When is a thought not a thought?

ImageI’m not sure if everyone follows this, so forgive me if this is abstract.  I just kind of find it hilarious and awfully compelling.

If you don’t believe in God, you believe the world is fundamentally matter and that life came about through the process of evolution.  Evolution requires only the survival of the fittest, and survival simply comes about through 4 things: fighting, fleeing, feeding, and reproduction.  That’s it.  At no point along the way do your thoughts about the world around you actually have to truly represent the world around you.

For instance, an evolutionary psychologist might tell you that mild paranoia actually gives you better chances of survival than realism, so you may have evolved into a kind of paranoia that you now think is an accurate picture of reality.  In other words, your thoughts about what is “true” and “real” simply aren’t, because you’re more likely to survive this way.

That means that when you say “I don’t believe in God,” you are saying that you can’t trust your thoughts to actually reveal reality.  You don’t trust your own thoughts to be true.  As a consequence, your perception that there is no God can’t be trusted to be true, and thus you don’t believe in your own atheism.

If this seems silly on first glance, you might want to give it a second thought.

Hardwired

Philosophers of all stripes are coming to see that scientific methodology can fundamentally undermine itself.

These are the kinds of things I speculate about in

Hardwired: Finding the God You Already Know.

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14 thoughts on “When is a thought not a thought?

  1. Pastor. I thank G-d for you, since your mind and thinking is so clear and the reasoning that you use is gentle. You have crystallized the argument perfectly what I have been saying to my “atheistic” brother for a long time. I have gone back to the discussion of his atheism with renewed vigor. i am going to pick up your book soon when I get paid next week. G-d bless you.

  2. You said, “Evolution requires only the survival of the fittest, and survival simply comes about through 4 things: fighting, fleeing, feeding, and reproduction. That’s it. At no point along the way do your thoughts about the world around you actually have to truly represent the world around you.”

    If an evolved being’s thoughts did not in good measure correspond to the actual world, he would not survive long. If I think a lion is a kitty cat, I’m going to be lunch.

    You go on to mention that some degree of paranoia is a survival advantage, according to evolution. That’s true. As anyone who has observed a kid with a monster in his closet will tell you, a certain paranoia is built into our species, just as evolution would predict.

    As another commenter pointed out, belief in gods may be another survival strategy introduced by evolution.

    With the advance of science, we have humbly come to realize these biases in ourselves. As a child grows up, he gets the courage to open the closet and test his hypothesis about the monster. As he grows further, he may test his ideas about God. In both cases, he is is not totally giving up on his ability to perceive reality. He is merely thinking critically. There is a difference.

  3. The fallibility of the human brain and sensory inputs we use to inform it mean that a lot of science is done using model-dependant realism.
    TL;DR Science has already thought of this. Your point is invalid.

  4. “At no point along the way do your thoughts about the world around you actually have to truly represent the world around you.”

    Fighting, flight, feeding, and reproduction are going to be very difficult if you don’t have a good model of the world in your brain. We’re evolved to be able to construct such models efficiently, to the point of being able to analyze them consciously and discuss them with others.

    Further, we’ve been able to use language and intelligence to develop science as the most effective tool for learning about our world. This is how we are able to tell that such things as paranoia even exist. If there’s any question about what is real and what isn’t, we can test it. If it isn’t testable, it’s either a meaningless claim, or we haven’t developed the tools yet.

    Science does not undermine itself, because we all (even religious believers) adopt the same assumptions, including (1) I am not a brain in a vat, and (2) induction works.

    If science or atheism fails by these assumptions as you suggest, then so does religion.

  5. And to believe in God, you have to trust that your thoughts about what is “true” and “real”, are, in fact true, and real.

    Which is counter to the evidence — ranging from visual illusions and the blind-spot to the hundreds of specific examples of cognitive bias we can easily demonstrate — that our thoughts are just as muddled and error-prone as the rest of our physical bodies.

    In other words, your argument has to go something like this: “My mind lies to me all the time, it’s easy to demonstrate my mind lies to me all the time, but in the one question of whether or not God exists, my mind can be trusted to perceive the correct answer”.

    To believe your mind reveals reality requires systematic rejection of the evidence.

    1. Thanks so much for the insightful post. Actually, to assert that the mind “lies,” you’re assuming a God’s-eye view in which there is an actual, objective reality which is in some way perceivable, even around defects in perception. That’s what cannot be guaranteed in the evolutionary psychology rubric. The God’s-eye view can only be assumed if you believe in…well, you know.

      I appreciate your feedback.

      1. We all act as if there is an actual, objective reality, or, well, at least we think we act that way, or well, at least we think that we think we act that way, or something like that. OK, sure, there may be no actual, objective reality, or we’re all in the Matrix, or none of us exist. We can have a go at solipsism some other time, perhaps: as someone once said, we’re all tugging on the same bootstraps.

        The fact the mind gets many things wrong is easily demonstrated. Your mind says the moon is larger than normal when it’s near the horizon: a ruler demonstrates it’s the same size as always. Your mind says you saw the pitcher’s fastball before you swung your bat: physics proves it is impossible — neurons don’t fire quickly enough for that to be true. Your mind says you remember what happened on your wedding day: a written record or film reveals your mind doesn’t store memories very well to start with, and subsequently corrupts what it does store.

        You don’t need a God’s-eye view to run a simple experiment.

        But you want to play by one set of rules when you board an airplane and another set of rules when you say a God’s-eye view is required to separate fact from fiction. It doesn’t work that way: if you believe science will make the plane fly, you have no excuse for not believing science when it demonstrates exactly how good your brain is at perceiving reality. (Spoiler alert: “not very”.)

  6. “For instance, an evolutionary psychologist might
    tell you that mild paranoia actually gives you
    better chances of survival than realism, so you
    may have evolved into a kind of paranoia that you
    now think is an accurate picture of reality. In
    other words, your thoughts about what is “true”
    and “real” simply aren’t, because you’re more
    likely to survive this way.

    “That means that when you say “I don’t believe in
    God,” you are saying that you can’t trust your
    thoughts to actually reveal reality. You don’t
    trust your own thoughts to be true. As a
    consequence, your perception that there is no
    God can’t be trusted to be true, and thus you
    don’t believe in your own atheism.”

    That’s funny because some psychologist think that belief in a diety has evolutionary advantages. That’s to say, it helped community cohesion.

    Sauce: en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolutionary_psychology_of_religion

    So how can you be so sure that you’re not the one who’s living in a false reality because it helps your chances of surviving in this harsh world?

    1. That’s a really great point! If evolutionary psychology is true, nothing is really guaranteed in the world of perception. However, God’s existence is internally consistent with our lived experience of epistemology matching our ontology. So the theistic worldview is self-referentially consistent in terms of the dependability of perception, and materialism is not. So a theist can say without inconsistency that she believes her thoughts about God to be true, whereas the materialist never has that option.

      Thanks for your thoughts!

      1. I actually agree with your point, but what should be obvious is that having a self-referentially consistent worldview doesn’t mean the worldview is true.

  7. A series of tenuous and convoluted non-sequiturs. Hopefully you’ll welcome debate rather than trying to silence me by removing this content (as many Christians do).

    Let’s start with:

    “If you don’t believe in God, you believe the world is fundamentally matter and that life came about through the process of evolution.”

    While this is possibly a reasonable assumption, it’s not a necessarily true statement.

    “Evolution requires only the survival of the fittest, and survival simply comes about through 4 things: fighting, fleeing, feeding, and reproduction. That’s it. At no point along the way do your thoughts about the world around you actually have to truly represent the world around you.”

    The first half of this paragraph does in no way imply the second in any way. This is literally the definition of a non-sequitur.

    Evolution is the process by which modern man has evolved – along with all life on the planet. The end result is that we have brains that we can use to reason about the world. The evidence of this is all around us – just take a look at the massive cities we have built, the advanced technology we have developed and the computer you are currently using. If we did not have the ability to logically reason about the world then these things would not exist.

    The fact that our brains evolved by evolution has no bearing on that: it is simply the case that thousands of years ago, higher reasoning skills became a survival advantage. That has allowed us to achieve all the things we have today.

    “That means that when you say “I don’t believe in God,” you are saying that you can’t trust your thoughts to actually reveal reality. You don’t trust your own thoughts to be true. As a consequence, your perception that there is no God can’t be trusted to be true, and thus you don’t believe in your own atheism.”

    Again, this doesn’t follow. Sure, our ability to reason comes from (essentially) a piece of meat. That has some vulnerabilities: it can be damaged (injury) or malfunction (mental illness), and it isn’t perfectly logical like a computer is (it’s vulnerable to delusion, misdirection, can be affected by emotion, etc.) but generally speaking we can still reason about the world pretty well.

    The important thing is to understand and be aware of the limitations of our brains and how we can sometimes trick ourselves into believing things that aren’t correct. This is essentially how modern science works (peer review, etc.). We should analyse ideas and arguments carefully (like I’m doing here) to properly understand what’s being asserted and better judge whether it’s correct.

    Interestingly, the opposite of what you claim is also true. If you believe in a god, you believe in a being that has the ability to perfectly deceive you. So you can’t trust your own thoughts either – hypothetically for example, your god could be evil and tricking you into thinking it’s good. It’s funny how these kinds of arguments swing both ways.

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