Saturday, March 3, 2012

Towards a Fully Human Epistemology

As I noted yesterday, Daniel Nairn shared what I thought was a good, thoughtful response to my earlier post on The Faith of Atheism. Here I respond to him in kind.

I'm not sure that the behavior Daniel describes is necessarily peculiar to skepticism. "Evidence" probably needs more definition, and that may be at the heart of the disagreement between folks who lean towards atheism/skepticism and those who lean towards theism. I would say that evidence (the available body of information) comes from both of the sources I identified, namely both from personal experience and those whom we trust. And this is again where I think that in practice we all behave as if that were true, but it's only when reasoning about this that some (incorrectly in my view) limit the meaning of "evidence" to mean something like "material evidence."  

Belief in God is not something we are born with. Throughout our lives we are presented with the evidence of our personal experience (again, including material/scientific observation) and what others tell us about theirs, and their reasoning/conclusions about the world. We use our minds to reason about those things and come to conclusions about things, including the question of the existence of God. 

The process offered by Daniel ("evidence should come before faith") is in my understanding a Catholic view of things as well, because it is reflective of human nature. Faith is not contrary to reason but is the act of the will that picks up where reason leaves off. For us, truth all comes from one and the same Source, no matter how we discover it, so there cannot be a real conflict between faith and reason but only apparent ones that we have to resolve, to understand how they are not, in reality, in conflict.

Those who conclude that God exists are coming to their conclusion using the same human faculties as those who do not. It is a choice (and not, as some would have it, the only proper way to think) to say that you require material evidence or not in order to draw a conclusion about God's existence. To say that one should form conclusions about reality based only on material/scientific evidence is not only not practicable (as I have tried to show), but it is also, I would add, undesirable and untrue to human experience or nature. In short, I would say it is not allowing yourself to be fully human. 

Note that I am not suggesting that being fully human in this way necessarily implies theism--this is not an argument for the existence of God but an argument for acknowledging a fully human epistemology and leveraging it in one's efforts to answer the question of God's existence, among other things.

Daniel seems to say that he thinks that changing ones conclusions based on new evidence is peculiar to skepticism. I don't think so. Theists can become atheists, and it is through such a process that this happens. Theists can have doubts--indeed, it seems to be a common experience. That not all theists become atheists does not imply that they therefore would never do so; it only means that they think that despite their doubts, the evidence taken as a whole, in their estimation, is still in favor of God's existence.

I also think that we need to apply that same measure suggested to other beliefs we hold and to realize that it is not a peculiar experience in relation to the object of belief (i.e., belief in God or anything else). By that I mean that we hold beliefs more or less strongly, we are more or less easily swayed to change them, based upon the prior evidence and reasoning we have for them. Politics is a great example of this. But we also hold more mundane beliefs more or less strongly, such as what constitutes good health and how to achieve it, whether owning a house is better than renting, whether this or that computer programming language is better, the best way to make software, what constitutes a "real" professional in a field, and so on.

People who argue for beliefs are often characterized as being more or less "religious" about them, which is a pet peeve of mine because of course what what people really mean by that term is that they think people are irrationally clinging to beliefs and unwilling to change. And this is really the heart of my contention--to hold a belief about something based on a fully human epistemology is not irrational; quite the opposite, in fact. It is being rationally honest about ourselves as humans and how we know things.

This does not imply, however, that all beliefs are equally valid in terms of their respective conformance with reality as it really is. God forbid! The measure of the truth of an idea is precisely in how well it conforms with reality as it really is. Our job then, as humans, is to first do our best--using our full human faculties--to best understand what the truth is and then to act accordingly. 

And human nature being thus limited to our individual exposure to evidence and our varying reasoning about it, this means we inevitably will come to different conclusions about truth and morality, but living in a society, it is impractical to just leave it at that. And that is the underlying theme in the history of humanity--the working out of our disparate understandings of truth and morality together. 

The more mutually respectful we are, I believe, the better chance we'll have for effectively working toward that good end of thinking and acting most in accord with the truth. The more we lose this mutual respect, have scorn, disgust, and ultimately hatred, the more we resort to violence in thought, word, and ultimately deed, effectively preventing ourselves from fully realizing that end. The more we acknowledge our human nature and our fully human epistemology, the more we will be inclined to have this mutual respect and be able to build on that as a shared foundation for discovering--using all our sources of information--the truth together. Then we just have the hard task of living according to it!