I don’t think highly of confidence men, especially on matters of metaphysics. I’m not at all confident, for example, that everything can be reduced to physical causes, as the confidence atheist proclaims.
Maybe there are two worlds–a physical and a spiritual world, and that God exists–exactly as the confidence theist proposes.
I lean, probability-wise, toward the view that everything can be reduced to physical causes (80%), but I’m not sure. If you forced me to bet $100,000 dollars on it, I’d vote for the idea that we live in a strictly physical world.
The following analogy is one reason I’d offer for thinking that the world is, at bottom, material before it is mental: water emerges from H20 molecules, and it might be that mind emerges from clumps of neurons.
This analogy seems plausible to me. Very different microscopic constituents evoke large scale phenomena that are quite different from those constituents. Why couldn’t this be the case with neurons and the mind? Certainly, we know of no mind acting in the world absent neurons.
But this line of argumentation doesn’t make me a confidence atheist. Perhaps the analogy seems plausible to me largely because it’s simple, and I’ve just reached for a nearby availability heuristic, taking up the first and most readily graspable idea that came to my mind. Maybe my brain is wired in such a way that I can make these sorts of simple analogies, but I’m not really capable of grasping the complexity of the brain-mind issue.
And here’s the important point: it’s okay not to know. I’ve always liked Thoreau’s quoting in Walden of Confucius: “To know that we know what we know, and that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge.”
I have other reasons for thinking mind might emerge from matter, and for thinking that God doesn’t exist (the Holocaust being an obvious problem for the God-exists thesis), but I also see good reasons for thinking otherwise (unvarying physical law is surprising on atheism, for example, as is mind in the material cosmos).
I like the scene–I believe it’s in Annie Hall–where Alvy “Max” Singer (the character Woody Allen plays in the film) asks his father whether he believes in God, and his father says, “I don’t know how my toaster works!”
So I don’t know if, at bottom, it’s really all just atoms and void. I want to know, but I realize that epistemic humility is wise here.
In the spirit of Alvy Singer’s dad, I’ll highlight a personal example: I’ve picked stocks I thought were reasonably good bets that went south, so I’m not at all confident on a question like how the brain relates to the mind, or whether God exists. I’ve known myself to be mistaken so very many times in my life. That has to be taken into account in my own present expressions of confidence. I need more evidence, I await the deliverances of scientists, and I continue to weigh the new arguments and evidence that come my way.
What more can I reasonably do?
One key here is to keep Galileo’s telescope active (metaphorically). There are people who reach a conclusion and never revisit it. They’ve brought, in other words, Galileo’s telescope down. They no longer think grayscale. They don’t ask themselves, “On a scale of 1-100, my confidence concerning x is what?” And they don’t ask two other key questions:
- What new information might change my mind on this matter?
- Are there any competing hypotheses that have anything going for them?
In short, confidence men become very entrenched in their commitments. They express 100% certainty to those who might inquire of them, and, without any apparent twinge of conscience, indulge in confirmation bias (counting the hits–but ignoring, making excuses for, or setting aside the misses–surrounding their pet theories).
I think it’s always an error to stop looking, thinking, and talking. It’s the way to self deception. Instead, using grayscale reasoning, we should apportion our beliefs to the evidence, keep Galileo’s telescope pointing, and stay in dialogue with those who disagree with us. Two heads are better than one, and two heads that disagree are better than two that agree.