Why I’m Not Agnostic

Written on December 8, 2008. Written by .

Is God there?
Clearing up the definitions.
Photo courtesy of gonzalo_ar

Many people believe that it is not possible to know that God does not exist. There are two arguments that I have heard for this. The first argument claims that you can’t know anything about reality because it is impossible to prove anything about reality. But people who take this stance tend to use the word “know” inconsistently. If you ask them something like, “Do you know the name of the nearest planet to the sun?” they will say “Yes, Mercury” even though they certainly don’t have any proof of this claim either. But perhaps that is because they speak loosely whenever they are not talking about philosophy. Even then, to require proof for the use of the term “know” is excessively restrictive and it makes the word lose meaning.

There is a difference between cases in which you have epistemological knowledge and cases in which you are justified in claiming to have knowledge. Epistemological knowledge is defined roughly as properly justified true belief. This means that your belief must actually be true in order for you to know it. Therefore many of your beliefs may be knowledge, but you cannot be absolutely certain which of your beliefs are knowledge. If you were to say “I know that I know X” = “I know that (I believe X, I am properly justified in believing X, and X is definitely true)” => “I am justified in believing that X is definitely true”. But this last statement is always false if X is a statement about reality because the best you can do is to be justified in believing that X is almost certainly true. Now making a claim to have knowledge of X is basically equivalent to saying “I know that I know X”, so it is meaningless to use the epistemological definition to verify claims of knowledge since it will always return a negative result. This is why I permit myself to say that I know something even if I cannot be absolutely certain that it is epistemological knowledge because there is a small chance that the belief may be false. Instead I just require that my belief is “justified up to philosophical uncertainty”, which roughly means that the probability of being incorrect is vanishingly small. I use the term “vanishingly” because it evokes thoughts of an active process, and that is often characteristic of cases of knowledge. For example, I would say that I know I speak the same language as the rest of America. Of course there is a small chance that I have been misunderstanding everything that I have ever heard and I am actually speaking a completely different language. However, every time I hear another sentence the probability gets lower; it is continually vanishing. Therefore, when I say that I know God does not exist, I mean that I know this up to philosophical uncertainty.

Let’s say we agree to use this definition of knowledge that accounts for philosophical uncertainty, at least for the sake of argument. The second argument then challenges the idea that the probability that God exists is vanishingly small. Consider the example of whether I speak English-the only evidence I have that I speak English comes from the self-consistency of all of my language-based interactions. In other words, I don’t have any sure fire way to test the meaning of any word (even the dictionary could be deceptive); I can only make assumptions based on the lack of contradictions. A schema is a self-consistent understanding of some aspect of the world and in this case I have a schema of language that tells me I am speaking English. Similarly, science gives us a schema of the world that explains many aspects of the world fairly well. Of course it can’t yet answer every question we have, but it does explain enough that it decisively excludes the possibility of intervention by God. In other words, any way that God could try to influence human affairs is impossible according to the laws of physics. In particular, it is not possible to “talk” to someone without either generating sound waves from some physical source or creating electrical impulses in the person’s brain. Therefore, there is no way within our scientific schema of the world for the prophets who first raised awareness about God to have actually been spoken to by God.* So one possibility is that our schema is wrong, but the chances of this are vanishingly small because it is being reconfirmed every day by our experiences and by new experiments. The other possibility is that the prophets just made up their stories but they happened to be right and they guessed the exact notion of the God that truly does exist. But this is also vanishingly small because there are so many possibilities for what a God-like entity could be that guessing the right one would be like a monkey at a typewriter accidentally producing the complete works of Shakespeare.

But does this prove that no God exists? Couldn’t they have guessed wrong, but God still exists? No because the term “God” refers to a specific concept in each religion that contains a God. Obviously if you generalize the term “God” enough you could make it something that exists. If you say God is whatever caused the big bang, then God would exist as long as the big bang had some cause, regardless of whether it has anything to do with our present understanding of the word “God”. But we can’t simply define terms however we want or conversation becomes impossible. So the argument of the last paragraph can be used to refute the existence of any individual instantiation of the concept of God, for example the Christian God. And by applying the argument several times it can be used to refute each and every instantiation of the concept of God that currently exists. Therefore, the probability that God exists is vanishingly small, thus I can be confident that God does not exist up to philosophical uncertainty, so I know that God does not exist.

* There is one final possibility to address, which is the idea that God could intervene with the world through quantum mechanics. One could argue that since we can’t deterministically predict the outcome of quantum mechanical interactions, God could utilize this freedom to manipulate the electrons in a prophet’s brain to send him or her a message. However according to our scientific schema, quantum mechanics is still constrained by the laws of probability. The probability that enough quantum fluctuations occurred to produce an audible message in a man’s brain is vanishingly small. Any violation of these probabilistic constraints would again be a contradiction to our schema, which also has vanishingly small probability.

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