More Than the Sum of Our Senses

I’m still reading Timothy Keller’s book. He’s very much a fan of presuppositional apologetics, like this one in which he argues that an intelligent being that came about through evolution wouldn’t be able to trust its own reasoning abilities:

Evolutionists say that if God makes sense to us, it is not because he is really there, it’s only because that belief helped us survive and so we are hardwired for it. However, if we can’t trust our belief-forming faculties to tell us the truth about God, why should we trust them to tell us the truth about anything, including evolutionary science? [p.143]

I tackled this argument in one of my first posts on Daylight Atheism, Are Evolved Minds Reliable Truth-Finders?, but now’s a good time to say some more about it.

In that earlier post, I argued that we can know presuppositional arguments like this one are wrong because we’re evolved beings. If we were created beings – say, an android built and programmed by an engineer – then we’d have no way to be sure our minds were generally reliable. If our creator was malicious or whimsical, then they could have implanted any behavioral rules they pleased in us, even foolish or self-destructive ones. (You’ll note the parallel with the way, according to Christian theology, that God gives us powerful impulses to do things he doesn’t want us to do, then punishes us severely for following them.)

But human beings are a product of evolution, and evolution is neither malicious nor whimsical. It’s a blind, mechanistic process concerned only with results, namely the ability of living things to survive and reproduce. And, like all living things, the only way we can survive and reproduce is if we’re adapted to take the correct actions in the face of danger or opportunity.

Although simple creatures can be driven by pure instinct, like the Sphex wasp which follows a behavioral program that “resets” if disturbed at any step, that would never work for social creatures like us. Unlike other species which have only a limited repertoire of behaviors, we’re much too behaviorally complex to be programmed with hardcoded rules for every situation we might face. Therefore, the only option open to natural selection would be to shape us into general-purpose reasoning machines that can draw correct inferences in many different circumstances and act on them accordingly.

That’s not to say we never get things wrong. Keller advances a false-dilemma fallacy in which our evolved truth-detectors are either completely trustworthy (and therefore God must exist because people believe in him) or completely untrustworthy (and therefore we can’t know anything, including whether we evolved). Obviously, the reality is in between.

We know our evolved truth-detectors are generally reliable, but we also know that they can be fooled. Our individual senses and cognitive circuits evolved to exploit predictable regularities in the environment – assumptions about the direction of light, the contrast of colors, the way moving objects follow the same course even when we can’t see them, the way complex phenomena are usually caused by other agents, and so on – and like the Sphex wasp, they can be tricked by situations that subvert these built-in assumptions.

But here’s what Keller misses: to evolve a truth-sensitive intelligent being, you don’t need one infallible truth-detecting sense or unsubvertable reasoning capability. What you need is a being with many different senses that are fallible in different ways. If you encounter a situation that deceives one of your senses, the other ones can weigh in, showing you how you were led astray so you don’t make the same mistake twice. This is well within the capabilities of evolution, and it’s always how you build something that’s greater than the sum of its parts. And since we can learn from others, we don’t have to make every mistake ourselves to learn from them; we can be as smart as the combined intelligence of all those who preceded us.

It’s when you don’t follow this process of self-correction that you’re led into error. Needless to say, this is a lesson that religion like Keller’s – which is more or less a concerted effort to preserve beliefs in the face of contradictory reason or sense data – ought to be worried about.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • GubbaBumpkin

    Evolutionists say that if God makes sense to us, it is not because he is
    really there, it’s only because that belief helped us survive and so we
    are hardwired for it.

    Not only wrong, but overly simplistic. For example, perhaps belief is not what helped us to survive, but something else is, and belief is a byproduct of it. Or perhaps belief used to help in survival, but no longer does. There are so many other possibilities. If this guy can’t even set up the questions correctly, he has little hope of finding his wy to any correct answers.

  • MNb

    I suspect that Plantinga and co make another typical antiscientific mistake. The reliability of the senses and reason of one individua (which is doubtful indeed) says exactly nothing about the reliability of the product – like Evolution Theory – of the senses and reason skills of thousands of scholars. What Plantinga and co neglect is that the scientific method is developed exactly to weed out individual misconceptions. That’s why physicists have reached a high percentage of consensus on Newton’s Laws and all economists agree that printing too much cash will make the prices in the shops go skyhigh.
    The entire argument is a hasty generalization. Plantinga rather should use it to doubt his own writings as philosophers and theologians do not have the necessary standards for such a weeding out process.

  • Jason K.

    “If we were created beings – say, an android built and programmed by an
    engineer – then we’d have no way to be sure our minds were generally
    reliable. If our creator was malicious or whimsical, then they could
    have implanted any behavioral rules they pleased in us, even foolish or
    self-destructive ones”

    Exactly right. The real problem Plantinga et al. are raising is the fact that we aren’t omniscient, with the argument being that anything less than 100% certainty is tantamount to complete ignorance. But of course adding the additional premise of the supernatural does nothing to rectify our lack of certainty. It’s a blatant case of multiplying entities without necessity.

    Why is such a transparently awful argument as this so often touted as a formidable criticism of materialism? I remember Plantinga being lauded for his use of Bayesian probability. Only the very conscientious and astute, I was assured, could hope to dismantle his argument properly. Pshaw! You can see through his entire line of reasoning in about 30 seconds. And if you can’t, you have no business being a professional philosopher.

  • Pattrsn

    “Evolutionists say…”

    But what do the Special Relativitists say?

  • Pofarmer

    I’m glad you are reading that so I don’f have to.

  • GCBill

    Keller’s quote isn’t just a false dichotomy about certainty – it’s also a false characterization of the nature of belief. The original argument was not that we should be suspicious of *all* beliefs – because most of our beliefs come from interaction with the world, not directly from evolution. Those that come from interaction with the world, though still possibly false, are not the direct product of some blind, arational process which has utility as its sole end. They are the product of a belief-generating mechanism that exists because the necessary information to survive is too variable and too costly to be specified entirely through genetics. It’s frustrating to see the atheist position strawmanned into a hyper-nativist one, especially since atheists have historically been of a more empiricist persuasion.

  • smrnda

    In many cases, we aren’t very good at determining truth, but we’ve been able to identify lots of cognitive biases and means of testing hypothesis that can help us get around the biases in our thinking.

  • David Simon

    Shorter Keller:

    Induction is really hard, therefore God!

  • David_Evans

    “However, if we can’t trust our belief-forming faculties to tell us the truth about God, why should we trust them to tell us the truth about anything, including evolutionary science?”

    My belief-forming faculties tell me that there is no God, and I trust them on that :)

    More seriously, our belief-forming faculties will have evolved to take account of evidence wherever possible. They are more to be trusted where there is massive evidence for a proposition, as with evolutionary science, than where there is none.

  • Joe Barron

    It shouldn’t be necessary to point out that for most of our history (and prehistory), human beings have been wrong about absolutely everything. If our “truth detector” were God given, one would expect it to work properly from the beginning. Only through trial and much error have we discovered how to ask the sort of questions that ultimately led to the scientific method. That method might iteself be fallacious, but has produced verifiable and self-consistent propositions. Reason, like every other human faculty, has evolved.

  • Verbose Stoic

    But here’s what Keller misses: to evolve a truth-sensitive intelligent being, you don’t need one infallible truth-detecting sense or unsubvertable reasoning capability. What you need is a being with many different senses that are fallible in different ways. If you encounter a situation that deceives one of your senses, the other ones can weigh in, showing you how you were led astray so you don’t make the same mistake twice.

    But this is the precise thing that’s at stake here: how do you know that that method works? How do you justify THAT? For example, take the optical illusion of the stick bending in water. How do you know that it is your vision that’s reporting an illusion, and not that everything else is? Well, you choose a criteria:

    It’s a blind, mechanistic process concerned only with results, namely the ability of living things to survive and reproduce.

    So, in short, it works. But here is where Plantinga and Keller jump in, with what seem to me to be slightly different arguments. Plantinga attacks this here by pointing out that useful beliefs don’t have to be true. You can get good results — ie you can survive and reproduce — from false beliefs, and bad results from true ones. Since there is no necessary and possibly not even any reasonable link between “It helps me reproduce” and “It is true”, then you can’t rely on evolution to have produced mechanisms that produce true beliefs in you. Thus, if you believe that your cognitive mechanisms were produced by evolution alone, then you have a defeater for your belief (similar to Russell’s claim about how physics undermines sense data) that your mechanism is reliable … and your belief in naturalism is produced by those mechanisms that you now not only don’t know are reliable, but which you can’t even demonstrate to be reliable because any such proof would, well, rely on the same mechanisms that you don’t know to be reliable. Or, instead of adopting the belief in naturalism, you can believe that your processes were produced by a God who cares about you and wouldn’t deceive you, and avoid all of these issues. This also strikes against believing in a malicious God; again, you don’t get anywhere accepting that belief. There’s a lot to challenge here, but the reply is not as simple as normally stated.

    Keller goes another way, it seems. He doesn’t claim that producing these mechanisms through evolution and testing against results like survival doesn’t work. Instead, he points out that by their own argument atheists have to accept that the belief in God was produced by the same mechanisms. And if they are, then anything that you accept as just falling out of those mechanisms is in the same position as the belief in God, and so you need something other than saying “We don’t have anything more than our basic evolved mechanisms” to claim that we shouldn’t believe in God … because those basic evolved mechanisms, again, form the heart of anything we can come to know, including science. So you can’t single out the belief in God as being produced by mechanisms you consider unreliable, because that would take out all of the mechanisms you need to even get to science as well. Again, there are challenges you can muster, but in my opinion they aren’t the ones you raise here.

  • MaryLouiseC

    Adam Lee wrote: “We know our evolved truth-detectors are generally reliable.”

    But how? What makes one accident of nature’s ability to reason better than that of another?

    As a Christian, I know that I was made in the image of God. That means that I share many of his characteristics including the ability to reason. But as far as I can see, the atheist is saying that he knows his ability to reason is good because his ability to reason is good — which is, of course, a circular argument.

    I have not read Keller’s book. However, one thing strikes me about the so-called false dichotomy you say he has created, that is, that either our truth-detectors are completely trustworthy (and therefore God exists because we believe in him) or they’re completely untrustworthy (meaning that we can’t know anything is true).
    It isn’t that cut and dried.

    As I said, being made in the image of God, we have the ability to reason and are all capable of getting some things right, but because that ability has been marred by sin, we cannot get everything right. Therefore, none of us has a completely trustworthy truth-detector until we come to Christ and have been filled with the Holy Spirit who leads us into all truth. Without that outside source, we are left with the idea that some accidents of nature have better reasoning powers than others — and maybe they do — but we have nothing by which to determine that apart from ourselves and it often ends with might being right — whether it really is or not.

  • GCT

    Or, instead of adopting the belief in naturalism, you can believe that your processes were produced by a God who cares about you and wouldn’t deceive you, and avoid all of these issues.

    Even if all of this were in a vacuum, it would still be an unacceptable leap to goddidit, especially as it doesn’t avoid the issues and only raises new issues. It also doesn’t defeat the malicious god hypothesis.

    Instead, he points out that by their own argument atheists have to accept that the belief in God was produced by the same mechanisms.

    And, he misses the point that it could be a survival strategy that helped or a parasite that came along with something else and is a hinder.

  • GCT

    But how?

    Parsimony, independent confirmation, peer-review, etc.

    As a Christian, I know that I was made in the image of God.

    No, actually, you can’t claim to “know” that is the case, since you can’t claim to “know” that god exists sans independent verification of evidence that shows your god exists.

    That means that I share many of his characteristics including the ability to reason.

    How do you know that one of god’s characteristics is the ability to reason? How do you know that this characteristic was given to you somehow by creation? You don’t know any of those things.

    But as far as I can see, the atheist is saying that he knows his ability to reason is good because his ability to reason is good — which is, of course, a circular argument.

    We suspect our ability to reason works, because we look at the empirical evidence and verify.

    …but we have nothing by which to determine that apart from ourselves…

    Well, we could actually run some experiments and look at the real world around us and see how closely our ideas are in accordance with the real world. For instance, you claim that you know a god exists. When we look at the world around us, however, we find no evidence. We find no way to verify this god. We find many competing claims that are mutually exclusive. Given that no evidence exists, why would we think that the reasonable position is to believe in god? Given the same lack of support for all other concepts of god, why should we believe that your specific concept of god is correct?

  • David Simon

    What makes one accident of nature’s ability to reason better than that of another?

    Natural selection. Improved reasoning makes it easier to survive and thrive.

    Therefore, none of us has a completely trustworthy truth-detector until we come to Christ and have been filled with the Holy Spirit who leads us into all truth.

    You are running into exactly the same problem you’re claiming. How do you know that your truth-detector has become trustworthy? The claim needs a truth-detector to be verified by!

    Yes, this is an actual philosophical problem here: no system of knowledge can be used to rigorously justify itself. But your supernatural theory does not solve the problem; it adds another (hypothetical) source of information, but doesn’t get around the issue itself, because it’s still up to our potentially flawed minds to figure that information out.

  • Jason K.

    As a Christian, I know that I was made in the image of God.

    Ah, but you can’t know that, unfortunately. Perhaps you are being deceived by particularly powerful demons. It’s possible one of your enemies has placed a spell on you. Or perhaps all of us exist only in the dreaming consciousness of Vishnu. Once you turn to the supernatural for explanations, you open up a whole new set of problems as well. Problems you obviously haven’t properly accounted for.

    Therefore, none of us has a completely trustworthy truth-detector until we come to Christ and have been filled with the Holy Spirit who leads us into all truth.

    This is your belief. But you may be mistaken about this. If you are mistaken, then you do not have a trustworthy truth-detector. If you cannot determine if your truth-detector is trustworthy, then it isn’t, by definition. Therefore you do not possess a trustworthy truth-detector, whether you have gone to Christ to or not.

    So you see, you are in the same position as us lowly materialists. Neither you nor I can possess certainty, and believing in ghosts or spirits can’t alter that fact.


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