Epistemology and the End of the World
The Stone is a forum for contemporary philosophers on issues both timely and timeless.
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 news.
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,” 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 interpretation, 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.