Saturday, December 28, 2013

A Manual for Creating Atheists: A Reliable Epistemology

Chapter three of “A Manual for Creating Atheists” is truly a very difficult chapter for intelligent people of faith to read. This is not because it offers some profound intellectual challenge to faith. Rather, it is because  Boghossian waxes extremely insulting in the chapter. However, the Christian must resist the temptation to be drawn into Boghossian's unkind ad hominem. Instead, we must critically examine the truthfulness of his propositions, all the while pointing out his philosophical bias, his wild conjectures, and his unproven philosophical assumptions.

Boghossian begins this chapter by setting a priori knowledge and analytic statements over against synthetic statements and a posteriori knowledge. This is an old argument between rationalists and empiricists and one that will likely never be settled. Specifically, he attacks certainty. He writes, “Certainty is an enemy of truth: examination and reexamination are allies of truth.” One cannot help but wonder how knowledge advances or progresses if it has no foundation upon which to advance. I shall return to this criticism later in the post.

Boghossian asserts that, “Faith taints or at worse removes our curiosity about the world.” Seemingly, faith leads to certainty about facts of the world and such certainty allays curiosity. Boghossian thinks, “Faith immutably alters the starting conditions for inquiry by uprooting a hunger to know and sowing a warrantless confidence.” The author of this project speaks with the strangest level of confidence for a man that thinks such confidence is the enemy of knowledge and truth. It is odd to read someone criticize the idea of certainty with such a high degree of, well, certainty.

Boghossian then makes this very puzzling statement, “Once we understand that we don’t possess knowledge, we have a basis to go forward in a life of examination, wonder, and critical reflection.” This statement would be humorous if it wasn’t so disturbing. The critical thinker has to wonder what the basis of our examination and critical thinking might be if we are all ignorant of it. How can one know that we have any basis at all for the pursuit of knowledge? How can one understand that they are knowledge-less? To understand implies a degree of knowledge. And to have adequate understanding to know that exploration is needed and desirable seems like a healthy degree of knowledge. Apparently Boghossian hasn’t the foggiest notion that knowledge depends upon knowledge, and so too does the very notion of examination, wonder, and critical reflection. The necessary precondition for knowledge is knowledge. I must confess that I find Boghossian’s line of reasoning here utterly absurd. At a minimum, knowing that one does not know is knowing. What then is the basis for that knowledge? Boghossian will eventually be forced to disclose his own foundation of beliefs and it is there that we shall find his faith.

From here, the author makes an ethical statement, which is also quite puzzling given his epistemological proclivity: “Wonder, curiosity, honest self-reflection, sincerity, and the desire to know are a solid basis for a life worth living.” I cannot help but ask how Boghossian knows that there is such a thing as “a life worth living.” What does “a life worth living actually look like?” Additionally, is there only one “life worth living” or are there more? Furthermore, what justification can he provide for such a sweeping and universal claim? I wonder if there isn’t an element of faith somewhere in Boghossian’s own worldview. Indeed, if it can be shown that such is the case, the implications for Boghossian’s project could turn out to more than just a little hysterical. After all, his entire thesis, the unreliability of faith as an epistemological method, would rest upon the very thing he so desperately wants to avoid: faith.

The goal of the Street Epistemologist is to “help people destroy foundational beliefs, flimsy assumptions, faulty epistemologies, and ultimately faith.” We cannot tell if Boghossian is speaking of the notion of foundationalism or if he means specific beliefs. As far as it goes, everyone enters this discussion with foundational beliefs. They are impossible to destroy. They can only be replaced with competing foundational beliefs. In addition, I intend to show that every epistemological position is, at bottom, a faith position. The only different is the object in which the faith is placed.

As we move through this particularly offensive, closed-minded, and arrogant chapter, the author once against makes one more outlandish statement about faith: “After all, faith is by definition the belief in something regardless or even in spite of the evidence.” The idea is that Christian faith has absolutely no evidence to offer and in fact, it exists in spite of the evidence against it. Boghossian then points to the Gervais & Norenzyan 2012 study that supposedly concludes that analytic thinking promotes religious disbelief. What Boghossian does not tell us is that most of the subjects in that study came from a liberal Canadian university, hence, highly underrepresenting the typical North American population. Suffice it to say that the study to which Boghossian refers is a real howler.

Boghossian spends a lot of time on what he calls “Doxastic Closure.” This is what happens when a person holds to a belief that is resistant to revision, supposedly regardless of the evidence. Boghossian says, “This puts people in a type of bubble that filters out ideologically disagreeable data and opinions.” I wonder if “doxastic closure” is the same thing as dismissing the reliability of faith as an epistemology from the start, because it does not meet one’s ideas of their criteria for justification.

Boghossian tell us that doxastic openness is a willingness and ability to revise beliefs. One has to wonder what sort of evidence Boghossian would need in order to justify a belief. Suppose someone asks him to be open to changing his criteria for justification, how do we think he might respond? Boghossian’s view of his ability to be purely objective about these matters seems more than a little naive.

I could continue my review of chapter three, but I will stop with one more Boghossian assertion that is nothing short of outrageous. He writes, “This section will unpack two primary reasons for this appearance of failure: either (1) an interlocutor’s brain is neurologically damaged, or (2) you’re actually succeeding.” He continues, “In Short, if someone is suffering from a brain-based faith delusion your work will be futile.” If Boghossian means for people to take his project serious, then he should leave aside such insulting conjectures and ad hominem and explain to his atheist colleagues that it could be due to the fact that their arguments rest upon a hopeless irrationalism, are not supported by the evidence, and most of all, contradict the truth of God revealed in Scripture, which is actually why intelligent Christians reject them. One has to do more than link together a bunch of ad hominem statements if they hope to persuade others of the validity concerning their point of view.  

The Christian response to Boghossian then is to ask him to justify the certainty with which he condemns certainty. Boghossian claims that certainty is an enemy of the truth and about this he seems to be quite certain. Boghossian’s whole enterprise seems to be that faith aims for certainty. His argument goes something like this: examination and reexamination are allies of truth. Certainty endangers examination. Without examination truth is endangered. Faith produces certainty. Therefore, faith endangers truth. But one has to ask why truth ceases to be truth once we become certain of it. I am certain that 2+2 = 4. I do not need to examine the equation again. I do not need to reexamine the equation again. I am certain it is true. Boghossian tells us that truth is threatened by certainty, but he fails to illustrate for us just why he thinks this is the case.

Boghossian’s claim that faith removes our curiosity about the world is manifestly misleading. The fact that Christian theism asserts that there are some things, about which we can be certain, does nothing to quell intellectual adventure or curiosity about the many things we do not and even cannot be certain about. It does not follow that certainty about the existence of God leads to certainty about all of reality. The fact of God’s existence does nothing to eliminate mystery, adventure, or curiosity of all of the facts of God’s universe and of the revelation of Himself both in nature and in Scripture. Apparently Boghossian is unfamiliar with the voluminous materials and documents produced by theologians over the centuries, all designed to inform, to question, to wonder, and to search for the truth.

Boghossian implies that he believes there is a life worth living. This implies that life has value, worth, and meaning. It also implies that not just any life has value, worth, and meaning, but rather, a specific kind of life. Moreover, without saying so, it implies that there is at least one kind of life that is not worth living. Now, apparently, the life worth living is a life filled with wonder, curiosity, honest self-reflection, sincerity, and the desire to know. But why isn’t a life filled with certainty, apathy, insensitive selfishness, insincerity, and epistemological disinterest? In addition, why isn’t the life that mixes these traits worth living? Are there more than one lives worth living? Why this life and not that life? Boghossian opens Pandora’s Box and closing it is not a task I would desire.

Over and over again Boghossian claims that faith is based on a lack of evidence. Or he tells us that faith is unreliable and unreasonable all because of its apparent lack of evidence. What Boghossian has not done so far is tell us what type of evidence he means. One man is convicted for murder because there were two credible eyewitnesses that saw him do it. Another man is convicted of murder because of the forensic evidence gathered at the scene and his inability to provide a legitimate alibi. What exactly constitutes evidence? This is the problem of the criterion. If Boghossian is going to assert that faith is not rational, then the burden of proof is on him. And such proof must begin with what he means when he uses such terms as evidence, reasonable, justification, warrant, and rational. We know that self-evident propositions exist. They do not require evidence to be rational. We do not require justification in order to believe them. And we know that other propositions are not self-evident. Boghossian needs to explain to us sooner rather than later, precisely what is the nature of these propositions that require warrant and exactly what that warrant must look like in order to be rational.

The problem so far with Boghossian’s epistemology is that it is guilty of epistemic circularity. Epistemic circularity is a malady from which an argument for the reliability of a faculty or source of belief suffers when one of its premises is such that my acceptance of that premise originates in the operation of the very faculty or source of belief in question. [Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief, 119] When Boghossian asks us to accept his standard for what is rational in order to determine what is rationally justifiable, he is asking us to accept what is essentially an epistemologically circular argument. Epistemic circularity is only curable in Christian theism where the source of all knowledge is transcendent. On to chapter four.


  1. I've been looking for a presupp reply to the book! Thanks for the post!


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