By GARY GUTTING
The Stone is a forum for contemporary philosophers and other thinkers on issues both timely and timeless.
This is the second in a series of interviews about religion that I am conducting for The Stone. The interviewee for this installment is Louise Antony, a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and the editor of the essay collection “Philosophers Without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life.”
Gary Gutting: You’ve taken a strong stand as an atheist, so you obviously don’t think there are any good reasons to believe in God. But I imagine there are philosophers whose rational abilities you respect who are theists. How do you explain their disagreement with you? Are they just not thinking clearly on this topic?
Louise Antony: I’m not sure what you mean by saying that I’ve taken a “strong stand as an atheist.” I don’t consider myself an agnostic; I claim to know that God doesn’t exist, if that’s what you mean.
G.G.: That is what I mean.
L.A.: O.K. So the question is, why do I say that theism is false, rather than just unproven? Because the question has been settled to my satisfaction. I say “there is no God” with the same confidence I say “there are no ghosts” or “there is no magic.” The main issue is supernaturalism — I deny that there are beings or phenomena outside the scope of natural law.
That’s not to say that I think everything is within the scope of human knowledge. Surely there are things not dreamt of in our philosophy, not to mention in our science – but that fact is not a reason to believe in supernatural beings. I think many arguments for the existence of a God depend on the insufficiencies of human cognition. I readily grant that we have cognitive limitations. But when we bump up against them, when we find we cannot explain something — like why the fundamental physical parameters happen to have the values that they have — the right conclusion to draw is that we just can’t explain the thing. That’s the proper place for agnosticism and humility.
But getting back to your question: I’m puzzled why you are puzzled how rational people could disagree about the existence of God. Why not ask about disagreements among theists? Jews and Muslims disagree with Christians about the divinity of Jesus; Protestants disagree with Catholics about the virginity of Mary; Protestants disagree with Protestants about predestination, infant baptism and the inerrancy of the Bible. Hindus think there are many gods while Unitarians think there is at most one. Don’t all these disagreements demand explanation too? Must a Christian Scientist say that Episcopalians are just not thinking clearly? Are you going to ask a Catholic if she thinks there are no good reasons for believing in the angel Moroni?
G.G.: Yes, I do think it’s relevant to ask believers why they prefer their particular brand of theism to other brands. It seems to me that, at some point of specificity, most people don’t have reasons beyond being comfortable with one community rather than another. I think it’s at least sometimes important for believers to have a sense of what that point is. But people with many different specific beliefs share a belief in God — a supreme being who made and rules the world. You’ve taken a strong stand against that fundamental view, which is why I’m asking you about that.
L.A.: Well I’m challenging the idea that there’s one fundamental view here. Even if I could be convinced that supernatural beings exist, there’d be a whole separate issue about how many such beings there are and what those beings are like. Many theists think they’re home free with something like the argument from design: that there is empirical evidence of a purposeful design in nature. But it’s one thing to argue that the universe must be the product of some kind of intelligent agent; it’s quite something else to argue that this designer was all-knowing and omnipotent. Why is that a better hypothesis than that the designer was pretty smart but made a few mistakes? Maybe (I’m just cribbing from Hume here) there was a committee of intelligent creators, who didn’t quite agree on everything. Maybe the creator was a student god, and only got a B- on this project.
In any case though, I don’t see that claiming to know that there is no God requires me to say that no one could have good reasons to believe in God. I don’t think there’s some general answer to the question, “Why do theists believe in God?” I expect that the explanation for theists’ beliefs varies from theist to theist. So I’d have to take things on a case-by-case basis.
I have talked about this with some of my theist friends, and I’ve read some personal accounts by theists, and in those cases, I feel that I have some idea why they believe what they believe. But I can allow there are arguments for theism that I haven’t considered, or objections to my own position that I don’t know about. I don’t think that when two people take opposing stands on any issue that one of them has to be irrational or ignorant.
G.G.: No, they may both be rational. But suppose you and your theist friend are equally adept at reasoning, equally informed about relevant evidence, equally honest and fair-minded — suppose, that is, you are what philosophers call epistemic peers: equally reliable as knowers. Then shouldn’t each of you recognize that you’re no more likely to be right than your peer is, and so both retreat to an agnostic position?
Why is an all-knowing and omnipotent God more likely than a God who was pretty smart but made a few mistakes?
L.A.: Yes, this is an interesting puzzle in the abstract: How could two epistemic peers — two equally rational, equally well-informed thinkers — fail to converge on the same opinions? But it is not a problem in the real world. In the real world, there are no epistemic peers — no matter how similar our experiences and our psychological capacities, no two of us are exactly alike, and anydifference in either of these respects can be rationally relevant to what we believe.
G.G.: So is your point that we always have reason to think that people who disagree are not epistemic peers?
L.A.: It’s worse than that. The whole notion of epistemic peers belongs only to the abstract study of knowledge, and has no role to play in real life. Take the notion of “equal cognitive powers”: speaking in terms of real human minds, we have no idea how to seriously compare the cognitive powers of two people.
L.A.: Knowledge in the real world does not entail either certainty or infallibility. When I claim to know that there is no God, I mean that the question is settled to my satisfaction. I don’t have any doubts. I don’t say that I’m agnostic, because I disagree with those who say it’s not possible to know whether or not God exists. I think it’s possible to know. And I think the balance of evidence and argument has a definite tilt.
G.G.: What sort of evidence do you have in mind?
L.A.: I find the “argument from evil” overwhelming — that is, I think the probability that the world we experience was designed by an omnipotent and benevolent being is a zillion times lower than that it is the product of mindless natural laws acting on mindless matter. (There are minds in the universe, but they’re all finite and material.)
G.G.: Why do you think other philosophers don’t see it that way?
L.A.: To cite just one example, Peter van Inwagen, my friend and former teacher, assesses the situation very differently. He believes that we do not and cannot know the probability that the world we experience was designed by an omnipotent and benevolent being (which I estimate as close to zero), and that therefore the existence of suffering in our world gives us no reason to doubt the existence of God. He and I will be arguing about this in a seminar this coming summer, and I look forward to it. Don’t bet on either one of us changing our mind, though.
G.G.: What about positive cases for God’s existence? When I interviewed Alvin Plantinga, he cited religious experiences as making a strong case for theism. Mightn’t it be that he has evidence on this issue that you don’t?
L.A.: Many theists I’ve talked to — including Plantinga — say that they have or have had experiences in which they have become aware of the presence of God. I’ve never had such experiences.
G.G.: That doesn’t mean that Plantinga and others haven’t had such experiences.
L.A.: O.K., if you hold my feet to the fire (which is what you’re doing), I’ll admit that I believe I know what sort of experiences the theists are talking about, that I’ve had such experiences, but that I don’t think they have the content the theists assign to them. I’ve certainly had experiences I would call “profound.” Many were aesthetic in nature — music moves me tremendously, and so does nature. I’ve been tremendously moved by demonstrations of personal courage (not mine!), generosity, sympathy. I’ve had profound experiences of solidarity, when I feel I’m really together with other people working for some common goal. These are very exhilarating and inspiring experiences, but they are very clearly about human beings — human beings at their best.
G.G.: Would you say, then, that believers who think they have good reasons for theism are deceiving themselves, that they are actually moved by, say, hopes and fears — emotions — rather than reasons?
L.A.: I realize that some atheists do say things like “theists are just engaged in wishful thinking — they can’t accept that death is the end.” Theists are insulted by such conjectures (which is all they are) and I don’t blame them. It’s presumptuous to tell someone else why she believes what she believes — if you want to know, start by asking her.
It is disrespectful, moreover, to insist that someone else’s belief has some hidden psychological cause, rather than a justifying reason, behind it. As a “lapsed Catholic,” I’ve gotten a fair amount of this sort of thing myself: I’ve been told — sometimes by people who’ve just met me or who have never met me at all but found out my email address — that I “only” gave up my faith because (a) the nuns were too strict, (b) I wanted to have sex or (c) I was too lazy to get up on Sundays to go to church.
I believe I have reasons for my position, and I expect that theists believe they have reasons for theirs. Let’s agree to pay each other the courtesy of attending to the particulars.
G.G.: But when you talk about reasons in this way, you seem to mean something like “personal reasons” — reasons that convince you but that you don’t, and shouldn’t, expect to convince other people. And you agree that theists can and do have reasons in the same sense that you do. Many atheists hold a much stronger view: that they have good reasons and theists don’t. Do you agree with this?
L.A.: No, I don’t think reasons are “personal” in the sense you mean. Justificatory relations are objective. But they are complex. So whether any given belief justifies another is something that depends partly on what other beliefs the believer has. Also, there may be — objectively — many different but equally reasonable ways of drawing conclusions on the basis of the same body of evidence.
It’s likely that the conscious consideration of reasons plays a relatively small role in our acquiring the beliefs we do. An awful lot of what we believe is the result of automatic unconsciousness processing, involving lots of unarticulated judgments. That’s perfectly O.K. a lot of the time — if the process is reliable, we don’t have to be able to articulate reasons. I think the proper place for reasons — for demanding and giving reasons — is in interpersonal interaction.
G.G.: What do you mean by that?
L.A.: Reasons are the answer I give to someone who asks me why I believe something, or — more urgently — to someone who asks why she ought to believe something that I’ve asserted. In the public sphere, I think reasons are extremely important. If I’m advocating a social policy that stems from some belief of mine, I need to be able to provide compelling reasons for it — reasons that I can expect a rational person to be moved by. If I refuse to give my employees insurance coverage for contraception because I think contraception is wrong, then I ought — and this is a moral ought — to be able to articulate reasons for this position. I can’t just say, “that’s my belief, and that’s that.” A sense of responsibility about one’s beliefs, a willingness to defend them if challenged, and a willingness to listen to the reasons given by others is one of the guiding ideals of civil society.
G.G.: But doesn’t a belief in God often lead people to advocate social policies? For some people, their beliefs about God lead them to oppose gay marriage or abortion. Others’ beliefs lead them to oppose conservative economic policies. On your view, then, aren’t they required to provide a rational defense of their religious belief in the public sphere? If so, doesn’t it follow that their religious belief shouldn’t be viewed as just a personal opinion that’s nobody else’s business?
No one needs to defend their religious beliefs to me — not unless they think that those beliefs are essential to the defense of the policy they are advocating.
L.A.: No one needs to defend their religious beliefs to me — not unless they think that those beliefs are essential to the defense of the policy they are advocating. If the only argument for a policy is that Catholic doctrine says it’s bad, why should a policy that applies to everyone reflect that particular doctrine? “Religious freedom” means that no one’s religion gets to be the boss.
But usually, religious people who become politically active think that there are good moral reasons independent of religious doctrine, reasons that ought to persuade any person of conscience. I think — and many religious people agree with me — that the United States policy of drone attacks is morally wrong, because it’s wrong to kill innocent people for political ends. It’s the moral principle, not the existence of God, that they are appealing to.
G.G.: That makes it sounds like you don’t think it much matters whether we believe in God or not.
L.A.: Well, I do wonder about that. Why do theists care so much about belief in God? Disagreement over that question is really no more than a difference in philosophical opinion. Specifically, it’s just a disagreement about ontology — about what kinds of things exist. Why should a disagreement like that bear any moral significance? Why shouldn’t theists just look for allies among us atheists in the battles that matter — the ones concerned with justice, civil rights, peace, etc. — and forget about our differences with respect to such arcane matters as the origins of the universe?
This interview was conducted by email and edited. The previous interview in this series was with Alvin Plantinga.
Gary Gutting is a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, and an editor of Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. He is the author of, most recently, “Thinking the Impossible: French Philosophy Since 1960″ and writes regularly for The Stone.
See online: Arguments Against God