Questionable Motives

November 22, 2009

Too Good to be True, Too Obscure to Explain: Cognitive Shortcomings of Belief in God

Filed under: Atheism,belief,Education,Philosophy,Religion,Science — tildeb @ 2:43 pm

Naturalism holds that science and philosophy are continuous, interpenetrating and collaborative in our investigation of reality; neither is foundational to the other. The naturalist mainly wants not to be deceived, not to make errors of logic or method or assumptions when understanding the world. Science, kept presuppositionally and methodologically honest by philosophy and real-world experience, has given us increasingly reliable explanations of how things work as judged by our growing capacity to predict and control phenomena. Such is the naturalist’s pragmatic test of knowledge: we are not deceived because we successfully predict.

If, as the naturalist contends, the most reliable grounds for believing in something’s existence is that it plays a role in our best, most predictive explanations, then there’s no good reason to believe in the supernatural, since nothing supernatural plays such a role.

Whether God is brought in to explain the creation of the universe or the design of life, in neither case can the supernaturalist provide an account of God’s nature or how he operates. But good explanations don’t simply posit the existence of some entity or process to fill a purported explanatory gap, in this case a creative, designing intelligence; they must supply considerable additional information to achieve explanatory adequacy.

Those wanting clear explanations can’t abide the spurious explanatory completeness that God supplies; such completeness is patently bought by sacrificing understanding, when after all understanding is the whole point! No, naturalists are happy to admit that in some cases – many cases actually, including the origins of existence itself – we don’t understand what’s going on. Far better an honest admission of naturalistic unknowing than a premature claim to knowledge that invokes the supernatural. Belief in God, a cognitive cul-de-sac, is ruled out by the naturalist’s desire for explanatory transparency, a transparency exemplified by science.The inescapable demand of any claim to objectivity is that we do our level best to separate how we wish things would be from how they actually are. Which norms, those of theists or those of naturalists, best guard against projecting our human hopes and fears onto the world when constructing a worldview?

In principle and almost always in practice, any honest scientist will (eventually, sometimes after considerable controversy about methods and data) reach more or less the same conclusions in a well-researched domain of inquiry as another scientist, whatever their original differences. Why?  Because over the last 350 years experimental methods and criteria of explanatory adequacy have been selected precisely for their bias-reducing properties, for their capacity to filter out subjective hopes and expectations when picturing reality. The predictive, explanatory successes of science, not to mention its practical applications, compel consensus about matters of fact no matter what we wish were the case.

If you’re interested in objectivity, the choice between the relatively rigorous epistemic demands of naturalism and the more relaxed demands of theism is obvious. If you want a picture of the world more or less as it is, insulated as much as possible from the distorting effects of your own all-too-human psychology, you will stick with science. Not that science is infallible, but it fully recognizes and tries to reduce the influence of wishful thinking when representing reality.By contrast, theism and theology, despite their claims to objectivity, manifestly fail to respect the most basic cognitive requirement involved in such claims: that we should leave our hopes behind when investigating the world.

The naturalist’s off-the-cuff challenge to the traditional theist might be that God is simply too good to be true and too obscure to explain. As far as we can tell there is no role for God, humankind’s fondest hope, in such a story. But the absence of God and the supernatural simply highlights the presence of nature. For the naturalist, nature is all there is, and therefore it’s enough.

Read the entire article by Thomas W. Clark here.


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