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Naturalism remains undefeated: an answer to Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism

Naturalism remains undefeated – a rejoinder to the Alvin Plantinga argument used in Post 3 that naturalism is self-defeating. Post 5.


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Popularizing the claim that naturalism and evolution are mutually self-defeating, Alvin Plantinga argues in the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (1993), that, given unguided evolution, our beliefs have no intrinsic relation to the truth.

Drawing on previous arguments made by C.S. Lewis and Arthur Balfour, Plantinga claims that if humans are the product of undirected processes, then we cannot reasonably rely on what we perceive. In fact, it’s just “as likely …that we live in a sort of dream world as that we actually know something about ourselves and our world.”

Thus, if we cannot rely on our beliefs, then we cannot rely on our belief in naturalism and thus, naturalism is defeated.

Well, it would be very worrying if we couldn’t rely on any of our beliefs. But evidently, humans have good reason to rely on their cognition, and we do so in myriad situations daily.

We also have no reason to distrust the accepted science of evolution and the various mechanisms which operate within it; such as the mutation of genes, natural selection, and genetic drift.

Given there is no reason to discount both our cognitive capacities and the science of evolution, then the argument becomes problematic. Another way of expressing Plantinga’s argument is that we should distrust our knowledge of evolution based on our knowledge of evolution. Nonsense.

Second, even if we somehow accepted the unreliability of our beliefs, this would mean only that we could not rely on our belief in naturalism; not that naturalism is untrue. But, nor could we rely on our cognition that it is false. Therefore, if true, the unreliability-of-beliefs premise is either self-defeating for beliefs in naturalism and theism, or not self-defeating for both. Thus, it gets us precisely nowhere.

Third, the argument presumes that theism somehow provides humans with reliable cognition.

Plantinga explains,

“God has created us in his image, and an important part of our image bearing is our resembling him in being able to form true beliefs and achieve knowledge”.

But, inserting a supernatural element (God) as a fact, is a circular argument. Viz. if God exists, naturalism must be untrue, so there’s no use invoking God as evidence that naturalism is untrue. (Prove God exists first!).

Further, the Philosopher William Ramsay has observed how human faculties are, in fact, slightly unreliable – look at our impressive array of cognitive biases! Ramsay further posits that evolution and naturalism explain this better than theism. In fact, the well-established foibles in our thinking pose a considerable challenge to Plantinga’s suggestion that we are the perfect perceivers of truth one would expect as the product of an omnipotent Creator.

Plantinga’s argument trades upon the philosophical knowledge-problem: the difficulty in providing a neat solution to the foundation of knowledge: how do we know we can rely on our beliefs? But this philosophical problem is not specific to either evolution of naturalism: the challenge pertains to all of our beliefs.

In fact, our evolution by natural selection justifies a moderate level of trust in our cognitive faculties. The brain size of the various human species has increased from 400cc to 1350cc over several millions of years. In this time, archaic humans developed more sophisticated stone tools, harnessed fire, developed language, and began to use symbolic thought. Natural selection seems to have been effective in providing reproductive advantage by selecting for those traits. Claiming this is “accidental” misunderstands natural selection. Increases in brain size and thinking ability, are selection effects we could expect to correlate to accurate perceptions about reality. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how we could have survived as a species if our perceptions and beliefs have no relation to the real world.

Nevertheless, Plantinga draws strength from a quote of Darwin expressing worry about the veracity of evolved human thought.

“But then with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?”

— Charles Darwin, to William Graham 3 July 1881

One can only wonder whether Darwin would have revised his doubts had he been able to witness the magnificent confirmation of his theory of natural selection via subsequent discoveries in the fossil record, and the field of genetics.

Natural selection has become the cornerstone of modern biology. There is no longer any doubt about the fact of our unguided evolution from prior species, and our connection to other forms of life.

Indeed, the yearning to understand our world has been a feature in the development of humans. When we observed natural events that we could not explain, we posited underlying causes. Recall, hunter gatherers performing rain dances, ancient tribes sacrificing animals and children. Up until the last 500 years, theology posited supernatural causes for most unexplained phenomena. In the 18th century hundreds of church bell ringers were electrocuted, as they tried to ward off the devils who cast lightning upon the earth.

To the current day, science and religion offer competing views of how to understand the world. Science uses the scientific method which relies on hypothesis, testing and prediction, and is always subject to revision. Theologians will always seek to explain mysteries by inserting supernatural elements such as ghosts and deities.

But science has uncovered other invisible, underlying causes of natural events. These include things like electromagnetism, gravity, and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. Needless to say, none of these could be arrived at through intuition alone. The gradual accumulation of scientific knowledge, where the work of one scientist enabled another, has helped humans to understand physical forces which are deeply counterintuitive; even, seemingly incomprehensible. Think of how light behaves as a wave and a particle at the same time; how particles can seemingly exist in multiple places at the same time; of how the universe is only 5% matter, the rest being made of dark matter and dark energy.

The invisible forces have been discovered and thus, we no longer need supernaturalism. We have no need to postulate other undefined and unverifiable forces. We certainly have no reason to entertain the idea that the discoveries of science are vulnerable to a superimposed truth-giving deity. Plantinga’s argument is but a rationalization allowing theists to question evolution and naturalism. But it relies on doubting accepted science, and inserting a supernatural element, and thus, is itself, self-defeating.

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