genuine, although I wouldn’t claim that zero editing has taken place, nor that I claiming certainty about these things. Hand-written copies of ancient documents have a tendency to change bit by bit, but that’s okay: Nobody is claiming that there is divine truth in Caesar’s books.

As far as the point it’s logical at which to say something is true, I’m not sure we can ever really say that with total certainty. In discussions of epistemology, I tend to side with this position:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solipsism

in basically saying that any knowledge about the universe at large, or indeed anything outside one’s own mind, is by definition an uncertainty. It’s all subject to the filter of our senses, and it’s clear that those aren’t perfect, or magic shows would be no fun at all!

The one thing I’m absolutely certain about is the fact of my own existence. Everything else, if we’re going to be precise, is technically a belief. I believe that evidence and the scientific method are the most accurate approach to knowledge on the basis that they are the most consistent and logical approach to knowledge. I believe that faith, because it is inconsistent and unfalsifiable and by nature not bothered by things like lack of evidence, is really a fundamentally useless approach to finding out what’s true about the world. To quote Carl Sagan, “Science is more than a body of knowledge; it’s a way of thinking, a way of skeptically interrogating the universe.”

Science is the best tool ever discovered for drawing up a consistent and clear picture of the world around us, but it’s still a picture, not the world itself. The problem of induction will always stand in our way of reaching 100% certainty.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Problem_of_induction

So to answer your final question, within the system of empiricism, no amount of evidence is ever sufficient to say that something is true with 100% total certainty. That’s just not how evidence works, unfortunately. The more evidence you have that suggests a certain conclusion, and the better quality evidence you have, the more confident you can be in saying that it’s probably correct. But, there is always the possibility that you will discover additional evidence and find out that you were wrong all along. You can approach 100% confidence in statistics… 90%, 95%, 99.99999%, but under the banner of empiricism, 100% certainty is just not possible. That only works under the umbrella of rationalism (mathematical proofs), which are deductive, rather than inductive, and under the banner of faith, which—if you ask me—is just plain incorrect, because it incorrectly equates belief (a prerequisite for knowledge) with knowledge itself.

This article may also be helpful:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epistemology#Belief

I hope that this helps!

– Dave

Dave Muscato is the 2012 Writing Intern for the Secular Student Alliance in Columbus, Ohio. He is also Vice President of MU SASHA. He is a vegetarian, LGBTQ ally, and human- & animal-welfare activist. A junior at Mizzou studying economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin, Dave posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday and twice monthly for the Humanist Community at Harvard. His website is http://www.DaveMuscato.com. Opinions posted here do not necessarily reflect the views of MU SASHA, the Secular Student Alliance, nor the Humanist Community at Harvard.

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About Danielle Muscato

Danielle Muscato is a civil rights activist, writer, and public speaker. She has appeared on or been quoted in Rolling Stone, People, Time, The New York Times, SPIN, Entertainment Weekly, Billboard Magazine, and on MTV News, VH1, NPR, MSNBC, ABC, "The Real Story" with Gretchen Carlson, The O'Reilly Factor, Huffington Post Live, Huffington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Raw Story, CNN, CBS, and Howard Stern Danielle is the former Director of Public Relations for American Atheists. She is also a board member of MU SASHA (University of Missouri Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists & Agnostics). Her website is http://www.DanielleMuscato.com. Follow her on Google+ Follow her on Twitter @daniellemuscato Subscribe to her on YouTube at www.youtube.com/davemuscato

7 comments on “Dave’s Mailbag: “A question about your skepticism…”

  1. Jerry Winn
    July 29, 2012

    And don’t forget, as you’ve eloquently stated before, that the weight of the claims is also a consideration. Perhaps Caesar’s works are fiction… and so? Caesar does not tell us how we must live and think. Therefor, the question of whether his existence or his works are accurate is simply less important.

    If I offered to pay you a penny for a sexual favor, you’d dismiss me (probably– maybe I’m underestimating my allure?). If I offered you a billion dollars for a sexual favor, you might consider it, but you’re going to have a lot of questions about whether I have the money, whether I’ll actually pay, etc. Or realistically, you’d also dismiss the idea out of hand because you’d guess it’s extremely unlikely that I have that kind of money. That’s not just a hunch– you’re relying on statistical evidence to draw that conclusion. What are the odds that I’m really a billionaire who wants a sexual favor from you?

    Skepticism must be used pragmatically. We could question whether we’d fall through the floor in front of us or not, but what a waste that would be. We make these statistical assumptions for every action we take and thought we have, even if we claim to be people of faith. Some of us are just less calculated gamblers about it than others.

  2. Alex Papulis
    July 29, 2012

    Dave,
    I think the problem of induction, if it is in fact a problem, does much more than rule out 100% certainty (which I’m not sure is so important anyway). So long as we’re not able to judge present or future events based on past events, this undercuts scientific learning and probablistic reasoning in general. In other words, if the past is not a reliable indicator of the future, then there are no observations we could make to help us form beliefs about the future.

    Alex

  3. rocketkirchner
    July 30, 2012

    Dave , you state that ”faith ……is a useless approach to finding out what is true about the world ”. The trouble with that statment is that it assumes a singular form of epistomology can tell us what is true about the world . Are you not setting up an exclusive here that is relative at best and ultimatly ineffective at worse ?
    The key phrase here is ”what is true about the world ”. What is true about the world can be percieved and understood thru many avenues. The empirical method can tell us some things that are true about the worold even though our finite minds and expereiments are like looking thru a ”tiny periscope”. But i will conceede that however small the periscope , it still can tell us things true about the world . However , in conceeding that , it does not negate that faith cannot be a great help in understaing and finding what is true in the world .

    Example : we wish to become fully human . An empirical method cannot be used to tell us how to become human . and yet becoming human and what is true in the world ..are they not a sequitar? and if they are , then faith can access a place in us that can accomplish this . after all , in all of literature , it is hard to beat the Christ story when it comes to the re- humanization of humanity that is confused , classist , rascist , sexist , loveless . To straighten these things out is to find what is and should be true in the world .

  4. Brad
    August 3, 2012

    Wow! Thanks a lot Dave for the lengthy and detailed reply. Great information.

  5. Jouras
    August 30, 2012

    Actually, the skepticism about Caesar’s writings can be applied to all of history.

    In fact, in fifty years try and find a living witness to, say, the Holocaust. The whole thing will be based on records, and there may have been some motivation to…shall we say…manipulate the records for political gain.

    So when we say pehaps Caesars works are fiction…”so?” the answer is, “So you have eliminated history as a source of human knowledge”. And that has serious implications to human development.

  6. Pingback: Guest Article: “The Problem of Induction – A Response” by Alex Papulis « The Official MU SASHA Blog, Updated Daily

  7. Pingback: Past Performance is No Guarantee of Future Results « The Official MU SASHA Blog, Updated Daily

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This entry was posted on July 29, 2012 by in Author: Dave Muscato, philosophy and tagged , , , , , , .
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