Hocus, Focus

A friend shared this article through Facebook that I thought was kind of interesting.  The author is the well-known magician Penn Jillette, of Penn & Teller fame.  I’ve been a half-hearted fan of these guys for at least 20 years or more since they were showing up on David Letterman’s show.  Quirky in a lot of ways, and some of those quirks can be confusing or misleading to others, which is why I wanted to examine this article.  

Penn’s basic argument in this article is that when confronted with something we can’t know, our only intellectually honest response must be to state as much, and any attempt at another answer is disingenuous at best, and dishonest at worst.  I’m willing to grant him that conclusion, but I disagree with the premises that he sets out to defend his answer of I don’t know.  
The article is complicated somewhat by Penn’s desire to tie together his political ideology (libertarianism) with his theological position (atheism).  These are not necessarily complementary or necessary partners, but he wants to make them such in this article.  Perhaps that is based on the interview that he references in the article.  
It’s really half-way through the essay that he gets to the heart of the matter – the first half of the essay is set up to make us more accepting of the conclusion he wants to lead us towards.  But he doesn’t pull any punches when he gets to the crux of the matter.  Piers Morgan asks Penn how he got here, and Penn responds “I don’t know”, which Morgan takes issue with, as Penn recounts:
He said, “God”, an answer that meant Piers didn’t know either, but he had a word for it that was supposed to make me feel left out of his enlightened club.
Penn is putting in to play a whole raft of assertions in this first key statement.  He’s already prepared us for the idea that admitting that one doesn’t know the answer to a question is not a cop out, but can be an accurate assessment of one’s level of knowledge or understanding pertaining to the question’s answer.  Fair enough.  But what he begins doing here is implying that not only is his particular answer correct for him (which is debatable, but let’s grant it for now) when explaining his own existence, it is the only correct answer for anyone.  Anyone who purports to know the answer to the question is disqualified.  Penn is backing up his answer by implying that his answer must remain the only correct answer because no better answer can be given.
Three paragraphs later he states this assertion outright.  He can’t know, and neither can anyone else.  Except then he disqualifies this assertion by saying that we can know some things.  We have some “pieces of the puzzle”, and he asserts that we’ll get more.  In other words, we know some things that point us in the direction of an answer.  Until that answer is fully fleshed out and proven, though, until all the pieces are in place, he’s going to remain intellectually honest by claiming he doesn’t know.  But if he really thought that he didn’t know, and that knowing wasn’t possible, then he couldn’t rule out the theological response that Morgan gives.  He would have to accept it as every bit as possible as any other answer.
Penn doesn’t want to do this.  Pieces of a puzzle make a picture.  Just because you don’t have all the pieces doesn’t mean you have no idea what the picture is going to look like.  If you have red pieces, you know that the puzzle is going to have some red in it.  You can’t say that the finished puzzle will have absolutely no red in it.  Some knowledge is possible, and Penn is asserting that his understanding of the puzzle pieces eliminates Morgan’s assertions about what the finished puzzle could look like.  Penn does know – at least just enough to rule out Morgan’s knowledge.  
Penn goes on to talk about “evidence” but he doesn’t define what he means.  Given his tone, I’m going to infer that what he means is scientific, empirical evidence.  What the microscope can tell us counts as proof, but what we experience every day doesn’t count as proof, unless the microscope explains what we experience.  As I’ve argued before, this is an extremely narrow understanding of evidence and proof, but it’s a common one voiced by atheists.  
He continues to discredit his own inability to know.  He offers concrete examples of things he does to help the less fortunate, but then argues that not he nor anyone else really knows what should be done.  Then why is he doing something rather than nothing?  I imagine he’s doing something because he believes that to some degree, what he is doing is actually helping the poor.  It may not be eliminating poverty as a global challenge, but it makes a difference in some specific way to at least some specific person’s life for some specific period of time.  He knows what to do and does it – which is very commendable!  He professes to not understand how economics must work, yet he talks about knowing poverty and knowing that at the end of the day, you can’t spend more than you make.  He knows what needs to be done – but he doesn’t know how to do it (which is a very fair and common response).  What that often translates to is I know what we have to do but I don’t like what that requires of me or my government and therefore I will choose to continue to feign ignorance.  Penn certainly isn’t alone in preferring to appear ignorant rather than face difficult choices and decisions.  At varying levels, this is how all of us approach certain aspects of our lives.
By the end of the article Penn is willing to further contradict his earlier assertions.  It turns out that he is willing to believe something that he can’t prove.  He’s willing to believe that the majority doesn’t always know what’s best for everyone.  He does have faith and the ability to believe in something that isn’t necessarily empirically provable, to fill in the gaps, as it were.  And that’s encouraging, because if he already exhibits that sort of faith, then the type of faith that accepts that God created everything – including Penn – isn’t an impossibility for Penn.  
And for that I’m glad and I’ll pray that he continues to seek and to search, and that he’ll find in the process the God who created us all, and who has been doggedly searching out Penn.  I pray for a man who’s stock in trade is smoke and mirrors an encounter with a God who is no mere sleight of hand.  

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