Monday, May 4, 2015

Theism, Atheism and Proper Basicality

Philosophers consider some beliefs justified even though the believer can mount no argument for them. They call these beliefs properly basic beliefs and they are the foundation upon which all our other beliefs are based. For example, we're justified in believing what our memory tells us we had for breakfast, we're justified in believing that we're experiencing a pain or seeing a tree or that other people have minds, etc. We're justified in holding these beliefs, prima facie, until an argument can be mounted compelling us to accept that we are mistaken.

Some philosophers, in what's known as the Reformed tradition of epistemology, argue that belief in God is properly basic as well. We're justified in believing in God, these philosophers argue, until and unless a compelling counterargument can be presented to us. Some non-theistic philosophers have claimed that just as theistic belief is properly basic, so, too, is atheistic belief. The atheist is justified in believing there is no God until and unless a persuasive counterargument is presented.

Rik Peels at the philosophy blog Prosblogion considers this claim and finds it unpersuasive. He writes:
I’ve recently been wondering whether atheism – the belief that God does not exist – could be properly basic. By that, I mean whether it could be a belief that is not based on arguments, but nonetheless formed by a reliable mechanism that is truth-oriented.

I doubt whether atheism could be properly basic. If I am right, then, in order for atheism to be warranted (or maybe even merely rational; see below), atheism has to be based on arguments—whereas, perhaps, such a thing is not required for theism.
After some helpful brush-clearing Peels gets to the crux of his argument:
On atheism, the most plausible explanation of why such beliefs are usually true is highly likely to be one in terms of our evolutionary history. It seems evolutionarily advantageous to form true perceptual beliefs about one’s environment. If we did not, we would not have been as successful at survival or we might not have survived at all. If we failed to see that a shark or tiger is approaching, our chances of survival would be comparatively low. Mutatis mutandis the same applies to other beliefs, such as beliefs based on memory or introspection, as well as on smell or touch.

Thus, our normal basic beliefs seem to be produced by cognitive mechanisms that are truth-oriented and generally reliable, because they have the right causal connection with the world (outside or inside) and having true beliefs contributes to survival (emphasis mine). There has been some debate about whether evolution selects for true beliefs, but it seems that virtually all atheists and even many theists embrace this thought, so I will not question that thesis here.

Now, the problem is that the basic belief that God does not exist seems to differ radically from perceptual beliefs, auditory beliefs, introspective beliefs, and our other basic beliefs. If God does not exist, he cannot cause anything in our physical environment, nor will he be exemplified in our physical environment in the way that properties like being such that there are three [sharks] within a range of twenty feet can be exemplified by the sharks circling around us.

Of course, believing that God does not exist may have survival value. However, even if it does, it does not seem to do so in virtue of its being true — this in opposition to, say, our perceptual and memorial beliefs. For, it seems that the belief that God does not exist is not and cannot be caused by the world inside or outside, in the way perceptual and memorial beliefs can. This is not to deny that atheism as a basic belief may have survival value: it may make one, say, courageous or independent. The point is: it seems it cannot have such survival value because of the causal interaction with the world. And such causal interaction does seem to be required in order for the mechanism that produces that belief to be truth-oriented and reliable.

Hence, even though, for all we know, the basic belief that God does not exist is true or even necessarily true, it seems it cannot be produced by a mechanism that is both truth-oriented and reliable. This means that whether or not God exists, it seems impossible that humans have a truth-oriented cognitive mechanism that reliably produces the basic belief that God does not exist. And that means that, to the extent that one’s atheism is a basic belief, it cannot be properly basic. Hence, in order for it to be warranted, it should be based on arguments against God’s existence. This may even imply that atheism cannot be rational if it is merely a basic belief, for instance, if rationality requires that it seems possible that the belief in question is produced by a reliable truth-oriented cognitive mechanism.
A non-existent God cannot have any causal connection with the world, thus our truth-oriented and generally reliable cognitive mechanisms could not lead to the properly basic belief that there is no God the way those mechanisms lead us to memory, perceptual, and other properly basic beliefs. Peels closes with this:
Thus, if something like Reformed Epistemology is correct, there is an important epistemic asymmetry between theism and atheism: theism can be properly basic, whereas atheism cannot—the theist does not need arguments for God’s existence, whereas the atheist does need arguments against God’s existence.
Interesting, at least for those interested in epistemological questions.