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Is Non-Christian Thought Futile?

Keith Parsons


Readers of recent theistic philosophers are likely to be struck by contrast between the sophistication of the logical machinery employed and the modesty of the claimed results. Alvin Plantinga expends vast labors of modal logic to argue that theism is no less rational than atheism. Richard Swinburne devotes his enormous expertise in Bayesian confirmation theory to the claim that God's existence is rather more likely than his non-existence. In such a context, Douglas Jones's claim is truly breathtaking: "...non-Christian thought, whether atheistic, agnostic, or religious, ultimately destroys rationality, science, ethics, and every other aspect of human experience." Further, " A properly Biblical critique [of non-Christian thought] will not only demonstrate the utter futility of non-Christian thought, it will positively demonstrate that the Christian view of reality is intellectually inescapable [emphasis in original]." All this in a little over two pages!

Clearly, Jones is making some very big claims, and very big claims take a lot of proving. Further, philosophical claims are like the proverbial prizefighter: The bigger they are, the harder they fall. Jones's claims fall very hard.

According to Jones, the fatal flaw of non-Christian thought is "epistemological autonomy," which he defines as follows:

Epistemological autonomy is the view that the human mind is the final criterion of knowledge. According to this view, common to non-Christian thinkers from Thales to Derrida, the Christian God has to be either non-existent or irrelevant to epistemological concerns. Human categories alone are necessary to determine modality, truth, and value.

Odd. I thought Thales flourished circa 600 B.C. and so would be most unlikely to have any sort of opinion about the Christian God. Anachronisms aside, there are a number of puzzling things about this remarkable passage. For one thing, what are we to make of the charge that non-Christians regard the human mind as the "final criterion for knowledge"? We have to know what Jones means by this last phrase before we can understand his accusation.

Perhaps, and this seems the most reasonable construal of Jones's meaning, he is accusing non-Christians of recognizing no higher authority for their judgements about truth, value, etc., than what their own minds tell them is true, valuable, and so forth. As a non-Christian, I hasten to plead guilty to this accusation.

All I want to know is, what is the alternative? Should I believe that something is true or valuable that my mind tells me is not? Should I suspend my own judgements about truth and defer to some alleged revelation? How, then do I know that it is a true revelation? Jones cannot say, on pain of appealing to the very criterion he rejects, that I could trust my own mind to tell me that it is a true revelation. Could another revelation tell me that the first revelation is true? But how, then, would I know that that revelation is true? Surely we are on the road to an infinite regress.

The upshot is that nobody, not even Jones, has any choice in the matter. We must trust our own minds about what is true, even if there is revealed truth. Purported revelations are a dime a dozen. As Mark Twain allegedly said, "Mankind has discovered the one true religion. Lots of `em." Why should we believe in Christ rather than Quetzalcoatl? The only possible answer is that our minds tell us that the Christian revelation is true and the Aztec one not. Hence, epistemological autonomy must be exercised to discover the true revelation, if there be any. Thus, it is Jones, not the non-Christian, who is in an epistemologically self-vitiation predicament.

In the main part of his article, Jones pillories Paul Kurtz, holding up Kurtz's book, The Transcendental Temptation, as exhibit number one in his prosecution of the case against non-Christian thought. Now Paul Kurtz is certainly capable of defending himself, so I would not have much to say here except for the fact that Jones tells us that Kurtz's errors are also common to such other atheistic miscreants as "Nielsen, Flew, Parsons, [and] Martin," What, then, are Kurtz's epistemic sins that we others have shared in?

Jones claims to perceive a tension in Kurtz's thought. On the one hand, Kurtz emphasizes the competence of the autonomous human mind to arrive at reliable knowledge: Science and common sense employ objective standards to arrive at reliable knowledge. On the other hand, Kurtz emphasizes the incompetence of human knower: There is much that we do not and perhaps cannot know. Epistemological standards change and we cannot ever say that human beliefs represent an absolutely correct picture of reality. Jones sees such alleged tensions as "horrendous epistemological conflicts."

What exactly is the problem here? How is my claim to know some things in any way vitiated by my admission that there are many things I do not know? Suppose I even admit that there are some things, like, say, how bread and wine can simultaneously be the body and blood of a man crucified 2000 years ago, that utterly transcend my understanding. Does my inability to fathom the mysteries of transubstantiation mean that I must, for instance, entertain serious doubts about the existence of gravity? Does the fact that epistemological standards change mean that I am incompetent to judge the validity of modus ponens?

Jones tells us that "If autonomous categories are so limited as to leave, now or forever, much of reality `unknowable' then Kurtz cannot speak with any boldness whatsoever about our present knowledge since there might be some factor in this unknown realm which makes our robust claim to knowledge false." In other words, if we don't know everything, we can't know anything. The fact that I cannot conclusively demonstrate that I am not a brain in a vat means, according to Jones, that I can make no confident claims to knowledge at all.

In short, Jones is reviving the old project of Descartes's Meditations: Knowledge is defined as absolute certainty. How, then, can we be absolutely certain that we are not the dupes of an evil genius, an omnipotent demon who amuses himself by making us err in all our knowledge claims? The only way, Descartes realized, is to become absolutely certain that an omnipotent good being exists who will not allow us to err in all our judgments about truth. But there's the rub; how can we be absolutely certain that such a good omnipotent being exists? Descartes's theistic "proofs" are embarrassingly weak, and his whole project founders on them.

As with Descartes, the only way out of the dilemma Jones sets for the secular thinker--absolute certainty or complete skepticism--is absolute certainty about the existence of God. Where, then, are Jones's proofs? To escape from the dilemma we must have absolutely indubitable theistic proofs, and Jones provides none. If Jones replies that, unlike Descartes, he does not equate knowledge with certainty, then what is the force of his objection to Kurtz? Why, in that case, cannot Kurtz and the rest of us make bold, confident knowledge claims even though we cannot be absolutely certain that they are not wrong?

Finally, and fatally, Jones's argument is self-defeating when addressed to non-Christians. Jones's conclusion is that non-Christian thought is futile. The non-Christian can evaluate this conclusion only by employing those very criteria and categories stigmatized as futile by that conclusion. Hence, if the conclusion is true, the non-Christian's attempt to evaluate the claim "all non-Christian thought is futile" is futile. It follows that if Jones's argument is sound, the non-Christian must necessarily lack rational grounds for accepting its conclusion. Surely I am justified in dismissing out of hand any argument that guarantees that I cannot rationally accept its conclusion.

In conclusion, Jones has shown absolutely no problems with the sort of fallibilistic epistemologies favored by many secular thinkers. Worse, an appeal to revelation, if it is not to be completely irrational, must be judged by the autonomous human mind. Without such judgements, what is Revealed Truth to you will only be hearsay to me. Finally, as a polemic directed to non-Christians, Jones's argument is an utterly self-defeating failure. Thus, in his effort to prove the futility of non-Christian thought, Jones only succeeds in tying himself in conceptual knots. There certainly is evidence of futility here, but not on the part of non-Christians.

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