Tag Archives: Prudence

An Alternative to the Emptiness of Skepticism

The Allegory of Prudence, by Titian, circa 1560. The faint Latin inscription reads “From the past, the present acts prudently, lest it spoil future action”.

Have you ever had a friend that was overly-critical? No matter what you did, they had some negative assessment of how it could be done better?  That criticism may get wearisome after a while when you feel constantly beaten down, but sometimes that can still be bearable when they really are giving you better ways of doing things. Even if their manner is less than gracious, their knowledge may still be valid,  and you just have to try to separate the worthwhile message from the annoying messenger. But there is a worse case. Sometimes, you run into someone who is always cutting you down, but never suggesting any way to improve. Their criticism is destructive rather than constructive, negative rather than positive, crushing rather than edifying. At some point, you ask, “Well, what would you suggest?”, and are greeted by silence, or “I don’t know, but I wouldn’t do that….” Skepticism similarly cuts down everything it touches, but can never build anything up in the ruins it creates. But there is an alternative. Let’s work through that today.

Skepticism is highly encouraged today. In fact, you can subscribe to skeptic magazines, read skeptic websites, and even attend conventions with catchy names like “Skepticon”. But is the “question everything” philosophy actually consistently livable? For instance, do skeptics question their own skepticism? Do they ever ask, “Is there a point I stop questioning?” There is an old story, modified in various ways over the years, of a Hindu belief that the world was supported on the backs of several elephants, who were themselves supported by a giant turtle. When asked what supported that turtle, the answer was, another turtle. After a few iterations of this, the questioner was answered with “it’s turtles all the way down.” This is, of course, an infinite regress; but for the skeptics, I have to ask, is it “questions all the way down” for you as well?

Yet, questions – not answers – is all skepticism has to offer. Asking questions is surely a good thing when they are a means to the end of obtaining knowledge. However, in having no basis for trusting any answers produced by its questions, skepticism destroys any knowledge gained and is a slippery slope that leads to universal doubt. And yet, this doubt is inconsistent, for doubt presupposes true knowledge: to doubt the umpire’s call that the baseball player struck out presupposes that you know what a strike zone is. To doubt one proposition is to not doubt a competing proposition. But then, do you really know the dimensions of the strike zone? Did you really see the flight path of the ball correctly? Skepticism, applied consistently, undercuts itself as it goes, rendering itself unlivable.

But surely some skepticism is a good thing, isn’t it? We don’t want to be naive or gullible, but we don’t want to be the hyper-skeptic that will believe nothing regardless of the evidence presented. Probably most people reading this have gotten emails at some time promising instant riches if you only made a small “investment” first; while it’s always possible the email isn’t a scam, some well-deserved skepticism will most likely save you money. So where do you draw the line? This is where the forgotten virtue of prudence enters. To be prudent is to act wisely in the present situation to bring about true good in the future, based on sound reasoning and knowledge learned from the past. When Jesus warned His disciples that they would be persecuted for following Him, He told them to be “shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves” [Mt 10:16]. That is, be wise, but never for evil purposes or self-serving ends. In other words, be prudent. The book of Proverbs also has much to say about prudence, such as, “The simple believes everything, but the prudent gives thought to his steps” [Pr 14:15 ESV]. Prudence was considered a necessary catalyst for all the other virtues since ancient times, for it applies wisdom to the other virtues to restrain them from becoming vices. Prudence moderates action to be courageous without being reckless, cautious without being cowardly, merciful without being weak, just without being cruel, devoted without being obsessive, open-minded without being vacillating. It is wisdom applied to the situation at hand. But where is one to get this wisdom to apply to our daily situations? Proverbs tells us that “the fear (i.e. reverence) of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” [Pr 9:10], and James, the half-brother of Jesus, tells us, “if any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all” [Jam 1:5-8].

While skeptics dig down and never find any foundation solid to build on, the Christian has a sure foundation that can never be shaken [Is 28:16, 1Co 3:11]. In God we have a grounding for knowledge. In revering Him, we develop wisdom. In applying that wisdom prudently, we have a stable platform to probe the world around us with questions without losing ourselves amidst the uncertainty of our questions. Unlike the skeptic undercutting his own foundations as he tries to build on them, we have a foundation we can build our lives on that can never be undermined. Have you worn yourself out trying to tear things down in the dark mines of skepticism? Would you like to find rest for your soul, rebuilding a new life on the sure foundation of God? Contact me, and let’s talk about it.