A lot of postmodern inanity flies around the internet relating to knowledge and our epistemological bases. Philosophical rumination has its place, and indeed I find it quite fascinating, but in many discussions it is a red herring. Worse, it is the direst form of special pleading.
This issue raises its head most commonly (in my experience) when discussing belief. For instance, I’ve read recently:
“But atheism is itself nothing more than a belief. Any assertion to the contrary is to claim that one has discovered all there is to know about the universe, a logically indefensible claim.”
The first sentence is symptomatic of ultra-liberal political correctness; where all opinions and worldviews are equally valid, and are all expressions of some kind of belief. (Note: I’m not pretending to read anything into the author’s character or beliefs.)
First of all, the claim that one needs absolute certainty to make ANY claim is ridiculous and self-refuting. It’s ridiculous, because absolute certainty of anything is impossible. It’s self-refuting, because unless one is absolutely certain of the certainty claim, one cannot make the claim in the first place!
Second, lack of belief cannot be belief. One might lack belief in aliens, gods, zogblogs, or nerkfrends. However, one might believe that aliens or gods, zogblogs or nerkfrends don’t exist. This is of course a belief. (When discussing atheism, one must be careful to differentiate between implicit or explicit atheism.)
Not all opinions are equally valid. Not all worldviews are equally rational. Not all explanations are of equal probability. This might seem to go against politeness and respect for other people’s opinions, but a reductio ad absurdum demonstrates why not all opinions/worldviews/explanations are equal:
Claim X: “all opinions/worldviews/explanations are equal”
You believe Claim X. Let’s suppose however that my opinion is that Claim X is totally false. For the claim to be true, it would mean there that my opinion is just as valid as yours, which means there is a 50% chance that the claim is false. If there is an equally likely chance of a claim being true as it is false, there is absolutely no reason to accept it! So the claim is self-refuting, and your opinion that all opinions/worldviews/explanations are equal is just as valid as my opinion that they aren’t. So, nothing is achieved.
Furthermore, the self-annihilating nature of the claim notwithstanding, if every opinion is of equal validity, there could in theory be as many opinions on a topic as there are people capable of holding them. There are over 6 billion people on the planet, so assuming we all had a different opinion of equal likelihood, there is a 6 billion to 1 chance that yours is the correct one.
Absolute knowledge is a fantasy. We cannot be 100% certain of anything. But to use that fact to suppose that we can safely say nothing certain about anything is dire scepticism. It is also gross hypocrisy. Nobody in real life pretends that knowledge is impossible. We use the word “know” all the time, because it means something. If someone suggests that knowledge is impossible because it can never be certain, then what word do we use when we say “I know it’s raining”; “I know I love you”; “I know the earth orbits the sun”?
In a court of law, a jury is asked to conclude beyond reasonable doubt the veracity or falsity of a proposition. Imagine if video evidence shows the defendant murdering the deceased. The knife at the scene matches the wounds. The blood of the victim is found on the defendant. The defendant’s DNA and fingerprints are found on the weapon and at the scene. And the defendant has also lied about his/her alibi. What would happen if the defence attorney stood up and said: “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, you have no epistemological basis for reaching a conclusion, because your decision is based on your empirical senses which are uncertain, and absolute knowledge is never a possibility. Therefore you cannot safely say with certainty whether my client is guilty or not.”
If this lawyer wasn’t laughed out of court, he would probably never acquire another case.
This is where hypocritical double standards come in. Inasmuch as we can know anything, that is the extent to which we can use that word. To couch certain issues in questions about knowledge, or equally-likely philosophies, is disingenuous. Why only bring these objections up when discussing belief, atheism, religion, and science? Why not being them up when discussing the weather, the traffic system, politics, or criminal trials?
I’ll tell you why: political-correctness, and ultra-liberalism. Perhaps some genuinely believe that all ideas are equal, or perhaps they’re afraid of saying anything definite, or offending others. Some see faith as something to be respected, or something that moves a topic beyond rational discourse. This is, of course, patently absurd. If you disagree with this, I invite you to imagine defending yourself from a rape or murder charge with the excuse “I had faith I was doing the right thing”, and see how far that gets you.
No, nobody uses faith in the real world beyond their personal convictions or metaphysical biases. Nobody stands in the rain and says “I have faith it is a beautiful clear day today!”
So why all a sudden when somebody says “I have faith that a being impregnated a woman with itself, so give birth to itself, to sacrifice itself to itself, to appease itself for the crimes of others” does the issue become unverifiable and unable to be discussed? It is bad enough when those of faith resort to this irrational equivocation, but it is even worse when non-believers pander to the faithful and pretend that these issues are beyond rational discourse! (This is commonly encountered by the “I’m an atheist, but…” crowd.)
If certain people want to invoke faith to reconcile their beliefs, that is their choice. But it doesn’t mean that others should accept this. Again, if I said I had faith that the moon was made of cheese, you would hardly respect that. I doubt anyone would think twice about sitting me down, hearing what I had to say, and looking over pictures of the moon, lunar landings, samples of moon soil etc, to establish that I was wrong and that the moon isn’t made of cheese. So why the ridiculous double-standard when it comes to analysing other claims of faith?
Not all worldviews are equal. If somebody’s worldview is riddled with contradictions, we can say that that belief system is inferior to a worldview that doesn’t contain contradictions. Believing in an Invisible Pink Unicorn is a contradiction; how can something be invisible and also pink?? Calling it a matter of faith is not an acceptable answer. It does not elevate the question to a higher realm of thought where rational discourse is impossible. It is a cheap cop out. It a lazy surrendering of intelligence. It is placing belief over truth; faith over fact.
Similarly, as I recently argued, believing in a being that is supposed to be all-loving and caring and yet acts in the exact opposite way, is a contradiction. It doesn’t cease to be one when somebody plays the “faith card”.
Imagine walking across a busy main road with your eyes closed, but having faith that you won’t get hit. Nobody in their right mind would consider this rational, and if you heard of such an incident you would question the mental health of the deceased.
So again I ask: why the double-standard? Why does nobody have a problem with the expression: “I believe flying elephants don’t exist” yet if you say “I believe that the Christian god doesn’t exist”, certain people will question your epistemology, and the impossibility of absolute certainty. They might claim you’re making a religious claim yourself, or say that believing Not-X is just as much a matter of faith as believing X.
The answer is obvious: nobody believes in flying elephants, so it doesn’t affect anybody. Nobody’s beliefs are threatened or questioned; nobody is offended. Well, I never set out to offend anybody. I never set out to insult or destroy beliefs or worldviews. However, IF it happens along the way I’m not going to apologise, and nor should I. If somebody disagrees with me and proves me wrong, I’ll thank them for correcting my understanding! I want to better myself and improve my understanding of the world. Assuming that all honest intelligent people want the same thing, what harm can come from critical study? As I say, nobody has a problem talking about logic and knowledge except when they feel it violates some magical barrier. All I do is deny that this magical barrier exists.
The question of god’s existence is a supernatural and metaphysical one that probably cannot ever be settled by scientific discovery, empirical validation, or logical argument. Note, when I say “god” I mean just “GOD”, the generic term for a personal all-powerful deity. I’m not referring to a specific human myth. Now, just because we can never know for certain whether a god exists or not, doesn’t make the likelihood 50/50! To elucidate this, replace the word “god” in this paragraph for “zogblog”. Would you concede it’s equally likely that zogblog exists or doesn’t? Well, what is zogblog? What does it mean? It is a word that can be defined as we wish, just as “god” is. But we cannot define beings into existence, and just because something either is or isn’t the case doesn’t make the probability of either 50%. I don’t know if a god exists or not, but I see absolutely no reason to believe in one, just as I see no reason to believe in zogblog. If however we’re talking about a specific god, there is absolutely no reason at all for us not to see if this being is at least logically coherent. If I say Zogblog is a square circle, you would call it irrational. So why withhold a conclusion about another being that also has a definition that allows us to reach conclusions?
Only by rational discussion and analysis can we select the best possibility from a variety of options. If there are several explanations for a phenomenon, let’s see what the best one is. Let’s see which makes sense. All explanations and worldviews must yield to logic, because logic is the basis for all epistemologies. Knowledge is predicated on logic, so if something defies logic, it makes no sense to claim to “know” it. To pretend there are some things beyond logic is self-refuting and duplicitous.
(This article isn’t intended as an attack on belief (or anything). The purpose is to show the idiocy of ultra-liberalism and the hypocritical special pleading when it comes to knowledge and certainty. I’ve used atheism and theology here as examples only.)