I read a short post by William Deresiewicz today that got me thinking on the subject of beliefs and how they relate to atheism and religion. The gist of Deresiewicz’s piece is to say that everyone is prone to the same sort of unfounded believing of which atheists love to accuse theists (though this piece is not necessarily directed against atheists or skeptics, he does explicitly mention Krauss's "antireligious skepticism"). While I wholeheartedly agree with the strict logical truth of what he says - namely, that we all believe some goofy sounding things on faith - something iffy seems to be hiding behind his suppositions. Ultimately, I think Deresiewicz is missing the point anti-theists and anti-religionists are often trying to make: namely, some beliefs are more absurd than others, and some beliefs are so poorly justified that we should not hold them at all. This acknowledgment is important and casting warranted and unwarranted beliefs in a similar light can inadvertently lend credibility to beliefs that might not otherwise deserve our attention. In what follows, I'll break down what I think the problematic assumption is behind Deresiewicz's post and highlight my concerns surrounding that assumption. I think this is important not because of what Deresiewicz himself has said (you can consider him a stand-in, if you like), but because this type of thinking seems common and knowing the limited impact of arguments of this type is a useful tool when confronting theists and the like.
One of the two examples that Deresiewicz uses is a quotation by Lawrence Krauss, a physicist who sometimes publicly champions the skeptical cause. Deresiewicz quotes Krauss as saying:
“Lots of people have spiritual experiences,” he said. “I have one when I look at the Hubble Space Telescope images and see galaxies that are 10 billion light-years away with civilizations that are long gone.”
This struck me as inoffensive, but Deresiewicz takes issue with the last five words:
“Hold on there just a minute, slugger. Civilizations that are long gone? Is there any proof of that? Krauss would no doubt claim that the probability is overwhelming that we aren’t the only civilization in the history of the universe. But we don’t have any way of knowing, and besides, that isn’t what he said. “Civilizations that are long gone” appears to be his own little piece of unexamined belief: comforting, irrational, a reprieve from the idea of a cold, indifferent universe, devoid of intelligence or feeling.”
This strikes me as a disingenuous objection because of the charitable interpretation that Deresiewicz gives to Krauss’s statement immediately before saying it is an “unexamined belief”. I am no astrophysicist, but even I know that the statistical probability of there being other sentient life forms out there in the vastness of the universe makes the idea of other civilizations as safe a bet as most things we claim to know. Simply put, there are good reasons for Krauss to say that he believes other civilizations have existed or do exist.
I am not trying to disparage Deresiewicz’s position here unfairly, as I do not take his post as anything other than a brief thought brought on by perceived inconsistency. I even agree that his second example concerning a work by Thomas Nagel could be seen as essentially irrational as Deresiewicz characterizes it (I have not read the work in question and will refrain from further commentary). Despite this partial agreement, I think Deresiewicz muddies the epistemological waters by implying parity between a belief of the type Krauss espoused and those metaphysical beliefs trumpeted by religions of every stripe. Deresiewicz seems to do this by assuming a high threshold of certainty holds before we can claim to know something. Thus a highly probable but not proven belief like Krauss’s falls into the same category as the notion that the Eucharist literally becomes the blood and body of Jesus Christ (as Catholics believe). Given that the subtitle to the Deresiewicz's post is "the persistence of faith", I believe he is lumping the two beliefs into the same category merely because both require a commitment to something that cannot be proven with 100% certainty. This is the assumption that I find problematic.
An Epistemological Interlude
All beliefs are not created equal, epistemologically speaking. For those unfamiliar with the term, epistemology is the branch of philosophy that focuses on knowledge and belief. It is a fascinating field of study because it aims to get at the heart of what it is to believe and what it is to know a given proposition. Interestingly, there was fairly strong consensus in Western philosophy as recently as 1963 as to what constituted knowledge until the publication of Edmund Gettier’s three page paper “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?”.
Justified true belief captured the essence of what was considered knowledge. You knew X if and only if (iff):
1) You believe X.
2) You are justified in believing X.
3) X is true.
Without going into details, Gettier showed that it was possible to satisfy all three conditions while simultaneously knowing X for the wrong reasons (such as luck), which typically makes someone balk at the notion that this counts as knowledge. Ever since this insightful paper came out, theory after theory has worked to resolve the Gettier problem, and the debate rages on to this day.
Behind this entire debate lurks the specter of the skeptical argument. This argument is ancient, and states succinctly that we can always envision a scenario in which we believe we know something but are mistaken. You think that there are people around you? Wrong! Those are sophisticated robots, or illusions put into your mind by your energy hungry electronic overlords. 2+2=4? Wrong again! The Devil makes you think that, but the answer is actually 5. However absurd the reason might be, you cannot build a logical argument that eliminates the possibility that you are mistaken about every belief you hold.
Back to the point at hand, people are still trying to work out what it is to know something, and there is a powerful (some say logically irrefutable) argument that 100% certainty is impossible. If this is the case, then there is no threshold where something flips from belief to knowledge; everything is on a sliding scale of justification. Assuming I am correct about the assumptions underlying his objections, Deresiewicz is right in this. However, some things will be more justified than others, and some will be so justified as to be pragmatically considered knowledge. Mathematics, the values of the laws of physics, and the idea that there is a world outside of my mind all seem to be safely and pragmatically considered knowledge.
Of course everything is ultimately founded on some set of core, brute facts. There are things that are taken for granted, because there seems to be no other way to move forward. I have to believe an external reality exists before I can attempt to understand that reality in any way. I could be wrong about my initial assumption, but a denial of an external reality seems so absurdly counter to everything I have experienced as to render it laughable. Is this belief in an outside world to be considered “mystical” simply because I cannot prove that world’s existence beyond any shadow of a doubt?
To be fair, Deresiewicz acknowledges that:
“Krauss and Nagel’s views are hardly in the same league as the planet Kolob or the Book of Abraham, but they confirm our inability to rid ourselves of mystical beliefs.”
However, other than the fact that they might be on the same sliding scale of epistemological justification, I’m unsure how Krauss’s belief in the existence of other civilizations is as mystical as a belief in the planet Kolob, and I think the comparison is ultimately unfair to Krauss and other antireligionists and atheists of the world. The assumption that the two beliefs are representative of the same type of unwarranted thinking is what I find objectionable. Kolob, as an entity within Mormonism, is justified solely by a religious text of dubious origin (as many other religious beliefs are), whereas the idea that life has existed or does exist elsewhere in the universe is backed up by reasonable mathematical and scientific principles. If, as I highlighted earlier, philosophers are still debating what it is to know something, or if it is even possible to know with certainty, then it seems every belief will be nagged by some measure of doubt. This does not mean that we should too readily whitewash the differences between some types of belief and others.
I realize that my response to Deresiewicz’s blog entry is considerably longer than the post itself, but I think it is important to analyze things like this because of the hidden assumptions and potentially damaging conclusions that can be teased out of them. In this case, I think that a lax epistemological framework can be used to inadvertently lend unwarranted credence to beliefs in light of other beliefs that might, on their face, seem equally implausible. Going back to our previous examples, it is important to acknowledge that there is a serious difference between the belief that (a) the planet Kolob exists, and (b) alien civilizations have existed or do exist. Atheists and antireligionists should be willing to fight against (a) because it is so poorly supported that it simply should not be held by a reasonable person.
I have no doubt that we all have unexamined beliefs, many of which would be exposed as so poorly justified (or “mystical”) as to be indefensible. The point is not that we hold poorly justified beliefs, but rather that we ought to be willing to confront those beliefs in an effort to shore up our epistemological standing. I believe that such an effort, if sustained and entered into honestly, will yield positive results for anyone committed to the task. I also believe that the idea of Kolob is going to be discarded long before the notion that other civilizations might be out there is thrown in the intellectual trash can because the former is so badly supported as to make it not worth holding at all, and this is as it should be.