Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Mailbag: Hard Agnosticism

Hi Randy,

Just wanted to get your take on the issue of hard-agnosticism (I think that's the right term here) with regard to the existence of God & the afterlife.  Reason I ask is because I was watching a TV show here in the UK last Sunday where Murray Walker, a famous British F1 motor-racing commentator, was asked in a an interview whether he was fatalistic about life after recently beating cancer, and he answered:

"Where we came from & where we're going to, I don't know, & nobody knows. I don't know anybody who's been there & come back & can tell us what it was like."

In response to the interviewer noting to him that maybe people of faith might have more certainty about the answer to that question, he said, "People who have faith have more certainty about where they think they might be going but they don't know.... they dont know, any more than I do."

Just wondered how you'd respond to that sort of argument? There'd seem to be a couple of ways to rebutt him but one mistake he seems to make - & I'm not sure if you'd agree or not - is that he seems to assume there's only one way of getting knowledge of the afterlife; that is, he thinks knowledge can only come by going to heaven & coming back. But maybe there are other ways of proving (maybe not 100% proof) man has a soul that lives on after death & that would be using philosophical arguments. Maybe it'd be similar to answering people who say stuff like, "Nobody knows whether God exists or not since nobody has seen Him."   The argument would seme to overlook that maybe God's existence can be proved in other ways; namely, one might use classical theistic arguments like the Kalam, Teleological or Moral Arguments to get to a creator God.  Your thoughts?

God Bless

James, London, England


I find your question very interesting because it touches on the cultural and “man on the street” type of attitude that many in the UK (and continental Europe, and even in North America) have toward religious belief. Hard agnosticism is the term for the view that not only does someone not know whether there is a God, but that it is not possible to be known. I think your assessment of his comments might be correct: it definitely is plausible that we can construct philosophical arguments. But not just for an immaterial soul, but also for the merits of what C.S. Lewis called “mere Christianity.” In that case, what we have here may not be certainty, but it would qualify as a justified, true belief that Christianity is true. If we have that belief, and if Christianity teaches some kind of eternal state afterlife for the soul (which orthodox Christianity does teach), then, by extension, one has justification for her belief that she will spend eternity with God, or, if by some strange reason she accepts Christianity as true but refuses to side with God, eternity without God in punishment.

However, perhaps his real issue is contained in the interviewer’s question and his answer. The interviewer asked if those who had faith had “more certainty” about religious belief in the afterlife. Walker responded, according to your question, with the comment about people having certainty about what they think, but that they do not actually know. Now I think it would be na├»ve of us to assume he had the idea of a justified, true belief in the use of the word “know.” Instead, context invites us to believe that he conceives of knowledge in terms of certainty. Now there are several ways of cashing out the term “certainty” (e.g., Cartesian certainty, where the fact in question cannot logically be doubted; rational certainty, where the fact in question cannot rationally be doubted; legal certainty, where the fact in question lies beyond a reasonable doubt; colloquial certainty, where one relies on a strong sense of belief, such as memory beliefs, perceptual beliefs, etc.), but regardless of which he means, none of these succeeds as an account of knowledge. Perhaps the problem of hard agnosticism would collapse into a soft agnosticism if only people had a better grasp of what constitutes knowledge!

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