Sunday, March 1, 2009



One often hears from people who want to find areas of conflict between science and religion that religious folk always make an appeal to a ‘God of the gaps’ in their defence of their religious view of the world. It is most frequently the militant atheist types who use the argument; and they use it to pour scorn on the efforts of religious folk to maintain that there can ultimately be no conflict between the religious view of the world and the non-religious. According to the atheists, the religious take comfort from scientific ignorance and from the incompleteness of scientific knowledge to locate God in the areas of ignorance. So for example, we don’t know how the classical world arises out of the quantum world, ergo that must be where God operates within nature. Or we don’t know how the mind interfaces with the brain, so that’s where God operates. But, say the atheists, these gaps in our knowledge are provisional since science makes advances all the time. So locating God in the gaps in our knowledge is a precarious business because as scientific knowledge progresses, the space left for God to do his business in grows less and less. The image in the minds of people who make such remarks appears to be of a universe in which there are areas of darkness that are progressively being illuminated by the searchlight of science; and soon all these areas of darkness will be brilliantly lit; so God will disappear.

This may be a comforting doctrine for those who have much emotion invested in God’s non-existence, and so a vested interest in assuring that his room for manoeuvre is reduced to nothing; but it has nothing to do with an individual’s faith in God. The reason for this is found in the difference between closed questions and open questions in human knowledge and in the distinction between what is unknown because we haven’t yet got around to clearing up our ignorance and what is unknown because it is in principle unknowable. Science deals for the most part with closed questions, that is to say, questions the answers to which we know how to go about getting. These questions arise within an environment of discourse that we could call a ‘paradigm’ and the ignorance towards which the closed questions are directed is ignorance that we know can be eliminated in principle, even though in actual fact we can’t eliminate it just yet. So for example, the question of life in the universe is a closed question for we know how to go about answering it: we just have to go to the planets that are out there and take a look. The trouble is that those planets are a long way away and the difficulties of going to them so far insurmountable. Nevertheless, a simple thought-experiment leads us to understand that such questions are answerable. There is no ‘in principle’ unknowability about the presence of life (as we know it) in the universe apart from life on earth. Though even here a caveat has to be made: there might even be life forms both on earth and in the universe at large that we would not recognise as life. But this speculation leads us on to the general idea of ‘in principle’ unknowability.

‘In principle’ unknowability is not simply a matter of gaps in our knowledge; it is rather a question of our cognitive inadequacy: as human beings we are equipped to know certain kinds of things by the methods of science, but not others. The methods of science (largely refined common sense) are principally those of observation by means of the senses, precise measurement and precise description by means of rigorous logical languages. But it is simply silly to believe that these methods can get at every single aspect of reality bar none. We as humans evolved within a distinct context; and our cognitive powers evolved largely for the purposes of our survival. It would therefore be very surprising if our methods of inquiry and the knowledge accumulated by such methods were universally applicable. Immanuel Kant was the first great philosopher to explore in depth our inability to know certain things, but science has uncovered all kinds of ‘in principle’ unknowabilities in the world. There is the unknowability of quantum processes: though we can understand that the classical world arises as a statistical probability out of the quantum realm of reality we cannot say how this happens and there appears to be no way in which we can understand it. There is, moreover, no point in saying, “well, we’re working on it”, because our common sense is not equipped to gain the understanding required. The same unknowability occurs in our understanding of so-called ‘chaotic’ systems, where ‘chaotic’ means not just ‘disordered’ but rather showing a species of order involving far too many variables for us to be able to sort out, even with the vastest of super-computers. These species of unknowabilities are not just gaps in our knowledge, they are indications to us that we can only go so far with our cognitive capacities and beyond that lies territory that we may not rationally enter.

Now for the atheists, the idea of cognitive no-go areas in the universe is usually considered as a threat or a challenge. If it is considered as a threat, its existence is denied with loud declarations of good humanistic principles and assertions to the effect that what we can’t know is irrelevant; if it is considered as a challenge, it is approached with loud declarations of optimistic, humanistic intent: ‘We’re working on it and it’s only a matter of time before we get it.’ For the religious, by contrast, the notion that some aspects of the universe are unknown and unknowable is quite in order. The religious usually accept that the counsels of God are mysterious to humans in their present state and simply have to be trusted until progress to higher levels of being is obtained. The atheists regard this as craven pusillanimity or obscurantist mystification. But the essential difference between the religious and the atheists is to be found in their attitudes to this issue: to the unknowabilities of the world. The religious consider the knowable world to arise from the unknowable, i.e. from the inscrutable activity of the divine; and they are quite happy, for the present, to trust that inscrutable activity, secure in their convictions 1) that humans will never understand it while they are human, 2) that things will become clearer as one progresses to higher forms of existence, just as the universe is more comprehensible to us than to chimps, and 3) that God, the providential Creator is not going to have malicious intentions towards his creatures.

Now, however question-begging the non-religious may consider these beliefs to be, answers to them are not forthcoming by use of the methods of science. That is the whole point about the religious: they are content to trust an agency they do not understand by normal commonsense methods as the ultimate organiser of the universe. The non-religious, by contrast, are determined to understand everything by means of their own efforts and to eliminate all areas of unknowability from their consciousness, precisely by the use of these methods. So the conflict between the theists and the atheists is really a matter of temperament and not of the possession on one side or the other of perfect access to the best sort of knowledge. The religious believe that areas of unknowability can be illuminated by the experience of ‘revelation’. The atheists largely pooh-pooh this notion and insist that the methods of science are adequate to all explanation. But both have an attitude to our current ignorance that is largely determined by their understanding of the applicability or non-applicability of cognitive powers and methods of inquiry. The non-religious for the most part are convinced of the universal applicability of scientific methods and their inevitable success in answering all questions; the religious, more sceptical on this matter, are not.

So if attitudes towards the unknowable and towards the suitable methods for eliminating such a thing are what divide atheist and theists, does that mean that their arguments are simply about words? This may be the case. The theists call ‘God’ what the atheists call ‘nature’; but God and nature can legitimately be considered to be the same. And both atheists and theists are capable of being overawed and lost in wonder at the contemplation of the spectacle of the world. And if you wonder at something, that’s because there’s something about it you don’t understand; for what is entirely understood does not excite wonder. So what are the incidental differences between the atheists and the theists? These seems to concern the degree to which humans can after all say something about those things that they cannot in principle know by experience of the senses and common sense: this is what we mean by ‘metaphysics’. The religious have all sorts of views concerning the progression of human lives towards a higher life that some imagine as an ‘afterlife’ others just as a life in different dimensions. The religious believe that they can trust the unknowable to provide the underpinning for all the fundamental intuitions and longings of the human race concerning the ‘soul’ and consider also that actions while in human shape can profoundly influence the lot of the ‘soul’ as it progresses to its higher form of existence. The religious also believe that certain events within the known and knowable world have a ‘sacred’ quality, which means that they have significance beyond their empirical features and contain important truths concerning the entire lot of humanity and individual ‘souls’.

The atheists, by contrast, flatly deny that their life can in any way continue after the dissolution of the body. They deny it because there is no empirical evidence for it, even though they understand that there could not be such evidence. They deny that there is any higher form of life than the human, though they have no reason to deny this except to say again that there is no empirical evidence for its existence. But how could there be? To be convinced of the reality of a higher life, you have to experience it by other means that via the senses. The atheists totally deny, moreover, that any empirically identifiable and describable event could have any other significance than that which is immediately or subsequently evident to the senses. There are of course many other differences between the religious and the atheists, but looking at these, one has to say again that they look suspiciously like differences of temperament. Both the theists and the atheists have their ‘gaps’, but their attitude to them is at variance.

For the non-religious, the aim is to eliminate all gaps because gaps are threatening or challenging. For the religious the gaps are not gaps but frontiers of what is humanly graspable. For the atheists the hope that sustains them is that the gaps will be plugged and soon all will be known and controlled. For the religious, what is unknowable is precisely what religion is concerned with, for it is in those areas that understanding will constitute progression to a higher existence. Far from being known in a scientific sense and controlled in an egotistical way, the areas of unknowability are the areas of divine counsels and it is from them that ‘salvation’ comes, i.e. the ability to progress to higher levels of existence. So when it comes down to it, the atheist wants to know everything by means of the methods at the disposal of his conscious ego and wants to control everything by means of this knowledge. The theist does not want to know everything, but prefers to be known and be guided by a higher power. It thus looks as if it is a question of attitudes to one’s ego that are the decisive issue in the temperamental difference between the religious and the atheists. Is this an enormous difference? The religious person cannot acknowledge that the atheist’s assessment of the situation could be the right one because he or she does not believe that the atheist’s hope of total ego understanding is either possible or desirable; this is their dominant philosophical position concerning epistemology. The atheists by contrast have to concede that the religious could after all be right, since the existence of God is only made impossible by the methods of enquiry used by science – methods called ‘naturalistic – and these simply cannot be exhaustive, partly because they are always developing and partly because they are limited by human characteristics.

But there is one last difference between atheists and theists that needs stressing, though we have no space to explore it in detail, and it is this: for the atheist, the human ego is a strange anomaly a ‘meaningless passion’ to use Sartre’s phrase, a freak who has capacities, wishes and longings that put it apart from the animal kingdom and from the rest of nature. For the theist, by contrast, humanity is part of nature, integrated into it, created and catered for by it. Who is right on this subject is impossible to prove; but the percentage of people who feel at home in the universe, created and supported by it, as compared to the percentage of people who feel supported by their rational ego alone, is a crucial ratio. It is this ratio that probably determined the past of religion and will probably determine its future as well.


Jonathan said...

Web Fogey-

I came across this article as a posting on, and I've written a response to it on my own blog. Since it's rather long, here's the link to the post in question:

Damien said...

Somebody linked this in a forum thread about religion, and I had a read through.

I get the impression (and I'm not saying anything with the intention of provoking a silly response, so forgive me if I say anything that sounds baited) that you think atheists are a bundle of psychological inadequacies, driven by their inner shame to attempt to control everything in the universe. And that their furious rage at not being able to control the universe leads them to use science as a tool to combat their fears, so that they can listen to audiobooks of Carl Sagan at night to keep the dark away.

Is that more or less an accurate picture of how you view atheists?

webfogey said...

Hello Damien,

No, that's not how I see atheists. Shame and inadequacy have nothing to do with it. It has more to do with egoism and the desire to be in charge.