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.

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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.


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