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Fractal Uncertainty

evidently makes everything equally valid

by Heini Reinert

Image courtesy of A Tribe Called Möw

The good reverend, Bryan Griem, has been assaulted by a skilful acupuncturist with a vendetta. That is, at least if we are to take his review of Bill Maher’s new film, Religulous, as any reliable indication. If there had been any more knee-jerk reactions therein the man would have been positively river dancing. His stock-portfolio one-size-fits-all apologetics strike me as equally appalling in their condescension and unintentionally hilarious in their consequential absurdity. I would be hard-pressed, however, to care much about the poor, nerve-wrecked padre’s issues with the film. Although, I will say as much; the only way to truly please a theist as a non-believer is to stop being one – or, at the very least, to have the decency to stay ashamed and quiet about it. What concerns me, however, is the absurd view about the nature of knowledge and arrogance in the following excerpt:

Maher vehemently denounced what he deems arrogance on the part of people who speak with any certainty about spiritual matters, but that causes me to ask why Maher’s certainty of everyone else’s ignorance should be preferred. He is certain that nobody else knows anything for certain, but only their certainty is arrogant? Maher has not thought all of his logic through, nor has he done enough homework to get beyond the atheistic canards of the past.

I can just about imagine Rev. Bryan Griem patting himself on the back over constructing such a marvellously water-tight argument, while allowing himself his annual peek into a 70’s issue of Penthouse as a reward. However, guilty of not thinking his logic through as Maher may be, surely that would make Griem himself equally so. If Maher is arrogant in his certainty of pointing out the ignorance of the pious, then is Griem not by extension arrogant in his certainty of Maher’s ignorance?

In pointing so out have I too joined in this karmic wheel of ignorance by arrogantly proclaiming that Griem does not have certainty of Maher’s uncertainty of the ignorance of the pious? Furthermore, in arrogantly pointing out my own arrogant certainty about Griem’s ignorance, am I now doomed to be stuck in some sort of recursive loop of ever-increasing arrogance and uncertainty forever? How astoundingly marvellous! In one fell swoop Griem has conclusively proven that if you have any sort of epistemological standards – any requirements for valid knowledge – whatsoever then you are an arrogant bigot. You may believe whatever you wish, make any kind of outrageous claim, and it must be accepted unchallenged as long as you never, ever, dare to do any sort of critical thinking about the beliefs and claims of others.

In short, Griem has managed to eradicate even the slightest glimmer of any objective reality or argumentative validity – and in a single paragraph no less! Need I say that this is quite a feat? However, this does raise quite a problematic paradox since Griem’s views as a requirement demand that Maher is wrong. Maher’s views, on the other hand, do not demand that all spiritual assertions must be false – merely that the asserters themselves are fallible and can therefore not be certain of their claims. Is this truly such an arrogant point to make – on par even with certainty of unproven, unverifiable claims beyond mere human capabilities?

The crux of the matter is quite simply one of nuance – albeit one that I suspect all too many people are unable to fathom. You might well have reached a factually true conclusion accidentally and by hopelessly invalid reasoning. This is especially the case in matters of faith-based conclusions that cannot be independently verified. If we – and, perhaps more importantly, those around us – have no way of verifying our conclusions independent of our reasoning then we must admit the fact that we, as fallible human beings, might be reasoning wrongly. Quite possibly we might still be wrong even if our conclusions by sheer happenstance and dumb luck just so happen to be right.

Militant AgnosticImage shamelessly stolen from internet

While it is true that Bill Maher most certainly could be described by the tongue-in-cheek epithet ‘Militant Agnostic,’ which can be summed up in the slogan ‘I don’t know, and you don’t either,this is hardly as brusque and radical as it may initially appear. To point out that none of us know anything with absolute certainty encourages us all to question our own convictions in joint dialogue. It also disparages us from taking rash actions – actions based on an absolutist mentality where the ends justify the means and the intellectual autonomy of the individual is brushed aside for the “common good.”

It is true that none may claim absolute certainty that others possess no more knowledge of the supernatural than they do. However, it is ludicrous to designate it arrogant to make such a claim in practicality. After all, we do have standards. It is quite right and proper to disbelieve, even to the point of stating bluntly that the claimants do not know, since the onus is on them to prove their knowledge – instead of playing roundabout word-games in an attempt to annul their burden of proof as some people tend to do. Maher’s conclusion that nobody knows is based on his life-long experience of nobody ever presenting him with any evidence. Griem’s knee-jerk counter that Maher does not know that nobody knows, is based on clutching at the straw that nobody knows anything for certain – which, I presume, was Maher’s point in the first place.

It is quite an amusing irony that I, as an atheist, with incredible frequency am accused by believers of being a Moral Relativist! [1] Yet, turn the table on these very same believers and they will be the first to back-pedal into murky depths of the most extreme sort of epistemological relativism. Religion, to me, inherently requires huge amounts of relativism to even function. You are simply not allowed to disbelieve openly in their tenets of faith – or their claimed knowledge thereof – without being construed as arrogant and intolerant.

Lest you think that I speak solely of reverend Bryan Griem I assure you that this sort of relativistic wishy-washiness is a very common mentality in religious circles. As a case in point I shall therefore provide one final example. The Atheist Test by Ray Comfort is something that a few of us have had the pleasure of being on the receiving end of.

The declaration “There is no God” is what is known as an absolute statement. For an absolute statement to be true, I must have absolute knowledge.

To say “There is no God,” and to be correct in the statement, I must be omniscient.

I remember one particularly friendly fellow, faithful in the righteousness of his cause, who attempted this underhanded tactic on me – although, I am fairly convinced that he did not realise the intellectual dishonesty of it.

‘Have you been saved? Do you believe in God?’ he asked me.

‘No,’ I told him ‘I am an atheist.’

Unperturbed he launched right into it, ‘Do you believe yourself to be omniscient, then?’

‘Funny you should mention that, in fact, I am omniscient.’

Slightly taken aback he said ‘Don’t be silly.’

‘I am not being silly. Why are you expressing disbelief? To say that I am not omniscient is an absolute statement, which requires absolute knowledge. Are you omniscient?’

What a frightful double-edged sword Fractal Uncertainty is. It looks very shiny and tempting but if you use it, you shall surely regret it in the morning.

[1] Heavens, no! Anything but that!

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