October 18, 2003


Not So 'Bright': Atheists aren't as rational as they think. (DINESH D'SOUZA, October 12, 2003, Wall Street Journal)

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?

One of the easier perpetual motion machines to build requires only an atheist, a person of faith, and the question "which of your respective beliefs is arrogant and which humble?" The Enlightenment Fallacy limns the manner in which atheism/rationalism is arrogant, believing Man to be the measure of all things.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 18, 2003 10:14 AM

The "brights" and doctrinaire Marxists have much in common besides atheism. Arrogance and hubris maybe?

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at October 18, 2003 10:27 AM

Fallacy of the Enlightenment is nonsense. No Atheist I know believes that mankind can know everything, the limit to understanding is the natural barrier of our cognition. A dog will never understand the stock exchange, it's brain isn't capable of that level of abstraction.

A human brain has limits, our most brilliant scientists explore those limits, but they remain limits. That dosn't mean that god exists beyond, merely more complex natural phenomena.

That's the atheistic view, you may disagree of course, but don't misrepresent it with straw men arguments. An arrogant, self-righeous theist is just as irritating, and just as limited, as an arrogant, self-righteous atheist.

I'm personally not a believer but I respect the judeo-christian tradition and it's centrality in much that is good about our culture, which is why I enjoy reading your blog and getting your perspective. You could stand to show a little similar humility, since we're on that subject.

Posted by: Amos at October 18, 2003 12:56 PM

Well put Amos!

The question is not whether there is some reality beyond the limit to our knowledge, but what philosophical stance do we take about what may lie on the other side of that limit. The athiest, while he may speculate about what it might be, makes no claims to knowledge about it, and places no expectations on it.

The believer invests his expectations in that unknowable world, that what he cannot gain in the knowable world will be fulfilled there. The unknowable world is a blank projection screen for his unmet wants (immortality).

Is it arrogant not to expect immortality? Is it arrogant not to believe that you are the prime reason for the universe's existence?

Posted by: Robert D at October 18, 2003 1:26 PM

Complex subject where the characterization of arrogance is a result of the practical application of the materialist view which believes that all of the human condition can be understood much as the natural world can be understood. The susceptibility to manipulation and social engineering inherent in such a view has lead to untold misery and devastation. In combination with the belief in absolute democracy as a manifestation of the general will, the elites who come to power within that context have tended to see human beings as so much matter to be manipulated for an abstract good. The individual tends to be devalued. The belief in man as a creature of God protects the individual from such misguided manipulation. The scientific revolution has freed man from ignorance and much poverty but the rejection of the spiritual has at times made the individual subject to a politcal despotism which is hard to imagine. What limits are there to social engineering or human experimentation without a belief in a higher power and the human tendency to embrace evil if not kept in check? The very concept of evil is questioned by the enlightenment as nothing more than ignorance or superstition. Such a mechanistic belief system, and it is a belief system which assumes certain things which cannot be absolutely determined, with the wrong people in power has lead directly to the disasters of Marxist/Leninism and National Socialism as well as the ongoing and incremental devaluation of human life as a good in and of itself. Irrational developments in retrospect only. The danger of a reliance on pure reason should give one pause only because of its practical history.

Speaking for myself, I do not know what lies beyond the physical, material universe. I do intuitively know that man is more than mechanism.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at October 18, 2003 2:15 PM


You're describing agnosticism, not athiesm.

Posted by: oj at October 18, 2003 3:53 PM

Kant's argument is also false. Modern technology allows us to translate those things we can't directly perceive into objects we can -- e.g., we now routinely perceive "invisible" radio waves through TV and radio, we perceive exotic sub-atomic particles through bubble and spark chambers, hear subsonic and ultrasonic sounds, &c.

Posted by: jd watson at October 18, 2003 7:23 PM

and talking mice through transistor tubes...

Posted by: oj at October 18, 2003 7:27 PM

Agnosticism and atheism are answers to two different questions: 1. do you know that God exists, and 2. do you believe that God exists? Based on those two questions, I am an agnostic atheist. Tom C, based on his reply, is an agnostic theist.

Posted by: Robert D at October 18, 2003 7:52 PM


I was going to say that! I read the original print version of this and that was my first thought as well - we are hardly limited to our five senses anymore.

I believe that we can continue to learn new things forever, which actually implies we can never know everything.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at October 18, 2003 8:00 PM

Amos: what a *humble* statement:
You could stand to show a little similar humility, since we're on that subject.

More like arrogant and self-serving...

Posted by: terrence at October 18, 2003 8:06 PM


With which other senses do you now perceive "reality"?

Posted by: oj at October 18, 2003 9:39 PM

Humans will soon have expanded senses, based on mechanical implants, and genetic engineering.
It doesn't really change the basis of the argument, but it does extend the scope of the emotionally and kinesthetically knowable.


Actually, although I can't reproduce the reasoning here, there was a recent article in 'Scientific American', excerpted on this blog, that concluded that there are a finite number of bits of information in the Universe. Thus, at some point, learning will end, in this Universe.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at October 18, 2003 9:43 PM


More like:

Agnostic: feels we can not know whether God exists, but has not ruled out the possibility, because we can't know He doesn't.

Atheist: is certain God does not exist.

Agnosticism is the rational position; atheism the fundamentalist faith.

Posted by: oj at October 18, 2003 9:44 PM


What will an implant sense?

Posted by: oj at October 18, 2003 9:53 PM


Much like the 'Six Million Dollar Man', the implants will be wired directly into our brains. You had a bit earlier this week about the monkeys who remotely controlled a robotic arm with brain implants. Same deal.
I have no idea what the input will feel like, but it'll be an organic experience, exactly like the sight, hearing, etc., that we learned to interpret as infants.

Some obvious candidates: Telescopic or microscopic eyes, sonar, infrared or ultraviolet sight, canine quality olfactory senses, telepathic-like communication, remote limbs and sense of touch... No doubt a bunch of erotic applications, and two score other things that aren't obvious to me.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at October 18, 2003 10:47 PM


And this differs from the five senses how?

Posted by: oj at October 19, 2003 5:28 AM

Agnosticism is the rational position.

Theism and atheism are equally irrational.

Those things you talk about are the result of a belief, despite all evidence to the contrary, that human nature is malleable, and , therefore, all evil is the result of society. Absent that irrational belief, which the precipitous collapse of Communism has gone a long way towards gutting, the intractability of evil is obvious regardless of one's religious beliefs.

Unfortunately, religion is perfectly capable of viewing certain humans as being completely expendable. As we will quickly find out should the Islamists ever get hold of a nuclear weapon.

Amos said it best at the top.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at October 19, 2003 6:50 AM


So, you believe evil to predate human society?

Posted by: oj at October 19, 2003 7:19 AM


The assertion that there are limits beyond which we know nothing, but that we can be certain that whatever's there is "natural" rather than God is self-contradictory.

Posted by: oj at October 19, 2003 8:05 AM

Mr. Herdegen;

You cad! My philosophical musings shot down by ugly facts! It's not, however, that there are a finite number of bits in the universe but that one can only process a finite number of them, because there's a minimum energy cost per bit and a finite amount of energy. However, quantum computing and reversable computing may allow us to go beyond those limits (which only apply to non-reversable non-quantum computations).


We can detect and manipulate single atoms, yet these are not able to be apprehended by any of our five senses. By the logic in the original article, this was impossible for us to do because it is a reality beyond our five senses. One of these is wrong. Which do you think it is?

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at October 19, 2003 10:32 AM


I think I missed a step in here--are you guys arguing that Kant meant the five senses unaided by any technical eqiupment? Or are you arguing that we have developed the means to perceive things beyond the senses period? The only physical evidence we have of either atoms or our manipulation of such is obviously material and subject to sensory perception, no?

Posted by: oj at October 19, 2003 11:06 AM

Isn't Kant's point that, unless we are perceiving something directly without mediation, we must take it on faith? And isn't he right?

Posted by: David Cohen at October 19, 2003 7:00 PM

This is all very interesting and impressive arguing.

What interests me at the moment is Pascal's views of God's existence, as evinced (perhaps simplistically) by his "wager."

This is not new ground by any means; and it does strike even me as a bit silly (at least potentially).

But what if one who does not believe that God exists were to behave as if God existed? Is this just all too utterly "dishonest" to be considered?

Or what if one who is *not sure* that God exists were to behave as if God existed?

Granted this may be all too self-serving (in a social sense---I don't want to get into the
afterlife issue), and since egotism--or the pursuit of advantage, for some, is just not in the cards (though one might ask, why not?), it may not be acceptable.

But I think that behaving "as if," does change one's behavior, at least gradually. Might it improve things, generally? Or are people merely doomed?

The problem with this question is, I suppose, the assumption that people who "believe"--or pretend to believe--are ipso fact "better people." And I'm not sure, alas, that this is true....

And so, what does this say about "believing" societies?

Posted by: Barry Meislin at October 20, 2003 4:28 AM


For people of a conservative bent there's no question that believing societies are better overall, though, as you say, belief is no guarantee that an individual will be a better person.

Posted by: oj at October 20, 2003 8:22 AM


I am not an agnostic theist, I am a fairly orthodox Roman Catholic who has no difficulty differentiating between my ability to scientifically "know" something as opposed to what I believe. My faith is important to me and my inability to prove beyond doubt is simply unimportant to me. The matetrialist rationalism produced by a version of enlightenment thought can not seem to make that simple distinction. Once those rationalists are willing to admit such distinctions, the discussion on the practical results of the social organizing principles which have dominated much of the post French Revolution world could probably be discussed more practically.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at October 20, 2003 11:05 AM

David: It's been nine years since I read the Critique, but yes, I believe that's what he was getting at. Good point, but his project was misguided, to my mind.

Posted by: Chris at October 20, 2003 11:34 AM

Mr. Cohen, Mr. Judd;

Further comments here.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at October 20, 2003 10:41 PM


Essentially, it doesn't. It allows us to better understand and enjoy our environment, but ultimately the only way to experience pure truth, as opposed to taking our existence and perception as an article of faith, is through meditation or prayer.

Which is, in fact, a sixth sense.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at October 21, 2003 2:35 AM

Couple points:
"Atheist: is certain God does not exist."
No, an atheist -lacks a belief- in a god. As for certainty, atheists may or may not have an additional belief that a god does not exist. I say 'a god' here, because god descriptions vary and negative beliefs applying to one may not apply to another.

Another- There will always be the unknown, is not knowing the truth of a claim enough to justify belief in that claim? If I claim to have a recipe for lighter-than-air jello, should you believe me because it 'might' be possible, refrain from judgement, or disbelieve me based on your admittedly limited 5-sense experiences?

Posted by: Tiltowait at October 22, 2003 12:05 PM


I don't know you, so have no idea how to assess your claim. If Einstein or Stephen Hawking said he had lighter-than-air jello I'd be inclined to believe him.

Posted by: oj at October 22, 2003 12:36 PM

"Theism and atheism are equally irrational."

By that standard, asserting the existence of Santa Claus and asserting the non-existence of Santa Claus are equally irrational.

No one has proven the existence of Santa Claus, but of course no one can prove his non-existence. Is the only rational position on Santa Claus agnosticism? Please.

Posted by: Paul at October 22, 2003 4:28 PM


Posted by: oj at October 22, 2003 4:37 PM