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The conversation between Demea, Cleanthes, and Philo begins with a question concerning education: when is it best to begin teaching students theology? Demea argues that theology should only be taught to a mature mind: a student should first study logic, ethics, and physics, and only then should they turn to theology. He has two reasons for preferring this order. First, by studying the other disciples first, the mind is trained and readied for the most difficult subject of all, theology. Second, and more to the point of the Dialogues, he wants his students to first see how very limited philosophy really is. He wants them to see, for instance, that learned men can rarely reach firm conclusions amongst themselves, and that the wisest often come up with the most absurd hypotheses. By revealing the limits of philosophy to his students, Demea believes that he ensures that they will not be so arrogant as to think that they can use reason to overthrow religious beliefs.
Demea's second motivation sounds a great deal like a fideist position. Philo picks up on this fideist strain and expands upon it. He stresses just how weak and limited human reason really is, and also the importance of this realization (i.e. of reason's limits) for piety. Given how frail human reason is, he contends, it is ill-advised to try to apply it to matters as difficult and important as theology.
Cleanthes, of course, is appalled that his two friends are proposing to rest religious faith on philosophical skepticism rather than on reason. He spends the rest of the chapter trying to expose Philo's skepticism as insincere. Philo responds by continually revising his skeptical position into more and more subtle forms. Initially, it sounds as if Philo is claiming that we cannot really believe anything. Cleanthes asks, then, whether he will leave by the door or by the window when they finish their discussion: that is, is he skeptical enough about the laws of gravity that he will leap several stories?
Philo tells Cleanthes that he has mischaracterized his skeptical position: Philo does believe what his reason tells him to believe, but he proportions his belief to the evidence. In areas where we have a great deal of experience, and thus much evidence on which to base our conclusions (areas such as everyday life, morals, politics, trade, jumping out of windows), Philo explains, we can believe strongly in our conclusions. But when it comes to those subjects about which we have no direct experience, such as the formation of the world, or the nature of God, we have no basis on which to rationally justify any of our conclusions. Instead of a very radical claim that we cannot believe anything, Philo is actually making the much more modest claim that we should only believe what we have good evidence to believe, and that we only have good evidence in those areas of knowledge where we have direct experience.
Cleanthes, though, is not satisfied with this modest skeptical claim. He points out that Philo and his skeptical colleagues seem to have no trouble drawing conclusions when it comes to the speculative sciences. For instance, they seem to trust in the conclusions drawn by Newton, Copernicus, and Galileo even though these concern topics very remote from our everyday experience. It is pure prejudice, he declares, that prevents them from allowing the same method of reasoning in theology. If human reason is good enough to justify theoretical scientific theories, in other words, it is good enough to justify theological theories. He concludes by asserting that there is really no difference between a skeptic and an atheist.
Philo defends himself against the claim of atheism, affirming his strong belief in God's existence. However, he points out that religious institutions actually seem to go back and forth in their opinion of skepticism: they embrace skepticism whenever reason seems to threaten their power, and they embrace reason when it becomes the only way to keep their influence.
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