According to Bryan Magee ("What I Believe," Philosophy 77 (2002), 407- 419), nobody knows the answers to such questions as whether we survive our bodily deaths or whether God exists. Citing Xenophanes and Kant, Magee further suggests that the answers to these questions are not only unknown but impossible for us to know. Assuming that Magee is right on both counts, what follows?
One inference one might draw from our state of irremediable ignorance about ultimates is that it provides us with 'doxastic wiggle-room' (my expression): if one cannot know one way or the other, then one is permitted either to believe or not believe that we survive and that God exists. After all, if it cannot be proven that ~p, then it is epistemically possible that p, and this epistemic possibility might be taken to allow as reasonable our believing that p. Invoking the Kantian distinction between thinking and knowing (Critique of Pure Reason, B 146 et passim) one could maintain that although we have and can have no knowledge of God and the soul, we can think them without contradiction, and without contradicting anything we know. Does not the denial of knowledge make room for faith, as Kant himself famously remarks? CPR B xxx: Ich musste also das Wissen aufheben, um zum Glauben Platz zu bekommen... "I have therefore found it necessary to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith...." (And given that contact with reality is a great good, would it not be better to venture contact with the unknowable portion of it via faith rather than have no contact with it at all by insisting that only knowable truth is admissible truth?)
This inference, however, the inference from our irremediable ignorance to the rational allowability of belief in the epistemically possible, is one that Magee resolutely refuses to draw, seeing it as a shabby evasion and an "illegitimate slide."(408) Thus he holds it to be illegitimate to move from the epistemic possibility of post-mortem survival to belief in it. As he puts it, "What I find myself wanting to drive home is not merely that we do not know but that the only honest way to live and think is in the fullest possible acknowledgment of that fact and its consequences, without ducking out into a faith of some kind, and without evasion or self-indulgence of any other sort." (417) Near the beginning of his essay, Magee cites Freud to the effect that no right to believe anything can be derived from ignorance. (408)
The relevance of the Freudian point, however, is unclear. First of all, no one would maintain that ignorance about a matter such as post-mortem survival justifies, in the sense of provides evidence for, the belief that one survives. And a person who thinks it rationally allowable to believe where we cannot know will presumably not take a deontological approach to belief in terms of epistemic rights and duties. In any case, the issue is this: Is it ever rationally permissible to believe where knowledge is unavailable? Magee answers this question in the negative. But I cannot see that he makes anything close to a convincing case for this answer. I will simply run through some questions/objections the cumulative force of which will be to neutralize, though perhaps not refute, Magee's view. Thus I play for a draw, not a win. I doubt that one can expect more from philosophy. This post presents just one of my questions/objections.
One problem with Magee's argument is that it seems to prove too much. If we have no knowledge about such metaphysical/religious matters as God and the soul, and so must suspend belief in them lest we violate the putative epistemic duty to believe only on sufficient evidence, then we must also suspend belief on a host of other issues in respect of which we certainly cannot claim knowledge. Surely, the very same reasons that lead Magee to say that no one knows anything about God and the soul must also lead us to say that no one knows whether or not there are cases in which justice demands capital punishment, or whether or not a just society is one which provides for redistribution of wealth, or whether or not animals have rights, etc. Indeed, we must say that no one knows what justice is or what rights are. And of course it is not merely about normative issues that we are ignorant.
Do we know what motion, or causation, or time are? Do we know what properties are, or what is is for a thing to have a property, or to exist, or to change, or to be the same thing over time? Note that these questions, unlike the God and soul questions, do not pertain to what is transcendent of experience. I see the tomato; I see that it is red; I see or think I see that it is the same tomato that I bought from the grocer an hour ago; applying a knife to it, I see or think I see that slicing it causes it to split apart.
For that matter, Does Magee know that his preferred ethics of belief is correct? How does he know that? How could he know it? Does he have sufficient evidence? If he knows it, why do philosophers better than him take a different view? Does he merely believe it? Does he believe it because his fear of being wrong trumps his desire for the truth? Does he want truth, but only on his terms? Does he want only that truth that can satisfy the criteria that he imposes? Would it not be more self-consistent for Magee to suspend belief as to his preferred ethics of belief? Why is it better to have no contact with reality than such contact via faith? Isn't it better to have a true belief that I cannot justify about a life and death matter than no belief about that matter? Does the man of faith self-indulgently evade reality, or does the philosopher of Magee's stripe self-indulgently and pridefully refuse such reality as he cannot certify by his methods?
No one knows how economies really work; if we had knowledge in this area we would not have wildly divergent paradigms of economic explanation. But this pervasive ignorance does not prevent people from holding very firm beliefs about these non-religious issues, beliefsthat translate into action in a variety of ways, both peaceful and violent. It is furthermore clear that people feel quite justified in holding, and acting upon, these beliefs that go beyond what they can claim to know. What is more, I suspect Magee would agree that people are often justified in holding such beliefs.
So if Magee is right that we ought to suspend belief about religious matters, then he must also maintain that we ought to suspend belief about the social and political matters that scarcely anyone ever suspends belief about. That is, unless he can point to a relevant difference between the religious questions and the social-political ones. But it is difficult to discern any relevant difference. In both cases we are dealing with knowledge-transcendent beliefs for which elaborate rational defenses can be constructed, and elaborate rational refutations of competing positions.
In both cases we are dealing with very abstruse and 'metaphysical' issues such as the belief in equal rights, a belief which manifestly has no empirical justification. And in both cases we are dealing with
issues of great importance to our welfare and happiness. On the other hand, if Magee thinks that we are justified in holding beliefs about social and political matters, something he does of course hold, then he should also maintain that we are justified in holding beliefs about religious matters. There is no justification for a double standard. In this connection, one should read Peter van Inwagen's Quam Dilecta, in God and the Philosophers, ed. T. V. Morris (Oxford University Press, 1994), 31-60. See especially 41-46 for a penetrating discussion of the double standard.