Atheism and the Illusion of Certainty

Scientists and philosophers agree that certainty is an illusion. Although we’ve learned a lot about nature and the universe, there’s still many very fundamental unanswered questions. Mix in the subjective and limited faculty of human perception and one begins to see the magnitude of ignorance beyond the scope of our meager knowledge. But don’t take my word for it . . .

“Not to be absolutely certain is, I think, one of the essential things in rationality.” ~Bertrand Russell

“Doubt is not a pleasant state of mind, but certainty is absurd.” ~Voltaire

“Intolerance is the natural concomitant of strong faith; tolerance grows only when faith loses certainty; certainty is murderous.” ~Will Durant

“Dogmatism and skepticism are both, in a sense, absolute philosophies; one is certain of knowing, the other of not knowing. What philosophy should dissipate is certainty, whether of knowledge or ignorance.” ~Bertrand Russell

“I have approximate answers and possible beliefs, in different degrees of certainty, about different things. But I’m not absolutely sure of anything, and of many things I don’t know anything about. But I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things — by being lost in the mysterious universe without having any purpose — which is the way it really is as far as I can tell, possibly. It doesn’t frighten me.” ~Richard Feynman

“The educated in [the critical habit of thought] are slow to believe. They can hold things as possible or probable in all degrees, without certainty and without pain.” ~William Graham Sumner

“As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.” ~Albert Einstein

We still don’t know the nature of reality. To what extent do quantum effects extend into the classical realm? Is reality really a matter of probabilities, or are there simply too many variables for our feeble minds to grasp? Information is a fundamental property of matter at the quantum level: why would that be? And we’re still not sure what role, if any, consciousness plays in reality.

Then there’s the question of which God we’re talking about: the indifferent Prime Mover of deists and pantheists – or the personal, revealed, creator of the Abrahamic religions? Our knowledge of the former is nebulous at best: there’s not much information available about this absentee God. However, our knowledge of the latter is an entirely different matter: we have plenty of information about him via his allegedly divinely-inspired scriptures. Thanks to these 3 scriptures (the Hebrew bible, the New Testament and the Quran) it is easy to prove the God of Abraham (including his incarnate form as Jesus) is definitively not the omniscient and omnibenevolent source of morality his faithful followers claim him to be.

So, we can rule out the Abrahamic God but if you’re talking about the absentee Prime Mover, then the practical considerations, above, factor into the question of his existence. Atheists who value rational integrity and limit their claims to what they can actually substantiate, can reasonably claim that all evidence seems to point away from God and that the odds of his existence appears to be vanishingly remote. This is enough for many of us to claim the title of atheist with a high degree of confidence. Many others who hold this same position believe they are technically agnostics, because they do admit the possibility of such a God’s existence, however unlikely.

Personally, I rank myself as an atheist. But I don’t claim that God does not exist. I can’t support that claim for all gods; just the God of Abraham – as perceived by his adherents and portrayed by doctrine. I can’t make the same claims about the God of deists and pantheists because there is no scripture or doctrine to base any claims upon. In fact, there’s no information at all about this absentee cosmic creator. Given the ineffable mystery of existence and the depth of our ignorance, it’s not impossible that the universe is created instead of spontaneous or eternal. Occam’s Razor suggests a creator God is less likely than no creator God at all but it does not rule out the possibility. The fact is, we still don’t know how (or if) the universe began.

Certainty about God’s existence – or his nonexistence – is equally unsupportable, either way.

© Copyright 2012


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