Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Mailbag: Atheists and Cognitive Disfunction

Jonathan writes:

“Thank you for taking my question Randy. My question is rather straightforward. Do you think that the denial of the intuitive premise that ‘whatever begins to exist has a cause’ can be necessarily attributed to a legitimate cognitive dysfunction on the part of the skeptic? Speaking from experience, I most often hear atheists take issue with the first premise of the kalam argument instead of the second. At face value it seems to me that the reason that so many atheists deny this premise is not out of their sincere conviction that the relevant premise is false, but they instead do this out of the spirit of avoiding the arguments conclusion by hook or by crook. For the sake of the discussion though, let's assume that the skeptic legitimately does not share the intuition that whatever begins to exist has a cause. Do you think that the failure to see this premise as true intuitively can be attributed to a cognitive dysfunction on the part of the skeptic? It seems to me that it can. My rationale is this: many of us who are men at some point have been asked by a woman if a particular article of clothing appears to be blue because to the woman the article of clothing appears to be purple. Perhaps after doing some color sampling or moving the garment to a better light so we can examine it's local color we come to the conclusion that the item of clothing is indeed purple. It seems to me that our failure to see the clothing as purple can be necessarily attributed to some type of cognitive failure on behalf our vision. To give another example, some people reported that when the Titanic sunk that it did so intact while others made claims which contradicted this yet clearly this leads no one to altogether throw out the faculty of memory regarding the event, instead it seems plausible to think that someone’s memory in this case isn't functioning properly and this cognitive failure in particular can be attributed to stress or some other type of handicap. All things being equal, is it legitimate to claim that people who don't intuitively see the first premise of the kalam argument as true simply are cognitively handicapped akin to the psychopath who can't see that torturing children for fun is wrong?”

Randy answers:

Hi Jonathan! As to your first question, I think the answer is obviously “no.” As you seem to point out, there are those who are simply being disingenuous and, in any other context, would readily affirm the causal principle. I recall with some amusement an atheist co-worker at an old place of employment who couldn’t accept that there was absolutely no reason for a particular action within the company, saying, “There’s a reason for everything!”

However, you do go on to state a different way of looking at the question. Assuming that the person does not perceive some relevant version of the causal principle, are they cognitively handicapped? I think we want to be careful here. First, we do not want to offend with our language, so we want to be clear. We are saying that, if we answer in the affirmative, it would be the case that those who genuinely did not perceive something like the causal principle to be true were not functioning according to a proper design plan (or at least, their function is defective, like a memory that’s not quite right). We are not stating the objector is unintelligent, ignorant (in the pejorative sense), etc.

That said, I think the answer is clearly “yes.” Anyone who does not grasp the intuition that without a cause, things do not come into being, or if something comes into being, it has a cause, is simply not functioning in the proper way, intellectually. Alvin Plantinga mentions something close to this when discussing atheists or people who do not perceive God; they are functioning improperly.

That said, I don’t have a lot of confidence there are many of these people around. That’s not to say that every other atheist is necessarily disingenuous. There’s a third category of objector: those who do perceive the intuition and who are sincere, but they don’t realize there’s not good reason to overthrow their intuitions. This may be because of other beliefs they hold (like intuitions are not reliable in the face of arguments for God’s non-existence) or due to emotional states (they have a strong reaction to the problem of evil and incorrect notions concerning God’s relationship to it). In both cases, they are not exhibiting cognitive malfunction with respect to a design plan and its operation, and they are not being disingenuous. Instead, the perceive the intuition and simply have faulty reasons for not taking it to be at the full scope which the kalam requires. As to which applies to the atheist in question, well, that will all depend and vary from circumstance to circumstance.

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