Monday, January 2, 2017


I want to begin this post with a little quiz.  Easy.  Consider the following propositions:
  1. Vaccines can cause autism in children.
  2. Acupuncture is an effective way to relieve chronic pain.
  3. Humans have free will.
  4. The universe was created by a deity who is omnipotent and who remains involved in human affairs.
  5. Through the intercession of Jesus Christ, we have the opportunity for salvation and eternal life.
For each proposition answer the following questions:
  • Do you believe the proposition is true of false.
  • How strongly do you hold that belief—from absolutely false to absolutely true?
  • What, if anything, would cause you to change your belief regarding the truth of the proposition?
Don’t worry.  No one’s keeping score.  My guess is that readers’ answers will vary broadly.  From my perspective the critical question in the case of each proposition is not whether one holds the proposition to be true or false but whether there is any evidence that would change that belief.  I am suggesting that the extent to which one holds beliefs conditionally rather than unconditionally is a way of identifying where they might belong on a continuum of skepticism.

Personally, I’m a big fan of skepticism, because I believe it has been fundamental to furthering our knowledge regarding the nature of the world.  But I realize that it is not for everyone.  I’ve addressed in another post what I mean by skepticism, but here is a brief summary:
  • Statements should not be accepted—or rejected—simply on the basis of their source.
  • Statements should be tested against all available evidence.
  • No source of evidence is “sacred,” that is, unimpeachable.
  • Not all evidence is equal.  Some is better than other.
  • All beliefs should be held conditionally.
Skepticism does not imply that one should hold no beliefs about the world.  It would be difficult indeed to make our way through life in the absence of any firmly held beliefs about the nature of the world.  Skepticism is not about whether one holds beliefs; it is about whether they are held unconditionally.  

Moreover, it is also fair to accept that the disconfirmation of some beliefs should require more evidence than for other beliefs.  One might require more evidence to change a belief about the existence of a theistic god than to change a belief about the efficacy of acupuncture, for example.  I would add, though, that if a reader feels that there are some beliefs that are inviolable or unconditional, he or she might ask why beliefs in some propositions are subject to disconfirmation but not belief in others.

But here’s a critical question: if you assert that you hold a belief conditionally, can you devise a test the results of which would cause you to change that belief?  If, for example, you believe that vaccines can cause autism in children, what evidence would cause you to change that belief?

Bottom line: This exercise is an attempt to get at different styles by which individuals arrive at their beliefs.  It is not intended necessarily to pass judgment as to those styles.  For some individuals the comfort of certainty that comes from holding particular beliefs is most important.  For others it’s the quest for truth. 

© 2017 John M. Phillips