Penn Jillette Gets It Right

In a recent opinion piece, Penn Jillette, entertainer, writer and atheist, explains the his basis for not only being an atheist, but a libertarian as well:

What makes me libertarian is what makes me an atheist — I don’t know. If I don’t know, I don’t believe. I don’t know exactly how we got here, and I don’t think anyone else does, either. We have some of the pieces of the puzzle and we’ll get more, but I’m not going to use faith to fill in the gaps. I’m not going to believe things that TV hosts state without proof. I’ll wait for real evidence and then I’ll believe.

Though I share none of his metaphysical views, I find Penn’s approach quite refreshing.  In making this statement, Jillette is exhibiting a characteristic called epistemic humility; that is the acknowledgement that one doesn’t and will never have ultimate knowledge about the nature of reality. He ties this characteristic to libertarianism, but I would offer that it is actually integral to conservative thinking, at least of the modern American variety. It has also been instumental in directing various people towards a Christian worldview. I’ll consider conservative thought first.

In his argument for libertarianism, Penn explains how the government is insufficient to provide for the multitude of disparate needs of the our society:

And I don’t think anyone really knows how to help everyone. I don’t even know what’s best for me. Take my uncertainty about what’s best for me and multiply that by every combination of the over 300 million people in theUnited States and I have no idea what the government should do.

In many ways this is a reflection of one of the ideas of conservative economist FA Hayek concerning the inability of governments to plan economies, and that it was the task of economics to, “demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” He continued, ” To the naive mind that can conceive of order only as the product of deliberate arrangement, it may seem absurd that in complex conditions order, and adaptation to the unknown, can be achieved more effectively by decentralizing decisions and that a division of authority will actually extend the possibility of overall order. Yet that decentralization actually leads to more information being taken into account.

That is, we can never have sufficient knowledge to ‘plan’ an economy – and the best and most creative societies are always the result of individuals acting in accordance with their own knowledge and experience.

Such thinking is also reflected in one of the tenets of the conservative thinker and writer Russell Kirk, who observed the benefit of an, “Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems;”

This is one of the reasons conservatives tend to oppose large, centralized bureaucratic systems of any sort – they fail to take into account individual human experiences and capabilities, and so invariably become dictatorial and antithetical to human freedom. So there is much that is shared between conservative thought and the intellectual motivation Penn describes here.

Though Penn finds in this thinking some foundation for his atheism (and I laud him for his thoughtful approach to the subject) I would offer that New Atheism is actually antithetical to epistemic humility. Though they occasionally point out the willingness of scientists to say ‘I don’t know’ (all the while deriding Christians for their reliance on ‘mystery’) , New Atheists by and large place great faith in the ability of material science to provide ultimate explanations for the existence of the universe, life, human nature and thought, as well as being foundational to morality and social systems.

At the heart of New Atheism is scientism, the ideological notion that the totality of reality and human experience can be described by science. It is a reductionist view which, rather than freeing human intellectually, binds them to current consensus of the scientific community. It neither appreciates the variety and mystery of human existence, nor how civilization has advanced by unprovable axioms.

Rather than leading to atheism, acknowledging the limits of human knowledge leads one to wisdom, which begins with understanding the limits of one’s own understanding and abilities. Indeed, this is where belief in God began for many Christian thinkers, among them scientist and philosopher Blaise Pascal. As he put it in his masterpiece Pensées:

“What a chimera, then, is man! What a novelty! What a monster, what a chaos, what a contradiction, what a prodigy! Judge of all things, imbecile worm of the earth; depositary of truth, a sink of uncertainty and error; the pride and refuse of the universe!

Who will unravel this tangle? Nature confutes the sceptics, and reason confutes the dogmatists. What, then, will you become, O men! who try to find out by your natural reason what is your true condition? You cannot avoid one of these sects, nor adhere to one of them.

Know then, proud man, what a paradox you are to yourself. Humble yourself, weak reason; be silent, foolish nature; learn that man infinitely transcends man, and learn from your Master your true condition, of which you are ignorant. Hear God.”

For Pascal, knowing God began with realizing one’s own intellectual limitations. This comports with the Scriptural notion that the knowledge of God is predicated by understanding of the limitations of human knowledge:

Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.Proverbs 3:5-6

As I have mentioned previously,  my Christian faith began with skepticism; that is a growing awareness of the inability of materialism or naturalism alone to address critical aspects of the human experience and our understanding of reality. It also sprung from my own realization that no person or group of persons possessed in and of themselves the knowledge or the capability to successfully overcome inherent human shortcomings and the impact those shortcomings had on our ability to live well. I was in a word humbled by this.

It appears Penn Jillette has begun to discover the benefits of such humility as well – and that is a hopeful sign.

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3 Responses to Penn Jillette Gets It Right

  1. Mike D says:

    New Atheists by and large place great faith in the ability of material science to provide ultimate explanations for the existence of the universe, life, human nature and thought, as well as being foundational to morality and social systems.

    Several things to say about this.

    1. No positivist that I’m aware of is operating on any assumptions that science will explain everything. That’s part of the whole “I don’t know” thing. There was just an article, for example, in SciAm arguing that the existence of the multiverse may be unknowable. Obviously there’s disagreement among physicists – others have already proposed ways it could theoretically be tested.

    2. HOWEVER, science is the only means of acquiring knowledge that has consistently demonstrated itself to be both valid and reliable. It’s given us all the wonders of technology we enjoy today, unlocked many secrets of our past, quantified human behavior, and exposed religious mythology like the Flood or the Garden – which were long regarded as historical – as factually impossible. So if we’re hedging our bets here, science has a marvelous history of explaining the ‘unexplainable’ and illuminating the unknown. Sam Harris said it well: it’s easy to think of examples where the best explanation used to be religious, but is now scientific. Examples of the opposite are virtually nonexistent. So we have good reasons for thinking that science very well could answer those supposedly “unanswerable” questions.

    3. The presumption that human knowledge has limits or that certain things are fundamentally unknowable is, in itself, a baseless positive claim about reality. How do you know what the limits of human knowledge are? On what are you basing the so-called “limits” of scientific knowledge? In time, we may find (as in the multiverse controversy I mentioned) that there are indeed certain things we simply cannot know. But until we actually try, we can’t possibly know what the limits to our knowledge actually are.

    4. Finally, you’re using a classic God of the gaps argument. You make an unsubstantiated positive claim that certain things are unknowable (even though you can’t know that). From that, you springboard into another unsubstantiated positive claim – God exists. It’s patently paradoxical to claim – as Pascal is doing in the quote you cite – that you can’t know something, therefor God must be the explanation. It’s tantamount to saying, “I don’t know, therefor I know.”

    You make the claim, as you have many times in the past, of what you believe is an “inability of materialism or naturalism alone to address critical aspects of the human experience and our understanding of reality.” However, you’re contradicting yourself. You cannot know the limits of human knowledge – none of us can. You have no reason to implicitly assume that x or y are beyond the purview of rational inquiry. That in itself is an unjustified positive claim about reality. But based on the historical track record, if you’re a gambling man, you’d be wise not to bet against science.

  2. jackhudson says:

    1. No positivist that I’m aware of is operating on any assumptions that science will explain everything. That’s part of the whole “I don’t know” thing. There was just an article, for example, in SciAm arguing that the existence of the multiverse may be unknowable. Obviously there’s disagreement among physicists – others have already proposed ways it could theoretically be tested.

    If science can’t explain everything, then it would follow there is some knowledge outside of science’s purview, would it not?

    2. HOWEVER, science is the only means of acquiring knowledge that has consistently demonstrated itself to be both valid and reliable. It’s given us all the wonders of technology we enjoy today, unlocked many secrets of our past, quantified human behavior, and exposed religious mythology like the Flood or the Garden – which were long regarded as historical – as factually impossible. So if we’re hedging our bets here, science has a marvelous history of explaining the ‘unexplainable’ and illuminating the unknown. Sam Harris said it well: it’s easy to think of examples where the best explanation used to be religious, but is now scientific. Examples of the opposite are virtually nonexistent. So we have good reasons for thinking that science very well could answer those supposedly “unanswerable” questions.

    Science is excellent at describing ongoing natural events and putting that knowledge to practical use in the pursuit of technological advancement – I certainly agree with that; I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t. Science has been much less successful at understanding unique historical events and making determinations about human behavior, thought, and culture that have any practical application or explanatory rigor.

    3. The presumption that human knowledge has limits or that certain things are fundamentally unknowable is, in itself, a baseless positive claim about reality. How do you know what the limits of human knowledge are? On what are you basing the so-called “limits” of scientific knowledge? In time, we may find (as in the multiverse controversy I mentioned) that there are indeed certain things we simply cannot know. But until we actually try, we can’t possibly know what the limits to our knowledge actually are.

    If it is true there are “certain things we cannot know” then it goes without saying there is a limit to human knowledge, obviously. And I never suggested we cease trying to expand our knowledge, I just agreed with Penn Jillette that we should acknowledge the limits that are apparent.

    4. Finally, you’re using a classic God of the gaps argument. You make an unsubstantiated positive claim that certain things are unknowable (even though you can’t know that). From that, you springboard into another unsubstantiated positive claim – God exists. It’s patently paradoxical to claim – as Pascal is doing in the quote you cite – that you can’t know something, therefor God must be the explanation. It’s tantamount to saying, “I don’t know, therefor I know.”

    Not at all, I wasn’t arguing that God exists because humans don’t know things, rather that the realization that we don’t know (and may never know) certain things means we aren’t God, and we can’t rule out His existence. That is the beginning of wisdom, not the whole of it.

    You make the claim, as you have many times in the past, of what you believed is an “inability of materialism or naturalism alone to address critical aspects of the human experience and our understanding of reality.” However, you’re contradicting yourself. You cannot know the limits of human knowledge – none of us can. You have no reason to implicitly assume that x or y are beyond the purview of rational inquiry. That in itself is an unjustified positive claim about reality. But based on the historical track record, if you’re a gambling man, you’d be wise not to bet against science.

    Well again, if “none of us can” know the limits of human knowledge, then we know there is something we can’t know – and human knowledge is limited, ipso facto.

    But let’s assume it’s possible that one can know everything there is to be known. If one had this capability, then one would be, by definition, omniscient. To be omniscient is to be god-like in one’s knowledge. So if you believe it is possible that a person or persons will be god-like in the future then you aren’t really an atheist are you? You are just someone who has faith in the gods of the future.

    Obviously though I believe that there is a person who has limitless knowledge – I just happen to believe He is alive now.

    It may also be the case that science will in the future do that which it has consistently failed to do since its inception – explain the origin of the universe, unique qualities of earth, origin of life, origin of self-aware intelligence, as well as our moral sense and spiritual natures as wholly natural phenomena. If that happens, then atheism’s dominance is assured, and we meddling religionists will certainly fade away. But this will certainly not happen in our lifetimes, so I am not sure who you expect to collect the bet.

  3. AJ says:

    Mr. Hudson,

    Thank you for informing of a new phrase, “epistemic humility,” it’s much easier to say than any phrase containing the word “epistemological” and it succinctly describes a concept that I have been trying to put into words.

    I hope that I may add to the discussion here in considering Christ from an epistemological sense. Christ, supposedly, is the only savior, and son of God on earth; that is, he is not a repeatable phenomenon and thus is hard to understand from a scientific perspective. His a singularity as it were. There are not thousands of Christs from which we can classify attributes. This is not to say we can’t infer things about him, as he is described in the letters of the biblical canon, and in a few other places, and millions of people report similar experiences in “worshiping/following/praying to” him.

    “Science” tends to study repeatable phenomena, and it creates knowledge from such study. But does knowledge only come from repeatable events? What about the creation of the universe? (And by universe I mean a single set of all possible sub-universes.) I think a lot of people discount Christ because he is not a part of a repeatable phenomenon, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t exist, or that is not who the Church creeds say he is.

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