Peter Boghossian Pretends To Know What He Doesn’t Know

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This entry is part 4 of 16 in the series Peter Boghossian


Peter Boghossian pretends to know what he doesn’t know. Though he claims to be on a campaign to eradicate faith, which he defines as the unreliable way of knowing that always leads people to pretend to know what they do not know, he makes that very error himself, right in the heart of his complaints about faith.

Parading himself as a paragon of clear thinking, in reality he’s a walking self-contradiction. It’s one of many reasons I’ve been astonished to watch video of his lectures and see people taking him seriously.

If There Is a God Who Can Communicate About Himself…

Boghossian says faith is an unreliable method of knowing. I take it he means one or both of these: either that faith claims cannot be second- or third-person corroborated, or that religious faith-claims compete with no way to adjudicate which one is correct. So it is very possible for a faith-claim to be wrong.

Up to this point I agree. Does that mean, though, that it’s impossible for a faith-claim to be right? In order for that to be the case the following would also have to be impossible (or known to be false): that there is a God who is able to communicate his own reality to humans in such a way that they know some truth about him, but who does not bind himself to communicating in a manner that meets Boghossian’s standards for reliable knowing.

For Boghossian to know that every faith-claim is pretense would entail his knowing that it’s impossible that there be such a God. Further, he must know that when God spoke to Moses, Moses was deluded. He must know that when Jesus prayed to the Father, Jesus was deluded. He must know that when Thomas Aquinas moved from theology and philosophy to an ecstatic vision, he moved into complete delusion. He must know that every single believer in Christ who has expressed a deep awareness of God is deluded.

Can He Know There is No Such God?

Boghossian can have his opinion that all these are instances of delusion (or legend, in some cases, but). But does he have some reliable means of knowing that God has spoken to none of these persons? To be so certain, he would have to know that the God described above could not exist. But in one of his lectures (as I recall; I am not in a good situation to replay it) he was careful to say that his atheism is less definite than that: it is the atheism that says that God cannot be known to exist, not the atheism that says God cannot exist.

Here, however, he is flirting dangerously close to self-contradiction: I do not know whether there is a God who can make himself known to exist, but I do that no God could be known to exist. Therefore if there is a God who can make himself known to exist, he cannot make himself known to exist.

Agnosticism is the safer choice: not that God cannot be known to exist, but that “I cannot determine whether God exists.” (It’s a safer choice with respect to that particular self-contradiction, at least.)

If Boghossian were to take the harder atheistic line instead, then his position would fall into absurdity right there, and he would be obviously wrong.

For the short remainder of this article I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and treat his position as if he were taking the softer agnostic stance.

Lesser Claims Boghossian Might Make

Going back to faith claims, such as those reported in the Bible or by contemporary Christians: he might object that if knowledge is not acquired “reliably” (according to his terms), it isn’t knowledge at all, for it cannot be trusted by others. But this adds an odd and unnecessary layer on the definition of knowledge: why does my knowledge have to be in some form such that others could, at least in principle, verify it?

Take back injuries. They can be notoriously hard to identify and confirm through objective diagnostic measures. Some people use that to their advantage faking back injuries and claiming insurance payments or damages via litigation. It’s not second-person verifiable in many cases. Does that mean that no person with undetectable soft-tissue damage ever knows that his back is sore? Obviously not.

So if I have read Boghossian’s reliability criteria accurately, he’s calling for an impossible standard. Knowledge need not be second-person verifiable to be true knowledge.

The principle extends much further than my simple example. There’s no second person reliability test to confirm that I have tinnitus (ringing) in my ears, but I know — without pretending — that I do. There’s no test even to confirm that I’m satisfied with this morning’s breakfast, but I know I am.

So if Boghossian wants to rule out all faith experiences because they cannot be second-person verified, and are therefore unreliable, he’s establishing a rule that cannot consistently be followed by anyone.

What about the possibility of error that remains, though? Remember, it’s certain that a large proportion of faith claims are false, no matter what you believe about religion, since they contradict one another.

And what about the real possibility that faith-claims, being unreliable, could easily be instances of self-delusion, and that persons who want to live free of delusion must give them up for that reason?

The same answer serves for both questions. Just because all of them can’t be right, though, it hardly follows that none of them is. Some persons’ experiences could be veridical (true-knowledge-gaining). All that would require would be for there to be a God such as I’ve described above.

Pretending to Know What He Cannot Know

Does Boghossian know there is no such God? How could he? Does he know there is no God who has, perhaps, revealed himself to many persons, but has not revealed himself likewise to Boghossian (for whatever reason)?

He can’t. He can only pretend to know it. And he is indeed pretending that very thing. He must be: otherwise he could never claim that faith is pretending to know what one doesn’t know.

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