I’ve recently been wondering whether atheism – the belief that God does not exist – could be properly basic. By that, I mean whether it could be a belief that is not based on arguments, but nonetheless formed by a reliable mechanism that is truth-oriented.
I doubt whether atheism could be properly basic. If I am right, then, in order for atheism to be warranted (or maybe even merely rational; see below), atheism has to be based on arguments—whereas, perhaps, such a thing is not required for theism.
Now, here’s my line of thought. It seems we need to consider two mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive scenarios: one in which God exists and one in which he does not.
We can be rather short about the first scenario. If God exists, then it seems impossible that humans have a truth-oriented reliable mechanism that produces the basic belief that God does not exist. Such a mechanism could never be both truth-oriented and reliable, for all of its deliverances – each instance of the basic belief that God does not exist – would be false.
What if God does not exist? Is it then possible that humans have a reliable truth-oriented cognitive mechanism that produces the basic belief that God does not exist? In order to see whether it is, let us consider other reliable truth-oriented cognitive mechanisms that produce basic beliefs. Among them are visual perception, auditory perception, belief formation on the basis of memory, belief formation on the basis of smell, belief formation on the basis of taste, and belief formation on the basis of introspection. Now, why should we think that these mechanisms are truth-oriented and why should we think that they normally reliably produce true beliefs?
The answer will be something like this: we have good reasons to think that these mechanisms are truth-oriented and reliable, because the basic beliefs they produce are the result of the right causal interaction with our physical environment. Beliefs based on visual perception, for instance, are usually true because visually perceiving our environment normally directly produces true beliefs.
On atheism, the most plausible explanation of why such beliefs are usually true is highly likely to be one in terms of our evolutionary history. It seems evolutionarily advantageous to form true perceptual beliefs about one’s environment. If we did not, we would not have been as successful at survival or we might not have survived at all. If we failed to see that a shark or tiger is approaching, our chances of survival would be comparatively low. Mutatis mutandis the same applies to other beliefs, such as beliefs based on memory or introspection, as well as on smell or touch. It also applies to basic mathematical beliefs, such as 2+2=4. Even if numbers are abstract entities that exist independently of us, it will be true that, say, one is surrounded by no sharks, one shark, two shark, three sharks, or even more. Given that sharks are distinct material objects, our basic mathematical beliefs can be properly basic, because our physical interaction with our environment directly and automatically leads us to have certain basic mathematical beliefs and it seems that having true basic mathematical beliefs is evolutionarily advantageous.
Thus, our normal basic beliefs seem to be produced by cognitive mechanisms that are truth-oriented and generally reliable, because they have the right causal connection with the world (outside or inside) and having true beliefs contributes to survival. There has been some debate about whether evolution selects for true beliefs, but it seems that virtually all atheists and even many theists embrace this thought, so I will not question that thesis here.
Now, the problem is that the basic belief that God does not exist seems to differ radically from perceptual beliefs, auditory beliefs, introspective beliefs, and our other basic beliefs. If God does not exist, he cannot cause anything in our physical environment, nor will he be exemplified in our physical environment in the way that properties like being such that there are three of them within a range of twenty feet can be exemplified by the sharks circling around us.
Of course, believing that God does not exist may have survival value. However, even if it does, it does not seem to do so in virtue of its being true—this in opposition to, say, our perceptual and memorial beliefs. For, it seems that the belief that God does not exist is not and cannot be caused by the world inside or outside, in the way perceptual and memorial beliefs can. This is not to deny that atheism as a basic belief may have survival value: it may make one, say, courageous or independent. The point is: it seems it cannot have such survival value because of the causal interaction with the world. And such causal interaction does seem to be required in order for the mechanism that produces that belief to be truth-oriented and reliable.
Hence, even though, for all we know, the basic belief that God does not exist is true or even necessarily true, it seems it cannot be produced by a mechanism that is both truth-oriented and reliable. This means that whether or not God exists, it seems impossible that humans have a truth-oriented cognitive mechanism that reliably produces the basic belief that God does not exist. And that means that, to the extent that one’s atheism is a basic belief, it cannot be properly basic. Hence, in order for it to be warranted, it should be based on arguments against God’s existence. This may even imply that atheism cannot be rational if it is merely a basic belief, for instance, if rationality requires that it seems possible that the belief in question is produced by a reliable truth-oriented cognitive mechanism.
Thus, if something like Reformed Epistemology is correct, there is an important epistemic asymmetry between theism and atheism: theism can be properly basic, whereas atheism cannot—the theist does not need arguments for God’s existence, whereas the atheist does need arguments against God’s existence.
Any thoughts on this?