Claims to knowledge

Posted by on December 5, 2011 in Thoughts | 21 comments

Deepak Chopra went off on a bit of a Twitter rant today, and this is sure to cause a stir, because those who agree with his philosophies will re-tweet him furiously, and those who don’t will recant his ideas with just as much fervour. One tweet in particular caught my eye. It falls into line with a few ideas that I have been thinking about of late. The Tweet went like this:

@DeepakChopra: No one knows enough to be an atheist #atheism

He was obviously baiting atheists who like to search on the hashtag of #atheism and recant the faith claims of theists who often troll it. He received a heap of replies and even engaged with me, during which he basically told me I was a fake for having a Krampus image as my avatar. He then proceeded to call me a pagan because I like to celebrate the summer solstice with my family and friends, because atheists don’t believe in Christmas.

As amusing as it was, it really didn’t achieve anything, and only really served as a bit of afternoon amusement, but his first tweet resonated with me somewhat. Many of you will be familiar with the Richard Dawkins 7 point “Spectrum of theistic probability“; 1 equals someone who definitely knows there is a god, or gods, and 7 is someone who definitely knows there is no god. He describes himself as a very strong 6, and says that no thinking atheist should go so far as to call themselves a 7, as that presupposes a knowledge that it is impossible to have, given that the answers are unknowable, at least with today’s scientific abilities. This has been talked to death, and people use this claim of “not actually knowing” as grounds for someone to be called a fake for allowing for the very slight possibility, however remote or implausible, that there may very well be a god out there somewhere. But in truth, we are ALL agnostic. Those who claim to know are either completely deluded or are lying. The levels of agnosticism, though, fit into the spectrum between 6 and 2, and most people will, if given the chance to fully reflect on it, place themselves somewhere within those points.

Okay, so I don’t know that which is by definition “unknowable”, but I can safely say that I certainly see no reason to think there is a god, nor would I be so self-centred as to claim that there definitely is a god. So many theists, however, claim that they definitely do know there is a god, and they know this because they “feel” that there is, or make claims that life makes no sense without one. Many theists place themselves as a 1 on the spectrum of probability, and therefore posit themselves as “gnostic” or knowing, as opposed to the truth which is that we cannot know.

“Self-centred”? Well I can’t speak for all people who believe in gods, but most of the believers out there think that the world was made specifically for us, for humans, and that each one of us is special to their god. They believe that god listens to them, and they believe that god will judge them. And they believe this because either they were taught it so early on, or in such a manner that they can’t imagine their life without this core belief. But question them on this “fact” and they so often answer that they “just know.” In a world specifically designed for humans, this knowledge makes sense. Take away the idea of a specifically designed planet, and suddenly the idea of being special, or part of a plan loses some of its polish.

Young Earth Creationists hold on very tightly to their idea that the earth of the Bible or Koran is the literal truth, that Mohammed spoke personally with Allah, that Jesus died for our sins and was resurrected, that Noah made an impossibly large boat and carried the ark of sample animals into the new world, and that the world is impossibly young. This is a faith claim, and there is no evidence that any of this happened, except for those words written in those special books. And while it is true that Mohammed was an historically documented person, and that there’s likely claims that Jesus was a real man also, these texts are written by men, not by an all powerful god. There is no way of knowing what the actual origins of these books is except by using independent historical study. So we go on faith. (There is a fair bit of independent knowledge about both the Bible and Koran, but I won’t go into that here.)

Admittedly, there is a also certain amount of faith involved with believing the claims of scientists, but the difference here is that the discoveries made are tested, retested, repeated and if need be, falsified to make room for new discoveries. Science is a continuing story, one that bulids upon previous knowledge, and discards hypotheses that have been disproven. It is not a closed book, and it is so broad in its studies that one can never know all of it. So the faith we have is not in science itself, but in the men and women, real living people, whose aim is to bring about the truth of a situation, to work together and give us what we call scientific fact. This is a very different kind of faith, and it is not even close to the kind of faith involved in religion.

So can I say that I know that my left hand is made up of atoms which were produced in the heart of an exploding star? No, I can’t. But studies in nuclear physics can, and if I were in a situation to need this proof, there would be ways to measure this. I know people who work in this field, and can tell me what they know from their own experiments. However I don’t know anyone who can prove to me the claims of Jesus’ or Mohammed’s divinity, and nobody can prove god to me.

Deepak Chopra has made claims of knowledge throughout his career. He was recently pulled up on his knowledge claims by Sam Harris and he admitted that he can’t know for sure what he was saying is true. He is agnostic about his claims, as we all are about a lot of things. So to say “No one knows enough to be an atheist” is a cop out, because if we go by that which we can truly measure, surely it should be the other way around “No one knows enough to believe in god.”

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