Thursday, January 24, 2013

NYT: The Way of the Agnostic


In this NYT opinion article, Gary Gutting makes some interesting arguments against atheism, none of which are particularly persuasive.  
To evaluate a religion, we need to distinguish the three great human needs religions typically claim to satisfy: love, understanding, and knowledge.  Doing so lets us appreciate religious love and understanding, even if we remain agnostic regarding religious knowledge.  (For those with concerns about talking of knowledge here:  I’m using “knowledge” to mean believing, with appropriate justification, what is true.  Knowledge in this sense may be highly probable but not certain; and faith—e.g., belief on reliable testimony—may provide appropriate justification.)
But the no-arguments view ignores the role of evidence and argument behind the religious beliefs of many informed and intelligent people.  ...  Believers have not made an intellectually compelling case for their claims: they do not show that any rational person should accept them.  But  believers such as Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne and Peter van Inwagen, to cite just a few examples, have well-thought-out reasons for their belief that call for serious discussion.  Their belief cannot be dismissed as on a par with children’s beliefs in Santa and the Easter Bunny.  We may well not find their reasons decisive, but it would be very difficult to show that no rational person could believe for the reasons that they do.
The cases intellectually sophisticated religious believers make are in fact similar to those that intellectually sophisticated thinkers (believers or not) make for their views about controversial political policies, ethical decisions or even speculative scientific theories.  Here, as in religion, opposing sides have arguments that they find plausible but the other side rejects.  Atheism may be intellectually viable, but it requires its own arguments and can’t merely cite the lack of decisive evidence for religion.  Further, unless atheists themselves have a clearly superior case for their denial of theistic religion, then agnosticism (doubting both religion and atheism) remains a viable alternative.  The no-arguments argument for atheism fails. 
Here, Gutting makes one of his biggest errors.  He defines knowledge as probable but uncertain, while faith he defines as belief on reliable testimony.  In other words, scientific knowledge is inherently unreliable, but the testimony of intelligent believers is reliable.  Huh?  In essence, he defines away the problem before it is even presented.

One comment summed up my reaction to the article:  "The human brain is extremely skilled at contorting intellect to serve emotional needs, but no amount of magical thinking will make a delusion any less of a delusion."  It doesn't matter how intelligent a person is.  Everyone has emotional needs, and those needs can and frequently do cloud one's judgment.  


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