A month or so ago, I came across an interesting challenge to Christianity. A skeptic told me that religion was an exercise in avoiding truth- a willful delusion. He observed that many Christians (and religious people, in general) tend to believe the claims of their "holy" books over what has been discovered about nature, history, or the very nature of reality. He noticed that many religious people have a precommitment to a particular understanding of the world and no amount of evidence provided will persuade them otherwise. He, as an intellectual, does not want to make this same mistake. In this post, I want to explore the possibility that he is making the same mistake based upon the philosophical foundations of the claim he makes for rejecting religion, and Christianity specifically.
Missing Philosophical Foundations
While several things did strike me as dissonant about his claim, one of the first things that I noticed about the language the skeptic chose was that his naturalistic worldview could not provide any such grounding for the claim. I am specifically referring to his references to the will and ability to reason.
The Missing Will and Intentionality
First, if naturalism is true then any specific event is the cumulative result of the events prior to it, governed by laws of nature. Not only does this apply to any specific event, it applies to all events in the history of the universe all the way back to the big bang. On this view, ultimately, the laws of physics and the initial conditions of the universe fatalistically determined every event that would take place. This includes every "willful" "decision" that humans would make. Ultimately, there are no true decisions being made, no person is "willfully" denying anything; they are merely reacting to the events prior to their "decisions." The claim that anyone is doing anything "willfully" does not make sense in a naturalistic world. So, the naturalist cannot actually claim an intentional anything and be speaking accurately about reality.
The Missing Ability to Reason Reliably
Second, an assumption of the claim is that it is possible for people to reason reliably and accurately (but have just chosen not to). If naturalism is true, then the brains responsible for reasoning and the senses responsible for sensing the environment are not focused on true inferences or true observations but on survival. Alvin Plantinga spends an entire book on this very topic that I have recently read and reviewed. However, I'd like to reinforce Plantinga's conclusion, that if naturalism is true then we cannot trust our brains to reason towards truth, with some evidence from the real world. If naturalism is true, there is no such thing as free agency (see paragraph above). This means that everything that we believe about the intentionality of others is false. We intend to get up in the morning, to eat, to walk, to drive, to work, to organize, to engineer, to account, to create, to relate, to think, and numerous other things. If evolution has produced brains that believe that we actually do these things intentionally, then our brains survived for their ability to produce a majority of beliefs that are false yet highly practical in the environment.
The Over-Abundance of "Useful Fictions"
What makes this so powerful is that intentionality is merely one all-encompassing belief about reality that, if false, demonstrates that our brains are unreliable when it comes to inferring truth about reality, yet we have evidence that our brains have survived and that we do believe these false notions. With every additional false notion that is brought to the table of evidence (the concept of design, the concept of purpose, the concept of value, the concept of progress [all four require true intentionality, even value grounded in purpose], objective morality, moral and creative responsibility, reward and punishment, and even the existence of God- just to name a few more), the conclusion that Plantinga argued philosophically becomes even more certain evidentially.
But some naturalists attempt to escape this conclusion by saying that these are merely "useful fictions." I find this to be an astounding concession. When we are discussing the ability to discover truth, "useful fictions" is actually an oxymoron. This becomes painfully apparent when one considers how deeply grounded in and encompassing of our beliefs about reality these fictions truly are. And yet, we still believe them because the fictions are useful. Useful for survival, but obviously not for their truth-value, for if it were for their truth-value, we would not believe them. Any naturalist who grants that "useful fictions" are believed fall prey to this devastating argument. And what is even more devastating than all our beliefs being based in fiction? The fact that we have near-certainty that no belief will ever be believed for its truth-value. For the naturalist, this brings annihilation to the only source they thought they had for truth: science. Science depends upon the reliability of our senses and our brains to infer true things about reality, and if they can never be reasonably expected to produce such, then science has no place to begin or go regarding the search for what is true. Science is merely another "useful fiction" that we falsely believe for its survival value.
The skeptic who raises such a challenge fundamentally contradicts their worldview when they claim that someone is "willfully avoiding truth." And the evidence closely approaches 100% that they should be speaking that claim to a mirror: it is all-but-certain that they are the ones with the willful delusion, possessing faith despite the evidence--a blind faith. Based upon the weight of the evidence and the logical contradiction within the worldview, any skeptic, who raises this challenge out of concern for the pursuit of truth, should abandon their naturalism and the idea that our brains are the result of unguided processes otherwise they fall victim to the very evil they wish to escape.
For more information on this argument against naturalism I highly recommend:
- Where the Conflict Really Lies- Alvin Plantinga
- Agents Under Fire- Angus Menuge
- The Programming of Life- Donald E. Johnson