Unanswered Questions

Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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16 Responses

  1. Paul Fidalgo says:

    No, it is not precisely correct. When the “fundamental beliefs” we are talking about concern claims about the nature of the universe and existence upon which values, codes of conduct, laws, and mores are based, no, in fact, it is decidedly not about what people feel they can afford to leave unanswered. These fundamental beliefs are fundamental because they concern things about which people feel certain. That’s why they’re so damned troublesome.

    And this particular clipping is something we can certainly do without: “daring to know.” Especially if one is claiming that there is some grace in being willfully ignorant, or in pretending to know something one does not know, then the last thing one is doing when subscribing to a theism or supernaturalism is “daring to know.” Rather, one is “acquiescing to uninformed guesses.”Report

  2. E.D. Kain says:

    I hardly think this has to do with being “willfully ignorant” at all. I think you read this entirely the wrong way. I think the vast majority of existence is unknown, and at some point humility requires that we accept that. We are only human. There is a great deal we can know, and a great deal of knowledge we can gain, but at some point we will hit a wall. Accepting our limitations is not at all the same thing as being willfully ignorant.

    Not only that, but many, many people of faith (or non-faith) are actually a great deal uncertain about many of these fundamental questions. Of course there are those who are certain about everything under the sun, but that does not in any way describe the vast majority of people, full of doubt, questions, etc.Report

  3. Paul Fidalgo says:

    I will grant you the point on willful ignorance in the particular kind of acceptance-of-uncertainty that you talk about here, but I also think that the kind of “I wonder what’s out there” perspective (which is all fine and lovely) that you describe is not what most people mean when they say that they are people of faith. To be theistic, to subscribe to a faith or a creed is to have made a decision to accept as truth something for which there is no or insufficient evidence. It may be a vague conception, but it is a claim about the reality of existence nonetheless. Might it also include doubt? Might is also include questions? Of course.

    It seems to me that the people of faith that you describe are not really leaping to faith at all, but I might call them agnostic, at least by your description. Indeed, there is a wealth of things at which to wonder and to marvel at our own (present) inability to understand. To accept this wonderfulness is not the same as having faith in a deity, though it is where many, I suppose, turn in the face of that wonder.

    So I suppose my larger beef is with the romanticization of belief, which is what I think is implied by this “daring to know” conceit. Acceptance of and wonder at the universe’s mystery is one thing, and a healthy thing. But I do not believe faith can or should be equated with acceptance of incomprehensibility. Faith has farther reaching consequences than that.Report

  4. Consumatopia says:

    For cultural and historical reasons, the Christian God is much more likely to be one in our place and time.

    Frequently in this thread I read something and think “wait, that’s exactly what the atheists would say”. And this is definitely one of those times. I don’t think the FSM really proves what it sets out to prove, but you seem to already agree with what it was setting out to prove–that our Christianity is just a contingent result of Constantine’s victory and conversion. Had history turned out differently, had we been born in different places, we’d be something else.

    That’s the thing–I’ve been born into a modern world with historical records and global communications, and I don’t see why I should accept the beliefs of my family/village/tribe as the Live Belief while all the other families/villages/tribes hold silly beliefs. The Anthropic Principle alone makes it unlikely I would be born to the one tribe that benefited from the true Revealed Wisdom.

    Even atheists have unanswered questions that they cannot but help to leave unanswered, and they resolve to do so as a matter of Faith or perhaps inevitability, I’m not sure it matters what it’s termed.

    You always have to assume something, but some hypotheses can explain the data while assuming less than others. I’m sorry, it’s obvious that the atheists assume less.

    What’s not so obvious is whether they can explain as much data as the Christians can.Report

  5. E.D. Kain says:

    I don’t know. The question is not so much “if Constantine did or did not do this” since it happened. If it had not happened, some other thing could have. There is no way to know how history works. As with God, there is no way to prove one way or another if God is working through history or not. Or through biology, or through any other thing.

    You always have to assume something, but some hypotheses can explain the data while assuming less than others. I’m sorry, it’s obvious that the atheists assume less.

    I’m not so sure. For the most part, I think I am right there with the atheists on almost all the major assumptions. I believe in science as a tool we use to understand the world. I believe in reason and logic. I just also believe in God.Report

  6. Bob says:

    E.D I find it odd that you direct readers and commenter’s to Will when he writes this, “Needless to say, the comments are crazy. There are few things that The Internet loves more than a good, sloppy, angry argument about The Atheism. Most of the expected points have been made (although, surprisingly, the C.S. Lewis mimic hasn’t made his appearance yet).”

    Perhaps the Gentlemen should close the comment section and adopt the Andrew Sullvian mode of selected responses. BTW when you only referenced “Will” I thought Wilkinson. Well that would be bad enough but this guy, Jesus, Mary and Joseph.

    The little people have no voice.Report

  7. E.D. Kain says:

    Bob, a lot of the comments are a bit crazy. Any time this subject is broached the comments get a bit crazy. But I’d say a lot of them are really pretty amazingly good, reasonable, etc. Funny thing, though, OG Mark Thompson has been called a Godless nihilizt and a Christianist during this series, so you gotta admit, that’s a bit off…

    And I, for one, am entirely against closing comments. For one, the comments have and will spark future posts and series and I very much value *most* of the comments we’ve received so far. Besides, Sullivan must have to dig through loads of email. Comments are so much easier.Report

  8. Bob says:

    OK, I’m not going to pick at your response, but Willie Boy offers no such qualifier’s. He says flat out, “Needless to say, the comments are crazy.”

    One more point. HufPost publishes all comments, and I bet Huff gets a lot more comments than Sullivan. So I reject that line.Report

  9. Consumatopia says:

    Some of the comments ARE crazy enough that I can’t blame someone for not reading them all. I hope I’m not one of them, but who knows?Report

  10. Consumatopia says:

    I’m not so sure. For the most part, I think I am right there with the atheists on almost all the major assumptions. I believe in science as a tool we use to understand the world. I believe in reason and logic. I just also believe in God.

    Well, again, this seems like exactly what the atheist would say. For the most part you share assumptions. You’ve just tacked on one more. The question is, what are you now able to explain that the atheist is unable to explain with one fewer assumption?

    And regarding the Constantine thing, my point is less what happened in counterfactual worlds (indeed, one could imagine Constantine just getting laughed out of town if he had converted to Pastafarianism) and more what happened in other times and places in our actual world. Chrisitianity is the largest religion, but it’s still and probably not a majority religion. Does it really make sense to privilege the European religion on our list of Live Options?Report

  11. Jamelle says:

    I don’t have much to add to this discussion, but I did want to add that William James is responsible for one of my favorite quotes of all time. It’s from his essay “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life”:

    “Wherever such minds exists, with judgments of good and ill, and demands upon one another, there is an ethical world in its essential features. Were all other things, gods and men and starry heavens, blotted out from this universe, and were there left but one rock with two loving souls upon it, that rock would have as thoroughly moral a constitution as any possible world which the eternities and immensities could harbor… We, on this terrestrial globe, so far as the visible facts go, are just like the inhabitants of such a rock. Whether a God exist, or whether no God exist, in yon blue heaven above us bent, we form at any rate an ethical republic here below.”Report

  12. Bob says:

    Consumatopia, you write, “Some of the comments ARE crazy enough that I can’t blame someone for not reading them all. I hope I’m not one of them, but who knows?”

    Isn’t that just the problem, I mean “who knows?” A crude term I first encountered reading Will Durant “one man’s meat, another man’s poison.”

    I’m willing to admit that I may not agree with all comments, but “crazy” is in the eye of the beholder. Who knows?Report

  13. Nance Confer says:

    Even atheists have unanswered questions . . .


    Not believing in some god doesn’t mean you think you know all the answers.

    That territory is usually claimed by the religious.


  14. MikeF says:

    The avian fettucine avatar is not a live option for anyone, as far as I know. For cultural and historical reasons, the Christian God is much more likely to be one in our place and time.

    I think this is exactly correct, but isn’t this precisely what the FSM is used to point out? That it obviously isn’t a live option for religious belief while Christianity is: but why? What is the fundamental difference? Which Will answers by pointing to cultural and historical reasons and you answer by pointing out that psychology and plausibility aren’t always in the realm of the rational, but neither of those, to me, are compelling reasons why the Christian God is more likely to actually exist than the FSM.Report

  15. Paul,

    You are right that “daring to know” isn’t the best thing to say, but I think William James said something like that. I wish I could just reprint the essay, because I can’t say it as well as he can.


    I do apologize for implying that all of the comments are crazy. I really meant to say something more along the lines of “the comments are going crazy.” There is no way you could have known that I was thinking more in terms of quantity of comments rather than content. I’ll adjust the phrasing in my original post.

    And I try to get people to call me William, so that they don’t mix me up with the other, smarter Wills out there.


    I have to admit that you’ve hit one of my weak points. I haven’t fully bridged the gap between William James’s vocabulary (“live options”) and my own, even though I really like his essay. I’m trying to work out what I think about necessity and contingency in history, so I can’t give a great answer.


  16. rob says:


    If there was a god like the Christian God, would we not expect that his actions would result in cultural and historical reasons for believing in him?

    Or: the FSM is less likely and the Christian God more likely because a large number of people believe in him; if there were a god like the Christian God, we would expect that he would have believers.

    Whether or not there is such a god, a good number of people throughout history have both believed in him and testified to his existence, whereas no one (to the best of my knowledge) has actually believed in the FSM or testified to his existence.

    (I am aware that this does not prove that there is a god like the Christian God, and that this line of argumentation could be deployed in favor of, say, the Islamic Allah; but, then, I would say that the Islamic Allah qualifies as a live option in a way that the FSM doesn’t, so I’m quite alright with that, as my intention here is not to prove the existence of a particular god, but to explain why its not unreasonable to regard some gods as live options and others not.)Report