Here I’m returning to an issue originally covered in another post. The Christian YouTuber mytruepower2 has made the following argument for God’s existence:
Proof #1: Dependability
We Think That Our Senses and Thoughts Are Dependable When They Function Properly
But … Why?
Unless There’s Some Connection Between
How Can we be Sure That Our “Proper Function” is to Understand the Truth?
God, and Only God, Provides us With a Reason, in Theory, to Think There is Such a Connection
This argument is similar to one Daniel Chaney calls the Axiomatic Argument in his book Religion Refuted: Debunking the case for God. He says, “The axiomatic argument holds that the cosmos is intelligible to humans because (1) the cosmos was created by an intelligent god and (2) humans were equipped by that god with minds to understand, at least partially, the logical structure of the cosmos.” Since I wrote this post before reading this book, it addresses only the form presented by mytruepower2, but it is essentially the same idea.
The background behind this argument comes from Rene Descartes, who, in his Meditations on First Philosophy, sought a firm basis for knowledge by systematically doubting everything he could. He doubted even his very senses and his understanding of the world. The first unassailable piece of knowledge he found was “I think, therefore I am.” In the very act of doubting, he was thinking, and this implied his own existence. Moving beyond this, he used a form of the ontological argument to argue for the existence of God. He defined God as a perfect being, stated that necessary existence was a perfection, and concluded that a perfect being must exist. Relying on the other perfections he attributed to God, he concluded that God was not a deceiver, and that he could therefore trust his senses.
The first point to make here is that Descartes did not assume that his senses and thoughts were reliable and conclude from this that God must exist. He employed an entirely separate argument to conclude that God exists. Given the existence of God, he then concluded that he could trust his senses. So, the first problem with this argument is that it puts the cart before the horse. It is committing the fallacy of affirming the consequent. Based on Descartes’ reasoning, we might be able to assume “If God exists, then our senses and thoughts are dependable when they are functioning properly.” But affirming the consequent of this conditional does not let us infer the existence of God. It’s not logically valid. Descartes himself went in the other direction. He first concluded that God exists, then he used modus ponens to conclude that our senses are dependable. Given the premise here, we could, after establishing the existence of God by some other means, conclude by modus ponens that our senses and thoughts are dependable when functioning properly. But this premise is useless in an argument for the existence of God.
The second point is that the ontological argument, in any form, is a very bad argument. Briefly, it commits the fallacy of equivocation, it makes the mistake of treating existence and/or necessary existence as a predicate, and its definition of God is meaningless or impossible. This will be covered in greater detail in a separate examination of the ontological argument.
That aside, mytruepower2 needs a different premise to argue for God’s existence from the dependability of our senses and thoughts, and this is “If our senses and thoughts are dependable when functioning properly, then God exists.” There are two problems here. The first is that this premise is not self-evident. Mytruepower2 seems to have in mind “Our senses and thoughts are dependable when functioning properly only if God exists,” which is logically equivalent to this. But this assumes that there can be no other reason for trusting our senses and thoughts than the existence of God. Second, it is not yet established that our senses and thoughts are dependable. In fact, if we first need to know that God exists to trust our senses and thoughts, then we cannot establish what this conditional needs to conclude that God exists. At best, this just leads to circular reasoning, in which we conclude that God exists because our senses and thoughts are dependable and conclude that our senses and thoughts are dependable because God exists. But circular reasoning cannot prove the existence of God.
Let’s now turn to the question of whether our thoughts and senses actually are dependable. It’s not only evident to me that I am thinking. It is also evident to me that I have sensations. At this point, I will not assume that sensations have a certain cause. Although I normally assume my sensations are of external objects, I will not go that far right now. I will just stick to the phenomenological fact that I have sensations. These might be caused by sensory organs reacting to external stimuli, or they might be entirely fabricated, perhaps by the evil demon of Descartes’ imagination, or perhaps by computers creating a virtual reality for me, as in the Matrix. They might even be entirely random. So far, it is established that I have senses, but it is not yet established that I can trust my senses are an accurate representation of an external reality. Mytruepower2 would have us believe that we need to assume God’s existence to make this connection. But we don’t. All we need to do is rule out the other possibilities.
It is not only evident to me that I have sensations. It is also evident to me that my sensations are consistent, orderly, and detailed. I routinely have sensations that are either similar to or identical to past sensations, and these normally occur in predictable ways. When I seem to sense the same thing with multiple senses, my senses normally agree on its attributes, and it’s normal for me to expect sensations of one kind, such as touch, based on sensations of another kind, such as sight. Moreover, my senses are normally meticulously detailed. As I look out my window, I can focus on individual leaves and branches of the trees outside. As I look about my room, I can see many different things in exquisite detail. I can also read books, listen to music, and watch movies or television programs that are filled with orderly detail. And when I return to the same books, music, movies, or programs, I can experience the same orderly detail all over again. It is evident from the consistency, orderliness, and detail of my sensations that they are not randomly caused.
If they are not randomly caused, they are caused either by an external source or by my imagination. My dreams seem to be caused by my imagination, but my dream sensations routinely lack the consistency, orderliness and detail I’m experiencing right now. In my dreams, I can’t read books, I rarely listen to any music, my perspective and understanding of things routinely shift, the unexpected often happens, experiences routinely differ from past experiences, people change into other people, the usual ways of doing things don’t work, and on occasion I can do things that are impossible to me right now, such as leap without returning to the ground or put on clothes by imagining myself to be wearing them. In short, my dreams give very little hint of being caused by an external reality. I can easily rule out the possibility that my dreams are of external reality while my present experience is due solely to my imagination. This leaves three possibilities, that they are both caused by imagination, both caused by an external source, or that dreams are caused by imagination while my present sensations are caused by an external source.
If my dreams and present experience are both caused by the same source, then I’m not sure what could account for the difference between them. If they are both caused by my imagination, why should my imagination have periodic breaks in which my experience of reality becomes much less concrete? And how could my imagination possibly create such a detailed, orderly, and consistent experience? I would have to be a creative genius of incredible magnitude to be able to create my sensations through my imagination. I would not only have to create a virtual reality for myself; I would also have to write every book I read, compose all the music I listen to, and script and direct every movie and television program I watch. And if I have such an incredible imagination, why don’t I use it to lead a better life than I’m currently living? Things just don’t add up under the assumption that my present experience is caused entirely by my imagination. So, the possibility that my dreams and my present experience are both due solely to my imagination can be ruled out.
This leaves only two possibilities, and both agree that my present sensations are caused by an external source. So my present sensations are caused by an external source. But what is the nature of this source? Is it an external environment, a supernatural deceiver, or a virtual reality? Descartes didn’t address a computer-generated virtual reality, but he did attempt to rule out a supernatural deceiver by arguing for God’s existence. He reasoned that God, possessing omnibenevolence as one of his perfections, would not be a deceiver. But the existence of God is not the only way to rule out the supernatural deceiver scenario. Another way to rule it out is to deny the possibility of the supernatural. Descartes lived in a world that took the supernatural for granted and ruled out one supernatural being with another. But if there is no supernatural reality, then there is no supernatural deceiver, and Descartes’ evil demon does not exist. I won’t try to disprove the supernatural here, but I will point out that God is also supposed to be supernatural. If there is no supernatural, then there is no God and no evil demon, and the evil demon scenario is ruled out without appealing to the existence of God.
Putting aside that issue, this deceiver would have to be an incredible genius, capable of writing all the books I read, composing all the music I listen to, etc., as well as capable of immersing me in a flawless virtual reality. This already seems very far-fetched. Then there is the question of where all this complexity comes from. A being capable of creating all the consistent, orderly, and detailed complexity of my senses must itself be very complex. It’s very unlikely that such a being just appeared and then made it his mission to provide me with the illusion of an external reality that doesn’t exist except within his imagination. After all, complexity needs a credible explanation, and the most credible explanation for complexity is growth through evolutionary processes. The evil demon scenario leaves me with no credible explanation for the complexity I routinely experience.
The virtual reality scenario doesn’t face this objection. If I am in a computer-generated Matrix-style virtual reality, its origin is presumably in advancements in technology. But it still faces another objection. It would take tremendous computing power to create an illusion of reality as complex and detailed as my experience. Daniel Dennett brings this up in Consciousness Explained. Writing before the Matrix movies, he frames this in terms of the brain in a vat scenario. He writes:
The problem of calculating the proper feedback, generating it or composing it, and then presenting it to you in real time is going to be computationally intractable on even the fastest computer, and if the evil scientists decide to solve the real-time problem by precalculating and “canning” all the possible responses for playback, they will just trade one insoluble problem for another: there are too many possibilities to store. In short, our evil scientists will be swamped by combinatorial explosion as soon as they give you any genuine exploratory powers in this imaginary world. (5)
It’s looking like the only viable explanation for the complexity and detail of my sensory experience is that it is caused by interactions with an external environment. This is in fact what my sensory experience seems to be caused by. My senses seem to be biological functions of a body within an environment. Furthermore, it makes sense that lifeforms within an environment would evolve sensory organs. Sensory organs allow a lifeform to understand and navigate its environment, which helps it better survive and reproduce. These selective advantages naturally lead to improvements in the sensory organs. So, the most plausible scenario is that my senses are responses to an external environment. This is why I can trust my senses when they are functioning properly. In fact, this is the only scenario in which it makes sense to say that my senses could be functioning properly or improperly. In the other scenarios, I am being fed a fake reality.
From all this, it follows that there is no need to invoke God to account for the dependability of our senses. Our senses evolved as means to comprehend and navigate our environment, and they evolved in the direction of being more and more successful at this, because accuracy is what gave them their survival advantage. So, when they are functioning properly, they are normally accurate.
Now, even accepting that our sensations are of an external world, mytruepower2 would still maintain that God-formed senses would be more dependable than those shaped by natural selection. This is assuming some degree of creationism, even if it is just God’s intervention in the evolution of life, and creationism has no scientific evidence for it whatsoever. But let’s grant that God-formed senses could be more dependable. Our senses are only as dependable as natural selection has made them, and assuming that God could have made them more perfect instruments for perceiving the world only counts as evidence against God’s existence.
After all, our senses are very limited. They do not reveal the true nature of whatever we sense, what we may call the thing-in-itself, and they are not capable of sensing everything around us. Our senses are the result of interactions between our bodies and the environment. This gives us valuable intelligence concerning our surroundings, but it does not reveal a complete picture. We cannot see what is very small or far away in great detail. We cannot see the infrared or ultraviolet spectrums. We cannot hear much beyond the 20 to 20,000 hertz range. We cannot smell as well as a dog. We lack the electric sense found in sharks and bees, and we lack the sonar system of bats and dolphins. We also lack telepathy, clairvoyance, clairaudience, and other forms of extra-sensory perception. Our senses are limited by our biology, and some people’s senses are more limited than others. If God has created us, only God knows why we don’t have better senses. But natural selection without divine intervention accounts for our limited senses quite well.
Moreover, our senses are just raw data. While our senses may correspond fairly well with our external environment, it is the interpretation we put on our senses that is subject to being called true or false. This brings us to thoughts. We have been focusing on the senses, but the other part of the question is, Does God make our thoughts dependable?
If mytruepower2 and I listen to the same piece of music, we are going to have essentially the same experience of it. We don’t know each other personally, but I think we routinely experience very similar things, such as grass, trees, wind, animals, people, buildings, cars, computers, etc. My point here is that sensory experience is not wildly varying from person to person. Yet what people think does vary wildly. On some very fundamental issues, my beliefs and mytruepower2’s beliefs differ very much from one another. For example, he is a Catholic, and I believe that Catholicism is a bunch of ridiculous nonsense. And there are many other beliefs that people differ on, such as whether Bigfoot exists, whether E.S.P. is real, whether young earth creationism is true, whether O.J. Simpson killed his wife, whether superstring theory is true, etc. Differences in what we think are much more widespread than differences in how we experience our senses. In fact, no matter what is true, countless people are wrong. Therefore, it doesn’t appear that God is playing any role in making our thoughts dependable.
Moreover, those who believe in God do not seem to believe things with any greater degree of accuracy than those who don’t. Apart from sharing a belief in God, those who do believe in God have been known to disagree on just about everything else. In fact, when it comes to God and religion, there is much more disagreement than there is on other matters. Praying to God for answers has never resulted in universal agreement among believers, and it has never resulted in scientific or technological progress. In fact, during the time when religion was most predominant, science and technology stagnated. Yet when science started to make headway again, it gave people of differing religious beliefs reason to believe the same things. It’s because of science, not because of God, that the Pope and I both agree that evolution is true. It’s because of science that Muslims, Christians, Communists, and Buddhists are all willing to fly in planes. It’s because of science that the same technology has spread around the world, allowing people on different continents and of different religious faiths to communicate with each other over the world wide web. It’s because of science that the Americans, Russians, Europeans, and Chinese all have space programs. So, it appears that God does not play any role in making our thoughts dependable.
Moreover, it appears that our thoughts are not automatically dependable, but the difference between the results of science and the results of religion does suggest that there are steps we can take to make our thoughts more dependable. One of these is to follow the scientific method. This is a self-correcting method that tests beliefs, weeding out less accurate beliefs in favor of more accurate beliefs. Science is not an absolute guarantee of reliability, but it does let us move toward greater accuracy, and the fruits of science can be seen in advances in technology in recent history. Another step is to apply reason and to avoid logical fallacies. In this post, I have provided an analysis of an argument for the existence of God, and I have demonstrated that it commits logical fallacies and doesn’t work. We don’t need to believe in God to trust in reason. All we need to do is recognize such inescapable truths as the law of identity, the law of non-contradiction, and the law of excluded middle and rigorously apply them to our thinking. So, when we rely on science and reason, our thinking is more dependable than it is otherwise. And this is something we do for ourselves, not something that God does for us.
In conclusion, it is evident that God plays no role in making our senses or thoughts dependable. Our senses are dependable by being biological responses to our environment, and our thoughts are made more dependable through science and reason, but not through faith in God. Therefore, the dependability of our senses and thoughts, inasmuch as they are dependable, does not imply the existence of God.