Thursday, November 7, 2013

Belief-dependent Realism

I'm currently reading Michael Shermer's book, The Believing Brain, which is about "how we construct beliefs and reinforce them as truths." Since debating with a presuppositionalist recently, I've been intrigued about epistemology and how we form our worldviews. I contend that the presuppositionalist view is epistemologically irrational. To presuppose an entire religion as your starting point is the logical equivalent of putting the names of a bunch of religions in a hat and blindly picking one out and deciding that whatever religion you picked will henceforth be your worldview. Reason and evidence must precede one's worldview and must serve as the justification for concluding it. This can be done by assuming only the most fundamental properly basic beliefs that are required to make any sense of the world around us. Otherwise, you might as well indeed just blindly pick a worldview out of a hat.

Within the first chapter however, Shermer's thesis makes an interesting observation that I think could lend itself to the presuppositionalist's epistemology. On page 5 he writes:

We form beliefs for a variety of subjective, personal, emotional and psychological reasons in the context of environments created by family, friends, colleagues, culture, and society at large; after forming our beliefs we then defend, justify, and rationalize them with a host of intellectual reasons, cogent arguments, and rational explanations.

Here's the kicker. He continues:

Beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs follow. I call this process belief-dependent realism, where our perceptions about reality are dependent on the beliefs that we hold about it. Reality exists independent of human minds, but our understanding of it depends upon the beliefs we hold at any given time.

If our beliefs do come first, and our explanations for our beliefs follow, then might this also apply to the atheist as well? Is the atheist just presupposing atheism due to his "subjective, personal, emotional and psychological reasons" in the context of his environment? Or is his worldview methodologically superior and more adept at constructing the closest depiction of the reality that exists independent of our minds?

I'm not done with the book yet but it seems that Shermer's argument is that all beliefs, whether that of the young earth creationist, or that of the physicist with the Ph.D, "cannot escape this epistemological trap." However, Shermer writes that we can "employ the tools of science, which are designed to test whether or not a particular model or belief about reality matches observations made not just by ourselves but by others as well." (p. 7) I certainly agree with Shermer that scientific empiricism is the most reliable way to discern fact from fiction, but the presuppositionalists I've debated with would say that science is intrinsically limited and can say nothing about ultimate beliefs. They'll say that ultimate beliefs are the beliefs you interpret the scientific data in and are themselves exempt from the domain of science. Thus, to the presuppositionalist, any data that happens to contradict an ultimate belief will have to be wrong by definition because the ultimate belief must precede all other secondary beliefs.

I would say that science, being epistemologically superior, should guide our ultimate beliefs and that our ultimate beliefs should result from that knowledge and not precede it. Such is the difference between the presuppositionalist and I: I don't see how anyone can presuppose an entire religion without any reason or evidence for doing so, but those who do will often justify this with the belief that the world deceives us, and thus science can't be fully trusted. This line of reasoning to me seems like nothing more than a contrived attempt by the presuppositionalist to continue justifying their beliefs in the face of contradictory evidence in order to evade the consequences of that fact. It's incredibly dishonest, and it shows how intellectually depraved some religious positions are.

I am currently writing a post titled, Why I'm An Atheist in which I will be outlining the primary reasons and evidence why I justify my atheism. I am writing it in the context of having now understood the concept of belief-dependent realism, and how Shermer explains how we form our beliefs for reasons other than evidence. I did for example, grow up in a secular home and was not strongly inculcated into a religion. Might this be why I'm an atheist? Might it be that my atheism is just a product of my environment and my family as Shermer describes? And might all the "intellectual reasons, cogent arguments, and rational explanations" for my atheism really just be attempts at justifying my belief after the fact? The presuppositionalist would certainly say so. But in order for any belief to have veracity to it, it must conform to the empirical evidence and offer explanatory power with as little recourse to ad hoc reasoning as possible. And in my post I will expound how I think theism lacks this ability.

Worldviews are beliefs in that they cannot be empirically proven. They all are based upon some fundamental assumptions, such as "I exist" and "My senses are sometimes accurate." I don't deny that. But this doesn't allow the presuppositionalist to therefore conclude that all worldviews are presupposed on faith like theirs is. Shermer's belief-dependent realism seems to be handing merit to the presuppositionalist's argument, even though he adds that science can be used as a filter for weeding out the truth from the nonsense. Everyone's worldview must be open to the possibility that it is false, and must therefore be falsifiable. Naturalism is falsifiable within its own epistemic framework. Theistic presuppositionalists however, (who sometimes masquerade around as evidentialists) have constructed a worldview and epistemic framework that renders their beliefs unfalsifiable. Hence, any attempt at an epistemological conflation of the two is mistaken.


  1. I call this process belief-dependent realism, where our perceptions about reality are dependent on the beliefs that we hold about it.

    A baby learns about reality without any beliefs/worldview. A baby assumes that reality is real. A baby learns that reality does not conform to its mind. A baby learns by looking outward. It is only later that "belief-dependent realism" comes into play.

    We can use reason to determine the accuracy of the conformity of a worldview with reality. The theist must rely on trust. The theist must reject reason. Some theists reject reason by claiming it relies on a worldview. That puts the metaphysical cart before the epistemological horse. If the mind really worked this way, a baby would never be able to learn. We can use as the foundation for our epistemology, the assumptions of a baby.

  2. This can be done by assuming only the most fundamental properly basic beliefs that are required to make any sense of the world around us. Otherwise, you might as well indeed just blindly pick a worldview out of a hat.
    Or adopting a non-foundationalist approach to knowledge (coherentism for example).

  3. Parsimony, foundationalism, analytic philosophy, whatever you call it -- the presuppositionalist MUST concede that their belief structure assumes more than these ways of establishing any sort of epistemology. Their process fails in that it eliminates the possibility of establishing true beliefs that these other approaches do not. In other words, as a foundationalist, I could reasonably become an theist or an atheist. A presupppositionalist has no such luxury, and this fact makes their process inferior.



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...