Response to the Second Deadly Question

Shocked beyond expression that I survived the first question, I move on to the second of the four questions atheists will not address.

“If truth is a concept that was achieved by naturalistic processes such as evolution, then truth must not be actually true but only functional. When it becomes more beneficial to believe a false idea for survival, then that idea MUST win out over what is truly true, or naturalism is false. If this is true, rationality is not reasoning to find truth but rather to survive, and truth will cease to exist when humans cease to exist.”

“If truth is a concept that was achieved by naturalistic processes such as evolution, then truth must not be actually true but only functional.”

Is there any reason it can’t be both?  

And yes, all beliefs are models that allow us to interact with reality.  There may be no such thing as an atom, but models built upon that idea allow us to interact with reality in a predictable and positive way.  Your beliefs about god are the same (but they’re less beneficially functional than ideas better supported by evidence).  Is this system as good as having absolute knowledge of everything in the cosmos?  No, but so what?  It’s the best we’ve got (unless you have something better).  Acknowledging this fact does not at all mean that these models were not acquired through the use of reason.

And what’s this about reasoning not being to find truth but rather to survive?  Are the two somehow at odds?  We were able to invent things like the Haber Process in order to survive because the idea made good, rational sense.  Rational ideas get us to reasonable certainty, which is as close to your ideal of an unpolluted truth as we can get.  The great thing about reasonable beliefs is they tend to produce positive outcomes more often than unreasonable beliefs.  They also produce negative outcomes less often than unreasonable beliefs.

For instance, consider the following two reasons to change the oil in your car:

1.  Physics and mechanics confirm that changing the oil in your car will make it run longer and more efficiently.

2.  Because it will keep the ankle-biting gremlins that live in your tennis shoes asleep.

One of those is far more reasonable, but both will result in the same behavior.  In fact, it could be argued that the second option will result in a more fervent form of the behavior since it is harder to replace your ankles than it is to replace an engine.

However, consider all the negative implications of the second.  It would suck to live with the paranoia.  You may waste resources trying to find and combat these gremlins.  Reasonable ideas tend to come with multitudes of good by comparison to unreasonable beliefs and without the massive amounts of negative baggage.

Additionally, lousy reasons can lead you to simple conclusions, but seldom to complex conclusions.  While somebody may conclude they should not steal because a torture-happy god will punish them eternally for it, you could likely not arrive at the existence of black holes or the discovery of the Haber Process by the same.  This means that unsupported ideas are the homestead of the idiot, even if sometimes they get the idiot to a conclusion mirrored by rationality.  This is why you would be hard-pressed to find a single society that succeeded by adopting anything other than the most rational ideas available at the time (though you will find plenty of societies that suffered for holding irrational ideas).

So if you concede that complex ideas have been infinitely better for humanity (if you don’t, time to get off the internet), then the suggestion that this process should select for idiotic beliefs simply because they can sometimes land us on the proper, simple conclusions of reason makes absolutely no sense.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • Ubi Dubium

    OK, here goes on this one.

    False premise. Truth is not a concept produced by evolution. Our ability to produce mental models of the universe is produced by evolution. Truth is a concept we use to describe the situation when our mental models correspond to external reality. So your question becomes meaningless.

    When our mental model corresponds with what is beneficial for survival, that’s not “truth”. That’s “pragmatism”. Different thing.

    And so of course “truth will cease to exist when humans cease to exist”. But reality will still be there.

  • Cwayne

    Again, misguided and meaningless question.
    “If truth is a concept that was achieved by naturalistic processes such as evolution…”
    WTF?? and as Ubi Dubium points out the guy is mixing up truth and pragmatism.
    Still, meaningless question..

  • Makoto

    My take:

    Truth isn’t what we believe. Truth isn’t even what we can perceive or experience. Truth is. We experience and perceive a small portion of truth – example, we can see a small portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. Just because we can’t see infrared doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, nor does it mean that what we do see is any less valid. It simply means we experience a portion of reality at any given time.

    Do we understand truth/reality? No, and we never will. But that doesn’t mean we should avoid trying.

    Also – just because many people believe in something, that doesn’t make it true. For a long time, people believed that the Earth was at the center of our solar system, not the Sun. It was often more beneficial to survival to claim you believed this “truth”, whether you did or not.

    It’s kind of the old question about “if a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” The sound exists, but whether someone experiences it is a separate question. Or whether someone can experience it, since sounds exist far outside human perception range.

    • Drakk

      “It’s kind of the old question about “if a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” The sound exists, but whether someone experiences it is a separate question. Or whether someone can experience it, since sounds exist far outside human perception range.”

      Strictly speaking no, it doesn’t make a sound, because sound doesn’t objectively exist. Sound is the brain’s way of interpreting input from the ear caused by pressure waves in the local environment. If no one interacts with the pressure wave from the falling tree, “sound” doesn’t happen.

      • Garf

        This question always annoyed me… if an oscillation caused a sympathetic vibration in something and nothing was there to observe it, and the sympathetic vibration matched the frequency of an object such that it would be destroyed (think certain bridges), and no-one was there to witness it, would it still be destroyed… erm, yes! as evidenced by someone witnessing the destruction (after the fact), so, yes a tree falling in a forest makes a sound. it is just physics.

  • John K.

    Ubi is too quick.

    My answer is what he said.

    • Ubi Dubium

      Thank you, but please make that “she”.

  • The Lorax

    Truth is indeed what we believe, and it will go away as soon as we die. But that’s almost tautology; when you’re dead, you aren’t going to know a whole lot. Technically speaking, you can’t prove that a tree exists by, say, being in the forest when it falls if you’re dead. Truth exists only if a mind exists to contain it.


    Natural science does NOT, IN ANY WAY ACCOUNT FOR THIS CRAP. Natural science re-defines Truth to be “anything that is reliably perceived”. So if you observe a tree falling in the woods, and it makes a sound, natural science demands that it is true that a tree falling in the woods makes a sound regardless of whether or not you’re there to hear it. Natural science goes a step further and interconnects these truths: what, exactly, makes the sound? Vibrations in the air, things that are moving. A tree is falling, we assume there is air, ergo vibration, ergo sound. That’s natural science, and where it departs from philosophy.

    As humans, we’re capable of contemplating both, and as such, we are not limited to the truths that only affect our survival. We have evolved to the point where we can consider things that are not specifically relevant to survival. We don’t need to understand nuclear fusion or the temperature fluctuations on Mars in order to survive on Earth; we do those things because we want to, we’re curious. We want more truths than just the necessary ones.

    And that, incidentally, means that if there is a question on the existence of a deity… we must objectively seek the truth. So that not only invalidates the question, but also poses a counter-question:

    If you hold the truth as the ultimate authority, is it not a contradiction to accept a truth without question? If you cannot show that a truth exists, how can you rationally accept it?

  • Ubi Dubium

    I also just need to make a point about the picture above of Sir Robin and his Minstrel. By the time Sir Robin fatally attempted to “answer me these questions three”, his minstrels had already long since been eaten (and there was much rejoicing).

    I feel better now. Geekiness appeased.

  • Finney

    Again with this question, it’s not well-stated, but still raises good points.

    There is a difference between logical grounds for a belief and physical causes of that belief. The former implies intentionally conforming one’s thought-processes to conform to rational norms. The other refers to physical causation as guided by physical laws that proceed without regard for reasons or goals.

  • Joshua Fisher

    Truth is a concept, held in a sentient mind. Essentially the concept of truth can be explained as a metric for determining how accurately a description of reality matches that reality. The closer the match the more “true” the description. This concept will of course not exist if there are no sentient minds to hold it, but that will not change the nature of reality.

    Is it sometimes advantageous to believe a lie? Yes. Take the common example of the rustle in the grass. It could be the wind. It could be a predator. If you always think its a predator, sometimes you will be wrong. Sometimes you will be believing a lie. However, your behavior will always protect you from the predator that may be there. Your belief and behavior, however, still have no bearing on the truth of whether or not there is a predator in that grass. So, yes, there are times when “believing a lie” was beneficial. But this does not mean that the nature of reality is dependent on belief in any way.

    Reasoning is not limited to finding truth or surviving. Reasoning is just using your brain. You can use it to find the truth, to survive, to desperately avoid the truth (I’m lookin’ at you Christians), or anything else. Saying that because it serves to aid survival you cant use it to seek truth is the same as saying that because we use a car to drive to the store we can’t use it to drive to a movie theater.

  • quantheory

    A good response. Mine would have been much shorter, although maybe not as clear of an explanation:

    A) Among all “functional” beliefs, the ones that most reliably produce correct behavior, while consuming the least cognitive resources, tend to be those that are a good approximation of the truth. This is why Occam’s razor works so well; true statements comport with the evidence easily, whereas false statements usually take a lot of tweaking and extra assumptions to match up with one’s perceived reality and give the right results.

    B) Human beings actually do have many “functional” yet false beliefs. This is one of the most important places that cognitive biases come from, as well as optical illusions, pareidolia, and so on

  • Mark

    Do you always trust your mechanic?