Is Religion the Practice of Avoiding Truth?

By Luke Nix

Introduction

A month or so ago, I came across an interesting challenge to Christianity. A skeptic told me that religion was an exercise in avoiding truth- a willful delusion. He observed that many Christians (and religious people, in general) tend to believe the claims of their “holy” books over what has been discovered about nature, history, or the very nature of reality. He noticed that many religious people have a precommitment to a particular understanding of the world and no amount of evidence provided will persuade them otherwise. He, as an intellectual, does not want to make this same mistake. In this post, I want to explore the possibility that he is making the same mistake based upon the philosophical foundations of the claim he makes for rejecting religion, and Christianity specifically.

Religion Avoiding Truth

Missing Philosophical Foundations

While several things did strike me as dissonant about his claim, one of the first things that I noticed about the language the skeptic chose was that his naturalistic worldview could not provide any such grounding for the claim. I am specifically referring to his references to the will and ability to reason.

The Missing Will and Intentionality

First, if naturalism is true then any specific event is the cumulative result of the events prior to it, governed by laws of nature. Not only does this apply to any specific event, it applies to all events in the history of the universe all the way back to the big bang. On this view, ultimately, the laws of physics and the initial conditions of the universe fatalistically determined every event that would take place. This includes every “willful” “decision” that humans would make. Ultimately, there are no true decisions being made, no person is “willfully” denying anything; they are merely reacting to the events prior to their “decisions.” The claim that anyone is doing anything “willfully” does not make sense in a naturalistic world. So, the naturalist cannot actually claim an intentional anything and be speaking accurately about reality.

The Missing Ability to Reason Reliably

Second, an assumption of the claim is that it is possible for people to reason reliably and accurately (but have just chosen not to). If naturalism is true, then the brains responsible for reasoning and the senses responsible for sensing the environment are not focused on true inferences or true observations but on survival. Alvin Plantinga spends an entire book on this very topic that I have recently read and reviewed. However, I’d like to reinforce Plantinga’s conclusion, that if naturalism is true then we cannot trust our brains to reason towards truth, with some evidence from the real world. If naturalism is true, there is no such thing as free agency (see paragraph above). This means that everything that we believe about the intentionality of others is false. We intend to get up in the morning, to eat, to walk, to drive, to work, to organize, to engineer, to account, to create, to relate, to think, and numerous other things. If evolution has produced brains that believe that we actually do these things intentionally, then our brains survived for their ability to produce a majority of beliefs that are false yet highly practical in the environment.

The Over-Abundance of “Useful Fictions”

What makes this so powerful is that intentionality is merely one all-encompassing belief about reality that, if false, demonstrates that our brains are unreliable when it comes to inferring truth about reality, yet we have evidence that our brains have survived and that we do believe these false notions. With every additional false notion that is brought to the table of evidence (the concept of design, the concept of purpose, the concept of value, the concept of progress [all four require true intentionality, even value grounded in purpose], objective morality, moral and creative responsibility, reward and punishment, and even the existence of God- just to name a few more), the conclusion that Plantinga argued philosophically becomes even more certain evidentially.

But some naturalists attempt to escape this conclusion by saying that these are merely “useful fictions.” I find this to be an astounding concession. When we are discussing the ability to discover truth, “useful fictions” is actually an oxymoron. This becomes painfully apparent when one considers how deeply grounded in and encompassing of our beliefs about reality these fictions truly are. And yet, we still believe them because the fictions are useful. Useful for survival, but obviously not for their truth-value, for if it were for their truth-value, we would not believe them. Any naturalist who grants that “useful fictions” are believed fall prey to this devastating argument. And what is even more devastating than all our beliefs being based in fiction? The fact that we have near-certainty that no belief will ever be believed for its truth-value. For the naturalist, this brings annihilation to the only source they thought they had for truth: science. Science depends upon the reliability of our senses and our brains to infer true things about reality, and if they can never be reasonably expected to produce such, then science has no place to begin or go regarding the search for what is true. Science is merely another “useful fiction” that we falsely believe for its survival value.

Conclusion

The skeptic who raises such a challenge fundamentally contradicts their worldview when they claim that someone is “willfully avoiding truth.” And the evidence closely approaches 100% that they should be speaking that claim to a mirror: it is all-but-certain that they are the ones with the willful delusion, possessing faith despite the evidence–a blind faith. Based upon the weight of the evidence and the logical contradiction within the worldview, any skeptic, who raises this challenge out of concern for the pursuit of truth, should abandon their naturalism and the idea that our brains are the result of unguided processes otherwise they fall victim to the very evil they wish to escape.

For more information on this argument against naturalism I highly recommend:

Original Blog Source: http://bit.ly/2sc7V3P


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6 replies
  1. KR says:

    Luke Nix wrote: “On this view, ultimately, the laws of physics and the initial conditions of the universe fatalistically determined every event that would take place.”

    I don’t think naturalism excludes the possibility of randomness in the system, so this kind of fatalism wouldn’t necessarily follow.

    “Ultimately, there are no true decisions being made, no person is “willfully” denying anything; they are merely reacting to the events prior to their “decisions.””

    I would agree with this. On naturalism, “willfulness” would be a meaningless concept. This, of course, shouldn’t stop the naturalist from pointing out what he perceives as irrational behaviour, like following religious dogma rather than empirical evidence.

    “If naturalism is true, then the brains responsible for reasoning and the senses responsible for sensing the environment are not focused on true inferences or true observations but on survival.”

    Our brains are evolved organs, so they clearly have a survival benefit but this doesn’t mean that everything our brains do has to be geared towards survival. Evolution is not prescriptive, it doesn’t tell us to do anything – it is simply the inevitable effect of mutation, natural selection and genetic drift. Nothing is stopping us from doing all sorts of things that have no effect on our survival and might even have a negative effect on survival.

    “However, I’d like to reinforce Plantinga’s conclusion, that if naturalism is true then we cannot trust our brains to reason towards truth, with some evidence from the real world.”

    I agree that we cannot trust our brains to reason towards truth, that’s why we need empirical information (i.e. evidence) to verify our reasoning.

    “If naturalism is true, there is no such thing as free agency (see paragraph above). This means that everything that we believe about the intentionality of others is false.”

    Not sure I follow. Are you saying that intentionality requires free will? If so, I disagree. A chess computer will obviously make its moves with the intention of winning the chess game. You could object that the chess computer is acting according to a programmed algorithm but then how do you know that you’re not acting according to an algorithm programmed by your genes and your environment?

    “If evolution has produced brains that believe that we actually do these things intentionally, then our brains survived for their ability to produce a majority of beliefs that are false yet highly practical in the environment.”

    I wouldn’t say “majority of beliefs” but our sense of free agency might be such a belief. I have argued elsewhere on this forum that free will (by which I mean libertarian free will) most likely is an illusion as it seems to inevitably lead to logical contradictions.

    “What makes this so powerful is that intentionality is merely one all-encompassing belief about reality that, if false, demonstrates that our brains are unreliable when it comes to inferring truth about reality, yet we have evidence that our brains have survived and that we do believe these false notions.”

    Just to reiterate, I don’t think our beliefs about intentionality are false but I do think the proposition that intentionality requires free will is.

    “With every additional false notion that is brought to the table of evidence (the concept of design, the concept of purpose, the concept of value, the concept of progress [all four require true intentionality, even value grounded in purpose], objective morality, moral and creative responsibility, reward and punishment, and even the existence of God- just to name a few more), the conclusion that Plantinga argued philosophically becomes even more certain evidentially.”

    This is a really broad sweep where you seem to be lumping things together which I’m not convinced belong in the same category. Design – at least human design – is not just a concept but an observable fact. Purpose, value and progress clearly exist as experiences but I see no need to appeal to anything supernatural to explain them. Objective morality and God obviously exist as concepts but suffer from a lack of compelling evidence that they are anything more than that.

    “But some naturalists attempt to escape this conclusion by saying that these are merely “useful fictions.””

    Are they really saying that purpose, value and progress are fictional or are they merely saying that they are subjective experiences rather than objective truths?

    “When we are discussing the ability to discover truth, “useful fictions” is actually an oxymoron.”

    How so? Let’s take free will (which I suspect is a useful fiction). How would my experience of having free agency impede my ability to discover truth? It certainly hasn’t impeded my questioning of the reality of free will.

    “Useful for survival, but obviously not for their truth-value, for if it were for their truth-value, we would not believe them.”

    You lost me. Are you saying that believing something for survival and believing something for its truth-value are mutually exclusive? If so, why?

    “And what is even more devastating than all our beliefs being based in fiction? The fact that we have near-certainty that no belief will ever be believed for its truth-value.”

    How did we get to this near-certainty?

    “Science depends upon the reliability of our senses and our brains to infer true things about reality, and if they can never be reasonably expected to produce such, then science has no place to begin or go regarding the search for what is true.”

    The scientific method is based on the realization that we cannot rely on our reasoning alone to lead us to the truth. We need empirical input to validate our reasoning. Anything else would, in effect, be an exercise in circularity where we’re using our reasoning to validate our reasoning. As long as we can make objective observations of reality, we have a reliable method of at least moving closer to truth by making predictions that can be empirically tested. We wouldn’t expect the success of the scientific method that we’ve seen over the last few centuries if it wasn’t reliable.

    I find Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism rather odd. Naturalists have always maintained that everything about us, including our beliefs, is the result of nature (our DNA) or nurture (our environment). It seems to me that Plantinga’s description of naturalism is a straw man where he has completely omitted the nurture part. He seems to think that if our brains have evolved to provide a survival benefit, then (on naturalism) this must also be true for the beliefs held by these brains. This is clearly not the case. Our evolved brains have the capacity to learn and form beliefs from their experience of their environment.

    Plantinga says, essentially, that the naturalist has no way of knowing if his beliefs are true, since on the naturalist view our minds are the products of purely physical brains that have evolved to track with survivability and not necessarily truth. What he’s leaving out is the possibility of testing our beliefs through objective observations of reality. My conclusion is that I see nothing devastating for the scientific method here. I do, however, see fundamental problems for any worldview that doesn’t use empirical evidence to calibrate itself with reality since they will inevitably fall prey to the circularity problem of using our reasoning to validate our reasoning.

    Reply
  2. KR says:

    *sigh* I swear I used paragraphs when I wrote this post but somehow it still shows up as essentially a large block of text. What’s the trick?

    Reply
  3. St. Lee says:

    KR says: “The scientific method is based on the realization that we cannot rely on our reasoning alone to lead us to the truth. We need empirical input to validate our reasoning.” and later, ” I do, however, see fundamental problems for any worldview that doesn’t use empirical evidence to calibrate itself with reality since they will inevitably fall prey to the circularity problem of using our reasoning to validate our reasoning.”

    So everyone agrees then. How does one come to the conclusion that he is interpreting empirical input correctly? Why, by one’s reasoning of course.

    Reply
    • KR says:

      I’m talking about objective empirical observations. Are you saying that different people will see different numbers on a digital display of a measuring instrument depending on their level of reasoning skills? Do we need to apply our reasoning to tell the time off a clock? What reasoning is involved in determining whether atmospheric pressure is rising or sinking? If someone wants to call you, can they objectively determine what your number is or will different people see different numbers?

      Reply
    • Andy Ryan says:

      If I meet my wife and discuss a phone call we had earlier, then doesn’t that suggest the scientific process that made my phone works properly? The two options are: 1) The phone works or 2) My wife and I both hallucinated the same conversation that we had on the phone. If you want to argue that the latter is a possibility we should spend time discussing then go ahead.

      “On this view, ultimately, the laws of physics and the initial conditions of the universe fatalistically determined every event that would take place. This includes every “willful” “decision” that humans would make”

      This sounds to me pretty similar to Christians talking about ‘God’s plan’. If it was God’s plan for a couple to marry and have children then it suggests they had no choice about getting together. Sometimes you hear people suggesting a disaster such as a mugging was God’s plan as it led to valuable life lessons for the victim. Does that mean the mugger had no choice about his crime, given that he was unwittingly carrying out God’s plan? And ultimately, nothing that happened since the Big Bang was a surprise to an all-knowing God – every action you’ve taken was the one he knew you’d take.

      Imagine two universes, one the clockwork naturalistic universe where everything is set from the Big Bang onwards, and another identical one created by God that contains free will. How exactly do they differ? Will the people in one universe make different choices to their equivalents in the other? How and why? How does the ‘free will’ create different choices and where do they come from? If these different choices aren’t either caused by previous events or simply random, what exactly are they? What’s the practical difference between the two universes?

      Reply
  4. Tracey says:

    Psalm 40.7 Then I said, “Behold, I come; In the scroll of the book it is written of me.
    Revelations 10,8-10 Then the voice which I heard from heaven, I heard again speaking with me, and saying, “Go, take the book which is open in the hand of the angel who stands on the sea and on the land.” So I went to the angel, telling him to give me the little book. And he said to me, “Take it and eat it; it will make your stomach bitter, but in your mouth it will be sweet as honey.” I took the little book out of the angel’s hand and ate it, and in my mouth it was sweet as honey; and when I had eaten it, my stomach was made bitter.
    It is written.
    When a person doesn’t, “know,” their self, it’s either they have something stopping them, “knowing,” their Purpose.
    The scriptures have a lot of information in, loads.

    Reply

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