Monday, March 11, 2013

The Limits of Doubt: Higher and Lower Knowledge and Adventures in Epistemology

Epistemology: A branch of philosophy that investigates the origin, nature, methods,and limits of human knowledge.

A few weeks ago in my post on Dan Barker's book Godless I mentioned a theory that atheism and Christianity (or theism in general) were based on two different epistemologies (perspectives on truth), one human-centric and one God-centric. Through reading, study, and conversations with atheists and skeptics I have refined this theory considerably to the point where it has begun making surprising amounts of sense as an explanation.

I just retook the Strengths Finder test last week for the first time in over two years. My number-one strength is now apparently "Input", new since last time, which means I love collecting and mentally organizing information. In keeping with this, I have been in several online conversations with skeptics, trying to get a fuller, more coherent picture of how they approach epistemology. You have to understand something before you can critique it. (Which is why I feel much more confident critiquing Christianity)

Scientific Inquiry and Materialistic Epistemology

The atheists I talked to espoused the method referred to as "scientific inquiry" or "skeptical inquiry" as our only reliable way of gaining objective knowledge about the universe. (Not ruling out ways of subjectively gaining knowledge, but those can't be shared with others or serve as a sound basis for action) This method entails the systematic gathering of evidence, then building knowledge out of this evidence using the scientific method and valid logical reasoning. As such, scientific tests of truth are applied to all truth, such as:

Occam's Razor: The simplest possible theory that explains the evidence should be chosen over more complex ones.

Falsifiability: A theory is worthless if there is no conceivable way it could be conclusively disproven.

This process is also somewhat analogous to what goes on in a courtroom. One poster in an online discussion wrote (emphasis added):
To put it another way: If someone has a way of explaining something that allows me to understand the universe. Something observable, understandable, repeatable, demonstrable (We call that the scientific method); It would be vastly dishonest and silly of me to then go off of something I cannot confirm, cannot show to be demonstrable, to not be understandable, to not be observable. In other words, I would need to throw away my logical thinking and skeptical way of looking at things to adopt a lot of bullcrap.
In the court of law we have a system that allows us to determine whether or not an eye witness is a credible witness to something. If the person cannot be correctly placed there as a witness (confirmed or as no way to confirm), has personal bias or gain in the matter or knowingly misrepresents data they can be disqualified. Now here's the fun part, in the court of law a witness can be make or bust in a case. They are responsible for an eye witness account for something, something crucial.
Many times people get thrown out as a credible witness if it's found they have a bias, or if they cannot be placed at the scene, or if the witness is strictly hearsay.
So if we will toss people out of the court of law for something as simple as a bias, or personal gain, or even hearsay evidence... WHY would a person base their ENTIRE LIFE on a book that is full of hearsay accounts, anonymous authors, biased accounts and data that cannot be accounted for nor confirmed. In other words, random people, no credibility, hearsay evidence and tons of bias to gain from it.
From this analogy we get some criteria for allowable evidence:
  • Empirically observable
  • Understandable/meaningful/coherent
  • Repeatable/demonstrable (presumably not necessary, as in the case of evolution)
And for a valid witness:
  • Correctly placed as a witness
  • Unbiased
  • Doesn't color or misrepresent the data
If this is the method by which all truth is to be gained and agreed upon, it is obvious that there is no room for anything Christians would call "faith", and no one is more aware of this than atheists and skeptics. In this system, faith is the drawing of unwarranted, arbitrary, unnecessarily complex conclusions from insufficient, highly subjective, and biased evidence.

Arguments Against Faith and God

In fact, atheists seem to see "blind faith" as the antithesis to sound knowledge of actual truth; if you try to use it to know what is true, you have strayed outside the bounds of rationality and can simply believe anything you want with no justification. In his scathing review of Francis Collins' book The Language of God, Sam Harris says, "If the beauty of nature can mean that Jesus really is the son of God, then anything can mean anything." Similarly, Dan Barker's refrain when he is arguing for reason instead of faith is, "With faith, anything goes." If you listen to faith instead of evidence and reason, you're believing whatever nonsense you want.

Christians often try to play this game and bring evidence or logical arguments for God's existence to bear, but this evidence either doesn't point to God, is counterbalanced by evidence against God, or ignores simpler, more likely explanations than God. An example of this first argument is the "argument from design", which may have worked hundreds of years ago when we had no idea where the complexity of the universe came from, but now evolution has conclusively shown us how order and apparent design can come from chaos by very simple rules. The best example of the second argument is the existence of pain and suffering in the world: what kind of God, especially one supposedly worthy of "love" and "worship", would create that? The third argument contradicts, for example, the cosmological argument, which makes an enormous leap to God as the explanation of the beginning of the universe as well as logical mistakes like forgetting that, by the same logic, a dynamic being such as God also had to have had a beginning.

Back to falsifiability: atheists accuse Christians of ad hoc arguments or special pleading to explain how evidence like the existence of suffering or God not providing concrete evidence for His existence (a simple "Hi! Here I am, worship Me!" would suffice) doesn't really weigh against their beliefs. Christians' constant qualifications of God ("He works in mysterious ways", "He wants us to have faith") to account for this evidence only add more complexity to the God hypothesis, making it an even less tenable explanation. With all this explaining away of evidence, atheists ask what, if any, evidence would actually cause Christians to stop believing in God. They suspect that nothing would fit the bill; that is, the God hypothesis is nonfalsifiable and therefore meaningless.

Some examples of this are Russell's teapot and, more recently, the parodic Flying Spaghetti Monster, an invisible, undetectable, noodly deity said to have created the universe. Like God, neither of these entites' existences can be falsified, but of course it would be absurd to go around arguing for their existence and teaching others to believe likewise. This demonstrates how the burden of proof rests on people making arbitrary claims that can't be verified or falsified by empirical methods, not on those arguing against them who are making their case from common sense and visible data that we can all agree on.

Similarly, historical claims like "Jesus actually rose from the dead" are unfounded because of the extreme improbability of miracles, according to what we know of the regularity of nature, compared to other, more plausible explanations like Jesus' disciples stealing His body and starting a cult saying He rose from the dead, or the whole Jesus thing simply being a premodern myth.

One last way atheists love to poke holes in theism (especially Christianity) is by challenging the possibility of having a coherent definition of God in the first place. Dan Barker, in his book, goes through God's various "omni-" attributes and explains why they are logically contradictory and impossible. For example, an omniscient being, perfectly knowing all things, would have to perfectly know itself, which would mean having a complete mental image of itself, which would also include a nested copy of this image, and so on to infinity--a contradiction. Or the very definition of God has a "supernatural, spiritual" being has never really been explained or nailed down in a satisfactory sense and until it has, there's no point arguing over it.

Two Levels of Knowledge

That was a distilled, more neutral form of the arguments I have been processing over the last few weeks. It's what I've been wrestling with for the last few weeks, both to understand and to answer. Here is a somewhat parodic summary of how I had been trying to answer it:

You're getting the burden of proof wrong. The starting point is not the nonexistence of God, it's ignorance of the existence or nonexistence of God. From there, the evidence for the existence of God (any god, at least) greatly outweighs the evidence against. Faith that looks arbitrary to you is not arbitrary to us Christians, it's a relationship with a higher being. You're creating a mental image of what you want or expect God to be like, then disbelieving in Him because He doesn't fit that image--that box you've put Him in. How do you know, scientifically, that science is the only source of truth?

If I wrote all of that well enough, you might be worried that I've become an atheist, or am well on my way. This has never been farther from the truth. The more I've made sense of these arguments, the less persuasive they have become. Here is the epistemology I arrived at. (And where it starts getting highly speculative)

The empirical kind of knowledge that is gained by skeptical inquiry and knowledge that comes by faith are of two different kinds. I refer to them as "bottom-up" and "top-down" knowledge, or the terms I will use, "lower" and "higher" knowledge. (These should not be taken as value judgments) Let me explain.

Lower knowledge is basically what I just described as the object of this "materialistic epistemology". It is gained through empirical observation and reasoning, the scientific method being the best modern example of this. Simple, atomic facts are gathered and theories are formed, refined, and tested to explain them. This process is hardly limited to scientific knowledge, though; it is generally the process of starting from oneself and building a body of knowledge outward from what is immediately observable. Descartes' one-liner, "I think, therefore I am" is a pithy statement of the most basic empirically observable truth: the existence of oneself.

Higher knowledge is different. I call it that because it is not built out from ourselves but places itself over and above us, relating what we know and who we are to some external point of reference outside ourselves. Higher knowledge isn't proved by evidence but transforms and determines how we view and interpret the evidence, subordinating it to some higher, teleological (purposeful) value or goal. It isn't uncovered by endlessly dividing and analyzing but unites the facts under something of greater importance to us. It answers the question of "why", not "what" or "how". This method of assigning significance to pieces of lower knowledge by their relation to your system of higher knowledge, I will call "meaning".

I argue that the human need for meaning is universal. No one, no one, is content to live a "purposeless" life. We need to "matter" to someone or something outside ourselves. With our western individualism and existentialism we might find the idea of being the "captain of your own destiny" appealing, but if we are free to decide what is of ultimate importance in life, unstable and fallible creatures that we are, that decision is worthless. In his Ethics, Dietrich Bonhoeffer goes so far as to write, "But, rightly understood, the deification of man is the proclamation of nihilism. With the destruction of the biblical faith in God and of all divine commands and ordinances, man destroys himself." In fact, the universality of "man's search for meaning" would indicate that people are truly incapable of manufacturing meaning for themselves; they must search for it outside themselves. If you deny this fact, it only means you are blind to the specifics of your own system of higher knowledge. There is apparently something lacking in each of us that needs filling; Christians might call it the "God-shaped hole".

A Higher Apologetic

Higher knowledge also answers questions that lower knowledge can', questions that science can't answer--not the facts, but what those facts mean. "What is the meaning of life?", the perennial question goes. I wonder, why does everyone want to know? Why are we such a race of philosophers? Higher knowledge is prepared to answer questions such as:
  • The existence of anything: "Why does the universe exist?"
  • The ordered nature of nature/correspondence with mathematical thinking: "Why does nature appear to be so regular and predictable by mathematics in a way that aligns with our thinking?"
  • All the striking coincidences that led to our existence (cosmic "fine-tuning", abiogenesis): "Were we 'meant' to exist?"
  • The existence of external moral law and internal conscience/need for meaning: "Why do I exist?"
  • Human consciousness: "Why and how do I (as a "self") exist?"
  • The problem of pain: "Why is there suffering? What is the point? Is there a point?"
  • Or the meta-question: "Why do humans have this insatiable need for meaning?"
When the above questions are used in the context of apologetics, atheists will often get defensive and deny that these questions reasonably point to God, without answering them for themselves--effectively denying that they need answers. Jumping outside what we can empirically sense and agree on is unjustified, arbitrary, and foolish when materialism has already made sense of these questions for us. But the only answer it can give is the impenetrable randomness and purposelessness of the universe according to science. So our sense of morality, desire for meaning, and "consciousness" are naturally selected, arising by chance, merely chemical phenomena in our brains, and we are free to do with them what we will. In doing so, it elevates science from a system of lower knowledge to a comprehensive system, a task for which science was never meant and at which it performs miserably. Elsewhere in Ethics, Bonhoeffer writes (not from his own position):
All knowledge is now based on self-knowledge. Instead of the original comprehension of God and of men and of things there is now a taking in vain of God and of men and of things. Everything is now drawn into the process of disunion. Knowledge now means the establishment of the relationship to oneself; it means the recognition in all things of oneself and of oneself in all things.
But it gets worse. The claim implicit here is that no system of higher knowledge needs to (or should) be assumed because you can empirically, objectively arrive at the "correct" one by observation and rational thinking, i.e. the generalized scientific method. But in fact, in the scientific method you are already using a system of higher knowledge (assuming that nature really is regular, predictable, and follows mathematical/logical laws) to interpret the data "scientifically". The usefulness of the scientific method as a system for gaining lower knowledge already depends on presumptions in your higher knowledge. The materialistic attempt to arrive at a system of higher knowledge from nothing has failed; it couldn't avoid assuming one first. Everyone has a system of higher knowledge--aware or unaware, simple or complex. Without one, life is meaningless.

Back to my comments on Dan Barker's use of the burden of proof. He asserted that the burden of proof is on anyone making a claim to truth that is not "obvious" or empirically falsifiable. But this is confusing the epistemology of lower knowledge with that of higher knowledge. Everyone assumes some system of higher knowledge without rigorously proving it, even if they may apply the laws of rationality to refine and extend it later. At the very least, in questions of higher knowledge the burden of proof lies on all parties involved to explain why their system makes better sense of questions of meaning and purpose like those above. In fact, considering how "normal" and "obvious" belief in the supernatural has been for most of human history, it could even be argued that the burden of proof lies on the relatively recent thinkers who rule out supernatural explanations in favor of materialistic ones--or, at least, that the definition of "obvious" is not obvious.

So, if higher knowledge can't be empirically derived, ask skeptics, isn't whatever system of higher knowledge we choose just arbitrary, at least as much a product of our origins and wishful thinking as of whether or not it's true? What's to stop people from just believing in whatever they want--God, Buddha, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, etc.? Nothing. But I think people will choose the system of higher knowledge that they feel effectively answers their questions of meaning. C.S. Lewis calls this the "fitness" of a belief system--fitness for making sense of our existence. If the system they grew up in fails at this task, they will look elsewhere. No one sincerely believes in the Flying Spaghetti Monster because the Flying Spaghetti Monster, besides being consciously made-up, makes little or no coherent, satisfactory sense of "life, the universe, and everything" and raises far more questions than it answers.

In contrast, through Christian theology I get the sense that I'm exploring something that really is "other" than myself, even "other" than humanity in general, just as much as I did as a math major. The very fact that God doesn't make immediate sense to me and isn't perfectly explainable, yet makes sense in a deeper way that I explore rather than invent in a process that forces me to grow as a person in His image, in love, joy, and wisdom, gives me an unshakable assurance that my faith is well-placed. Skeptics, of course, will demand detailed explanations for things that Christians are happy to accept as mysteries and use their unexplainability prima facie as proof that it's all nonsense. Theoretical physicists truly believe they are exploring a system of truths and rules that objectively exists "out there" and so take mysteries like the bizarreness of quantum mechanics or relativity as invitations to dig deeper, not as excuses to write the whole thing off. I think something similar, but deeper and more fulfilling, is going on between a Christian and his Christ.

Again, higher knowledge is not "proven" in the scientific sense; it makes no sense to apply probability to it and you can't be led to it purely by evidence because your higher knowledge controls how you view and interpret the evidence. This is why the beauty of nature can mean that Jesus is the Son of God to Francis Collins, but not to Sam Harris. This is also why, in rationalistic parlance, Christianity is "nonfalsifiable": no evidence can disprove a Christian's faith (or so we hope) because the Christian's faith makes sense of that evidence in a different way than the skeptic is hoping. In order to move outside your own paradigm and begin to understand a different one, you have to want to understand, to stop writing it off as nonsense and open yourself up to it.

One qualification for Christian readers: I am well aware that I seem to be putting Christianity on the same level as other world religions, even making it seem like nothing more than a more fulfilling way of looking at life, doing nothing that couldn't be done by taking a yoga class or improving your diet. Of course I believe it is far more than this. I believe that Christianity is based on important realities both historical and spiritual--namely the death and resurrection of Christ--and that the point of the higher knowledge it teaches it to shift the focus of our lives outside ourselves to God--the importance of this change can't be overstated. I am only treating Christianity and other faiths as a coherent bloc by what they have in common, namely their claim to offer revelatory answers to metaphysical questions like the ones I voiced above, in contrast to materialism, which asserts that these questions either don't matter, don't have meaningful answers, or can be answered empirically. I am arguing that skeptics really do carry a priori higher-knowledge assumptions just like the religious; we see this every time they make a moral or value judgment. They are just unaware of these assumptions because they categorically deny their validity.

The Dark Room

An analogy is in order. Imagine you are inspecting a room with a fellow detective. There are no windows or light sources, but the room is inexplicably, uniformly lit somehow; nonetheless, it is quite dim. You are walking around looking the whole room over; your partner is crawling on his hands and knees, closely poring over every object and floorboard with a magnifying glass. You comment, "This room is dark". Your partner responds, "No it isn't. I can see everything in it just fine. Every object, every detail, I've come across, I've been able to resolve just fine with my magnifying glass. Do you mean that the ceiling is dark? I may not be able to inspect it yet, but I will be able to once I get a stepladder. Point to your evidence that the room is actually dark." How would you respond, if not by taking away the magnifying glass and imploring him to look at the room as you do? What specific object could you possibly point to as proof that the room is dark on his terms? Would not your partner, dependent on the magnifying glass as he seems to be, respond to your efforts to persuade him to lay it aside as invitations to become blind and despair of any effort to make sense of the room?

I know it's a bit of a contrived example. The magnifying glass is scientific inquiry and the darkness of the room is the existence of God. No specific bit of evidence "proves" that the room is dark, but from your perspective the claim "the room is dark" has great explanatory power for the difficulty in seeing anything clearly. By trying to fit your claim into his system of discovering and evaluating truth, your partner makes it unintelligible and unbelievable to himself. Different belief (or nonbelief) systems change how you view the evidence. Every worldview looks consistent and sensible to itself while the others look unfounded and false; if you refuse to look outside your own, you will never consider or understand others.

Dan Barker asserts that while Christianity, with its claims of higher knowledge not based on any specific evidence, is unfalsifiable, while atheism is exquisitely falsifiable. He says that he would believe in God if, say, someone predicted to him the exact time of impact, trajectory, and composition of a meteorite. Would you, Dan? Or would you believe in radically powerful telescopes and computer simulations, or that time travel will be invented someday? Aren't those more likely than the existence of God? Jesus said that if someone won't listen to the scriptures, even someone rising from the dead wouldn't be enough to convince them (Luke 16:31). And He was right! (Matthew 28:15 and all the present-day atheological explanations for the resurrection)

For fairness' sake, there are also abundant examples today of the opposite error, subjugating the realm of lower knowledge to the higher. Consider the dichotomy often thrown around in more conservative Christian circles along the lines of: "What do you believe: your experience or the Word of God?" As if you had to deny one for the other! As I've argued, the Bible should shape how we interpret our experience, not simply contradict it; the one is constructive and leads to growth, the other is destructive and leads to frustration. This assumption is one of the foundations for the submerged anti-intellectualism that exists in much of popular Christianity. One of the characters in Neal Stephenson's novel Snow Crash aptly explains the frustration critical thinkers have with this: "Ninety-nine percent of what goes on in most Christian churches has nothing to do with the actual religion. Intelligent people all realize this sooner or later, and they conclude that the entire one hundred percent is bullshit, which is why atheism is connected with being intelligent in peoples' minds."

Applications for Conversation

In light of all this, I have some modest proposals for how conversations between believers and skeptics in the modern, western world can be improved. First, for Christians, because I feel more comfortable critiquing my own faith:
  1. Apologists, keep in mind the limitations of logical "proofs" and arguments for the existence of God. As I stated above, your system of higher knowledge--your explanatory "worldview" determines what you make of things like the Big Bang, abiogenesis, "fine-tuning", and other such pieces of evidence. If there really were an airtight, universally understandable proof for God, everyone would believe by now. And seriously, the ontological argument is pretty ridiculous.
  2. More generally, realize that apologetics is about more than logic, reason, evidence, and argument. It seems from these emphases like we have largely allowed skeptics to set the terms and format for how the dialogue between us and them plays out. At the core of it, I think apologetics is really about conversation, relationship, and showing nonbelievers the character of Christ--to attract people to Jesus, not to argue them to Him. If I really respect and admire someone's character, I am highly inclined to listen to and consider what they have to say, even if we don't always agree. For people to understand the gospel, they have to first want to understand it. This was true for Jesus and certainly true for us.
  3. Don't assume things about nonbelievers' reasons for their views, and don't claim to know "the truth" about what's going on. Dan Barker was rather indignant about this. People would tell him that he just didn't want to believe, needed to have more faith, ask the reason he stopped believing (as if there was just one), said God was testing him, etc. When you know Someone who professes to be "the Truth" and meet someone who doesn't, it's easy to let it go to your head. Paul's speech in Acts 17 is an excellent (albeit culturally contextualized) example of what it looks like to address nonbelievers from "where they're at", not where you're at.
  4. Make every effort to understand nonbelievers and build relationships. Realize that atheists aren't God-hating, baby-eating, child-corrupting monsters from out east; by and large, they are intelligent, thoughtful people quite capable of living (by "Christian" standards) upright lives. They aren't amoral, they don't just refuse to believe, and they may not consciously dislike Jesus. Humanism doesn't just mean believing whatever you want, and throwing Romans 1:21 or Colossians 2:8 out there is not a good way to refute it.
  5. This is a big one: do not minimize or dismiss honest questions and doubts people are having about God. (Distinguishing honest doubts from theological potshots takes wisdom) Countless ex-Christians became so because their questions about God, the Bible, or the church were met by "You just have to have faith", "Don't question God", or "God works in mysterious ways" instead of by honest answers. We are failing these people and it burdens me. Once you get those relationships and dialogues with skeptics going, you can start actually listening to their questions and doubts and addressing them. God doesn't need us to protect the truth, He wants us to question and investigate it for ourselves, and skeptics can teach us a thing or two about this process if we will listen.
And for skeptics:
  1. Realize that your epistemological approach of subjecting everything to rational inquiry and demands for evidence is not the "obvious", "sensible", "logical", or "default" approach that everyone else needs to conform to. Something can be true without being fully explainable or provable empirically. (Consider looking for examples of things you believe without proof)
  2. Logical fallacies can be helpful guides to truth, but they can also be tools for short-circuiting debates and "winning" them without convincing anyone but yourself. Their application is subjective: what looks to a Christian like you are arguing against a straw representation of their beliefs might look to you like a "no true Christian" fallacy or ad hoc sophistry on their part. If a belief isn't explainable in your system of truth, could true attempts to explain it look to you like logical fallacies?
  3. Realize that there are options in between believing only what can be empirically/rationally proven and making up whatever garbage you want. I've found that perceived dichotomies between my position and the "wrong" one like this can indicate that I'm thinking in too few dimensions. Some Christians hold a similar view, only with basing all knowledge on the Bible.
  4. If you must insist that witnesses for truth be rational and unbiased, practice what you preach. Stop caricaturing the beliefs you are arguing against, using dismissive language, and in general acting just as much like you have a monopoly on truth as Christian fundamentalists. Having my intelligence insulted and my faith called a "cult" offhand does not make me more disposed to take you seriously. When you say, "God/Christianity is incoherent and meaningless", I get that you aren't inclined to look into what Christians really believe and how it is coherent to them.
  5. Be willing to take seriously the fact that many professing Christians are highly educated, even in the same fields (biology, philosophy, physics, Biblical criticism, history...) you are using to argue against Christianity, and that most Christians don't feel a need to read up on all the evidence on these things because they trust the word of these experts. For example, some atheists I've talked to act like there is no debate at all on the "fact" that the gospels are embellished second-century forgeries, even though I am inclined to side with Biblical scholars like Bruce Metzger who argue convincingly and substantively to the contrary. If the experts don't all agree, why do we need to? If I said that because Einstein, one of the most brilliant physicists ever to live, believed the theory of relativity, it was true, you would rightly point of that I was making an appeal to authority. But most people do believe the theory of relativity is true because of the expert witness of scientists like Einstein rather than by consulting the evidence and reading the papers themselves, and no one really questions it. There is a difference between justified belief and objective truth.

The Limits of Doubt

I used to be afraid to read books or talk to people that were critical of or hostile towards Christianity, as many of you may be. I was afraid they would lead me to doubt or even walk away from my faith--but after I'd already struggled so much with my own doubt, they ended up having the opposite effect. Mainly by presenting me with what appeared to be the logical conclusion of doubting and questioning, and compelling me to figure out why I yet disagreed with it. And, as a counterbalancing force to my doubt, came a deeper satisfaction in what and Who I believe and the admission that He has all the answers, not me. So, on top of everything else, I started questioning my doubts. I realized that sometimes to answer questions, it's myself, not just my understanding, that needs to change. As I hope I've shown in this post, that questioning has led to a richer, more encompassing, more intellectually satisfied faith.

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