Not So 'Bright'
Atheists aren't as rational as they think.

Sunday, October 12, 2003 12:01 a.m. EDT

"We have always had atheists among us," the philosopher Edmund Burke wrote in his "Reflections on the Revolution in France," "but now they have grown turbulent and seditious." It seems that in our own day some prominent atheists are agitating for greater political and social influence. In this connection, leading atheist thinkers have been writing articles declaring that they should no longer be called "atheists." Rather, they want to be called "brights."

Yes, "brights," as in "I am a bright." In a recent article in the New York Times, philosopher Daniel Dennett defined a bright as "a person with a naturalist as opposed to a supernaturalist world view." Mr. Dennett added that "we brights don't believe in ghosts or elves or the Easter bunny or God." His implication was clear: Brights are the smart people who don't fall for silly superstitions.

Mr. Dennett, like many atheists, is confident that atheists are simply brighter--more rational--than religious believers. Their assumption is: We nonbelievers employ critical reason while the theists rely on blind faith. But Mr. Dennett and his fellow "brights," for all their credentials and learning, have been duped by a fallacy. This may be called the Fallacy of the Enlightenment, and it was first pointed out by the philosopher Immanuel Kant.

The Fallacy of the Enlightenment is the glib assumption that there is only one limit to what human beings can know, and that limit is reality itself. In this view, widely held by atheists, agnostics and other self-styled rationalists, human beings can continually find out more and more until eventually there is nothing more to discover. The Enlightenment Fallacy holds that human reason and science can, in principle, unmask the whole of reality.

In his "Critique of Pure Reason," Kant showed that this premise is false. In fact, he argued, there is a much greater limit to what human beings can know. The only way that we apprehend reality is through our five senses. But why should we believe, Kant asked, that our five-mode instrument for apprehending reality is sufficient for capturing all of reality? What makes us think that there is no reality that goes beyond, one that simply cannot be apprehended by our five senses?

Kant persuasively noted that there is no reason whatsoever for us to believe that we can know everything that exists. Indeed what we do know, Kant said, we know only through the refracted filter of our experience. Kant argued that we cannot even be sure that our experience of a thing is the same as the thing-in-itself. After all, we see in pretty much the same way that a camera does, and yet who would argue that a picture of a boat is the same thing as a boat?

Kant isn't arguing against the validity of perception or science or reason. He is simply showing their significant limits. These limits cannot be erased by the passage of time or by further investigation and experimentation. Rather, the limits on reason are intrinsic to the kind of beings that humans are, and to the kind of apparatus that we possess for perceiving reality. The implication of Kant's argument is that reality as a whole is, in principle, inaccessible to human beings. Put another way, there is a great deal that human beings simply will never know.

Notice that Kant's argument is entirely secular: It does not employ any religious vocabulary, nor does it rely on any kind of faith. But in showing the limits of reason, Kant's philosophy "opens the door to faith," as the philosopher himself noted.

If Mr. Dennett and the rest of the so-called brights have produced refutations of Kant that have eluded the philosophical community, they should share them with the rest of us. But until then, they should refrain from the ignorant boast that atheism operates on a higher intellectual plane than theism. Rather, as Kant showed, reason must know its limits in order to be truly reasonable. The atheist foolishly presumes that reason is in principle capable of figuring out all that there is, while the theist at least knows that there is a reality greater than, and beyond, that which our senses and our minds can ever apprehend.


Post a Comment

<< Home