May 9, 2009

Base camp. High above the tree line...

From If Only Atheists Were the Skeptics They Think They Are, by Edward Tingley:

..."Believing is not something you can decide to do as a matter of policy," as Dawkins says—though it is odd that he does so in a discussion of Pascal, who, like him, is a skeptic. A complete misunderstanding of Pascal, however, is crucial to the way that Dawkins and every one of his fellows (past and future) always think.

Evidence is just not available to demonstrate the existence of God, said Pascal, who called himself one of those creatures who lack the humility that makes a natural believer. In that, he was of our time: We are pretty much all like that now. Three hundred and fifty years ago he laid out our situation for us: Modern man confronts the question of God from the starting point of skepticism, the conviction that there is no conclusive physical or logical evidence that the God of the Bible exists.

"I have wished a hundred times over that, if there is a God supporting nature, [nature] should unequivocally proclaim him, and that, if the signs in nature are deceptive, she should suppress them altogether"—but nature prefers to tease, so she "presents to me nothing which is not a matter of doubt" (429). "We desire truth and find in ourselves nothing but uncertainty" (401). "We are . . . incapable of knowing . . . whether he is" (418). This is where the modern person usually starts in his assault on the question, Is God real or imaginary?

This is base camp, above the tree-line of convincing reasons and knock-down arguments, at the far edge of things we can kick and see, and it is all uphill from here. Thus, it is astounding how many Dawkinses and Dennetts, undecideds and skeptical nay-sayers—that sea of "progressive" folk who claim to "think critically" about religion and either "take theism on" or claim they are "still looking"—who have not reached the year 1660 in their thinking. They almost never pay attention to what the skeptic Pascal said about this enquiry.

Instead, the dogmatic reflex, ever caring for human comfort, has flexed and decided the question already, has told them what to believe in advance of investigation and rushed them back to the safety of life as usual....
[...]

...Pascal the skeptic has ruled out a fruitless path, the path to God via logic or concrete evidence: the easy route to the summit, sought for centuries but never found. The only way forward is up from where we are, onto the icy slopes out past the limit of concrete evidence. If that is possible.

At this point, of course, the venture is not looking especially promising. The mind is made for hard evidence. It gets traction on rough ground, but what stretches before us is sheer ice (minds are not issued with crampons). Is there a way forward?

That is now the question. If we care about the truth more than we care about some favored means of data-collection, we need to discover whether there is any other way, up here where the air is thin and the ice treacherous, that a rational person could settle the question of God.

A Question, Not an Answer

"Is there anything more?" is the scientific question, but as Pascal asks it, the "scientists" vanish.

The agnostics ski down the mountain into the woods, searching for hard evidence on the basis of which to decide whether God exists—which is very odd, given that a moment ago they were standing here with us, ready to climb as declared skeptics. Agnostics, plainly, are wafflers in their skepticism: As the team gets going, they U-turn back to the foothills, where every true skeptic says there is nothing to find. They do not care about the truth.

But even more astonishing than that, the atheists have just gone home. They are not down in the valley looking for evidence; they are not looking at all. They have packed in the science without lifting a boot, as if the summit were already taken, the question answered.

The atheist is the team-member who was always talking up the loftiness of the mission, but after all his fervid urgings to "search for what is true, even if it makes you uncomfortable," to go on no matter how hard and painful the going gets, he is the chap who grandly announces, without bending a knee, that victory is ours: "God should be readily detectable by scientific means." "Absence of evidence is evidence of absence." We now "rule out the God worshiped by most Jews, Christians, and Muslims." The climb is done, and the atheist scampers back to town to meet the press....
Posted by John Weidner at May 9, 2009 8:55 PM
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