Darwin’s Doubt

Notes I took from Mitch Stoke’s A Shot of Faith to the Head- Chapter 5: Darwin’s Doubt: 

Who Knows? Not Agnostics.

Where did our cognitive faculties come from?

If Hume suspends judgment about the origins and purpose of our cognitive faculties, then there’s no telling (for him) whether our faculties are reliable- whether they generally provide us with true beliefs.

One the one hand, it may be highly likely that our cognitive faculties are reliable, that they tend to produce true beliefs in us. On the other hand, the probability may be very low. The reasonable position for Hume to take with regards to the reliability of his faculties is agnosticism.

This leads to further problems though. Any belief of Hume’s will obviously be produced by his belief-forming faculties that came from who-knows-where. But of course his belief that he should withhold judgment in everything is itself a belief. Hume should then withhold judgment about whether he should withhold judgment. And so he shouldn’t believe that he should withhold judgment (nor should he believe that he should withhold judgment).

And he can’t escape his predicament by simply assuming that his senses are reliable. That’s because he’s questioning his faculties. Moreover, that belief (that his belief-forming faculties are reliable) would come from those very faculties.

Atheism: Now You Know It, Now You Don’t

A stronger kind of unbelief. Hume was agnostic about whether God exists and therefore whether humans were designed or merely a cosmic accident. It wasn’t that Hume believed that God doesn’t exist; rather, he didn’t form any opinion- he didn’t know what to think. He neither believed God existed, nor that God didn’t exist.

But there’s another option- atheism. Atheists have a further belief that God doesn’t exist.

Today atheists say that our cognitive faculties are reliable because evolution fashions these faculties for our survival. And to survive, our cognitive faculties must accurately hook up with the world, giving us true beliefs more often than not. It absolutely would not do to believe that there’s not a saber-toothed tiger in front of me when there is. Those organisms that survive have been given a gift.

But evolution doesn’t necessarily sift for cognitive mechanisms that produce true beliefs.

All evolution cares about is survival, getting the organism in the right places at the right times so that it can reproduce. And of source, organisms don’t need beliefs to do that. It also isn’t clear at what point organisms begin having beliefs.

Given unguided or blind evolution, it’s difficult to say how probable it is that creatures would ever develop true beliefs.

Because there’s no telling whether unguided evolution would fashion our cognitive faculties to produce mostly true beliefs, atheists who believe the standard evolutionary story must reserve judgment about whether any of their beliefs produced by these faculties are true. This includes the belief in the evolutionary story. Believing in unguided evolution comes built in with its very own reason not to believe it.

What if Survival Did Require True Beliefs?

Perhaps you think that evolution plus atheism- the probability is very low that we’d have faculties that produced mostly true beliefs. Your view isn’t “who knows?” On the contrary, you think it’s unlikely that blind evolution has the skill set for manufacturing reliable cognitive mechanisms. And perhaps, like most of us, you think that we actually have reliable cognitive faculties and so actually have mostly true beliefs. If so, then you would be reasonable to conclude that atheism is pretty unlikely. If atheism is true, then it’s unlikely that most of our beliefs are true; but most of our beliefs are true, therefore atheism is probably false.

Notice something else. The atheist naturally thinks that our belief in God is false. Nevertheless, most human beings have believed in a god of some sort. But suppose, for argument’s sake, that this widespread belief really is false, and that it merely provides survival benefit for humans, a coping mechanism of sorts. If so, then we would have additional evidence- on the atheist’s own terms- that evolution is more interested in useful beliefs than in true ones. Or alternatively, if evolution really is concerned with true beliefs, then maybe the widespread belief in God would be a kind of “evolutionary” evidence for his existence.

The problem is that on each of these views- on agnosticism and atheism- there’s reason to believe something (that we should withholding judgment about the truth of each and every belief) that paradoxically undermines all beliefs, even belief in agnosticism and atheism. Both views are in other words, self-defeating- forms of intellectual suicide.

We’re Getting Closer

When Christians believe in God without argument, it is a basic belief

Caused by some sort of experience working through some properly functioning faculty (and in an appropriate environment). Is there any such thing for belief in God?

Belief in God can be entirely rational without being based on any argument.

(A Shot of Faith to the Head, Mitch Stokes)


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