We Know Nothing

I don’t believe in God because I’ve confronted some truth about his existence that I can’t ignore. I was born into a Christian family, and am a Christian as a result. There was never a moment of supreme rationality when I realized, “Ah! Yes, it must be true,” or a mystical moment that put into me the fear of God. If anything, my faith has been a long line of moments where I come to the realization that I have no choice; I either keep believing, or I accept a hopeless vision of the world. If I was raised in any other religion, I’m sure this picture would be much the same.

I can accept Christianity on those terms. Everyone has faith in something, whether theistic or atheistic, and as far as I can tell there is no answer more rational than another. The argument over what belief is more true gets very tiresome, and anyone who has participated knows that there is no other conversation that lasts for so long, only to end where it started.

Eventually, we should all come to the same point that Socrates came to, and realize that wisdom comes when we realize that we know nothing. I take comfort in that. It allows me to put a little more trust in God.

So I have been bothered, recently, by the claim that atheism is more rational and logical than theism. It’s not a new or necessarily widespread belief, but it’s there, and it’s one of those beliefs that happen to be harmful in its lack of self-awareness. No worldview is rationally sound, and atheism is no exception.

I recently saw a TED talk with one of these atheists as a speaker. His name is Sam Harris, and he argues that ethics is not a philosophy, it doesn’t stem from religion, but it is, in fact, a science, and we should treat it that way or face perilous consequences. Morals stem from evolution, which instilled within us certain desires in order to create an especially thriving species. Morals, thus, can be judged by how they affect the human psyche. If an action promotes a healthy mind in oneself and others, it is a moral activity. Harris is bothered by the fact that most people dismiss science from the world of ethics, because, naturally, science has something to say about everything.

It’s not a bad stance to judge morals by, I think. Science, in all likelihood, has a lot to say about what fosters a healthy human, both emotionally and physically. In order for it to work, however, one has to hold an additional, entirely separate belief: humans are inherently valuable. That is not a belief you get from atheism, or at least, the thread of atheism from which Sam Harris is operating called Philosophical Naturalism.

Ethics stems from the belief that humans are inherently valuable. Whether this belief stems from evolution or otherwise, that is simply the base reason for acting ethically. I don’t think anyone would disagree. If we didn’t assign some sort of value to humans, we’d treat them like any other random, hapless material. I believe Harris would say that we place value on other humans because that’s the only way rational beings could thrive; the value we place on other humans, though perhaps deeply felt, is a product of evolutionary design for the fitness of our species, and not an inherent trait. I would take this further: human value cannot be an inherent trait because the universe that created us has no value. Scientifically speaking, humans all came from nothing, and we will all descend back into it. We have no ultimate purpose, we were an accident.

Thus, from this viewpoint, ethics are merely granted to us by the illusion of emotion. Emotions not being an experience of the reality of the universe, but a trait given to us so that we would have a species-selfish drive to survive, they truly are an illusion. We feel them, but like the matrix, they aren’t true to what’s actually happening—and what’s actually happening is nothing at all. Yet aside from the deep emotion we feel for others, from which we assign human value, there is no other reason to be ethical. So it is emotion in and of itself that drives any philosophical naturalist to live and treat others well. Arguably, this is the most fundamental belief of all humanity, and it has nothing to do with reason or logic. It is an admission of living in pure illusion.

Also, it’s not in the least compelling for anyone searching for a system of ethics to hear “well, humans don’t actually have any value, but we might as well believe that we do, even if that’s not technically true.” Nobody believes that humans are valueless, and nobody wants to pretend that we have value either — that’s just not true to the human experience. In order to be ethical, we must believe with our entire beings that humans are valuable, and that our actions have an impact that won’t disappear into the vast and pointless cosmos

This is not necessarily an argument against atheism, but simply to show that there are logical incompatibilities within certain sects of atheist thought (most especially within the sect of thought that prides itself on logic).

Again, no belief is going to be logically indestructible. We must all humble ourselves when engaging with others in conversations surrounding belief of any sort, because in the grand scheme of things, we know nothing. We must all admit that our beliefs are influenced by much more than rationality. We must all submit to the mystery of the human experience, part of that mystery including the unanswerable question, “why, truly, do I believe what I do?”

Will Montei

Will Montei (’13) graduated with a major in writing and a minor in philosophy. He currently lives in Seattle, taking full advantage of the abundant local coffee and surrounding mountain hikes. He is an avid daydreamer, an old soul, and a creative potty mouth.

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