May 19, 2024

Loaded question

So I got the following email from a financial adviser in New Zealand:


As you strike me as an honest and sincere authority in the atheist worldview, could you please help me by advising me:

How can I be an intellectually honest atheist when it seems to me that atheism itself, logically demands that I distrust my brain, because it’s merely a cosmic accident –  evolved from a random, mindless and unguided process in the 1st place?

I’ll donate $10,000 to a mutually agreeable charity for the 1st person who can answer my honest dilemma.

Your help would mean a lot to me.

Thanks in advance.

So I replied:


It’s not an honest dilemma for two reasons.

(1) Being a product of undirected incidents and natural processes is no indication that you shouldn’t trust your brain.  On the contrary, your ancestry of survivors of life-and-death struggles is one good reason why you should trust your brain.  There are two basic perspectives here, those with a deep-seated emotional need to believe impossible nonsense, and those who have a desire to understand reality. The latter group has a very different way of judging information. The only value any claim can have is how true we can show it to be. If you can’t show that it’s true at all, then it has no value at all; it is only an empty assertion unsupported by anything, and therefore beneath serious consideration.  The fact that no one can show that religion isn’t just a product of human imagination is further exacerbated by the fact that there is so much that we can show religion to be wrong about. Then there is the point that the only way to improve understanding is to seek out the flaws in your current perception and correct them.  You can’t do that if you believe anything on faith.

(2) Religion is the only thing telling us not to trust our brains. Faith is an unreasonable assertion of complete conviction which is assumed without reason and defended against all reason.  You’re supposed to believe things that are not indicated by any evidence, and you’re supposed to maintain that belief despite all evidence to the contrary.  It is already dishonest to assert as fact that which is not evidently true, yet that’s what all religions do. They pretend to ‘witness’ things they’ve never seen, saying they know things no one can honestly say they know, and they claim facts that are not facts.  As if that wasn’t bad enough, faith also requires an unreasonable resistance to reason itself, in the form of apologetics.  This is the practice of making up excuses to rationalize, justify, or dismiss all the arguments against your position.  That’s where your challenge comes from, prompting you to misrepresent the situation as if there was ever any reason to distrust our own brains.   That’s also why you won’t really donate $10,000.00 to Médecins Sans Frontières.  You never intended to do that.  Instead your goal was to pretend to present an unanswerable dilemma and arbitrarily dismiss every perfectly good answer you get -without any transparency. So there is no way for anyone else to see all the answers like this one that you actually did get.

So I’ve decided to post your question to my blog, just so that people have some way to know that I did answer it.

24 thoughts on “Loaded question

  1. I’d say that there are reasons to distrust our brains – confirmation bias and all that frustratingly common stuff – but that’s really just about using some method of keeping a check on some of the lazy patterns our brains get themselves into. More a matter of implementing a set of self-diagnostic tools than simply rejecting your brain and tossing it out because it’s utterly unreliable.

    1. You saved me a comment. I would add that we can’t help the innate flaws in our mental makeup, such as those that create optical illusions etc.

    2. Exactly. The Scientific Method, including the Peer Review process, was developed precisely because we are inherently prone to “confirmation bias and all that frustratingly common stuff”. No system, including the human mind, is without flaw. The best we can do ins mitigate those flaws with checks like the Scientific Method.

  2. I would add that completely distrusting your ability to think is impossible. Just like your own existence or the validity of logic, the belief that your thought processes are at least somewhat reliable is a starting point, not an end point. It’s not a conclusion we reach, but a basis for reaching any conclusions at all.

    From this unquestionable starting point we can conclude that if our brains are responsible for thought, as they appear to be, they must be at least somewhat reliable. Being evolved is no more of a problem than being designed. How can I trust my brain if it was created by a being beyond comprehension? It could be intentionally trying to trick me, and I would have no way of knowing. But I have no reason to think my evolved brain is trying to trick me, just like the theist has no reason to think that their designed brain was designed to trick them, and given that none of us are in a position to seriously question our own ability to think, the whole thing is a moot point.

    BONUS: Although nobody can believe that their ability to think is COMPLETELY faulty, we can hopefully all recognize that their are faults. Logical fallacies are common errors we all make in thinking. Given that we make these errors, what best explains our functional yet imperfect brains: Design by an unguided process which as a general rule of thumb leads to increased complexity and functionality, or design by a perfect all-powerful designer?

    1. “That their are faults” ?? Did you mean to say ‘that they’re faults’ or ‘that they are faults’ or ‘that their our faults’? I’m having trouble understanding that sentence, the way in which it is currently worded.

      1. I enjoy grammatical pedantry, but it adds nothing to the conversation. Yes, I do see the irony here.

  3. Don’t hold your breath waiting for him to donate.

    His ” – evolved from a random, mindless and unguided process in the 1st place?”

    Shows he has no real understanding of evilution and its the same statements most xtians say.

  4. I never got this objection to naturalism, or atheism in the case of this person.

    If we can’t trust our brains if they evolved, then how can theists be sure that their belief in god(s) corresponds with reality?

  5. And a fitting answer, spot on the money.

    The way the lie is presented is proof enough of the intent, or lack of it in this case. Pathetic puffery in the guise of honest inquiry.

  6. Jesus Christ, not the brain in a vat again. Seems to me to be a Theist pretending to be an Atheist. Typical kindergarten philosophy presented dishonestly. These twice told stories around the campfire from Theists are sad.

  7. We can trust our brains because it is possible for multiple, independent, objective, verifiable, and repeated evaluations of the results produced by the thought processes generated within our brains. We can see that mathematics works. We can see that buildings stand and cars run and that you can always post your thoughts on the Internet. We can make accurate predictions of cause and effect. And, of course, we can know that the $10K “challenge” promoted by this guy will no more be paid off than will Kent Hovind’s $250K “evolution challenge”.

  8. My take:

    1. You should distrust your brain – if you’ve ever seen any optical illusions, you know it can be easily fooled. That is why you should seek external confirmation or disproof of your ideas. If you want to know which line in some well-known optical illusion is longest, you don’t trust your eyes, but you grab a ruler, and find out they are the same size. It’s also why you should distrust any belief system that discourages you from seeking such external validation, by the way.

    2. Theists can’t trust their brains either. Either God or Satan may have messed with it (and don’t say God wouldn’t do that – if he were evil and manipulating your brain, that’s what he’d want you to think; besides, arguably he’s described doing this in the Bible, for example by hardening the Pharaoh’s heart). Or maybe human brains got corrupted during the Fall, or by Sin, or they were broken for some higher purpose, or whatever other excuse is used to explain why brains created by a perfect creator turned out so demonstrably imperfect. Nor can theists rule out that they are a brain in a vat and that God is just a subroutine in the Matrix. So they are in the exact same boat as the rest of us.

    3. On the other hand, your brain is all you have to understand the world, for theists and atheists alike, imperfect as it may be. You have no choice but to work with it the best you can. We just have to figure out what works and what doesn’t – like how we figured out that rulers work better than your eyes for estimating lengths, that writing things down is more reliable than our memories, and that randomized controlled trials can eliminate a lot of bias.

    So your dilemma isn’t really a dilemma at all, and it certainly won’t help you decide between theism and atheism. Instead, your time would be better spent trying to find the most reliable methods of figuring out what works and what doesn’t. For some atheists, that lead to the realization that religion is not one of the reliable methods, so we dropped it.

    Finally, a remark about the randomness of evolution: Evolution may be a partially random process, but even random processes allow for some prediction. For example, roulette outcomes are random, but we know that over the long run, the house always comes out ahead. Similarly, we can predict that over the long run, evolved brains will be reliable enough to ensure survival until reproduction – but not necessarily much more reliable, as there is a cost associated to that as well.

  9. Should I trust my brain? I should trust my brain to the exact extent that the evidence warrants (no more, no less). That is, how many of my predictions I make, come true. An example of this is that my eyes each have a blind spot. My brain basically MAKES UP information to fill that blank spot in my visual field. If my brain is untrustworthy, I should expect to see phantoms and glitches in that section of my visual field. I do in fact, see such glitches, but they are very rare (perhaps 1-2 per day, so 1 in a million at 40 fps) So I should trust my brain exactly that much (for this function).

    Needless to say if I was intelligently designed, I should expect NO such glitches or phantoms, and no such blind spot.

  10. How can I be an intellectually honest christian when it seems to me that christianity itself, demands that I trust the bible, despite the fact that it wants me to believe in it exactly *because* there is no evidence (John 20:29)?

  11. No honest atheist would call his or her brain “merely” a cosmic accident. Only believers do that.

    I won’t be holding my breath until that money is donated.

  12. Oh dear – someone’s been listening to William Lane Craig down in New Zealand.

    Kids, your time is better spent chasing hobbits, drinking beer, &/or masturbating.

  13. #magicthighs

    I never got this objection to naturalism, or atheism in the case of this person.

    If we can’t trust our brains if they evolved, then how can theists be sure that their belief in god(s) corresponds with reality?

    That’s because theists – or at least this theist – doesn’t believe in evolution at all, therefore they don’t compelled to subject their position to the scrutiny implied by the ‘evolution implies fallibility’ position. Call it an Argument from Lowered Standards or something.

  14. Yeah, pretty secular society here in NZ, but with a decline in traditional churches and a rise in American style evangelist churches. No way that discussion was in good faith.

    There are only a few thousand registered financial advisers in NZ. I know about half a dozen of them. Given that according facebook and email analysis the there are only 2 degrees of separation in the NZ population (even the Department of Statistics says 4 degrees in the workforce), chances are I know or know of this person.

    Note to self: When I have money to invest, be even more careful who I give it too.

  15. It’s not my brain I distrust, my brain is awesome. It’s everyone else’s brains that are obviously wrong.

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