Some religious apologists will object to atheism in the following way:

If our beliefs are causally determined, how can we know if they are true? Attempting to verify a belief would only result in a conclusion that we’d be equally determined to believe!

This is meant to show that the causal generation of a belief somehow undermines its truth, or a person’s ability to know. If this were true, then we’d be stuck in a state of complete skepticism, and belief in determinism would become self-refuting.

I will argue none of this follows.

It is correct to say that beliefs are caused in us, and that knowledge and the judgement of facts are the result of a causal process. However it is incorrect to say that this prevents us from holding true beliefs, or warranted true beliefs. In fact, the opposite is true: it is only because our beliefs are the result of a causal process that we can have a reliable pathway to knowledge about the world around us.

A belief is an acquired mental state that is determined by its object. For instance, if my cat suddenly jumped onto my desk, a mental representation would be caused in me and would more or less correspond to the external state of affairs presented in front of me. In such a case, my belief was guided by reality in that it was determined by a real object.

Beliefs are like mental maps that allow us to make predictions, and when predictions are fulfilled, our beliefs are corroborated. For example, when I step out of bed in the morning, I predict that I will not fall up: my stepping our of bed and remaining on the floor confirms the truth of my belief. Or, when I throw a rock at a glass window, I predict the window will break: my throwing the rock and seeing and hearing the glass shatter demonstrates that my belief was true.[1]

Both cases involve the causal generation of beliefs; however that does not take away from their truth. The result of the rock shattering the window causally induced certain images to form on my retinas, as well as certain sounds to penetrate my ear drums, and in turn, caused me to believe that rocks break windows. The reason why I didn’t believe that a tennis ball had just been thrown against a brick wall was because those images and sounds produced were not evident to me.

Because certain physical states produce certain beliefs in us, if a belief about the world is not produced by a definite cause, then we should have no reason to accept it as a correct description of reality rather than some other arbitrarily produced belief.[2] So the causal generation of our beliefs not only does not undermine their truth, it provides the basis for thinking that we can accurately represent the world.

While atheists acknowledge belief in determinism is caused in us, the truth of determinism is not jeopardized by this fact; if anything, it is made credible.[3]

End Notes

  1. See Luis Villoro Rodopi, Belief, Personal, and Propositional Knowledge, Siglo XXI Editores, S. A. de C. V., Mexico, Jan 1, 1998, p. 296.
  2. Paraphrasing Adolf Grünbaum, “Free Will and Laws of Human Behaviour,” American Philosophical Quarterly, 1971, also see Jeffery Jay Lowder, “Adolf Grünbaum on Determinism and Reason,” Secular Outpost, January 4, 2017. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularoutpost/2017/01/04/adolf-grunbaum-determinism-reason/
  3. Ibid. Grünbaum.
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