How Should I Be A Sceptic -- in question of infinite possibilities

[Introductory note from Jason Pratt: the previous entry in this series of posts can be found here. The first entry can be found here.]

In the previous chapter [several entries ago], I said there were three ways the Final Fact can be (and historically has been) considered to transcend our ability to think about it.

I have already dealt with the first option: that nothing we say about the IF can be true; and I have explained why I reject this position and any positions built upon it.

The second option is that everything we say about the IF can be true. [Footnote: This position is not to be confused with a position stating that all facts have Independent status. I’ll be discussing variants of that position later.]

This would certainly qualify as a concept we cannot fully fathom; and its adherents often affirm that such claims are particularly true: i.e., that the IF is not a generality or pure abstraction (although sometimes they go this route, too).

Best of all, its adherents can say not only that they are rendering honor to the IF (to whatever extent that means); but also that they need not dispute with any other belief. All religions and philosophies are equally true and valuable, they will say: none has preeminence.

On the face of it, this seems like a sensitive, refined, tolerant belief that reduces friction between people. Everyone comes out a winner, hostilities are minimized, and anyone disputing it automatically seems revealed as being necessarily fractious and an enemy to peace. And I admit, insofar as those reasons go, I would very much like for this concept to be true.

But I am certain that it is not.

Why do I reject the proposition that all philosophical beliefs (including religions) are equally true and valuable--that all things we say about 'God' are true?

Let me imagine a meeting of these 'unitarians', as I will call them for convenience (though of course not all people who describe themselves as 'Unitarian' would propose that all proposals are true about God). A naturalistic atheist, a positive pantheist and a Muslim show up.

I agree that any one of these people might benefit from listening for a while to the beliefs of the other two. They may find issues where they really do share beliefs, and so may establish a certain amount of sympathy for each other as people. They may have their own beliefs strengthened by listening to an opposing viewpoint and seeing serious problems with the opposition. They might even begin seeing serious problems with their own belief-system and act to modify it accordingly, perhaps closer in line with an oppositional belief.

But what they cannot do, is seriously discuss a topic from three different stances and agree that everyone is saying something equally yet exclusively true about that topic.

The Muslim will say that the final fact of reality is sentient and moral, and that this entity (Allah) has definite opinions about, for instance, Muhammad. He will also say that God is one thing, and not another. If he did not, he would not be a Muslim; that is part of what it means to be 'a Muslim'.

The atheist will say that the final fact of reality is non-sentient and amoral, and that it doesn't have thoughts about anything, including about Muhammad: the prophet was not created by a sentient Entity upon Whom everything else depends, but by the non-sentient amoral Natural system instead; and consequently Muhammad was quite mistaken about being inspired by Allah and/or the angel Gabriel. Muhammad may have said some interesting things, may have done some important things, maybe even have said some true things about reality; but he wasn't correct about those things. Our atheist will say this, because those beliefs are part of what it means to be 'an atheist'.

[Footnote: The atheist may technically allow that an entity corresponding to Gabriel communicated with the prophet; but as an atheist, he will contend that this entity was not sent by a sentient Independent Fact (any claims of the entity to the contrary), and if (as is very likely) he is also a naturalist, he will also say the 'angel' was not a supernatural entity.]

The positive pantheist will say that no Supernature exists, only Nature (there is only one metaphysical level to reality); in this she will agree with our naturalistic atheist, and disagree with our Muslim. She will say that this natural system is sentient; she will disagree with both of her friends on this. She will probably say that God is amoral (or perhaps 'beyond good and evil'); again, disagreeing with both her friends. (The atheist would say there is no God, or ultimate sentience; the Muslim would say that God is moral.) She will say these things, because this is part of what it means to be a (positive) pantheist.

These three people cannot all be equally correct.

One or two of them may be correct on topic A, and the third may be correct on topic B. And one of them may even be completely correct on all counts. But to claim they all can be completely correct on all their mutually exclusive positions would be to claim a flat contradiction; and I have already explained why flat contradictions cannot be true realities.

Some pantheists, of course, are quite comfortable with assigning mutually exclusive properties to God as mutually exclusive properties. God is non-purposive, yet sentient, for instance; or, God is amoral, yet still provides us with a real moral compass. So our pantheist might decide she is really quite at home with this arrangement; she might decide she can stay a 'pantheist' and affirm that all things are true about God.

But our naturalistic atheist and our Muslim are not in the same boat; their beliefs only make distinctive sense by saying one thing and not another. They are always free to modify their beliefs, of course. [See first comment below for a footnote here.] But then they will no longer be an atheist and a Muslim. They will be some kind of pantheist--and not even every kind of pantheist!

And this is my second reason for rejecting this type of concept: it is presented as a way to respect and acknowledge diversity, but when it is seriously practiced it leads directly to one (extremely muddled) type of pantheism--either that or its adherents aren't really practicing it yet.

Again, unitarian pantheism is not supernaturalistic theism or atheism. The philosophy that promises an ultimate safeguard to all beliefs, instead converts all beliefs to a particular belief that is not those other beliefs.

I am tempted to call this 'insidious'; but I would be uncharitable to presume its adherents are consciously attempting this under the flag of tolerance and of acceptance of all beliefs. I think, however, that if I want to protect a distinctive belief of mine--or even to respect and listen seriously to the distinctive beliefs of you, my reader!--I cannot simultaneously maintain that all beliefs are true.

And this leads to my ultimate reason for rejecting this sort of position: its proponents do not--they quite literally cannot--mean what they claim to mean.

'All beliefs about God are equally true.'

Really? I believe some beliefs about God are more accurate than others and some are completely false.

'You are correct as well.'

But we disagree on this point! You say that all beliefs about God must be equally true, and yet also say that some beliefs about God are misleading or outright false! You are saying nothing at all about God.

At bottom, this position must be meaningless gibberish; or else it is a distinctively exclusive proposition about God. If it is the first, then I will not claim a 'belief' in it. If it is the second, then I still will not claim a belief in it, for I would be refuting myself immediately. Resorting to flat contradiction to save the position is, as I have explained, a useless tactic.

There is another way of putting my last point: such people often deny their position in the practice of ethics.

'Really, none of this matters! Don't you see that we must for the sake of society turn to a recognition that all beliefs are equally valuable and true?'

Why do you say that?

'Look at your own obscurantist intolerant beliefs! Your Christian Church raped and plundered its way across the Old and New Worlds, exterminating whole peoples and cultures and rendering untold misery throughout centuries!'

I myself am of the opinion that the particular parties you refer to were not, in fact, following the metaphysics or ethics of Christianity when they did this, and rather were implicitly rejecting them while holding to them in name for personal gain. [Footnote: Nor do I exempt myself from the principle of this opinion; for I am also a sinner, as well as a Christian. I will discuss this much later in my chapters on ethics.] However, let us assume for the sake of argument that they were indeed reflecting quite well the implications of Christian belief. What is your problem?

'My... my problem?? What kind of monster are you!? Is it not obvious?'

It would be obvious if they were wrong to do that.

'You're saying they weren't wrong!?'

No, we both are saying they were wrong to do that; and in your case you are putting at least part of the real blame on the specific characteristics of Christian belief.

'Certainly, whatever their beliefs were, they were wrong to do this! That is why we should embrace and recognize all beliefs as equally valuable and true.'

Except the belief of those people, evidently.

'Not if it leads to tragedies such as that.'

Then you are saying that all beliefs are equally valuable and true, and that some beliefs are better than others. Your beliefs (you say) lead to peace; some beliefs (apparently) lead to strife, hatred, fear and pain. You claim that strife, hatred, fear and pain are not equally valuable as peace--indeed that they have some kind of negative value; therefore the particular notions that lead to those things should be rejected. That is why someone should be a unitarian (or whatever) and not exclusively a Christian (or whatever). But so much for the whole point to an all-inclusive belief-system. It turns out that some beliefs should be excluded after all--which is just as restrictive (in its own way) as Christianity, Islam, atheistic naturalism, or whatever.

Therefore, I cannot really consider all claims about God (or, to re-include the atheists here, let me say 'the IF') to be true.

This leaves the third option: whatever the IF is, it must have particularly exclusive characteristics; and I have explained already why I think that at least some of these characteristics must be discoverable in some fashion. There are claims about the IF that are true; and claims that are false; and perhaps there are claims that are true about It under one condition and false under another. But that does not (as I have said) imply contradiction--although such a situation might manifest itself as a paradox, about which itself we should in principle be able to discover something particularly useful and true.

But some of my readers may now raise a worthwhile question: "You keep talking of 'the IF' and 'it' and 'itself' or 'Him'--or anyway as if It is singular. Perhaps you are right about an infinite regress being either necessarily false or necessarily presumed to be false; but why can there not be two (or some other limited number) of IFs?"

In fact, until now I have tried to alternate between saying 'the' IF and 'an' IF, precisely because I haven't yet touched this issue. Now I will explain why I think there must be one and only one IF--be it sentient or non-sentient, natural or supernatural.

[Next time: in question of multiple IFs]


Jason Pratt said…
Whoops... forgot the deferred footnote comment for a few days... {apologetic g}

.......[first deferred footnote here]

Actually, some atheists and Muslims might disagree with me about whether they are free to modify their beliefs, depending on their opinions about the existence of human free will. It would be more fair to say that their beliefs may be modified, which leaves the free will question to the side, for the moment.

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