Spritzophrenia

humour, music, life, sociology. friendly agnostic.

Posts Tagged ‘knowledge’

Why I Will Always Be Agnostic

Posted by spritzophrenia on October 15, 2010

I came to the conclusion a little while ago that even if I adopt a particular belief, I will technically have to call myself an agnostic. The reason is that “agnostic” is about knowledge, what we can know. This is different to belief. Agnostic means “I don’t know”

We tend to place belief as an on/off black/white yes/no question. I think there can be shades and nuances, in terms of my own experience. Some time ago I came up with the Agnostic Scale. (We can argue about whether it should be called the “belief scale” or the “knowledge scale” 1) It looks like this:

Both zero and ten are not possible for us. We cannot “know” there is no God. Equally, we cannot— in this life at least— “know” there is a God. So let’s add to the diagram:

The best we can do is be at position one— “I strongly believe there is no God”, or position nine— “I strongly believe there is a God”. I strongly believe Morocco exists, even though I’ve never been there 2. Also note that position nine doesn’t specify what kind of God, a Deist could also be at position nine.

All believers are un-knowers. Having a concept of belief rather than knowledge allows me to move up and down the scale, as my beliefs change over time. At times in the past I’ve been at position nine. A few years ago I moved to about a three, which would be something like “It’s not very likely there is a God”, or perhaps “I have strong doubts about whether God exists.”

Pascal made me think about the distinction of belief versus knowledge. My other example is Bertrand Russell, who called himself an atheist but if his audience were more savvy would call himself an agnostic, as he couldn’t say he “knew” God didn’t exist.

My point is that even If I decide there is a Being behind the universe, it will always be a belief, not knowledge, however strongly I may feel about it.

Right now I’d put myself at about a 7, something like “I think it’s likely God might exist”. I may move back towards the zero, or up towards the 10. But no matter what, I’ll always be an agnostic.

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[1] In conversation Phrenic Philosophy pointed out that Richard Dawkins published a similar scale in his book The God Delusion. I’d forgotten that, but my scale was conceived independently, so sucks to you, Dawkins 😉

[2] Philosophy alert: Language enthusiasts can amuse yourselves trying to finesse what the statement “Morocco exists” means. The study of how we know something is called epistemology. The classic definition of knowledge is “justified, true belief”. To be extra snarky: Do you “know” YOU exist?

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I’m Not Driving That! – Strong Rationalism

Posted by spritzophrenia on August 6, 2010

On the way to the airport today I saw a billboard with two photographs of a single car, one labelled “the emotionally satisfying view” and the other, “the rationally satisfying view”4. Picture one showed happy people crowding around the vehicle, the other displayed engineering cutaways of the engine, safety and comfort features. Which vehicle will get me to my destination?

You may recall me wondering if I am a rationalist, given that I value reason and think it has a part to play in my search for the numinous. Simplistically, when deciding what to believe I can either say “there’s got to be rational proof ”, or simply try it out and say “this belief makes me feel good and gives me trippy spiritual experiences.”

I have doubts about spiritual experience alone as a guide, which I’ll save for a future post. For now, I came across a section in a recent book1, which helped me:

[The new atheist] authors are evaluating Christian arguments by what some have called “strong rationalism”. Its proponents laid down what was called the “verification principle”, namely, that no one should believe a proposition unless it can be proved rationally by logic or empirically by sense experience. What is meant by the word “proved”? Proof, in this view, is an argument so strong that no person whose logical faculties are operating properly would have any reason for disbelieving it.

Fractal rainbow self

A few theists also hold to strong rationalism, suggesting their arguments are so strong that you’d be a fool to disbelieve. I’m thinking of some Islamic apologists here. I met a christian rationalist in an online forum not long ago. Sadly, he was belligerent and rude.

For those of us who find the path of the intellect to g0d challenging, put this on repeat, enjoy some beautiful music and imagine the experiential path to g0d as we continue:

The Gayatri Mantra. I also really like this version.

Keller continues:

Despite all the books calling Christians to provide proofs for their beliefs, you won’t see philosophers doing so, not even the most atheistic. The great majority think that strong rationalism is nearly impossible to defend 2. To begin with, it can’t live up to its own standards. How could you empirically prove that no one should believe something without empirical proof? You can’t, and that reveals it to be, ultimately, a belief.

Strong rationalism also assumes that it is possible to achieve “the view from nowhere,” a position of almost complete objectivity, but virtually all philosophers today agree that is impossible. We come to every individual evaluation with all sorts of experiences and background beliefs that strongly influence our thinking and the way our reason works. It is not fair, then, to demand an argument that all rational people would have to bow to.

The philosophical indefensibility of “strong rationalism” is the reason that the books by Dawkins and Dennet have been getting such surprisingly rough treatment in scholarly journals.

If we reject strong rationalism, are we then stuck in relativism – without any way to judge one set of beliefs from another? Not at all.

He suggests an alternative approach called “critical rationality” 3. I’m not sure what he means by that, but whether or not I agree with critical rationality I don’t think I’m a strong rationalist. I think some things in life just have to be believed – my own existence, for example. However, I do want some rational underpinning for my beliefs. I hope that one vehicle, both emotionally satisfying and rationally satisfying will get me there. Somehow I want to hold these two together.

On the way home I saw a bumper sticker on a car: “Don’t follow me, I’m lost too”.

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What do you think? Comment below.

Notes
1. Timothy Keller, The Reason for God (Dutton, 2008), pages 118, 119, 120.

2. Keller’s footnotes explain more, and cite Alasdair MacIntyre Whose Justice, Which Rationality (Notre Dame, 1988) in particular. He says “One of the best critiques of the Enlightenment view of strong rationalism is Faith and Rationality: On Reason and Belief in God A. Plantinga and N. Wolterstorff, eds (Notre Dame, 1983). The Enlightenment view has been called classic or Cartesian “foundationalism,” and that approach has been almost universally abandoned among philosophers. See also Nicolas Wolterstorf, Reason Within the Bounds of Religion (Eerdmans, 1984).”

3. Keller footnotes “For a non-technical introduction to the difference between strong and critical rationalism, see Victor Reppert, C.S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea (Inter-Varsity, 2003), pp 30-44.

4. [Edit:] I saw the billboards again, and realised they say “emotionally appealing” and “rationally appealing”. I wonder if there’s a difference between “appealing” and “satisfying”?

Posted in agnostic, epistemology, Hinduism, music, Philosophy | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 47 Comments »