The Theism-Atheism Debate: Atheism and the Challenge of True Belief

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One of the arguments that critics present to an atheistic-naturalistic worldview concerns true belief given the processes of unguided natural selection.

According to this argument, natural selection cares first and foremost about survival, or the processes of fighting, fleeing, feeding, and fornicating. Whatever “true belief” is, is secondary. Natural selection selects primarily for traits that promote the organism’s survival, not whether or not the organism’s beliefs are necessarily true. The challenge then concerns how the atheist can go about grounding true beliefs on his naturalistic worldview because, like others, atheists also hold to various beliefs they consider to be true. Christian philosopher and theologian Randal Rauser uses the example of a backpacker walking through a park to illustrate this challenge to atheism,

“Over the last few hours you’ve been following a rough alpine hiking trail over an open rock face, guided by the intermittent rock piles that you believe were placed there by park rangers to keep you on the trail. As you arrive at the end of the trail, however, you come to believe those rock piles were not actually placed there by park rangers. On the contrary, you now believe they were placed there randomly by happenstance processes of wind and erosion. So now you ask yourself, “If the rocks were randomly placed, what is the likelihood that they’ve kept me on the true trail?” You turn back and look at the vast rock face you just traversed. While following those random piles of rocks may have gotten you across the face, you have little reason to believe they also kept you on the trail. After all, for all you know there are potentially millions of possible paths across the face. So the likelihood that you actually followed the true path is very low” (1)

This analogy of the backpacker illustrates the challenge atheism faces when it comes to grounding knowledge. Rauser continues,

“According to atheism, or cognitive faculties are analogous to those piles of rocks. In the same way that the rock piles were formed without any intention to mark the trail, so our cognitive faculties were formed without any intention to identify the truth. And just as there are potentially millions of ways to traverse the rock face apart form the correct one, so there are potentially millions of ways to navigate this world apart from having true beliefs about it. In the same way that our confidence that we have correctly followed the trail is lost once we come to believe the rock piles were formed apart from a super-intending truth-directed intelligence, so is our confidence that we correctly track the truth undermine once we believe something similar about our cognitive faculties. Consequently, we have no reason to accept that our cognitive faculties are generally directed toward truth rather than mere adaption. And this means we have no reason to believe we have true beliefs rather than merely adaptive ones” (2).

Atheist Counter Responses

How have atheists responded to this argument? One way is to assert that true beliefs are also adaptive because natural selection would select for the most effective truth-producing faculties. However, as Rauser contends, there is little reason to suppose that this is the case given that natural selection can select for false beliefs because such beliefs would enhance an organism’s survival. By analogy, imagine a hunter-gatherer walking in the wilderness and comes across a shrub with poisonous berries. Any belief that keeps the hunter-gatherer from eating those berries can be considered an adaptive belief. But there can be many false beliefs regarding these berries that are adaptive, for example, that the berry on the bush “is the reincarnation of my father”, or “it will give me bad luck”, or “the bush is sacred”, and so on. Each of these false beliefs produce adaptive behaviour because they help the person avoid eating the berries, but only one of them is true. So why, asks the critic, should we suppose that our cognitive faculties produce beliefs that are adaptive and true?

Some atheists have gone to extremes in response to this dilemma. Richard Rorty, for example, hurled out the conventional definition of truth as correspondence to reality (which posits that a belief or statement is either true or false in how it corresponds to reality) and to redefine truth on pragmatic grounds. To refer again to the backpacker analogy, on pragmatism true belief does not keep the hiker on the correct path, rather it is the belief that gets one across the rock face. What is true is thus not what belief I have that corresponds to the world as it is, but what is merely useful to human beings in the present. Rorty’s redefinition of truth away from the commonsensical correspondence theory illustrates the challenge that the atheistic worldview faces, which leads Rauser to ask: “If a person must choose between truth and atheism, why would anyone choose the latter?” (3)

Some atheists like John Loftus retort that even in animals we can find “morality, consciousness, tool-making, learning, problem-solving, community, and communication” (4). Why should it be any different for human beings? In matters of logic, Loftus maintains that human beings do not need God to trust the laws of logic. Loftus concedes that human brains aren’t perfectly reliable, but he maintains that they are very reliable. Although human reasoning has many flaws, it is reliable enough for telling the difference between better methods and worse ones (5). He points to mathematics and science, both of which he claims are part of human intelligent design and therefore prove the reliability of human brains. Our brains are reliable because they evolved the capacity to use symbolic language and to solve problems through hypothesis forming and testing. He writes, “since we’ve survived as a species, we know we have largely acquired true beliefs because we’re here!” (6)

But Rauser rejects Loftus’s explanation. Rauser maintains that Loftus proves his point when he says that “the brains of dogs, donkeys, and dolphins work to help them survive… If their brains had not evolved as they did, then they wouldn’t have survived.” Loftus then asks: “Why is it then different with human beings?” Rauser responds stating that it isn’t different and that’s the problem. “In John’s atheism,” retorts Rauser, “our brains evolved to help us survive, not to find truth” (7). He maintains that Loftus begs the question by assuming that adaptive beliefs will largely be true ones. But this misses the point because as illustrated in the analogy, there are many, if not countless, adaptive beliefs in addition to the one true belief, and we can’t merely presume, on atheism, that we have the true belief.

References

1. Rauser, Randal., and Loftus, John. 2013. God or Godless. Baker. p. 77-78

2. Rauser, Randal., and Loftus, John. 2013. Ibid. p. 78.

3. Rauser, Randal., and Loftus, John. 2013. Ibid. p. 79.

4. Rauser, Randal., and Loftus, John. 2013. Ibid. p. 79.

5. Rauser, Randal., and Loftus, John. 2013. Ibid. p. 80.

6. Rauser, Randal., and Loftus, John. 2013. Ibid. p. 82.

7. Rauser, Randal., and Loftus, John. 2013. Ibid. p. 81.

7 comments

  1. “Rorty’s redefinition of truth away from the commonsensical correspondence theory illustrates the challenge that the atheistic worldview faces, which leads Rauser to ask: “If a person must choose between truth and atheism, why would anyone choose the latter?”

    The question presupposes that truth and atheism are necessarily opposites that “a person must choose between;” a false dichotomy. Rauser first needs to show atheism is not true, not merely that a person holding to an atheistic world view are sometimes mistaken about what they believe to be true.

    Similarly (Rauser), “…we have no reason to accept that our cognitive faculties are generally directed toward truth rather than mere adaption. And this means we have no reason to believe we have true beliefs rather than merely adaptive ones.”

    Rauser’s subtle non-sequitur conflates cognitive faculties in the first sentence to cognitive beliefs in the second. It does not follow that “mere” adaptive cognitive faculties precludes a reliable determination of whether or not a belief is true.

    (James)”He maintains that Loftus begs the question by assuming that adaptive beliefs will largely be true ones. But this misses the point because as illustrated in the analogy, there are many, if not countless, adaptive beliefs in addition to the one true belief, and we can’t merely presume, on atheism, that we have the true belief.”

    It appears then that James also begs the question by assuming that his theistic beliefs will largely be true. And he also misses his own point since there are many, if not countless, theistic beliefs and, on theism, there is no verifiable “one true belief” at all. Following his own logic, he must concede then that “we can’t merely presume,” on theism, “that we have the true belief.”

  2. Ridiculous argument for theism. Like Randal never heard of pragmatism. We have brain-minds that see, remember, compare, and choose, and we remember how those choices turn out. It is an information gathering loop in constant feedback mode. And we share this information via oral communications, and written words featuring the experiences of others. Sure we can dream up weird hypotheses, religions do that all the time. But in the everyday world where decisions to cross a street, or build a sturdy bridge count, or go to the moon and return safely, or grow more abundant crops, or heal diseases, or make more friends compared with making enemies count, decisions in which we all recognize such things count, we are going to come up with practical attempts at solutions, including practical moral wisdom.

    • I don’t see this getting free from Rauser’s contention that natural selection can select for false beliefs that are adaptive. For example, I avoid eating the poisonous berry because I think the bush is a reincarnation of my ancestor. Why could this false belief not be in the constant feedback mode you speak of? Why not an adaptive false belief instead of a true belief?

      • Because we keep learning, asking questions, checking things out. It has taken humanity a very long time, and lots of trial and error, but we discovered human biology, plant chemistry, and how and why the two interact negatively in certain instances, and such explanations have proven themselves in countless ways that “bush reincarnation hypotheses” have not.

        The point is the dynamism of the incessant feedback system. Apparently you and Rauser are stuck viewing answers, life and thought in a far les dynamic fashion, as if, there, it’s done, no more to learn about, question, we have determined that every bush whose fruit makes me ill is a bushy reincarnation of an ancestor. But the human brain can hold multiple hypotheses and compare them as more data comes in.

        The chemical poison theory works not just for fruit on a particular bush. It is highly successful and agrees with much more that we have learned in other adjacent areas.

      • James,
        Just finished listening to a great discussion on this at Capturing Christianity. Worth checking out.

        The thing that I don’t recall hearing mentioned in that discussion, and seems to rarely be raised, is the fact that “belief formation” is a general purpose faculty. Sure, you could avoid eating the berry because you believe the bush is your ancestor, but this makes no sense as the type of belief that would arise from a general purpose faculty for helping us navigate the world. The “things are our ancestor” schema doesn’t translate very well to other scenarios, and is subject to further problems once the context changes and the ramifications of that belief matter (e.g., turns out the poisonous berry is an effective antiseptic). I really struggle to see why we should think that evolution wouldn’t favor a general purpose faculty for mostly reliable beliefs. These ad hoc variations of adaptive-yet-false beliefs are not looking at the big picture.

  3. The bias is in the argument itself. Consciousness is not some purely static philosophical noun-like thing that is stuck believing a berry bush equals = a reincarnated dead ancestor because that is the “best” that natural selection can come up, per Plantinga.

    ‪Philosophical arguments speak about “consciousness” like a substance, a noun, easily corraled in a single word, but it’s a verb, an activity, an ongoing process. There is no philosophical argument against evolutionary naturalism for Christian monists, and there are Christians who are philosophers, scientists and theologians who are monists. I have a blog post with links to them and their work.

  4. Rather than arguing over what’s ideally absolutely “true,” a learning machine functions on the basis of acknowledging what’s “wrong, wronger, wrongest” in a relativistic fashion. 

    See Eliezer Yudkowsky’s LESS WRONG page. He’s working on building artificially intelligent learning machiynes that learn from their mistakes to avoid what’s more wrong, because trying to program a machine to be an absolute truth finder does not work. 

    Isaac Asimov on The Relativity of Wrong: “When people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was perfectly spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.”

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