"What embitters the world is not excess of criticism, but an absence of self-criticism." - G.K. Chesterton

Monday, September 24, 2007

More rambling thoughs: the limitations of knowledge

A contributor to the 'Friendly Christian' blog recently made the following comment:

Christians claim to know what happens after they die, even though they haven’t been dead yet. Atheists claim to know nothing happens even though they haven’t been dead yet. Christians can spend hours explaining why they just know there’s a God, Atheists can spend hours explaining why they know there isn’t.

Now... it's possible to spend hours – if not days – debating what exactly we mean by “know”, but I think it fair to say that the above strongly hints at a certain absolutism in the views of both theists and atheists: It's not just that we can justify our beliefs, we're almost (if not completely) positive that they reflect the way the world is.

Such absolutism is rife: How many times have you seen people dismiss opposing views not because they disagree with the arguments put forward, but simply because they disagree? It's a familiar scenario – a contrary view is offered and rather than consider it honest we simply try to prove the other person wrong.

As the US economist John Kenneth Galbraith once eloquently put it:

Faced with the choice between changing one's mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everybody gets busy on the proof.

But for me, atheism has to be almost synonymous with uncertainty: Without access to an omnipotent being what could ever be the basis for absolute claims?

(Not that theism necessarily entails absolutism either – humility is a universal virtue)

Though I believe that the mind deteriorates along with the brain, I ultimately don't know what happens when we die.

Though I consider the evidence for the supernatural to be lacking, my knowledge of the universe probably extends to no more than a minute percentage.

In the last few thousand years – a mere cosmological blink of the eye – our knowledge and understanding of the universe has changed dramatically. The world we live in is vastly different to one our ancestors inhabited. The world our descendants live in will most likely be equally unrecognisable.

The beginning of wisdom, as the saying goes, is the admission of ignorance.

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Blogger Alex said...

Hey Matt,
I'm certainly (no pun intended) in agreeance with you, that there are some legitimate obstacles to the acquisition and verification of knowledge. The further we get from foundational knowledge sets, the more uncertainty we must be willing to live with. But what do we do with our uncertainty? Or, one might ask, what makes us think we need it? The vast majority of our life is lived in the utter absence of certainty.

So here we are. I'm not certain and neither are you, yet we have been going on for nearly a year now. I've come to see that the Christian meta-narritive (in spite of it's lack of an exhaustive explanation for curious minds) seems to me to make the most sense of the lives we wish to lead. You seem to feel that blind natural processes best explain our lives. That's the big divergence.

At the same time you and I have continued to point towards a standard of mutual respect and honest questioning of cherished beliefs. I'm sure you'd agree that our friendship is more important than proving a point. You rightly abhor systems that restrict individuals right to choose the direction of their own lives. You've stood up for me on other forms when there was nothing compelling you to jump in. You are searching to know as much as you can about your place in this universe... and so am I.

I don't know about you, but I can feel that there's something real going on here and it has nothing to do with certainty.

8:04 PM

Blogger Just Thinking said...

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8:28 PM

Blogger Crushed by Ingsoc said...

It is interesting that as a Catholic, I generally find myself agreeing with the thrust of Matt's positon here.

Except that I do think we are almostr there on understanding the processes of the universe in full.

7:24 AM

Blogger revvvvvvvd said...

Knowledge = Justified true belief. Gettier counterexamples notwithstanding, if counterexamples they be.

Fully toeing the Alan Musgrave's line (Did you get around to reading that book?), I'm going with the sceptics on the impossibility of this one.

But this doesn't mean we can't be rational. All our beliefs, scientific or metaphysical should are and should be tentative. Are the atheists more consistently tentative than the theists?

Historically, probably. Calvin, for instance, spoke at great length about certainty. Similarly, many evangelical Christians go around asking, "If you died tonight do you KNOW you'll go to Heaven?" Problems with talking about Heaven like that aside, there is the quest for certainty. As a psychologist,it is certainly of interest to me whether or not religious belief is motivated by such a desire to have certainty over existentially significant ideas. My 4th year thesis builds up from this hypothesis, and looks at what that might mean for humour appreciation in religious v. non-religious people. But I digress.

While I think Christians are generally more dogmatic than non-believers, I'm not sure this is true if the distinction is made between Christians and ATHEISTS. And I think that sociological nugget is a red herring. The question is whether or not Christian faith need be more dogmatic than atheism. I submit humbly: No.

All knowledge, or belief (if you prefer a weaker term) is tentative, Christian or otherwise. Nothing in Christian doctrine necessitates dogmatism. We believe in life after death because we believe it reasonable to do so. But we are wary that we might be wrong. Atheists do not believe in life after death because they believe there is insufficient evidence, or because they think there is evidence against. The fact that no one's (arguable) been dead and back is another red herring. Eye witness testimony is not the only form of evidence there is.

3:24 PM

Blogger Linda said...

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6:33 AM

Blogger Linda said...

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11:34 AM


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