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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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7 comments on “SASHA Guest Post: “Can we be atheists and believe in knowledge?” by Alex Papulis

  1. rocketkirchner
    April 25, 2012

    Alex , this will be a tuff sell to Atheists who are so knowledge oriented . The fact of the matter is is that they cannot give a reason for thier belief , becuase after all it is just a belief. I have yet to meet an Atheist who will just admit that their paradigmn is a absurd as my own as a Christian . They wont admit the flat out mexican standoff that exists between the poles of the faith/unbelief tension becuase they are too busy trying to prove that they stand on solid epistemic ground . And since they are not willing to admit that their position is unreasonable , then i think that the question must be shifted to a deeper one in regards to what is going on in thier psyches . It is here at this juncture that literature can be helpful by applying the attitude of Milton’s main charater in ”Paradise Lost” .

  2. Pingback: Μπορούμε να είμαστε άθεοι και να πιστεύουμε στη γνώση; « On the way to Ithaca

  3. Alex Papulis
    April 26, 2012

    I don’t know if people like Sam Harris realize how radical their position is. It requires giving up moral realism and knowledge. Especially in terms of knowledge, what else would be necessary for us to think he is wrong? If his position lets us explain nothing, that seems like a problem.

  4. rocketkirchner
    April 26, 2012

    Harris position is a rehash of Ayers , that was deconstructed by Flew in the 60’s. So it is really nothing new. The problem i see it with Harris in this regard is that he really is proposing a null set ( that could lead to nihilism )… but even more shortsighted than that is that a null set is only part of a bigger set in this grand universe, not the whole picture of it . Very limited thinking .

  5. Evan T
    April 26, 2012

    Seems to me we should be addressing whether this whole thing is true, instead of whether it is inconvenient or nihilistic? It would also help if this paradigm allowed for acquisition of objective knowledge, because as it stands it’s a tad self-defeating. Regardless, this short essay has been great food for thought (at least for me).

  6. Alex Papulis
    April 30, 2012

    Evan, I agree that we should be concerned with whether or not its true. Of course, my argument is that objective knowledge is not possible if the premise holds. The question is: how could we possibly check the truth of the argument I’ve presented (or anything, of course)? Wouldn’t our beliefs about its truth be merely “given” to us?

    Let’s say person A comes to think it’s true, and person B comes to think it’s false. Both A’s belief and B’s belief will be equally the product of the behavior of the atoms of their brains. We are no position to check which atoms behave in a truth-conducive manner. Another way of putting it: we are part of the causal nexus of the world, and we cannot step out of it to see if our beliefs are formed in truth-conducive ways. Our very beliefs about our beliefs are caused by the very belief-forming mechanisms that we would need to check.

  7. Pingback: You don’t know Jack (nor could you) « The Official MU SASHA Blog, Updated Daily

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This entry was posted on April 25, 2012 by in Author: Guest and tagged , , , .
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