Monday, March 3, 2014

Can One Know That God Doesn't Exist?

At the Opinionator philosopher Gary Gutting of Notre Dame interviews atheist philosopher Louise Antony, a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

The interview is interesting for a number of things Ms Antony asserts, including her claim that she knows there is no God:
Gary Gutting: You’ve taken a strong stand as an atheist, so you obviously don’t think there are any good reasons to believe in God. But I imagine there are philosophers whose rational abilities you respect who are theists. How do you explain their disagreement with you? Are they just not thinking clearly on this topic?

Louise Antony: I’m not sure what you mean by saying that I’ve taken a “strong stand as an atheist.” I don’t consider myself an agnostic; I claim to know that God doesn’t exist, if that’s what you mean.

G.G.: That is what I mean.

L.A.: O.K. So the question is, why do I say that theism is false, rather than just unproven? Because the question has been settled to my satisfaction. I say “there is no God” with the same confidence I say “there are no ghosts” or “there is no magic.” The main issue is supernaturalism — I deny that there are beings or phenomena outside the scope of natural law.
With due respect to Ms Antony, I simply don't see how anyone can know such a thing. It's a bit like saying that one knows there are no living beings elsewhere in the universe. One can believe this, one can be skeptical or doubtful that there are any such beings, but how one can know that a transcendent mind does not exist is not at all clear, at least not to me.

Nevertheless, she doubles down on her claim a bit further on in the interview:
G.G.: O.K., .... But the question still remains, why are you so certain that God doesn’t exist?

L.A.: Knowledge in the real world does not entail either certainty or infallibility. When I claim to know that there is no God, I mean that the question is settled to my satisfaction. I don’t have any doubts. I don’t say that I’m agnostic, because I disagree with those who say it’s not possible to know whether or not God exists. I think it’s possible to know. And I think the balance of evidence and argument has a definite tilt.
But a "definite tilt" to the evidence, even if such a tilt existed, hardly warrants a claim to knowledge. Gutting goes on to ask her what sort of evidence she has in mind:
L.A.: I find the “argument from evil” overwhelming — that is, I think the probability that the world we experience was designed by an omnipotent and benevolent being is a zillion times lower than that it is the product of mindless natural laws acting on mindless matter.
Most philosophers would agree with her that if the only evidence we had was the evil and suffering in the world, then it would be extremely unlikely that a benevolent, omnipotent deity exists, but the evil in the world is far from the only evidence we have. It's only one element in what philosophers call our evidential set.

Imagine, for example, that every Chinese man you met on a trip to China was under six feet tall. If that experience was the only relevant evidence you had you might be justified in doubting that there are seven footers who are Chinese. But suppose you subsequently acquired several other bits of evidence. You learn, for example, that some Chinese play basketball, that some have even played in the NBA, and that some have even played center in the NBA. Perhaps you also read about a man named Yao Ming. As your evidential set expands, the force of the original piece of evidence begins to diminish.

Likewise with the argument from evil. It's only one element in our evidential set. There are dozens of good reasons for thinking that a God exists, and there are also ways of answering the argument from evil which lessen its force. When considered as just one part of the entire body of evidence the existence of evil is not nearly as dispositive as Ms. Antony suggests.

I'll have more to say about Gutting's interview with Professor Antony tomorrow.