Thursday, July 30, 2015

Skeptic's Not Knowing God Exists is not Necessarily an Excuse

I was thinking today about a common theme in discussing what skeptics and non-believers may say if confronted by God in the afterlife. A typical retort is that they did not have enough evidence or reason to believe in God, and so did not know God existed or of their need for repentance. This relies heavily on the traditional analysis of knowledge as “justified, true belief.”[1] The argument, then, would look like this:

1.     If one does not know he ought to do x, then it is not the case that he ought to do x.
2.     One does not know he ought to do x.
3.     Therefore, it is not the case that he ought to do x.

The argument seems straightforward enough. The unbeliever does not, by definition, believe in God’s existence and so does not, by definition, believe he must repent. If he does not believe these things, then by the traditional analysis, he does not know these things (since belief is a necessary condition). Thus, the unbeliever is not actually obligated to respond to the Gospel, for one can hardly know what he thinks is untrue, and so he’s off the hook!

The typical Christian response is to accept (1) and deny (2). Romans 1 and 10, Psalm 19, and other passages suggest strongly that everyone knows there is a God. Thus, there really are no such things as atheists, in the strict sense—everyone believes or knows, deep down, even if it is suppressed to the point of the subconscious. While I think this response, if carefully nuanced, can get to the truth of the matter (that is, I agree with the Bible), it’s not always helpful to tell the atheist what he “really believes.” Rather, I intend to attack (1).

While initially plausible, I think (1) is not impervious to objection. Consider a person who is responsible for being in his current predicament, even though he cannot now alter his current state. That person, if in circumstances in which he ought to refrain from performing some action, still ought to refrain from performing that action, if he was responsible for being in the particular state he is in now. Take a drug addict, and assume one ought not to abuse drugs. Suppose further, as has been argued, that there is at least possibly some circumstance such that, were a drug addict sufficiently addicted, he could not now refrain from shooting up with heroin (without some external intervention). In this case the drug addict, if he chose to use drugs of his own volition and became addicted through that free choice or series of free choices, is responsible for his current predicament. Additionally, it is plausible that he is morally responsible—not just for the initial acts, but for the subsequent acts, and the act within the situation that now confronts him. In other words, even though the drug addict fails to have now a necessary condition for being such that he ought to refrain from abusing drugs, he nonetheless still ought to refrain from abusing drugs—because he is completely responsible for being in the situation in which he finds himself.[2]

So how can we apply this to our situation with the unbeliever? It seems we could say that if an atheist is responsible for his initial state of unbelief,[3] then he is responsible for his current state as well. So, if we have someone who decides to walk away from Christianity, or will not accept it, and they chose that state, then even if they do not now believe (or even find themselves unable to believe!), it was within their power to believe and so are still obligated to trust and repent. Now it’s obvious that a non-believer can dispute our account here; but this is not the point. The point is that (1) is not nearly as obvious as a first glance may suggest, and is even plausibly false.

Plausibly, we can capture the intuitive force of (1) as:

1’. If one is not responsible for his current state of not knowing he ought to do x, then it is not the case that he ought to do x.

2’. One is not responsible for his current state of not knowing he ought to do x.

3.     Therefore, it is not the case that he ought to do x.

(1’) and plausible instances of (2’) seem right. But now notice that this is not the state most non-believers we’ve been discussing find themselves in. They usually are responsible for not believing the Gospel. While some may claim that no beliefs are chosen, I find this hard to believe (and if they’re right, I couldn’t have chosen to believe it anyway). I think at least some beliefs are chosen, and even if they aren’t, the argument plausibly needs only that sense of responsibility that anyone would have about anything anyone has concerning their current states and/or formation of character. But again, a skeptic need not accept this alternative account in order for us to show that the original account, and hence the original excuse, fails.

[1] Let’s leave to one side Gettier cases or attempted counterexamples for the sake of argument.

[2] This has some interesting implications for “ought-implies-can” which I will, for now, leave to the reader to work out.

[3] Here we may want to distinguish between states of infants and states of what I shall call “responsible knowers,” which will coincide with a state of moral responsibility. I will appeal to this latter state, though I will not endeavor here to figure out when that begins.

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