Apologetics to the Glory of God

An Informal Introduction to Covenantal Apologetics: Part 17 – Universal problem of skepticism.

By C.L. Bolt

In the last part of this introduction we discussed the method of internal critique, but there is a sense in which internal critique is working at a level that is one step too far in the direction of granting the non-Christian worldview too much. There already exists within philosophy and specifically epistemology the problem of skepticism. Epistemology refers to the particular branch of philosophy that asks questions about whether or not we can know anything, how much we can know, how we know, etc. From the beginning of philosophy there have been those pesky skeptics who have set out to dislodge virtually every bit of knowledge we generally claim to have. Skeptics have done this through offering various skeptical arguments. Skeptical arguments are aimed at different levels and parts of what we usually consider to be knowledge.

For example, some skeptics might ask what knowledge even is. Once we begin to start defining what we think knowledge is, they then may come up with some sort of counter objections or arguments to refute the definition of knowledge we have come up with. And if we cannot even define knowledge to begin with, then who is to say that we actually ever had any?

Or, consider the justificatory element of knowledge. This element of knowledge entails that in addition to believing a claim and that claim being true, a belief must be justified or warranted in order to count as knowledge. By “justified” or “warranted” we just mean that there are good reasons for holding that belief. But as soon as we begin trying to justify our beliefs, the skeptic comes in and offers his nasty, obnoxious arguments against that justification.

Most people just want to blow the skeptic off. After all, it is obvious that we have knowledge. While this may be true, and even intuitive, the skeptic may simply respond that what is obvious to you may not be so obvious to him, and he wants a justification of some sort for the knowledge you claim to hold especially when you mutter your claims as though you actually know them.

The reason that this affects our understanding of internal critique is that we usually consider internal critique to be applied to some particular worldview as a structure or system or unit, whereas skepticism is a universal complaint. Skepticism arises in every system of thought to some extent and so it applies universally “across the board” for this same reason. Skepticism questions whether or not knowledge or rationality are even possible prior to discussing more that already assumes that we have knowledge and rationality. Even without the challenge of skepticism, a particular worldview adherent would be under obligation to provide his view of knowledge and account for its possibility given the worldview in question. Skepticism serves to highlight again the issue of the burden of proof which every party involved carries.

The skeptic most often operates with arguments that force an infinite regress of justifications. For example if the skeptic were to ask you what Earth rested on, and you answered, “a turtle,” then the skeptic would ask what this turtle rested on. You would respond, “another turtle” and eventually claim that it is “turtles all the way down,” but you have not thereby ever really said what holds Earth up at the bottom. You have not said what it rests on in any ultimate sense. This should only serve as an illustration of how the skeptic treats your justificatory claims. The skeptic sees them as being based upon more claims, which are based upon more, on and on until there is no actual justification provided for the belief in question, and hence there is no knowledge of a claim either. Another tool of the skeptic is to force someone into a viciously circular justification. Circularity is a problem because the very claim in question is offered as justification for that same claim. The belief in question is not thereby justified, but merely reasserted without any justification or warrant.

Skeptical arguments are to be taken very seriously, and no worldview can really fail to address the problem of skepticism with its many arguments against almost everything under the sun and still be a worldview worth holding. Note that the arguments have been set forth in various forms since the beginning, and their sting has been lightly applied in a universal sense. In other words, worldviews have something which must be proven about them. They must be able to beat skepticism. They entail a burden of proof. It is not that skeptical arguments are particular problems with particular positions (although they may be), but rather that skepticism has been waiting for a real challenger. Worldviews are not innocent until proven guilty; they are already behind in light of skepticism. If we cannot get beyond the first step of building a worldview because of skepticism then there is little hope that we have any knowledge at all.

Complete, total, global skepticism is a self-defeating position if it is a position at all. Suppose someone should claim that nothing can be known. It follows that not even the proposition, “nothing can be known” can be known. Now the skeptic could, I suppose, continue to insist that nothing can be known, and insist that this includes the very statement in question, but in this sense the skeptic has defeated himself. It is not necessarily the case that the skeptic has refuted himself, but he has surely defeated himself. There is no longer any need to include him in a conversation, let alone a conversation about the justification of knowledge. But of course we hold that no one is truly a consistent skeptic, and even the most consistent skeptic we know can and should be included in our conversations, though again we must be warned that apologetics has its limits determined by its nature as a reason-giving endeavor.

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4 responses to “An Informal Introduction to Covenantal Apologetics: Part 17 – Universal problem of skepticism.”

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  3. JUXTAPOSED Avatar

    Perhaps you address is later in this series. Though, it appears to me that the series of questions from the skeptic to the presuppositionalist would result eventually in the answer that we assume logic because we can’t assume the opposite? Or a step back we assume the God of the bible since He is? I know He is since He is. Or if we wanted to make it subjective… He is because I feel He is and that is rooted in the fact that He is? At some point the system can’t appeal to anything else other than just a claim that God exists without any additional statement of justification against the skeptic?

  4. C.L. Bolt Avatar

    Yes, I address it in the very next post.

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