Religion and Skepticism
Readings for this part of your journey
Brief Selection from An Apology for Raymond Sebond
This selection is in your course packet.
The Apology for Raymond Sebond
In this section of the course we
are going to explore a brief few pages of Michel de Montaingne's An
Apology for Raymond Sebond. In this work we get the full expression
of Renaissance skepticism. Your objective here is to come to understand
what skepticism is, and the historical and social background to
Renaissance skepticism. This is a movement which is important in
understanding the philosophy of Descartes and the history of philosophy,
both during the period we are studying and beyond. Skepticism is an
important aspect of philosophy in its own right. As part of your general
education, it is a useful thing to know what it means to be a skeptic and
how one goes about being skeptical.
We have already talked about the
Renaissance in the unit on Las Casas. We will continue are discussion
here. But first it is well to mention another development of great
importance which had a great influence on philosophical thought during
this era. In 1517 Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 theses to the door of
a German church. Luther was a Catholic priest at that point and a
reformer. There were various abuses in the Papacy. The lifestyle of the
Popes was notorious. Alexander VI who was the pope at the time of
Columbus and divided up the world between the Spanish and the Portuguese
was a case in point. There were others. Then there was the selling of
indulgences. An indulgence was a papal document which, in effect, said
that you would get out of purgatory and into heaven earlier than would
otherwise have been expected given your sins. The papacy sold these in
order to raise money. The money was regularly used for good purposes.
his 95 theses to the Church
Nevertheless, many people objected to this practice as well as other
abuses in the Church. Erasmus, the great humanist scholar, for example,
was a reformer. Erasmus, however, like his English friend Thomas More,
never broke with the Catholic Church. What then did Luther do to make
himself not a Catholic reformer but something quite new -- a Protestant?
What Luther did was to reject the rule by which the Catholic church
determined what was to count as religious knowledge and replaced it with
another. This rule of the Catholic church, known as the Rule of Faith,
says that if you want to know if a certain religious claim is true, you
should see what Popes and Church Councils have said about it. If no Pope
or Church Council has declared on the matter, it may be necessary to
consult a Pope or convene a Church Council. Take three such claims.
P1 -- the Doctrine of the Blessed Trinity -- was asserted by the Council
of Nicea against the monk Arius. As a result, anyone who asserts that God
is not three persons in one is a heretic, an adherent of the Arian heresy.
Augustine succeeded in having the second proposition declared a heresy by
a Church Council - for it denies the need for God's grace. P3 is another
heresy - the Socinian heresy. This was a new heresy in the 16th and 17th
centuries. It asserted that when we die our souls will only continue in
existence if God performs an act of grace. He will only do this for good
people, so bad people when they die simply go out of existence! Thus
there is no Hell. So you see how the rule works. The rule is a criterion
for determining what counts and what does not count as religious
knowledge. This was the rule which Luther denied!
- P1. God is three persons in one.
- P2. It is possible to obtain salvation by the use of one's own free
will with no other assistance.
- P3 The soul is naturally mortal.
Luther replaced the Rule of Faith with another
rule which says that you determine what religious truth is by what your
conscience tells you upon reading the Bible. The defenders of the Church
claimed that this would result in many different opinions about what was
true, and of course they were right. Protestantism splintered into many
different sects based on different reading of the Bible. For philosophers,
the most important question which Luther's replacement of the Rule of
Faith with a new criterion of religious knowledge raised is this: When you
have two competing criteria for knowledge, how do you tell which one of
them is right? One answer is that you appeal to another criterion. But
this leads to an infinite regress. So bon voyage! On the other
hand, one can reason in a circle. This is basically what the Protestants
did. As Popkin describes it in The History of Skepticism it goes
The fundamental evidence for the original Calvinists of the truth of their
views was inner persuasion. But how can one tell if this inner persuasion
is authentic, not just a subjective certainty that might be illusory? The
importance of being right is so great that, as Theodore Beza, Calvin's
aide-de-camp insisted, we need a sure and infallible sign. This sign is
'ful perswasion, [which] doth separate the chosen children of God from the
castaways, and is the proper riches of the Saintes.' But the consequence
is a circle: the criterion of inner knowledge is inner persuasion, the
guarantee of the authenticity of inner persuasion is that it is caused by
God, and this we are assured of by our own inner persuasion. (Popkin, Pg.
So, you can be a skeptic on several levels. First there is the level
of particular statements -- like P1 for example. You can hold that you
know that God is a trinity or you can deny that God is a trinity. Or you
can decide that there is no way to tell and suspend judgment. Suspending
judgment means that you decide that given the evidence, there is no basis
for deciding one way or the other. This third possibility, suspending
judgment, is the one which skeptics prefer. So, there is the level of
particular statements. Then there is the level of the standards by which
the particular statements are judged to be true or false. This is the
level of the criterion.
If you claim that God is a trinity, you might be asked on what basis
you hold this to be true. If you are a Catholic you might appeal to the
rule of faith. The rule of faith is a criterion (from the Greek meaning a
means of judging) or standard for determining what is true of false in
regard to religious knowledge. Now if that criterion is called into
question, perhaps the skeptic proposes another competing criterion (a
criterion which would decide that "God is not a trinity." is true), you
then have a serious problem. How are you going to justify the criterion you are using
to make particular judgements? This is the second level of the skeptical
problem. The first level is that of particular propositions, the second
is the criterion which we use to decide if particular propositions are
true. Skeptics operate happily on both levels, challenging both claims to
knowledge of particular truths and the criteria which apply to many truths.
The second challenge -- that of justifying the criterion for the truth
of particular propositions is an expecially difficult problem -- and so it is
known as the the problem of the criterion. As noted above, skeptics
claimed that there are two alternatives here. Either you justify the
criterion with another and so end up in an infinite regress. Or you
reason in a circle, ultimately using the criterion you seek to justify to
justify itself. Often, rather than struggle with this philosophical
problem, people resorted to simpler means, like killing the people who
disagreed with them! Thus one result of the Reformation was a series of
nasty religious and civil wars between Protestants and Catholics which
continued through most of the period we are studying and had a profound
influence on all of it. Short of killing or driving out the people who
disagree with you, there are gentler strategies for dealing with them.
Skepticism itself was a strategy.
Hellenistic Skepticism and Christianity
People had their attention drawn to the philosophical character of the
problem posed by Protestantism by the publication in the 1560s of the works of a Hellenistic
skeptic named Sextus Empiricus. Sextus was not, as far as we can tell a
particularly original philosopher, but he came at then end of a long
tradition of Greek and Hellenistic skepticism and provided a good summary
of skeptical arguments. What the works of Sextus Empiricus did for people
in the second half of the sixteenth century was to provide them with a
philosophical model of the dilemma of the age. They could then understand
the position in which they found themselves. One of the problems which
Sextus laid out was the problem of the criterion.
There was also a skeptical strand of Christian thinking which could be
easily combined with Greek skepticism. Erasmus, for example, while a
humanist scholar, had a general anti-intellectualist attitude towards
theological discussions which comes out clearly both in his In Praise
of Folly and in his attacks on Luther. In In Praise of Folly
he remarks: "Human affairs are so obscure and various that nothing can be
known. This was the sound conclusion of the Academics [The Academic
Skeptics] who were the least surly of philosophers." (quoted in Popkin,
Pg. 5) Popkin remarks: "This contempt for intellectual endavour, was
coupled with his advocay of a simple, non-theological Christian piety."
This skeptical defence of the faith was to dominate the French Counter