SASHA Guest Post: “Can we be atheists and believe in knowledge?” by Alex Papulis
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Today’s article is a guest post by Alex Papulis.
I would like to address this question by first looking at the issue of free will. We start with one premise: all causes are physical. Events are caused by antecedent physical states of the world in conjunction with physical laws. Our thoughts, intentions, choices, decisions, deliberations, etc. are all physical events, and as such are caused by antecedent physical states of the world in conjunction with physical laws.
To say that something is free is to say, at least, that it is the source of its actions. It is clear, though, that our actions are the result of the world being the way it is, and not some “free” agent making a choice and acting it out. Our brains are the way they are at any given point as the result of antecedent states of the world and physical laws relevant to brain function, development, etc. Our thoughts, intentions, etc. are what they are, in turn, as the result of our brains being the way they are in conjunction with the relevant physical laws. The causal chain stretches through us, and so the source of our choices, thoughts, actions, behavior, the very state we are in now, lies beyond ourselves.
Now, it’s either the case that an event is deterministically caused or indeterministically caused. In either case, events are the result of antecedent states of the world acting according to the laws of nature, and whether or not an event is necessitated by antecedent states doesn’t alter the fact that it is the result of those states and laws. As such, an event that is indeterminately caused is still not the product of some “free” agent, as nothing besides the antecedent states of the world and the laws of nature is responsible for the resulting state.
We do not choose to anything. We “choose” to, say, get up and go to work for the same reason that our heart beats: the antecedent state of the world was such as to cause it to be so. When a leaf falls from a tree, it’s because the world was such as to cause that to happen. Likewise with our thoughts, intentions, decisions, emotions, preferences, actions, behavior, etc. There are no causally independent agents moving things.
We now turn to the larger question. Our beliefs are physical events, caused by antecedent states of the world in conjunction with physical laws. Just as our intentions, desires, choices, etc. are caused in us, so also are our beliefs. We hold the beliefs that we hold because the antecedent states of the world and the laws of nature are such as to cause them, and there’s no causally independent agent that influences which beliefs are caused/held.
We see, then, that our beliefs are not held for reasons. We don’t hold a belief because the evidence supported it. Rather, nature produces in us a “conclusion”, a belief that we have examined evidence, a belief that the process of examining evidence leads us to truth, and even a belief that we freely came to a conclusion. In fact, every belief we hold is equally the product of antecedent physical causes. We have the belief that we reason and listen to argument and deduce and infer, but the very belief that we do these things is just as much a product of antecedent physical states of the world as a leaf falling from a tree. Regardless of whether these events are determinate or indeterminate, there’s no agent independent of physical causes. Our beliefs are “given” to us by nature, and there aren’t causally independent agents that decide what to accept.
Why the believer in Mohammed and the believer in the Flying Spaghetti Monster believe what they believe is explained in the same way: they don’t have a choice. Likewise with the atheist and the Buddhist. If all causes are physical, the Christian does not hold his beliefs for some reason. They’re simply what he was given.
We can be atheists and believe in knowledge, but what would be the reason for that belief?
Alex Papulis is a non-degree-seeking, non-transfer Degree-seeking Transfer student at Mizzou. After getting a B.A. in Economics in St. Louis and spending some time abroad, he’s settled on philosophy. He’s enjoyed his year at Mizzou, and looks forward to starting an MA program in Milwaukee next fall. It would be easier for him to get his assignments done if SASHA wasn’t around.
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