An interesting reflection today in the NYTimes on the relationship between philosophy and faith from Gary Gutting (philosophy professor at Notre Dame) here.
“The standard view is that philosophers’ disagreements over arguments about God make their views irrelevant to the faith of ordinary believers and non-believers. The claim seems obvious: if we professionals can’t agree among ourselves, what can we have to offer to non-professionals? An appeal to experts requires consensus among those experts, which philosophers don’t have.
This line of thought ignores the fact that when philosophers’ disagree it is only about specific aspects of the most subtle and sophisticated versions of arguments for and against God’s existence […]. There is no disagreement among philosophers about the more popular arguments to which theists and atheists typically appeal: as formulated, they do not prove (that is, logically derive from uncontroversial premises) what they claim to prove. They are clearly inadequate in the judgment of qualified professionals. Further, there are no more sophisticated formulations that theists or atheists can accept — the way we do scientific claims — on the authority of expert consensus.
In these popular debates about God’s existence, the winners are neither theists nor atheists, but agnostics — the neglected step-children of religious controversy, who rightly point out that neither side in the debate has made its case. This is the position supported by the consensus of expert philosophical opinion.
This conclusion should particularly discomfit popular proponents of atheism, such as Richard Dawkins, whose position is entirely based on demonstrably faulty arguments. Believers, of course, can fall back on the logically less rigorous support that they characterize as faith. But then they need to reflect on just what sort of support faith can give to religious belief. How are my students’ warm feelings of certainty as they hug one another at Sunday Mass in their dorm really any different from the trust they might experience while under the spell of a really plausible salesperson?”
5 thoughts on “Philosophy and Faith”
Regarding agnosticism, I think a really good point is one that Sam Harris once made in a talk (somewhere on Youtube) that there are no agnostics about the Greek Pantheon, yet there was never any definitive proof against that religious system either. My contention is that agnosticism is just another way of not answering. Either you believe or you don’t, and if one is honest, there is really very little middle ground. If there is, it’s one that is vacated pretty quickly as one forms an opinion. Agnosticism is not really a tenable position. We are creatures of belief; we form an opinion, whether we have complete information or not. So, no, I don’t agree with the article cited, “agnosticism” is meaningless in this context. It may well be a useful epistemic stance regarding any of the known domains of knowledge. It is routine to remain reticent about knowledge one does not command. I might be an “agnostic” about the true nature of the Middle East conflict, for instance. But in relation to a higher power, where one person’s opinion is as good as another, it is about as close to nonsense as you can get. It’s a cop out, or worse, the willingness to blithely trust in “authorities” who know no better than you do; and through history we have seen the result.
And second, as Huenemann points out in the previous post, there is already an explanation for our world absent the added baggage of religion. We know why and how people come to believe. We have a perfectly serviceable world view without it. It is not being somehow intellectually deficient or irresponsible to wholly dismiss a new category of knowledge that is inherently not required. This is the heart of skepticism, to seclude non-fiction and build a wall between it and challenges by superfluous fiction.
a) When Harris draws his false equivalence between the Greek Pantheon and the “god of the philosophers” it demonstrates little more than Harris’ ignorance about the arguments from natural theology. It saddens me that so many young atheists think that you tube clips from folks like Harris and Hitchens are the first and last word on these questions.
b) Craig, citing Huenemann, says “there is already an explanation for our world absent the added baggage of religion”. First, Huenemann suggested something different – he thought we have on hand reduced accounts of why people come to believe theism. But that is quite a different thing than having “an explanation for our world”. So what is this well-established explanation for why there is something rather than nothing that makes no appeal to theism? What is the explanation for why nature is lawful? Most scientific atheists have simply forgotten the question of Being and no longer are amazed by existence and no longer experience wonder over there being something rather than nothing. They ignore the question because it is out of the purview of scientific reasoning. But ignoring the question is not the same thing as having an explanation for it.
c) But I agree that agnosticism is not really a liveable position. Agnostics ends up being de facto atheists. Every agnostic I know ends up living as if atheism were true. I don’t know any agnostics that live as if theism were true, even though technically they wouldn’t really have any reason to slip in one direction or the other.
I think that “skeptic atheism” just moves one little step forward form agnosticism, by making the ‘falsifiable yet educated guess’ of assuming that “there’s no god until proven wrong”. Such guess is based on the fact that so far every claimed evidence or logical proof regarding metaphysical entities (gods included) interacting with physical reality are either not falsifiable or have been refuted.
Unlike theism, skeptic atheism is a falsifiable position because it requires only one logical or empirical evidence to be proved wrong.
I tend to agree with the fact that, regarding unprecedented and not evidence-based metaphysical entities such as those of the different forms of theism, skeptic atheism seems to be indistinguishable from agnosticism for every practical purpose.
Ignosticism is underrated.
I don’t know what I’d call myself but I deny that the question of God’s existence has the significance we’ve endowed it with historically and that belief/disbelief in God is a core belief.
That I reject most currently existing religious institutions and their programs, ways of being, ways of thinking, is more central.
“there is an unconfused ethical demand on humanity from beyond the material world” Is that the situation we have amongst believers in a god? An “unconfused” ethical demand?
“The question of a god’s existence is important to add weight to the moral (ethical) demand on humanity. The weight seems to sometimes dissolve into nothingness without a god’s existence to require it.”
But doesn’t the belief that there is only this life also “add weight to the moral (ethical) demand on humanity” since this life/world is the only shot we have at getting things right? And doesn’t the moral demand also seem “to sometimes dissolve into nothingness” with a god’s existence? I mean if a god is around to take care of things certainly our responsibility is diminished even if you’re not a proponent of cheap grace. And if you get something wrong, God and eternity are around to clean up the mess (if it’s possible that eternity can genuinely clean up temporal messes). I’ve met enough Christian fatalists and participated in enough fatalistic thinking as a Christian myself that I don’t see belief in a god as an answer to these sorts of problems. I just see so much variability here. Some other religious commitments have more weight to me, like the belief in going to church, that definitely ends up leading to going to church.
All that being said I am more sympathetic to the Jewish approach.