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Is A Non-Christian Worldview Futile?

Michael Martin


Douglas Jones' "The Futility of Non-Christian Thought" raises important epistemological questions that both Christians and non-Christians need to address. However, as I will show, Jones' argument for his main thesis that non-Christian worldviews destroy the possibility of knowledge rests on unsound arguments and confusions. In addition, it contains false implications and leads to inconsistencies.

The Transcendental Argument

Jones' main argument, what he calls a transcendental argument, proceeds as follows:

(1) If the Christian view of reality is not true, then human knowledge is impossible.
(2) Human knowledge is possible.
(3) Hence, the Christian view of reality is true.

Non-Christians would have no problem in accepting the validity of this argument, i.e. accepting that if the premises were true, then the conclusion would be true. The question is not, then, the validity of the argument but its soundness, i.e. whether the premises are true. Since, many non-Christians would accept premise (2), the key problem for most non-Christians is the truth of premise (1).

Two Indirect Arguments Against Premise (1)

Before I directly consider the first premise of Jones' transcendental argument, two lines of reason should be noted that indirectly tell against it.

First, if Jones' argument is sound, the Christian worldview is true. But there is excellent reason to suppose that it is false. So it follows that Jones' argument is not sound. Since the most problematic aspect of Jones' argument is premise (1), it is likely that (1) is false. Why do I say that there is excellent reason to suppose that the Christian view of reality is not true? As I argued in Atheism: A Philosophical Justification (1990), traditional arguments have failed to prove the existence of God. Moreover, there are good reasons to suppose that the concept of God is incoherent. In addition, the argument from evil and other inductive arguments make the existence of God unlikely. Furthermore, in The Case Against Christianity (1991) I have shown that the major doctrines of Christianity are improbable. The strength of my detailed arguments developed in approximately eight hundred pages of text should be weighed against the force of the argument sketched in three pages by Jones.

Second, the great ancient, modern and contemporary Christian apologists have not used Jones' transcendental argument. Although it is possible that philosophers from Aquinas to Swinburne, from Descartes to Plantinga have overlooked it, this seems unlikely. It is much more plausible to suppose that these thinkers rejected premise (1).

The Possibility of Human Knowledge

Preliminary to a direct evaluation of premise (1) it is necessary to say a few words about premise (2), for Jones' reasons for accepting (1) seem to result from confusions concerning the meaning of (2) and what it entails. First of all, to say that human knowledge is possible is not to assume that human knowledge claims can be made with absolute certainty. Many people, e.g. those trained in scientific method, would admit that any claim of the form "X knows that p", although justified in light of present evidence, might have to be withdrawn in the course of further inquiry. New evidence might induce us to change our minds. However, this does not mean that truth is relative. What is relative here is knowledge claims, for these are dependent on the amount and quality of available evidence. The thesis that knowledge claims are always subject to revision in the light of new evidence is known as fallibilism.

Furthermore, to say that knowledge is possible is not to assume that humans know, or some day will know, everything. There will always be something more to be known even if fallibilism is true. Again this does not entail that knowledge is relative in any sense but the following: We may know certain propositions in the future that we do not know today or did not know yesterday. Naturally there may be some propositions that we will never know. Humans are not omniscient. I will call this the thesis of human epistemic limitation.

Neither of these theses entails skepticism. That is, the view that human knowledge is impossible. What they do entail is that certainty and complete knowledge are impossible for human beings. However, this view is not very controversial and has in fact been embraced by many Christians. Nor do these theses entail subjectivism, that is, the view that there are no objective standards of knowledge and no norms for reconciling disagreements between knowledge claims. The use of objective standards, e.g. intersubjective testability, is compatible with the theses of fallibilism and human epistemic limitation.

Direct Challenge to the Transcendental Argument

On what direct grounds can premise (1) be challenged? The arguments Jones provides for (1) are unsound and premises that seem as justified as (1) can be used in other transcendental arguments with conclusions that conflict with (3).

The Argument From Finitude

Although I find Jones' reasoning unclear, one of his arguments for premise (1) seems to be the following. Non-Christians assume that human beings are competent to achieve knowledge without God. ("According to this view, common to non-Christians... the Christian God has to be either non-existent or irrelevant to epistemological concerns.") However, the knowledge claims of non-Christians are limited. ("Their particular rational schemes cannot account for everything since the autonomous theorist does not have God's ability.") If non-Christians' knowledge claims are limited, then the knowledge claims of non-Christians could not really be knowledge. ("Instead of the proposed exhaustive scheme of reality ... the rational scheme fails leaving subjectivism and skepticism.") Therefore, human knowledge is impossible in a non-Christian view of reality.

Many non-Christians would agree with the first two premises. But the third premise is questionable. There is no reason to suppose that limited knowledge claims cannot be true. As I have already argued, the truth of premise (2) is compatible with the theses of fallibilism and human epistemic limitation and these do not entail skepticism, relativism, or subjectivism. Jones seems to be confusing the competence to achieve limited knowledge with the competence to achieve total knowledge or else the competence to make probable knowledge claims with the competence to make certain knowledge claims. Humans have the competence to make probable knowledge claims and achieve limited knowledge but not to make certain knowledge claims and achieve unlimited knowledge.

The Appeal to Trivial Knowledge

Another consideration used by Jones to bolster his case is that non-Christian schemes of knowledge omit what does not fit and limit knowledge to trivial and/or unimportant claims. ("...the non-Christian will either deny or ignore whatever does not fit his scheme, thus compromising the proposed scheme....and radically limit knowledge to trivial and/or unsubstantive claims that will apparently fit within the scheme...")

Apart from citing a few names and ideas, e.g. the Logical Positivists' rejection of metaphysics as examples of this charge, this position is not argued for in Jones' essay. In order to substantiate his charge Jones has his work cut out for him. He would have to argue for, and not just assert, the particular claims made in his article -- for example that the Logical Positivists were wrong -- which at the very least would involve refuting my long and detailed defense of their program. (See Atheism, chapter 2). He would also have to show that non-Christians must radically limit knowledge to trivial and/or unsubstantive claims. This he has not done.

It is important to notice that the thesis of human epistemic limitation does not entail this charge. From the fact that human knowledge is limited it does not follow that it is trivial or unsubstantive. Indeed, scientific knowledge is limited but hardly trivial or unsubstantive. Jones may wish to argue that scientific knowledge is only possible with God's help. But this argument is not made in his paper.

The Argument from an Unknown Factor

In discussing Paul Kurtz's view Jones presumes what seems to be a different argument but is not. Pointing out that Kurtz admits that many things in the universe are unknown, Jones argues that Kurtz "cannot speak with any boldness whatsoever about our present knowledge since there might be some factor in the unknown realm which makes our robust claims to knowledge false." However, the possibility that an unknown factor might undermine our knowledge claims is just another way of pointing out that our knowledge claims are uncertain and limited. Yes, there might be such factors. If there were, our knowledge claims would be false. But this should not prevent us from making tentative claims in light of present evidence and arguing in its light that we are probably correct. I cannot speak for Kurtz but I would think that he would say something similar. That Jones finds this position incoherent seems to be a function of the confusions that have already been noted.

Inconsistencies and the Transcendental Argument

It is difficult for one to see why the basic idea behind Jones' transcendental argument is particularly Christian. God of the Jews or Islam would also seem to provide the epistemological foundation that Jones wants. For example, it would seem that premise:

(1') If the Islamic view of reality is not true, then human knowledge is impossible.

could be substituted for (1) and combined with (2) would entail:

(3') Hence, the Islamic view of reality is true.

The same arguments that are used to support (1) could be used to support (1'). However, since (3) and (3') are incompatible, Jones' mode of argument leads to inconsistencies. Jones surely owes his readers some explanation of why his Christian transcendental argument is permissible but an Islamic or Jewish one is not. Unless objective grounds for distinguishing the two cases are provided, one is entitled to conclude that the exclusion of Islamic and Jewish uses of the argument is arbitrary. Failure to provide such grounds would in turn provide reasons for claiming that a Christian based epistemology is a subtle form of subjectivism.

Christianity and Subjectivism

Are there other reasons to suppose that a Christian based epistemology provides no objective foundation for epistemology? A cursory glace at the controversies within the Christian religion must surely banish any illusion of the objective nature of Christian belief. The many sectarian and denominational squabbles, the numerous heresies, the schisms within the major churches shows that any certainty associated with Christian belief is nonexistent. Indeed, even in the pages of Antithesis (March/April 1991) one finds deep controversy over whether the Bible permits moderate drinking of alcoholic beverages. Furthermore, there seems to be no objective means of reconciling any of these differences. If this uncertainty and the lack of objective standards of reconciliation are found at the very heart of basic Christian doctrine, there seems to be small hope that the Christian religion can provide any objective foundation of epistemology in general. Yet Jones remains confident that a non-Christian based epistemology leads to subjectivism whereas a Christian based epistemology does not. One can only wonder why.

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