Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Modernist and Belief

Posted By Pamela Urfer

My father-in-law is an agnostic, a wishy-washy position, in my opinion. Even atheism is better than such vague confusion. “Make up your mind!” I say to him. “Is there a God or not?”  Yet he always demurs. “Really, there’s no way to know.”

His refusal to commit used to frustrate me, but now I see he’s simply being true to his beliefs – or lack thereof. If he is a naturalist, or a materialist - which he must be, as he’s certainly not a theist - he would naturally harbor a profound lack of confidence in the capacity of his mind to discover truth.

Naturalism is the idea that there is nothing ‘super’natural about the world, that all is ‘natural,’ that humans are just bodies, or some part of our bodies, such as our nervous systems or our brains. But by ‘brains’ we really mean our neurophysiology, certainly not our ‘mind,’ as mind again comes down to ‘beliefs’ (hopes, thoughts, dreams.)

Beliefs are, for naturalists, caused or determined by our neurophysiology, by electrical signals proceeding through the nerves from the sense organs to the brain. In response to these signals, certain muscles contract, thus causing movement and behavior. If we do harbor some impulse which we might think of as a ‘belief,’ we’re simply being deluded, as it’s more likely simply an adaptive behavior useful for ensuring the survival of our species.

Some might say that the healthy state of our species implies that we can trust the validity of those behaviors we call ‘beliefs,’ as they have proved useful to us in the past. But as philosopher Alvin Plantinga points out, “natural selection doesn’t care about the truth or falsehood of your beliefs; it cares only about adaptive behavior.” Your beliefs may all be false. As long as your behavior is adaptive, you will survive and reproduce.

He uses the example of a frog sitting on a lily pad. A fly passes by; the frog flicks out its tongue to capture it. Perhaps the neurophysiology that causes it to do so also controls the ‘beliefs’ the frog has about this action. He may believe “those little black things are good to eat.” Or, he may believe “if I catch the right one, I’ll turn into a prince.” As far as his tummy cares, it doesn’t matter if his beliefs are true or false.

 If naturalism is true, then the probability that our cognitive faculties are reliable is very low. Certainly it would be difficult to state that rationally. So my father-in-law has a point. There is no way of knowing.

As a naturalist, he must conclude that beliefs cannot be trusted nor have any connection with reality. There are many other things he cannot know: whether the mushrooms he is eating are poisonous, whether the Post Office has delivered his letters, whether his wife loves him. Thus skepticism becomes a way of life.

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