Let me tell you a story.
I was twenty years old, and a junior in college. I was in one of Grove City’s required classes called Civilization and the Speculative Mind, a class about worldviews, philosophy, and Christian theology. I wrote my term paper for this class on why naturalism does not inevitably lead to nihilism. It was a response to the claims made by James W. Sire in the class textbook The Universe Next Door. He had made three “bridges” between naturalism and nihilism which I had set out to debunk. They were:
- Bridge One: “Necessity and Chance” (We came about by mere chance and therefore life is meaningless)
- Bridge Two: “The Great Cloud of Unknowing” (Our brains and “minds” are merely made of matter, which is indifferent to whether or not we correctly perceive anything, so we can’t be sure that any of our knowledge is accurate)
- Bridge Three: “Is and Ought” (Without a moral plumb line, naturalists do not have any significant way of knowing right from wrong)
A failed attempt
I had only ten pages to deconstruct all these ages-old philosophical arguments, and it was my first time trying to write anything in this genre. In the end, my final paper addressed only Bridge Three, because my arguments for the other two were too weak, and I just didn’t have the time to get to them all. My rebuttal to Bridge Two had always been my weakest. I really did not have an answer, and I was somewhat dumbfounded. Before it was scrapped entirely, the conclusion to my response to Bridge Two read:
While it seems nearly impossible to completely explain consciousness and the human mind from a naturalist standpoint, Daniel C. Dennett, one of Plantinga’s greatest ideological rivals, attempts, and arguably succeeds in, such a massive feat. In the beginning of his book Consciousness Explained, he voices his concerns with naturalist consciousness and the way that it may initially seem to lead to the nihilist lack of emotions or morals. However, throughout the rest of the work he shows that there are indeed several (very neuroscientific and biologically complex) ways to naturally explain consciousness with no “appeal to inexplicable or unknown forces, substances, or organic powers,” such as a deity. Given that it is definitely possible to have conscious thought and ergo knowledge according to Dennett’s theories, the naturalist realm of thought and reflection is absolutely capable of staying just that—natural, sensible, and anything but nihilistic.
I really had no idea what I was talking about. And I obviously didn’t know yet that saying “Well, this person with a degree agrees with me, so I’m probably right” doesn’t count as an argument.
When I deleted two of the three sections of my essay, the single topic that stayed—morality—still pushed ten pages. As a previously apathetic college student, I was shocked at how much I wanted to keep writing this essay, but sadly, I knew that the other two topics would never get finished because I probably wouldn’t write without the motivation of a class. Well, six months later, I started writing The Closet Atheist Blog, the first iteration of the blog you’re reading right now. In many ways, I’m still writing the rest of this paper every week. And this week, I want to write my rebuttal to Bridge Two. Again.
Tim Keller’s bad logic
This came up as I was reading Tim Keller’s The Reason for God this week. He explained two related arguments (one for and one against God) and put them together, concluding that if you accept one, then you have to accept them both. Keller wrote,
Evolutionists say that if God makes sense to us, it is not because he is really there, it’s only because that belief helped us survive and so we are hardwired for it. However, if we can’t trust our belief-forming faculties to tell us the truth about God, why should we trust them to tell us the truth about anything, including evolutionary science?Tim Keller, The Reason for God, p. 142
Honestly, I was blown away. I had heard the argument that we evolved to have religion because of agency detection and its survival advantage even if there is no god, and I had heard (and tried to write) about the circularity of trusting in your own senses even though there is no way to fully know that our senses evolved to be accurate, only to help us survive. But seeing the two arguments side by side really made me think. I remembered that years ago, I had had no answer to it, but I think I’m starting to get it now.
So, the question is: Can we trust our senses without God? If so, why? One of the reasons that this has always been hard for me to answer is because there are a lot of terms involved, and I, and probably others, tend to conflate them. There are our senses, perception, reason, consciousness, and more. I think consciousness is involved, but it’s not the central question I’ve been pondering all week. What I’m concerned with right now are perception (the data we gather with our senses) and reason (what we conclude those perceptions to actually be). Correct me if I’m wrong on these, but I will continue.
Later, Keller writes,
Though you have little reason to believe your rational faculties work, you go on using them. You have no basis for believing that nature will go on regularly, but you continue to use inductive reasoning and language. You have no good reason to trust your senses that love and beauty matter, but you keep on doing it.Tim Keller, The Reason for God, p. 145-146
My response to this is: “Well, what do you want me to do? I have no choice but to trust my senses. It’s all I can do. They’re all I have.”
Is a pen a pen?
In my apologetics course three semesters after the aforementioned class, my professor challenged his students to give a reason why they believe that a pen is really a pen. His point was that we have faith in our own reasoning. I argued that we don’t need faith in this, because there’s not much more to being a pen than looking like one, writing like one, feeling like one, and in many cases, clicking like one. I don’t think we need faith that a pen is a pen, because it’s so easy to pick it up and test it out. (Read the full explanation here.)
I believe that this example roughly extends to all perception and reason. I think that we can trust our senses because they exist self-contained. If a pen looks, feels, and hell, tastes, like a pen, but in real reality, it’s a cat’s tail, how would we ever know? It seems like a pen to me, to you, and to everyone in the world who’s in their right mind. It doesn’t matter if it is really something else, because that doesn’t change what we all perceive it as.
So what if it’s not?
I’m no biologist, but I’ve heard that our retinas receive images upside down, and that images are flipped right-side up within the brain. Of course, oddities like this could be a reason to not trust our senses. But I say: if our brains didn’t flip our sight right-side up, what difference would it make? As long as we all see things the same way, who cares if everything’s actually upside-down? We can almost always trust our senses when we are in a normal, sober state of mind. If we can’t trust them, then we would know because sooner or later, it would conflict with what someone else is sensing. (I also think of colorblindness; I don’t see why it should be a problem as long as colors are internally consistent within your perception, and you can still communicate what you are seeing to others.)
We all know that too much alcohol can warp our perception. But in the case of a drunk person staring at the spinning ceiling, hoping not to puke, we know that that person can’t trust their senses, and so do they. It’s as simple as saying “Hey guys, uh, is the ceiling spinning to you?” “No, you’re the only one that sees the ceiling spinning, and you’re the only one that had ten shots.” And maybe there’s the off-chance that in the really real, the ceiling is actually spinning, and when we are drunk, that’s actually when our senses are correct.
But my argument is that even if that’s true, it doesn’t matter. We can verify that the ceiling is not spinning by getting on a ladder and touching it. If it’s really spinning, and we touch it and verify this, then we would have to be spinning, too. And if everything is spinning at the same rate as everything else, then we wouldn’t even know. I would never have found out that the entire planet was spinning if scientists hadn’t discovered it and told me so, because my whole experience has always been on the Earth, so I have no non-spinning experience to compare it to. To me, it just feels still. This is why it took humans so long to realize that the Earth rotates and orbits the Sun. It’s entirely counterintuitive.
God doesn’t answer the question, either
So maybe we didn’t evolve to be right. Maybe the only traits that we have are those that keep us alive. Our eyes are far worse than those of the mantis shrimp, and our ears are far worse than those of dogs. But we have no choice but to trust the senses we do have, with or without a sense-giving god. Probably the greatest flaw of Sire’s and Keller’s arguments are that the existence of a god wouldn’t even necessarily solve the problem of distrusting your senses.
If God knows what’s really real—if he knows that pens actually are cat tails and the ceiling really does spin like it seems to after ten shots—he sure hasn’t told us that. And after reading almost the entire Old Testament, I don’t think I would even trust the guy. It seems that the only source he can cite is himself.
 Dennett, Daniel. Consciousness Explained. (N.p.: Bay Back, 1992), Print.