Atheists Can’t Trust Reason — Or Anything

Plantinga

I saw on Twitter another version of the old you-can’t-trust-reason-without-God argument, under the title “On the futility of attempting rational discourse with atheists.” It went like this.

1. Anyone who accepts atheism accepts naturalism.
2. On naturalism, the reliability of human reason is astronomically improbable.
3. Therefore, anyone who accepts naturalism has a defeator for any conclusion whatever reached on the basis of reasoning, including the conclusions of naturalism and atheism.
4. Therefore, atheism can never be accepted by anyone on a rational basis, since every atheist eo ipso has a rational defeator for his own acceptance of atheism.
5. Therefore, all atheists accept atheism on wholly non-rational grounds.
6. Therefore, every atheists just as such places himself outside the sphere of rational discourse.
7. Therefore, it is pointless to attempt to engage an atheist qua atheist within the sphere of rational discourse.

I thought this smelled familiar (e.g. “defeator”), and indeed the person who posted the argument points us later to Alvin Plantinga’s Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (highly recommended, incidentally) in which this appears.

Before tackling premise #2 (#1 is obviously true), but assuming it’s force, what is amusing are the atheists’ response to the posting. One fellow wrote, “Both empiricism and rationalism have brought us this far, and have served us well. To deny this fact is just a delusional claim.” Another said, “While that’s fortunate for theists, we can test our faulty reasoning against reality. Unfortunately, under theism we can’t trust reality.”

Premise #2 asserts the fallibility, untrustworthiness, and groundlessness of human reasoning under the assumption of naturalism, therefore to answer, as these atheists implicitly do, that “I love muh rationality and muh naturalism” is no better than saying “Is not!” to the argument’s “Is so!”

As we all know by now, all probability is conditional, and premise #2 speaks of probability. What are the conditions the argument has in mind that makes the reliability of human reason “astronomically improbable”?

Naturalism is, of course, the philosophy that supernaturalism is false; a theorem of naturalism is that all that exists is matter and energy and various forces between them, i.e. the material world. That’s one condition, and a restatement of premise #1.

We’re here and arguing and thus using some form of intellectual apparatus, so, accepting naturalism, we had to get here somehow and develop this apparatus. Call that somehow evolution, or whatever you like, as long as you don’t appeal to God and immaterial intellects and so on.

Now what guarantee is there that the mechanism that brought us to this point aligns our intellectual facilities with the truth?

None whatsoever. It is common to declare that evolution, operating in whatever mechanism you have in mind, caused our brains to produce ideas and convictions aligned with that which enhances our procreative abilities. Yet there no proof these ideas and convictions must be what is true. You can argue that they must be, but then you are arguing in circles, assuming what you wish to prove. Because it is logically possible that evolution caused us to believe what is false (at some times or even most times) or to reason badly. All we can say for sure is that we’re here. There is no proof on any conjecture beyond that.

After all, dear atheist, it is true, is it not?, that the vast, vast majority of those who have ever lived have accepted supernaturalism and have managed to reproduce just fine. Yes? Given the relative performance of baby making, the religious have been and are still superior — on average, of course. Thus, rationality, if it be true, appears deleterious, especially when rationality causes some kind of socialism (this is only a mild joke).

You may say you have designed an experiment to test whether our intellects are aligned with the truth, but this experiment, however it is constructed, must assume what it seeks to prove. At the least, we have to assume our intellects can map from experiments to truth, and there is no proof of that. It is only an assumption. It could be — it is logically possible — we have a built-in observational bias which causes us to misinterpret from only a few things to everything we see.

Of course, all of this is absurd; our intellects work just fine. Mathematics is in no danger, neither is philosophical argumentation like this. But that is because there is an Ultimate Grounding and reason for us to trust our rationality.

23 Comments

  1. ‘You can argue that they must be, but then you are arguing in circles, assuming what you wish to prove.’

    Pointing any flaws in evolution, and especially circular reasoning, will get you called names, derided for being unscientific, declared a believer in superstition, but it will NEVER ever get you a rational rebuttal. The same is true of atheism. For people who supposedly love and cherish truth and rational thought, they are annoyingly devoid of it when that which they cling to as their “gods” is challenged.

  2. This old chestnut is one which John Lennox quotes all the time.
    The idea that matter asked why it is here and what it’s all about is a thought I presume many children have since I had the thought myself.
    What happens in the debate is that when people grow up to become academics and philosophers in particular, they invent more complex ways of saying the same thing.
    Just like children in the playground just invent more complex ways to hide their behaviour in adulthood. It’s all about the illusion.

    It costs nothing to be polite and act like a gentleman. Yet it is a price too high for some. If the subject matter warrants it one would expect the theist to be held to a higher level of accountability. Yet this is not the case so often.
    Proving that a belief in God on whatever basis doesn’t make you a better person.
    It’s time Theists stopped pretending this were the case in their attitudes.
    It’s not helping your case one bit.

    It is an interesting question to ask an atheist about mind and where they think it came from.
    It’s interesting to see how Briggs is developing into a Deist believer. Preferably one who is distant unreachable. It’s a convenient position for the intellectual to take too.
    No point believing all that Jesus business, I might have to be nice to people outside of the gang.

  3. Lots of “therefores” – here’s two more:

    Therefore my disbelief in an all powerful fairy (with all its meanings included!) in the bottom of my garden is irrational.

    Therefore I should believe in the All Powerful Fairy.

  4. Write statement 2) as “there are human reasonings that are true.”

    If this statement is false, you don’t even need some probabilistic argument, and if this statement is true, then you know that there is at least one human reasoning that is true. Compared to the number of possible human reasonings that is a very small number indeed.

    On the other hand, there is no upper limit to the amount of false human reasonings, as humans can make false reasonings deliberately, and that makes a probabilistic argument pointless.

    Also, there is no reason why in a supernatural world there would be an upper limit to deliberately false human reasoning, let alone false human reasonings because humans are just plain stupid, for instance.

    Clearly then, the probabilistic argument is not able to distinghuish between natural and supernatural worlds based on the ratio of true and false human reasonings.

  5. @ Sheri:

    “Pointing any flaws in evolution, and especially circular reasoning, will get you called names, derided for being unscientific, declared a believer in superstition, but it will NEVER ever get you a rational rebuttal.”

    Read a book.

  6. Regarding the possibility of human reason in natural and supernatural worlds, one needs a reasonable and testable theory in a natural world, and apparently theology in a supernatural one.

    The theology is already there, so the supernaturals are fulfilling their requirements. Now for the naturals.

    First, clearly the naturals think it is possible that human reason exists, otherwise they would not need a theory (a part of human reasoning) to explain it. It is also clear that not all naturals believe such a thing, but we can safely file that under human stupidity (which also exists).

    Human reason can be split in two parts: creating logical sentences and checking them.

    Checking them is logically easy, as it is a formalistic process. Computers can check whether logical statements are true or not. And with computers being completely natural, is is clear that the checking part can be done in a natural worlds. It is also a fact that there are a lot of humans who are not able to check even the simplest of logical statements.

    Creating logical sentences is hard. It is in fact so hard that there are very few humans capable of creating complicated ones that are logically consistent, and capable of describing a large and interesting part of the human experience.

    So, naturalists need a theory that explains how humans come up with large sets of logical sentences that are capable of describing a large and interesting part of the human experience.

  7. @FRANZ DULLAART

    Actually, yes: you should believe in the All-Powerful Fairy, by whatever name. Though, why you would snarkily intimate that It lives in your garden, I imagine, says everything we need to know about you. Feign as though thou wert a nuciferous chap, and leave the girlish glee in bitchy quips behind; viriliter age!

  8. Franz pay him? no heed. Hewho thinks that rationale, history, logic and Catholic doctrine teaches that it is laudable to set people on fire and send them off their mortal coil.
    Your remark is harmless…

  9. RE: “On naturalism, the reliability of human reason is astronomically improbable”

    Isn’t that an example of the “pot calling the kettle black”! Rejecting “On naturalism” (i.e. science), the balance of the statement about the fallibility of human reason remains equally valid to everyone.

    #3 is grossly flawed — that “anyone who accepts naturalism [e.g. science] has a defeator for any conclusion whatever” — in other words naturalism provides a basis for rejecting anything/everything. How does naturalism’s opposite (call it ‘non-naturalism’ — the acceptance of the spiritual) fare?

    Consider these very prominent viewpoints pervading society (in the U.S. in particular), both founded first & foremost on the Christian Bible — non-naturalistic perspectives that claim the very same starting point and very same foundational documentation:

    http://www.answersingenesis.org – Where, per the Bible, Earth is 6,000 (or 10,000) years old, geological stratification is all due to one flood, and so on & so forth – where science is routinely attacked for consistently reaching unsupportable conclusions relative to divine revelation from the ‘spirit guide.’

    http://www.reasons.org/ – Reasons to Believe (RBT): “Where science and faith converge” says the website, which also says: “RTB’s mission is to spread the Christian Gospel by demonstrating that sound reason and scientific research—including the very latest discoveries—consistently support, rather than erode, confidence in the truth of the Bible and faith in the personal, transcendent God revealed in both Scripture and nature.” Per RBT the same spiritual guide has revealed a multi-billion year old Earth, universe, etc., etc.

    Notice the diametrically opposed conclusions there? How about the conflicting initiatives on society (e.g. on school textbook selection…)?

    Not to mention personal freedom — think about what a theologically-based government would be like, even one based on “Christian” values, whatever they are (Answers in Genesis vs RTB … or how about Jehovah’s Witness–their prohibition on blood transfusions would make a lot of long-term medical insurance costs drop & thereby do wonders for the economy).

    Obviously the non-naturalistic approach, with its radically conflicting conclusions about what constitutes not only truth & values but reality itself, not to mention the severe impositions on personal freedom [if given the chance] is “better” than naturalism (“scientific”) approach. Science does self-correct; the non-naturalistic viewpoint can be doggedly stubborn about adjusting to new information, so it has that kind of consistency going for it.

  10. Bayesian probability is a quantification of a personal belief. Similiar to the expert opinion of the IPCC, and we all know the validity of that.

    Plantinga believes in God, because he is a protestant, hence his high probability. Atheists don’t believe in God, hence their low probability.

    So in the end Bayesian probability is just a belief amplifier.

  11. Franz,

    The argument in this post is saying that the premises that are adopted by atheists do not give rational grounds for assuming that mankind can reason to true statements. A corollary is that if we accept atheism, we cannot be assured that any of our beliefs are true. This means that if any atheist says “I believe this is true” or I “disbelieve that this is true”, they are contradicting their premises, and thus such a statement is irrational. Note that, if the argument holds, believing in the all powerful fairy just as irrational for the atheist as disbelieving in it.

    Whether you *should* believe in the all powerful fairy depends on whether there is an all powerful fairy at the bottom of your garden. That your grounds for disbelieving in it are irrational does not mean that every ground for disbelieving in it is irrational. If you adopt set of philosophical premises which are consistent with human reasoning reaching true statements, it may be that one consequence of those premises is that there is no fairy. The person who adopted those premises would be perfectly rational if he says that it is true that there is no fairy, since his conclusion does not conflict with his premises. Just he can’t (if the argument is right) rationally accept atheism, since the premises that allow him to deny the fairy will contradict the conclusion of atheism.

  12. why you would snarkily intimate that It lives in your garden, I imagine, says everything we need to know about you.

    Or perhaps, about his gardening skills.

  13. Hans,

    “Bayesian probability is a quantification of a personal belief.”

    No no no no no no no. I thought I taught you guys better than that. I have proved (in Uncertainty most deeply) but on these pages frequently that probability is not subjective and that Bayes is just a formula and isn’t even needed to understand probability.

    Have I been that lax?

  14. Briggs said, “Naturalism is, of course, the philosophy that Supernaturalism is false; a theorem of naturalism is that all that exists is matter and energy and various forces between them, i.e. the material world. That’s one condition, and a restatement of premise #1.”

    No. Naturalism says that if “supernaturalism” exists, then it is what it is, i.e. it has Identity: A is A. Supernaturalism cannot be both what it is and what it is not.

  15. I do not think that #1 is true… You can be an atheist without being a materialist (which is along the lines of how you are defining naturalism). Certain forms of Buddhism are atheistic, but they are not materialistic. And you also have people like Nagel, a philosopher who is an atheist but not a materialist.

    At best, at least, it shows that materialism contradicts the efficacy of human reason (which I agree with).

  16. Briggs said, “After all, dear atheist, it is true, is it not?, that the vast, vast majority of those who have ever lived have accepted supernaturalism and have managed to reproduce just fine. Yes?”

    Thomas nowhere makes an appeal to “supernaturalism”. Supernaturalism is a null-concept. All of his arguments for the existences for God are “naturalistic”. At most, he says that the ways of God and His reasoning cannot be understood by the finite nature of Man’s reasoning. But this does not posit the existence of a “supernatural” God. God is what he is and does what he does naturally.

  17. Cats minds have evolved to be able to detect the truth about mice.

    Mouse minds have evolved to detect the truth about crumbs.

    Why wouldn’t human minds have evolved to detect the truth about cause and effect?

  18. Re: Hertzlinger

    How do you know that cat minds have evolved to be able to detect the truth about mice? All we know for sure is that cat minds seem, in general, to be well-designed for catching mice, which isn’t the same thing at all. Further, since under naturalism we have no reason to believe our perceptions of cats or mice correspond to reality, even that isn’t actually certain if naturalism is true.

    You are assuming the very thing in question.

  19. Re: Hrodgar

    I am criticizing the claim that naturalism is inconsistent, not that it is sometimes circular. A natural process can cause a correct belief.

    OTOH, there’s the little problem of how to define “natural process”…

  20. The basic problem with an atheist arguing is that they start with the conclusion and defy the opponent to disprove their position. This, of course, violates both Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas definition of logic and is little more than a deflection from the question of fact. Note: It would be best for religionists to drop the evolution arguments from their baggage. How the Almighty got humanity to where it is now has only marginal theological significance. Disputes in this area never come to conclusion and serve little useful purpose.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *