Saturday, February 4, 2012

Do Atheists Know God Exists?

The Bible claims all men (atheists and skeptics included) have a knowledge of God. Romans 1:20-21 states, “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse. Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.”

Many atheists find such a claim both wrong and offensive. This is because it generally seems, both to skeptics and Christians alike, that there are only two choices for response when an atheist claims he doesn’t really know God exists. First, we can accuse him of being dishonest. Second, we can accuse him of being deluded. Neither seems particularly appealing. Is there a way to harmonize the biblical record without being firmly committed to one of these options? I think there is.

I believe the answer lies both in intuitive knowledge and the idea of awareness. Intuition is knowledge gained independently of a process. It is simply “in born,” as it were. This passage seems to teach we have some kind of sensus divinitas within; we know God exists.[1] This knowledge does not require conscious awareness of that fact. Here are some clear, everyday examples of knowledge not requiring conscious awareness: ever described something as being “on the tip of your tongue”? Or what about saying, “Oh! I know his name, I just can’t remember it!” You do in fact know his name but you are not currently aware due to forgetfulness.

These examples of forgetfulness are not the only ones of knowledge without awareness. I know my breathing is regular and my individual breaths to be quite frequent and high in number throughout a day. However, when I am sleeping, I am completely unaware of these and other bodily functions that I do in fact know about. Even when I am awake, there are facts of which I have knowledge but of which I am not always aware, like: the 16th amendment of the U.S. Constitution concerns income tax, my mother’s favorite thing is strawberries, South Africa has another country within its borders, etc. It’s quite apparent one can know something and yet not be aware of it.

So how does this apply to the atheist? Well, I do not think he is necessarily being dishonest or deluded, at least not in the senses these terms immediately imply. We see in life as well as the Bible that character is formed by choices and experiences (cf. Exodus ). These do not causally determine our choices, but they are influencers of these choices. A result of these choices (not to worship God for who he is) is a suppression of knowledge (cf. Romans )—in other words, they have knowledge of which they are not aware. “But Randy,” one may protest, “doesn’t this mean they are deluding themselves, or just lying to themselves?” Not quite. Instead, I think this rather has to do both with the will of the individual and the consequences of choosing to suppress the knowledge. Now an atheist may find this just as offensive, but I think it’s a better alternative to “lying” or “delusional.”

                [1] Interestingly, this may have application to my discussion on what happens to those people who have never heard of Jesus Christ. See the article by clicking on this sentence.
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  1. Randy,

    I do not find the claim all men, even atheists, 'know' 'god' exists but are 'suppressing' the so-called knowledge offensive. Rather, I find it silly and pedantic. It is akin to a child jumping up & down and incessantly shouting they are right because, well, they just are!

    That aside, re 'It’s quite apparent one can know something and yet not be aware of it.' No it is not. Take a gander at Earl Conee and Richard Feldman's 'Evidentialism' (if you would like, I can loan you my copy), in particular Feldman's article 'Having Evidence' and Conee and Feldman's article 'Internalism Defended'.

    In a nutshell, you only 'know' p (that is, have a justified true belief) when you know that you know p. That is, that you know that your evidence for p at some time t justifies believing p at t. So, when one cannot recall something, say, the atomic weight of oxygen, one cannot claim to 'know' the atomic weight. However, if upon introspection or being primed in some manner, one recalls the atomic weight of oxygen (8), and recalls why one's belief is justified (e.g., they remember reading the fact in their chemistry textbook or seeing the fact on a BBC Science documentary), then one cannot rationally claim to know the atomic weight.

    Now, you tell me, in what relevant sense do I have knowledge that your deity exists?

    1. You absolutely can know things and not be aware of your knowledge. Here is yet another example (the other already gave good examples). You go to class to take a test and tell your classmates "I'm afraid I'm going to do poorly". You believe that you don't know the material enough to do well on the test. Later, you learn that you did know enough to do well on the test. You had the knowledge, but did not know that you had the knowledge.

  2. Correction: the bit after the "However" in the penultimate paragraph should read:

    However, if upon introspection or being primed in some manner, one recalls the atomic weight of oxygen (8), and recalls why one's belief is justified (e.g., they remember reading the fact in their chemistry textbook or seeing the fact on a BBC Science documentary), then and only then can one claim rationally to know the atomic weight. Likewise for all other knowledge claims.

  3. Hi Aaron, I would just say that one need not know that he knows p, else he needs to know that he knows that he knows p, ad infinitum. Moreover, it hasn't been discussed what, precisely, is wrong with any of my examples. :) Finally, this isn't meant as a proof or evidence of any theistic claim, so the opening criticism just doesn't apply. At least not in this case. ;)

  4. I should provide this addendum:

    To 'know' p is to have some justified true belief. However, it is analytically true that if an atheist does not believe 'god' exists, an atheist cannot 'know' 'god' exists. At best you could say: "Well, the atheist is acquainted with all the evidence which would make belief in 'god' rational, but they are suppressing the inference from the evidence to the proposition for some reason."

    Now, this is problematic for two reasons. (1) it begs the question since atheists will contend that the relevant evidence does not justify belief in 'god' (2) along with beging the epistemic question, it borders on dilettantish psychologizing, which *anyone* can do. E.g., the Muslim can say Randy actually 'knows' Allah is the One True God and that Muhammad is His Prophet.

  5. Hi Aaron, now that is certainly interesting! The real question becomes can one believe something of which he is not aware, and claims he believes otherwise. I think that is probably so, for the same character-defining reason. Now does that make him deluded? I'm not much of a psychologist to say, but I would argue not in the way it conjures up images for me. I don't argue, for example, atheists are insane, or incapable of rational thought, etc.

  6. Randy,

    Your examples are not examples of knowing p when one is unaware of knowing p. They are examples of one who recalls the evidence for p and then realizing that said evidence justifies believing p. Otherwise, if you insist on claiming that you know p even if you are unaware that you know p, you will have to distinguish between (1) simply not knowing p, (2) knowing p but being unaware that you know p, and (3) thinking you know p but not quite sure why you know p.

    To 'know' that you know p does not at all lead to an infinite regress. I know that Venus does not have a moon, p. I know p because I know that the type of evidence I have for p leads, on balance, to more true beliefs than false beliefs. No infinite regress threatens here.

  7. Randy,

    To 'believe' p is to have an accessible doxastic attitude regarding p. Of course, people can act in ways which contradict a conscious belief, but this does not seem to contravene the epistemic facts that to 'believe' p is to consciously hold that p is true.

  8. P.S. I would like to emphasize that I am in no way offended at this discussion, so don't fret.

  9. Hi Aaron, I don't see where these are not examples of knowing p when one is unaware--in fact the point is that they were unaware and yet had such a fact in their knowledge. It would be a bizarre theory of knowledge that demands I be aware at all times of some fact. Can it be said I don't know my wife's name at any point that I am not consciously aware of her name? Next, I wouldn't have a problem at all distinguishing between the three. Finally, I don't mean to say that you know that you know p leads to an infinite regress, but rather requiring that you know that you know p leads to an infinite regress. For we can just substitute knowing that you know p for p, and that will also have to be justified. In fact, the example you list merely functions as a counterexample to for any P, one must know that he knows P, as far as I can tell. :)

  10. "It would be a bizarre theory of knowledge that demands I be aware at all times of some fact."

    The issue is not whether some information is stored in and readily accessible from our brains. The issue is whether one 'knows' some information. The idea here is that to 'know' p is to have a justified true belief. So, setting aside whether p is true, (1) to 'believe' p is to have a conscious doxastic attitude to p, and (2) to have a justified belief toward p is to have sufficient evidence for p and believe p on the basis of that evidence. All of this entails, analytically, that we are awareness of evidence, beliefs, etc.

  11. Hi Aaron, it just seems like we're spinning our wheels here, for whether or not one must be consciously aware at any time in order to know something seems to be a contentious issue (e.g., the example of knowing my wife's name. If someone who knows me at work watches me there, she may say to an acquaintance, "he doesn't know his wife's name, because he is not consciously aware of it right now." I daresay such a view is at the very least counterintuitive).

  12. You may need to go into some detail on why having to know that one knows p entails have to know that one knows that one knows p, and so on ad infinitum. I simply am not seeing the point.

    To reiterate, to know that you know p is to have a justified true belief in p and know why the belief is justified. I just do not see why it is that I must know that I know that my belief is justified. Justification is a relationship between some bit of evidence and some belief or proposition. Either the justificatory relationship holds or it does not- in much the same way as deductive inferential relationships hold.

  13. Randy,

    When I say to my girlfriend 'Randy knows his wife's name", what I am saying is that, if asked, (1) Randy will tell you her name, (2) what he tells you will likely be true, (3) that he believes what he tells you is true, and (4) Randy has good reason for believing his answer is true.

    Now, if you were asked her name and you simply could not recall it. If, say, you suffered brain damage which prevents you from ever recalling your wife's name, even though, like Tantalus, it is ever at the tip of your tongue, then I can see no reason why we should say you 'know' your wife's name.

  14. But either I know my wife's name even if I am not consciously aware of it or I do not.

    The infinite regress comes if we say "for any proposition P, one must know that he knows P." But one's knowing that he knows P is itself a proposition to be known, so that to say "I know that I know P," is some other proposition, say P*. But then one must know that he knows P*; otherwise, he doesn't know P8. If he doesn't know P*, then he doesn't know that he knows P, and hence, he does not know P.

  15. Randy,

    Your usage of the word "choosing" in your second-to-last sentence ("Instead, I think this rather has to do both with the will of the individual and the consequences of choosing to suppress the knowledge.") suggests a volitional act of denial, which would amount to lying (to oneself), which is in contradiction with the main message of your article. Please try to be consistent.

  16. Hi Nightvid. But don't divorce intuition from awareness, as Aaron and others may do. You have a bit of vitriol in you, yes? Did I do something to you? :)

  17. Randy,

    Just to clarify, while I understand what 'awareness' amounts to, I have no clue what 'intuition' is. Some weird means by which human primates receive sensory stimuli heretofore undetected by modern physiological sciences?

  18. Intuition is knowledge held independently of any process or experience; not wholly unlike a priori knowledge, though I admittedly have not done enough work in this area.

  19. Hi Randy

    You are correct in your starting point that not all atheists and agnostics are either lying or deluded when they deny they believe God exists.

    But an appeal to intuitive knowledge doesn't appear to me to be consistent with the passage. To be unaware of intuitive knowledge is, broadly, to not know that one knows. And this removes culpability: if the atheist doesn't know that she knows God and believes that she does know God then to say "I believe in God" would be a lie and one is hardly culpable in avoiding a lie!

    But the passage, clearly, holds those who deny God culpable: "they are without excuse". If you want to hold the passage true whilst admitting the obvious truth that atheism is not a necessarily dishonest or deluded position then you need to find a concept of "know" where:
    1. The knower is not dishonest in denying the knowledge
    2. The knower is not deluded in denying the knowledge but
    3. The knower is culpable

    Or you could accept that the passage is false.

  20. Hi Tony, I recognize your content as being from Dr. Law's blog post (where someone informed me I was being referred to as "Andy," but no matter). :)

    My point was that the atheist (as well as everyone) has some kind of knowledge of the divine (from general revelation and rational/moral intuition, or conscience); moreover, through an act of the will, they suppress that knowledge (based on Paul's theology, it could be a "searing of the conscience" or some other event) and choose not to worship God. That choice entails a lack of retaining God in their knowledge--an entailment not directly chosen (yet what they chose is, on the Christian view, morally wrong). So, they have God in their knowledge, they act in such a way as to be evil, such an evil results in a non-retention of their knowledge. I don't see, by the way, that in order to know p one must know that he knows p. So in this case, it is not avoiding a contradictory state of affairs for which they are culpable, but for the willful suppression entailing that lack of knowledge for which they would be condemned.

    Interestingly, though, perhaps Law states a viable alternative. Perhaps it is the case that while atheists, and all people, have this inborn intuition that God exists, they nonetheless directly suppress that knowledge and thus can no longer be said to know that God exists. However, I'm not so sure of this. Consider scientists who debate intelligent design. For them, the idea is that they have to constantly use their a posteriori considerations in order to overcome their a priori intuition that everything looks like for all the world to have been designed. In that case, they could be said to be holding contradictory beliefs. While it is not possible both to believe P and not-believe P at the same time and in the same sense, it is perhaps in two different senses that one does this; or perhaps it is the case that one believes P and believes not-P (there is no logical law stating someone cannot believe contradictory statements). And this is what I think happens in the case of the atheist.

    Finally, it's important to stress this article was not meant to be an argument for God's existence, or to be convincing to any atheist. This blog also serves the function of discussing biblical and theological issues within Christianity. Thanks for the comment! :)


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