Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Logical Implications of "God as Being Itself."

The conceptualization of God as 'Being Itself' was, to my knowledge, first proposed by theologian Paul Tillich in the early 20th Century. It has been brought to my knowledge by a thoughtful blogger, discussant, and professional theologian with the pseudonym Metacrock (metacrock.blogspot.com). If you can get through his posts (sorry, Meta, your writing style is a bit... difficult), you'll find that they are extremely intelligent in nature and they actually pose even greater challenges to non-believers than the arguments of more well-known Christian apologists. His conception of God is fairly unique and has required substantial thought for me to comprehend it in a manner that enables me to write about it.

When it is said that God is defined as "Being Itself," it is meant in opposition to the idea that God is actually a being, that is a distinct entity that is what Metacrock refers to as "the big man in the sky" concept of God. So, according to Tillich and by extension Meta, God is not a being. But, if God is not a being, what exactly is He? How can a definition of God be meaningful without being a being? These questions seem to me to be serious problems of this view, especially to professed Christians like Metacrock, who hold onto the idea of a personal God.
First, we must understand the difference between entities and properties. An entity is "a thing with a distinct and independent existence," whereas a property is "an attribute, quality, or characteristic of something" (New Oxford American Dictionary). They are related in the sense that entities have properties and if something has properties, it is an entity. Properties are not entities, and entities are not properties, although we are required to define entities by their properties. This is a very important concept to grasp, because many times the syntax of a sentence does not make this distinction for us. Take, for example, the sentence, "The sky is blue." Most every English speaking person would understand what is being conveyed by this sentence. What it truly means is that the sky has the property of being blue. But, it could be interpreted incorrectly as "The sky and blue are synonyms." This, of course, is incorrect, and there is a category error involved in the logic behind the statement. "The sky" is an entity, whereas "blue" is a property. They cannot be the same thing.
The distinction between the conceptualization of God as "a being" and God as "Being Itself" is that the former treats God as a specific entity and the latter treats God as a specific property. A being is a type of entity, namely an animate one. The concept of God as "a being" holds that God is an entity with whatever properties the conceptualizer claims God to have. It is worth mentioning that this concept is not limited to the view that God is a "big man in the sky," as God doesn't need to be thought of as a being with a physical body or even a spatial existence. It just requires us to view God as a thing with properties. The concept that God is "Being Itself," however, does just the opposite — requiring us to view God as a essential property of all things as opposed to a thing itself.
"Being Itself" is an essential property of all entities. It, to the best of my understanding, can be defined as the property of existing. All entities must exist, by definition, and therefore, all entities have the property of existing. This makes the logical necessity of God seem self-evident, as the following syllogism demonstrates:
  1. God is the property of existing.
  2. Entities exist.
  3. Therefore, God is.
The very fact that anything exists is enough to demonstrate that this conceptualization of God is factually true. If God is "Being Itself," then God is, although I'd struggle to say that God exists, and I would also say that it's nothing more than defining God into being by removing any meaningfulness of the word, much like the concept that "God is love" does. 

First, there is an inherent confusion when declaring that a property exists. What is really more correct is to say that an entity exists that has that property. Thus, if God is Being Itself (the property of existing), then it's not really correct to say that God exists, but instead it is more correct to say that all things which exist share the property known as God. 
Second, the idea that God is a property as opposed to an entity leads one to realize that God cannot have properties. Only entities have properties. God cannot be conscious or personal any more than the property "blue" can be salty. Properties cannot have properties, but instead can only be or not be the case in relation to an entity. Therefore, despite the fact that "God as Being Itself" must be, it cannot do anything other than be, and thus any real meaning behind the word is eliminated. This concept of God ultimately leads one to hold that God nothing more than an impersonal, unconscious, purposeless, emotionless, uncaring, albeit necessary state of affairs. So, where the concept of "God as a being" is meaningful, but is not supported by either logical necessity or empirical evidence, the concept of "God as Being Itself" is supported by logical necessity, but is devoid of all relevant meaning. This seems to be a prevailing theme in theology — a complete inability to have your cake and eat it too. 

Friday, March 11, 2011

Questioning Self-Interest

As a skeptic, I often find myself questioning my own intuitions. It's a very healthy thing to do, in my opinion. Physicist Richard Feynman once mused, "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself -- and you are the easiest person to fool." Our intuitions are subject to all sorts of personal biases that have been ingrained in us by genetics and experience, mostly unbeknownst to us, and therefore don't necessarily have any truth behind them. Instead, they do little but serve our desire to pursue our own interests.

As a matter of fact, humans are self-interested. That's just the way it is. And, yes, to a large extent, most human behavior can be descriptively summed up as either a product or byproduct of adaptive evolution. I fully admit that this includes most moral behavior as well. People generally act according to the desires of others because it is within their interest to do so. The point of this post is not to deny this most basic fact, but instead it is to question whether bowing to self-interest is reasonably valid.

Acting in one's self-interest seems intuitively reasonable, but I believe that this is nothing more a product of a very strong bias. There is nothing reasonable about considering your own interests whilst not considering the interests of others. If this is correct, it at least puts a selfless person on equal rational footing with a selfish person. But, I think it can be demonstrated that being selfless is in fact more reasonable than being selfish.

A selfless person views the world in a more impartial manner. Where the selfish person only considers his own interests, the selfless person considers the whole scope of interests when choosing a course of action. He takes more variables into account, and sees himself as but one conscious being in an entire society of beings, all having interests of their own. He understands that, just as he values his own interests, others do the same, and that his own interests are no more intrinsically important than another's. 

This, to me, is a much more reasonable position to take. It is the difference between blindly bowing to the external and biological forces that forged you, and actually applying critical thought to how you ought to act. It's the difference between being little more than a dog tied to a cart and being a freethinking individual.

Monday, March 7, 2011

What is Happiness?

Happiness has been foundational to ethics all the way back to Socrates, who believed that virtue was the greatest good, and that virtue was necessary for true happiness. This was later emulated by the Stoics, such as Epictetus, who argued that virtue was sufficient for happiness. The Cyrenianics and Epicureans both bypassed virtue and embraced a truly hedonistic ethical philosophy, where pleasure is the only good and is sufficient for happiness. All these ethical perspectives assume one thing -- that happiness, for some reason, is good. They all seem to suggest that something else is good in that it is a means to happiness.

Every ethical philosophy since then has at least something to say about happiness. Agreed, many have become ascetic, but I know of no ethical philosophy embraced by any that embraces asceticism for any other reason than to preserve happiness in either this life or the next. The utilitarian philosophers are clearly the most obvious modern proponents of happiness as the foundation of ethics, whereas Kant and other deontologists are probably the most obvious objectors to the idea, and usually replace it with duty and a respect for dignity or another seemingly independent and altogether desirable state of being besides happiness. This issue of whether or not a state of being can be both desirable and separable from happiness is fully worthy of a discussion of its own, but right now I want to focus on what happiness is, and what makes it so important in terms of ethics.

We all know what it feels like to be happy, but that doesn't mean it is necessarily an easy thing to define. The biggest obstacle in defining the term is that different states are experienced as "happiness" by different people. One person may be happy whilst getting whipped, while I would certainly not find that a state with which to be happy. But, there does seem to be a couple of key characteristics of any state in which any person would claim to be happy -- and they are the satisfaction of desires and a sense of tranquility.

First and foremost, for someone to be happy, the indulgence in and satisfaction of at least some desires is necessary. It seems impossible for someone to be happy whilst their most basic needs are left unsatisfied for long periods of time. A starving person is miserable and cannot do anything to improve that state until he has adequate nourishment. The same goes for the thirsty and the freezing. If you are not content and satisfied, you are an unhappy person. Even the Stoic's recognized this, despite believing the contrary in theory. In his Discourses, Epictetus poses the question, "Who then is a Stoic?" He tells his audience to show him "a man moulded to the pattern of the judgements that he utters, ... who is sick and yet happy, in peril and yet happy, dying and yet happy, in exile and happy, in disgrace and happy" (Discourses, Ch. XIX). He fully admits that you will find no one of the sort.

Something is still missing from the ingredients to happiness, as if one merely sought to satisfy each and every desire, one would likely be in a state that wasn't anything close to what one means by "happy." It would be the state in which the Cyrenianics pursued. But, happiness is almost certainly more complex than that, as a thoughtful reader should realize. People who seek satisfaction on a whim are often the least happy in that they are easily disturbed when their desires fail to be indulged. Instead, happiness is far more tempered and tranquil than that. It requires that one is relatively free from disturbances of any sort. Epicurus is perhaps the one ancient philosopher that I believe is closest to the concept of happiness that I am proposing. He taught that "pleasure is our first and kindred good," but that we "often pass over many pleasures when a greater annoyance ensues from them" and "consider pains superior to pleasures when submission to the pains for a long time brings us as a consequence a greater pleasure" (Letter to Menoeceus). In other words, the satisfaction of desires is the foundation of happiness, but we will avoid certain pleasures because they inevitably cause disturbances that cause us to be unhappy in the long run. 

So, happiness requires that we feel both satisfied and tranquil at the same time, and is thus more or less the maintenance of a balance between a Stoic sense of calm and a hedonistic sense of indulgence. This is what happiness is, and as a matter of fact, it is deemed desirable by all those that have the even remotest ability to attain it. It is this very fact, that happiness is desirable (and, in fact, impossible not to desire), that makes it so ethically relevant.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Problem of Sin

I've come to the conclusion that the Problem of Evil is far too open to interpretation by believers to make them realize the actual logical problem involved. They can merely say that atheists do not have a definitive definition of "evil," which seems to be a sufficient rationalization for many. Christians tend to think of the argument as something attune to, "God lets bad things happen, therefore he doesn't exist," which simply isn't the case. It's meant to demonstrate an inherent contradiction in the Christian concept of God without any non-Christian definition of "evil" being necessary. So, I've decided to couch the argument in terms of the Christian concept of sin. Sin is generally what Christians mean when they talk of evil, and it is what non-believers mean as well when they use the Problem of Evil correctly. My argument utilizes the idea that sin is an action that is against God's will. That's not to say that that's all sin is, but that it's a fundamental aspect of what sin is. To say that X is a sin, it is to say that God disapproves of X, or that God wills or desires not-X.
My argument also assumes a concept of God that at least incorporates basic ideas of omnipotence, omniscience, and intentionality. By saying that God is omnipotent, I simply mean that He can at least actualize that which He wills and prevent the actualization of that which He does not will. By saying that God is omniscient, I simply mean that He can at least fully understand what will be actualized by his action or inaction, as well as what will be actualized by the action or inaction of beings that he created. By saying that God is intentional, I simply mean that God acts deliberately to bring about that which He wills, and prevent that which he does not will. And, by "Christianity," I mean a construct that at least incorporates this concept of God as well as the concept of sin mentioned above.
That being said, here's my argument:
  1. Sin is an action that is against God's will. [Premise]
  2. God can actualize what he wills, and can prevent the actualization of that which he does not will. (IOW, God is omnipotent) [Premise]
  3. God knows fully what will be actualized through His action or inaction, or through the action or inaction of a being that he created. (IOW, God is omniscient) [Premise]
  4. God seeks to actualize what he wills, and prevent what he does not will. (IOW, God acts intentionally) [Premise]
  5. Therefore, God will actualize that which he wills, and prevent that which he does not will. [2, 3, 4]
  6. Corollary: Everything that is actualized is what God wills. [5]
  7. If God exists, sin cannot exist. [1, 6]
  8. Christianity incorporates the concept of God and sin. [Premise]
  9. Therefore, Christianity is false. [7, 8]

God Did Not Inspire the Bible

Some Mistakes of Moses by Robert G. Ingersoll is one of my favorite books. It's a very interesting read given that it smacks of “New Atheism” but was first published in 1879 (it just goes to show you that there is nothing new and different about the New Atheism). I mention this because the logic behind this argument is from the book, although I've reworked it a little and put it into a more formal arrangement. It's an argument that attempts to demonstrate the extreme improbability, if not impossibility, of the Bible being divinely inspired. What’s especially great about this argument is that it should address both Biblical literalists and non-literalists alike. 
  1. God is (a) omniscient, (b) omnipotent, (c) purposeful, and (d) honest.
  2. If God inspired a book, (a) He would know how his words would be interpreted [1a], (b) He would be able to convey His will clearly [1b], and (c) His book would be interpreted in the exact manner he intended [1c].
  3. The Bible is far from clear as to how it should be interpreted or even whether it is true, evidenced in the fact that throughout the history of Judaism and Christianity it has been interpreted by countless different sects in countless different ways, viewed by members of other religions to be void of inspiration, been met with skepticism by countless skeptics (and increasingly so since the rise of modern civilization and rational thought), and been used to both support and condemn slavery, polygamy, individual liberties, etc.
  4. If God inspired the Bible, he meant for it to convey His Will in such an ambiguous manner. [2, 3]
  5. Therefore, God would have intended to mislead countless people into believing falsehoods and disbelieving truths. [3, 4]
  6. Therefore, God did not inspire the Bible. [1d, 5]

The Bible is obviously an imperfect means of conveying the will of a divine being, considering that in the centuries that it’s been around, you can barely find two people that agree completely on their interpretation of it. Most philosophers, who are mere mortals mind you, write in a manner that is far less open to personal interpretation than the Bible. They say what they mean, and the readers can understand what they say without much, if any, confusion or disagreement. If men and women can do this, why shouldn’t we expect the same from God? Why shouldn’t we just conclude that such a pitifully vague book is the work of primitive men as opposed to a perfect being?

Did God Create a Perfect World?

It is a commonly held Christian belief that the state of the world today, complete with pain, suffering, and sin, is a result of man's disobedience towards God, and not resultant from a faulty design. This is, in fact, one of the primary arguments against the Problem of Evil put forward by preeminent Christian apologists like William Lane Craig. Genesis 1:31 explains that God viewed His creation as "very good." It can only be assumed that an all-powerful, all-knowing being would hold high standards for Himself, to the extent that His creation would need to be perfect in order for Him to be proud enough to exclaim that it is "very good." After all, anything short of perfection for a perfect being is, well, a bit lazy.
But, how good was God's creation? Clearly, to a reasonable person, a bit short of perfection. The very fact that the world could be made imperfect by the actions of man demonstrates that it was not in fact perfect, and thus short of God's full potential. A world that cannot be sullied is demonstrably closer to perfection than a world that can be made imperfect. God, being omnipotent, could easily create a world that is incapable of being sullied, even while preserving free will. Therefore, if, for the sake of argument, we assume the theistic position to be true, God could be deemed to be at fault and ought to take the blame for at least most of the evils in this world.

Anselm's Ontological Argument, A Refutation

Anselm of Canterbury was the first to attempt an ontological argument for the existence of God, which is an attempt at an a priori proof for His existence. The following is Anselm’s argument:
  1. God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived.
  2. God may exist in the understanding.
  3. To exist in reality and in the understanding is greater than to exist in the understanding alone.
  4. Therefore, God exists in reality.
Frankly, this argument always annoyed me because I knew it was fallacious but couldn't really find the fallacy. In Bertrand Russel's words, "The argument does not, to a modern mind, seem very convincing, but it is easier to feel convinced that it must be fallacious than it is to find out precisely where the fallacy lies." The argument is simple and it has the facade of following logically from one step to the other, but as I will demonstrate it simply does not.
The fallacy behind this simple, concise little argument is a use-mention error in the second proposition (2). The use-mention error is a type of category error where you fail to make the distinction between the concept and that which the concept is referring. In the second proposition, Anselm is not talking about God (the alleged being), but "God" (the concept of the alleged being). 
What Anselm did was try to demonstrate the existence of God through the existence of "God." They are in fact two separate things (which Anselm equivocates), and thus the argument does not follow.

Does Naturalism Lead to Absurdism?

Absurdism is a school of thought that deals with the purported contradiction between humanity's tendency to search for an inherent meaning in life and our inability to find one. It's the idea that there is no inherent purpose in life, that life is ultimately objectively meaningless, and that any claim to life having an inherent meaning is absurd. 

The most accessible outline of an absurdist worldview that I can think of is Kurt Vonnegut's classic novel Slaughterhouse-Five, in which the main character Billy Pilgrim is "unstuck in time," experiencing his outlandish life out of chronological order. With the help of an alien race known as thTralfamadorians that experience time in much the same way we experience space, he notices that specific events happen simply because things are structured in such a way that they must happen that way. Free will, therefore, is entirely illusory in this fatalistic view. The basic premise of the entire book can be summed up in Vonnegut's response to every single death in the book: "So it goes." I think Vonnegut's point is that death follows from a natural course of events that are inalterable and out of our control. This is how I think he has come to terms with what he saw during the bombing of Dresden in World War II. This, at least to me, provides a sense of stoical comfort to existence. The absurdist would say that things happen because they must, and it's more rational to accept that and find solace and happiness where we can instead of hiding in an illusion of inherent meaningfulness. I don't know if that's true, though.

I don't think this question can be answered with any degree of certainty, at least currently. I completely admit that we may live in a truly absurd world, void of inherent meaning and completely devoid of free will. I can come to terms with that. However, I have something that Billy Pilgrim and the Tralfamadorians do not have: uncertainty. That makes the difference, really. It's strange, but it's actually uncertainty in what's to come that allows us to feel fulfilled and content in our existence. Billy Pilgrim and his abductors could never feel a sense of awe or wonder. They could never be mystified because nothing seems mystical. Everything can be predicted; there are no surprises. For the rest of us, being able to do so makes all the difference between a meaninglessness and purpose. And, as long as we have uncertainty, this question is entirely academic.

Empathy's Role in Moral Reasoning

I rarely cry for my own sake. What I do cry over is the suffering of others. I can stoically bare my own grief with almost no problems whatsoever, but as soon as I see a mother crushed under the weight of her grief for her son that passed away, I can bare it no longer. This is wholly due to my capacity to empathize, the ability to understand and share feelings with another. Empathy works in a very interesting way, actually causing us to feel the pain and sorrow of others we come into contact with. When we see someone in pain, the same parts of our brain that are associated with actually feeling that pain become active.¹
This is almost certainly an adaptive trait, forged over millions of years of evolution in order to foster social interactions between individuals that benefit our "selfish" genes. But, even though the "motives" behind empathy are selfish, we can in fact hijack this useful capacity and use it as a tool for our own purposes, namely moral reasoning. 
Empathy is not the foundation of moral reasoning. The foundation must be reason itself, in my opinion, and not a subjective emotional response to stimuli. But, interestingly enough, I think that empathy, even though it is purely affective, actually can be an extremely useful tool for objective moral reasoning. Empathy informs us that another's misery and happiness is as valuable as our own in a very tangible manner. It is a window that allows us to look outside our scope of self-interest and peer, however imperfectly, into a truly impartial world where misery is miserable and happiness is joyous, no matter who experiences it. This is something that could only be done in the abstract without the capacity to empathize, which explains why most sociopaths don't see things this way. They lack this extremely valuable tool, and are thus forced to live inside their scope of self-interest, with not a single window of which to look out.
I, for one, am glad I can look out the window, even though it makes me cry sometimes.

On the equivocation between distinct definitions of OBJECTIVE and SUBJECTIVE

It almost pains me to enter into a discussion of semantics, but alas I think I must. The topic of whether morality is objective or subjective is an important issue, but very few people actually spend time on what they mean when they state that morality is objective or subjective, which definitely confuses the issue, given that there are two completely different objective/subjective dichotomies that could be relevant to a debate on morality.
Dichotomy 1
OBJECTIVE - not dependent on the mind for existence; actual
SUBJECTIVE - dependent on the mind or on an individual's perception for its existence
Dichotomy 2
OBJECTIVE - (of a person or their judgment) not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts
SUBJECTIVE - based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions
(New Oxford American Dictionary)
Dichotomy 1 seems to be the one used most by moral subjectivists.  When using Dichotomy 1, it is hardly arguable that morality is or could be objective. But, it's not really a victory for moral subjectivists, because using this dichotomy, it is hard to argue that any field of human thought is objective. Mathematics, for instance, is solely dependent upon a mind that defined the values of the various symbols. "1+1=2" is only true because a mind defines (1), (+), (=), and (2) in such a way that it is coherent. The same goes for other forms of logic (and thus anything that applies logic, i.e. science), which are all based on axiomatic systems that require a mind to relate different ideas in a coherent manner. 
What is clear, it seems, is that to have any useful discussion, we ought to use Dichotomy 2, given that I think we can all bow to the arguments posed in favor of subjectivity in Dichotomy 1. For the discussion to be meaningful, we must discuss whether or not personal feelings, taste, and opinions can be transcended in order to develop a coherent, reasonable, universally binding ethical system.

The Purpose of Ethics

The purpose of ethics, that is the study of morality, is something that we do not often discussed. Instead, we usually make moral arguments that are founded on the presupposition that everyone knows what a moral argument seeks to argue. That, I believe, is not useful, and I think it's important to start with a discussion on the nature of morality itself, as opposed to what is moral and immoral. 
Ethics, being the study of morality, concerns itself with discovering the difference between right and wrong, between oughts and ought nots, between desirable and undesirable, between good and bad. It should not surprise you that all four of these dichotomies are in fact the same exact thing. We ought to do right because it is desirable and good, and we ought not do wrong because it is undesirable and bad. The syntax of that sentence can be arranged in many ways without changing the essential meaning. Why is something right? Because we ought to do it; because it is desirable; because it is good. Why ought we do something? Because it is right; because it is desirable to do so; because it is good. Why is something desirable? Because it is right; because we ought to do it; because it is good. Why is something good? Because it is right; because we ought to do it; because it is desirable. And so it goes. All these words mean the same thing, and it is hard to explain one without using the others. I can only assume that the thoughtful reader has a sense of what these words are referring to in fact. 
This, to me, is a major hang up when discussing ethical questions. People choose different words to describe the same thing, and then end up in disagreement further down the road. Many Christians, for example, do not believe that what is right and wrong is the same as what is (intuitively) desirable and undesirable. But, what is really the case is that they believe certain things are more desirable than other things. They believe, for instance, that obedience to God is more desirable than the pleasure one would get from premarital sex. To them, obedience to God is either desirable in and of itself, desirable as a means to another desirable thing (i.e. heaven), or both. It's much the same for the hedonist that indulges every whim, only opposite. They might say that they think desire is more important than what's right, but what they are really saying is that they believe that base pleasure is more desirable than virtue, or that virtue isn't desirable at all. Now that we hopefully have this problem of semantics resolved, we can actually approach the purpose of ethics itself. 
The purpose of ethics is to find an end or ends of reasonable action, or discover if such an end or ends exist. These ends must be right in and of themselves, good in and of themselves, desirable in and of themselves, and they ought to be pursued in and of themselves. If we say that something is good, right, desirable, or ought to be pursued, then it must either be a means to such an end, an end in itself, or both.

What a Skeptic Requires to Believe in God

An empirical skeptic can be described as someone who does not believe in anything that can be considered superfluous. Given two constructs of equal explanatory power, we are more apt to accept the construct that makes the fewest unnecessary assumptions as the most likely. 
In the case of the question of whether or not there is a divine creator or not, we have two general constructs.
"The universe exists."
"The universe exists and was created by a divine deity."
We can see that the first construct is the simplest, and is thus the default position for any skeptic. Notice, the default position is not, "The universe exists and was not created by a divine deity," but just that the universe exists and the idea of a divine creator is subject to doubt. A person that is skeptical of the existence of God maintains this default position. So, the question is, what is necessary for a skeptic to move past the default position and come closer to accepting the existence of God, or any claim for that matter?
The answer is observations that, when analyzed, demonstrate that the more complex construct has greater explanatory power than the simpler one. These observations analyzed observations are better known as evidence. In order to demonstrate this, the analysis of these observations must be such that it puts the construct through a test, where predictions can be made based upon the construct and observations can demonstrably either lend support or refute it. It's a brute fact of human inquiry that in order to ascertain that an idea may be true, that we can conceive of and possibly observe circumstances that would render the idea false. 
So, in short, what a skeptic requires to move towards belief in God is testable evidence that is far better explained by the existence of God than it could be otherwise. I have yet to hear of any phenomena, including near death experiences, mystical experiences, religious revelations, 'answered' prayers, etc., that are better explained by the existence of God or supernatural forces as opposed to far simpler explanations. In fact, I would argue that most concepts of God are untestable, and thus cannot meet the requirements of belief for a skeptic.

Inductive Reasoning vs. Faith

Many religious people tend to argue that non-religious, skeptical individuals have as much faith in their beliefs as they do theirs. This, I think, is a misunderstanding around the means that a skeptic incorporates certain beliefs into their belief system. Most of a skeptic's knowledge is accumulated through inductive reasoning. Inductive reasoning is the process of deriving general principles from specific instances or observations. It is uncertain, and only deals in probability as opposed to certainty, but it is nonetheless a powerful tool in acquiring useful, meaningful knowledge. And, to people unfamiliar with it, it appears a bit like faith instead of an application of critical thought.
The key difference between inductive reasoning and faith is that inductive reasoning is based upon statistical probabilities when having "faith in something" implies that there is no real reason other than an emotional or 'spiritual' apprehension to believe in it. Take, for instance, the inductive principle "lead sinks in water at STP (standard temperature and pressure)." What this is really saying is, "based upon an extensive amount of past data being consistent and unchanging in confirming the general principle 'lead sinks in water at STP,' it is probable to the highest degree that new observations will continue to confirm this as a generally applicable principle." Since that's quite a mouthful, the short hand version is a bit easier to use in regular conversation. But, as we can see, the long-hand version takes absolutely no faith, just a rather basic understanding of statistical probabilities. Predicting that a specific instance will result in lead floating in water at STP is simply as silly as betting on number 39 when playing roulette (the wheel only goes to 38). The odds are so stacked against it that it is entirely unreasonable to believe it, and thus entirely reasonable to believe the contrary -- that lead will sink, and that the roulette wheel will land on a number ranging from 0-38 (or 00). No faith required.

Skepticism - “Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence”

Many people who are not familiar with skepticism are introduced to it through the rather vague remark that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." What many of these individuals do not realize is that the idea of something being "extraordinary" to a skeptic has a bit more meaning than it does to the general public. Although this may seem obvious to any diligent student of skepticism, I doubt that much of the general public has read David Hume, or even Carl Sagan for that matter. So, here I will try to give a brief introduction on what a skeptic means when he uses these terms. 
First and foremost, almost anyone you run into that happens to call themselves a skeptic will likely be what's known as a empirical (or scientific) skeptic, that is they question the validity of claims that lack empirical evidence. As far as I know, this line of thinking has much of its roots in the writings of David Hume, and is spelled out explicitly in his empiricist tome An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Empirical skeptics accept the epistemological view that contingent claims (claims dealing with the way things are in fact) cannot be verified through deduction alone, but can only be instead verified by experience. For example, an empirical skeptic would say that for us to conclude that lead sinks in water is not a product of logical necessity, but instead it is our experience of that fact that leads us to the conclusion that it in fact sinks. 
This, however, illuminates a problem, known as the problem of induction. According to Hume, we develop a sense of how things are in fact through induction (deriving principles from specific instances) as opposed to deduction (deriving specific instances from principles), but induction is inherently imperfect as a means of acquiring knowledge. Where a conclusion necessarily follows from its premises in deductive reasoning, that is not the case with induction. This leaves us with an inherent uncertainty in the validity of all contingent claims. Going back to our example, we must conclude that just because our experience is that lead sinks in water does not necessarily mean that that is always the case. The descriptive principle, "lead sinks in water," is tentative and by no means certainly true. In the empiricist's view, however, the more a principle is confirmed by experience, the more certain we can become of its validity. We can reasonably expect that lead will sink in water because it has always done so in the past.
So, in this context, an "extraordinary claim," as opposed to being a mere claim to the unusual, is the complete opposite of this sort of empirically supported claim. It is a claim that isn't confirmed by experience, and may even be contradicted by it. The claim, "lead floats in water," is an extraordinary claim. That is not a matter of subjective opinion, but a statement that our cumulative experience, mainly our extensive understanding of physics, contradicts this claim. Disregarding trickery or other extraneous variables, lead sinks in water every time anyone tries to test it.
So, when a skeptic says that Jesus rising from dead is an extraordinary claim, we are actually pointing to the body of evidence produced by the study of human physiology, as well as our cumulative experience that people stay dead after being dead for three days. 
The next step is to establish what an empirical skeptic means by “extraordinary evidence.” Extraordinary evidence is empirical evidence that meets the rigors of the scientific method. There are a few basic criteria for this type of evidence: it must be testable, falsifiable, and robust. The first two are so intertwined that they are hard to separate from one another in an explanation.
The concept that ideas need to be tested in order to be justified is the foundation of the scientific method. For, if you can not test an idea, you simply cannot determine if it is true or false. To believe in something without putting it to a proper test is to simply take it on the claimant's say-so. 
A proper test requires that we are able to distinguish between a world where a claim is true and a world where the claim is false. Thus, the principle of falsifiability comes into play. If a claim is falsifiable, that means that there is a possible test for which, if certain conditions are met, that the claim can be discredited. For example, the claim that "all men are immortal," is easily falsified through the observation of a single dead man. If, however, a claim is unfalsifiable, then it cannot be tested. For, a world in which an unfalsifiable claim is true is completely indistinguishable from a world in which it is false. Thus, such claims are entirely worthless, and warrant extreme skepticism.
For example, in A Demon Haunted World, Carl Sagan proposed to his readers that a dragon lived in his garage. When you went to look in his garage, however, he told you that it was an invisible dragon. When you tried to spread flour on the floor to see its footprints, Mr. Sagan explained that the dragon floated. When you tried to detect the heat of the fire that it spewed from its mouth with infrared sensors, he was so kind to explain to you that the fire it breaths is heatless. And, when you finally decided to spray paint the dragon, he told you that it was an incorporeal dragon. In other words, this dragon is completely beyond our detection. Carl Sagan's claim to its existence is not subject to falsification, and to say that such a dragon exists is rather meaningless, because a universe where such a dragon exists is entirely indistinguishable from one that does not. 
The last factor in considering evidence is its robustness. When claim is robust, that means it is supported by an entire body of evidence, and contradicted by little or no evidence. This is important because one specific piece of evidence tends to never point to a single conclusion, but instead is readily open to interpretation and could easily fit with several or even dozens of different hypotheses. It requires not just one single piece of evidence to support a claim, but an entire body, so that all are pointing towards the validity of that claim without mutually supporting any others. An example of a lack of robustness would be alien abduction claims. It's certainly an interesting phenomenon, given the consistency of the experiences between different individuals and the powerful (and quite real) emotional responses to them. However, in them we have a complete lack of robustness, because there are other (more terrestrial) explanations that explain the phenomenon just fine. A combination of sleep paralysis (of which I'm a rather frequent sufferer), hypnagogic hallucinations, aliens in popular culture, and perhaps even effects of magnetic fields on the brain, all explain the phenomenon as well if not better than the idea that aliens are actually visiting Earth and taking human specimens in their sleep. The evidence doesn't only point to the extraordinary claim, and thus less the extraordinary claims are much more likely. 
What we’ve learned is that the principle "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" can be, more formally, written as "Claims that are not confirmed by experience, or contradicted by it, require testable, falsifiable, robust empirical evidence in order to justify them." This is the bread-and-butter of skeptical thought, and once you understand and accept this, you are well on your way to becoming a skeptic.

'The Fine Art of Baloney Detection'

Now that I have presented the difference between skepticism and denialism, I want to clear up what exactly skepticism is. Since he is perhaps one of the greatest champion of skeptical thought and is great at demonstrating ideas in a way that is easily understood, I will be borrowing much from Carl Sagan (specifically his chapter in The Demon-Haunted World of the same title as this post).

Sagan described skepticism as a Baloney Detection Kit, which contains the tools "to construct, and to understand, a reasoned argument and -- especially important -- to recognize a fallacious or fraudulent argument."

So, what's in the tool kit? There is a list of do’s and a list of don’ts.

Independently confirm the "facts" wherever possible.
Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
Spin more than one hypothesis. If there's something to be explained, think of all the different ways in which it could be explained. Then think of tests by which you might systematically disprove each of the alternatives. What survives, the hypothesis that resists disproof has a much better chance of being the right answer than if you had simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.
Quantify. If whatever it is you're explaining has some measure, some numerical quantity attached to it, you'll be much better able to discriminate among competing hypotheses.
Make sure arguments follow. If there's a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise) -- not just most of them.
Use Occam's Razor. This convenient rule-of-thumb urges us when faced with two hypotheses that explain the data equally well to choose the simpler.
Ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified. Propositions that are untestable, unfalsifiable are not worth much.
Perform controlled experiments wherever possible.

Use arguments from authority, as they carry little weight -- "authorities" have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the future. Perhaps a better way to say it is that in science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts.
Get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it's yours. It's only a way station in the pursuit of knowledge. Ask yourself why you like the idea. Compare it fairly with the alternatives. See if you can find reasons for rejecting it. If you don't, others will.
Use logical fallacies.

So that's the basic gist of skeptical thinking right there. As someone who is rather innately gullible, I find these tools to be extremely useful.

In fact, everyone tends to find use of skeptical thinking in some aspects of their life. For instance, I am currently looking to buy a car. Most people apply skepticism to such an endeavor. For instance, when I go look at a car tomorrow, I'm going to bring my father (who worked as a mechanic for some time) with me because I really don't know a lot about cars, and I know he can ask the right questions and spot anything obviously wrong. This is what skeptics do, but they apply it to more things than just car purchases. They hopefully apply it to religion, economics, politics, and general claims about how our world works.

I can say with reasonable certainty that skepticism works. Science wouldn't be what it is without skepticism (they are really the same thing), and the world simply wouldn't be the same without science. It is that skepticism that breeds valid claims, and rejects invalid ones. Skepticism allows for a meaningful progression of knowledge; knowledge that we can apply to improve not only our understanding of the world around us, but our mastery of it. But, please, don’t take my word for it — try it for yourself.