'D'Souza Says He Doesn't Know' by David M. Brown
The Liberal Institute

D'Souza Knows He Doesn't Know

Dinesh D'Souza wrote a piece in The Wall Street Journal claiming that atheists (and the rationalist philosophers of The Enlightenment) are not any "brighter" than people who believe in God. (Not So 'Bright,' October 6th, 2003.) With this broad statement I concur, since I don't believe that what people believe is a matter of intelligence and knowledge alone. It also depends on how they choose to employ these mental factors of production.

I myself would believe in God if only God showed up and performed sundry demonstrations of his miraculous capabilities. But you and I both know that that isn't going to happen. Why? Either because a) there is no God; or b) miracles, being by definition contradictions of the nature of reality, are impossible; or c) God works in mysterious ways; or d) God doesn't answer to us mere mortals. Take your pick.

D'Souza claims to know something the rationalists don't know, which is that there are aspects of reality that cannot be known by reason. It's not that we just haven't gotten to them yet, or that our knowledge is prone to error and incompleteness, or that some things are very far away or cloaked by radiation storms; but that these aspects are inherently immune to being detected at all by anyone's perception and reason. How does he know this? I don't know. He claims to find support in Kant.

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?

"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."

Mm. Not quite sure about that. Presumably most people can distinguish between a picture of a boat and a boat (by employing their senses and reasoning). At the same time, the picture of the boat does indeed convey information about the boat "as it is in itself." The picture tells us that the boat has a hull and sails, and that the boat "in itself" is not a tub, except when a tub is disguised as a boat and the picture fails to reveal the deception. Of course, when an image is deliberately deceptive, it is our senses which ultimately tell us that the boat is really a tub, or that the pencil is not actually physically refracted by the water. So, really, although our "experience of" or perception of a thing is not the same as the thing, it sure does tell us about the thing "in itself." There is nothing else about the thing for our senses to tell us.

Go now from a picture of the boat to the information about the boat acquired via vision or any of the other applicable senses. My eyes tell me the sail is cloth, my ears tell me the sail is cloth when I hear the wind rippling it, and my hands tell me the sail is cloth when I touch it. So, "in itself" the sail might yet be made out of giant boulders? Note, by the way, that the skepticism here has nothing to do with entities as yet unknown to us in toto. It's the photo and the sail boat that are the great unknowable. On this philosophy, no matter what you know, you don't know it "really," regardless of what you can point to as proof that it is what you think it is.

D'Souza confuses a mode of perception with the thing perceived, and implies that everybody else must share his blunder; and also that this faulty reasoning imparts something by analogy about a realm wholly unknowable. But how does he know about this unknowable realm if there is no way to know about it? He can't, not rationally. But he can, like other religious people, claim some mystic access to this realm that is independent of any perception or inference from perception. He can pretend that because we don't know everything there is to know about electrons, there must be a God.

But it doesn't follow. It simply does not follow that because man cannot comprehensively know all of the universe -- whether because some portions are inaccessible to discovery or simply because he does not have enough time to investigate it all -- that therefore there are portions of the universe somehow "beyond" our capacity to know, ever (like, say, what a sailboat "really" is, in-itself). The most we could ever hope to show is that an aspect of reality that had once been unknown to us is now known, now that we have, say, invented the microscope. But if all D'Souza is saying is that our unaided eyesight cannot give us all of the information provided to us by the magnifying power of the microscope, he is uttering a mere truism, not a deep philosophical perplexity.

If a cat lives and dies in a closet without any direct awareness of the rest of the apartment, that doesn't mean that everything outside the closet is inherently impervious to feline perception and also probably supernatural and that there is a God. Nor does it matter whether the cat claims a mystic ability to know about things "beyond this closet." The puss's knowledge or intuition or guess or feeling about the larger world can only be confirmed by opening the door and looking around; or by drawing logical inferences from the noises that he hears and the smells that he smells as they waft from the larger world into the confines of the closet. Sometimes, of course, the intuition about "unknowable" reality will be contradicted by new evidence. But the theists tend not to throw up their hands and say "Okay, ya got me, my whole methodology is wrong" when it turns out that there is another explanation for thunderbolts besides Thor's hammer, rendering the Thor-hammer explanation silly and superfluous.

If D'Souza is so non-foolish, how come he doesn't understand that an argument for the existence of an inherently unknowable reality cannot possibly be known to be valid? See, if we knew something about the nature of this unknowable reality, it wouldn't be unknown any more; a thing cannot be both totally unknowable and somewhat known at the same time. (And it's always more than its sheer unknowability that mystics claim to know about the unknowable; they also know about the infinite love of the unknowable God who inhabits the unknowable realm, his magical powers, the importance of praying to this unknowable being, etc.) But D'Souza doesn't feel he has to even hint at an answer to the obvious contradictions in his argument. He need merely point the reader to Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, which for some modern intellectuals displaces the Bible as Authoritative Explicator and Depository of Unbelievable Beliefs. And all the reader need merely do to confirm what D'Souza is contending is drop everything and spend twenty years trying to figure out what Kant said in his unreadable book. (Okay, so now we do know that there is such a thing as an intrinsically unknowable reality: the meaning of Kant.) D'Souza says that if "the so-called brights have produced refutations of Kant that have eluded the philosophical community, they should share them with the rest of us." This suggests to me that D'Souza's reading is not exhaustive. He might start with David Kelley's Evidence of the Senses: A Realist Theory of Sense Perception.

D'Souza says that Kant's argument is entirely "secular," but that it "opens the door to faith." But there is a big, big difference between claiming that I don't know the contents of a box I haven't opened yet and claiming that the contents of the box are "inherently unknowable" except by faith, and also that whatever is in the box must have created the detectable part of the universe.

D'Souza never explains what faith is or how it gains access to these otherwise unknowable features of reality. We do know that the claims of faith -- which is belief in things one has no reason to believe in -- can bear no relationship to normal human capacities. For it is precisely the limitations of our human capacities which, according to D'Souza in his omniscience, permanently seal off certain sectors of reality from any human awareness of them. Yet some humans nevertheless have this awareness, at least to the extent of knowing that these unknowable sectors of reality exist.

Is D'Souza saying that while we non-religious persons have only limited capacities to know, religious persons like him have an unlimited capacity to know in addition: to wit, faith? If so, how can the rest of us pick up a copy of this wondrously efficacious extra-sensory epistemological instrument? Is it available at WalMart?

DAVID M. BROWN is a free-lance
writer and editor