In the NY Times Opinionator, Gary Gutting indulges in a little public philosophical masturbation: did Zeus exist? And he concludes that we can’t decide that he didn’t.
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.”
I’d tear that up, except I don’t have to: The Digital Cuttlefish beat me to it, and includes a poem, too.
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.
I have two things, too, though. One is that DC is using philosophy to argue against Gutting, so let’s not make this a blanket condemnation of all philosophy.
The other is a point of disagreement: “It is absolutely true that science has to presuppose that there are no supernatural entities intervening”. I disagree strongly with that. If they are intervening, they are having an effect on the natural world that can be examined with the tools of science, even if the supernatural entities themselves are completely invisible to us. If every time I mumbled a magic word before throwing a die, it would come up six, and this effect was statistically robust and worked with such reliability that I could clean up at the craps table in Vegas, I’d have to postulate a force outside of our understanding to explain it. I’d still be able to investigate the effect scientifically, however, and clearly it would demand extensive replication…say, a grand tour of every casino in the country.
I agree that we cannot conclude that there is no supernatural that is operating outside of our universe. We can conclude that there has been no consistent detectable supernatural phenomenon meddling within our universe.