Self-refuting Skepticism

by Roger Patterson on July 14, 2009

Skeptics such as Michael Shermer like to assure you that they alone are being rational. But a close look at the claims reveals how empty they are.

Many people in modern society label themselves as skeptics. They publish magazines, participate in various organizations, raise funds to support their causes, and lobby the public through roadside signs, podcasts, and advertisements on buses.

Though there are several organizations to which we could refer, we will focus our attention on the Skeptics Society headed by Dr. Michael Shermer for sake of discussing the relevant points of agreement and disagreement. By explaining the positions given by this organization, you can easily apply them to others who share the same basic views. As Christians, we should have a biblically founded skepticism of the claims made by “skeptics” (Proverbs 18:17).

Skepticism is a humanistic philosophy. Humanists consider man to be the measure of all things. That is, the human mind is considered to be the ultimate standard by which all claims are judged. Humanism is a religious system, the deity of the worldview being man himself. Though the humanists would generally reject the label of religious, they certainly hold their views with zeal and conviction.

Another important element of the humanist religion is naturalism (or, materialism). This belief blindly asserts that nothing beyond nature exists; the physical universe is all that there is. Anything that is supernatural is excluded from this belief system. We will explain these two ideas as we look at the beliefs of skeptical humanists and their manifesto.

The following excerpts are taken from A Skeptical Manifesto, written by Dr. Michael Shermer, which will serve to illustrate the beliefs of those who claim to be skeptics.

To his credit, Dr. Shermer is openly honest about the failure of skepticism as a philosophy.

But what does it mean to be skeptical? Skepticism has a long historical tradition dating back to ancient Greece when Socrates observed: “All I know is that I know nothing.” But this is not a practical position to take.

Shermer rightly concludes that if a skeptic were to apply his philosophy to his own views, he would have to be skeptical of skepticism—a position of absurdity. The very foundation of this belief system is self-refuting.

To avoid the absurdity of his argument, Shermer goes on to qualify his beliefs. He adds the qualifiers of rational and scientific to his belief system. He does this in order to justify his claim that he wishes to promote progress, even though skepticism itself does not hold that goal. Exactly what he means by progress is not explained, but it seems to tie into a later discussion of the evolution of mankind to higher levels. However, he provides no scientific or rational validation for what higher means and why his views should be accepted above other views of progress.

Scientific Skepticism

Let us first look at the claim that skepticism must be scientific in order to be of value. Though not explicitly stated, the concept of materialism is present in the definition of science given by the Skeptics Society:

a set of mental and behavioral methods designed to describe and interpret observed or inferred phenomenon, past or present, aimed at building a testable body of knowledge open to rejection or confirmation.1

It is worth noting that this definition is simply given to persuade the reader to accept a particular view. It is not what would be found in textbooks and dictionaries. Redefining terms is simply a tactic of persuasion, not a logical argument.

Since his definition of science deals with observation, Shermer defines observation as “gathering data through the senses or sensory enhancing technologies.” Although supernatural forces would not normally be experienced by the senses, the Christian rightly takes God to be the ultimate first cause of the things we do experience. This forces us to ask the question, “Why must supernatural explanations be removed from science?”

Dr. Shermer does not provide a reason for the assertion that science can only be based on observations by the senses. If this claim is left as an arbitrary assertion, then there is no logical reason to accept it. Christians should be skeptical of this skeptic’s definition of science.

Another problem that this definition presents for the skeptics is that it is inconsistent. On the one hand, Shermer wants to include past events as falling under his definition of science. On the other hand, he wants to have observational confirmation or rejection of everything that is to be considered scientific knowledge. But, of course, past events are not subject to observational rejection or confirmation. Shermer tries to cover up this inconsistency by suggesting that inferences are as legitimate as observations, but provides no support for this view.

Shermer goes on to explain that most biologists would accept evolution as a “fact” in that it is based on “data or conclusions confirmed to such an extent it would be reasonable to offer temporary agreement.” Since skeptical science can never ultimately prove anything, the temporary agreement of the community is that evolution happened and will continue to happen. This “fact” must be based on the inferences of past events from observations of things in the present, not observing and testing things form the past. Shermer argues from this “fact” at several points in this article.

Since facts, by definition, are true, this philosophy allows for the provisional acceptance of untrue facts. Many things that were once considered factual are known to be false today. In the absence of an absolute standard to determine truth, skeptics build their foundation on what they must admit could be false in the future—evolution included.

This naturalistic science is intended to be objective and avoid any mysticism. Creationism is said to “have been tested (and failed the tests) often enough that we can provisionally conclude [it is] false.” If these tests were done according to the scientific method, it would interest us to know how the supernatural creation of the universe was observed through the senses (what measurements were involved) and shown to be false. The very claim is outside of the capabilities of the model of skeptical science set forward.

Rational Skepticism

To prop up his self-refuting philosophy of skepticism, Dr. Shermer believes that there must be a rational component added so that the skeptic might think in a reliable way. He defines the rational skeptic as:

One who questions the validity of particular claims of knowledge by employing or calling for statements of fact to prove or disprove claims, as a tool for understanding causality.

Since Dr. Shermer seems to be committed to a philosophy of naturalism, how does he account for the existence of reason? Reason involves using laws of logic—which are not part of nature. Laws of logic describe the correct chain of reasoning from premises to conclusions; they are not material and cannot exist in a materialistic universe. The naturalist cannot account for universal, invariant, abstract entities like laws of logic.

What the skeptic is doing is borrowing concepts from a biblical view of the universe while rejecting the system itself—an irrational approach. There is no explanation for the existence of reason and the laws of logic in a naturalistic worldview. If man is simply the accumulation of chemical reactions, why should we trust those reactions to understand the world around it? Chemical reactions and electrical impulses by themselves are neither right nor wrong; they simply are.

Science is only possible because God has ordered the universe and sustains it in such a way that the human mind can understand it. The Christian has an ultimate reason for believing that we can study and understand the universe. The naturalistic skeptic does not. (For a detailed explanation of this concept please see Revelation, Speculation, and Science by Dr. Greg Bahnsen.)

Dr. Shermer makes the claim that it would be unscientific to accept a dogmatic claim that is not based on scientific inquiry. But he expects us to accept his dogmatic assertion without proving it by any scientific means (which would be impossible). Again, an assertion is made with no rational reason to accept it.

Accepting ideas on the authority of another human can be dangerous; so, it is important to understand how the person making the claim came to know what is being claimed. We certainly don’t disagree with Dr. Shermer on not accepting dogmatic claims, but it is ironic that he expects us to believe his claim without scientific proof. Christians should be skeptical of such claims.

There is, however, One whom we can trust absolutely. When He tells us of the world, we can accept those things, as He was not only an eyewitness, but the Creator of the universe. Having created the universe, we can trust that what God tells us about it through His Word can be taken as truth. Since there can be no higher authority than the Creator, we must accept His claims of truth over the claims made by fallible humans. God has granted us the gift of reason, humans having been created in His image, but we must recognize the limits of that reasoning and the condition of the fallen world in which we live.

Other skeptics have suggested that we cannot trust the Bible because it was written by men: of course, this statement itself was written by men. So, if that statement is trustworthy, that we cannot trust a statement written by men, then we cannot trust the statement itself about not trusting the Bible—a contradiction.

It is also worth noting that an argument really should be evaluated on its own merit, not on the source. To do otherwise is to commit the genetic fallacy. The Bible claims to be the Word of God, is internally consistent, and provides the only rational foundation for the world around us. On these grounds, not the empty claims of a skeptical humans, we can accept the truth that God has revealed to us.


Mankind has elevated himself throughout history. From the Fall in the Garden, mankind has sought to be equal, if not superior, to God. Like any other philosophy that begins without God as the standard of truth, this humanistic philosophy is arbitrary and logically inconsistent. Applying a little biblically-based skepticism to the claims of these skeptics exposes the flaws.

As we look to God’s Word as the foundation for all thinking, we might also be moved to pray for those who suppress the truth of God in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18–19). Had God not revealed His truth to us, we would still be in that darkened condition (Ephesians 2:1–5). As we seek to share the truth with a lost world, let us remember to do so in meekness and fear and with thankfulness to God for the salvation He has granted us through Jesus Christ (1 Peter 3:15–16).




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