Can atheists trust the truth-detecting ability of their own minds?

Or, to be more precise, is a rational mind compatible with biological determinism and Darwinism?

This is just 3 minutes long. (H/T Reason to Stand)

The original argument is from Alvin Plantinga, the top Christian philosopher in the world.

This lecture is about 54 minutes long across 6 clips.

26 thoughts on “Can atheists trust the truth-detecting ability of their own minds?”

  1. Brilliant, watched the 3 mins version only. I often wondered, how do atheists know they are right? It’s a lot to gamble your eternity on, to just trust your own mind.

    But here is a quick question I just thought of:

    If our minds are indeed built for survival, does this support evolution? I mean if this theory is right, it will inevitably back evolution. Thoughts?

      1. Wintery,

        Thanks for the reply. I will also say that my thinking when I’m with God is different than when I’m away from God. There is something in the way my mind sort of changes.

        1. Hmmmn. That’s strange. My thinking doesn’t change when I think about my faith versus other things. The most I would say is that when I focus on things like apologetics and understand how the world works is that I feel the same as when a person communicates to me. For example, I think of the knowledge I gather through study – (e.g. – DNA transcription), as having been put there as a message from God about himself. Like a love note, but written into nature or into the Bible.

        2. I call this wet thinking vs. dry thinking. The mind filled with the Spirit thinks differently than the mind operating solo. The “knowledge of God” spoken of in the Bible is not dry; it is wet. That’s why rejecting the “knowledge of God” and resisting the Spirit are pretty much the same thing. Pour out your Spirit on us, Lord!

          1. Yeah, I just want to keep the discussion of religion focused on the evidence, and then maybe talk about how that evidence makes you feel because it is revealing that there is a person trying to have a relationship with you would made all the evidence. So the real questions are, is there evidence, and what does the evidence say?

  2. Isn’t there good evidence that people can’t trust their instincts? There’s a reason that scientists do double-blind studies. Buddhists would say “people are delusional.” Christians might call it “original sin.” The Christian belief that Good and Bad are written into the human heart are balanced by the apparent fact that our instinctive justice is chaotic and destructive and needs to be codified in law. Wouldn’t written law be redundant, and not a huge innovation, if the perfect law were really written on our hearts? For instance, many people will say “A rich person has too much money, he could not have gotten it honestly, and should be forced to share.” That’s a very logical assumption in a tribal environment, but dysfunctional in our present environment where we’re capable of investing and growing our economy.

    That’s why we have such a host of intellectual tools; judging things by a common standard, doubleblind studies, statistical significance, focus on predictive value and falsification, identification of logical fallacies, and so on. Having a brain that was totally blind to objective truth might be a survival disadvantage, so I think the answer to whether we can see truth with an evolved brain is not binary so much as qualified. Yes, we can see truth, but not easily or naturally. It involves fighting a huge number of our instincts.

    1. “Yes, we can see truth, but not easily or naturally.”

      But how do you know that we can see truth at all?

      1. Well, I suppose it depends on how you define ‘truth.’ ala Karl Popper, I’d say that we can have ideas which have predictive value, and demonstrate this value through interaction with the natural world, controlled experiments and other techniques. Within the confines of evolutionary theory, this seems an acceptable test for an evolved intelligence’s ability to see truth. And an idea which has more predictive value would be closer to truth as I previously defined it (‘predictive value’). But on the other hand, if we see 100 white swans we can’t conclude that there are no black swans. Similarly, we can’t, from material evidence, ever conclude that our ‘truth’ is perfect or complete. So if we define truth as ‘that which cannot be falsified’ the only truths we can really know are those things which are false.

        The fact that we can see some of our biases gives me hope that we might circumvent them. Of course, there are probably other biases which we don’t see.

        I believe in this view because it seems to predicatively describe human psychology.

        I’m not sure if that answered your question.

        1. I’m not a philosopher and I didn’t get many of the technical bits, but I picked up this part:

          1 Naturalist believe religion is false

          2 Most of the world population are religious, and have been for centuries probably date back to the start of civilization

          3 If evolution as defined by naturalism is true, then point 2 would be a proof that false belief offer survival advantage over true belief

          4. If that so, what makes you think that the belief in naturalism isn’t just a false belief that exist only for survival?

          “Having a brain that was totally blind to objective truth might be a survival disadvantage”

          Tell that to bacteria, virus, etc. We’re not the most successful species by evolution standard. Even rats outnumbered us.

          Human is special only because of our capability to know truth.

          1. Scientists even said that should nuclear war break out and human disappear, it’s insects like cockroaches that will rule this world.

            It’s safe to say that cockroaches do not have truth seeking property, they don’t even need their heads to live in some cases!

            But if I’m a naturalist, how can I be sure I’m not a cockroach?

          2. 1 Naturalist believe religion is false

            To be clear, since you’re replying to me, #1 is not a statement that I have made. On the contrary, there’s good evidence that religion offers material benefits to both groups and individuals, which it could not do unless it had some truth value.

            #3 Is also an inaccurate interpretation of my post. I’ve said nothing to exclude either a theistic or atheistic view (though my beliefs may contradict particular theistic and atheistic views.)

            Tell that to bacteria, virus, etc. We’re not the most successful species by evolution standard. Even rats outnumbered us.

            However having a brain which doesn’t work is not the same as not having a brain at all. Lets exclude bacteria for the moment and focus on the thinking capacity of large animals. Even rats have to make predictions about the natural world. Is this food safe to eat? Is this moving creature a potential threat? And so on. These predictions don’t have to be perfect. A species may prefer false alarms over complacency, which is a bias. But an evolutionary model of thought suggests that they should make predictions about the natural world roughly commensurate with their capacity. My point is not that every creature needs a brain, but that any creature which devotes as much energy towards supporting a brain as humans do would be expected to make good use of its predictive power in some form or another. Some creatures (elephants, cows, etc.) may devote the bulk of their ability to remembering friends and foes. Humans are certainly unusual in their ability to think. But in no case does a creature waste its capacity in a wholly non-predictive manner which is what the OP video seemed to suggest it might do.

          3. “On the contrary, there’s good evidence that religion offers material benefits”

            If God does not exist, then religion is false. Benefits/survival traits are not the same as true/false. Everything has benefits.

            Having belief is irrelevant to naturalistic evolution, the extreme example being bacteria, they got no brain let alone belief, yet they are more successful by natural evolution standard (significantly large number and breed significantly faster than we can imagine)

          4. Everything has benefits.

            What does that even mean? You think that all ideas are equally beneficial?

            Benefits/survival traits are not the same as true/false.

            First, that was not my claim. My claim was that there would be some necessary correlation between the survival benefit that any brain provided and truth, though not an exact correlation. It seems everything I post here is addressing some strawman argument or another in responses.

            Second, please define your epistemology. How do you define ‘true’ and ‘false?’ How do you test if something is true or false? If our definitions here differ, we’ll just talk in circles.

            Having belief is irrelevant to naturalistic evolution Not sure what you’re arguing for here. It doesn’t seem to address my argument. It doesn’t even address what brains are capable of. It is a total non-sequiter. As I’ve already explained, the question is not whether creatures must evolve brains, but rather about whether brains which do evolve should be trusted to be capapable of discovering truth and if so, to what extent. Please try to re-read and understand my previous comments before re-creating an argument that I’ve already responded to or trying to address a point that I haven’t even made. Thanks.

          5. p.s. Not sure in what context you mean ‘naturalistic evolution.’ I only watched the first video. But Popper was not a naturalist.

            A naturalistic methodology (sometimes called an “inductive theory of science”) has its value, no doubt…. I reject the naturalistic view: It is uncritical. Its upholders fail to notice that whenever they believe to have discovered a fact, they have only proposed a convention. Hence the convention is liable to turn into a dogma. This criticism of the naturalistic view applies not only to its criterion of meaning, but also to its idea of science, and consequently to its idea of empirical method.

            – Karl R. Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery

            My arguments are to the first movie only. (Only one I watched) which suggested that an evolved brain could not get at truth.

          6. Well, then you should watch the 5 videos by Alvin Platinga. Then you’ll understand more about the argument.

          7. Tell that to bacteria, virus, etc. We’re not the most successful species by evolution standard. Even rats outnumbered us.

            To address this, briefly, evolution is not a Hobbsian war of all against all. Nor is a sort of Malthusian dilemma, where a geometrically multiplying population is faced with starvation, necessitating culling, really the driving force behind evolution which Darwin and his early supporters seem to have supposed it was. In short, inter-species competition for _food_ is not what Darwin and early supporters of him supposed it to be. (Though his assertion that culling does occur in nature on some basis is still correct.) Just because there are more free floating planktonic bacteria, for instance, doesn’t mean that there’s no advantage to bacteria which organize and attach to surfaces. Heat tolerant archaebacteria are not the most numerous of their kind, but they are the most numerous within the hot, sulfuric acid filled volcanic ponds where they live. There is an advantage in various organisms finding their ‘niche’ and adapting to it, regardless of the success of other species. Raup’s book Extinction has a part where he argues for this notion very accessibly.

  3. “What does that even mean? You think that all ideas are equally beneficial?”

    No, I think everything has it’s own benefits, at least to someone or something. Tell me one thing that has no benefit and I’m sure I can correct you.

    “My claim was that there would be some necessary correlation between the survival benefit that any brain provided and truth, though not an exact correlation.”

    This is what Alvin covered in one of the videos, I think you should just watch those videos. He argued that the correlation, is very little to none, in naturalistic evolution.

    I kept referring to naturalistic evolution to separate it from divine/guided evolution.

    “Second, please define your epistemology. How do you define ‘true’ and ‘false?’ How do you test if something is true or false? If our definitions here differ, we’ll just talk in circles.”

    Easy, if something is not true, it is false, and vice versa. For example, if you believe that God exists, and He doesn’t, then your belief is false.

    1. No, I think everything has it’s own benefits, at least to someone or something. Tell me one thing that has no benefit and I’m sure I can correct you.

      There are plenty of things with little to no adaptive advantage or predictive value (depending on how we’re defining ‘benefit’ here);
      The belief that 2+2=10 in base 10 has little to no predictive value to the creature which believes it (except relative to even worse errors.) The belief that if a person drops a ball of lead while standing on the earth that the ball will float in the air has little to no predictive value. The belief that drinking several cups of hemlock extract will not kill you has little benefit. And so on.

      Of course, even a broken clock is right twice a day, and even a functional clock is only accurate within certain limits. Truth and falsehood, as they apply to the physical world, are not binary things. The purpose of logic is to help model the material world. But ‘the map is not the territory.’

      You seem to be thinking in binary. Yes or no. True or false. With not even the slightest allowance for the possibility of a partially correct answer.

      I’ll watch the videos once I have time, but the problems with the first video were enough to put a bitter taste in my mouth, and nothing you’ve said so far suggests the other videos present a newer or more insightful argument.

      1. “The belief that drinking several cups of hemlock extract will not kill you has little benefit”

        I said everything benefits someone or something. In this case, it will benefit the competitor. Yet the competitor may just have a false belief about other thing that does not kill him/her.

        I’m no Alvin Platinga. He is very rigorous and methodical (and quite technical in some parts). It’s your loss if you don’t watch the videos because of me!

        Belief is binary, it’s either true or false, any example of any belief that isn’t true or false?

        However, the results are not binary. False belief doesn’t always result in disadvantage, nor true belief always result in advantage, at least naturalistic-ally speaking (because non-naturalistic-ally speaking, your belief could be your ticket to hell).

        Just watch the bloody videos first!

        1. I have gone and watched the “bloody videos” as you describe them. At no point does Plantinga address the argument that I’ve made. He argues that naturalistic evolution is expected to produce primarily false belief and that ideas which produce increasingly adaptive behaviors should not be expected to have any extra correlation with truth. He successfully argues against irrationalism as self defeating.

          His argument, however, rests entirely on the belief that naturalistic evolution cannot produce ideas which correlate significantly with truth, or systems which could lead to even the partial recognition of truth. It seems to imply that the correlation between adaptive behaviors and truth is close to zero, which seems a pretty basic and demonstrable error on his part.

          Thus, all the logic of his speech does not refute, much less address, my arguments.

          I said everything benefits someone or something. In this case, it will benefit the competitor.

          In which case, you would have to admit, it’s not a very adaptive belief for the person who believes in drinking hemlock, is it? Which means that the non-adaptive belief also has a low truth value, which supports my original statement that adaptive behaviors are more likely to correlate with truth.

          Belief is binary, it’s either true or false, any example of any belief that isn’t true or false?

          Newtonian physics is the classical example here. It seemed to be a highly predictive system for measuring physical interactions. Many people were willing to say that it was true. Yet despite its utility, along came Quantum Mechanics and Relativity, showing that Newtonian Physics (NP) was not precise, and that NP became remarkably imprecise at huge masses, fast speeds and small scales.

          Despite the fact that NP was proved to be ‘false’ it is still used because the errors it gives are typically less than the precision of our instruments for most everyday purposes.

          A more mundane example would be a clock which is ‘off by 2 minutes’ (or 1 minute, or .1 seconds) or any other example of imprecision in the pursuit of truth. A clock which is off by a fraction of a second does not tell the “true time.” Neither is it so wrong as to be useless.

          If you’re still ambivalent about the topic, check out Asimov’s breif classic essay “The Relativity of Wrong” which speaks to the matter more precisely but in the same manner that I have.
          http://chem.tufts.edu/AnswersInScience/RelativityofWrong.htm

          (None of this is to say whether a naturalistic view of evolution is true or false. It is simply to say that Platinga’s argument is based on what seems to be a false premise, and therefore his particular argument does not refute naturalistic evolution.)

          1. “His argument, however, rests entirely on the belief that naturalistic evolution cannot produce ideas which correlate significantly with truth”

            No, he argued that naturalistic evolution does not care whether a creature’s belief is true or false.

            He also didn’t say that naturalistic evolution can not produce ideas which correlate with truth, he argued that it’s very unlikely if naturalistic evolution is true.

            Also this argument does not refute naturalistic evolution, it only points out that it is self-defeating (he has a specific technical term that I can not remember exactly).

            “In which case, you would have to admit, it’s not a very adaptive belief for the person who believes in drinking hemlock, is it?”

            If you read my comment properly you would notice that I said anything has benefit to someone or something.

            No doubt if you believe in drinking hemlock, and you drink it, the benefit of your belief is not on you, but on your competitor.

            But the belief of drinking hemlock still has benefit, to weed out people who believe in drinking hemlock and gives way to others.

            Those other people who do not believe in drinking hemlock may still have false beliefs related to hemlock. Perhaps some thinks that they should not drink hemlock until they are 200 years old, or any countless other beliefs.

            Alvin had an example about man and tiger in one of the videos.

            “Despite the fact that NP was proved to be ‘false’ it is still used because the errors it gives are typically less than the precision of our instruments for most everyday purposes.”

            Yes, but I was saying that a belief is either true or false. I didn’t say that a belief is either useful or not. In other word, belief is binary, it’s either a true belief or a false belief.


          2. No, he argued that naturalistic evolution does not care whether a creature’s belief is true or false.

            If evolution does not care if a creature’s belief has truth value and there are many beliefs which could produce a beneficial outcome then it follows that there’s no selective

            pressure for an organism to produce true beliefs.
            My argument is that naturalistic evolution should “care”, to some extent, whether a person’s beliefs correspond with truth which I argue is the same as predictive value. And that

            this is the weak point in his argument.

            He also didn’t say that naturalistic evolution can not produce ideas which correlate with truth, he argued that it’s very unlikely if naturalistic evolution is true.

            What do you think is the difference between two things not correlating and an association between them being unlikely?
            Perhaps he believes that they correlate only very weakly with truth rather than not at all? Okay. The difference seems negligible to me, and the arguments and counterarguments

            all remain the same.

            If you read my comment properly you would notice that I said anything has benefit to someone or something.

            The problem is that this statement, while true, does not address my argument. How do you propose it supports yours? In order to refute my argument you’d need to show that a false

            belief was beneficial to the person holding the belief, and not someone else. To show that a false belief is beneficial to others proves… what exactly? What argument does it advance? (You could make some arguments towards the adaptive value of a belief which was harmful to the believer based on kin selection, provided the benefit to kin was high and detriment to self was low. But that’s about it.)

            There are even some valid examples of a false belief possibly providing more benefit to a person’s genes than a true belief that you could have given. A person who believed that women enjoyed rape might be more likely to rape and thus have offspring, which might be an advantage to the propagation of their genes. (And there do seem to be men who have this false belief, which demonstrates that evolutionary psychology is predictive of the types of errors people are likely to make.)
            Also, a person who was biased towards believing in their own innocence about bad things they’d done might have an advantage. And we see that type of bias as well. However in most

            cases, more functional beliefs tend to be more true and more dysfunctional beliefs tend to be more false. I’ve given a few examples of this, and could give more.

            Let me put it more succinctly; Evolutionarily speaking, the most adaptive thought process would be one which was powerfully able to make predictions based on external stimuli, but would be made unclear by strong desires such as hunger or desire for sex. This describes the Buddhist spiritual model fairly well, which supposes that removal of strong desire can lead to mental clarity.

            Those other people who do not believe in drinking hemlock may still have false beliefs related to hemlock. Perhaps some thinks that they should not drink hemlock until they

            are 200 years old, or any countless other beliefs.

            To the extent that your statement addresses beliefs, both include the belief “I should not drink hemlock now or significantly into the future.” Therefore the statement you gave corresponds significantly with the statement we’ve described as ‘true.’ Working with what you gave me, picture a Venn diagram. If “I shouldn’t drink hemlock” is true then “I shouldn’t drink hemlock till I’m 200” intersects more completely with the true statement than “I should drink

            hemlock right now” which does not intersect at all. Of course, none of these even address reasoning behind why someone shouldn’t drink hemlock. I’m just using the example that you gave which, again, illustrates that adaptive behaviors are likely to correlate more strongly with truth.

            Of course, the crux of our disagreement seems to be that you view truth as absolutely and unequivocally binary and I do not. But I’ll get to that in a moment.

            Alvin had an example about man and tiger in one of the videos
            The fourth alvin movie down (5th movie down total) around minute 7 to 10. I listened to the videos. He makes an assertion that “clearly this behavior could result from 1000 other

            belief desire combinations…
            … without involving much in the way of true belief.” without addressing whether some of those beliefs (or patterns which created beliefs) would be more functional than others

            and could therefore be selected for. He says
            the probability of truth is ‘not terribly high’ without addressing why or whether some of these ideas might be more strongly selected for and whether those selected for would not
            correlate more strongly with truth. Since those with obviously false beliefs would be weeded out and accurate associations (“tigers are big and scary! Get with a group and fight

            or else flee!”) are not only more likely to produce good behavior, but also more likely to be reusable (“Elephants are big and scary! Get with a group and fight or flee!” etc. etc. it seems just as fair to say that the truth value of someone’s beliefs could not be terribly low because such beliefs would be unlikely to be reusable (and people do reuse their thought patterns.) In any case, he asserts the point arguendo and offers

            no experiments to support his belief. Quantum physics is not ‘logical.’ How can a particle also be a wave? But experiemnts show it is true. Therefore experiments are better able to demonstrate truth than logic alone.

            Yes, but I was saying that a belief is either true or false. I didn’t say that a belief is either useful or not. In other word, belief is binary, it’s either a true belief or

            a false belief.

            You seem to be saying that anything that is not exactly true is completely false. So if, for instance,
            there is a single error anywhere in the bible then the whole thing is completely wrong because a thing cannot both contain errors and also be true?
            All measurements omitting margins of error are totally false as well, then,
            because all measurements requiring significant figures are imprecise. If we ask whether human beings are capable of understanding truth and I can provide a single
            counterexample of a human being having difficulty understanding truth, then we must conclude that human beings are not capable of understanding truth because
            the only possible answers are ‘true’ or ‘false?’ If I say “Jim Smith the farmer lives next door in a red brick house” and you say “The house is actually brownish-orange, not red” You’ve just shown my statement to be just as false as if I’d said “Jim Smith ran away last week and is living somewhere in Iowa” when he really lived next door?

            The thing is, some beliefs are closer to truth than others. Some beliefs contain beliefs which are both true and false. And it is possible, under the right circumstances,
            for people to be faced with two beliefs about patterns in the regular universe to figure out which is closer to truth even if they can’t definitively prove that one is the precise truth. This is because humans can recognize when a pattern is false, but not when it is absolutely predictive.

            I don’t want to keep repeating my arguments, so if your next post doesn’t advance the conversation in some meaningful way I’m just going to leave it for other readers to look over and judge for themselves.

            Best to you.

  4. I’ve just been arguing IF naturalistic evolution is true of course. If naturalistic evolution is true, then the likelihood of capability to know truth is very unlikely.

    But personally I think naturalism is false.

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