Descartes’ Discovery

Rene Descartes—the seventeenth-century philosopher, mathematician, and scientist—received one of that era’s best educations, which is saying quite a lot. But at the end of this impressive education, Descartes was decidedly unimpressed. Once finished, he said,

I found myself beset by so many doubts and errors that I came to think I had gained nothing from my attempts to become educated but increasing recognition of my ignorance.

I’d be disappointed too; ignorance isn’t the goal of an education. But Descartes’ gloomy discovery has a silver lining. Knowing that you don’t know is half the battle, and any good education will result in a humbling awareness of how little you know. In fact, intellectual humility is one of the main benefits of learning.

An Ignorance of Our Limits

Of course, ignorance alone won’t necessarily lead to intellectual humility. In fact, it often leads to just the opposite. Not knowing our limits—not knowing where your own intellectual property lines are—can encourage us to reap where we haven’t sown.

I can’t, at present, think of a better example of overweening certainty than Richard Dawkins’ dismissal of the cosmological argument. Dawkins is brilliant in his field and can write exquisitely on the wonders of nature, but when he ventures into philosophy—claiming to have debunked the cosmological argument in little more than a single page (The God Delusion, pp. 101-102)—he has revealed far more about his views on the argument than he intended.

Now, perhaps the cosmological argument doesn’t work (although we’ll need to be careful how we define “work”). But it’s pretty clear that Dawkins doesn’t know one way or the other. The recent literature on this argument is daunting and complex. Dawkins’ philosophical swagger brings to (my) mind Hume’s quotation of Francis Bacon: a little philosophy makes a man an atheist but a great deal converts him to religion. There’s a reason the word ‘sophomore’ exists. A smidge of learning, combined with an ignorance of our ignorance can be a powerful and heady mixture.

Über-certainty isn’t just annoying—it can be dangerous. As one of their own poets (Bertrand Russell) has said, “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.” And—this should go without saying—rushing in where angels fear to tread isn’t limited to atheists; many of us who believe in said angels are just as guilty of it.

3 Beautiful Words

I hope it’s clear, then, that the kind of ignorance I’m endorsing isn’t ignorance of the default kind—the kind with which we’re born. Rather, it’s a hard-earned, studied ignorance, predicated on genuine knowledge. The farther up the mountain you climb, the more unexplored terrain you can see. In fact, what I’m endorsing isn’t ignorance at all, but rather a knowledge of it; and this knowledge comes through serious toil.

And perhaps most importantly, this studied ignorance can help us love our neighbor. Intellectual humility can help us relax and be more open and honest with people, indeed more loving. Once we are comfortable admitting exactly where we don’t know, we’ll be less protective of our image, less defensive, and therefore more willing to lay down our intellectual lives.

So, as you become more knowledgeable you should also become increasingly aware of how far you have to go. It’s analogous to what Paul probably had in mind when he said that he was the chief of sinners.

Let’s learn to say three beautiful words more often: “I don’t know.”

Mitch Stokes (PhD, Notre Dame) is a senior fellow of philosophy at New St. Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho. In addition to studying philosophy under world-renowned philosopher Alvin Plantinga, Stokes holds degrees in religion and mechanical engineering, and holds five patents in aeroderivative gas turbine technology. His most recent book is How to Be an Atheist: Why Many Skeptics Aren’t Skeptical Enough.


Religious Moderates

My students recently read Sam Harris’s A Letter to a Christian Nation. One of the reasons I use this book each year is that it’s fast paced, well written, and in roughly a hundred very short pages, presents nearly the same number of anti-religious grievances.

Harris’s main point in the book is that fundamentalist, “red state” Christianity has turned the United States into a “lumbering, bellicose, dim-witted giant.” Now, I might disagree with his diagnosis, but it’s difficult to deny the symptoms. And though Harris places the blame for America’s impending moral and intellectual implosion on Christian extremists—people who, for example, believe that Jesus is literally the Son of God—he also indicts “religious liberalism and religious moderation.”

Moderates and liberals, he says, unhelpfully blunt and tame the Bible’s true message, making it sound far more reasonable than it really is. Harris’s worry is that, by reducing Christianity to a kinder, gentler, gooey essence (“mystery, and meaning, and community, and love”), moderates have made faith more palatable in eyes of the masses, and therefore harder to eradicate. But if more people knew the truth about what the Bible actually teaches, Harris claims, folks possessing both a brain wave and a concern for humanity will stop harboring Christianity from the trenchant criticism it deserves.

A Common Strategy: “Just Do It”

While I was leading a student discussion of Harris’s Letter, I waxed eloquently (to my mind) about the finer points of Harris’s intellectual missteps, when a student (Isaac, I’ll call him, since that’s his name) pointed out that Harris and I are, in fact, importantly similar: we both want to rid the playing field of lukewarm moderates.

Now, I must admit that I get misty-eyed when students see through the haze of philosophical niceties and see the larger picture (a picture that I’ve sometimes inadvertently hidden from them). And Isaac was right: Harris and I do share a common strategy. Each of us thinks that a thoroughgoing and unflinching embrace of the opposing worldview will cast said worldview in a decidedly unappealing light. And so we both attempt to give the opposition a lesson in consistency. This will, each of us hopes, have the effect of inoculating potential converts to the other side while encouraging its current adherents to jump ship.

But there can be something counterintuitive about this strategy: there are times when I actually encourage unbelievers to continue in their error, in fact to do so more. I can be found asking them to become better atheists rather than attempting to convince them to believe in God. Sometimes my message is, “If you’re going to be an atheist, then by all means, be a good one.” In other words, “Atheism: Just Do It.”

Consistent Atheism Will Get Ugly

Here’s why I think this is actually a good strategy. Harris, for example, grounds much of his case against Christianity (Christianity of the non-moderate kind) on an overwrought sense of righteous indignation. Now, such indignation depends on an objective and binding standard of righteousness—a moral standard. Now, my point here isn’t whether Harris can consistently support objective morality, but rather, that, if he can’t, he loses the book’s fulcrum, without which it won’t matter how long a lever he has.

Here, then, is where I would encourage him to take his atheism deadly seriously and abandon his claim to objective right and wrong. Of course I would try to do this via clever argument and winsome rhetoric (although it might be more effective if I could write stories). In any case, one of our main apologetic strategies should be to encourage atheists to see what it would be like to live according to their own principles.

So Harris and I agree: we should point out the inconsistencies of religious moderates—on both sides. Christians should encourage atheist extremism, and such extremism, I believe, will turn out to be pretty distasteful.

And that’s really the point.

Often the first step toward being rescued is to acknowledge that you’re in a bad situation. People who believe that all is well seldom call 911.

Mitch Stokes (PhD, Notre Dame) is a senior fellow of philosophy at New St. Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho. In addition to studying philosophy under world-renowned philosopher Alvin Plantinga, Stokes holds degrees in religion and mechanical engineering, and holds five patents in aeroderivative gas turbine technology. His most recent book is How to Be an Atheist: Why Many Skeptics Aren’t Skeptical Enough.