Sunday, January 07, 2007

Theism, Atheism and Knowledge

I read with interest the debate over legitimate lines of argumentation regarding the existence of God in a Philosophers' Playground comments thread.

One interesting point that Kerry brought up in the thread is the objection to "the assumption that faith is properly thought of in exclusively epistemic terms." While I agree that faith should not be thought of exclusively in terms of how theists say they know things, I'm unpersuaded of the implication that faith should not be thought of at all in terms of knowledge; I think that it is not a "straw man" to consider "faith" in terms of knowledge.

When debating atheists, theists often say, "Atheists have just as much faith as theists," (or variations on this theme). I've been debating theists for many years both on Internet Infidels as well as on no small few religious message boards, and I've seen this theme used by theists a score of times. That theists themselves often raise this theme makes it reasonable to consider the issue of knowledge as relevant to the difference between theism and atheism. I'm also unpersuaded to move the discussion to, as Kerry insists, a more "metaphysical" basis, to consider faith "in terms of life-attitude, interpretive worldview lens, primal relationship with reality, ultimate concern, basic paradigm and so on." What could be more central to one's life-attitude, etc. than one's approach to knowledge? Rather than changing the picture, I think this approach merely buries the issue in jargon.

Is there really a difference between theists' and atheists' beliefs about knowledge? What do atheists actually believe about knowledge? How about theists?

Scientifically-minded atheists believe only what they know; they know only what they directly experience or what is somehow logically and falsifiably justified by what they experience (I use justified by advisably, in a broader sense than derived from); and they have confidence in their knowledge only to the degree that they have carefully justified that knowledge. Even the knowledge that scientists are generally trustworthy is justified by the experience of scientists' statements being experienced as accurate; the experience in this case is the experience of reading or hearing words.

Theists also use the related theme that atheists say they know things about which they are not certain*. This observation is accurate: An Atheist cannot be certain about anything beyond his or her own immediate subjective experience; anything else can be known only provisionally, and is all potentially subject to revision. This stance is intentional and principled: Uncertain knowledge that we can actually have is better than certainty we cannot ever have.

(Of course no atheist actually achieves perfection in this regard; we are human, after all, and susceptible to the same cognitive biases as anyone else. However, we at least think that everything we think we know is justified, and we would consider it an error to be immediately corrected if we found some belief that didn't measure up.)

The questions then become: Do theists believe to be true about God only that which they know? If so, do they know things by insisting on a logical, falsifiable connection to experience? And what's their attitude towards certainty? Note that I'm not going to go into whether atheists' approach to knowledge is better or worse than theists'; I want only to show that they are indeed different.

In my discussions with theists, I've found that there are five main classes of beliefs about God:

  1. They do not believe they can say anything about God which is actually true; they use the word "God" as a metaphor for their opinions and preferences.

  2. They believe particular statements about God to be true, but they do not claim to "know" that such statements are true.

  3. They actually do say that they know things to be true about God, but they say their knowledge is not logically and falsifiably justified by experience.

  4. They claim that their worldview is so far beyond the atheistic and scientific worldview that honest, meaningful communication is impossible.

  5. They know things about God, they believe this knowledge to be logically and falsifiably connected to experience, but on close examination this turns out not to be the case.

Those in the first class are, as I mentioned before, indistinguishable from atheists. If you press such people, though, you'll often find that they will indeed say that some statements about God are true, such as, "God is good," or, "There is a design or purpose to the universe." Which puts them in the second or third classes.

Those in the second and third stance are obviously distinguishable from atheists: Atheists believe to be true only what they know, and they know things based only on experience or connection to experience. If you explicitly deny these qualifications, you've established a difference.

There's just no talking to those in the fourth class, metaphysical relativists, presuppositionalists and the like. Without some form of basic agreement, honest communication is impossible. I'll say only that, in my experience, I've seen only three basic kinds of metaphysics: science, making stuff up, and not thinking at all; the only difference is how many layers of jargon the "making stuff up" is buried under.

The last class is more subtle. The "crux of the biscuit" here is falsifiability. It's not enough that that one's knowledge is just "somehow" connected to experience, it has to be falsifiably connected to experience to qualify as knowledge in the scientific sense. The existence of God, for example, is not falsifiably connected to beautiful sunsets: If they did not experience beautiful sunsets, theists would not then conclude the nonexistence of God. (Theists do not, after all, conclude the nonexistence of God from the complete lack of beautiful, soul-inspiring smallpox pustules.) Again, it's not my intention to justify and argue for falsifiability; regardless of whether falsifiability holds water, scientists use it and theists do not: It is a difference.

No matter how you slice it, self-described theists either don't actually believe in God, or they have an objectively determinable difference in their approaches to knowledge.

*This objection is sort of silly; "How can you know that God does not exist if you haven't looked everywhere," is trivially answered by, "How can you know that God does exist if you haven't actually seen him where you have looked?" The fundamental charge of hypocrisy--that atheists claim to know something they don't know--is at least relevant, even if it's easily refuted by the fact that atheists don't claim certainty for knowledge.


  1. *This objection is sort of silly; "How can you know that God does not exist if you haven't looked everywhere," is trivially answered by, "How can you know that God does exist if you haven't actually seen him where you have looked?" The fundamental charge of hypocrisy--that atheists claim to know something they don't know--is at least relevant, even if it's easily refuted by the fact that atheists don't claim certainty for knowledge.

    Again, I think my statement to (Justin was it?) holds here. Only a 'strong' atheist will hold to such a stance as God does not exist.

    And it's as silly a notion as the counter. No one can support either statement via experimentation or observation. No arguments or thought experiments work for either. It's bunk. Let's call a spade a spade here.

    Faith if faith precisely because you can't have knowledge of it. Those theists who will hold to this aren't using a different definition of knowledge, and are far easier to understand (even if I do think they're being a bit asinine).

  2. c ewing: I'm not sure what you said to Justin; presumably it's on the Philosopher's Playground. If that comment adds anything of substance to your comment here, it would probably be helpful for you to reproduce it here.

    I see the difference between the weak and strong atheist positions to be a fairly trivial and uninteresting difference of phrasing.

    The issue of certainty wasn't the central theme in my post, so let me expand on the point now. The idea that one should be certain to claim knowledge is an arbitrary criterion. Worse yet, it's impractically narrow: If we insist on certainty, we can't claim knowledge of anything but the simple facts of our individual experiences. As I mentioned in the essay scientific knowledge (which underlies scientifically-minded atheism) trades certainty for the practicality of acquisition.

    Once we remove the criterion of certainty, atheism and theism are obviously not equally well-supported on the basis of the evidence of not finding God in at least the places one has looked, which is some support for atheism but no support at all for theism.

    Last, asserting truth-belief without knowledge is certainly a epistemic (in a sense) difference between theism and atheism, which is the whole point of the essay.


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