Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Atheism As a Denial of the Question of God

I’ve been reading The End of Faith by Sam Harris and have posted on it once already here. In this post I would like to focus on a fundamental philosophical principle behind Harris’s argument.

The basic philosophical questions never change. One such question is: What can I know and how can I know it? The classical answer to this question was always: I can know being in its fullness, and I know it through philosophy and (later) revelation. The modern age in philosophy is distinguished from the classical age primarily in the different answer modern philosophers tend to give to this question. The modern answer is: I cannot know being in its fullness, but only some aspect of being. Generally, this boils down to the doctrine that we can only know being as it appears to us rather than being as it truly is in itself.

Atheism since the time of Hume has drawn its strength from this skeptical epistemology. It is important to see that this type of atheism does not even attempt to refute theistic argument. It doesn’t argue that the Five Ways of St. Thomas are logically flawed or propose a deeper understanding of being than Thomas's. Rather, it undermines the legitimacy of the questions in the first place. If all that we can know are the appearances of being, then our knowledge is restricted to relationships among those appearances. We can’t “get behind” appearances to the basic realities that ground them. God, however, as proposed by Christians, is not merely an appearance or a relationship among appearances. He is the Creator of the Universe and is therefore the author not only of appearances, but the relationships among appearances as well. He is Being Itself.

Obviously, if we only know being as it appears to us and have no knowledge of being in itself that grounds appearances, then the only questions we can legitimately ask concern appearances and their relationships, not being itself – and certainly not Being Itself. So the question of God is simply a question that we are not equipped to ask, let alone answer. The traditional metaphysical arguments are exposed, as Kant claimed, as so much hot air.

Modern skeptical epistemology comes in a lot of flavors, from Kant’s transcendental idealism to Hume’s empiricism, but they all have in common the firm conviction that man is restricted to knowing the appearances of being rather than being itself. Whatever the particular flavor, rational theism is dead as a doornail under any form of modern skeptical epistemology. The real debate between theism and atheism, then, is whether modern skeptical epistemology is true.

For some reason, many atheists do not perceive the centrality of epistemology in the question of theism. Sam Harris, for instance, leaves an account of his epistemological views to a footnote. But, really, this footnote is the only essential thing in his book. Everything else is a more or less trivial consequence once Harris’s skeptical epistemology is accepted. Here is the footnote in question:

Questions of epistemology seem to be stirring here: How, after all, is it possible for us to have true knowledge of the world? Depending on how one interprets words like “true” and “world”, questions of this sort can seem either hopelessly difficult or trivial. As it turns out, a trivial reading will be good enough for our present purposes. Whatever reality is in ultimate terms, the world of our experience displays undeniable regularities. These regularities are of various kinds, of course, and some of them suggest lawful connections between certain events. There is a difference between mere correlation, and juxtapositions of the sort that we deem to be causal. As the Scottish philosopher David Hume famously noted, this presents an interesting puzzle, because we never encounter causes in the world, only reliable correlations. What, exactly, leads us to attribute causal power to certain events, while withholding it from others, is still a matter of debate… and yet, once we have our beliefs about the world in hand, and they are guiding our behavior, there seems to be no mystery worth worrying about. It just so happens that certain regularities (those we deem to be causal), when adopted as guides to action, serve our purposes admirably; others that are equally regular (mere correlations, epiphenomena) do not. (Note 26 to Chapter 2).

Harris writes that a “trivial reading” is good enough for his purposes. Well, of course it is! His purpose is to deny the rationality of theism, and a quick way to do that is to deny rationality to any knowledge beyond that of appearances. Trivial questions beget trivial answers, and God is surely not a trivial answer. Harris, of course, begs the question of theism rather than answers it. The question is precisely whether a trivial reading of our experience is a true reading of it.

Really what Harris is doing is denying the possibility of philosophy as it is traditionally conceived. The philosopher as traditionally conceived is just the person who is not willing to settle for a trivial reading of experience. The modern skeptical epistemologist is the man chained to the floor in Plato’s Cave, constrained to watching shadows cast by a fire dance on the wall in front of him. The most he can do is notice regularities in the behavior of the shadows, as Harris notices regularities in the appearances of being. Plato proposed that the philosopher is the man who breaks free of his chains, see the shadows for what they are, and exits the cave to know reality as it is. Philosophers from Socrates to St. Thomas Aquinas understood the vocation of the philosopher under this metaphor. Kant understood that modern thought constitutes a radical break with traditional philosophy, which is why he called his own thought a “Copernican revolution” in philosophy; it is also why Plato and Sam Harris are both called “philosophers” in only an equivocal sense. Harris is content to adopt a standard modern empiricism because he doesn’t see basic questions of epistemology as “worth worrying about.” But it is the unquenchable desire to know the answer to such basic questions that is, for Plato, the eros of the philosopher and distinguishes him from the mere technician.

Well, then, who is right – Plato or Sam Harris? Can we know things as they truly are or are we restricted to appearances? There are several fascinating things about this question that I would like to mention before attempting to answer it. The first is that modern thinkers are reputed to be hardheaded realists not given to flights of fancy, as allegedly were the old, naïve ancient philosophers like Plato. Yet modern philosophy defines itself as a flight from reality. Its fundamental premise – a restriction of the mind to appearances – is a philosophical Berlin Wall separating the mind from things as they are. Is it any wonder that modern thought has degenerated into postmodern irony and satire? The second is that, as central as the epistemological question is to modernity, modern philosophers rarely argue for their position directly but find it sufficient to do little more than assume it. Harris, for example, asks the epistemological question in the footnote and then immediately surrenders any attempt to answer it by saying that the attempt is “hopelessly difficult.” His argument for a trivial reading of experience is basically that he is too tired to try for anything more.

But why should the epistemological question be hopelessly difficult? Plato, Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas did not think it was, and modern philosophers have never really answered their arguments; their dismissal of the ancients is typically one of historical conceit. The basic reason that Aristotle and St. Thomas thought that we can know things as they are is that it is evidently natural for us to do so - a manifestly empirical argument. An examination of any animal reveals that its nature is made to fulfill some mode of living. The sleek scales, fins and gills of a fish indicate that it is a swimmer. It would be surprising, indeed unnatural, if we threw a fish in the water and found that it was unable to swim. The long legs, claws and teeth of the cheetah indicate that it is a hunter; it would be surprising, indeed unnatural, to discover that cheetah live by digging up grubs. Man has no claws, no natural coat or fur for warmth, is not fast, and possesses no sharp teeth. But he does possess his five senses, a large brain and a hand with an opposable thumb (what Aristotle calls the "tool of tools.") He is clearly made by nature to know and to live through that knowledge. He is the knowing animal. Like the fish and the cheetah, it would be surprising if he were unable to fulfill what his nature is clearly made to do.

I mentioned in an earlier post that when something is natural for us, we have an innate tendency toward it. In the beginning of the Metaphysics, Aristotle cites our natural curiosity as evidence that we are by nature knowing animals:

All men by nature desire to know. An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses; for even apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves; and above all the sense of sight. For not only with a view to action, but even when we are not going to do anything, we prefer seeing (one might say) to everything else. The reason is that this, most of all the senses, makes us know and brings to light many differences between things.

Sam Harris unintentionally makes Aristotle's point in the End of Faith. Like most empiricists, he invokes the empiricist wall between appearance and reality when he is attempting to undermine religious belief, but quickly forgets about it when he is talking about things he supports - like the sciences of the mind, his own theory of good and evil, or the theory of evolution. While discussing these topics, there are no qualifications that he is only talking about the appearance of the mind, the appearance of good and evil, or the appearance of natural selection. It's all just straightforward statements about reality. And that's fine... he is just doing what comes naturally to any man.

If we accept that man is a knowing animal, and that he can know things as they truly are, then the existence of God follows fairly quickly through something like St. Thomas's famous Five Ways. That is why the modern atheist is so insistent on empiricist epistemology even if can't muster any good arguments for it. If you can't deny the answer, then deny the question.

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