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Fri Jun 17 09:25:32 PDT 2011
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June 16, 2011, 9:07 pm Epistemology and the End of the World By GARY
The Stone <http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/category/the-stone/> is a
forum for contemporary philosophers on issues both timely and timeless.
Philosophers on the
the Rapture <http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/tag/the-rapture/>
*In the coming weeks, The Stone will feature occasional posts by Gary
Gutting, a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, that
apply critical thinking to information and events that have appeared in the
Apart from its entertainment value, Harold Camping’s ill-advised prediction
of the rapture last month attracted me as a philosopher for its
epistemological interest. Epistemology is the study of knowledge, its
nature, scope and limits. Camping claimed to know, with certainty and
precision, that on May 21, 2011, a series of huge earthquakes would
devastate the Earth and be followed by the taking up (rapture) of the saved
into heaven. No sensible person could have thought that he 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.
The recent failed prediction of the rapture has done nothing to shake the
certainty of believers.
Of particular epistemological interest was the rush of Christians who
believe that the rapture will occur but specify no date for it to dissociate
themselves from Camping. Quoting Jesus’s saying that “of that day and hour
no one knows,” they rightly saw their view as unrefuted by Camping’s failed
prediction. What they did not notice is that the reasons for rejecting
Camping’s prediction also call into question their claim that the rapture
will occur at some unspecified future time.
What was most disturbing about Camping was his claim to be *certain* that
the rapture would occur on May 21. Perhaps he had a subjective *feeling of
certainty* about his prediction, but he had no good reasons to think that
this feeling was reliable. Similarly, you may feel certain that you will
get the job, but this does not make it (objectively) certain that you will.
For that you need reasons that justify your feeling.
There are many Christians who are as subjectively certain as Camping about
the rapture, except that they do not specify a date. They have a feeling of
total confidence that the rapture will someday occur. But do they, unlike
Camping, have good reasons behind their feeling of certainty? Does the fact
that they leave the date of the rapture unspecified somehow give them the
good reason for their certainty that Camping lacked?
An entirely unspecified date has the advantage of making their prediction
immune to refutation. The fact that the rapture hasn’t occurred will never
prove that it won’t occur in the future. A sense that they will never be
refuted may well increase the subjective certainty of those who believe in
the rapture, but this does nothing to provide the good reasons needed for
objective certainty. Camping, after the fact, himself moved toward making
his prediction unrefutable, saying that May 21 had been an “invisible
judgment day,” <http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/24/us/24raptureweb.html> a
spiritual rather than a physical rapture. He kept to his prediction of a
final, physical end of the world on October 21, 2011, but no doubt this
prediction will also be open to reinterpretation.
Believers in the rapture will likely respond that talk of good reasons and
objective certainty assumes a context of empirical (scientific) truth, and
ignores the fact that their beliefs are based not on science but on faith.
They are certain in their belief that the rapture will occur, even though
they don’t know it in the scientific sense.
But Camping too would claim that his certainty that the rapture would occur
on May 21, 2011, was a matter of faith. He had no scientific justification
for his prediction, so what could have grounded his certainty if not his
faith? But the certainty of *his* faith, we all agree, was merely
subjective. Objective certainty about a future event requires good reasons.
Given their faith in the Bible, believers in the rapture do offer what they
see as good reasons for their view as opposed to Camping’s. They argue that
the Bible clearly predicts a temporally unspecified rapture, whereas
Camping’s specific date requires highly questionable numerological
reasoning. But many Christians—including many of the best Biblical
scholars—do not believe that the Bible predicts a historical rapture. Even
those who accept the traditional doctrine of a Second Coming of Christ,
preceding the end of the world, often reject the idea of a taking up of the
saved into heaven, followed by a period of dreadful tribulations on Earth
for those who are left behind. Among believers themselves, a historical
rapture is at best a highly controversial
not an objectively established certainty.
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.
Art Deco (Wayne A. Fox)
art.deco.studios at gmail.com
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