“Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind,” rhetorically asked Charles Darwin, “if there are any convictions in such a mind?” (Darwin 1881) In Darwin’s July 3rd 1881 letter to William Graham, we encounter a problem of epistemological uncertainty of our cognitive faculties. Darwin believed that Graham had accurately portrayed his conviction that “the Universe [was] not the result of chance.” He further explained,
“But then with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy”(ibid.).
Darwin’s unpleasant doubt is the incarnation of the Cartesian malignant Demon. In evolutionary biology, Rene Descartes’ malignant demon took on flesh and dwelt among us. This malignant demon is an “exceedingly potent and deceitful” being that “has employed all his artifice to deceive” us to believe that we are experiencing an external world while in actual reality we are experiencing “nothing better than the illusions of dreams” (Descartes 1901, 224). Deceitfulness and falseness came through malignant Demon.
Given the truthfulness of two propositions, namely (i) atheism, the idea that there is no such being as God(s), afterlife, dualism &c., and (ii) evolutionary process through natural selection, whether through phyletic gradualism or punctuated equilibria, it appears that our cognitive faculties are unreliable in producing true beliefs.
In the past decades cognitive psychology of religion has produced empirical data to show that we, both explicit atheists¹ and theists, innately possess implicit beliefs about the nature and existence of God(s), dualism, afterlife, moral realism &c. Whether these intuitive innate beliefs are a result of a biological by-product of pre-existing cognitive capacities or adaptation-for-cooperation purposes is beyond the scope of this essay (see Atran (2002), Barrett (2004; 2012), Bering (2006; 2011), Boyer (2001, 2008), McCauley (2011), Pyysiäinen (2004; 2009)). What is clear is that our belief forming faculties, given atheism, have evolved to form and hold false beliefs. It is for survival advantage, it appears, and not for production of true beliefs that our cognitive faculties were naturally selected.
From an adaptations-atheistic worldview, for example, implicit religious beliefs appear to have been naturally selected for human social cooperation environment, which assists the survivability of our species. These implicit religious beliefs are, thus, illusory. They are selected not because they are true beliefs but because they aid our struggle for survival. We are deceived to believe they are true but, as a matter of fact, they are not. It is simply the malignant Demon dwelling in our flesh.
If this is true, Darwin was correct. Beliefs, namely propositions we hold to be true, formed through our naturally selected cognitive faculties can not be trusted. This bodily malignant demon raises a monster epistemological challenge to an atheistic worldview (see Plantinga 1993, 2012; Nagel 2012). If our belief-forming faculties have been naturally selected for survivability and not for formation of true beliefs per se, then we should not only be skeptical about our innate religious beliefs but also all beliefs produced by our cognitive faculties.
A possible counter-argument could be that explicit beliefs, formed through scientific and (or) philosophical reflection are unaffected by Darwin’s horrid doubt. We can rest assured, so the argument goes, that beliefs formed through scientific and (or) philosophical investigation could be held to be true beliefs. Such a counter-argument fails. In order to perform a scientific and (or) philosophical investigation, we cannot avoid presuming what is in question, namely reliability of our cognitive faculties to form reliable true beliefs. As Thomas Reid reminded us,
“If a man’s honesty were called into question, it would be ridiculous to refer to the man’s own word, whether he be honest or not. The same absurdity there is in attempting to prove, by any kind of reasoning, probable or demonstrative, that our reason is not fallacious, since the very point in question is, whether reasoning may be trusted.”(Reid 1983, 276)
The incarnated malignant demon, thus, challenges the truthfulness of the atheistic worldview in relationship to evolutionary biology. If our cognitive faculties are unreliable, then we are not in any epistemological position of knowing whether the atheistic worldview, which is produced by our cognitive faculties, is a true belief about the reality of the external world. This doubt does not end here. We are called to doubt the very doubt itself. Given atheism, the search for truth is all together undercut, as Friedrich Nietzsche brilliantly observed:
It is unfair to Descartes to call his appeal to God’s credibility frivolous. Indeed, only if we assume a God who is morally our like can ‘truth’ and the search for truth be at all something meaningful and promising of success. This God left aside, the question is permitted whether being deceived is not one of the conditions of life. (Nietzsche 2003, 26)
Theism is unaffected by this incarnated malignant demon. Our implicit religious beliefs appear to have being naturally selected according to God’s providence. The Syrian monk and priest John of Damascus explained, “God, however, did not leave us in absolute ignorance. For the knowledge of God’s existence has been implanted by Him in all by nature”(De Fide Orth. 1.1). The modification, confusion and denial or overriding of these implicit beliefs emerges from human’s rebellion after the fall of humanity (1.3) Equally John Calvin contended that we posses “in the human minds and indeed by natural instinct, some sense of Deity […] since God himself, to prevent any man from pretending ignorance, has endued all men with some idea of his Godhead”. (Inst. 1.3.1)
According to theism, our cognitive faculties when properly working do produce true beliefs. There is no incarnated malignant demon to deceive us, but a benevolent God who has hardwired our brain to seek Him. As Augustine declared to God in his Confessions: “[Y]ou made us for yourself and our hearts find no peace until they rest in you.”(Conf. 1:7) In theism the search for truth is all together meaningful.
Atran, Scott (2002) In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Barrett, J. (2011) Cognitive Science, Religion, and Theology: From Human Minds to Divine Minds, West Conshohoken, PA: Templeton Press. -
__________ (2012) Born Believers: The Science of Children’s Religious Beliefs, New York: The Free Press.
Bering, Jesse M. (2006) ‘The folk psychology of souls,’ Behavioral and Brain Sciences 29, 453-498
__________ (2011) The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.
Boyer, Pascal (2001) Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought, New York: Basic Books
__________ (2008) ‘Religion: Bound to believe?,’ Nature, Vol. 455
Darwin, Charles (1881) “Darwin, C. R. to Graham, William” in Darwin Correspondence Database, http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/entry-13230 accessed on Tue Feb 3 2015
Descartes, R. (1901). The Method, Meditations and Philosophy of Descartes. (J. Vietch, Trans.) Washington; London: M. Walter Dunne.
McCauley, Robert N. (2011) Why Religion Is Natural and Science Is Not, New York: Oxford University Press.
Nagel, Thomas (2012) Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Nietzsche, Friedrich (2003) Nietzsche: Writings from the Late Notebooks, Rüdiger Bittner, ed. Cambridge University Press.
Plantinga, Alvin(1993) Warrant and Proper Function. New York: Oxford University Press.
__________ (2012) Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Pyysiäinen, Ilkka (2003) How Religion Works: Towards a New Cognitive Science of Religion, Leiden: Brill.
__________ (2009) Supernatural Agents: Why We Believe in Souls, Gods, and Buddhas, New York: Oxford University Press.
Reid, Thomas (1983) Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man in Thomas Reid’s Inquiry and Essays, ed. R. Beanblossom and K. Lehrer, Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Co.