Malignant Demon, Atheism and Search For Truth

Critique“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.


[1] Atheists do explicitly override these natural intuitions while some theists modify such beliefs. See Naturalness of Theism. Cognitive environments serve to nurture or override such beliefs.


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, 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.

44 thoughts on “Malignant Demon, Atheism and Search For Truth

  1. Plantinga’s argument contains a presupposition fallacy. Plantinga presupposes reliabilism and ignores pragmatism. Also if our current theory of evolution predicts our own unreliability AND if this were problematic, this doesn’t mean, that dismissing naturalism is the correct strategy. When newtonian mechanics got problems we haven’t dismissed naturalism eighter; we refined our physics.

  2. With regard to search for truth, there is no comparison whatsoever between the convictions of a monkey’s mind and the cognitive faculties of post-evolutionary man endowed with the options of the image of God, a.k.a., “life-giving breath”, viz.: the Holy Spirit or self-reliance. (Gen. 2: 4-7)

  3. Prayson,
    Great post. Like you I also see the epistemological problems the evolutionary theory raises were to some extent forshadowed by Descartes.

    Consider this quote from Descartes:
    “Some, indeed, might perhaps be found who would be disposed rather to deny the existence of a Being so powerful [God] than to believe that there is nothing certain. But let us for the present refrain from opposing this opinion, and grant that all which is here said of a Deity is fabulous: nevertheless, in whatever way it be supposed that I reach the state in which I exist, whether by fate, or chance, or by an endless series of antecedents and consequents, or by any other means, it is clear that the probability of my being so imperfect as to be the constant victim of deception, will be increased exactly in proportion as the power possessed by the cause, to which they assign my origin, is lessened.”

    Brief story: Back in the 1990s I was in law school and had come to believe that there was indeed an insurmountable difficulty with believing in 1)evolution 2)naturalism and 3) the reliability of our moral beliefs. I was posting on a news group and Michael Huemer (then a grad student) told me that Alvin Plantinga had published a similar argument. Well I looked it up and sure enough, he was. I sent Dr. Plantinga what I wrote and since I was going to school at Notre Dame he was nice enough to request a meeting. We talked a bit and I explained how Descartes, had in effect dealt with this issue. He sort of frowned and told me that DesCartes lived many centuries before Darwin so that couldn’t be the case. I, of course, knew that but wasn’t quite sure how to respond. In any case we had a nice chat and he gave me an article he was circulating on the topic.

    Anyway I also posted on this topic and the comment section has quite a bit of what I consider quality comments.


    Travis also posted on this here:

    In sum it seems to me that a case can be made that if one believes in evolution and naturalism they are in essentially saying that they were created by a crazy demon. Not necessarily one that will intentionally deceive us but one where we don’t really know what sort of relations our beliefs will have with truth. This is because we understand that there is a difference between saying:
    1) Our beliefs are kept to the extent they support fitness
    2) Our beliefs are kept to the extent they are true

    We might think the 2 are related. But that belief in the relation itself is a belief that is undercut if we primarily accept the first statement as our model. It seems to me that those who believe in evolution have to accept a bit more than evolution as the model of how we came to exist.

    However with respect to moral beliefs I think their ship is really in bad shape all around.

  4. Pingback: The Emotional Dimension of Suffering (Part 2): Failure of Religious Orthodoxy | Existential Answers

  5. That is why In Christ, for it had not yet been given, He proved that escape route, as Saviour of the world, by The Spirit of Truth, Reality..which transcends any of mans rationalized form of logic which are at the core nothing more than the vast all full summation of logical fallacies construed from the seeds of false premises. In Truth, one can see the facade construed by men as superior intellect, that too is a facade. Jesus is the Light of Realiyt which has nothing to do with people’s ‘opinion and assumption nor their disposition or predisposition or what they are predispositioned to be or inclinded to ‘think’. People love their own thoughts more than anything else, thus are in constant violation of the First Commandment. That is what I thought this writing was about! But worked we’ll to validate something similar. Thanks for writing it.

  6. Well done! I really like this one, Prayson! In fact, I think you should submit this one for publication somewhere. You have laid out pieces of different approaches to the concept of doubting the validity of human cognition, but not sounding as though you are making the conclusions yourself. I was not able to argue with much of it, because you present it from another person’s perspective (i.e. Darwin, Descartes, Nietzsche), and explore what their perspective may be. You see, sometimes my feathers get ruffled when I get the sense you are trying to tell me, the atheist, what I believe. But I didn’t get that sense this time.

    Then in the end you pull it all together so well by saying, in essence, how different your own perspective is. You say you do not have the same doubts, and why. It is lovely. Clear, and succinct.

  7. Prayson,
    I’m sure you are aware that if a naturalist starts with the pragmatic assumption that their faculties are generally reliable and then looks for reason for why that might be true they are able to locate an answer through the adaptive benefit that comes with faculties which generally correspond with reality. While it is true that the starting pragmatic assumption is itself unfounded, I do not see how the theist or anybody else is not in the same boat. From whence comes the assumption that God bestowed us with reliable faculties? Isn’t the reliability of that conclusion also relying on itself? Descartes’ extreme skeptism has no clear solution except to assume reliability and then see whether that assumption holds up. This is a task for both the theist and the atheist alike.

    • Thanks Travis for thought provoking comment. To assume our cognitive faculties are reliable and the find reason to why our assumption is correct is chasing our own tail as Reid explained.

      Theism is not on the same boat. Given the theism there is such being as greatest conceivable being. Benevolent being as Nietzsche explained would not deceive us. Given particular theism as Christianity, it appears that God goes beyond abstract to be personally involve with his creatures.

      Thus, Nietzsche is correct, erase such a being, there is no warrant that our selfish-genes are not deceiving to believe what we believe. 🙂

      • So your cognitive faculties played no role in concluding that the greatest conceivable being exists? Who is doing the conceiving and what are they using to do that? Why should they trust that their act of conceiving has yielded a reliable conception?

        • Yes, I am using my cognitive faculties to conceive of God. This would be a description given atheism, namely if atheism was true. My cognitive faculties would be playing tricks on me. But if theism was true, then there is such a being and my cognitive faculties have not deceive me. 🙂

          This is why I wrote given the truthfulness of atheism and evolution by natural selection we are lead to this epistemological defeater. If theism and natural selection is true, then their is no problem because what I conceive is not illusory(since theism is true) 🙂

          • OK, now it appears that you are denying the claim in my opening comment that the naturalist can conclude that their cognitive faculties are generally reliable due to the adaptive benefit that comes with faculties which yield generally accurate representations of reality. In other words, given atheism and natural selection, there is a path by which we can extrapolate from the original assumption to the conclusion that our cognitive faculties are generally reliable.

            If you do not allow this extrapolation then you are applying a deeply unbalanced constraint. You cannot say that theists are allowed to define the nature of God and then extrapolate from this to say that God would create us with reliable cognitive faculties while simultaneously denying naturalists any extrapolation from their starting assumptions. You can’t just build “God gives us reliable cognitive faculties” into your starting assumption. That isn’t part of the ontological argument.

          • I believe you misunderstood my case. I could perhaps point it out simply:
            1a. Our cognitive faculties have evolved to hold implicit belief in God(s), dualism, afterlife &c.,
            2a. Atheism is true, and thus the implicit beliefs (1a) are false.
            3a. Our cognitive faculties have evolved to form false belief(s)
            4a. Our cognitive faculties are untrustworthy.

            Given 1a-3a we are beginning to see Cartesian demon taking on flesh(4a).

            2b. Theism is true, namely the implicit beliefs are true
            3b. Our cognitive faculties have evolve to form true beliefs
            4b. Our cognitive faculties are trustworthy.

            No Cartesian demon(4a) given 1a, 2b and 3b. We have 4b. This is why Nietzsche explained that rejecting theism, there is no escape from Cartesian demon. 😉

          • But we know that 3b is wrong: our cognitive faculties can fool us if not arbitrated independently by reality.

            As for 1a, we’ve been over this before.

            We come predisposed to assign human agency (is it any wonder our gods usually take human form, human attributes, human dispositions?) to actions that may or may not be a danger to us. You make a mistake by assuming that this predisposition is synonymous with believing in ‘god’. It’s not. We are predisposed to assign to other things our own perceptions and motives for an action so that we can better understand (even if we’re factually wrong) what these actions might mean. SometimesThat doesn’t equal your notion of ‘god’. It’s like assigning to a cat a human attribute to explain behaviour. That assigning doesn’t make the meaning you assign true in reality (the cat may be behaving for reasons and motives unknown to you. Believing that what you’re assigning is, in fact, true is actually a common cognitive mistake.. even if useful).

          • Thanks Prayson, that was very helpful. I see now that this is how your post started and that I had looked past that to only address the conclusions thereafter, assuming that it was a form of the EAAN. My apologies.

            That said, those arguments are committing the fallacy of composition. They would be valid if changed as below, with my changes in italics:

            1a. Our cognitive faculties have evolved to hold implicit belief in God(s), dualism, afterlife &c.,
            2a. Atheism is true, and thus the implicit beliefs (1a) are false.
            3a. Our cognitive faculties have evolved to form false beliefs about the items in 1a.


            1b. Our cognitive faculties have evolved to hold implicit belief in God(s), dualism, afterlife &c.,
            2b. Theism is true, namely the implicit beliefs (1b) are true
            3b. Our cognitive faculties are reliable about the items in 1b.

            This tells us almost nothing about the overall reliability of our cognitive faculties in either case. To make the general case – which is what I was originally arguing about – the theist has to appeal to God’s benevolent nature and that this would lead him to not deceive us, whereas the atheist has to appeal to the adaptive benefit of reliable cognitive faculties. Both of those appeals require that we start by pragmatically assuming general reliability to allow us to make the argument in the first place.

            Note that the fallacy of composition could be utilized to argue against theism as follows:

            1c. Our cognitive faculties have evolved to believe that there is a color difference in the checker shadow illusion.
            2c. The implicit belief in 1a is false.
            3c. Our cognitive faculties have evolved to form false beliefs.
            4c. Our cognitive faculties have evolved to hold implicit belief in God(s), dualism, afterlife &c.,
            5c. By 3c and 4c, our implicit beliefs in God, dualism, afterlife &c. are false.

            Things like optical illusions add an interesting wrinkle. You can’t say that theism is consistent because we hold implicit beliefs in God and God wouldn’t deceive us, and then turn-around and ignore the fact that our beliefs actually aren’t always reliable.

          • That was most brilliant comment Travis. I dearly enjoy when I receive such comments. We are to be careful not to commit argument from fallacy in thinking that because 1a-4a commits a fallacy of composition/division then it fails.

            Fallacy of composition would be committed if there exists no good reasons to show that what is true for a part is true for the whole. When do know of some instance where what is true for a part is true for the whole, for example skin is carbon-based substance, the who human body is carbon-based. Thus the question is is there good reason to think my cases are not committing fallacy of composition?

            My case is in the family of EAAN but not a typical form of probabilistic inference Defeater but of process characteristic Undercutter.

            I would admit that as my outline appeared the jump from 3a-4a prima facie cries out compositional fallacy. More premises need to be added between to remove that cry out. I will get back with it ASAP.

          • You’re right, the composition fallacy does not mean that the conclusion is wrong, only that the argument is inconclusive in that it lacks explanation for why the specific applies to the general. I’m skeptical that you can bridge that gap but I’ll be interested to see what you come up with.

          • Travis R, I believe I found the missing premise (3b):

            1a. Our cognitive faculties have evolved to hold implicit belief in God(s), dualism, afterlife &c.,
            2a. Atheism is true, and thus the implicit beliefs (1a) are false.
            3a’. Our cognitive faculties have evolved to form false beliefs about the items in 1a.
            3b. Given 3a.’ the reliability of cognitive faculties is undercut.
            4a. Our cognitive faculties are untrustworthy

            What say you?

          • Prayson,
            This is only an undercutter for the proposition that “our cognitive faculties are always reliable”, which isn’t a claim that anybody is making. The conclusion in 4a is more accurately stated as “Our cognitive faculties are not 100% trustworthy”.

            Our beliefs about God, dualism, etc… are just a tiny fraction of the outputs of our cognitive faculties. We can’t just cherry-pick a small subset of the products of our cognition and make sweeping generalizations without incorporating everything else. However, this information could be used in a probabilistic argument. It would be correct to say that, given the premises, the probability that our cognitive faculties will formulate a true belief for any given input is reduced. Conversely, that probability is not reduced if 2a is changed so that the beliefs in 1a actually are true. So, given 1a and all else being equal, our cognition is more reliable under theism than under atheism. I don’t think we can say anything more than this.

          • I believe too we cannot say anything more than “given 1a and all else being equal, our cognition is more reliable under theism than under atheism.” This is all I tried to communicate. Thank you so much for your wisdom Travis. You, as always, rocks!

          • With all due respect, Prayson, the post itself says far more. “Given atheism, the search for truth is all together undercut” is a substantial exaggeration of the fraction of a percent difference that the calculations of our cognitive reliability would probably actually work out to reveal – again, assuming all else is equal.

            Regardless, this provoked a very interesting question that I’d like to run by you. Suppose we somehow actually run the all else being equal Bayesian analysis and our cognitive faculties under theism come out to be 95.2% reliable and our cognitive faculties under atheism come out to be 95.1% reliable. Now suppose we somehow learn the actual reliability of our faculties and it’s 95.0% – meaning that atheism was a better predictor of the reliability of our cognitive faculties. How should we respond?

  8. it appears that our cognitive faculties are unreliable in producing true beliefs.

    Exactly. And this is easily demonstrated. We fool ourselves all the time.. but in evolution-speak, being foolish – especially when distrusting the world’s affability towards us – sometimes works to our advantage. The notion of assigning malignant agency to the indifferent forces of a rather brutal world does increase survivability.

    We know we can’t trust our cognitive faculties alone to produce reliable true beliefs about reality. This is exactly the problem with metaphysics that insists in the opposite: that our cognitive faculties alone can perceive the ‘real’ world of hidden agencies and supernatural causation for natural effects.

    That is why ontology depends on epistemology, namely, that the truth value about what we believe depends very much on how we come to believe. And this is exactly why we have to move away from certitude based on our beliefs arrived at through our cognitive faculties (that are fooled all the time) and learn to apply levels of confidence to our beliefs (our explanatory models about how reality operates) after being subjected to independent review. And there is no better independent review than an indifferent reality.

    This is what we use in therapies, applications, and technologies: explanatory models of understanding how reality operates that we then apply through these means. When the applications and therapies and technologies seem to work for everyone everywhere all the time, only then can we begin to award higher levels of trust and confidence in the model. (That’s why evolution is true, for example, because it succeeds in doing this in every case reality can produce.) This method – this ontology of allowing reality to operate on our models and test them in real time with real stuff – arbitrates our beliefs!

    We – atheists particularly – usually allow reality to arbitrate our beliefs about it but many atheists fall into the same alluring trap religious believers fall into and switch to an epistemology based only on our cognitive faculties for privileged notions (see Shermer on ghosts, Mayer on anti-vaxers, and so on). It’s very much a human trait to impose our beliefs on reality and expect it to conform. But it’s a guaranteed way to fool ourselves!

    By insisting that reality must granted the right to arbitrate our claims made about it (by judging how well these claims translate into stuff that works for everyone everywhere all the time, namely the therapies, applications, and technologies based on these explanatory models), we mitigate our reliance on our cognitive faculties alone in producing beliefs about it and grant reality the right to determine how much or little confidence to award to these beliefs. In this way we reduce the potential for error in our beliefs about reality (we never eliminate it). And it’s an ontology that seems to work really, really well.

    Beliefs that produce models that don’t work very well need to be reduced in our confidence or discarded entirely (a need not recognized by the religious and other believers in woo who have arrived at privileged beliefs through poor methodology that emphasizes conclusions derived primarily from cognitive faculties and aided by only bits and pieces of reality that seem to agree with the beliefs). This ontology seems to work and produces an epistemology that seems to reliably describe and reflect reality independent of our beliefs. Using this methodology allows people to arrive at a conclusion about gods or a god as being either unnecessary or highly unlikely. We describe this lack of belief – the lack of reality providing compelling evidence for the explanatory model – in such divine causal agencies as atheism. That’s the whole deal about atheism: simply not assigning any confidence or likelihood in gods or a god. Everything else about atheism is misguided vilification by those who are too chauvinistic towards their privileged beliefs to see just how common is our shared methodology in most other claims made about the reality we share.

    • I agree by and large by what you said 🙂 The only comment I may add is that give truthfulness of the two propositions, we not in any epistemological position. We simply do not have tools to navigate this landscape of our cognitive deceptions. 🙂

      • The tools we ‘have’ is reality’s arbitration of it demonstrated by applications, therapies, and technologies that work. Reality is the tool. That’s why we use it.

        As reality seems to support some explanatory model by stuff based on it that works, our confidence and trust in that model rises. As we encounter bits of reality that doesn’t fit with the model, our confidence should decrease.

        And the most important chain to establish for justified belief is the single variable for claims of causation with an explanatory mechanism by which cause is connected to effect in some understandable way.

        That’s why claims of divine causation without any linking mechanism to selected effects are ludicrous claims that possess zero knowledge value (and, not surprisingly, zero ability to translate into therapies, applications, and technologies that work) yet are taken by the religious to be worthy of certitude as if such a ‘leap of faith’ were a virtue rather than an intellectual failure!

        Once you eliminate reality from being the primary tool in arbitrating claims made about it, you leave the field of honest inquiry altogether and enter the realm of delusion where beliefs on the basis of a priori belief reigns supreme, which is supremely foolish.

        • I totally agree. The problem is not reality, if there is such thing! The problem is our access through our cognitive faculties! If our cognitive faculties are unreliable then we cannot know if what we judge to be reality in first place is not simply a brilliant illusion we bought in for our survivability.

          • You keep missing the point: because the applications, therapies, and technologies work, we can grant confidence to the explanatory model. This has nothing whatsoever to do with one’s cognitive function and everything to do with independent arbitration of the underlying claims.

          • I actually think it is you missing the point 🙂 How do we know application, therapies and technology works? If you say we know using our cognitive faculties, that they work then the whole idea fails. As I stated our cognitive faculties could be deceiving as to believe that application, therapies and technology works but in fact it’s illusory. Such belief that they work helps our struggle for survival. 🙂

            In short we cannot trust our cognitive faculties as Darwin and Nietzsche explained. We are not in position of knowing what is real and what is an illusion. 🙂

          • Yes, we could all be brains in jars… but that’s not why we can’t trust our cognitive faculties alone. We can’t trust them because they have to comport to our explanatory model of reality to be justified (if this ‘reality’ we share really does exist… but let’s assume it does and see what happens when we apply ideas we have about it).

            And that’s why we use likelihood and probability for our confidence rather than only our cognitive faculties that impose our beliefs on reality… for what we consider really good beliefs.

          • Tildeb given untrustworthiness of our cognitive faculties, we are not in position of using likelihood and probability because our these concepts emerged from our cognitive faculties . We have not external access in atheism ne because we are machines, as Dawkins correctly said, for propagating our DNA. Machines have no access to external world, you would need a ghost in a machine, dualism to grant what you desire. That means surrendering. Atheism

          • PD, your cell phone and medication and computer and vehicle and appliances don’t work because of the amount of trust you put in your cognitive faculties; they work independently of it. And you know this. You presume reality is consistent every time you flick a switch or push a button. You constantly act as if your confidence in this reality and the reliability by which it operates is a baseline assumption in order for you to successfully navigate your environment. If reality itself were truly in doubt – if you actually believed reality was a philosophically questionable state – you’d be surprised every time you turn on the light… and it comes on!, turned the key… and the engine started or the door opened!, wrote a post… and it appeared on the screen!, pushed the buttons on your cell… and the call went through!

            But you aren’t surprised. You expect these applications, therapies, and technologies to work. In fact, you’re annoyed if they don’t and want some answers why the reliability and consistency of reality has been interrupted. What you don’t do is assume evil spirits are interfering with the light switch, that gremlins have infected the engine, that demons have possessed your computer, that malignant supernatural agents are dropping the cell signal. You don’t live in reality this way because it’s grossly dysfunctional in that such assumptions never, ever, lead to favourable results in correcting or changing or fixing real world problems. You have to make a determined effort to pretend the philosophical concerns about reality and our ability to interact with it are in anyway questionable because you know that doing so produces no positive effect, no additional knowledge, no meaningful alteration in reality itself. Such beliefs don’t work.

            This is why your statement, “given (the) untrustworthiness of our cognitive faculties, we are not in (a) position of using likelihood and probability because (snip) these concepts emerged from our cognitive faculties” is ludicrous; the concepts (likelihood and probability) merely describe the relationship between what we believe about reality and how reality arbitrates these beliefs. Those beliefs that comport to consistent results in reality we hold in higher regard as evidenced by how we behave. You are not immune from supporting by demonstration exactly this point. In only one case do you make an exception: your religious beliefs. And this exception must depend not on reality but solely on your beliefs about it (probably for personal reasons that have nothing to do with the truth value of these beliefs and everything to do with some personally beneficial social component to share these beliefs with others). That’s why such supernatural belief produces nothing but metaphysical musings for its justification and an ever-growing list of excuses as to why such beliefs do not comport to reality but are still supposedly reasonable. They’re not. They are dysfunctional.

          • I do not think you have fully understood the implications of this. Descartes explained that there is no difference between a dream and reality given deception. All that we believe works we believe so because we are deceived to believe so.

            Matrix illusion where we think we are experiencing reality but in fact our selfish genes are playing tricks on us 🙂

            If everything was illusory then there is no way of getting out. 🙂

  9. Well done. You’ve presented (finally, I might say) a well-balanced critique concerning the subject. Well-written, but also little out-dated, as in Darwin’s day, for example, the going astronomical theory was that the sun was a giant smoldering coal ball (a colossal bonfire cooking in space) and the galaxy was the entire (static) universe. To try and emphasise Darwin’s doubt as something meaningful today (doubt which was nothing but ignorance of the facts limited to his day) is being a little disingenuous.

    Still, a good piece. Applause.

    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.

    I think in this point, though, you might be jumping a little ahead of yourself. If by “belief-forming” you mean religious beliefs, then that’s essentially a misrepresentation of what is essentially a profitable—useful—blunder in causation. We learnt to act on our paranoia, to see agency where there did not necessarily exist agency. “Belief” systems are a distant species, or residue, of this tendency. This tendency, though, is firmly rooted in reality, ie. predation. Nature beatified the neurotic simply because being wrong about the cause of the bending blades of grass 99 times out of 100 was less costly than being wrong once.

  10. A fascinating and well-written post. Of course theists should acknowledge when we point to the innate human acceptance of supernaturality, that just as we appear to be hard-wired to accept the existence of God, that appears not to be the case with respect to some of the fundamental tenets of orthodox Christianity. Children may readily accept the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent God, but not the notions of the incarnation and the trinity for example–which seem to be so illogical as to be outside the bounds of that innate knowledge.

    • Very true Bill. The distinction you made is of natural religion vs reflective and(or) revelational religions. It could be argued that due to our noetic effect of sin revelational religion is necessarily to restore the correct understanding of God.

  11. Excellent post as usual, but forgive me, who created this “malignant demon” or designed our imperfect cognitive faculties. This post sounds extremely subjectivist and also, I’m not sure if empiricism is a reliable channel for gaining knowledge since it admits no intuition or imagination.

    The leading figure of the religion of Christians was once said, by the Jews, to have a demon in him:

    “Jesus answered, I have not a devil; but I honour my Father, and ye do dishonour me.
    And I seek not mine own glory: there is one that seeketh and judgeth.
    Verily, verily, I say unto you, If a man keep my saying, he shall never see death.

    Then said the Jews unto him, Now we know that thou hast a devil. Abraham is dead, and the prophets; and thou sayest, If a man keep my saying, he shall never taste of death. Art thou greater than our father Abraham, which is dead? and the prophets are dead: whom makest thou thyself?”

    From John 8: 49-53

    So you see my friend, it really depends on how one looks at things. The same truth/experience can have different meanings for different people; but that should not in anyway deny us the objective experience of reality, otherwise we may end up in the hands of the solipsisists.

    • Thank you for reading and commenting. Rene Descartes “malignant demon” is simply a metaphor for deception. Given, atheism, natural selection has selected imperfect cognitive faculties for survival. There is no “design” or “creation” because design or creation entails intentionality that arises from beliefs and desires of sentient being(s).

      I do not understand how what I present is subjective. Could you care to explain?

      • I am not sure I understand your position on this subject but the belief in a supernatural being with human-like feelings, “Descartes’s malignant demon” which it appears to me that you acknowledge the existence of such a phenomena, your theistic conclusions, all sound subjective to me.

        I do not believe that we are hard-wired to seek or believe in a specific supernatural entity. Children believe as a way of learning from their parents. In fact they believe what they do not know. But they are driven by instincts to seek the fulfillment of their needs from parents and parents in turn introduce them to gods.

        If you feel that I did not get the message correctly, kindly expound on your position on the subject to put my curiosity to rest. Thanks.

        • I am not sure I follow you. The phenomena I acknowledge given atheism is that our cognitive faculties have evolved to for formation of true-belief per se but survival. Our beliefs, both the implicit and explicit, given this picture are untrustworthy. This is my argument and I do not understand how it is subjective “to you”. 🙂

          It is okay you do not believe that we are hard-wired to seek or believe in super-naturalism, but we have well documented empirical from cognitive psychology gather in the last 20 years or so showing that we do in fact implicit hold to such beliefs( See my article Naturalness of Theism or read more on the sources I noted in this article)

          I hope that cleared some unclearness and weakness in my article 🙂

          • By subjective (not to me), I mean that all belief is true to the believer. Therefore we cannot conclude on the trustworthiness of a belief unless we relate it to each believer and his or her expectations.

            On empirical methods, I think I have already told you my position.

          • I am going beyond what is true or false belief for a believer. Whether the believer believes it true or not is irrelevant to my case. What I am after is the belief-forming system not the by-products namely beliefs.

    • Nice to see you here, my friend! I have been reading these posts for a couple years at least (how long has it been, Prayson? 🙂 ), and you have identified a weakness I think is grappled with pretty regularly in these posts, and that is how to avoid all subjectivity. I assume it’s a difficult task for any human, to be able to clearly lay out an argument without subjectivism. It certainly is for me. I am so impressed by this blog how the concept is taken up over and over. And Prayson, you are the world’s best at taking in the comments of others and responding with love and grace.

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