The official blog of University of Missouri Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists, & Agnostics

When nature burps

The following is a guest post by Alex Papulis. It is a response to Dave Muscato’s previous article, “Past Performance is No Guarantee of Future Results.” Enjoy!

Dave claims that global skepticism, with one slight qualification, is the most defensible position, and I ask: with what does Dave think he can defend any position, be it global skepticism or any other position?

Let’s frame the issue with a little story. Imagine a universe where things have no purpose or design. Things just happen the way they do. Imagine, now, that in one corner of the universe, a bunch of particles happen to get together and form the letters of the sentence “Giraffes exist.” Imagine also that in some other corner of the universe, another bunch of particles happen to get together and form the letters of the sentence “Giraffes don’t exist.” I have two questions: 1) why should we think that one versus the other of these sentences that the universe has produced reflects something true about the universe, and 2) how does the universe in this story significantly differ from our universe? Does the production of the sentences differ significantly in character or circumstance from the production of our beliefs, and in either universe do we have a reason to think on any particular occasion reality has been correctly reflected?

The fact of the matter is, our beliefs are just as much a product of nature as hurricanes, dust, and cloud formations, and nature doesn’t aim at anything, it just is what it is. Dave’s beliefs (including the “I think therefore I exist” sort) are the product of something that doesn’t aim at truth, so unless he has some other belief-forming mechanism that he can invoke when he wants to defend global skepticism or any other position, I don’t see how we can actually speak of defense.

A deistic creator, i.e. one that winds the world up and lets it go and perhaps the sort that Dave writes that he is dangerously close to believing in, doesn’t make the situation any better. Put simply, if the creator isn’t concerned with whether or not human beliefs correctly reflect reality, then even if we did believe in such a creator, we still have no reason to think any of our beliefs our true.

Dave writes that what he’s concerned with is what works. If using evidence gets things right, then he’s satisfied. But that’s just not going to work. First, his beliefs about what works or gets it right are just as indefensible as any other belief; he has no reason to think they’re true. When nature burps, we believe, and that’s that. Aren’t his beliefs that such-and-such activity works and gets it right caused by unconcerned nature just as much as the theist’s? And furthermore, doesn’t his global skepticism apply to these beliefs about what works?

Second, and perhaps more importantly: is Dave saying that science doesn’t actually tell us about the world? If he does think it tells us about the world, then he needs to address, in addition to the bigger problem above, the issue of induction: why should we think the past/observed states are a reliable guide or evidence for the future/unobserved states of the world? If, on the other hand, he doesn’t think science tells us about the world, then we should be clear about that.

Have I made a mistake? Think I’m wrong? Let me know in the comments or feel free to send me an email/FB message.

Alex Papulis is a former Mizzou student, now in his first year of UW-Milwaukee’s philosophy MA program.


About Danielle Muscato

Danielle Muscato is a civil rights activist, writer, and public speaker. She has appeared on or been quoted in Rolling Stone, People, Time, The New York Times, SPIN, Entertainment Weekly, Billboard Magazine, and on MTV News, VH1, NPR, MSNBC, ABC, "The Real Story" with Gretchen Carlson, The O'Reilly Factor, Huffington Post Live, Huffington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Raw Story, CNN, CBS, and Howard Stern Danielle is the former Director of Public Relations for American Atheists. She is also a board member of MU SASHA (University of Missouri Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists & Agnostics). Her website is Follow her on Google+ Follow her on Twitter @daniellemuscato Subscribe to her on YouTube at

8 comments on “When nature burps

  1. Eric Hyde
    February 1, 2013

    If natural determinism is to be taken seriously, your conclusion is spot on. But if taken seriously, nothing can be taken seriously.

    • Alex Papulis
      February 1, 2013

      Eric, thanks for the comment. Do you think determinism must be a part of the position, in order for the epistemological nihilism to follow? It’s not clear to me that that’s the case.

      • Eric Hyde
        February 1, 2013

        I think it (determinism) directly follows a consistent doctrine of philosophic naturalism. Once one introduces free agency into the equation naturalism is in ruin, since naturalism poses that all events must be accounted for within the closed system of physical nature (in other words, cause-and-effect must account for all events). Since thought, and/or belief, is an event in nature it must be accountable to an infinite chain of cause-and-effect. If what we believe is a matter of material cause-and-effect then we have no right, indeed no need, to refer to belief as true or not true. As you brilliantly refer to it as merely nature’s “burp.” And if our thought is governed by physical cause-and-effect, and not be free agency, what can thought be but pre-determined according to the great causal chain?

    • Alex Papulis
      February 1, 2013

      I think there are other ways determinism could be false without free agency. All we need is for causes not to determine their effects, and it’s not clear that naturalism is incompatible with that.

      More importantly though, while it does seem to me that there is something problematic about beliefs not being free in the sense you’re using, the point I tried to bring out was that however our beliefs our produced, so long as it’s not by mechanisms aimed at truth or anything else that might bring truth with it, why should we think they’re true? A lack of freedom might bring in additional problems, but regardless I think there’s another problem.

      • Eric Hyde
        February 1, 2013

        I think we may be chasing the same animal here, but I’ll risk a clarification question: What “mechanisms aimed at truth” could be possible if all events are determined in a closed natural system? Indeed, how does “truth” even factor in in such a system?

    • Alex Papulis
      February 1, 2013

      Nature’s mechanisms aren’t aimed at any goal for the metaphysical naturalist. My point is, I don’t think determinism is what’s responsible for the epistemological nihilism. For example, if one held that beliefs were determined by something that did aim at truth, that position wouldn’t have the same problems, though there might be other issues that come into play.

      I wonder if your concern has to do with intentionality, or “aboutness”. That is perhaps a problem for the metaphysical naturalist, but for the sake of argument we can allow that physical states of the world can be about other states of the world in ways that are correct or not. Because these states of the world are not formed by mechanisms that aim at any particular kind of “aboutness”, correct or not correct, we have no reason to think that any particular physical state is correctly reflective of or related to any other.

      • Eric Hyde
        February 2, 2013

        Okay, I think I see where you’re going. In other words, if the naturalist/materialist has it right then epistemological nihilism results from there being no “determination” one way or the other. Is that close?

        My point in injecting determinism into the equation is actually the same idea (if i’m in fact getting your point). Natural determinism is mindless and lacks any notion of teleology or meaning in its mechanistic movement. Its motion without a point, so to speak.

    • Alex Papulis
      February 2, 2013

      That sounds close. What I mean is it doesn’t seem to matter whether causes determine their effects or not. In other words, it doesn’t matter if determinism is true or not, given certain other assumptions.

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This entry was posted on January 31, 2013 by in Author: Alex Papulis, philosophy, Skepticism and tagged , , , .
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