Philosophy 134 - 7.4.3 Skepticism in Specific Domains

As explained above, local skepticism questions the possibility of knowledge only in particular areas of study. People can accept that knowledge of the external world is possible while also questioning whether knowledge is achievable in more specific domains. A common form of local skepticism focuses on religious belief, specifically knowledge of the existence of God. Another form of local skepticism concerns the ability to ever have moral knowledge. Skepticism in these domains does not entail that there is no God or that all moral claims are false. Rather, skepticism means that we can never be sufficiently justified in believing that there is a God or that moral claims are true. We simply can never know either way whether, for example, God exists.

Skepticism about morality arises due to the nature of its subject. Moral claims are normative, which means that they assert claims about what ought to be the case rather than what is the case. But moral claims are difficult to prove, given their normative nature. How can you prove what ought to be the case? Usually, moral claims are grounded in value claims. An ethicist may say that we ought to help a stranger because well-being is morally valuable. But the skeptic will point out that we cannot prove that something is valuable. We do not have sensors that can confirm moral value. Moral claims instead rest on arguments. The problem, as Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume (1711–1776) explained, is that no amount of description can ever help us logically derive a normative claim (Hume 1985). This leaves room for doubt, and therefore skepticism.

Skeptical positions about God also focus on the lack of sufficient evidence. A skeptic can reasonably ask, What sorts of evidence would show the existence of God? Certainly, if God unambiguously appeared right now to everyone in the world simultaneously, then we would have reliable evidence. But God has not done so. The most we have is testimony in the form of religious texts. And testimony, particularly a chain of testimony stretching back hundreds and hundreds of years, is not necessarily reliable. Why believe, for example, the Christian Bible? Blaise Pascal (1623–1662), himself a devote Catholic, argued that the very nature of God—having no limits and existing beyond time—precludes the possibility of ever comprehending the full true nature of God or God’s existence. He states, “Who then can blame the Christians for not being able to give reasons for their belief, professing as they do a religion which they cannot explain by reason. . . . It is in lacking proofs that they do not lack sense” (Pascal 1973, 93). Pascal contends that not attempting to give proof of God is the sensible thing to do. A person can simply rely on faith, which is belief based on insufficient evidence.

Think Like a Philosopher

In your view, what is the relationship between reason and faith? Some theologians say that reason can establish the existence of a supreme being. Others think that reason can only partially justify religious belief and that full belief requires faith, or belief without reason. Reason for some is antithetical to faith, which requires blind obedience. For example, in the biblical story of the sacrifice of Isaac, Abraham is willing to sacrifice his only son to God as an act of faith. How do you think we should understand the role of reason in religious belief?

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The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax