Radical Skepticism (Part 2 of 4)

By Hendrik van der Breggen
The Carillon, September 23, 2010

Radical Skepticism, Part 2 of 4: Sensory Skepticism

Radical skepticism concerning the external world is the philosophical view that we cannot have accurate knowledge about the physical reality that exists outside our minds. If radical skepticism were true, then we could not know the external world. Moreover, we could not know the external world’s revelation of God, whether God’s revelation is via the heavens declaring His glory or via Scripture’s pages presenting reports of empirical evidence about Jesus Christ.

Should we be persuaded by radical skepticism? I think not.

There are at least four types of radical skepticism. Last time we looked at funky/pop skepticism. Today we will look at sensory skepticism.

Sensory skepticism tells us that we cannot know the external world because our senses deceive us. (This species of skepticism, like the dream hypothesis discussed in my previous column, is inspired by the philosopher René Descartes [1596–1650].)

To understand the force of sensory skepticism, consider the following examples. While rowing my boat, I put an oar into the water, but then the oar appears bent. While walking in the countryside, I see a flat wall on a distant farm building, but as I get closer the wall turns out to be curved. While strolling along railroad tracks, I see that the metal rails look straight and parallel to each other, but then on the horizon they appear to meet. While driving my car on a hot summer day, I see water on the road ahead, but as I continue to drive I observe that the road is dry. While volunteering as a lab rat for a psychology researcher, I see a red six of hearts as the researcher flashes a playing card, but later the researcher reveals that it was a red six of spades.

Clearly, my senses do deceive me. Therefore (or so the argument goes), my senses should not be trusted.

There are three reasonable criticisms that can be set out against radical sensory skepticism.

First, always does not follow logically from sometimes. The fact that we are sometimes deceived by our senses does not mean that we are always deceived by them.

Second, to know that our senses sometimes deceive us requires that they sometimes or often do not. Indeed, for us to discern that I mistakenly think that the oar is bent, that the wall is flat, that the tracks do not remain parallel, that the road is wet, or that the card is a red six of hearts requires that we have clear and accurate sensory knowledge. It presupposes that we know—accurately—that the oar is in fact straight, that the wall is in fact curved, that the tracks are in fact parallel, that the road is in fact dry, that the card is in fact a red six of spades. The argument of the sensory skeptic, then, requires as legitimate and true what it purports to show is not legitimate and true. It self-refutes.

Third, because the argument for sensory skepticism very apparently fails, our senses’ prima facie veridicality—that is, their very apparent truthfulness—remains. In other words, the burden of proof belongs to those who deny the obvious, so the senses are innocent until proven guilty.

It is reasonable, therefore, to go with what our senses tell us about the world, as long as we have no overriding reason to doubt them, and as long as we are careful.

How does this relate to Christianity? Significantly, it turns out that the reports concerning Jesus’ resurrection tell us that the witnesses carefully used their senses to ground their belief. According to the New Testament record, the witness testimony has do with that “which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands” (1 John 1:1). Also, this record tells us that the resurrected Jesus appeared to individuals and variously sized groups (1 Cor. 15:3-8), was seen to eat fish (Luke 24:41-43), invited physical touch (John 20:27), plus talked with the witnesses (Matthew 28:9-10, 16-20), all over a period of several weeks (Acts 1:3). The witnesses were so convinced by the proofs of the physical reality of what their senses perceived—proofs that Jesus was physically alive after His death—that they testified to the resurrected Jesus in spite of persecution and suffering.

If radical sensory skepticism were true, then the witnesses’ suffering for the truth of what they heard, saw, and touched—so we could reasonably believe their reports—would be in vain. Happily, radical sensory skepticism is not true.

Next: Kantian skepticism.

P.S. The above column is a slightly revised excerpt from my larger article, “Reasonable Skepticism about Radical Skepticism,” Christian Research Journal, Volume 31, Number 5 (2008): 30-38.

Apologia columns on radical skepticism:

(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is assistant professor of philosophy at Providence College, located in Otterburne, Manitoba, CanadaThe views in this column do not always reflect the views of Providence.)

Leave a Reply