Materialism and the Veil of Unknowing

I identify three positions which we may take with regard to the epistemological status of religious propositions.

The Nonreligious Case. We may posit that all religious propositions are false.

We will restrict the notion of “religious propositions” to pointedly exclude those claims that would also be likely to be believed by somebody who disbelieved all religion. For instance, if some religion claimed that eating a particular type of seafood led to sickness, and it did so, this would not count for our purposes as a religious claim. Similarly, for our purposes, “killing is wrong” would probably not count as a religious claim.

Either we posit the Nonreligious Case, or we posit that some religious propositions are true. Here there are two possibilities:

The True Belief Case. We posit that the propositions of one religion are true, and the propositions of all other religions are false.

The Syncretic Case. We posit that some propositions of many religions are true. We posit that some religious propositions are true, some religious propositions are false, and no religion has a monopoly on the truth.

The Nonreligious Case, the True Belief Case, and the Syncretic Case are the three main ways that we may treat the propositions of religion, and all of them are problematic. Let us examine the problems with each of these cases.

One may gather from the data at adherents.com that roughly 90% of people believe in religious propositions. 84% of people belong to some religion, and about half of the remaining 16% are “theistic.” This gives us the conservative estimate that 90% of people believe in religious propositions.

This means that in the Nonreligious Case, we posit that 90% of people have a basically erroneous worldview.

In the True Belief Case, we posit that at least 46% of people have a basically erroneous worldview. The largest religion is Christianity, and so if we believe in Christianity then we say that 66% of the world has an erroneous worldview. This would be the smallest number of people whose worldviews we would reject in the True Belief Case if not for the fact that Islam, the second largest religion at 21% of the world, accepts most of the propositions of Christianity and Judaism. In Islam therefore one shares many of one’s propositions with Christianity and Judaism, and together these religions constitute about 54% of the world. Therefore if we believe in Islam, we reject the worldviews of 46% of the world.

In the Syncretic Case, we posit that a minimum of 0% of people have a basically erroneous worldview, and we also posit that every person’s worldview contains substantial errors. We cannot accept all of the propositions of all religions, because this would lead to absurdity and logical contradiction. In the Syncretic Case we must accept only some religious propositions, and reject other religious propositions. We are also able to adopt an attitutude of fallibility and say that we do not know for sure that we have made the correct assessment of any given religious proposition.

All three of these cases are reasonably popular things to believe. From adherents.com’s estimates we may infer that somewhere in the region of 8% of the world posits the Nonreligious Case. Many certainly posit the True Belief Case: at a minimum, almost every Christian and Muslim posits this case, giving us a minimum figure around 54% of the world. Many of the remaining 38% posit the Syncretic Case; this is popular in regions including India, China, and Japan. In India there is a great diversity of religion but a general acceptance of these diverse religions as different ways of approaching the same thing. In China and Japan the religious atmosphere is one of a melting-pot-like blending of different traditions.

If we accept the Syncretic Case, it becomes important to ask, “what religious propositions are true?” We will see later that there are fundamental difficulties with answering this question. However, a good initial heuristic is that we ought to take more seriously those propositions which a larger proportion of people hold, and less seriously those propositions which fewer people hold.

Religions differ in the claims they make, and there are certain commonalities in the claims they make. Consider, for instance, the following four concepts:

1. The Christian concept of salvation.
2. The Muslim concept of the Day of Judgment.
3. The Hindu concept of samsara and moksha.
4. The Buddhist concept of samsara and Nirvana.

These are five different concepts which have some commonalities. All of them posit the following propositions:

1. There is an afterlife.
2. In this afterlife one is rewarded or punished for one’s moral qualities in this life.
3. One possibility is to spend eternity in a place of infinite positive value.

The position that in this case all of these religions are saying the same thing is absurd. The position that they are saying things that have nothing in common is also absurd. We may draw a Venn diagram in which each circle represents the meaning of these religious concepts:

Since the common propositions are what interest us, the greatest area of interest is the area marked in red. We will call this area the concept of “liberation/salvation.” Liberation/salvation means everything common to these concepts, as captured in the three propositions given above.

Of secondary interest are the area marked in blue, which we may term “liberation,” and the area marked in green, which we may term “salvation.”

We may perform an analysis such as the preceding one for many different religious concepts and eventually arrive at a picture of the world’s most common religious beliefs. By taking the intersection of all religious beliefs we will arrive at a picture of the propositions most worth our consideration.

I propose that this process will be eased by first grouping the major world religions thematically. I propose three categories:

1. The Abrahamic religions. These are Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.

2. The Eastern religions. These are Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism.

3. Animistic religions. These are primarily tribal religions (but also encompassing Chinese folk religion and Shintoism) which we will define by their positing of various “spirits,” and a general lack of distinction between the spiritual world and the material world.

These three categories will encompass the religious beliefs of about 80% of people. The first two categories will encompass the religious beliefs of about 75% of people.

We could also potentially add Chinese religion to this list, which is a mixture of Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, and Chinese folk religion. I choose to exclude it because of its overlap with both Eastern religions (with Buddhism) and animistic religions (with Chinese folk religion).

The following table compares Eastern and Abrahamic religions.

Abrahamic Eastern
Christianity Islam Hinduism Buddhism
God Allah Ishvara
Soul Atman
Heaven Jannah Higher Lokas Higher Realms
Hell Jahannam Lower Lokas Narakas
Angels Angels Devas Devas
Demons Demons Asuras Asuras
Satan Shaitan
Salvation Salvation
Moksha Nirvana
Sin Sin Karma Karma
Grace Samadhi Jhana
Prophets Prophets Gurus Bodhisattvas

Some concepts which appear consistently through all of these religions are those of heaven, hell, angels, demons, sin/karma, guru/prophets, and liberation/salvation. Furthermore we may add grace/enlightenment, for although Islam does not have a handy term for this concept, it is certainly a notion familiar to Sufism.

The general message we obtain, if we take these religions as telling us the truth, is along these lines:

1. There is a vast spiritual world beyond our physical world, some parts characterized by great joy and bliss, and other parts characterized by great suffering.

2. This world is peopled by spiritual entities, some more evolved/intelligent/powerful than us. Some of these entities are good and some are evil.

3. We will live after death, and whether the place of our future living is characterized by joy/bliss or suffering will depend upon how we live in this life, including the sin/karma that we accumulate.

4. The occasional guru/prophet comes to save and enlighten the human race.

5. The ultimate goal of life is liberation/salvation, which is characterized by union with or closeness to God, or in atheistic systems by a freedom from suffering or karma/action.

If we wish to take animistic as well as Abrahamic/Eastern religions into account, then we may posit considerably less. Taking the intersection of these three categories of religion, we obtain roughly the following: “there are spiritual entities.”

Most of the religious propositions that we have examined depend upon the proposition that nonphysical, i.e. mental/spiritual, entities exist. Such entities include God, souls, angels, demons, heaven, and hell. To accept the existence of any of these entities is to reject materialism, and therefore to posit materialism is to reject most of the claims of religion. Our critical “hinge question” therefore becomes: do mental/spiritual entities exist?

It is clear at any rate that it seems to be impossible to prove propositions about mental/spiritual entities. All of our rigorously established knowledge is about physical entities and mathematical entities. Let us attempt to further explicate this difference.

Many propositions have been put forth by humans about physical, mathematical, and mental/spiritual entities. In every culture these entities are discussed and propositions are made about them. Some of the propositions that have been put forth by humans have been rigorously justified and backed up with various kinds of evidence. Some of these propositions have not.

The only propositions which have ever been rigorously justified are propositions about physical and mathematical entities. No proposition about a mental/spiritual entity has ever been rigorously justified. There is strong empirical evidence that the only propositions that can be rigorously justified are propositions about physical and mathematical entities.

Therefore, one of two things is the case.

Materialism. No proposition about mental/spiritual entities is true.

The Veil of Unknowing Hypothesis. Some propositions about mental/spiritual entities are true, but none of these propositions can be rigorously justified.

That these are the only two likely cases can be seen from the empirical fact that no proposition about a mental/spiritual entity has ever been rigorously justified.

The Veil Hypothesis is so named to suggest the metaphor of a veil covering up mental/spiritual entities so that we are not able to have adequate rational knowledge of them. One thing in particular that is true under the Veil Hypothesis is that mental/spiritual entities exist, but we cannot rigorously justify the proposition that they do exist.

Is it a priori plausible that there could be propositions that are true but not provable? An analogy from Gödel’s first incompleteness theorem will suggest to us that this is, at least, not a priori implausible.

Gödel’s first incompleteness theorem. There are mathematical facts that are true but not provable.

This result, here given in simplified form, is a mathematical fact that was established by Kurt Gödel in 1931. Let us consider a philosophical conclusion that might tentatively be drawn from it:

The Strong Incompleteness Hypothesis. There are facts about the world that are true but not provable.

Gödel’s incompleteness theorem does not strictly entail the Strong Incompleteness Hypothesis. The former is a mathematical theorem, and the latter is a philosophical conclusion which may follow intuitively from Gödel’s incompleteness theorem. The Strong Incompleteness Hypothesis is a priori plausible. Moreover, I suggest that the a priori plausibility of the Strong Incompleteness Hypothesis makes it easier to believe that the Veil Hypothesis is not a priori implausible.

As previously stated, either:

(a) materialism is true, or
(b) the Veil Hypothesis is true.

Either of these cases would be interesting. In the former case we are interested to know why it is that 90% of people hold these false religious beliefs. In the latter case we are interested to know more about mental/spiritual entities, and why our knowledge of them is limited in this way.

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