by Greg Mayer
There’s an interesting piece on the NY Times website entitled “Epistemology and the End of the World” by philosopher Gary Gutting of Notre Dame about the recent (failed) prediction of the end of the world by a radio preacher named Harold Camping. Camping was certain it would happen on May 21. Gutting begins by noting
No sensible person could have thought that he [Camping] knew this. Knowledge requires justification; that is, some rationally persuasive account of why we know what we claim to know. Camping’s confused efforts at Biblical interpretation provided no justification for his prediction. Even if, by some astonishing fluke, he had turned out to be right, he still would not have known the rapture was coming.
Although his prediction is now refuted, Camping has adjusted his claim, saying that an “invisible judgment day” did occur. This, as Gutting notes, tends to make his claim irrefutable– no evidence can count against it. Philosophers of science (and philosophy of science is largely a branch of epistemology), especially the late Karl Popper, have long insisted that the hallmark of a scientific claim is that there can, in principle, be evidence that would count against it. Popper used Freudian psychiatry as an example of claims that can be made irrefutable. If all men have homosexual tendencies, but you then find one without such tendencies, it means that that man’s tendencies have been so deeply repressed that they are undetectable. Repression saves the general claim, but it also means you can’t have evidence against the general claim. And if you can’t have evidence against it, then you can’t have evidence for it– the claim is untestable. Another example is in the work of Immanuel Velikovsky. He explained the lack of historical records concerning the historical catastrophes he postulated by invoking a “collective amnesia” by which the events were forgotten or repressed (Velikovsky admired Freud). Such dodges and hedges (“dedges”) against refutation tend to disconnect a claim from any possible observational basis for the claim, and are characteristic of pseudoscience.
Gutting is most interested, however, not in Camping and those Christians who agreed with him, but in examining the views of Christians who thought Camping was wrong about the date. He notes that a subjective feeling of certainty provides no basis for knowledge, and that this is what characterizes Camping’s Christian opponents, as well as his followers. Camping’s opponents cite a Biblical passage saying the date of the end of the world is unknowable, but Gutting points out that this makes his opponents’ claim irrefutable, too. (Camping’s original claim, before he said the effects were invisible, at least had the merit of being an empirical, refutable claim.) Their subjective certainty is no more evidence for their claim than Camping’s was for his.
The case against Camping was this: His subjective certainty about the rapture required objectively good reasons to expect its occurrence; he provided no such reasons, so his claim was not worthy of belief. Christians who believe in a temporally unspecified rapture agree with this argument. But the same argument undermines their own belief in the rapture. It’s not just that “no one knows the day and hour” of the rapture. No one knows that it is going to happen at all.