The Infallibile Mind
Posted by Leo Tarvi
I saw this on twitter the other day, and it’s a weird one. Not only the article itself, but the site it was on, apparently Faithful News is a site that collects articles they think Christians would be interested in and presents them in one place. I’m not sure how broad a net they cast there, I mean there’s something like forty thousand different Christian religions with many conflicts between them, I’m curious if the site attempts to provide for all of them or focuses on a narrow spectrum. But I’m going to at least make a token attempt to stay on topic here.
The article is titled “Faith in the infallibility of the mind is the atheist’s delusion”, and it puzzles me right from the start because I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone claim that the mind is infallible. In fact much of our society is the way it is because we know that our minds can be fooled. The scientific method and peer-review process are specifically built to make it hard to lie to yourself. All over you’ll see signs reminding you of things you not only know perfectly well, but that are obvious with even the least thought. Our computers ask “are you sure?” for countless operations because sometimes we click on the wrong things, and in my experience we still manage to click “yes” when we mean “no” to that surprisingly often.
People in general clearly do not have faith in the infallibility of the human mind, because we build tools that assume fallibility and are specifically meant to ease problems caused by it. There doesn’t seem to be any reason why atheists would be different from the general population on that count. Indeed, since most atheists have been religious in the past, and from an atheist’s point of view most of the world believes strange things it’s tempting to suggest that atheists would be more aware of this fallibility, on a statistical scale.
To be honest I doubt there’d be a significant difference even if a reliable way to test that could be found. There’s an awful lot of variety in humans, and yet in large groups we’re often very like each other.
Moving on, the article mentions an argument made by philosopher Alvin Plantinga. I’m going to assume that what’s presented is a very simplified outline of Plantinga’s argument, since it doesn’t really hang together as shown. Maybe I’ll look up the whole thing someday. But check out the conclusion:
So evolution will gradually modify those neuro-physiological properties in the direction of greater adaptiveness, but it doesn’t follow that it modifies belief in the direction of truth. Evolution doesn’t care about true belief.
So, if you accept the combination of naturalism and materialism, says Plantinga, you’ll have to accept that any particular belief you might hold could as likely be false as true. The probability that your beliefs are reliable will be low.
I’m very curious if there’s a special definition of “belief” being used here. If you consider a few examples, such as “I believe from this spot I can spear an antelope before it detects me”, or “I believe these red berries are the nutritious ones instead of the poison ones”, I think you’ll agree evolution is indeed going to select for accuracy.
The next paragraph starts out like this:
If, however, you believe in God and don’t accept naturalism and materialism, then that particular problem doesn’t apply. You will assume there is a being who is separate from creation but speaks truth into the fibre of the universe.
I keep feeling like this is a backwards way of looking at it. Like starting from the assumption that X is true and trying to find things that make it look like you’re right. Far better, I think, to assume you don’t know and try to learn what’s true.
But there’s something more in there, because many, if not most, religious people assume that they know something infallibly. People often say that God told them to do something. I think most of them mean that they really really feel that they know what God wants and aren’t actually hearing voices, but no matter how strongly you believe something you must always be prepared for the possibility that you may be wrong. The real danger in believing you know the mind of God is that you assume you can’t be wrong, because God wouldn’t allow it.