Saturday, December 29, 2012

By What Sense Can We Consider Our Cognitive Faculties Reliable?

Our five sense are what we use to interpret the world around us. They feed our brain information, and we use this information to perform logic and reason and deduce what is and what isn't real. So by what sense can we consider our cognitive faculties reliable? How do we know if the reality we interpret really exists, or if it is just an illusion fed by our senses? Many say that we can never know with certainty that the reality we perceive does indeed exist, but rather its existence is measured by probability.

I like to think of myself as a man well exercised in logic and reason. I have patiently listened to some of the best and most knowledgeable experts on religion, science and philosophy regarding the nature of reality, the existence of the supernatural, the limits of logic and the cognitive faculties by which we all use to make sense of these things. Through the use of my senses and logic, I have came to the conclusion many years ago that naturalism best described the nature of reality since among other things, there is no evidence for the supernatural and it must be taken on faith.

Naturalism is sometimes criticized by theists by the argument that it cannot be rationally affirmed. William Lane Craig wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post recently criticizing humanism and naturalism. He writes:

For if naturalism was true, the probability that our cognitive faculties would be reliable is pretty low. For those faculties have been shaped by a process of natural selection which does not select for truth but merely for survival. There are many ways in which an organism could survive without its beliefs’ being true. Hence, if naturalism were true, we could not have any confidence that our beliefs are true, including the belief in naturalism itself! Thus, naturalism seems to have a built-in defeater that renders it incapable of being rationally affirmed.

His statements address the heart of my concern on whether our senses can be relied upon. Dr. Craig says that evolution may not select for truth and so naturalism can thus be an illusion with no basis in reality. But knowing the truth and having an understanding of the surrounding world that is accurate and not based on illusion would indeed benefit the species that evolved it. Since we are the most advanced and evolved species that we know of, and since part of our evolutionary advantage over other species is due to our intricate grasp on intellect and being able to connect information and see patterns, we have every right to believe our cognitive faculties accurately explain reality.

So Dr. Craig is wrong when he theorizes that evolution does not "select for truth but merely for survival." Having the ability to accurately sense truth would provide an evolutionary advantage, and it seems that us homo sapiens have yielded the most benefits of this process.

So as an intellectual thinker, I have wondered like Dr. Craig whether we can believe our cognitive faculties can accurately portrait reality. All we have to go on are our senses and intellect to discern what is and what is not real. The fact that human beings are the most progressive species ever to live is a testament to our senses being accurate. Our accurate assessment of reality allowed us to exploit nature to suit our needs through the manipulation of its resources. Who is to say that our understanding of physics is an illusion?

Furthermore, he said something interesting that I think applies to theism. Dr. Craig says "There are many ways in which an organism could survive without its beliefs’ being true." I agree, and think this would be true of all religions. Having false beliefs like religion, studies show, may actually provide survival benefits in terms of how wishful thinking can sometimes benefit morale which can aide recovery from disease. But this is more of an accidental byproduct rather than a serious method to aide recovery. To best cure disease and injury, it requires a truthful biological and scientific understanding of the human body and microbial life. In other words, a more accurate understanding of reality allows for greater survival. So we were able to survive better once we jettisoned superstitious beliefs in favor of science and biology. Naturalism seeks to explain reality by what is observable and testable, and such methods provide the greatest capability for accurately describing reality.

So contrary to what Dr. Craig argues, I think we have a very sound grounding for believing our senses accurately describe reality, and that naturalism best explains it.

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