Is there really any reason
We should not believe in Zeus?
Or at least to say he possibly existed?
A professor of philosophy
Believes there’s no excuse,
Though his writing seems, to me, a bit ham-fisted.
If we presuppose existence
Of the Father of the Gods
Or of anything at all, for what it’s worth
Then we find we can’t disprove it,
Though it’s way against the odds,
You can’t kill it, once you presuppose its birth.
So an atheist’s denial,
The philosopher asserts,
Should be traded for a pure agnostic stance
But logic is supposed to help
In this case, logic hurts,
As we watch him make his suppositions dance
And it isn’t quite pragmatic
Just believing something true
Till it’s false beyond the shadow of a doubt
We have vast imaginations;
Our ideas will accrue
Since we never have the leave to weed them out.
A very strange thing, in the NYTimes Opinionator today–Gary Gutting, professor of philosophy at Notre Dame, writes “Did Zeus Exist?” He notes, first off, that the ancient Greeks certainly seemed to believe Zeus existed:
The standard line of thought seems to be that we have no evidence at all for his existence and so have every right to deny it. Perhaps there is no current evidence of his existence — certainly no reports of avenging thunderbolts or of attempted seductions, no sightings around Mount Olympus. But back in the day (say, 500-400 B.C.), there would seem to have been considerable evidence, enough in any case to make his reality unquestioned among most members of a rapidly advancing Greek civilization.
Further, as this civilization developed the critical tools of historiography and philosophy, Zeus’s reality remained widely unquestioned. Socrates and Plato criticized certain poetic treatments, which showed Zeus and the gods in an unworthy light. But they never questioned the very existence of the gods, and Socrates regularly followed the dictates of his daimon, a personal divine guide. There were many questions about the true nature of the divine, but few about its existence.
Rather than being skeptical about the existence of a supernatural being, Gutting seems to turn Descartes on his head, refusing to doubt anything that there is the slightest possibility of being true, or even having once been true.
Most of us do not find our world so filled with the divine, and we may be inclined to dismiss the Greeks’ “experiences” as over-interpretations. But how can we be so sure that the Greeks lived in the same sort of world as we do? What decisive reason do we have for thinking that for them divinity was not a widely and deeply experienced fact of life? If we cannot eliminate this as a real possibility, shouldn’t we hold a merely agnostic position on Zeus and the other Greek gods, taking seriously the possibility that they existed but holding that we have good reason neither to assert nor deny their existence?
If we can’t be 100% bulletproof, bet your children’s lives certain (and we can’t), we need to accept the possibility of, in this case, Zeus.
He then considers some objections, which you’ll have to see there. It’s a very brief piece, so I am perhaps expecting too much, but they really come down to “since we cannot unequivocally prove beyond a shadow of a doubt, beyond any possibility… then it just might be true”. Mind, he’s not claiming it is true, but rather that we should keep our minds open.
On reflection, then, I’m inclined to say that an atheistic denial of Zeus is ungrounded. There is no current evidence of his present existence, but to deny that he existed in his Grecian heyday we need to assume that there was no good evidence for his existence available to the ancient Greeks. We have no reason to make this assumption. Further, supposing that Zeus did exist in ancient times, do we really have evidence that he has ceased to exist? He may, for all we know, just be in hiding (as Heine’s delightful “Gods in Exile” suggests), now that other gods have won humankind’s allegiance. Or it may be that we have lost the ability to perceive the divine. In any case, to the question, “May we properly remain agnostic about whether Zeus ever existed?” the answer is “Yes, we may.”
Two things, then. One, I’m surprised that a philosophy prof is conflating ideas of belief with ideas of knowledge. Disbelief in Zeus is absolutely grounded. Without convincing evidence (this is where “knowledge” comes in, and where his objections actually matter), Zeus has not passed the threshold for my belief. I have no obligation to believe in something that has no positive evidence for it, just because there is no evidence against it.
Which leads to my second thing. Presuppositional arguments may be logically airtight, but this example shows why good logic can lead to bad conclusions. It is absolutely true that science has to presuppose that there are no supernatural entities intervening, in order to examine the natural world. And we, therefore, cannot conclude there is no supernatural, since that would simply be circular logic, assuming our conclusions. And since our conclusions about the supernatural depend on our assumptions, the logic is no help at all.
A pragmatist approach, though, does not ask what is true, but rather, what is useful. A theory that explains more phenomena, or explains with fewer assumptions, is not necessarily “true” in any ultimate sense, but it is more useful than the theory it replaces. And theories are replaced–upgraded, if you will–all the time. They don’t have to be absolutely true or false–really, that is not a concern. And pragmatically, whether you believe there is a god that keeps the universe behaving naturally, carefully making it look as if the naturalistic explanations work… or whether you believe the naturalistic explanations… actually work… it really doesn’t matter. We know that if you start out assuming there is a god, you’ll conclude you can’t deny it, and if you start out assuming there is no god, you’ll conclude there is no need for one. So it really just doesn’t matter.
But (back to point one) that is all about knowledge. Not about belief. So… why would one presuppose the existence of a god? That’s the question we should be asking. Sure, once you presuppose one, you can’t deny it, but the same is true for Zeus, for Russell’s Teapot, for Sagan’s Dragon, and for compassionate conservatives. There may be no reason not to believe, but there is no reason to believe. Atheism is perfectly justified, even for agnostics.
One last thing… the comments at the article are very strange–given that it is the New York Times, the commenters are not what you usually see at, say, FoxNews or CNN. But the article itself is so bizarre, commenters can’t quite tell if it is satire, apologetics, excellent, horrible, or what. Anyway, I understood it all perfectly. By which I mean, you cannot prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that I did not.