IN MY discussions about God’s existence (or lack of it) with theists, one of the arguments I encounter is this: If God doesn’t exist, then how do I know if what I am thinking is correct or not? In other words, if God had not designed the brain to know what is true or not, then all that the brain has to go on is evolution. And since evolution is about survival, not necessarily about truth, then how do I know if this brain evolved to actually perceive truth? How can I claim to be seeking for the truth or to have found it, with such a faulty or unreliable instrument?
I admit not having a proper answer for this argument other than feeling there was something wrong somewhere. Today I read an article by Richard Carrier which addressed this question rather brilliantly.
Right from the start, he does not argue the premise that our brain is faulty and unreliable but he agrees with it 100 percent, saying “We know for a fact that our cognitive faculties are poor…they do not work very well. So badly designed are they, that it took us thousands of years to invent ‘workarounds’ for our failing faculties, technologies that ‘bypass’ their defects, and help us learn about reality contrary to our biologically evolved inability to do so. Language. Logic. Formal mathematics. Scientific method. Critical thinking skills. Even physical instruments, which correct for countless limits and defects in our sensory and cognitive abilities. These we all had to invent. None of them were communicated to us by God. We had to come up with them ourselves. And because a god didn’t help us find them, it took over a hundred thousand years to do it. That makes exactly zero sense on Keller’s thesis. But it is exactly what we should expect on mine: there is no God.” (Keller here refers to Timothy Keller, a theologian whom Carrier is refuting in his article).
He then refers to an article listing over 100 cognitive biases, or ways our brain deviates from logic and rational thinking. Reading through that list was an eye-opener for me as I saw myself falling into one or another cognitive bias.
So here the theist’s argument is easily turned against him, for if God had indeed designed the brain for truth, then he is a poor designer indeed. Yet some would still persist and say that, “Well, you’re still agreeing that there is a designer, whether poor or not.” To which I would reply, “If that is the case, why would a poor designer be worthy of praise and worship, much less obedience?”
If they say, “Well, it’s really man’s fault, because it was his sin that caused the defect.” So in other words, everything was perfect to begin with, and because of sin, it’s as if God randomly took out a microchip or two from our brains so that it was now faulty?
But consider this, if our brain was a product of slow evolutionary processes, then it would stand to reason that it had to have made many faulty assumptions and conclusions -- and looking at history, we can confirm that indeed it has. Our ancestors saw lightning and believed it was a sentient deity. They thought that diseases were brought about by evil spirits, and they believed the same could be cured by magical rituals, exorcisms, prayer or applying sacred oils. They believed the earth was flat and that the sun ran across the sky.
That we were able to create tools that worked around these beliefs and showed them to be false, is a testament to man’s tenacity to discover the truth about reality, rather than to any claim to divine design. While it is true that our perceptions are not 100% accurate, they are not 100% inaccurate either, and the simple truth is that they are more accurate now than they had ever been, and we know this not because we simply feel it, but because experiment has shown and proven it.
The scientific method, logic, probability, statistics, and so on are all tools that we rely on not because they have been handed to us as gospel-truth but because they have proven time and again to be more reliable indicators of reality, negating the many cognitive biases that have evolved with our brains. Thus, we can say that following these principles would lead us to a better understanding of truth and reality, rather than the simple belief that God made it so.
Published in the SunStar Davao newspaper on July 28, 2017.
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