A scene in Terry Gilliam’s 2005 film, The Brothers Grimm, depicts a general in Napoleon’s armies who gets his battalion to surround a “supposedly” enchanted forest and begin to burn it, while the local German populace looks on, horrified. Everything about this scene is carefully set out to make a statement – you can’t find a more pointed representation of Enlightenment modernist philosophy than the French Revolutionary Army. When they see the local peasants terrified, they laugh at their superstitious naivety. Gilliam’s point here is that it is not the peasants that are naïve – it’s the modernists. The peasants know – and so do we, the audience – that the forest really is enchanted. By the end of the film, so do the French army.
This scene gives shape and colour to an idea strangely attractive to the modern mind: the assumption that to believe in something is somehow inherently naïve, but to be sceptical is somehow inherently intelligent. I’m not the only one who gets frustrated by this – philosopher Dallas Willard wrote:
We live in a culture that has, for centuries now, cultivated the idea that the skeptical person is always smarter than one who believes. You can be almost as stupid as a cabbage, as long as you doubt. The fashion of the age has identified mental sharpness with a pose, not with genuine intellectual method and character… Today it is the skeptics who are the social conformists, though because of powerful intellectual propaganda they continue to enjoy thinking of themselves as wildly individualistic and unbearably bright.
The irony is that automatic scepticism is a perversion of the noble empiricism that has been such a useful contribution from the Enlightenment: namely, that it’s usually a good idea to withhold acceptance of something until you have reasonable evidence for it – thanks John Locke, great point. The problem is that there are several reasons why we might not have reasonable evidence for something – and only one of those reasons is that the object of investigation is not real. It could also be because we haven’t found the evidence, even though it exists – “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”. And we might not have the evidence because we’re unlucky, we’re poorly equipped, we’re not smart enough to find it, or because we simply don’t want to. Often the reason we aren’t sure of something isn’t about its reality, it’s about our will to accept its reality. But if we throw a wry smile when we deny it, it’s amazing how smart we can seem.
Of course, post-modernity (or hyper-modernity) has turned scepticism into an art form. But it’s an ugly art. The frustrating thing about this is that it actually squashes the Enlightenment’s main intention – discovery. Empiricism was designed to bring the reality “to light”: John Locke said, “I attribute the little I know to my not having been ashamed to ask for information, and to my rule of conversing with all descriptions of men on those topics that form their own peculiar professions and pursuits.” But the contemporary scepticism often discourages the discovery the reality, by suggesting that apathetic ignorance is actually intelligence. When we don’t bother to do the research to find a reality that does exist, it’s not the believers that are naïve, it’s us.
Locke’s quote also points to the other contribution this scepticism stifles – discussion. That’s actually what Christians and empiricists – true empiricists – both want. I for one invite all of us to discussion with the purpose of discovery – we might not find an enchanted forest, but we might find something truer and greater.