So there you have it – much can be said on both sides. But I should perhaps add that I’m not a great fan of the Skeptics. They seem such a dour lot, the sort of people who would insist on telling small children there’s no Santa Claus. I don’t doubt there’s merit in debunking myths and exposing shysters, but professional scepticism seems to me an arid pursuit – always denying, never affirming. Which may be why you rarely see a Skeptic smiling on television. History’s most famous sceptic was of course Doubting Thomas who refused to believe in the resurrection of Christ until he had touched Jesus’ wounds. When, according to the Gospel of John, Jesus later appeared before Thomas and invited him to touch his wounds, the doubter was finally convinced. And Jesus had a message for the sceptics/Skeptics: ‘Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.’
I’m a non-believer myself of course, but I don’t want to make it my profession or even my principal interest in life. For many years I’ve been an Honorary Associate of the New Zealand Rationalists and Humanists Association. They really should strike me off their list. I’ve only ever been to one meeting and that was when I was the guest speaker. I’d been invited along because of my reasonably well-known atheism, but rather offended my hosts by telling them I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to be in an organisation whose raison d’être was something that none of them believed in. They later voted unanimously in favour of a motion ‘that Santa Claus did exist’, which at least showed they had a sense of humour.
The original sceptics were followers of the Greek philosopher Pyrrho and believed that it was impossible to know anything with absolute certainly, including the existence of matter. I’m more or less with those sceptics, which is why I lose patience with my fellow atheists who insist that they ‘know’ there is no god. They don’t. The Solipsists were an interesting lot. They believed that only the self existed and that external reality was a creation of the mind. They nonetheless formed a movement whose meetings must have been quite strange since everyone present believed they were the only person there and all the others were figments of their imagination. Still, it gave them someone to talk to. Most solipsists these days become members of parliament. A commonsensical view of all of this was taken by Dr Samuel Johnson, as Boswell reports:
After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it — “I refute it thus.” Johnson’s reply was actually as illogical as Descartes’ famous ‘cogito ergo sum’ – ‘I think therefore I am’. But it is a good example of the dangers of relying on ‘common sense’ which presupposes some sort of absolute truth. As the Ring debate (cycle?) seems to suggest, the one thing you can be absolutely sure of with most contentious issues is that much can, and will be said on both sides.