I devoted my previous article “Atheist tweets on faith: A response to Justin Schieber” to providing a critique of the following tweet:
It’s now time for part 2.
While it might seem disproportionate to devote two articles to a single tweet, the reality is that this tweet summarizes some deep and persistent problems with the way the self-described “skeptic” community thinks about epistemological issues like faith, reason, and doubt.
In the first article I focused on the concept of “faith”. Now in part 2 we will turn to the topic of doubt. My thesis can be summarized in an equally terse tweet:
“For many, ‘doubt’ is a pride in one’s refusal to update epistemically.”
In other words, as surely as one can exercise faith in an irrational way that is recalcitrant to disconfirming evidence, so one can exercise doubt in an irrational way that is recalcitrant to disconfirming evidence.
And this brings us to a fundamental problem with the way the self-described “skeptic” community thinks about reason. Their chosen self-identity as people who are “skeptical,” i.e. people who doubt, aligns good reasoning with the withholding of assent or belief.
Alas, this reflects a common misunderstanding about the nature of virtue in which each virtue is paired up with a single vice. For example, folks assume that cowardice is the vice and courage is the virtue. Or stinginess is the vice and generosity is the virtue. Or, in the present case, belief/faith is the vice and doubt is the virtue.
In each case, the supposition is wrong. Virtues are not paired with single vices. (At least, the present examples are not.) Rather, as Aristotle recognized, they provide a golden mean between two vices.
If courage is the virtue, then cowardice is one vice and recklessness is another. If generosity is the virtue, then stinginess is one vice and extravagance is the other. And if irrational belief/faith is one vice, then irrational doubt is the other.
Think, for example, of the pathologically jealous husband who refuses to believe his wife’s insistence that she has never cheated on him, despite the complete lack of evidence that would justify his doubt. This husband’s doubt is not a paragon of rationality. Rather, it is baldly irrational: withholding assent to the truth of a proposition is as much a proper subject for rational appraisal as granting assent to the truth of a proposition. And the rational person is the one who finds that golden mean by exercising belief/faith when the evidence warrants, and exercising doubt when the evidence warrants.
And so the point of my tweet: a person can exercise an irrational recalcitrance toward evidence (i.e. a refusal to “update epistemically”) by withholding belief as surely as by assenting to a belief.
Finally, please note that belief and doubt are, in fact, two sides of the same coin. The husband who doubts his wife’s testimony to her fidelity believes the evidence doesn’t support her fidelity. Doubt and belief are not two completely distinct categories. Rather, to believe one thing is to doubt (i.e. not believe) another.
Unfortunately, the tendency to identify rationality with doubt is liable to blind one to the need to appraise rationally both their own doubts and the corollary beliefs to those doubts. And in my view, that lack remains an ongoing, persistent problem within the self-described skeptic community.