Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Ways of knowing

By Mathew Goldstein

Theists tend to claim that by applying theological principles we can determine not only that a god really exists, but the actual identity of this real god.  They then argue that atheists fail to take theology seriously and thus fail to acknowledge the strong justifications for theism.  We atheists tend to think theists are wasting their time on chimeras because theological principles are incapable of discriminating between what is true and what is false about how our universe works.

We can divide questions about truth into at least three categories:  what could be true, what is true, what should be true. The what should be true category can be further subdivided into moral and aesthetic judgements. That which is good/beautiful should be true while that which is bad/ugly should not be true.

Atheists start with the could be true question, compare the could be scenarios against the data, which consists of the empirical evidences, and then conclude that the could be true scenario which is the best fit with the available data identifies what is true.  Theistic theology mostly either does not do this, or does this in a biased, incomplete manner.  This is because theistic theology instead tries to derive conclusions about what is true on the basis of combining what could be true with what should be true.  An example of this is Pascal's Wager which argues that we could be punished by a god who should exist for the purpose of imposing an after death reckoning for before death misbehavior.

Theists complain atheists are being too narrow and closed minded by rejecting this sort of reasoning from theological principles.  Yet we all have excellent reason to think that we cannot derive what is true conclusions from what should be true principles.  Everyone experiences conflicts throughout their lives between what should be true and what is true.  People should not become injured, should not become sick, should not forget things, should not lack food or shelter, should not die, etc.  So atheists are merely guilty of being consistent when they reject reaching any is true conclusions from should be true derived principles.

God exists and has a particular identity versus gods do not exist are competing statements asserting alternative contingent truths that separate our actual world from all the other worlds we might have imagined.  The only way to reliably evaluate such competing statements about how our universe works is empirically.   No judgement about good/bad or beautiful/ugly is involved.  Because moral and aesthetic statements entail these additional judgements they are arguably different kinds of truth, and we cannot reach conclusions for such should be statements only empirically.

Yet empirically determined conclusions about how our universe works are needed to properly anchor our moral and aesthetic judgements.  Our moral and aesthetic judgements are built on top of our empirically derived prior conclusions about how our universe works.  Our subsequent judgements regarding what is good/bad and beautiful/ugly are informed by our true/false conclusions.  People who build their true/false conclusions about how our universe works from their moral and aesthetic judgements (a.k.a. from theological principles), although often well-intentioned, are making a mistake, like a home builder constructing a house underneath its foundation.

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