Should We Change Belief-Systems? Part 2

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Assumptions and the Search for Truth

The X-Files was right: “The Truth is out there”.  But does that mean we can ever get it?  When people are seeking for the most accurate view of reality, a lot of the time they assume certain things as they search.  They adopt a method, but don’t realize that there are other ways to look for the truth.  In this post, I will argue that the method most people adopt for finding the truest worldview might presuppose that naturalism is false and that some kind of theism is true. I apologize in advance to readers who don’t like philosophical writing; I hope to do the rest of this series of posts in the more casual style that I did my first post in.  But the complexity of the subject matter required a more technical style.

A worldview is a system of related beliefs.  The content of these beliefs answers questions like “Why is there something rather than nothing?” “What can we know?” “What is good?” “What kinds of things exist?”.  I take naturalism to be the belief that nature is all that exists; it is a denial of the existence of a God or gods.  Theism on the other hand is the view that there is an all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing God who made the world.  I will examine how theism and naturalism fit with several assumptions that some of us make when we seek the truth: that we should be motivated to seek it; that virtue helps us seek truth; and that the truth we will find is good and likable.

Motivation and Truth-Seeking

One thing that a truth seeker assumes is that they should bother trying to seek for truth at all.  They are motivated to find the right view of the world.  For some people, there seems to be a hidden assumption that this motivation is reasonable.  What could make a motivation of this sort rational?  Now, there are some circumstances where motivation is misguided.  Think of a person who is paralyzed from the legs down, who is strongly motivated to run a marathon (note: when I say run, I mean RUN–not go through it in a wheelchair, which is a great thing, but not literally the same as running).  The motivation here is improper, because in all likelihood that person will never regain the use of his or her legs.

Now consider a hiker who finds overgrown thorn bushes that look like they form a labyrinth.  He is at the entrance, and wants to get to the exit, but doesn’t know whether or not it is possible.  He wonders whether or not the labyrinth-like foliage is man-made.  If it is not man-made, then this gives him some reason to think that there might not be an exit.  There might just be a bunch of dead-ends; in fact, it is fairly likely that there will be such dead-ends.  But if the bushes are indeed a labyrinth that is man-made, and the person who made it is both kind and a competent gardener, then this would provide reason to assume that there is an exit out the other side of the bushes.  If the hiker who finds the maze decides “I will seek an exit”, then it would be most consistent to assume “there is a gardener who made this maze”.  So a condition for being strongly-motivated to seek the exit is to assume that “there is a gardener who made this maze”.

If naturalism is true, then my efforts to find the right worldview may totally and ultimately fail because there may be metaphysical roadblocks to finding the truth.  By “metaphysical roadblocks” I mean any kind of object or state that would prevent me from knowing the ultimate truth about reality.  Think, for instance, of the human brain.  If naturalism is true, then perhaps the brain is constituted by Darwinian evolution in a way such that there is a boundary on the kinds of thoughts we can think.  Maybe subjects about which we can think accurately are limited to things like physical states, real or imagined, that a person has been exposed to or can conceive of.

The mere possibility that something like this could happen, without our being able to assign a probability to this hypothetical evolutionary scenario, means that on naturalism the probability of our being able to find the correct worldview is inscrutable.  This is an issue for commonsense truth-seekers because they generally assume that it is true that we can, in fact, find the correct worldview (even if not everyone makes it).  But the argument can be taken further.  It seems unlikely that, given naturalism, we would be equipped to think about important metaphysical, ethical, or epistemological issues.  If the primary “goal” of evolutionary processes is to encourage the survival of organisms, any power to seek for the ultimate truth about reality is accessory and could possibly even be disadvantageous to an organism, distracting it from survival-related activities (see here: www.calvin.edu/academic/philosophy/virtual_library/articles/plantinga_alvin/naturalism_defeated.pdf and here for more information on this kind of evolutionary argument about the inadequacy of naturalism to explain our cognitive powers).  Notice that the premise here is not “most likely, evolution would be unreliable in equipping us to think rationally about anything” but rather the weaker, much more plausible premise “most likely, evolution would be unreliable in equipping us to think about complicated metaphysical, ethical, and epistemological issues”.

Contrast this bleak view of our ability to know about the ultimate truths on naturalism with the theistic picture.  If theism is true, God exists and is good; if He creates rational beings, He would likely equip us to learn about ultimate issues such as reality, goodness, and knowledge.  In that case, my efforts can’t totally and ultimately fail, because so long as I try to honestly seek the truth, God will eventually bring me to the right worldview.  So pursuing the true worldview makes more sense given theism, because it is more probable that we would be equipped to do this if theism is true.  I should not be motivated to seek the truth if it is unlikely that I am capable of finding it; if I find it rational to be motivated to seek the truth, I should hold assumptions that are consistent with this motivation.

Virtue and Truth-Seeking

Another assumption that many truth-seekers make is that pursuing a virtuous lifestyle will help in the search for truth.  Being a good person helps you to find the truth.  If we lack certain character-traits such as humility, hope, wisdom, and fortitude, it would be difficult for us to accept the truth when we find it, or even build up the desire to seek honestly.

If naturalism is true, then pursuing a good life may prevent me from seeing which worldview is true.  This is because evolution might have structured us in a way where what’s good is for us to not seek the truth or know which worldview is true.  Doing so is unhealthy, perhaps, because it requires that our faculties go against what they were designed to be capable of.  It is more likely that evolutionary processes would not have resulted in beings where the good life for them consists of habits that help them acquire philosophical knowledge. What is “good” (whether we construe it as morally good or just pleasureable) given naturalism is surviving, and the abilities that help an organism to do this.  These abilities are the four f’s: feeding, fighting, fleeing, and reproducing.  If virtuous qualities are those that enable me to do these things better, and pursuing philosophical truth distracts me from these activities and takes away from my chances of surviving, then it is not virtuous to pursue philosophical truth if naturalism is correct.  Thus, it is probable that given naturalism, virtue will not help us to pursue philosophical truth.

But if theism is true, then pursuing a good life will help me to seek and eventually see the ultimate truth.  If God is good and powerful and creates us, He would surely give us meaningful lives–lives where our character is something we are praiseworthy for.  He would also want us to know who He is and who we are; so we would expect that we could know the ultimate truths about reality.  God would also probably structure us so that by coming into contact with truth we will become virtuous; and by becoming virtuous, we will be able to seek truth.  Because God would likely make us capable of seeking truth by acquiring virtue and visa versa, it makes more sense to assume that pursuing virtue will help us seek the truth about reality if God exists.

Goodness and Truth-Seeking

A lot of us have the intuition that the true worldview, whatever it is, will be satisfying and likable.  If naturalism is true, then the true worldview may be something that we would think intrinsically ugly, bad, not emotionally-satisfying, etc.  Or it may not be possible to accept it because my psychology is determined to not appreciate it even if it is actually likable. There is no reason to think that evolution would select for the survival of organisms who like the truth.  It might give us desires that will turn us away from seeking the ultimate truth–desires that would make the truth unlikable for us.  These possibilities are problematic in themselves; they show that at best, the probability is inscrutable that we will be satisfied with the truth when we find it, if naturalism is correct.

Now consider the possibility that truth-seeking would be a major distraction from the normal biological functions of organisms if they are products of natural selection.  As stated above, this seems plausible, given the (broad) evolutionary explanation for the origin of species.  If our desires to be satisfied with the ultimate truth about the world and like it would influence our belief-forming processes, then this seems to present us with an issue.  If survival comes easier if we don’t want the ultimate truth, then evolution should favor the survival of organisms that don’t tend to want the ultimate truth.  Organisms that don’t tend to want the ultimate truth will be influenced by their desire to not seek the truth as they form their beliefs.  But this means that they will tend to be unreliable in their belief-forming processes.  So naturalism will probably make us tend to not desire the ultimate truths; and consequently we will tend to be irrational in how we form our beliefs in these areas.

In the last chapter of his book Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe, Eric Wielenberg suggests this is actually the case.  Human beings are predisposed to not believe naturalism; it is extremely psychologically-difficult to believe that there are no supernatural beings. (Quote to be inserted later)

But if theism is true, then even if I don’t presently have the correct dispositions to accept the truth when I find it, God can help me get those correct dispositions.  I might not like the idea that God exists, or consider it to be a morally good fact right now.  But if God exists He can help me to like the ultimate truths.  The commonsense intuition many people have that “we will like the truth when we find it” therefore makes sense given theism.

Theism and Truth-Seeking

We make assumptions when we seek the truth.  Some of these assumptions are more consistent with one worldview than another.  Naturalism’s evolutionary view of the origin of human cognition makes it difficult to account for some of the important assumptions that many people make when they seek the truth.  Numerous people assume that they should be motivated to seek the truth; that becoming virtuous helps us to seek the truth; and that the ultimate truth is a good thing that we will find satisfying.  All of these features make sense given theism; God would structure us properly to seek the truth.  Consequently, if one holds to one or more of the three listed assumptions, then they should also believe that there is an all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing Creator of the universe.

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5 Responses to “Should We Change Belief-Systems? Part 2”

  1. Keith Brian Johnson Says:

    On Section 2: Motivation and Truth-Seeking

    The hiker who first decides to seek an exit and then assumes that a gardener made the maze is putting the cart before the horse. Assuming he has options available to him other than seeking an exit–after all, if he has no other option, then he hardly needs to make an assumption about the maze’s origins before acting–then, assuming for simplicity’s sake that a natural maze definitely would have no exit, he should first assess the likelihood of the maze’s being man-made and only pursue an exit if he judges that likelihood to be sufficiently high to justify doing so. (Of course, he might have lots of extra time on his hands and decide to seek an exit even though he doesn’t judge the likelihood of the maze’s being man-made to be very high. I assume we are not concerned with such cases, as in such cases no assumption about the maze’s origin other than the mere possibility of its being man-made is really relevant.)

    If he has insufficient information to even roughly assess the likelihood of the maze’s being man-made, then he should withhold judgment as to its origin. He might still explore the maze, so that finding an exit will verify that it is man-made and finding only dead-ends will, depending on the thoroughness of his search, serve as stronger or weaker evidence of the maze’s being natural in origin. His motivation, then, will be the search for the truth–not the antecedent assumption that the maze is man-made and that there is, therefore, an exit to be found.
    ———–
    I don’t see why it would seem “unlikely that, given naturalism, we would be equipped to think about important metaphysical, ethical, or epistemological issues.” Clearly, we do think about such issues. The important thing isn’t the *subject matter* of our thought; it is that we *think carefully*. And I don’t see why one wouldn’t expect better critical thinking skills to be selected for, rather than selected against, by evolution.
    ———–
    You write, “If theism is true, God exists and is good; if He creates rational beings, He would likely equip us to learn about ultimate issues such as reality, goodness, and knowledge. In that case, my efforts can’t totally and ultimately fail, because so long as I try to honestly seek the truth, God will eventually bring me to the right worldview.” I don’t notice quite the consistency in worldviews of honest seekers of truth that one might expect in this case. You’d think that all honest seekers of truth would, before dying, be led
    to the same worldview, if the above quote were right. If the above quote *were* right, then I would take it as evidence that the God so characterized does not really exist. (And if one replied that God only brought seekers of truth to the right worldview upon their deaths, then he would lose the justification for seeking truth during corporeal life that seems to be the point of the quote.)
    ———–
    You write, “I should not be motivated to seek the truth if it is unlikely that I am capable of finding it; if I find it rational to be motivated to seek the truth, I should hold assumptions that are consistent with this
    motivation.” (1) I’m not sure *unlikelihood* should be sufficient to deter one from seeking the truth. (2) I think you’re getting it backwards. The assumptions come first. If your assumptions are consistent with the rationality of truth-seeking (in some domain), then it makes sense to go ahead and seek the truth (in that domain); if your assumptions are inconsistent with the rationality of such truth-seeking, then it makes sense to cease attempting such truth-seeking. (For example, when I came to realize that meaning, in the sense of import, is always meaning *to* someone and that we choose or make our own meanings, so that a search for the Meaning of Life–of meaning intrinsic to the universe–was futile–I then ceased searching for such universal meaning.) One shouldn’t find himself motivated to seek truth of some kind and then justify his motivation by making an assumption consistent with it; rather, one should work out which assumptions are justified and then adjust his behavior, including his truth-seeking, accordingly.

  2. MG Says:

    Keith—

    Sorry this took so long. Every time I sat down to write this, I was interrupted, but here is my response:

    You wrote:

    “The hiker who first decides to seek an exit and then assumes that a gardener made the maze is putting the cart before the horse. Assuming he has options available to him other than seeking an exit–after all, if he has no other option, then he hardly needs to make an assumption about the maze’s origins before acting–then, assuming for simplicity’s sake that a natural maze definitely would have no exit, he should first assess the likelihood of the maze’s being man-made and only pursue an exit if he judges that likelihood to be sufficiently high to justify doing so. (Of course, he might have lots of extra time on his hands and decide to seek an exit even though he doesn’t judge the likelihood of the maze’s being man-made to be very high. I assume we are not concerned with such cases, as in such cases no assumption about the maze’s origin other than the mere possibility of its being man-made is really relevant.)

    If he has insufficient information to even roughly assess the likelihood of the maze’s being man-made, then he should withhold judgment as to its origin. He might still explore the maze, so that finding an exit will verify that it is man-made and finding only dead-ends will, depending on the thoroughness of his search, serve as stronger or weaker evidence of the maze’s being natural in origin. His motivation, then, will be the search for the truth–not the antecedent assumption that the maze is man-made and that there is, therefore, an exit to be found.”

    I agree that we should try and figure out how reality actually is and act accordingly. And the analogy breaks down for the various reasons you have pointed out (which are, by the way, clever extensions of the analogy to make your point).

    However, what I am trying to do is construct a transcendental argument. Like Kant, I think there are some things that we tend to believe but (perhaps) can’t justify belief in apart from begging the question and accepting certain assumptions; and these beliefs make our experiences intelligible, because they are the necessary conditions for the beliefs to be true. Although we cannot give deductive (or even inductive) arguments for these ideas, we nonetheless act according to these things as assumptions that make our experience intelligible. Consequently, we should at least act as though these things are true, and whatever they imply is true.

    It seems that one of the things that we assume in our experience of the world, that makes it intelligible, is that we can reason reliably about metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics—that we have reliable intuitions and methods when it comes to philosophical topics. We at least act as though this is true as we evaluate philosophical arguments; if we are consistent between our actions and beliefs, we will also believe that we are reliable in philosophizing. But if we accept (whether by actual belief, or by action) this as an assumption to make our experiences intelligible, and if naturalism makes it improbable that this would be true, then accepting the assumption that we can philosophize reliably should be accompanied by assuming that naturalism is probably false.

    You wrote:

    “I don’t see why it would seem “unlikely that, given naturalism, we would be equipped to think about important metaphysical, ethical, or epistemological issues.” Clearly, we do think about such issues. The important thing isn’t the *subject matter* of our thought; it is that we *think carefully*. And I don’t see why one wouldn’t expect better critical thinking skills to be selected for, rather than selected against, by evolution.”

    I think that given the Darwinian explanation for the origin of characteristics, we should be suspicious of the possibility of our reliable intuitions about (much less knowledge of answers to) metaphysical questions. The reason is that this seems to have no real adaptive advantage to it over other possible ways we could have been conditioned to think and act that don’t involve being reliable about metaphysics. It seems false to me, for instance, to say that thinking about the ontology of physical objects would be adaptively advantageous for an organism. “Thoughts about the ontology of physical objects” or “the capacities that make thought about the ontology of physical objects possible” do not seem like they would causally contribute to the survival of human beings. Consequently there doesn’t seem to be reason to think our survival would be positively affected

    Also, I am wondering how your statement above relates to the statement you made in a previous post, which seems to include both subject matter (metaphysics) and method (careful thinking that you refer to above):

    “I haven’t finished reading or evaluating the Plantinga article yet. But your point that the adaptivity of our belief-forming mechanisms for *empirical* beliefs might not carry over to our belief-forming mechanisms for *other* beliefs–say, metaphysical ones–is a good one. (I wouldn’t put ethics in the same boat, as good ethical reasoning, like good empirical reasoning, might very well be adaptive.) I tend to be very wary of metaphysical reasoning for precisely that reason–it isn’t testable, so we can’t tell if we’re getting it right. I know how easy it is for scientists to come up with plausible-seeming but, upon further testing, false theories; when a metaphysical theory seems plausible but is untestable, we should take it with a few very large grains of salt, I think.”

    Are you saying that reliable reasoning methods would not be conducive to clarity about metaphysics?

    You wrote:

    “I don’t notice quite the consistency in worldviews of honest seekers of truth that one might expect in this case. You’d think that all honest seekers of truth would, before dying, be led to the same worldview, if the above quote were right. If the above quote *were* right, then I would take it as evidence that the God so characterized does not really exist. (And if one replied that God only brought seekers of truth to the right worldview upon their deaths, then he would lose the justification for seeking truth during corporeal life that seems to be the point of the quote.)”

    This seems to assume that God would determine us to believe the right worldview. But if God constituted humans to have libertarian agency because he thought something good could be accomplished by certain free choices (leaving open the question of what that good is), he would provide them with the possibility of choosing correct belief—but that doesn’t necessarily imply that when given the opportunity, we will choose the correct belief. So unless we think no one would freely choose to do anything other than what God wanted, when given the opportunity, we should not expect the kind of convergence you are talking about.

    You wrote:

    “(1) I’m not sure *unlikelihood* should be sufficient to deter one from seeking the truth. (2) I think you’re getting it backwards. The assumptions come first. If your assumptions are consistent with the rationality of truth-seeking (in some domain), then it makes sense to go ahead and seek the truth (in that domain); if your assumptions are inconsistent with the rationality of such truth-seeking, then it makes sense to cease attempting such truth-seeking. (For example, when I came to realize that meaning, in the sense of import, is always meaning *to* someone and that we choose or make our own meanings, so that a search for the Meaning of Life–of meaning intrinsic to the universe–was futile–I then ceased searching for such universal meaning.) One shouldn’t find himself motivated to seek truth of some kind and then justify his motivation by making an assumption consistent with it; rather, one should work out which assumptions are justified and then adjust his behavior, including his truth-seeking, accordingly.”

    (1) Fair enough. I guess I didn’t think very carefully when I wrote that sentence.

    (2) This goes back to Kant and the transcendental arguments. There seem to be assumptions that many people hold—one of which is that they are reliable in their search for deep philosophical truth—which, if my arguments are correct, would make it unlikely that naturalism is true if those assumptions are true. They can’t necessarily justify these assumptions using a deductive method from self-evident premises (though I don’t necessarily think this implies they aren’t items of knowledge, because I don’t hold to a methodist way of delineating the contents of our knowledge). For instance, we act as though there is an external world; but arguments for the existence of an external physical world are hard to come by. Whether assuming the external world exists is rational or not, many people will continue to live this way. What I’m really trying to push for is *consistency*. Even if these attitudes are actually unjustifiable rationally, we should at least try to believe things that are consistent with the (possibly) unjustifiable beliefs that we live according to.

  3. Keith Brian Johnson Says:

    So, you’re trying to examine the assumptions needed in order to think rationally at all, or to make sense of the world at all; and your claim is that one such assumption—or, at least, one that seems likely to be needed—is that of non-naturalism? Or are you examining not those assumptions, but rather the assumptions needed *in order for metaphysical thought to be reliable*? (It seems the latter, but I’m asking in order to be clear about your project.)

    I find such sentences as the two below illuminating:

    “I think that given the Darwinian explanation for the origin of characteristics, we should be suspicious of the possibility of our reliable intuitions about (much less knowledge of answers to) metaphysical questions.”

    ” ‘Thoughts about the ontology of physical objects’ or ‘the capacities that make thought about the ontology of physical objects possible’ do not seem like they would causally contribute to the survival of human beings.”

    I think that we indeed should be suspicious of our metaphysical intuitions and of the answers to metaphysical questions that we come up with. If scientists’ theories are often provably mistaken despite seeming plausible, we should suspect the same about metaphysicians’ theories. I take this to be a matter of human fallibility rather than of any special failure of thought in metaphysics; the nontestability of metaphysical theories, however, does mean that false metaphysical theories will proliferate instead of being winnowed by experimental observation.

    Your phrase “thought about the ontology of physical objects” struck a chord. We would, naturally, evolve accurate (some would say “useful”) intuitions about the behavior of physical objects in the world surrounding us and on our scale—about those physical objects relevant to our survival. We might not be expected to evolve accurate intuitions about the behavior of physical objects traveling at high velocity relative to us, and indeed, our intuitions fail us in that realm. We might not be expected to evolve accurate intuitions about the behavior of the very large or of the very small, and indeed, our intuitions fail us in those realms. And we might not be expected to evolve accurate intuitions about esoteric philosophical matters—and, in fact, there is a lot of philosophical speculation that I simply do not trust. One large source of error, I think, is our tendency, when using in philosophical speculation the object-oriented language which we have evolved to deal with physical objects, not only to “nounify” but to think of nouns as designating existing objects of some sort. (As you might suppose, I have a very limited ontology.) For me, an awfully large chunk of philosophizing consists of clarifying language use and of criticizing philosophical mistakes. This is a matter of thinking carefully, which I would expect to be evolutionarily favored.

    Perhaps what I need to do, to properly understand your argument, is to put myself in the position of someone who trusts metaphysical speculation a lot more than I do! But, for the moment, I have to leave to do something other than philosophy—my nephew wants to toss around a baseball. See you later!

    • allzermalmer Says:

      “I think that we indeed should be suspicious of our metaphysical intuitions and of the answers to metaphysical questions that we come up with. If scientists’ theories are often provably mistaken despite seeming plausible, we should suspect the same about metaphysicians’ theories. I take this to be a matter of human fallibility rather than of any special failure of thought in metaphysics; the nontestability of metaphysical theories, however, does mean that false metaphysical theories will proliferate instead of being winnowed by experimental observation.”

      If we accept what you think about “thinking carefully is expected to be evolutionarily favored and your argument against metaphysics, then you would not have much of a good reason to believe in scientific theories as well. And this is for the same reason as metaphysics, but just ever so slightly different.

      You bring up the problem in how we have had many false scientific theories, which were testable, and this is suppose to imply that we found these things were false thanks to experience or experimentation. And, metaphysical theories cannot be tested to find out if they are false. But here becomes one problem, which is that having a test that a scientific hypothesis fails doesn’t mean that the scientific hypothesis itself is false, because we test our hypothesis in conjunction with other hypothesis. And when a test is failed, logic dictates that we don’t know where the problem is in our hypothesis that lead to the false test. It could either be the hypothesis in question or it could be one of the many other hypothesis tested in conjunction. The experiment and logic don’t show where the problem is. Thus, we could have discarded the true hypothesis a long time ago and built up false theories in it’s place.

      And another problem, which you seemed to have hinted at, was that there could be many different metaphysical theories and only one is true and the rest are false. And as you pointed out, we can’t decide which one is false or how which one is false. But I pointed out that the same happens in science, when you can supposedly show which one is false. Another point would be that there are an infinity of logically different theories that can all account for the same finite set of data, and or consistent with all the data we could ever gather. Thus, we still wouldn’t be able to tell which scientific theory is true, and so are stuck in the metaphysical problem. And the reason why we’re stuck with this problem is that we can’t test them against experience, because we’ve already collected all the data of experience that we could have. Thus, it has the same problem you have with metaphysical positions. Thus, it looks like, science would be metaphysics as well. No way to test against different scientific hypothesis.

      And I think this would also add some support to what the blog was about, but it also works against it. It’s actually indifferent, but seems to also be part of what the argument against naturalism was about, or at least from an evolutionary point of view. For we can also view that we evolved to have a certain trait which might help us get at the truth and good. However, this “trait” can express itself in many different ways. And each of these different ways would contradict the other, but yet the “trait” itself helps us succeed, but that doesn’t mean it’s getting at the truth or anything.

  4. Liam Cooper (Managing Editor) Says:

    Hi All,

    If you are interested, Alister McGrath has just released a new book on Natural theology, and you can read a basic introduction to the themes, here:

    http://religioncompass.wordpress.com/2008/10/09/the-open-secret/

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