• Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

We interrupt this narrative to address the probable curiosity of the careful reader at encountering the words "philosophy," "Baptist," "psychology," and "Freud" in relation to a single subject. (We'll leave "surfer" out of it for now.) "You can listen to Freud," replies Niemeyer, unflustered. "And you can stop listening to him whenever he starts making claims about things he shouldn't be making claims about. For example, he has an argument about the existence of God, and it's a good argument, but it makes assumptions that can be easily questioned."

The argument, boiled way, way down: "Belief arises from a faculty that is not aiming at truth but is aiming only for survival." And if it's not aiming at truth, it's probably not hitting it. "The idea is that the universe is this rough, wild place, and you have to deal with all these things, and there is this major existential struggle. As a child, you found haven in your parents, in the father figure. So, when you are grown up, you resort to God in order to organize things, to deal with this existential struggle."

But the argument opens with an assumption, one the Christian philosopher will dispute. "Alvin Plantinga is a very famous philosopher; he wrote a series of books on epistemology -- the theory of knowledge. It has to do with this idea of 'proper function.' Roughly put, we might not have evidential justification for belief, but if we are functioning properly in a congenial environment, and the faculty producing that belief aims at truth, then the belief has warrant, or nonevidential justification -- in which case, it can be called knowledge."

In making this claim, Plantinga wasn't so much going to war with Freud over his assumptions as he was wading into the internalist/externalist philosophical fray. In one form of the internalist tradition, says Niemeyer, "You have to provide reasons in order to justify belief. It's called 'internal' because your system of beliefs is internal, so you have to resort to other beliefs in your system of beliefs to justify the belief at hand. But the internalist can't use this method to justify things like the existence or endurance of external objects. I can't produce evidence that there is a tree in front of me. Whereas the externalist says, 'A lot of times, you don't have to resort to beliefs within your own system of beliefs. You just have to have this congenial environment in which you are functioning properly and have the faculty that is producing the belief be aiming at truth. In that case, we have warrant.' "

Niemeyer is pretty sure he's functioning properly, and the atmosphere at UCSD is certainly congenial. And as for whether or not the faculty producing the belief is aiming at truth... "Given my theism, I think that any really sound philosophy points to God. I side with a long tradition of thinkers who believe that God has designed us in such a way -- when He says, 'I have created you in my image,' He means that we have the power to know, to draw inferences, to be self-conscious, to have free will. If we apply those things correctly, they will point to truth. They will point to God." Further, "There are a lot of arguments for the existence of God for which, if you want to avoid the conclusion, you have to give up a lot of things that are -- especially for the layman -- very intuitive." That's not to say that intuitions are always correct; only that we ought to be cautious and thorough before tossing them aside.

For instance: the Principle of Sufficient Reason. "The moderate version of this is that there must be an explanation for every positive fact. This seems to be a principle that science accepts. 'There must be an explanation, so let's go out and do inquiries to find those explanations.' Okay, then -- the universe is a positive fact. In which case, there must be an explanation for the universe. The current state of affairs in the universe is an event. Prior to this event, there was another event that brought about the current state of affairs. And so on. But if you keep on going, you can't keep going into infinity, because then there is no explanation. But if there must be an explanation, there can't be an infinite regress. How do you solve the problem? There must be a necessary being upon whom all things depend. Christians usually accept that God has that particular property."

Some atheists, says Niemeyer, end up rejecting the moderate version of the Principle of Sufficient Reason because they don't like the conclusion. "They just reject a principle that it seems science relies upon substantially." If they accept the PSR for instrumental purposes only, they turn science into a tool for producing wonderful results but not one for discovering truth. "If you do that, you are undermining what might have been the primary reason for you to question God in the first place" -- the notion that it's science that discovers truth and that science is gradually revealing the godless universe. Or, they claim that only some positive facts have explanations. "That ends up being very ad hoc; it seems like you're just doing that to get out of trouble."

(It's worth noting that Niemeyer isn't simply being clever here; he's absolutely sincere. Nor does he pretend to a particular expertise in these sorts of arguments; merely a "profound interest." And looking back over his undergraduate career, he says, "It was nice to be hanging around with atheists of all sorts. They challenged me to think more thoroughly, and vice versa. It was mutually edifying.")

The Freud-Plantinga example is telling: Niemeyer challenging the psychologist by turning to the philosopher for another account of belief. It's why he wasn't long in leaving psychology for Lady Philosophy. "I took a physiological psychology class, and clearly, the material appeared to assume the mind-brain identity thesis" -- the notion that the function of the mind is nothing more, nothing other, than the workings of the brain. "They just assumed that and started their work. I understand why you would do that for practical reasons -- a lot of results come out of that. I understand why you would buy into pragmatism, even hard-core pragmatism. But a lot of people buy into that paradigm without being aware of it. Philosophy asks the question, 'Is that a good paradigm to buy into?' You weren't just given a mechanism and told to work through the mechanism. You could challenge the mechanism itself. The mind-brain identity seems to me a very important assumption, one that should be questioned. However, there's a problem -- you don't ask questions like that in a psychology class. You're being heretical if you try to question that; it's not an appropriate environment. I respect the notion that it's not the discipline's job to question its own foundtion. Where can you ask that question? In a philosophy class."

  • Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it


Sign in to comment

Win a $25 Gift Card to
The Broken Yolk Cafe

Join our newsletter list

Each newsletter subscription means another chance to win!