Varieties of Scepticism

  • Kai Nielsen
Part of the New Studies in the Philosophy of Religion book series (NSPR)


Philosophical scepticism has few defenders nowadays. It has several forms but only in one very attenuated form has it had anything coming close to a convincing defence. A Pyrrhonian sceptic, for example, claims that we never have good grounds for adopting a definite position on anything because for every argument in favour of a particular doctrine or claim there is an equally strong argument against this argument or claim. This Pyrrhonian scepticism is distinct from two key forms of modern scepticism, namely (1) the form which claims that we know nothing, i.e. that nobody knows anything about anything, and (2) that we only know the contents of our own minds. If the Pyrrhonian sceptic is claiming to know the truth of the generalisation that for every argument in support of a doctrine or claim there is an equally strong argument against it, he is asserting something which is actually incompatible with those modern forms of scepticism because the Pyrrhonian, in claiming the above, is claiming much more than they claim and indeed is claiming something that could not be justifiably claimed if either of these modern forms of scepticism were true. However, the Pyrrhonian could readily weaken his claim to the claim that he reasonably believes this to be so or that he just finds it to be the case. But such claims are plainly absurd. It is surely not the case that for every argument the arguments pro and con utterly balance out. Something might be said for the arguments of flat earthers, but it could hardly be reasonably claimed that their arguments are as plausible as the arguments of their opponents. Pyrrhonism only attains a semblance of plausibility if it is altered to the quite different thesis that there is no rational resolution of an argument which is so utterly decisive that we can be certain that the truth has been established concerning the disputed claims.


Religious Belief Rational Resolution Central Strand Sceptical Argument Christian Belief 
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Notes and References

  1. 1.
    Peter Unger, ‘A Defense of Skepticism’, The Philosophical Review, vol. Lxxx, no. 2 (April 1971) pp. 198–219. Note also Keith Lehrer, ‘Why Not Scepticism?’, The Philosophical Forum (1971).Google Scholar
  2. 4.
    Ninian Smart, Philosophers and Religious Truth (New York, The Macmillan Company, 1970) p. 3.Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    William Alston, ‘Unconscious Intellectual Dishonesty in Religion’, in A. J. Bellinzoni, Jr. and T. V. Litzenburg, Jr. (eds.), Intellectual Honesty and Religious Commitment (Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1969) p. 28.Google Scholar
  4. 12.
    See here Terence Penelhum, Survival and Disembodied Existence (London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970) and Peter Geach, God and the Soul (London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969) Chapters 1 and 2.Google Scholar
  5. 13.
    See John Hick, Faith and Knowledge, second edition (Ithaca, New York, Cornell University Press, 1966) pp. 189–99. I have criticised Hick’s views on this matter in my ‘Eschatological Verification’ in Steven Cahn (ed.), Philosophy of Religion (New York, Harper & Row, 1970) and in my Contemporary Critiques of Religion (London, The Macmillan Press Ltd., 1971) pp. 71–93.Google Scholar
  6. 16.
    Paul Edwards, ‘Kierkegaard and the “Truth” of Christianity’, Philosophy, vol. xLVI (April 1971).Google Scholar
  7. 17.
    Ninian Smart, The Philosophy of Religion (New York, Random House, 1970).Google Scholar
  8. 18.
    Peter Slater, ‘Current Trends in Analytic Philosophy of Religion’, Anviksiki, vol. 2, nos. 1 and 2 (August and December 1968) pp. 155–6.Google Scholar
  9. 20.
    Marcia Cavell, ‘Visions of a New Religion’, Saturday Review of Literature (December 19, 1970) p. 13.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Kai Nielsen 1973

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kai Nielsen
    • 1
  1. 1.The University of CalgaryCanada

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