Friday, May 11, 2012

The Limitations of Sense

As I've mentioned previously, I lived in the dorms in college.  In addition to balky vending machines, the dorms also had a number of loungescommon areas on selected floors for people to gather for the purpose of studying (if they didn't mind a bit of noise), watching TV, or generally screwing around.  And, from time to time, there was the occasional Bible study group.

I hasten to emphasize that the study group people (who generally lived in the dorms themselves) were very reasonable about their use of the lounge.  They were perfectly willing to wander around in search of a mostly unused lounge, and they asked the others instead of just plopping themselves down and using the space.  In my own turn, I was perfectly willing to move over to defrag the chairspace in the lounge and allow them their own section.

Once, though, they did manage to irritate me.

I had settled in with my Walkman, listening to an album.  (For the benefit of those of you who were born in this millennium: Songs used to be sold on physical media, called "vinyl" or "records."  These records could be "singles," or they could be multiple songs sold on one "album."  We had this innovation—developed by Sony, a company that existed even thencalled a Walkman, which played "tapes," on which songs could be transferred from the record.  It was called a Walkman because you could walk around with it.  You could listen to a whole entire album and not be tethered to your "component stereo system," which was a collection of devices used to play music at a time when computers had memory sizes measured in kilobytes.  We thought it was great.)

Anyway, the Bible group came in and said they wanted to use the lounge and they promised not to be too loud.  Since I was the only other one in the room and I didn't want to be a complete jackass, I cheerfully agreed and moved over to the other side.  But in doing so, I took off my headphones.  And so, as they began discussing the Bible, I listened to them.  It was interesting, after all.

After some time, however, I guess it became increasingly evident that I was listening to them, and since it was apparently one of their objectives to spread the word to as many people as they could, they began working on me.  Now, I was brought up without any religious background.  (Oddly, I do recall that we had a napkin holder that had some strange incantation on it about "daily bread," although that was never explained to me.  I had to find out about it on my own.  But that's a story for another time.  Essentially, there was no religion in my upbringing, at all.)

What's more, I had by this time become fascinated by science, and the scientific method.  I didn't have a firm idea, perhaps, of how science got done, exactly, but I did have the notion that people were fallible, and experiments were conducted so that we could find things out without relying solely on fallible humans.  And it seemed to me that the more fantastical stories in the Bible (as opposed to the moral precepts, say) simply would not stand up to any kind of scientific inquiry.  I did not believe that there existed anything like the Christian god.  And I'm sorry to say that, somehow, that came out.

Well, the floodgates opened up after that.  And I just could not get them closed back up.  For some reason, I was made to answer for the slightest failing or shortcoming of science as it pertained to anything, and I mean anything, in the Bible.  To be sure, I was not blameless in this; at that age, I had not learned to adopt the sort of detached self-doubt that I can effect these days, and I was unfoundedly certain about the points I made, which landed me in some hot water.

I don't remember how I managed to extricate myself from the "discussion," but I do know that it took a couple of hours, after which I went to my room and lay down.  I was exhausted.

A few of them came up to me the next day, and apologized for their aggressiveness.  I said I understood, and apologized for my unseemly certainty.  But it set me to thinking: I did feel pretty certain about my atheism.  Why?  What made me feel so certain?  I had some vague sense that it had something to do with a kind of epistemological conservatism (though I wouldn't have known to put it in such a way)the idea that one believes in as few things as is possible to understand the world—and the proposition that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

It took me some years, however, before I could fully work out what my situation was with regard to atheism, and agnosticism, and all that.  It came about like this:

Much later, I was talking to this fellow, and I mentioned some of this mess I got in with the Bible study group.  And so he asked me, what did make me so certain?  He thought that people who could feel so certain that there was no god were just as scientifically irresponsible as those who could feel certain that there was one.

Fortunately, by this time, I had read Wittgenstein (I'll bet that's the only time you'll hear anyone consider it fortunate to have read Wittgenstein, and by the way, he looks just about that crazy in every picture of him I've ever seen), and I knew he had, too, so I could express it a bit more concisely.  I said that I was about as certain that there was no god as Wittgenstein was that he had a hand.  What good ol' Wittgensteinand I, by extensionmeant by that was that the knowledge that one has a hand represents an upper limit of certainty: a limit imposed by our senses.  We know it not because it is logically proven beyond a shadow of a doubt, but because doubt itself is pointless in this regard.  In other words, the degree to which we know it is a milestone of certainty—in a very real sense, defines it.  In fact, I think Wittgenstein says as much, right at the very start of his final work, On Certainty:
If you do know that here is one hand, we'll grant you all the rest.
My friend was satisfied by that, I believe, and he walked away.  As he walked out, though it hit me that that was it—that the limitations of my senses were the basis of my "certainty" that there was no god.

To begin with: From time to time, some atheist wag will remark that we have no more evidence for the existence of the Christian god than we do for, say, the Flying Spaghetti Monster.  Which is true, so far as it goes, but it doesn't really establish atheism (the belief that there is no god) as it does agnosticism (the lack of a belief that there is a god).

So then, the hypothetical line of questioning goes, what would it take to establish the existence of a god in any kind of scientific way?  Because, as I tell others, if you take a position against something, then as a self-check, you must ask yourself what it would take to convince yourself you were wrong.  Because if there's no amount of evidence that would do it, then your position isn't a scientific one; it can't be falsified.

I thought about all the miracles that are said to be the work of some god or another, all the things that happened that could not be explained.  In most cases, I rather thought that these were evidence less for a god than for the selective ingenuity of humans: If people wanted to believe in something, they were remarkably ingenious about how they managed to assemble evidence in its favor.  But if they didn't want to believe it, that ingenuity mysteriously went away.  In other cases, I couldn't come up with a plausible explanation, except to say that the people who related these stories (thousands of years ago, remember) were either mistaken or, possibly, exaggerating.  That might not have satisfied anyone who was truly on the fence, but it satisfied me.

It boiled down, therefore, to what I could personally witness that would convince me I was wrong.  What could a supernatural being do that would sway me?  It quickly occurred to me that whatever evidence could possibly support the claim to existence of a god had to be much more extraordinary than the possibility that my senses were fallible.  When it came to the existence of a god, I could not grant that I had a hand.

We hear "Seeing is believing," but we see things all the time that, it later turns out, aren't true.  And so, not as an expression of any desire, but simply as an acknowledgement that my senses can fail, catastrophically at times, I flatly admit an incapacity to believe in a god, any god (as normally represented—I obviously don't mean just a super-powerful being, but someone who brought about the world).  It's a personal incapacity, not one that I could possibly extend to anyone else, but it's insuperable just the same.