Keith DeRose on knowing whether or not God exists

Keith DeRose on knowing whether or not God exists September 24, 2014

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At The New York Times’s “The Stone” blog, Gary Gutting, a professor of Philosophy at Notre Dame, has a running series of thoughtful interviews with philosophers about religion and God. The latest installment features Keith DeRose.

DeRose provides a challenging view for many atheists, and, even if you disagree (which I think I might), it’s a thoughtful perspective worth grappling with. DeRose says:

My suggestion is that neither theists nor atheists know whether God exists. And here I don’t just mean that they don’t know for certain, but that they don’t know at all.

It was about God, wasn’t it, that Kant famously wrote “I had to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith”? Whatever it does or doesn’t do for faith, my denial of knowledge here makes room for reasonable views on both sides of the question of whether God exists.

I don’t think the arguments for either theism or atheism lead to knowledge of their conclusions. But there are arguments on both sides from premises that someone might reasonably judge to be plausible. If you find it quite probable that God does not exist, I think it’s perfectly possible that you are reasonable to think as you do. But this doesn’t mean that someone who thinks it is likely that God does exist can’t likewise be reasonable in holding that position.

To know that God does (or doesn’t) exist, you have to show that there are no arguments for atheism (or for theism) that a reasonable person could find plausible. But to support that claim you would have to have better critiques of all those arguments than I’ve ever seen. In my view, it’s more likely those who claim to know whether God exists — whether theists or atheists — are just blowing smoke.

To fully appreciate this argument, I think it’s necessary to back up and unpack it a bit. It wasn’t immediately obvious to me what the importance was of what the reasonable person could find plausible—it seems whether I know something or not depends on what reasons I have, how strong those reasons are, that the reasons are of the right kind, and so on; not what reasons other people have.

Other’s views don’t seem to be that important, at least for empirical issues; I know global warming is real, even though I could think of plenty of reasonable people who are climate skeptics. While some might argue that reasonable people don’t deny scientific evidence in this way, I’d respond by saying that, given what we know about cognitive science, reasonable people don’t really exist, then.

Perhaps the distinction is that the existence of God isn’t an empirical question but at heart a philosophical one. But even here, if the criterion for philosophical knowledge is “no reasonable person could disagree,” then it seems like there’d be barely, if any, philosophical knowledge at all. Philosophy, more than any other field, is full of very reasonable people believing often outlandish and very incompatible things.

I haven’t had the time to chew his argument over more thoroughly, and I suspect there’s more to his views than are laid out in this brief interview, and that even the argument here is more complicated than I’m giving it credit for. Missed nuances are always appreciated in the comments. Whether or not you buy DeRose’s arguments about atheism, there are still very interesting kernels buried in the interview. Gary Gutting sums up DeRose’s view, then asks him about agnosticism:

[Gutting]: So far, you’ve argued that both atheists and theists can have good reasons for their views, so that neither side can rightly claim that the other is just irrational. But you make an important distinction between reasonably believing something and knowing that it’s true, and you claim that neither atheists nor theists know whether God exists. Finally, what do you think of agnosticism, the view that, given the strong disagreement about theism, the most reasonable position is to remain undecided?

[DeRose].: In some ways, that view is right. One reading of “agnostic” is just someone who does not take herself to know. On that reading, I accept the view. After all, my suggestion is that those who are not agnostics in that sense are deluded! But “agnostic” often slides into meaning something more along the lines of someone who does not take a position on the issue, and is in that way “undecided,” as you put it. And while I certainly think someone could easily be, and many people are, reasonable in being an agnostic about God in that stronger way, there are important goals served by our taking stands on issues where we cannot be objectively certain, or even know that we are right.

Whether or not we can know that God exists or doesn’t, this still leaves room in DeRose’s view for taking strong stands. He writes near the end:

In philosophy and other areas of controversy, like politics, we often come to adopt a view on a disputed matter. When this happens, then even if you recognize the reasonableness of contrary views, you can come to really feel that your view is right, to the point that it can feel as if you know that it’s true. And I think that taking such a strong stand on a disputed issue can be good. Those who take a strong stand may most effectively develop and defend their position. I don’t think it would aid philosophy or politics if we all quickly abandoned our positions whenever we hit significant resistance from well-informed opponents. Often, that’s just when things get interesting.

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