Can We Or Anyone Think Objectively?

I like visiting Christian Cadre just to see the best that Christians can do against my arguments. In one comment I had said,
“I have very good grounds for saying that what religious faith a person accepts is due to when and where they were born. Surely you cannot disagree with that. If you were born and raised in Iran you'd be a Muslim, is but just one of a myriad of examples.”
BK responded:
“It goes without saying that if you are raised in a particular country where a particular religion is paramount, the odds are that you will be of that religion….The circumstances of where I'm born and raised make it more likely that I will hold one belief, but that is irrelevant to its truth. To merely point to the fact that some people want to test religious claims in different ways does not mean that we cannot, through reason, arrive at the best way to test the religious claims and then use reason and evidence to test those claims.”

I responded to BK:
“But we all test the claims of different religions from the outside, because we are outsiders, and we arrive at different conclusions precisely because we are outsiders. Why don't YOU test your beliefs as if YOU were an outsider? How does one become an insider in the first place? It's based to an overwhelming degree on when and where we are born, precisely because there are no mutually agreed upon tests to decide. Test them as an outsider. What do YOU find when you do?”

BK responded:
“Excuse me, but you don't know me. You assume that I haven't tested the claims as an outsider. And on what basis do you think I haven't tested the claims like an outsider? Because I found them to be satisfactory?”

Then I responded:
BK: “If you have, then congratulations, you are above the great majority of people. You must be really really intelligent to think outside of your upbringing. Kudos to you. You're smarter than I. You have bragging rights, ya know. Although, tell me how you came to embrace your faith and let's see. Spare me no details, okay? Who or what influenced you? Start with when you were a child.”

Then BK thought he hit pay dirt when he wrote:
“What I find amazing about this conversation is the inconsistency that you are showing. Now, think about it. Either we have the ability to see things objectively or we don't. If we do, then why are you acting so astounded that I may have done so? If we don't, then your atheism is merely the result of a combination of your DNA and experiences. After all, you haven't looked at the claims in any type of objective manner either, in which case you are merely spouting whatever nature and nurture programmed you to say which may not be what nature and nurture has programmed me to say. So, why are you here?”

Christians think this is a showstopper. But it doesn't solve anything. Here’s the problem. In an epistemology class I took with evangelical apologist great Dr. Stuart Hackett, at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, one of the books we read was William Pepperell Montague’s classic book, titled, The Ways of Knowing (Humanities Press, 1925). While it is dated it was (as is) a great introductory book on the various options in epistemology (excepting Reformed epistemology and Hackett’s own epistemology). In his long chapter on the method of Authoritarianism, for instance, Montague wrote: “We accept on trust nine-tenths of what we hold to be true. Man is a suggestible animal and tends to believe what is said to him unless he has some positive reason for doubting the honesty or competence of his informant….To hear is to believe.” (p. 39). Montague takes the reader through how one can evaluate authorities, for which see his book (probably in the libraries). But the fatal question for accepting something based upon authority is based on the fact that authorities conflict: “Why should I accept your authority rather than his?”

While Montague didn’t specify all of the things we believe based upon authority, or take a poll, it just rings true. I suspect we believe based upon authority upwards to 95% of that which we believe. The realm of things we do not base our beliefs on authority are those things we have personally experienced (or incorrigible beliefs) and those things which we have personally “done the math” or performed the experiment. Everything we believe about history, psychology, world geography, and so forth is based upon authority. I have never visited China, but I believe it exists and that the pictures I see of the Chinese people there, really live there. This is not to say there isn’t evidence for these beliefs, because there is indeed evidence. It’s just that I have never personally confirmed them.

So the fatal question when we consider that about 90%-95% of what we believe is based upon authority is this: why should I accept your authorities over mine? Authorities do not conflict about the fact that China exists, so I can be reassured it does. The more that authorities agree the more I can be assured of a particular belief. That's why we can believe what scientific authorities have to say to a much greater degree than any other discipline of learning.

Now let’s talk about religion in this same vein. Authorities do in fact conflict. Not only are there conflicting authorities between religions, there are conflicting authorities between adherents of each specific religion. What’s a person to do? It would take a lifetime to study all of these religions out in great detail, something the great scholar Huston Smith has probably done, and he concluded with philosophers John Hick and Terence Penelhum that this world is “religiously ambiguous.” He wrote, “People have never agreed on the world’s meaning and (it seems safe to say) never will.” [in Why Religion Matters, pp. 205-206].

Okay so far? Now what are the rest of us to do? Authorities like Richard Swinburne, William Lane Craig and Norman L. Geisler disagree and argue instead that Christianity is objectively true for everyone. Some think Christianity is rationally superior.

With this as a background let me speak directly to BK’s last response. Can we think objectively about our world? Yes, I would like to think so. It depends upon what issues we are thinking about, though. If nearly all authorities agree, then we can have some degree of objectivity about this world. But I don’t believe we have any ultimate objectivity (defined as “certainty”) about this world. Oriental authorities disagree with our Occidental authorities. The East is the East, and the West is the West. This is no different than when I say I have objective morals but not any ultimately objective morals. For Christians who want to claim they need certainty before they can know anything or do anything good, I think they just must not know anything or do anything good, because attaining (apodictic) certainty probably isn’t possible (Descartes “I Doubt Therefore I Am,” is probably the only possible exception to this, and even that is subject to Russellian doubt).

Do we truly have metaphysical freedom? Yes, I would like to think so, but I don’t know for sure. Jean Paul Sartre thought so, as do some other atheists. If we have self-consciousness, then we have some degree of non-abstract limited freedom, I think.

The point is that most everything we believe is because of which authority we trust. So how do we decide between authorities when there isn’t a mutually agreed upon test to decide between options, and where there is the greatest disagreement between conflicting authorities? We do so based upon where and when we are born.

What does BK say in response? He wants to argue that we do have epistemological objectivity, and he thinks that if I don’t admit this, I have no case. But wait just a minute. At best, the only epistemological objectivity he can argue for is the remaining 5%-10% of his beliefs—beliefs which he has personally experienced, and even those beliefs can be subject to doubt (maybe he’s dreaming, hallucinating, under the influence of prescription medicine, anger, lust, or simply failed to remember what exactly happened)! He must admit that most of what he believes is based upon authority, which is in turn based upon when and where he was born. Should that grant him much comfort, knowing that in no other area of opinion do authorities disagree the most with one another than when it comes to religious beliefs? Not at all. For to say that objectivity is possible merely grants him that it’s possible, in the same exact way that by granting we can know what happened in the historical past is also possible. Even if there is a possibility that objective knowledge and objective history is possible, that is a far cry away from knowing that his particular views of both are probable when it comes to religious beliefs where there is the greatest level of disagreement between authorities.

Now, what can be said if there is no epistemological, or historical objectivity at all, or that there is no metaphysical freedom? What if everything we do and everything we believe is based entirely upon the forces of nature acting in conjunction with our genetic material? Then we can never say we know anything with any objectivity at all. We believe simply because of random chance events.

If this is the case, then it’s the case, and there’s nothing any of us can do about it, Christians like BK included. But there is nothing preventing us from acting as if we are free simply because we have the illusion that we are, and there is nothing wrong with thinking we have an objective reasons for believing something even if there is none. We can neither act nor think differently than we can act or think! There is likewise nothing wrong with condemning murder even if there is no objective morality. Why? Just to mention one reason, there might actually be an objective basis for these things in self-consciousness, or eternally existing Platonic values and norms for knowledge, like some atheists believe. So if something seems reasonable to us we should argue for it. That’s how nature will progress, as we do our part as a part of nature.

Does this then grant BK the needed justification for believing Christianity is true? No! For once he acknowledges that there is no epistemological objectivity he should be an agnostic. He should abandon all attempts to justify his own certainty with regard to Christianity. Agnosticism is default position. My claim is that agnosticism leads to atheism, that’s all. The question is how it would be possible for agnosticism to lead BK to Christianity? It can’t, and yet by my analysis it’s the default position.

What BK argues is that it’s all or nothing. Well, if that’s his demand, then like demands of this sort, he gets nothing. Granting him some objectivity doesn’t get him to the full-blown Christian beliefs anymore than handing a child a set of blocks gets us a New York Skyscraper. And admitting we may not have an objective basis for knowledge (if this is the case) does not mean that Christianity is true by default either, since Christianity still falls by the wayside with the other religious claims made by different authorities based upon when and where they were born.

17 comments: