Piers Morgan’s silly attack on atheism, backed up by hapless Philosopher

Philosopher Nikk Effingham makes some monumental philosophical gaffes as he weighs in on the Twitter “debate” about the existence of God between Piers Morgan and Brian Cox. (Text of article below)

Here’s Piers Morgan’s tweet which succeeded in raising the hackles of atheists.

“Atheists can never say what was there before the Big Bang. They just say ‘nothing’ but they can’t explain what ‘nothing’ actually is. No human brain can, which is why I believe in something that has superior powers to the human brain.”

In answer to Piers supposedly penetrating question Brian Cox offers:

“Why is there something rather than nothing? Why not?”

To this Effingham offers:

“Can scientific phenomena really have no explanation? Isn’t science based on the idea that all things have discoverable explanations?”

Disturbingly, a philosopher is making a fairly obvious false comparison, confusing science with reality. Science is a method of inquiry – not commensurate with reality itself, and as a series of disciplines investigating reality, it has no bearing whatsoever on what that reality ultimately is. Further, there is no means of inquiry which can demonstrate that all things must have explanations.

He also misses the point. The “why is there something?” question can be turned on it’s head. Why do many assume that something came out of nothing? Why is nothing the default scenario?

And then this howler:

“What about the eternally existing chain of universes? Imagine you stumble across a perfect statue of yourself. Wondering why the hell it’s there, is it really satisfactory if someone says it just happens to have been there for all eternity? I doubt it.”

I wonder if this statue is made of straw. Effingham confuses a specific thing (statue) with existence itself. The universe is not a specific article exhibiting a likeness or connection with humans. Quite the opposite.

His point is reminiscent of the classic intelligent design argument which was once so convincing. If you find a watch laying in the ground one immediately senses the need for a designer. For centuries it was accepted folk wisdom that this logic should apply to humans and the world around us. Alas, Darwin found a better explanation in evolution.

Effingingham also makes a silly false comparison between scientists believing in their theories, and religious belief in God. As though most religious believers are simply proposing a hypothesis they think is likely, rather than the reality, which involves devoting themselves to a whole platform of tenets, commitments and rituals which assume the factual truth of the existence of their own specific God, usually to the exclusion of all others.

And this is what frustrates many atheists. Why are apparently intelligent people fooled by bad arguments?

In the absence of explanation for existence we:

  1. Demand there must be an explanation B. Find an explanation from our preexisting belief system B. Rationalise that the answer must be God

Piers Morgan’s argument is preposterous: The human brain can’t explain “nothing” so there must be something superior to the human brain.

Non sequitur. Nothing is suggested by what human brains can’t explain. In the absence of knowledge we used to think evil spirits caused storms. None of the enduring mysteries of existence have so far been explained by God.

The fact that we don’t know, equals an insistence to suspend belief. This suggests atheism and agnosticism. It does not suggest we should just conclude that God did it.



Piers Morgan and Brian Cox debate the existence of God: a philosopher’s take

Nikk Effingham The Conversation

Piers Morgan started a Twitter debate about God. “Atheists can never say what was there before the Big Bang” starts a recent tweet posted by the journalist-turned-television presenter. Morgan then moves to the existence of a higher power. A quick scan of the replies shows that the mere suggestion is enough to raise hackles.

Morgan’s tweet is a “cosmological argument” – one that argues that there must be an ultimate cause or explanation for the existence of the universe and that it must be God.

When focusing on causes, the idea is to question what caused, say, the Big Bang? If science finds that it’s a physical cause, we’ve gone nowhere, for what brought that about? And if the cause is non-physical, it must be supernatural. When focusing on explanation, the question is what explains the sum total of all facts? If it’s a scientific explanation, such as the fundamental laws of nature explaining everything, then what explains those laws? And the argument goes round again. If the explanation is non-scientific, then God isn’t far behind.

Piers Morgan: enquiring mind. EPA-EFE/Neil Hall

I doubt such arguments prove God’s existence for sensible objections abound. For instance, in response to Morgan, scientist (and television presenter) Brian Cox – who, as any fan of his radio show The Infinite Monkey Cage will know, is not philosophy’s biggest fan – nevertheless turns philosophical and suggests that perhaps nothing explains these things.

Another objection to this kind of argument is that God isn’t a good explanation because what would explain God?

Or consider one last objection. We might say that a prior universe was responsible for the Big Bang, and before that one, there was another. And so on, forever. Because this chain of universes has been around forever, the suggestion is that they need no explanation.

Problems with the objections

To each objection there are rejoinders – if there weren’t, philosophers like myself would be doing it wrong.

Can scientific phenomena really have no explanation? Isn’t science based on the idea that all things have discoverable explanations? Even particles popping into existence in the quantum foam have an explanation for their existence (namely, the laws of quantum physics) even if they have no specific cause.

And maybe it’s OK for God’s creation of reality to be inexplicable. Some people – “libertarians” – suggest that people’s free choices have no explanation. If our choices were wholly explained (for example, by our brain activity) there would be no free will. So even if scientific explanations always need explanations, God’s actions don’t.

Read more: The psychology of believing in free will

What about the eternally existing chain of universes? Imagine you stumble across a perfect statue of yourself. Wondering why the hell it’s there, is it really satisfactory if someone says it just happens to have been there for all eternity? I doubt it.

Good arguments needn’t be proofs

The literature on the cosmological argument is vast. It’s an open question whether the crucial premises are true or not. So it isn’t proof of God’s existence. But that doesn’t mean the cosmological argument is a bad argument. To be good, an argument doesn’t have to conclusively and undeniably prove its conclusion. Good reasoning needn’t be impervious to doubt.

Brian Cox: ‘no personal faith’. EPA-EFE/Neil Hall

Intelligent, well-informed adults can be justified in believing different things. Two physicists might disagree over a correct fundamental physical theory. One might say it’s superstring theory. Another might believe it’s loop quantum gravity. And both can be justified, even though they have the same body of information to hand. Indeed, they can be justified even though at most one of them is right. Being justified in believing something doesn’t mean it has to be true. Sometimes rational trains of thought can lead us astray – such is life.

And it’s not just science. Veteran politicians disagree even though they’re privy to the same information. Politics also shows that non-experts can similarly disagree. People who haven’t waded through all of the available information nevertheless get to have justifiable political views. Liberal democracy is founded on the idea that voters make sensible, justified decisions when they vote. You don’t need to be the West Wing’s fictional Nobel Prize-winning president, Jed Bartlet, in order to justifiably believe that lower business rates could work out well, that railway nationalisation is the way forward, or – in short – justifiably have a political opinion.

New atheism and Brexit

The, often outrageously rude, debate on Morgan’s Twitter feed shows that people tend to want religious arguments to meet some crazily high standard of proof. This is not unusual – it characterises a lot of New Atheist debates. But it’s an unfair burden. Churchgoers aren’t simpering morons just because they can’t prove God exists in the same way that we can prove to anyone that there are an infinite number of prime numbers.

So Morgan may not be telling atheists why they have to believe in God. Rather, he may be making a claim about why he is justified in believing in God. Those things are different. It’s implausible to believe that 140 characters is going to change the mind of every atheist. But if Morgan is just giving us an insight into his own belief structure – claiming only that his faith is justified – then, since the jury is out when it comes to the cosmological argument’s crucial premises, he’s on solid ground.

In the same way that a scientist may believe superstring theory in lieu of conclusive experimental evidence, or how politician Jeremy Corbyn can think that nationalising energy is sensible even though questions remain (for don’t questions always remain?), Morgan can be justified in believing in God.

This lesson isn’t just one for religious debate. The world (and the internet, especially) would be a better place if we worried less about whether someone was wrong and more about whether they’re justified. As new technologies allow for evermore public clashes of views, such as with the often vicious Brexit debate, realising that intellectually sophisticated adults can be justified in believing diametrically opposed things has never been more important.



Don’t always accept the prevailing wisdom, its usually wrong

… especially in regards to freethinkers!


As published in The Rationalist Journal June 2018


One of the key reasons we identify as rationalists, sceptics, or free thinkers, is because we value reason and evidence-based inquiry. We oppose government policy based on superstition, prejudice, or pseudoscience. We oppose charlatans exploiting the gullible. We advocate against magical thinking, fake news and the increasing acceptance of science-denialism. We emphasize the antidote to magical thinking – virtues of reason, science and evidence-based policies. We want to interrogate truth claims, and challenge the prevailing wisdom – after all, most of us know that it’s usually wrong.

And so, it’s disappointing to read articles by local rationalists and sceptics denigrating some of the exemplars of the freethought movement because they supposedly (amongst other things) exaggerate the importance of science and evidence. According to James Fodor “Not So Simple”, and Tim Harding, “A Step Too Far”, the following luminaries – Richard Dawkins, Neal De Grasse Tyson, Sam Harris, Lawrence Krauss and Peter Boghossian – can all be lumped together, and termed pejoratively as “crude positivists”; guilty of propagating such horrors as “strict evidentialism”, “scientism”, and “pragmatism”.

Both Fodor and Harding are local free thinkers who are thoughtful and insightful in the commentary, but, in this case, I think they have succumbed to the prevailing orthodoxy which labels public atheists, and science advocates, as a little too strident, blinkered, and prone to exaggerate the importance of science.

Of course, it’s still fashionable to make glib criticisms of freethinkers – in particular, the movement identified as New Atheism. Efforts to discredit the New Atheists began soon after publication of their books, the End of Faith by Sam Harris and The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. Because of their uncompromising and devastating attack on organised religion, New Atheists became controversial figures themselves, attracting a multitude of ad hominem attacks from the religious apologists they were actively debating. One conspicuous example was Alister McGrath’s, The Richard Dawkins Delusion – Atheist fundamentalism and the denial of the divine, containing ad hominem in its title. New Atheists were accused in pejorative terms of being religious fundamentalists, attacking a narrow interpretation of religion, dogmatism, reductionism, gross materialism, Islamophobia, and scientism. In these emotion-charged debates, mud has been thrown and evidently some of the mud has stuck.

While it’s understandable that some free thinkers would want to dissociate themselves from the bad press, we needn’t go so far as to drink the Kool Aid of religious apology. Invoking words like scientism to demonise the promoters of science is the stock-in-trade of religious apology. But there’s no doubt these criticisms have caught on, perhaps becoming accepted generally. I intend to show these criticisms are based on a narrow caricature of New Atheist views, which necessarily simplify and abbreviate their arguments.

James Fodor labels the above mentioned freethinkers with the “crude positivism” moniker, without feeling any obligation to provide any specific examples or quotes. Evidently, the prevailing view is good enough and no further justification is required. Rather, Fodor makes his case by describing the ways crude positivists allegedly frame their arguments, as follows:


  • Strict evidentialism: the ultimate arbiter of knowledge is evidence, which should determine our beliefs in a fundamental and straightforward way, namely that we believe things if and only if there is sufficient evidence for them.
  • Narrow scientism: the highest, or perhaps only, legitimate form of objective knowledge is that produced by the natural sciences. The social science, along with non-scientific pursuits, either do not produce real knowledge, or only knowledge or a distinctly inferior sort.
  • Pragmatism: science owes its’ special status to its’ unique ability to deliver concrete, practical results – it ‘works’. Philosophy, religion, and other such fields to enquiry do not produce ‘results’ in this same way, and thus have no special status



Arguing against promoting “strict evidentialism”, Fodor admits that, as an abstract principle, beliefs should be informed by evidence. But he has concerns about how crude positivists apply this maxim in practise.

For example, a crude positivist might refuse to accept the claims of evangelical Christians that they have experienced God in their own lives. Fodor says that “nearly everyone will be able to provide some sort of justification for their beliefs, something they regard to be ‘evidence’” But he alleges that crude positivists fail to make good arguments as to why this evidence is insufficient, simply demanding that theists provide evidence – especially scientific evidence. Fodor, is of course right to say that we need to explain what constitutes good evidence. However, the New Atheists have been relentless in outlining what sort of evidence would be sufficient for over a decade.

Notice how specifically this extended quote from Peter Boghossian’s, The Limits of Knowledge, answers Fodors’ objection in advance:


The problem is that everyone thinks they form their beliefs on the basis of evidence. That’s one of the issues, for example, with fake news. Whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, or just surfing Google, people read and share stories either that they want to believe or that comport with what they already believe—then they point to those stories as evidence for their beliefs. Beliefs are used as evidence for beliefs, with fake news just providing fodder.

Teaching people to formulate beliefs on the basis of evidence may, ironically, trap them in false views of reality. Doing so increases their confidence in the truth of a belief because they think they’re believing as good critical thinkers would, but they’re actually digging themselves into a cognitive sinkhole. The more intelligent one is, the deeper the hole. As Michael Shermer famously stated, “Smarter people are better at rationalizing bad ideas.” That is, smarter people are better at making inferences and using data to support their belief, independent of the truth of that belief.

What, then, can we skeptics do? Here’s my recommendation: Instead of telling people to form beliefs on the basis of evidence, encourage them to seek out something, anything, that could potentially undermine their confidence in a particular belief. (Not something that will, but something that could. Phrased this way it’s less threatening.) This makes thinking critical.

Philosophers call this process “defeasibility”. Defeasibility basically refers to whether or not a belief is revisable.


Another example: in a debate with William Lane-Craig, Lawrence Krauss outlined the sort of evidence he thinks is necessary:


Evidence is falsifiable; evidence is something I can test.


Krauss goes further, mopping out some misconceptions regarding probability and how it relates to evidence:


First of all, a probability greater than 50% is not evidence of anything. It’s evidence that there’s a possibility that a construct might be right. There’s also a possibility that it might be wrong. For example, in my own field of dark matter detection, one of the things I work in, there was a recent discovery of several events. And the experiment [unintelligible] that may be due to these dark matter particles, two events, where we predict none. You find out the probability of that being due to pure accident, is one part in ten: a 10% probability of that being a mere accident, 90% probability of it being, perhaps due to dark matter. The experiment, however, did not claim evidence for dark matter because we don’t claim 90% evidence is good enough, especially for an extraordinary claim.


In, A Letter to a Christian nation, Sam Harris provides detailed arguments relating to a myriad of Christian beliefs and why their evidence is insufficient. He does not simply refute them by obstinately claiming they are not “scientific” claims.

There are many more examples, but the point is made. Clearly, the ideas of the above named freethinkers are more complex and nuanced than generally supposed. Indeed, they are not so simple!

It’s also worth noting how our society operates on a universal, well understood idea of evidence. Experiential supernatural claims are not universally accepted as knowledge. Sam Harris has pointed out that when a person claims, for instance, to be the incarnation of Elvis Presley they instantly pay a price – in ill-concealed laughter and derision – for admitting to such a belief.

The separate-domains argument, to which Fodor refers (and happily does not endorse), makes a mockery of the concept of evidence. Evidence, is defined as the information which provides warrant for justified belief. An assertion is not evidence by itself – it must be supported by the information which constitutes evidence. If sufficient information exists, then it must be relatable and go towards sufficient warrant for belief. This is true by definition, since evidence contains information, and information must be capable of informing. Alas, those claiming such other forms of evidence are unable to produce the requisite information which would allow them to justifiably use the word “evidence”. Further, if these claims were imbued with another legitimate form of evidence, then we should find greater general acceptance that these are knowledge claims. The (strict or otherwise) evidentialist would have no problem – as it is evidence they seek!

Imagine if our law courts adopted the “other-realms” view of evidence. Barristers could leap to their feet demanding the court consider “other forms” of evidence which magically prove their case. “Objection, your Honour! My client has had a personal experience which proves that a ghost did it!” There are sound reasons why our legal system fails to support such ludicrous claims, and no-one suggests our courts are guilty of crude positivism.

Our current malaise is not caused by the insistence on evidence, it’s the increasing determination of political actors to ignore the evidence. While neither Fodor or Harding, to their credit, endorse such nonsense, rationalists and sceptics should remain unequivocally in favour of science and evidence, rather than pouring more fuel on the magical-thinking bonfire.


Joining the chorus of new age prophets, philosophers, and religious apologists – James Fodor and Tim Harding accuse the defenders of science with “scientism”. This term is carelessly lobbed at freethinkers whenever they suggest an incompatibility between science and faith. The preeminent evolutionary scientist Richard Dawkins has earned this epithet on numerous occasions. But, even in his case, it is dubious as to whether he thinks that the “only legitimate form of … knowledge is … science”.

In a debate with philosopher Stephen Law, for example, Dawkins said, “we can all agree that science’s entitlement to advise us on moral values is problematic to say the least”.

Not exactly scientism, in my opinion, however, this brings to mind Sam Harris, who actually does think that science can advise us on moral issues!

Charges of scientism arose following his claims in The Moral Landscape that science will one day be able to solve ethical problems. His claims rely on a presupposition that the well-being of sentient creatures is a natural, and incontrovertible, value and measuring stick for morality. I don’t think we can achieve agreement on objective moral values in this way, nor I am convinced that the presupposition of “wellbeing” must be universally accepted. I’m sure Fodor and Harding would agree that the presupposition of wellness is a philosophical claim, not a scientific one. Nonetheless, The Moral Landscape remains an influential and useful contribution to public debate, offering a way of framing morality in a distinctly nonreligious, utilitarian manner.

But the allegation of scientism relies on the common view is that science can have nothing to say about morality or ethics. Nothing? Is this incontrovertibly true, or another example of a conventional-wisdom dogma? Consider recent developments in cognitive psychology noting that primate species including humans have evolved with similar moral inclinations based on filial relationships. Consider also the possibility that future neuroscientific and medical discoveries may establish that humans do indeed possess inherent and universal moral inclinations and ethical instincts. Wouldn’t it be of interest to know what these are? Gaping holes exist in our understanding of consciousness, and how it relates to human decision making. It is difficult to predict how a better understanding of our brain and our own human nature may influence future discussions on morality. Perhaps, the assumption that science should be silent on morality is not as ironclad as some appear to think.

The accusation of scientism is, to some extent, a result of different interpretations of science. For instance, Richard Dawkins has an elastic understanding of science: in his view science includes all philosophic reasoning, history and all empirical knowledge. Sam Harris similarly sees science as commensurate with knowledge:


In the broadest sense, ‘science’ (from the Latin scire, ‘to know’) represents our best efforts to know what is true about our world.                

Letter to a Christian Nation, p. 64


So, when they say the word “science” in the broad sense, they often mean “knowledge”. Yet, many are liable to take them as excluding other genuine forms of knowledge such as history, philosophy and social science.

But evidently, even seasoned rationalists and sceptics are unaware of this problem, and therefore argue that we must be extremely wary of promoting a narrow view of science. And then, distressingly, they seek to support this view, by highlighting the limits of science.

To that end, Tim Harding quotes an oft-mentioned argument proposing Galileo’s explanation of gravity was founded upon reason alone, rather than the scientific method.

Considering the question of whether heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones, Galileo imagined two objects, one heavier than the other, connected by string, which are dropped from a tower. Assuming heavier objects fall faster Galileo imagined the string would soon become taut. But, the linked objects would together be heavier than the two objects individually, thus, creating a perceived contradiction, which allowed Galileo to hypothesise that in a vacuum the two objects would fall at the same rate.

In an article in Sceptic Magazine, Gary Bakker answers this argument in devastating fashion by pointing out that Galileo’s discoveries would not be considered knowledge unless they were verified by subsequent testing.

Interestingly, the example of a scientist like Galileo seems strange recalling his treatment at the hands of the Roman Catholic Church. Standing accused of trespassing onto the sacred ground of theology, Galileo’s discoveries directly challenged Scripture. What was he accused of, if not Scientism?

The historical trespass of science into the rival domains of theology and philosophy provides a useful perspective on present-day accusations of “scientism”. The concrete is not yet dry on the demarcations between science and the humanities. Who can say precisely where they are, and where future discoveries will take them?

Philosopher Stephen Law sums up the use of scientism well:


“ In the hands of some – including many theologians – the charge of ‘scientism!’ has become a lazy, knee-jerk form of dismissal, much like the charge of ‘communism!’ used to be. It constitutes a form of rubbishing, allowing – in the minds of those making the charge – for criticism to be casually brushed aside. No doubt some things really are beyond the ability of science, and perhaps even reason, to decide. But there’s plenty that does lie within the remit of the scientific method, including many religious, supernatural, New Age, and other claims that are supposedly ‘off-limits’. However, because the mantra ‘But this is beyond the ability of science to decide’ has been repeated so often with respect to that sort of subject matter, it is now heavily woven into our cultural zeitgeist. People just assume it’s true for all sorts of claims for which it is not, in fact, true. The mantra has become a convenient, immunising factoid that can be wheeled out whenever a scientific threat to belief rears its head. When a believer is momentarily stung into doubt, many will attempt to lull them back to sleep by repeating the mantra over and over. The faithful murmur back: ‘Ah yes, we forgot – this is beyond the ability of science to decide…. zzzz.’“



Fodor and Harding then argue against pragmatism – the belief in the utility of science to produce practical results – because is insufficient to recommend it as a complete picture of reality.

Fodor and Harding appear to suffering under the misapprehension that popular science advocates think they have reality completely figured out. Fodor argues that because scientific theories have historically sometimes worked relatively well in practice, only to have been found to be incorrect as an accurate model of reality, that (his view of) science cannot “alone always provide us with accurate descriptions of reality”. I’m not sure which crude positivist is supposed to hold this view.

He mentions Ptolemy’s incorrect geocentric model of the cosmos. But even against those who might insist that science does have all the answers, this is a comically fallacious counter argument. Reprising the logic of Gary Bakker, what fields of endeavour updated these incorrect models of reality? It certainly wasn’t philosophy. Was it French poetry? Or, was it Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas after an afternoon of levitating around St Peter’s Cathedral?

Despite allegations to the contrary, scientists are well known for exercising caution in claiming new discoveries. Virtually no-one argues that science represents an absolute or complete description of reality. What’s more, this triviality doesn’t discredit science at all. If science “alone” falls short, it is not as if we witness to other fields of inquiry riding in to the rescue. And yet, Harding proffers “philosophies of mind and metaphysics” as ways of filling in the missing pieces. Does anyone really imagine metaphysics is going to solve the fundamental questions of existence? How will we test the answers? Dare I say…science?

The popular trope that scientists have become over confident and intellectual bullies, results in the desire to take them down a peg or two. Pejorative terms arise out of this idea. It’s true that occasionally scientists do make questionable claims about the superiority of science over other disciplines, but these deserve sensible and measured debate, rather than name-calling. Leading free thinkers such as Richard Dawkins and Peter Boghossian have made questionable claims over social media. My argument is not that eminent figures in freethought should be immune from criticism. But rather, when we do criticise freethinkers we should use carefully constructed arguments combining reason and evidence.

After all, there is a conga line of well-funded advocates who oppose the Enlightenment values of science, reason and evidence. They promote worldviews which are antithetical to scepticism, rationalism, or humanism. They might propose, for instance, that evidence and science are secondary considerations subject only to a divine will. Or, that the world is only intelligible because of supernatural forces. Or, that we need to focus our efforts on returning society to a prior golden age. And that western democracies will collapse without continued subsidising of supernatural and religious beliefs. Such advocates, do not need or deserve our support.

Stigmatising the promotion of science by labelling it “scientism”; and, erroneously denouncing leading rationalist by making up pejorative labels; are actions antithetical to the ideals of the free thought community. Labelling people such as Stephen Hawking and Sam Harris in pejorative terms has the unfortunate side-effect of discrediting everything they’ve said or written, and diminishing the freethought community as a whole. We are damaging our own brand. The spectacular contribution of science, and the scientific method, is something we should be championing. What we need to focus on is developing the most persuasive arguments to champion the use of evidence and reason in forming beliefs, and in governing societies. That’s our mission. Let’s not lose sight of it.

POST 9: Undermining Reason: More on the Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism by Gary Robertson


Here is Gary Robertson’s RESPONSE TO MY POST 5: Naturalism remains undefeated: an answer to Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism



“Our highly developed brains, after all, were not evolved under the pressure of discovering scientific truths but only to enable us to be clever enough to survive and leave descendants.”

Francis Crick (The Astonishing Hypothesis, 1994)1


“Our sense organs, like all our bits, have been shaped by Darwinian natural selection over countless generations. You might think that our sense organs would be shaped to give us a ‘true’ picture of the world as it ‘really’ is. It is safer to assume that they have been shaped to give us a useful picture of the world, to help us to survive.” – Richard Dawkins (A Devil’s Chaplain, 2003)2


by Gary Robertson.


In Post 3 I discussed how the ‘evolutionary argument against naturalism’ (EAAN) of philosopher Alvin Plantinga shows that the naturalistic conception of humans incorporating evolutionary theory (evolutionary naturalism) is incompatible with reliable cognition and is therefore self-defeating. The conception holds that the origin and development of the human mind is the result of natural selection (evolutionary epistemology). The thrust of the EAAN is that since natural selection preserves adaptive behaviour whether or not it stems from true or rational beliefs, Darwinian evolution cannot by itself account for the reliability of our cognitive faculties and thus beliefs formed from them, including belief in naturalism.

A more structured formulation of the argument, as I understand it, is as follows:

(1) The existence of human cognition is explained by naturalism.

(2) Naturalism holds that our cognitive faculties are primarily the product of natural selection.

(3) Natural selection preserves random genetic mutations based solely on their survival value.

(4) The survival value of our beliefs rests on their contribution (via behaviour) to evolutionary success, whether they are rational or irrational, true or false.

(5) Therefore, many of our adapted beliefs (which for the naturalist may include the preceding premises) are likely to be irrational or false.

(6) Since we perceive adapted beliefs as accurate depictions of reality, we would never be able to identify which ones are false or irrational.

(7) Therefore:

  1. a) The probability that our cognitive faculties are reliable is low or, at best, inscrutable.
  2. b) We are unable to determine whether naturalism accounts for our cognitive faculties.
  3. c) We cannot know if naturalism is true, and hence
  4. d) Naturalism cannot be rationally affirmed.

(8) Therefore, naturalism is self-defeating.

Assuming the initial point

Hugh’s response to the EAAN essentially amounts to countering that human cognition, and thus knowledge attained through our cognitive faculties, is reliable so therefore naturalism is not defeated by the EAAN. I’m not sure if Hugh is simply ignoring the ramifications of the EAAN for naturalism or has misconstrued them, but either way he is merely begging the question, not refuting the argument. If the development of our cognitive faculties is based on their ability to form beliefs which lead to survival-enhancing behaviour then humans do not “have good reason to rely on their cognition.” After all, some irrational or false beliefs may provide survival advantages – we just wouldn’t know which ones. Nor would we know what approximate proportion of our total beliefs they comprise at any one time.

Hugh completely disregards (or misunderstands) this predicament, concluding that Plantinga’s argument is “problematic” because “there is no reason to discount both our cognitive capacities and the science of evolution.” Note the circularity of the logic here: Hugh doesn’t question this self-defeating aspect of naturalism because he presupposes there is “no reason to distrust the accepted science of evolution” or our cognitive faculties. Yet Hugh is left with a situation wherein he is unable to rationally explain the general reliability of human cognition within a naturalistic framework. Thus, it is the incompatibility between naturalism and the reliability of human cognition that is “problematic”, not the EAAN.

American analytic philosopher Alvin Plantinga


Missing the point

Hugh appears at times to misrepresent the EAAN somewhat. For example, despite accurately outlining it at the beginning of his post he later restates Plantinga’s argument as “we should distrust our knowledge of evolution based on our knowledge of evolution.” Hugh labels such an argument “nonsense” but the restatement reflects Hugh’s misinterpretation of it, which is indeed nonsensical and not remotely close to being an accurate representation of the EAAN. A more precise summation would be: ‘Naturalists should distrust their beliefs because, according to their account of how human cognition developed, our minds were formed by a process that favours survival over truth and rationality.’ Further, Plantinga subscribes to a version of theistic evolution, which posits that God set biological evolution in motion and possibly guides the process by causing suitable mutations and fostering their survival. Therefore, it is not the ‘evolution’ component of evolutionary naturalism per se that is the conundrum here, but specifically the naturalistic notion of unguided Darwinian evolution.3 As theologian James Beilby notes:


“Plantinga’s argument should not be mistaken for an argument against evolutionary theory in general or, more specifically, against the claim that humans might have evolved from more primitive life forms. Rather, the purpose of his argument is to show that the denial of the existence of a creative deity is problematic. It is the conjunction of naturalism and evolution that suffers from the crippling deficiency of self-defeat, a deficiency not shared by the conjunction of theism and current evolutionary doctrine.” (Beilby, 2002:vii)


Hugh continues: “Secondly, 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.” That is correct. Plantinga’s argument does not aspire to prove naturalism false; it is intended to show that evolutionary naturalism cannot be rationally affirmed – that is, it might be true but it cannot be rational to assert it as such. As Plantinga himself states, “the argument is not for the falsehood of naturalism, but for the irrationality of accepting it.” (Plantinga, 1993:235)

The quagmire deepens

Hugh follows with: “But, nor could we rely on our cognition that [naturalism] 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.” Of course, evolutionary naturalism certainly does get its adherents “precisely nowhere” because if it were true no beliefs could be deemed reliable, including theistic beliefs4. Hugh realises here that the unreliability of human cognitive processes would present a significant problem for all human beliefs, but unfortunately he fails to link this problem to his naturalistic worldview. Instead, he muddles things up by pulling theism into the predicament. However, the defeater exposed by the EAAN concerns naturalism’s account of how human cognition formed, not theism’s account. According to the theistic view, humans were formed in God’s image with the capacity to reason effectively and form true beliefs. Thus, on the theistic explanation “humans have good reason to rely on their cognition”. Actually, Plantinga is explicit in this regard:


“[T]his is not an argument for the falsehood of naturalism and thus (given that naturalism and theism are the live options) for the truth of theism; for all this argument shows, naturalism might still be true. It is instead an argument for the conclusion that (for one who is aware of the present argument) accepting naturalism is irrational. It is like the self-referential argument against classical foundationalism: classical foundationalism is either false or such that I would be unjustified in accepting it; so (given that I am aware of this fact) I can’t justifiably accept it. …The traditional theist, on the other hand, isn’t forced into this appalling loop. On this point his set of beliefs is stable. He has no corresponding reason for doubting that it is a purpose of our cognitive systems to produce true beliefs…” (Plantinga, 1993:235-6)


Straw men to the rescue

Hugh then states, “…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.” This is clearly a straw man argument since God’s existence or non-existence is not part of the EAAN. Indeed, Plantinga does not claim that the EAAN establishes the existence of a deity, or that it demonstrates the truth of theism or some other non-naturalistic worldview. Rather, he posits that the EAAN shows that naturalism conjoined with evolution is self-defeating, and simply notes as an aside that the defeater does not apply to the conjunction of theism with evolution (i.e., theistic evolution).

Hugh again attacks a straw man when he asserts, “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,” as Plantinga has never claimed that human perception is perfect. Instead, Plantinga suggests that humans are cognitively imperfect, stating: “From a theistic point of view, we’d expect that our cognitive faculties would be (for the most part, and given certain qualifications and caveats) reliable.” (Plantinga, 2012). Plantinga affirms this imperfection in an explanation of human cognition in terms of the Judeo-Christian concept of imago Dei:


“Now according to traditional Christian (and Jewish and perhaps Muslim) thought, we human beings have been created in the image of God. This means, among other things, that he created us with the capacity for achieving knowledge—knowledge of our environment by way of perception, of other people by way of something like what Thomas Reid calls sympathy, of the past by memory and testimony, of mathematics and logic by reason, of morality, our own mental life, God himself, and much more. And of course most of us are inclined to think that our cognitive faculties, our belief-producing processes, are for the most part reliable. True, they may not be reliable at the upper limits of our powers, as in some of the more speculative areas of physics; and the proper function of our faculties can be skewed by envy, hate, lust, mother love, greed, and so on. But over a broad area of their operation, we think the purpose of our cognitive faculties is to furnish us with true beliefs, and that when they function properly, they do exactly that.” (Plantinga, 2010:138)


In fact, I’m going to call Hugh out here and challenge him to provide at least one direct quote from Plantinga unambiguously suggesting that humans perfectly perceive truth and reality, or are infallible in ascertaining factual certainty.

Invoking the fossil record

Hugh posits that Darwinian evolution explains why we can have “a moderate level of trust in our cognitive faculties”. He states that increases in “brain size of the various human species…from 400cc to 1350cc over several millions of years,” along with a corresponding increase in “thinking ability” justifies this trust. However, the 400cc figure he cites refers to the average adult cranial capacity of a hominin species in the genus Australopithecus5 (Wikipedia: ‘Australopithecus afarensis’) and does not represent the cranial capacity of any species of human (genus Homo).6

Furthermore, Hugh’s explanation strongly implies he assumes that the “[i]ncreases in brain size and thinking ability” of each temporally successive hominin species indicate progressive transitional stages in human evolution. But this assumption is highly improbable because: 1) it is most likely other factors in addition to brain size account for intelligence (e.g., Homo sapiens have a smaller brain than the earlier and purportedly less intelligent Homo neanderthalensis7), 2) not enough time elapsed for neo-Darwinian mechanisms to produce the many complex adaptations that distinguish the Homo genus from the supposedly ancestral Australopithecus genus (Sanford et al, 2015),and 3) the hominin fossil record is fragmented and does not document the evolution of humans from ape-like precursors. Indeed, fossils of hominine (a hominid subfamily to which humans belong) generally fall into one of two groups — ape-like species or human-like species. Famed evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr described the distinction between the two groups as follows:


“The earliest fossils of Homo, Homo rudolfensis and Homo erectus,8 are separated from Australopithecus by a large, unbridged gap. How can we explain this seeming saltation? Not having any fossils that can serve as missing links, we have to fall back on the time-honored method of historical science, the construction of a historical narrative.” (Mayr, 2004:198)


Many other evolutionary biologists and paleoanthropologists also contend that every species within the genus Australopithecus – the genus that directly preceded the Homo group – resembles apes, not humans. Paleoanthropologist Leslie Aiello noted that in terms of locomotion: “Australopithecines are like apes, and the Homo group are like humans. Something major occurred when Homo evolved, and it wasn’t just in the brain.” (Leakey & Lewin, 1993:196) Intelligent design theorist Casey Luskin notes that the large gap in the hominin fossil record between the ape-like Australopithecines and the human-like Homo strongly suggests that this “‘something major’ was the abrupt appearance of the human-like body plan – without direct evolutionary predecessors in the fossil record.” (Luskin, 2017) The “unbridged gap” is not unexpected given the fossil record on the whole consistently exhibits a pattern of fully formed, novel body plans coming into existence abruptly, without clear evidence of intermediary stages of development. As Paleoanthropologist Bernard Wood writes in Nature, “Even with all the fossil evidence and analytical techniques from the past 50 years, a convincing hypothesis for the origin of Homo remains elusive.” (Wood, 2013:31)

In short, since the paleoanthropological evidence doesn’t support the argument that humans evolved from ape-like ancestors, Hugh’s attempt to reconcile the development of human mental faculties with evolutionary processes is conjectural and highly dubious. On top of that, until Hugh can refute the EAAN his explanation is ultimately meaningless within a framework of evolutionary naturalism since, as the EAAN shows, the naturalistic explanation of the development of human cognition casts doubt on the reliability of any claim he makes (Hugh has a defeater for every belief that is a product of his cognitive faculties).


Growing doubts about neo-Darwinism

Hugh claims, “There is no longer any doubt about the fact of our unguided evolution from prior species, and our connection to other forms of life.” Adequately addressing this fanciful remark would require at least one lengthy blog post to detail all the objections one could reasonably raise against it. In the meantime, I refer Hugh to the aforementioned lack of evidence in the fossil record for human evolution from any preceding hominin species, and leave the topic here with the below quotes on the increasing scientific dissatisfaction with standard evolutionary theory. American Philosopher of Science Stephen Meyer observes that:


“The technical literature in biology is now replete with world-class biologists routinely expressing doubts about various aspects of neo-Darwinian theory, and especially about its central tenet, namely the alleged creative power of the natural selection and mutation mechanism. Nevertheless, popular defenses of the theory continue apace, rarely if ever acknowledging the growing body of critical scientific opinion about the standing of the theory. Rarely has there been such a great disparity between the popular perception of a theory and its actual standing in the relevant peer-reviewed science literature.” (Meyer, 2013:x)


The Royal Society and British Academy held a joint meeting in November 2016 (‘New trends in evolutionary biology: biological, philosophical and social science perspectives’) to present developments in evolutionary biology and adjacent fields that call for a revision of the standard theory of evolution. Biologist Gerd B. Müller echoes Meyer’s comments in the 6 October 2017 issue of the Royal Society’s journal Interface Focus, which featured articles based on presentations at that meeting:


“A rising number of publications argue for a major revision or even a replacement of the standard theory of evolution, indicating that this cannot be dismissed as a minority view but rather is a widespread feeling among scientists and philosophers alike.

… Indeed, a growing number of challenges to the classical model of evolution have emerged over the past few years, such as from evolutionary developmental biology, epigenetics, physiology, genomics, ecology, plasticity research, population genetics, regulatory evolution, network approaches, novelty research, behavioural biology, microbiology and systems biology, further supported by arguments from the cultural and social sciences, as well as by philosophical treatments. None of these contentions are unscientific, all rest firmly on evolutionary principles and all are backed by substantial empirical evidence.

… The real issue is that genetic evolution alone has been found insufficient for an adequate causal explanation of all forms of phenotypic complexity, not only of something vaguely termed ‘macroevolution’.” (Müller, 2017)


Adding guesswork to the mix

Hugh’s dismissal of Darwin’s selective scepticism9 about the trustworthiness of mans’ beliefs, given the supposed undirected development of human cognition, seems desperate. Hugh wonders “whether Darwin would have revised his doubts [about the reliability of human thought] 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.” However, speculating about inferences or conclusions someone from the past may have derived from certain contemporary scientific findings involves a multitude of unknowns and, therefore, amounts to pointless conjecture.  

As an illustration, we could just as plausibly (and just as fruitlessly) wonder whether Darwin’s expressed doubts about “the mind of man” being “the result of blind chance or necessity” (Barlow, 1958:92-3) would have increased if he had been familiar with scientific discoveries from the future revealing the fine-tuning of the fundamental constants of the universe, digital code stored in DNA, intricate nanotechnology within cells, and the irreducible complexity of various biological systems (not to mention many of their individual components). We could also wonder what Darwin would make of the continual inability of scientists to resolve one of evolutionary theory’s most troublesome dilemmas – the prominent gap in the fossil record separating phyla and other taxonomic groups in the Cambrian strata from those of the pre-Cambrian period – particularly since Darwin expressed his hope around 150 years ago that future research would resolve the “difficulty,” and the fact that he stated in The Origin of Species that he considered it “a valid argument against the views here entertained.” (Darwin, 1872:287)

What internal contradiction?

Although many prominent naturalists and materialists have explicitly stated that, in terms of human cognition, natural selection ‘selects’ not for rationality or accurate perception, but for survival and propagation, the majority of them fail to see the obvious self-referential incoherence of such statements. A consequence of this oversight is that many of these advocates of evolutionary epistemology are unaware of its adverse implications for their naturalistic or materialistic worldviews10. Nancy Pearcey, professor of apologetics at Houston Baptist University, concisely explains the internal contradiction of evolutionary epistemology as follows:

“An example of self-referential absurdity is a theory called evolutionary epistemology, a naturalistic approach that applies evolution to the process of knowing. The theory proposes that the human mind is a product of natural selection. The implication is that the ideas in our minds were selected for their survival value, not for their truth-value.

But what if we apply that theory to itself? Then it, too, was selected for survival, not truth — which discredits its own claim to truth. Evolutionary epistemology commits suicide.

Astonishingly, many prominent thinkers have embraced the theory without detecting the logical contradiction. Philosopher John Gray writes, ‘If Darwin’s theory of natural selection is true,…the human mind serves evolutionary success, not truth.’ What is the contradiction in that statement?

Gray has essentially said, if Darwin’s theory is true, then it ‘serves evolutionary success, not truth.’ In other words, if Darwin’s theory is true, then it is not true.” (Pearcey, 2015)


Many similar examples exist. Cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker writes, “[O]ur brains were shaped for fitness, not for truth. Sometimes the truth is adaptive, but sometimes it is not.” (Pinker, 1997:305) So is Pinker’s statement an adaptive truth? If it isn’t adaptive it still may be true, but even if it is true we would never be able to know, so the statement is self-defeating. The two quotes at the beginning of this post are also examples of self-referentially incoherent claims, as are the two quotes by Charles Darwin about his ‘horrid doubt’ in my second post in this debate. Furthermore, as Pearcey notes, the problem for evolutionary epistemology doesn’t end there:


“To make the dilemma even more puzzling, evolutionists tell us that natural selection has produced all sorts of false concepts in the human mind. Many evolutionary materialists maintain that free will is an illusion, consciousness is an illusion, even our sense of self is an illusion — and that all these false ideas were selected for their survival value.

So how can we know whether the theory of evolution itself is one of those false ideas? The theory undercuts itself.” (Pearcey, 2015)


Indeed, some naturalists, like cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman and several of his colleagues from the University of California, not only maintain that “perceptual information is shaped by natural selection to reflect utility, not to depict reality,” (Mark et al, 2010:513) but that “an organism that sees reality as it is will never be more fit than an organism of equal complexity that sees none of reality but is just tuned to fitness. Never.” (Gefter, 2016)

The widespread acceptance of evolutionary epistemology prompts the question: Why do so many of those who subscribe to naturalism fail to accept or even acknowledge the internal contradiction of this component of their worldview? The answer appears to be cognitive dissonance. Philosopher Whitley Kaufman explains the cognitive dissonance that arises from evolutionary naturalism thusly:


“There is no subject on which naturalism is so deeply conflicted as the notion of reason and truth. On the one hand, the naturalist can hardly resist celebrating the powers of human reason to uncover the most fundamental truths about the world… On the other hand, the naturalist is vaguely uncomfortable with such concepts as truth and reason, for they suggest a human ability to transcend nature and causal determination, and furthermore they suggest that there are certain philosophical concepts – truth and reason – that are in principle outside of the capacity of science and evolution to explain, as they are presuppositions of science itself. Thus we see the naturalist’s dilemma: It consists of the urge to explain literally everything within the Darwinian framework – reason and truth included – while at the same time realizing the potential self-defeating nature of such an explanation, since the very edifice of Darwinism and science itself threatens to crumble if there is no stable notion of reason or truth.” (Kaufman, 2016:67)


Commenting on Philosopher Thomas Nagel’s book Mind and Cosmos, The Weekly Standard senior editor Andrew Ferguson notes Nagel’s explanation of what motivates evolutionary naturalists and materialists to retain their respective worldviews despite the internal contradiction of evolutionary epistemology and the resulting cognitive dissonance:


“Materialism can only be taken seriously as a philosophy through a heroic feat of cognitive dissonance; pretending, in our abstract, intellectual life, that values like truth and goodness have no objective content even as, in our private life, we try to learn what’s really true and behave in a way we know to be good. Nagel has sealed his ostracism from the intelligentsia by idly speculating why his fellow intellectuals would undertake such a feat.

‘The priority given to evolutionary naturalism in the face of its implausible conclusions,’ he writes, ‘is due, I think, to the secular consensus that this is the only form of external understanding of ourselves that provides an alternative to theism.’” (Ferguson, 2013)


Loosely tying it all together

Hugh devotes the latter portion of his response to very briefly explaining, as he sees it, the biological basis of our “yearning to understand our world”, and how the two conflicting worldviews of naturalism and theism relate to this intrinsic human quality. Although Hugh’s account is an oversimplification, this part of his argument is particularly valuable for providing insight into where he is coming from, which strongly points to a mindset steeped in scientism and anti-religion. For instance, Hugh creates a false dichotomy between science and religion (in which he justly includes supernaturalism, theism and theology) by portraying them as two incompatible views of the world. He attempts this by conflating religion with intuition and superstition to distance it from scientific methodology and empirical evidence. When it comes to philosophical naturalism however, Hugh does the opposite. He conflates philosophical naturalism with science – even dispensing with the term ‘naturalism’ altogether, and instead comparing religion with ‘science’. Yet according to Ronald Numbers, a leading historian of science, “the greatest myth in the history of science and religion holds that they have been in a state of constant conflict.” (Numbers, 2009:1)

No mention is made in Hugh’s discussion of religion and science of the worldview that lay at the foundations of the scientific revolution. As I noted in Post 3, “modern science was largely founded by theists like Newton, Galileo, Kepler, Leibniz, Copernicus, Boyle and others who believed that order and precision exhibited by the physical universe, and the overall intelligibility of the natural world, revealed evidence of God’s existence.” Their views of nature “benefitted from earlier intellectual traditions inherited from the Greeks, as well as from scientific knowledge and experimentation carried out by Muslim and Jewish investigators, and [they] typically made mention of this in their own writings, citing their sources.” (Burke, 2014:90). Renowned theoretical physicist Paul Davies notes that:


“It was from the intellectual ferment brought about by the merging of Greek philosophy and Judeo-Islamic-Christian thought that modern science emerged, with its unidirectional linear time, its insistence on nature’s rationality, and its emphasis on mathematical principles. All the early scientists, like Newton, were religious in one way or another. They saw their science as a means of uncovering traces of God’s handiwork in the universe. What we now call the laws of physics they regarded as God’s abstract creation: thoughts, so to speak, in the mind of God.” (Davies, 1995:31-5)


The development of modern science was clearly not due to Christianity alone, particularly given the important influence classical Greek philosophy, as well as Muslim and Jewish philosophy, had on Christian thought at the time of the ‘scientific revolution’ of the Renaissance. But, as science and religion historian Noah Efron points out, “historians have observed that Christian churches were for a crucial millennium leading patrons of natural philosophy and science, in that they supported theorizing, experimentation, observation, exploration, documentation, and publication.” For this and other reasons, Efron writes, “one cannot recount the history of modern science without acknowledging the crucial importance of Christianity.” (Efron, 2009:81-2)


Hugh’s assertion that “science and religion offer competing views of how to understand the world” is misleading. Broadly speaking, science may be defined as the attempt to explain phenomena in terms of natural causes and processes, and as a body of empirical, theoretical, and practical knowledge about the natural world, while theology is the study of the divine and how the natural world, especially humanity, relates to it. The two systems of thought necessarily interact, particularly science and natural theology, which is a program of inquiry into the existence and attributes of God based on the observation of nature and the use of human reason. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states:


“In general, natural religion or theology…aims to adhere to the same standards of rational investigation as other philosophical and scientific enterprises, and is subject to the same methods of evaluation and critique.” (‘Natural Theology and Natural Religion’)


Hugh’s depictions of supernaturalism rest on stereotypical characterisations of theologians (e.g., “Theologians will always seek to explain mysteries by inserting supernatural elements such as ghosts and deities,”) and glaring omissions of the substantive historical, informational, and other ties between science and theism. Further, he presents philosophical naturalism as being virtually synonymous with scientific knowledge and scientific methodology even though science deals only with natural cause and takes no position on the existence of God or a supernatural reality, and the fundamental tenets of philosophical naturalism can neither be scientifically verified nor refuted. Given these gross mischaracterisations and omissions, Hugh’s brief attempt to explain how naturalism and supernaturalism relate to man’s thirst for knowledge and drive to make sense of the world carries scientistic and anti-religious undertones.

Unverifiable explanations of invisible reality

In his final paragraph, Hugh states, “The invisible forces have been discovered and thus, we no longer need supernaturalism.” While I wouldn’t go as far as Hugh in implying that science has discovered all invisible forces, I partially agree with the latter part of his statement. That is, I would argue that there is no justifiable psychological or ideological need to invoke supernatural entities or forces as causal explanations of invisible or otherwise mysterious phenomena. Nor, I would also maintain, is there any justification for arguments from ignorance or ‘God of the gaps’ explanations. However, I do contend that there is an evidential need to infer supernatural causation if such inferences are plausible explanations of causality derived from empirical data, metaphysical truths, mathematical proofs, predictive modelling, or logical theoretical conceptions and the like.

Hugh continues with, “We have no need to postulate other undefined and unverifiable forces.” I agree that such postulations are not required (except for the aforementioned justification of evidential need), but would add that there is also no need to arbitrarily postulate brute facts whenever something cannot be explained within a naturalistic framework, which is essentially gaps-based reasoning (‘naturalism of the gaps’). Furthermore, based on this statement Hugh appears unfamiliar with the nature of theoretical physics and of the more speculative areas of cosmology, within which ill-defined and unverifiable forces and entities are sometimes postulated. As Copi and Cohen note in their prominent textbook on logic: “Science is supposed to be concerned with facts, and yet in its further reaches we find it apparently committed to highly speculative notions far removed from the possibility of direct experience.” (Copi and Cohen, 1990:422)

Let’s look at a couple of high-profile examples: The leading theory in cosmology for reconciling the seemingly incompatible theories that describe gravity and the quantum world is string theory, however its status as a scientific theory has been keenly debated for over a decade as it is currently beyond the reach of experimental testing and falsification. (Castelvecchi, 2016) Additionally, the theory relies on dimensions of reality we can never observe, and “[o]ne of the challenges … is that the full theory does not have a satisfactory definition in all circumstances,” (Wikipedia, ‘String theory’),

Another leading theory in cosmology is the multiverse theory of infinite, but unseen and undefinable universes. This hypothetical multiverse cannot be detected, observed, measured, proved or disproved, but although he has mentioned it in our debate, Hugh is yet to say anything critical of it. Moreover, quantum cosmology is not an observational science and its theories are untestable, but so far Hugh has not called into question its explanatory value or its legitimacy in theoretical physics. The same goes for unverifiable propositions within the field of theoretical biology. Thus, Hugh’s criticism here seems very narrow and highly selective, particularly when claims for the existence of a supernatural reality often draw from intelligent design theory, which has an empirical, observational basis and makes testable predictions.

Unsupported conclusions

Hugh’s claim that Plantinga’s EAAN is “but a rationalization allowing theists to question evolution and naturalism” is simply not supported in his post. Additionally, his final sentence, which states that the EAAN “relies on doubting accepted science, and inserting a supernatural element, and thus is itself, self-defeating,” is not only false but, even if it were true, does not logically follow. Moreover, the claim appears to be a tactic to sidestep the argument altogether, and to deflect the obligation to justify one’s position onto one’s opponent. Not only does Hugh fail to show how or where in the EAAN Plantinga supposedly inserts a supernatural element (he doesn’t), he also fails to grasp the ramifications of the EAAN for naturalism, and to understand that it is his account of human cognition that instils doubt about scientific knowledge – not Plantinga’s. Indeed, the “superficial concord but deep conflict between science and naturalism” (Plantinga, 2011: ix) demonstrated by the EAAN is somewhat ironic given Hugh’s scientistic leanings.

Hugh’s concluding claims are essentially bare assertions tacked onto the end of his argument, possibly because he thinks they sound like a convincing and forceful way to finish off the post. But unsupported claims have no merit in a serious debate, no matter how confidently they are asserted.

Undermining naturalism, science and reason all at once

We’ve seen that the EAAN argues that believing in both evolutionary theory and naturalism simultaneously is epistemically self-defeating because, as renowned philosopher Thomas Nagel succinctly put it, “Evolutionary naturalism provides an account of our capacities that undermines their reliability, and in doing so undermines itself.” (Nagel, 2012:27). And while being self-defeating is bad enough for any worldview things are even worse for naturalism for, as we have also seen, far from being the logical outcome of a rational investigation of the world, naturalism undermines the very possibility of rational inquiry. But then what would one expect of a worldview in which cognitive functions like thinking and perceiving are chiefly the result of adaptations preserved via a blind process that increases reproductive success and survival prospects as incidental outcomes?

Hugh’s rejoinder to my discussion of the self-defeating nature of evolutionary naturalism appears to be in essence: ‘Naturalism is true because our cognitive faculties are reliable, and we know our cognitive faculties are reliable because we can confirm the truth of biological evolution and other perceived discoveries through methods of inquiry developed via our cognitive faculties,’ which is a circular response that basically appeals to naturalistic assumptions to defend naturalism. The EAAN shows that on the naturalistic worldview human cognition and beliefs produced by our cognitive faculties cannot be rationally deemed reliable, and that naturalism is therefore self-defeating. Hugh’s response clearly does not answer the challenge to naturalism the EAAN poses.







  1. Crick F (1994) The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. p.262
  2. Dawkins R (2003) A Devil’s Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love. Houghton Mifflin, Boston. p.46
  3. For the record, I subscribe to neither version of macroevolution, i.e., theistic or Darwinian.
  4. The point of including theism here is to illustrate the unreliability of all beliefs on evolutionary naturalism’s account of the development of human cognition. Apart from a small minority of people who adhere to both naturalism and theism within a type of hybrid worldview, the vast majority of people who advocate evolutionary epistemology would not hold theistic views.
  5. The approximate range in cranial capacity of the species Australopithecus afarensis is 380–430 cubic centimetres. (Wikipedia: ‘Australopithecus afarensis’). The famous A. afarensis fossil specimen known as ‘Lucy’ had a cranial capacity of 400cc.
  6. The earliest known species within the Homo genus (H. habilis) had a brain-size range of 550 cm3 to 687 cm3 (Wikipedia: ‘Homo habilis’) However, like H. rudolfensis, placement of this species in the genus Homo is widely disputed among paleoanthropologists (Wikipedia: ‘Homo rudolfensis’), with many contending it belongs in the ape-like genus Australopithecus (per Mayr in note 8 below). Its reclassification, along with that of H. rudolfensis, within the Australopithecus genus would mean the smallest known average cranial capacities of adult human species were around 950cc (average H. erectus) (Rightmire, 2013:223).
  7. The species Homo neanderthalensis is used here to illustrate that brain size is not the only determinant of intelligence. I am not implying that H. sapiens descended from H. neanderthalensis, and am fully aware that evolutionary theory posits that H. sapiens and H. neanderthalensis are sister species, both of which may have descended from H. heidelbergensis. or H. antecessor (Wikipedia: ‘Human evolution’).
  8. Mayr included a footnote here stating: “I follow those who place Homo habilis in the genus Australopithecus.”
  9. See the two quotes by Darwin concerning his selective scepticism in Post 3.
  10. Among the rare exceptions amid atheists are geneticist J.B.S. Haldane, and philosophers John Gray and Thomas Nagel.




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Sanford J, et al. (2015) ‘The waiting time problem in a model hominin population’, Theoretical Biology and Medical Modelling. 12(18).

Schwartz JH & Tattersall I (2015) ‘Defining the genus Homo’, Science. Vol. 349 (6251). 28 August. pp.931-2.

Wood B (2014) ‘Human evolution: Fifty years after Homo habilis, Nature, Vol 508 (7494). 2 April. p.31-3.

RSA Submission to the Religious Freedom Review


Click here to view the RSA Submission: RSA Submission To The Religious Freedom Review

Click here to view a recent Fairfax op-ed by our Executive Officer, Tosca Lloyd, calling for an end to religious privilege, power and prejudice: 2018: a year that draws a line against prejudice, privilege and power

Click here to read Barrister Dean Stretton’s excellent submission: A barrister’s submission to the Ruddock Inquiry