Tuesday, August 10, 2010

To Know that God Does Not Exist

A member of the studio audience sent me the following question:

I would love to know how you manage to know that god and the supernatural don't exist. i am an atheist myself yet i believe(not claim) that god does not exist, but not claim that "god does not exist" is a fact. i am therefore an atheist agnostic and i would assume that you're a gnostic atheist?

I would love to know why, when conversations turn to God, people shift the meaning of the word "know" to something entirely at odds with the way the term is used everywhere else.

If I were to say, at work, that I know that the meeting will take more than an hour, I am not going to be jumped by co-workers asking me how I could possibly know that. Nobody is going to assert that, because of factors I have not considered or am not aware of, it is possible that the meeting will take less then an hour, so I am making a mistake in claiming to know that it will last more than an hour. Our regular everyday use of the word "know" is quite compatible with the possibility of error.

If it turns out that I am mistaken - that the meeting lasts 30 minutes because a key member has to catch a plane - then I have to retract my claim to have known that it would take more than an hour.

However, the point is that "know" claims in regular conversation are retractable claims. Whenever a person makes a knowledge claim in any conversation not having to do with God, it is with the understanding on the part of the speaker and the listener that the know claim might ultimately have to be retracted.

This seems not to be true when we talk about God. Here, when I say that I know that a God does not exist, I am accused of using the term "know" improperly unless it is an unretractable claim.

"You cannot justifiably claim to know that a God does not exist unless you are willing to assert no possibility of error that might force you to retract that claim."

Why is there this double standard?

"If I use the standard, retractable concept of 'know' when I talk about God, then the phrase 'I know that God does not exist' would be a true and sensible statement to make about myself. However, that would mean that I am an atheist. My friends and family would freak out if I were an atheist. In fact, all the time I was growing up I was taught to look down on atheists and view them as inferior who are beneath us good religious folks. I certainly do not want to apply this term 'atheist' to myself. Therefore, when it comes to claims about God, I am going to shift to a different definition in which 'know' claims are not retractable. Since it is not the case that I 'know' that God does not exist in the non-retractable sense (a sense that actually prohibits me from knowing anything at all, including my own name), I can avoid the label 'atheist'."

This description is not true of the person who sent the original question. However, it does explain why he has come to think that, when it comes to claims about God, we must use the non-retractable concept. It explains why he thinks it is proper to accuse me of claiming that I have non-retractable knowledge that God does not exist when I claim to know that God does not exist.

The other reason we have this non-retractable definition of "to know" when we speak about God is the theist reason.

The theist wants to believe in God. To do this, in light of what we see around us in the real world, she needs to set the evidence bar low enough that it is possible to get over it. In a universe with absolutely no evidence for the existence of God, one argument that a person can still use is to claim, "I am justified in claiming that God exists as long as non-retractable knowledge that God does not exist is impossible."

This form of argument is not logically valid, but it can be psychologically comforting. To the person who is afraid to let go of God, either for personal reasons or because this would lead to his being an outcast in his community of friends and family, this rationalization serves its purpose. This person can join his friends and family in looking down on those atheists who claim that God does not exist when they cannot possibly have non-retractable knowledge that God does not exist.

Of course, there are some theists who set the evidence bar even lower than this. For them, the evidence bar is not sitting on the floor, it IS the floor. These are the faith-peddlers, the people who claim that one can know that God exists without any evidence at all - that there is absolutely no bar to clear.

If these people were applying this standard only to beliefs that have no effect on others, then there would be little reason to complain about it. However, many of those who use the faith standard are using it to decide how they are going to treat other people, what laws they are going to vote for and against, and what politicians are worthy of holding power. In fact, many insist that the only politician worthy of holding power is one whose standard of evidence is as low as theirs - which provides a very dangerous foundation for public policy.

I am not saying that these are the conscious thoughts of individuals involved in these ways of thinking. In fact, as conscious thoughts they would fail. Rather, the way these arguments work in practice is in the form of beliefs grounded on emotion.

An individual experiences a learned aversion to the atheist label. Because of the discomfort of this learned aversion, he finds that he is more comfortable thinking that atheism requires a non-retractable definition of "to know". Because this non-retractable definition is comfortable, the agent adopts it.

The same is true of the person who is afraid to let go of God. She is more comfortable holding onto the belief, and finds that she is comfortable thinking that atheism requires this non-retractable concept of "to know". Because these beliefs are comfortable to her, she adopts them as being true.

For these reasons, we find ourselves in a culture that allows a retractable concept of "to know" everywhere other than when we talk about God, and a non-retractable concept when we talk about God. We are surrounded by such a culture because it helps people to avoid conclusions they do not like. It helps atheists avoid the stigma of thinking of themselves as atheists, and it helps theists hold onto a belief in God that they are desperate to hold onto.

I know that no God exists. I know it in the same sense that I know who my biological parents are and I know on what day I was born. It doesn't mean that there is no chance that I am wrong . . . only that I consider the chance of error to be remote.

The non-retractable sense of "know" we are supposed to use when we speak about God's existence has two major uses. It is used to escape the sigmatism that is attached to something that deserves no stigmatism worthy of escaping - the "atheist" label. And it is used as a foundation for unfounded beliefs that the harms and injustices one seeks to inflict on others is justified by faith - or something very near to it.

These are not good reasons to insist that people use such a definition.

They are not good reasons for much of anything at all.


Anonymous said...

I think you are trying to wring every drop of meaning from the dry subject of the problem of knowing. Simply, if I say I know about something it is an incontrovertible fact like "Do you know your multiplication table, dear?" You then may set out, or be required, to prove it, if you had said yes.

I think, about God's existence, the best approach is to leave it open-ended and on-going without coming to any absolute conclusion or certainty. Tentative certainties (paradoxical term?)are ok. To make or be absolutely certain may not be socially or even argumentatively, appropriate.

In neutral terms, God is unknowable. Whatever it is, it is simply beyond our ken. We have made tentative progress in knowing the universe based on known facts and reasoned conjecture but we have nowhere nearer to knowing God than, say, 2000 years ago beyond faith and indoctrination. All claims one way or another are statements of faith or logical conviction - another form of faith.

And as regards to labels - atheist, racist, terrorist - they are loaded with smuggled or contraband meaning: useful in context but should be taken with a pinch of salt to do justice to whatever it refers to.

dbonfitto said...

Epistemology and ontology are dry, but you don't build on wet ground either.

If you don't have a set of standards for "knowing" and "being," the rest of your philosophy is probably pretty easy to topple.

Why should the existence of a supernatural being that tells us how to live our lives require any less proof than basic math?

In second grade you may do the long addition problems to generate the table if your teacher has any actual math chops. Memorizing the table is just knowing without understanding. Where's the long addition that demonstrates the accuracy of any religious text?

Christian Poppycock said...

How does someone who "knows" their god exists explain that they also "know" that Zeus does not exist? I know that Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy and leprechauns do not exist - the same way I know gods do not exist. These are all superstitious fabrications of man.

Cammie Novara said...

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James W. Peterson said...

To know something has a specific physical application. To know something requires there is a something that exists in a specific way; physically. Not only does it physically exist but its physical existence is sensually stimulating ones brain. Evidence of sensual knowing is called an image - a brain-image. And that brain function responsible for imaging what it knows to exist is called consciousness.

Since this is the case; then, knowing that God exists requires there is a real physical something stimulating ones brain AND that ones brain is conscious of it.

James W. Peterson said...

To know that God does not exist also requires there is something that exists is a specific kind of way - physically.

Notice to contradiction. This is called an absurdity.

Asilee said...

This was a great read. I will surely be adding you to my Atheist blogroll @ BlackAtheist.wordpress.com I mean if you don't mind. -Asilee [Az-za-lee]

Anonymous said...

Life arises from nothing and relentlessly seeks to evolve into ever more complex forms. That's
all it does. Single cell lifeforms advance and evolve into multi-cell life forms, which advance
and evolve into animals, animals into mammals, mammals into primates, primates into humans,
humans into ?

Yes, humans are advancing and evolving. We've progressed from harnessing fire to harnessing
technology, all in a few hundred thousand years - a blink of the evolutionary eye. And we're not
stopping there. Through medical research seeking to cure diseases and slow the aging process,
we begin our quest for immortality. Through computers that serve as brain supplements to
exponentially increase our functional intelligence, we begin our quest for omnipotence.

We are doing exactly what "life" compels us - and every other life form in the universe - to do.
And if given enough millions or billions of years, somewhere in the universe this "life force"
will succeed in following its relentless directive to its ultimate manifestation; a being capable of total control over time, space, energy and matter. Logic dictates that it simply cannot NOT happen. Therefore, an omnipotent being - God - simply cannot NOT exist.

So, the argument between science and faith is NOT whether God exists, but whether God created the universe, or vice versa. Faith says God is the creator. Logic says the universe inevitably creates the life force which inevitable creates God. Bottom line; either way, there is a God.

But maybe faith and logic are both right. What if God created the universe/life force and ever
since, the universe/life force has relentlessly sought to become God? Like a child being conceived
and then growing into the likeness of its parents... What if the universe/life force was simply
God's way of reproducing?

If so, we humans are indeed the children of God.