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Finding Answers In Our Stories

In a fascinating interview on the topic of atheism versus theism over at The Stone in The New York Times, Yale University philosopher Keith DeRose, in email conversation with Gary Gutting, makes the claim that theists don't know that God exists and that atheists don't know that there isn't a God. It's a stand off.

What I find puzzling about DeRose's view — and I recommend the interview to you — is the suggestion that the disagreement about God is, in any simple, straight-forward sense, a disagreement about a piece of (putative) knowledge.

Believing in God isn't like believing, correctly or incorrectly, that there are brick houses on Elm Street. What's at stake is not a simple proposition whose meaning is understood and whose truth is up for discussion. God is an idea that is made intelligible, to the degree that it is intelligible, only thanks to the stories we tell about Him or about ourselves and our history. Believing in God is more like believing that a story is true, or that a story is compelling or worthwhile or worth learning or caring about, than it is like believing some fact.

Herodotus said that history is the history of lies. This is a bit of an overstatement. But I get the point. History is made up of stories and stories are often slightly less than, or maybe slightly more than, the truth.

A story teller, like a bank teller, aims at a good count, a well balanced, transparent accounting. And the value of a good story doesn't ever consist in its matching all the facts. Not all facts are created equal; whether Napoleon put his left shoe on first the morning of the battle of Waterloo is not relevant to most stories we might wish to tell about that event. You can't fault the historian for leaving it out. And anyway, you can't record every object and event. If you did do so, you wouldn't have told a detailed story; you'd just have re-presented reality. And that would leave us back where we started from.

Sometimes a story can be "true" even when it misrepresents the facts. Maybe it gets this or that detail wrong but it captures, or accurately describes, a more important point or more valuable truth. To give an example that may be familiar to many listeners of NPR, it isn't obvious that Mike Daisey's tales of working conditions in Apple-contracted factories in China, presented on This American Life, were false or misleading, even though, as came to light, he adjusted his story to make it better in the telling (more amusing, simpler, etc.)

And the reverse can be true as well. You can get the facts right, but miss the point. You can miss the real story.

Sometimes, we think we are disagreeing about facts when really we are fighting about stories. Think of the Cold War or the politics of the Middle East.

Maybe this is what happens when we argue about God and, maybe, this is why we have the sense that both sides talk past each other?

That idea that a belief in God is a commitment to the value or importance of certain stories — and the idea that the failure to believe in God is, basically, not only skepticism about the stories but, more importantly, a sincere indifference to them — has two important upshots.

It lets us see how the disagreement between atheists and theists can be a real one, a substantive one. After all, there is such a thing as a true story, and stories can also be made up or nonsensical or untrue.

At the same time, we have to admit that when it comes to stories we don't have decision procedures for evaluating their truth and importance. After all, there is truth in fiction. And non-fiction, by the very nature of the beast, has some fiction in it.


You can keep up with more of what Alva Noë is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe


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