Agnosticism and The Art of Not Knowing: A Critique
By Udo Karsten
A few years ago, I had the privilege of attending a formal debate at the University of Johannesburg between Richard Howe and Piet Croucamp on the topic of whether God exists. Last year I watched a debate streamed live over the internet from the University of Stellenbosch on a similar topic, God: Human Invention or Not? This time around the setup was aimed at having the participants engage more in way of dialogue rather than formal debate.
The dialogue was between the same Richard Howe, professor emeritus of Philosophy and Apologetics at Southern Evangelical Seminary in the US, and Abel Pienaar, a spiritual leader at Renaissance in Pretoria. I think the discussion was quite successful, in no small part due to a very capable moderator, Mahlatse Mashua (RZIM).
As I did in my analysis of Piet Croucamp’s case against God, I want to offer some critical thoughts on Abel Pienaar’s engagement with the topic – apart from, even if coincidental with Richard Howe’s own arguments and responses during the dialogue itself. Please note that nothing that I say is meant to reflect on Pienaar as a person or his character, but tries to deal with Pienaar’s arguments in his dialogue with Richard Howe. Also realise that I have taken into account the very challenging task that the participants faced in an environment with strict time constraints in expressing and formulating their thoughts clearly, especially for Pienaar who also had to do so in his second language.
It is worth mentioning at the start that Pienaar and Howe had their discussion in a respectful and civilised manner, in sharp contrast to Croucamp’s foul-mouthed outbursts in his debate with Howe. But although Croucamp, a staunch atheist, and Pienaar, an agnostic with a fascination for Zen Buddhism, were worlds apart in demeanor, it was interesting to note some of the same lines of reasoning used by both.
For contextual concerns I have periodically made reference to the relevant passages in the transcript of Pienaar’s words. To hear Howe’s participation and responses, watch the video of the discussion.
This article is divided into the following headings:
- I Know That You Know That You Don’t Know What You Say You Know (on the criteria for knowing God)
- Knowing Something Is Better Than Knowing Nothing (on the question of existence)
- Bonobos Ought To Know (on God, religion and morality)
- See The Tokoloshe, Know The Tokoloshe (on sense experience and believing just about anything)
- Know Thy Purposes (on the meaning of life)
- I Just Knew There Was More! (further dialogue on arsonists and box cars)
- The Known End (concluding remarks)
I Know That You Know That You Don’t Know What You Say You Know (on the criteria for knowing God)
The topic of discussion between Howe and Pienaar was guided by a set of questions that both speakers had time to address. Some of the answers to these questions the participants prepared for in advance, while other questions were revealed as the dialogue progressed. The first question from the moderator was stated as follows:
Which of the following two statements, in your opinion, describes “God” the best and for what reasons:
A. “God” refers to a real transcendent being that exists independently of time, space, matter, energy and irrespective of what people of any age might think about him; or
B. “God” refers to our human experience as thinking people of every age try to make sense of the ever-growing knowledge of the world they live in.
The crux of Pienaar’s reason for rejecting notion A, that a transcendent being like God exists, seems to be and can be formulated in an argument that goes something like this:
- Knowledge is the communicable, repeatable, testable result of a demonstration or an experience.1 (Pienaar seems to refer to empirical demonstration or an experience of the senses.)
- God cannot be known by empirical demonstration or experience.2
- Therefore, we can have no knowledge of God, i.e. God is unproven3 (and therefore we should be agnostic about his existence).
So what Pienaar seems to be thinking is that we cannot know God scientifically or empirically and since such knowledge is the only reliable kind of knowledge, we cannot know anything about God.
But is this true?
Let’s consider premise 1: Knowledge is the communicable, repeatable, testable result of a demonstration or an experience. The obvious question seems to be: What communicable, repeatable, testable result of a demonstration or an experience has shown that knowledge is the communicable, repeatable, testable result of a demonstration or an experience? This is not a trick question. Give it a moment’s thought and it becomes clear that the truth value of premise 1 has not been, indeed cannot be, determined by scientific or empirical methods. Why? Because the question of what constitutes “knowledge” is not a scientific question, but a philosophical one. It is simply not answered by the methods and tools of science, but by the methods and tools of philosophy (i.e. epistemology).
The idea that the only knowledge we can reliably have is scientific or empirical knowledge is self-defeating and false. There are all kinds of names for, and variations of, this fallacy in reasoning. “Logical positivism”, “verificationism” and “scientism” comes to mind, but all of these ideas have been discredited by philosophers of science.
The truth of premise 1 thus seems merely assumed rather than having been demonstrated to be true through repeatable tests. The fact is that there are many things that we know, but that would not count as knowledge according to this narrow definition of knowledge. For example, knowledge about moral truths and truths of logic are not the repeatable and testable result of empirical demonstration or empirical experience. We might even know things without being able to prove that we do, or without fully understanding the things we know (for e.g. that e = mc2).
Furthermore, premise 2 is true as far as it goes, but what exactly follows from this? For if God is not a physical entity, then whatever knowledge of God is attainable, would not be gained through empirical or mere observational methods of study. The American physicist and atheist, Alan Lightman, puts it this way:
“The reason that science cannot disprove the existence of God, in my opinion, is that God, as understood by all human religions, exists outside time and space. God is not part of our physical universe (although God may choose to enter the physical universe at times). God is not subject to experimental tests. Either you believe or you don’t believe.”
Except for the concluding non-sequitur represented by the last sentence (to which we’ll come back), this admission from Lightman reveals a better grasp of the limits of science when it comes to the question of God, than many of his fellow atheists would ever admit. Lightman continues:
“Thus, no matter what scientific evidence is amassed to explain the architecture of atoms, or the ways that neurons exchange chemical and electrical signals to create the sensations in our minds, or the manner in which the universe may have been born out of the quantum foam, science cannot disprove the existence of God — any more than a fish can disprove the existence of trees. Likewise, no matter what gaps exist in current scientific knowledge, no matter what baffling good deeds people do, no matter what divine and spiritual feelings people have, theology cannot prove the existence of God. The most persuasive evidence of God, according to the great philosopher and psychologist William James…is not physical or objective or provable. It is the highly personal transcendent experience.”
(A side note is in order. Does the latter paragraph sound familiar? These are the very words Pienaar used4 without acknowledging its source. During his presentation Pienaar lifted several sentences in several places verbatim from an article by abovementioned Alan Lightman while neglecting to mention as much. In fact, Pienaar even personalises Lightman’s words by beginning one of Lightman’s sentences with “For me, The most persuasive evidence of God…” In some circles this would be considered blatant plagiarism! But let’s continue to the argument.)
The mistake that Lightman makes, and by implication Pienaar, is to suggest that if God is not subject to experimental tests, then belief in God is an arbitrary matter (“either you believe or you don’t believe”) or merely a subjective matter because of a personal experience. Several things need to be said in response.
Firstly, if God is indeed an immaterial being, not discoverable by means of empirical, scientific methods, then whatever experience one has of God, will necessarily be a “highly personal transcendent experience,” to quote Lightman. There is nothing problematic about this, for all experience is inevitably of the subjective kind since no-one else has access to our experiences. But subjectivity doesn’t exclude having knowledge, or in this case, knowledge of God. For instance, if I experience (emotionally under the right conditions) that my wife loves me (which is a subjective, non-empirical experience), can I not then also claim that I have knowledge that she loves me?
Secondly, in spite of the personal nature of an experience of God, it isn’t clear why all knowledge of God must merely be subjective. Why can’t there also be external reasons (like reasons that make the existence of God more probable than not), which has nothing to do with empirical evidence, but through which one can have access to knowledge of God? This doesn’t imply that these reasons will compel everyone. The point is that you can’t simply dismiss such reasons as saying something true about God just because they’re not empirical and agreed upon by all.
Thirdly, and related to the last point, not being able to prove something beyond all doubt (that is, with undeniable and absolute certainty) doesn’t mean that one can’t have good reasons for believing that something is more likely to be the case than not (that is, having certainty beyond reasonable doubt, even if it doesn’t equal absolute certainty). While certain proofs in mathematics and logic seems to be the exceptions, the tentative nature of scientific theories themselves are testimony to the notion that “absolute proof” is mostly an impossibly high standard in establishing some statement’s truth value.
So while honest and sophisticated believers cannot and will not talk of absolute proof for God’s existence (again, such demonstrable proof and certainty is unattainable in most fields of knowledge), they could have good reasons to think that it is more plausible that God exists than that he does not. But, even if they can’t give any such reasons, or even if someone else finds such reasons unconvincing, it might still be the case that someone has knowledge of God through a direct, non-empirical experience of God. If such an experience is veridical (that is, if the experience is of the God who actually exists and not a delusion), then such a person is justified in believing in God even though they might not be able to offer any other reasons for believing in God. (Note: The fact that many people claim religious experiences, doesn’t mean that all such experiences are therefore veridical; and even if they are veridical, they might not be of the same quality.)
Pienaar mentioned two reasons (and certainly he has many more) that makes him think that a transcendent and independent being like God is a human invention:
- Which of the about three thousand gods of man through the centuries would be real? Nobody knows.5
There is nothing wrong with thinking that religion in its broadest sense, are indeed human attempts through the ages at understanding the nature of the world we live in. In this process, people might indeed have come up with different notions of God, many of them reflecting human desires, fears and hopes, as they struggle to make sense of the world.
The mistake is to think that because of the human element in all religions, that all elements in all religions are therefore merely human constructs.
Consider the following. If a transcendent God exists independently of what anyone thinks, and if human beings are fallible and fickle (as we seem to be), then the process of gaining knowledge of this God (assuming that such knowledge of God is part of what God desires) might indeed be messy and full of shortcomings. Then people’s ideas of God might often be muddled, incoherent and simply self-serving. But this need not necessarily be the case in every instance of religious thought through the centuries. There might therefore well be ideas that reflect aspects of who God really is in every religion. There might even be a set of ideas that reflect who God really is that are stated more truly and clearly in one religion than in any others.
So, the mere fact that people have different notions of God all through the ages, does absolutely nothing to negate the idea that an independent entity like God really exists. It also doesn’t deny the possibility of gaining knowledge of who this God, if he exists, really is.
- If God as an independent being really existed, then he or she should have been easier to perceive or feel.6 God can appear to us empirically, give us an undeniable sign that would count as scientific proof.7 Since Pienaar hasn’t perceived, felt or seen this kind of God, he claims to be agnostic about whether such a God exists.8
Why does Pienaar think that a transcendent, independent being like God should be easier to perceive? On the contrary, there are several reasons to think that such a God would not be so easily perceived. First of all, if God is indeed an immaterial, transcendent being, then by definition he would not be directly perceptible by human sense experience on which we as physical beings rely so heavily. Secondly, there might well be all kinds of human factors that impede our ability to perceive God by means of non-empirical experience; maybe things like our own misplaced desires, selfish pursuits or inherent pride are all hindrances in perceiving God. Thirdly, merely knowing that a certain God exist might not carry the right kind of experiential weight. It could well be that truly desiring after God as he really is, a God worthy of our worship, is the necessary condition for perceiving God. Why would such a desire rise within us merely by observing some empirical sign or proof, even if it satisfies our intellectual curiosity (and it’s not clear that it will even then)?
Pienaar said he has tried many times to open his eyes and heart to perceive God, but all he sees is life in all its beauty.9 For many other people it is precisely this life in all its beauty that is a gateway for perceiving the God who makes sense of the reality and nature of both life and beauty. If the transcendent and independent God can indeed really be perceived, then at most Pienaar could say that he hasn’t perceived this God. What he shouldn’t imply, as he is inclined to propose despite his claim to being agnostic, is that because some people haven’t perceived this God, that God is therefore a human invention.
Pienaar quoted John Shelby Spong in saying that “theism and God are not the same, that theism is but one human definition of God”.10 Yes, there are different conceptions of God, and since all conceptions exist in the human mind, they are indeed human. But it simply begs the question of whether all concepts are merely human constructs that do not reflect something true about God. Pienaar thinks that the word God merely refers to the experience of being spiritual or how we affirm “mystery”. While I don’t deny spirituality or mystery, I haven’t heard anything from Pienaar to suggest that a theistic understanding of God is therefore a mere human invention.
Knowing Something Is Better Than Knowing Nothing (on the question of existence)
The second question of the evening was this: As a philosopher, what would you say is a reasonable explanation for why something (like our universe and everything in it) rather than nothing exists?
One of the claims German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz made in trying to answer the question of “Why is there something rather than nothing?” can be stated as follows:
Everything that exists has an explanation of its existence, either in the necessity of its own nature or in an external cause.
Take the universe for example. Since we know that the universe exists, we can ask what the explanation is for the universe’s existence. Does the universe exist by a necessity of its own nature (in the way that some philosophers think numbers and other mathematical entities exist) or because of an external cause?
Well, if anything that begins to exist has a cause, and if the universe began, then the universe has a cause. This means that the explanation for the existence of the universe lies in an external cause. But not all things that exist, can be explained by referring to an external cause, since an infinite regress of causes is simply incoherent. Logically there has to be an uncaused first cause from which everything else derives its existence, and for which the explanation of its existence would therefore be found in the necessity of its own nature.
Pienaar explained that the question of why there is something rather nothing includes the theistic God.11 Yes! That is precisely what Leibniz’s insight demonstrates: an explanation for the existence of God is found either in the necessity of its own nature or in an external cause. But nobody thinks that when they talk about God, even if it is the theistic God, that this God refers to some sort of created being. No, the theistic God is understood as the Creator and therefore his existence is not explained in terms of any external cause, but by the necessity of his own nature, which is uncaused and eternal. More importantly, this explanation for why God exists, is the answer to the problem of an infinite regress of causes (I’ll come back to this later with Howe’s locomotive/ box car analogy).
Here is the point. Pienaar didn’t come anywhere near in showing that the question of why there is something rather than nothing, is unanswerable.12 If Leibniz’s answer is wrong, then Pienaar didn’t show where and why. In fact, Pienaar actually showed that he didn’t really understand Leibniz’s answer, for it seemed that he hears Leibniz and other philosophers say that God is his own cause.13 But such a notion isn’t merely incomprehensible as Pienaar rightly notes14, it is nonsensical (and which no respectable philosopher believes). If something can cause itself to exist, then it had to have existed before it could have brought itself into existence, which is logically absurd – not merely a “mystery”15. This logic is equal to thinking that nothing (i.e. not anything) can be the cause of something (which is what Pienaar seemed to think might be possible16). The fact is that self-causation is conceptually not the same thing as self-existence (that is, necessary existence) and to confuse the two is to blunder.
Pienaar then gave a whole list of alternatives that might serve as substitutes for the idea of a Creator God.17 In doing so, Pienaar showed that people have always thought differently on how God, as the metaphysical ultimate, is to be understood. But by merely listing these ideas, doesn’t make any of them valid or even plausible. What was lacking was some kind of argument for why an impersonal cause is a more plausible explanation for the cause and nature of our universe, than a personal God. The problem is that Pienaar seemed to think that no such argument can be made either way.18 In doing so Pienaar seems to confuse his skepticism for agnosticism. Pienaar is skeptical about all answers that refer to ultimately reality, and from his skepticism he then claims that nobody can know the answer.19 But again, why should Pienaar’s skepticism be any reason to accept the notion that sufficient knowledge of God, or the nature of ultimate reality, is forever beyond human reach?
Bonobos Ought To Know (on God, religion and morality)
The next question up for discussion was stated as follows: Assuming that humans have desires for morality, religious worship and justice for crimes, where and how would you argue did these desires originate from?
Pienaar began his answer by interpreting the reciprocal, altruistic and cooperative behaviour of some of the higher primates as instances of a rudimentary morality.20 He explained that this early form of morality pre-existed religion which only developed after our evolutionary ancestors evolved the ability to use language.21 Therefore our moral capacity exists independently of any religious system of thought.
Firstly, whether the behavior of some higher primates is an expression of true morality is highly doubtful. Do these primates choose “to do the right thing” because they are self-aware? If true moral behaviour is always preceded by motive and intent (properties of self-awareness), then how has motive and intent been determined simply by looking at animal behaviour? It is much more likely that acting reciprocally, altruistically or even disapprovingly, can resemble true human moral behaviour, but that for the animal such behaviour merely serves to enhance the survival of its species.
Secondly, even though we reject the notion of true moral behaviour in the higher animals, we can wholeheartedly agree with Pienaar that morality (the ability to act morally and recognise moral duty and values) is not dependent on being religious. 22 No-one has to believe in God to be able to act morally. Humans are inherently moral beings, unlike animals that are driven by instincts for survival.
But here is the question: what best accounts for this inherent moral nature of human beings? As Pienaar puts it, “it’s already inside us, we know what’s wrong and right.”23 Yes, that’s correct, but what best explains that we know wrong and right? After all, chimpanzees and bonobos do not know this. When one chimpanzee kills another, it doesn’t commit murder, it expresses dominance and has a better chance of producing its own off-spring. When a bonobo takes a piece of fruit from another, it doesn’t steal it, it competes for resources. So, again, what makes us humans different? What is the best explanation for why we know moral truths such as that murder and theft are wrong?
The explanation favoured by naturalists, and hinted at by Pienaar24, on the origins of morality is that our moral beliefs have been built into us by evolutionary and social conditioning. On this account our moral beliefs would be selected for by evolutionary processes for their survival value and not for their truth. One implication of this is that different societies would be conditioned differently. In other words, the expression of what is right and wrong, or good and bad in one society with unique conditions and constraints, wouldn’t necessarily apply to another society which developed under different conditions and constraints.
This explanation of how our moral beliefs originated seems to fly in the face of what our moral experience actually suggests: some things seem to be right or wrong, independently of what a particular society or individual might think. For example, Nazi Germany was simply wrong (a moral fact) in thinking that exterminating and eliminating Jews, homosexuals and anyone with mental or genetic defects, were morally good and necessary things for their specific society. Or, it really is wrong, in all and every society of all times, to torture animals for fun (say, a dog or a cat). It isn’t that torturing such animals and deriving pleasure from it, merely hinder our survival in some way; it is that the statement, “It is wrong to torture a dog or cat for fun,” expresses an objective moral truth independent of whether it might have survival value or not.
The point is that our moral experience suggests some transcendent point of reference for our moral beliefs, beyond what any human individual or society might decide or prefer, and thus beyond the mere results of sociobiological conditioning. It is a reference point that serves as an objective moral standard that makes it possible to meaningfully distinguish between ideas such as “rightness” and “wrongness”, or “goodness” and “badness”. Many people have reasoned that it is a transcendent being like God whose nature is perfectly good, and who is ultimately responsible for there being moral beings like us, that makes the best sense of our moral nature and ability to have moral experiences. This would also account for, as Pienaar mentions25, why some version of the golden rule is found in almost every major religion – after all, religious people are humans with a moral nature too.
Note, however, that by referring to God as the grounding for moral truths is not the same as saying that morality is intrinsically linked to religion (even though religion can be a vehicle for moral teaching, as Pienaar agrees26). No, a person could act morally without being religious – he or she doesn’t even have to believe that God exists or commanded anything, to be able to act morally. The important point is that to speak meaningfully of acting morally or saying “You should to do this or that” or to accept the existence of moral truths, is only possible when referring to some sort of obligatory standard beyond mere subjective opinion.
Related to this subject is Pienaar’s suggestion that when people who don’t believe in God, reach out to help others, then one of their motivations could possibly be attributed to mere selfless love.27 Pienaar seems to think this is in contrast to what believers are motivated by28. It is an accusation one often hears: “You act in love, because you are commanded by God to do so, but I, who don’t believe in God, act in love, simply because it’s the right thing to do”. There are at least two problems with this kind of reasoning.
Firstly, why should people who believe in God be motivated by anything less than selfless love? Yes, they might be motivated by something more, such as their love for God and wanting to do what pleases him, but that does nothing to imply that their love for other people are less genuine and selfless than anyone else’s. The mistake is to think that if God didn’t give a command like “Love others,” then we would not have otherwise known that it was morally good to love others. No, divine commands are simply an expression of God’s moral character which serve to affirm and strengthen our own (yes, God-given) moral intuitions (since God’s laws are written on our hearts) for which God himself is the grounding.
Secondly, and this brings us back to our earlier discussion. To say that you’re acting in a certain way simply because it is the right thing to do, is to beg the question: Why is it right? What makes it right? What is the basis for saying something is the “right” thing to do? Why should I love someone or care for others’ well-being? Why do I have such a duty? Who or what obligates me?
Note, again, that the answer a believer gives to these questions, is not merely because God says something is right, as if God might have chosen that something else is right, so that by merely declaring it right or wrong, he makes it right or wrong. No, the correct answer is that what God wills and commands are expressions of his perfectly good nature – which couldn’t have been other than perfectly good. What is good or right is therefore reflected by our own natures by virtue of us being moral beings made in the image of a good God.
See The Tokoloshe, Know The Tokoloshe (on sense experience and believing just about anything)
The fourth question put on the table, was: People often complain that they can’t experience God with their senses. Why is it reasonable/rational to believe in a supernatural being, such as God, that we cannot see, hear, touch, taste or smell?
Pienaar responded to Howe’s answer by bringing up the question of how anyone knows God and what we can know of God. Pienaar pointed out, correctly and something Howe would agree with, that not all claims about God can be right, since many claims not merely differ but contradict one another.29 Pienaar then reiterated his strong claim that we cannot know God30, since the only way to discover proof of God (and therefore presumably the right God) is through the scientific method.31 I’ve already pointed out the fallacy with this reasoning when I discussed the first question of the evening’s dialogue, but a further nuance is in order since Pienaar mentioned the Tokoloshe.
Pienaar seems to think that if a claim is not subject to empirical investigation, then there is no way of determining its truth value.32 But this is false.
If the claim is that the Tokoloshe exists physically (a shortish kind of fellow who can’t get up onto beds raised on bricks to murder people in their sleep or whisper evil thoughts in their ears), then, yes, a proper empirical investigating can and should be conducted. But if the claim is to the existence of a non-empirical entity, then presumably non-empirical methods of investigation apply (some of which are also employed in empirical investigations). These methods would include things like conceptual analysis, probability and plausibility arguments and inferences to the best explanation, among other things, which are not dependent on empirical testability and experimentation. And while absolute certainty about any particular conclusion will probably be unattainable (as is extremely rarely done in any field of investigation anyway), one could still reasonably expect to reach a conclusion of which the truth value is established beyond reasonable doubt.
Know Thy Purposes (on the meaning of life)
The last question Pienaar and Howe addressed, was: What in your opinion is the purpose to life?
To summarise Pienaar’s answer in his own words: “[T]he purpose of life is to live profoundly and deeply now, and God has nothing to do with that for me.”33
Pienaar strongly identifies with Eastern philosophy in general and with Zen Buddhism34 in particular and as such his answer revealed his philosophical inclinations. The only problem is that the answer lacks any meaningful referent. It merely begs the question: Yes, live profoundly and deeply (as opposed to superficially and shallowly), but doing so to what end? Furthermore, one can do a great many things profoundly and deeply, but surely not all things are worth doing.
Perhaps I’m too critical of Pienaar’s attempt at a concise answer to a very big question which were given under pressure of time constraints and which obviously needed unpacking. Maybe. But to be honest, when someone says that if you want to know the purpose of life, and you peel potatoes, then don’t think about God, just peel the potatoes35 – well, then I’m not too optimistic about the insights that a more elaborate explanation will offer.
In thinking carefully about the nature of this question, the concept of ultimate purpose seems intrinsically and inseparably linked to a personal God’s intentions, just as objective morality is linked to God’s (good) nature. If a personal God exists, then presumably the universe was intended and created for a purpose, so that God also intended for human beings to live with a particular purpose. But if there is no God, and if humans are merely the result of blind, impersonal forces, then there is and can be no ultimate purpose. Yes, each person or society, or even humanity as a whole, can create different purposes for themselves. But why would the fact that someone decides their own purpose in an ultimately purposeless universe, be objectively or ultimately different from someone who has no purpose, and who lives superficially and shallowly? Under these conditions, why should anyone accept someone else’s idea of purpose, if all purposes are ultimately merely subjective in nature? And yet, we do experience the need for having an objective answer to the question of life’s ultimate purpose.
Pienaar described that Christians think that the ultimate purpose of life is to get to heaven (and avoid hell).36 A more nuanced way of connecting heaven and purpose is this: Heaven, or living in the Kingdom of God, is an expression of what the result is of living a life of ultimate purpose (in the here and now, but also in the hereafter). Similarly hell is an expression of the result of squandering and abusing the purpose God made each person for. Of course, this is completely different from thinking that heaven and hell are mere expressions of current states of affairs, like Pienaar does.37 If this earthly life is not the end of human existence, as Christians believe, then heaven and hell are indeed separate realities which are described with all kinds of metaphors in the Bible.
(By the way, one reviewer of the dialogue between Howe and Pienaar, thought he heard Richard Howe say that he didn’t believe in hell. But clearly he didn’t understand the question that was posed by the questioner during the Q&A, or simply didn’t care what Howe’s answer really was. Howe was asked whether he believed there was empirical proof for an afterlife. In answering that he was inclined to say no, because he didn’t know whether the phenomenon of Near Death Experiences are veridical, Howe wasn’t denying the Christian belief in hell – he believes it based on special revelation – he was merely speaking to the empirical verifiability of the afterlife.)
I Just Knew There Was More! (further dialogue on arsonists and box cars)
After the five questions from the moderator, there was a time for free engagement where the participants could also ask each other questions. Howe asked Pienaar whether he denied one of the two premises of the Kalam Cosmological Argument that he presented.
The Kalam Cosmological Argument can be stated as follows:
- Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
- The universe began to exist.
- Therefore, the universe has a cause.
Pienaar replied that there isn’t any proof that the cause of the universe has to be something “outside of us”38. But what Pienaar failed to grasp was that if the beginning of the universe also represents the coming into being of everything that the universe is made up of, then there simply isn’t anything that is part of the universe that could be the cause of it. Otherwise it would mean that the universe or a part of it, had to already have existed in order to bring the universe into existence – which is to talk nonsense.
Pienaar seemed to acknowledge the point39 begrudgingly – the cause of the universe had to be external to the universe itself. But then he asked a question that revealed a certain amount of ignorance: Who created God?40
Many people make the mistake of thinking that if everything has a cause, then it is only logical to think that God must also have a cause. But this is not what above argument is claiming. Premise 1 states that, “Whatever begins to exist has a cause,” and not that, “Everything must have cause”. Therefore the question of “Who created God?” is misguided, for it assumes that God is some sort of created being. Most people, including philosophers and theologians, recognise that when we speak of God, we’re not referring to something created. There is an intuitive sense that the traditional concept of God refers to the Creator of everything else.
I’ve already pointed this out earlier, but there’s a perfectly good reason to think of God as the Uncaused First Cause, whose existence can be explained by the necessity of its own nature and not by an external cause. I observed, that if everything has an explanation in terms of something else, then nothing is really explained. The problem with an infinite regress of causes is clearly something that Pienaar didn’t understand, even though Howe tried to explain it with the locomotive and box cars analogy. The movement of a particular box car passing you by on a train track, isn’t explained by simply pointing to the movement of the box car next to it, or the one next to that one, or to any subsequent moving box car ad infinitum. This is because it is not in the nature of any box car to be the explanation of its movement. There must have been a locomotive, a first mover, which is the source and beginning point of all other movement. Unfortunately the point was utterly lost on Pienaar since he merely asked the same question again, “So who made the locomotive?”41 (As one should be able to see, the analogy also had absolutely nothing to do with referring to “old physics”, “mechanical physics” or a “clock maker” as Pienaar wrongly concluded.42)
In another part of the dialogue Pienaar suggested that the medieval philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas fooled us into thinking that we have explained some feature of the natural world (such as human morality) when we have projected it onto the unknown.43 But this is a crude distortion of what philosophers consider the project of natural theology. It is simply not the case that an explanation is merely projected onto the unknown or that having God as the best explanation for something commits the God-of-gaps fallacy. The correct understanding would be that some feature of the world is best explained by something transcendent (thus not merely “projected”), and in the process of reasoning about this, something is also being revealed about the nature of the transcendent itself (thus the unknown is actually made known).
To see an example of how this works, consider a particular feature of our universe, namely, that it had a beginning. This feature of the world seems best explained by the fact that the universe has an external transcendent cause for it coming into being (as the Kalam Cosmological Argument shows). But at the same time, by way of conceptual analysis, we can conclude that this cause of the universe has some minimum attributes. The cause of the universe cannot itself be material, spatial or temporal, because it is the cause of all things material, spatial and even of time itself. Therefore the cause of the universe transcends these things and must itself be, at the very least, spaceless, timeless and immaterial (and one would add, immensely powerful). Now the interesting thing is, as Howe hinted at during his explanation, that these attributes corresponds to what many people have traditionally understood God’s nature as being (though not only this). So Pienaar’s repeated suggestion throughout the discussion that there is an unjustified jump from creation to Creator44, is at best based on ignorance of how philosophers and theologians actually reason about this.
Pienaar showed himself so caught up in thinking that only empirical evidence could and should apply in knowing about God’s existence, that he also completely missed the point of Howe’s analogy about the arsonist. Howe’s point was that reasoning about what the cause of the universe could be and concluding that it was God, was not a God-of-the-gaps approach. It is analogous to finding evidence at the scene of a fire and after examining the evidence, concluding that the fire is best explained by an arsonist (and not by some alternative explanation). This conclusion is based on an inference to the best explanation, but nobody will say it is an arsonist-of-the-gaps explanation. This is exactly the same kind of reasoning (the point of the analogy) that applies with identifying God as the best explanation for the cause of the universe. The fact that Pienaar retorted with “that sounds like scientific evidence”45 when he heard Howe explain what kinds of evidence lead to the conclusion that there was an arsonist, showed that he completely missed the point of the analogy, and at the same time merely revealed his deeply entrenched commitment to scientism.
At one point during the discussion Pienaar offered a criticism46 that I think was fair and valid. Pienaar pointed out a discrepancy in Howe’s use of scientific evidence in making his argument for God’s existence. In support of the premise that the universe began to exist, Howe referred to three lines of converging scientific evidence that the universe began to exist, namely the Big Bang theory, an expanding universe and the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The problem is that some of the same principles of physics and mathematical calculations that apply in showing that the universe had a beginning, also shows that it is billions of years old. It is a problem for Howe because he doesn’t think the universe or the earth is as old as the current scientific consensus suggests. But if he doesn’t think the science behind establishing the age of the universe is valid, then how can he refer to it?
It should be noted, though, that establishing the truth value of the second premise of the Kalam Cosmological argument isn’t dependent on current scientific evidence. One can argue for the beginning of the universe by using philosophical arguments, as the medieval Muslim theologian Al-Ghazali did when he formulated the argument for the first time and when none of today’s scientific evidence were available to him. Howe countered that the question of the age of the earth is irrelevant to the question of whether God is a human invention or not. That might or might not be the case, but the point is, and I think the core of Pienaar’s concern, that it does seem disingenuous to publicly present certain conclusions of science as if they were true, when you privately don’t accept them as valid.
The Known End (concluding remarks)
My impression of the core at Pienaar’s views is that the biggest mistake anyone could make is to think of God in supernatural terms, since nothing transcends the natural. To be sure, there are all kinds of mystery, but no transcendence. But the more I reflected on what Pienaar said, the more I got the impression that it’s not merely that nothing real transcends the natural, but that nothing would ever be allowed to transcend the natural.
On the surface Pienaar seems committed to the innocuous view that he simply doesn’t know whether God exists (weak agnosticism). Then, when I listened more closely, I found the much stronger claim – and for which Pienaar has a considerable burden of proof – that he knows that nobody knows or can know whether God exists (strong agnosticism). His reason seems to be that only the deliverances of science can ever provide us with true or reliable evidence for God if he existed (according to the dogma of scientism). But at the same time Pienaar seems to agree that science cannot prove or disprove God’s existence (science has methodological limits). Only Pienaar knows how he reconciles this contradiction.
Finally, when I reflected on the implications of Pienaar’s views, I discovered a not so subtle atheism. For all relevant and practical purposes, God as a transcendent being does not exist. After all, what else do you mean when you say that God is a human invention?