On the Limits of Knowledge

A common argument made by religious apologists is that atheism is unreasonable because, to exclude the possibility of God, a person would have to have total knowledge of all that exists in the universe. Otherwise, we might overlook a deity hiding in one of the gaps in our knowledge. As one Christian put it to me in an e-mail:

And certainly, unless you have visited an appreciable portion of the cosmos and whatever else, there is at least a reasonable possibility that a creator exists. In other words, as small creatures on this planet (proud of ourselves as we are) we are not in a position to materially discount the existence of a creator.

This argument has the burden of proof backwards, for reasons I explained in last year’s post “How to Think Critically IV“. The point here is that evidence is the link to truth; no person is justified in making an existence claim unless they have specific evidence in favor of the entity they believe in. If they can’t present any such evidence, then the rest of us can justifiably dismiss that claim as without foundation. For obvious reasons, we’re not obligated to search the entire universe every time someone comes up with a crackpot idea in order to prove them wrong!

This is exactly the situation with atheists. No atheist I know of has searched the cosmos top to bottom to disprove the existence of God, nor do we need to. We can simply point out that all the gods put forth by human claimants so far lack persuasive evidence in support of their existence. (We can also take this one step farther by pointing out that we observe evidence inconsistent with the claimed desires and abilities of many of these gods.) Until and unless better evidence turns up, we are fully justified in considering these claims to be unconnected to objective reality, and refusing to believe them on that basis.

Still, it’s true that the universe is a big place, and it’s equally true that we humans know, at most, a tiny fraction of all there is to know about it. Are we atheists, therefore, being too hasty to dismiss the possibility of God? There might be something out there, something that vindicates the theologians. Knowing as little as we know, shouldn’t we consider that possibility at least as likely as the alternative?

I don’t believe so. In fact, I believe that the vastness of the cosmos, and our limited ability to understand it, can actually be understood as an argument not for theism, but for atheism. Allow me to explain.

It’s quite true that human beings’ knowledge of the universe is painfully limited. Our history testifies to this. The path of intellectual progress is littered with the discarded rubbish of false ideas: the heliogeocentric solar system, alchemy, spontaneous generation, the miasma theory of disease, phlogiston, Lamarckian evolution, bleeding as medical treatment, the luminiferous ether, and countless more. All these ideas were once believed – often widely believed, and fervently defended – but ultimately, empirical testing proved them to be false. The few grains of truth that we have managed to glean about the cosmos were acquired only through painstaking research, and even those are tentative and provisional, liable to be overturned tomorrow, in principle, if we find the right evidence.

The universe does not work the way we expect. Countless people have relied on “common sense”, or declared some truth “obvious”, only to be subsequently proven wrong. Our minds work well to deal with phenomena on the scales of distance and time we experience every day, but, unaided, they are inadequate to directly perceive the ultimate underlying truths of reality. On the contrary, it seems that the universe reveals its true nature only through diligent investigation, and usually only after hundreds of hypotheses have been tested and rejected. All of this should be beyond dispute.

But the origins of all modern religions did not come about in the present. They first appeared among people and cultures in the distant past, centuries or even millennia ago, when even the most basic scientific understanding of the world was absent and superstitions of all kinds ran wild. Should we be willing to believe that people who knew so little compared to us nevertheless managed to see so far ahead of us?

This is extremely implausible, and that’s precisely why we’re skeptical of the claims of religion. We are skeptical that an ancient, primitive tribe, with no notion of science and whose beliefs about many other things we now know to be rank superstition, managed to penetrate the most profound secrets of the universe. If the need for intellectual humility applies to us, still more should it apply to them. If we have little enough reason to think that we know the most profound truths of the cosmos, still less do we have reason to think that those who were so much less advanced than us knew them.

And what should compound our skepticism is that the belief in God held by ancient peoples is so much like many other ideas which they held and which we now know to be false. Human beings have a natural tendency to anthropomorphize phenomena they do not understand, leading them to imagine supernatural gods, angels and spirits who caused weather, disease, life and death, and many other natural events. Today we understand the real causes of many of these things, and the supernatural agents once thought to cause them have faded away, but the belief in a creator-god persists. If we take past history as a guide, isn’t it most reasonable to assume that this belief, too, will eventually vanish as we discover ultimate causes, no less than all other causes, to be natural?

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Wedge

    This argument from theists has always struck me as nonsensical.

    If God is hiding behind the third rock from the left on the fourth moon of the ninth planet orbiting the a distant star in an unknown galaxy, well, more power to him.

    It’s not exactly an argument for the relevance of religion, is it?

  • jack

    discarded rubbish of false ideas: the heliocentric solar system,

    I think you meant “geocentric” here.

    They first appeared among people and cultures in the distant past, centuries or even millennia ago, when even the most basic scientific understanding of the world was absent and superstitions of all kinds ran wild.

    One of my favorite examples of this is Genesis 1:6-7:

    And God said, let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.

    What, exactly, is this all about? A little reflection reveals the mindset of these people. It’s really about their (truly primitive) concept of rain! There are waters under the “firmament” (rivers, lakes, oceans) and a vast ocean above the firmament (i.e., sky). The firmament is a leaky roof holding up the heavenly ocean. When it leaks, we get rain. So does it make sense to believe anything else these ancient folks have to tell us about reality? Probably not.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    I think you meant “geocentric” here.

    I most certainly did not! Heliocentrist heretic!

    (okay, okay, fixed…)

  • http://thegreenbelt.blogspot.com The Ridger

    This is one argument for agnosticism, of course – and a better one for apatheism: if such a god exists – one so well hidden and so unproven and in fact so completely unlike anything argued for, one who has never interacted with us in any way that left any evidence behind – then why should we even care? Such a god clearly doesn’t care about us.

  • http://ponzo.blogspot.com ponzo

    Hello. This is my first post here.

    The “search the universe” argument is extremely weak for a reason that you did not mention. We are not talking about some possible intelligent organism on a planet on the other side of the universe whom (which?) we have no hope of ever contacting. Instead, we are talking about the presumed omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent creator of the universe! If such a being did exist, there would be no need to search the universe for him; instead, his existence would be obvious from everyday observation.

    This is one reason that I find it hard to respect the opinions of agnostics, and it is particularly incredible that theists would use it. Its use is a sign of desperation.

  • http://www.eunomiac.com Eunomiac

    LoL, this reminds me of the day I disproved God with calculus, in calculus class, at a Catholic high school. Let me see if I remember it…

    Let {C} be the set of all possible truth claims that might fill a particular gap in our knowledge. If we have no reason whatsoever to choose one possible claim over another, the probability of each claim being true is 1/n (where n is the number of truth claims).

    The believer makes the mistake of assuming that n = 2 (i.e. “Jesus” and “Something Else”). But the elements of a set must be discrete: “Something Else,” unlike “Jesus,” is not a discrete claim. “Something Else” is itself a set of discrete possibilities, all of which must be counted individually among the truth claims of {C}.

    If the believer cannot introduce any reasons (i.e. arguments) to narrow the set of possible claims, then the membership of {C} is limited only by our imagination. As Vishnu piles upon Odin, as telepathic koalas who control the weather bump into the invisible leprechauns who tuned the Universal constants, n quickly approaches infinity — and the limit of 1/n, the probability of any one claim being true, falls to zero.

    Q.E.D. ……?

    :-)

  • http://spaninquis.wordpress.com/ Spanish Inquisitor

    I’m so looking forward to your book.

  • Carry On

    Waahoo, love the math, even if the only part I understood well, was the partial sentence, “The believer makes the mistake of assuming…”. True, true true.

    Besides primitive believers lack of scientific understanding, the world must have been a very scary place. There were big forces, harsh conditions, and a lack of choices. Feeling powerless and alone they used superstition as the way to deal with so much insecurity, pain and discomfort.

    If people in the year 2008 are still in need of the comfort of a father/protector god/s and a SECOND life after death, then we have not come very far in finding ways to calm ourselves, support each other and be content with THIS, one and only, life.

  • hb531

    This discussion highlights the notion that religion is a primitive belief system designed to explain the world. I see it as a completely natural course of events for our species. However, as Ebonmuse alludes to, we have come a long way with our scientific understanding of the world, which is slowly dismantling the structure of religion. But religion is a tenacious meme, and the pessimist in me thinks that it will be around for a while longer.

    People need to think outside the god box.

  • Carry On

    Having a personal belief system may, (or may not), be the “natural course” but how do you explain the theists overwhelming need to get everyone else to believe in the same god/s they do? I personally see that as a weakness for believers. It’s like they can’t be certain, unless they have an overwhelming majority, and even that isn’t enough. They seem scared, defensive and very worried they could be wrong. And, of course, that’s understandable too. No proof has to be a bummer.

  • bbk

    I suppose Christians already organized the search party to check under every rock in the woods just to make sure Sasquatch wasn’t hiding there. While they were at it, hopefully they checked for Jesus, too.

  • Simeon Kee

    The “you don’t know everything in the universe” argument that theists use only works for a deist/non-intervening god. Theism is falsifiable because its claims are better explained as historical fiction and contemporary confirmation bias. If theism is false on earth, it follows that theism is false universally.

  • Steve Bowen

    Another way oflooking at this is to start with the null hypothesis that “The observable universe does not need a God”. Try and falsify this by finding any phenomenon that requires divine intervention to explain. You won’t and other explanations such as oh – evolution, the big bang, plate tectonics etc will prove to be more parsimonious (I know some people believe “God dit it” is the simpler answer but God has to be a big complex thing that needs more explanation than the phenomena you choose to look at). The more of the universe that becomes observable the less places God has to hide and anyway a God that’s not in our back yard hardly needs any attention from us.

  • http://www.dangerousintersection.org Erich Vieth

    I do especially like the comments of Wedge and The Ridger, above. The God that hides behind a comet is not the sort of God to whom theists claim to pray.

    As far as ruling out a claim without being having full knowledge of the universe, consider this. If I make a claim (to a group of theists) that there is a tiny invisible gremlin running around in each of their houses, would any of them tell me that they must be agnostic regarding that claim? Would any of them take the position that they can’t, with certainty, rule out my claim as absurd? There are no invisible gremlin agnostics out there, and for good reason.

  • http://www.pandasthumb.org RBH

    Two words: Russell’s teapot. :)

  • 2-D Man

    …we are talking about the presumed omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent creator of the universe! If such a being did exist, there would be no need to search the universe for him

    Ponzo, I can already see the rebuttal: an omnipresent creature would be difficult to detect. Example: when we check if someone’s alive, we’re actually checking if they’re dead yet.

    The next step is to bring up the claim falsely attributed to Einstein that ‘evil is the absence of God’ and he’s not omipresent, therefore we should be able to detect him.

    Eunomiac, the trick is to first get the theist to admit that there is a small but finite probablility of any counterclaim (such as evolution, which arguably does have a finite probability), then carry out the math. The “too improbable” claim is infinitely more probable than their religious one.

  • nfpendleton

    @hb531: It’s worse than that. It’s plural. Hundreds and hundreds of memes combining in hundreds and hundreds of different configurations. That’s religion. That’s what the Good Fight is up against. That’s why it’s taking sooooooo long.

  • Logismous Kathairountes

    Dismissing the claim that God does exist is very different from making the claim that He does not exist. What atheists do is make the claim that He does not exist. What agnostics (or perhaps you could call them ‘skeptics’) do is dismiss the claim that God does exist.

    A claim that is made is what requires evidence – So the skeptic requires no evidence to support his position, since he makes no claim regarding God (although he does make some implicit claims). However, the theist and the atheist, since they both make explicit claims, do require evidence to support their positions.

    This post was a defense of agnosticism or skepticism.

  • terrence

    “We are skeptical that an ancient, primitive tribe, with no notion of science and whose beliefs about many other things we now know to be rank superstition, managed to penetrate the most profound secrets of the universe.”

    I LOVE this – what a lightning bolt. Reminds me of something I came across in the blogosphere, can’t rememeber where, might have been Dawkins or Hitchens???

    “Name one natural phenomenon in all of human history for which a scientific explanation has been replaced by a supernatural explanation”

  • Alex, FCD

    What atheists do is make the claim that He does not exist.

    No, atheists claim that they do not believe in god or gods. If you would like to define atheism in such a way that it requires a positive claim of the nonexistence of the deity of your choice, then fine, but then you aren’t talking to any atheists.

  • Valhar2000

    What atheists do is make the claim that He does not exist. What agnostics (or perhaps you could call them ‘skeptics’) do is dismiss the claim that God does exist.

    Ever heard of agnostic atheism? It’s real! Repent before it’s too late, you a-agnostic-atheist!

    As Alex said, if you want to use a different definition of atheism, that’s just fine, as long as you state what the definition you are using is, and you don’t equivocate.

  • http://ellis14.wordpress.com evanescent

    Alex FCD said:

    “No, atheists claim that they do not believe in god or gods. If you would like to define atheism in such a way that it requires a positive claim of the nonexistence of the deity of your choice, then fine, but then you aren’t talking to any atheists.”

    Well he’s talking to me. I not only disbelieve in god, I positively assert that he doesn’t exist. I think to use atheism in such a flimsy term applies it to everyone – including babies and animals.

    Fortunately, there is every reason for atheists to be positive and actually assert, not just disbelief, but belief that god does definitely not exist. How can we know? Simple: every attribute of “god” is a contradiction, it is nonsensical. The very purported nature of god disproves it as unable to obtain in reality.

  • http://ellis14.wordpress.com evanescent

    Logismous Kathairounte said:

    “What agnostics (or perhaps you could call them ‘skeptics’) do is dismiss the claim that God does exist.”

    No, actually agnosticism is the position that knowledge of god is impossible; that it is not possible to know either way. Therefore, an agnostic could be a theist or an atheist.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Evan –

    While sympathetic to your position that the Christian god is an absurd mess of contradictions, and while I share your logical conclusion that this god is thus falsified, it would seem that your position goes far beyond the evidence at hand, and that your conclusion is, while rational, unscientific.

    Furthermore, I’m sure you’re aware of the difficulties you court in proving a negative, no?

  • Logismous Kathairountes

    In fact, in common usage, the term ‘agnostic’ is used to denote two philosophies, one of which says that knowledge, or some particular knowledge, is impossible, and the other of which says that the agnostic himself does not know. Dictionary.com has the first one that I mentioned as it’s first definition, and the second as the second.

    Similarly, ‘atheism’ is used to signify two different positions: Both the positive claim that there is no God and the mere disbelief in God. It comes out to ‘no god ism’. Does that mean ‘the belief in no God’ or ‘not the belief in God’. It’s my very subjective sense of the English language that ‘atheism’ is mostly used to denote the belief that God does not exist, except when an atheist wants to avoid having to try to prove a negative proposition.

    I mean, I guess in the end it’s all semantics: You can call your belief whatever you want if you can get enough people to use the word.

    This post just set off my BS detector. It seemed to make the argument: “I can’t see it, therefore it’s not there”, or “I don’t agree that there is a God, therefore I believe that there is no God”. (Claiming that it’s reasonable to think that the belief in God will eventually vanish as more and more scientific truth is discovered is VERY close to claiming that God doesn’t actually exist.)

  • http://ellis14.wordpress.com evanescent

    Thumpalumpacus:

    “While sympathetic to your position that the Christian god is an absurd mess of contradictions, and while I share your logical conclusion that this god is thus falsified, it would seem that your position goes far beyond the evidence at hand, and that your conclusion is, while rational, unscientific.”

    I’m not sure what you’re saying here, Thump. What greater proof could there be that god doesn’t exist than its self-contradictory identify?

    If it is impossible for something to exist in reality, then the claim that it doesn’t exist is rational AND scientific – after all, science is the study of the natural “real” world. For example, it is not necessary to examine every single elephant in the world to prove, scientifically, that elephants cannot fly. Similarly, by definition, the concept of god DOES NOT REQUIRE empirical rebuttal, because it is impossible.

    There is no need to tie our own scientific hands with philosophical skepticism – that is exactly what theists want us to do.

    “Furthermore, I’m sure you’re aware of the difficulties you court in proving a negative, no?”

    It depends on the nature of the negative. If the concept contradicts reality, we can prove any negative simply by pointing to reality. This is why we can prove that square circles are impossible.

  • Jim Baerg

    Evanescent:
    The problem with proving the nonexistence of God is that there are many variations of the concept. One can demonstrate that one variant of the idea is self-contradictory & then the theist claims to believe in some other variant.

  • http://ellis14.wordpress.com evanescent

    I think the very least we can use to define god is the omnimax variety – a being to which concepts of thought, motive, need, desire, value, and action cannot apply – yet a being that is supposed to think, move, need, desire, value, and act, as if it were human. I don’t intend to flesh out that argument here, it’s just an example of the contradictions with “god”.

    Of course if the theist wants to define his god differently he can, but then he’s better called a deist, pantheist or something else. A theist generally means a person who believes in a personal all-powerful creator being.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Evan:

    Jim got to my answer before I did. If one defines god as the Christian god, well, then your assertions are correct, and indeed rational. However, as the deity in question changes, so, often, must the objections.

    Insofar as the difference between rational and scientific, allow to give you a scientific argument why I disbelieve in god: Every creative agency we’ve ever observed has radiated energy, and typically speaking the amount of energy radiated is proportional to the mass and/or intricacy of the created object. Nuclear power plants radiate more energy than gasoline engines. Based on this general principle, any deity powerful enough to create the entire Universe ought to be radiating stunning amounts of energy. Yet this unique source of energy is nowhere observed.

    This argument is both rational and scientific; rational because the acceptance of its terms leads logically to the conclusion given. What makes it scientific is that it makes appeal to evidence or the lack thereof. Saying that “god cannot exist because of the contradictions inherent to his definition” is certainly rational, but not susceptible to evidence, as it makes no testable claims about reality per se.

  • http://ellis14.wordpress.com evanescent

    Evan:
    but not susceptible to evidence, as it makes no testable claims about reality per se.

    But again, I would point out that it does indeed make a testable claim of evidence: its concordance with reality. You said “What makes it scientific is that it makes appeal to evidence or the lack thereof.” – I can think of no greater testimony than that of a concept which contradicts reality.

    In other words, to use my example from above, if square circles are impossible, rationally and scientifically, then so is god, rationally and scientifically. I doubt you would claim that we cannot prove that square circles are impossible scientifically (or would you?), so this shouldn’t apply to the omnimax god either?

  • Kierkegaardian Christian

    What would you do if you actually saw, with your own eyes, a square circle?

  • http://aferim.blogspot.com aferim

    Ebon,

    With all due respect, you mention ultimate causes with remarkable ease, as if they are just around the corner, if only scientists looked. I would argue that there is no such thing as ultimate causes, as any set of explanation that we can conceive of can be subjected to the simple but devastating question of “Why?”

    Greek philosophers, some of whom were atheistic about the Greek Gods, felt compelled to suggest a Demiurge to end the eternal causal chain. Are you comfortable with the idea of an eternal causal chain? If not, how do you deal with the question: “Why is this the ultimate cause?”

    Sincerely,
    Aferim

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    I don’t know whether or not I’d be comfortable with the idea of an eternal causal chain. Frankly, I don’t think it matters whether I’m comfortable with it or not – not just because the universe is not defined by what falls within our comfort zone, but because we still don’t have anywhere near the knowledge we would need to make definitive pronouncements on the matter. Notice that I said this in my post:

    If the need for intellectual humility applies to us, still more should it apply to them. If we have little enough reason to think that we know the most profound truths of the cosmos, still less do we have reason to think that those who were so much less advanced than us knew them.

    My argument was a simple argument from induction: every other cause we have discovered has been natural; it is reasonable to assume that the ultimate cause, whatever form it takes, however we might recognize it, will prove to be natural as well.

  • OMGF

    Logismous Kathairountes

    It’s my very subjective sense of the English language that ‘atheism’ is mostly used to denote the belief that God does not exist, except when an atheist wants to avoid having to try to prove a negative proposition.

    Oh the twists and turns the theist mind will take in order to avoid having to prove their god, because they know that they can’t meet their burden of proof.

    You can call your belief whatever you want if you can get enough people to use the word.

    Or my non-belief in what you are positively asserting.

    It seemed to make the argument: “I can’t see it, therefore it’s not there”, or “I don’t agree that there is a God, therefore I believe that there is no God”.

    I suggest you read the OP again then. No one is claiming that things we can’t “see” don’t exist. That would be an absurd position to hold, and it’s merely a strawman if you are proposing that anyone here has made that argument.

    Claiming that it’s reasonable to think that the belief in God will eventually vanish as more and more scientific truth is discovered is VERY close to claiming that God doesn’t actually exist.)

    No, it’s making a simple observation that as we learn more about the natural world, the more we realize that no god is necessary, that there is no evidence for this god, etc. There may always be a way for one who believes in god to salt away their god and keep their god from the light of reason, but that god will diminish into ever smaller spheres of influence to the point that we may as well not even consider such a god.

  • Smudge

    On the definition of “atheism”, I always found it a strange word to use in discussion with theists.

    To set the context, my immediate circle of friends and family are all Christians.

    When pressed (and boy does that happen!) I would honestly say that I don’t think of myself as an “atheist”, because when you don’t believe something exists you do not define yourself in those terms.

    Basically, as an atheist, that’s the last word I would use to describe myself.

  • bipolar2

    ** the perils of Pauline (thinking) **

    Epicurus destroyed the omni-god 300 years BCE — that is, long before the world became burdened by the homicial cults of xianity or islam.

    Is god willing to prevent evil, but not able?
    Then he is not omnipotent.
    Is he able, but not willing?
    Then he is malevolent.
    Is he both able and willing?
    Then where does evil come from?
    Is he neither able nor willing?
    Then why call him ‘god’?

    Too bad Paul didn’t get a decent training in philosophy. He should have listened rather than preached in Athens.

    Xianity has spent so much time trying to shore up its failed pantocrator that there’s even a name for this branch of theological special pleading, theodicy.

    bipolar2
    © 2008

  • bipolar2

    [note: in the above, i intended 'homicidal']

    ** Indescribably divine makes for an ineffable nothing **

    Dealing with those mystically inclined, the *I-feel-god-in-my-heart* crowd, and in general all irrationalist believers requires a different approach from dealing with rationalists.

    Their usual spiel: I know that my god exists — but he/she/it cannot be described, or is beyond human understanding.

    The philosopher Wittgenstein, in one seemingly cryptic utterance said, “A nothing would be as good as a something about which nothing could be said.”

    Spelled out: you claim that something exists, but no property (like, being blue) could ever be ascribed to it. This is the famous Western “via negativa” – negative path to god – also the “neti, neti” not-this, not-this of Hindu mystics. God is not blue, is not evil, is not good . . . .

    Logically, however, a claim that something exists does not ascribe a property to it — or, as you ought to have learned in logic class — existence is not a predicate. (Non-existence is not a predicate either.)

    Nobody can talk about Nothing. Who’s doing the talking here? (Nobody?) And what’s being talked about? (Nothing?) And what did Nobody say about Nothing? Zen Buddhism figured all this out long ago — hence, koans if you’re lucky or a hard slap in the face when you’re persistently obtuse.

    ‘A god exists’ seems to be saying something, but it is meaningless. You might as well be saying bar-bar or saying nothing at all. The Viennese novelist, Robert Musil wrote “The Man without Qualities.” The man who can’t be there. A nobody. Nothing.

    If a god “is a something about which nothing can be said,” then this putative something is equivalent to “a nothing.” So-called mystics in India, China, Japan, and even Europe apprehended that any *god* without qualities was nothing. And, they said so. And, they were right.

    bipolar2
    © 2008

  • Ziddina

    Hi! I just joined this site – great site! But I just had this bratty thought – I can’t resist – I haven’t read all the responses to this thread, but when I got to this line in the initial essay, “On the Limits of Knowledge”… “Otherwise, we might overlook a deity hiding in one of the gaps in our knowledge…” Now, what follows is slightly tongue-in-cheek:

    “OmiGAWD! Quick, get the dustpan! There’s a DE-itY hiding in the corner! Quick, get HIM! He’s over there – before he skitters under the cabinets!! Crap! NOW where is he hiding??!!?”

    Couldn’t resist…. Oh, wait! The Devil made me do it…..!


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