Friday, May 4, 2012

Hoisted on Their Own Petard

Intellectual honesty and humility in the face of the unknown seem to recommend agnosticism rather than an explicit atheism, since the latter, too, claims to know too much about these things and clearly has a dogmatic element of its own. No one can claim to ‘know’, strictly speaking, that God does not exist. One can at most take his non-existence as a working hypothesis, on the basis of which one then tries to explain the universe. Modern science basically takes this line.

Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures,  84-5

Reflection – Well, back to philosophy! I’ve had quite a long stint on the blog with theology and spirituality (and rightly so), but it’s good to have the bracing clarity of logical reflection and philosophical rigor once in a while.

I’ve blogged this section of this book quite a bit, Ratzinger’s long exposition of agnosticism, atheism, and religious faith, and his argument in favor of the latter. Here, of course he is not so much critiquing agnosticism (that comes later in the essay), as pointing out atheism’s inherent epistemological overreach.

Episte… what? Epistemology is the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature, processes, and limits of human knowledge. What can we know and how do we know it are the basic questions of epistemology.

So the atheist critiques religious belief as a claim to knowledge based on insufficient evidence. We cannot ‘know’ there is a God in the same way that I know I am typing on a lap-top computer right now and you know you are reading these words right now. We have no such direct immediate and inarguable experience that corresponds to the reality ‘God’.

But of course the converse holds true as well. To claim absolute knowledge of God’s existence and to claim knowledge of his non-existence are equally specious. And so, at least at this juncture of the essay, agnosticism seems to be the more credible choice. Ratzinger goes on to show that this is not a satisfactory resolution to the matter, and you can click on the ‘agnosticism’ label at the bottom of this post to examine his reasoning on the subject.

Meanwhile, however, the atheist and the theist seem to be in the same boat (neither of them liking it much), claiming knowledge of things we have no right to. Epistemological overreach—it’s like the common cold! Everyone’s got it.

But is this true? While atheism is a big subject, as is theism, a little bigger and more complex than this wee blog post can exhaust, it seems to me that atheists are hoisted on their own petard on this matter, while theists have a way of resolving the conundrum. Atheism, strictly speaking, if it is going to argue for God’s non-existence as opposed to simply assuming it (a la Sartre or Comte), is committed to argument by strict logical positivist or scientific methods. Direct observation, experimentation, and verification under laboratory conditions—that kind of thing.

But by those criteria, God cannot be disproved. The most one could say, strictly logically, is that evidence for God has not been furnished by these methods. But then, neither has evidence for love, friendship, patriotism, justice, and a host of other crucial and invaluable human goods that few atheists and fewer yet theists would want to discard. If we do not discard these ‘unprovable’ human goods, then we cannot (by strict logical consistency) discard the notion of God, either.

Theists, meanwhile, will grant freely that God’s existence is not ‘known’ in the same immediate direct way that we know sensible objects. But we are not committed to a theory of knowledge that limits us to that kind of direct knowledge. Theists are not logical positivists, nor do we grant for one minute that such logical positivism is the only or even the most credible epistemological theory.
It is well beyond the scope of a blog post (and my own philosophical credentials, to be strictly honest!) to untangle and expound all the issues surrounding this.

Final word: atheism sets a theory and a threshold for knowledge which excludes atheism itself as an acceptable stance, and so collapses into, literally, nonsense. Theism does not advance a theory and threshold of knowledge that excludes its own claims, and so remains standing as a credible position. And that’s enough philosophy for one day…

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