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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The Burden of Proof Naturalism versus Supernaturalism: Gary’s Robertson’s Response to Post 4

Gary Robertson replies to Hugh’s post 4 based on the essay:Naturalism vs Supernaturalism – the False Dichotomy”


In Part 1 of his rejoinder to my previous post (Post 3: ‘Is Naturalism More Probable than Supernaturalism?’) Hugh argues that the burden of proof in debates pitting weak naturalism against theistic supernaturalism rests solely with proponents of the latter. His justification is that, while the supernaturalist’s position involves a claim to knowledge, the weak naturalist’s position does not. However, this justification is based on a very broad definition of weak naturalism that even encompasses non-naturalistic beliefs and, crucially, the justification contradicts Hugh’s narrower definitions of the term. But far more problematic for Hugh’s naturalistic worldview is that it is based on a self-defeating epistemology that renders it either false or meaningless.

Claiming Knowledge

As with the essay and ensuing discussion this debate is based on, Hugh equivocates on the meaning of the term ‘weak naturalism’ to sidestep an obligation to provide sufficient warrant for his position.1 Sometimes Hugh defines weak naturalism as merely disbelief in a supernatural realm “given the lack of evidence,” or as “simply lacking belief in the supernatural dimension,” while at other times his characterisations are more forthright. For instance, Hugh defines weak naturalism in his rejoinder and in his preceding post as follows: “As far as we know, the natural world is all there is.” But clearly a claim that fundamental reality is comprised only of the natural world is a knowledge claim. And Hugh cannot credibly argue that the qualifier “As far as we know” exempts his definition from knowledge claim status as many claims to knowledge are based on currently available evidence (that is, what we ‘know’ at present), including the competing ontological claim of a transcendent reality that I’m defending in my posts. Therefore, since Hugh’s version of naturalism entails a claim to knowledge about ultimate reality, the onus of proof lies with proponents on both of sides of this debate.

Key Contradictions

Hugh retorts: “Proposing weak naturalism does not entail ‘appealing to the fact that nature exists rather than providing any positive evidence showing why it’s probable nothing transcends nature’. Rather, it appeals to the lack of evidence for anything supernatural, period.” This contradicts his earlier statement: “in my essay Naturalism versus Supernaturalism – the false dichotomy – I argue that the observance of the natural world along with its laws combined [emphasis added] with the absence of any evidence of the supernatural, amounts to a strong prima facie case for naturalism”. It is also inconsistent with his explanation of weak naturalism in his rejoinder, wherein he states the view involves “asserting the existence of the natural world”.

Not only does Hugh contradict himself in his definitions of weak naturalism, his naturalistic stance, which he concedes “is indeed a philosophical position,” does not even meet his own standards of justification – that is, his criteria a proposition must fulfil to have epistemic credibility. For example, Hugh concludes from the premises in his essay (i.e. (1) nature exists; and (2) there is no evidence of a supernatural reality) that nature is all there is (which, of course, does not follow). Instead of withholding judgement and assuming an agnostic stance given the supposed absence of evidence for or against a supernatural reality, Hugh makes the unsubstantiated knowledge claim that there is nothing beyond the physical world. But since his claim is philosophical and thus “beyond the limits of empiricism,” using Hugh’s logic the claim is “unknowable by nature, and thus, by definition, lacks any epistemic likelihood.”

Let’s look at it another way: We know the natural world exists as we have definitive proof of its existence, but is the natural world all there is? Does the natural world comprise all of reality? According to Hugh’s epistemology, we don’t know the answers to these questions because there is no empirically verifiable evidence available. Following Hugh’s logic, if the answers cannot be known scientifically or empirically then metaphysical views based on answers to those questions are without any epistemic credibility. So, since naturalism is a philosophical position and its central claim that nothing transcends nature is not empirically verifiable, to be consistent we must also regard naturalism as having no epistemic likelihood. Hence, ultimately Hugh shoots himself in the foot. Moreover, as I argue in the next section, Hugh’s standards of justification not only invalidate his own position of weak naturalism, they also reveal the reliance of his position on several self-defeating philosophical concepts, which serves to further deepen an already gaping wound.

Self-Defeating Epistemology

Hugh says “Without relying on the accepted definitions of naturalism (i.e. philosophical naturalism, methodological naturalism), or of the rich philosophical history, weak naturalism is justifiable on its own terms.” I suspect we have only been informed of some of these terms up to this point with more of the key ones still to be revealed, but from what I’ve seen so far in this debate weak naturalism is far from justifiable as a rational worldview, or as an evidence-based one. Indeed, as I pointed out in my last post any reductionist or non-reductionist naturalistic belief system that incorporates evolutionary theory is epistemically self-defeating since, if the worldview is true, it means naturalism (and all other human beliefs, which would be selected purely for their survival value rather than for their truth value) cannot be rationally adhered to. (More on this point in my upcoming response to Part 2 of Hugh’s rejoinder).

Additionally, it is quite evident from the first part of his rejoinder to my last post that a number of Hugh’s assertions relating to the epistemology of his type of naturalism exhibit elements of scientism, empiricism and verificationism – all of which are either self-refuting or meaningless concepts. For instance, we’ve already seen that Hugh deems a proposition that is “beyond the limits of empiricism” to be “unknowable” and therefore lacking “any epistemic likelihood.” He also maintains that “methods of enquiry beyond the scope of empirical science” can be used to justify “any belief whatsoever,” and that propositions which are “beyond the purview of science” have “equal epistemic justification” with propositions claiming the existence of “fairies, unicorns and the Loch Ness Monster.” Further, according to Hugh “all causes are empirical and naturalistic” (Post 2) and if evidence is not empirically verifiable “then it is not really evidence”. These views are archetypal examples of scientism.

Further, although Hugh is correct when he states “it’s not scientism to expect knowledge-claims to be verifiable, or testable,” he follows with: “The scientific method has become the accepted method of inquiry.” But this is only correct when referring specifically to a posteriori inquiry, such as the investigation of natural causation, and quantitative research into physical phenomena. Applied generally, the statement is incorrect as the scientific method does not pertain to a priori knowledge or aspects of reality not amenable to experimental testing. We would certainly not use the scientific method to check the validity of the statement ‘There are no unmarried bachelors’; instead we would assess its logical coherence. We could confirm whether Leonardo da Vinci produced the mural painting The Last Supper by examining public records and historical documents without recourse to measurements or scientific methodology. Naturalists would attempt to reconcile the existence of numbers and other entities lacking spatiotemporal locations with their naturalistic beliefs through philosophical analysis and argument – not via “Hadron colliders, telescopes and space probes”. As crucial as science is for discovering and understanding the world around us, there is obviously more to knowledge than only scientific knowledge. (See the sections ‘Philosophy is Prior to Science’ and ‘Empiricism vs Rationalism vs the Middle Ground’ below for more on this).

A few standard definitions of ‘scientism’ should suffice to demonstrate the purely scientistic character of Hugh’s comments:

“Scientism is a term generally used to describe the cosmetic application of science in unwarranted situations not covered by the scientific method” and it is a hallmark of scientism to believe in “the universal applicability of the scientific method and approach, and the view that empirical science constitutes the most authoritative worldview or the most valuable part of human learning — to the exclusion of other viewpoints.” (Wikipedia: ‘Scientism’).

To borrow from Wikipedia again: the term scientism also describes “the dogmatic endorsement of scientific methodology and the reduction of all knowledge to only that which is measured or confirmatory.” (‘Scientism’) The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy defines scientism as “the belief that the methods of natural science, or the categories and things recognized in natural science, form the only proper elements in any philosophical or other inquiry.” (Blackburn, 2005)

Unfortunately for Hugh scientism is self-defeating as the truth of the view that no proposition is valid unless it can be verified scientifically or empirically cannot itself be scientifically or empirically verified. The Skeptic’s Dictionary explains scientism’s self-referential incoherency as follows:

“Scientism, in the strong sense, is the self-annihilating view that only scientific claims are meaningful, which is not a scientific claim and hence, if true, not meaningful. Thus, scientism is either false or meaningless.” (‘Scientism’)

Philosopher Edward Feser provides a more elaborate explanation:

“Despite its adherents’ pose of rationality, scientism has a serious problem: it is either self-refuting or trivial. Take the first horn of this dilemma. The claim that scientism is true is not itself a scientific claim, not something that can be established using scientific methods. Indeed, that science is even a rational form of inquiry (let alone the only rational form of inquiry) is not something that can be established scientifically. For scientific inquiry itself rests on a number of philosophical assumptions: that there is an objective world external to the minds of scientists; that this world is governed by causal regularities; that the human intellect can uncover and accurately describe these regularities; and so forth. Since science presupposes these things, it cannot attempt to justify them without arguing in a circle. And if it cannot even establish that it is a reliable form of inquiry, it can hardly establish that it is the only reliable form. Both tasks would require ‘getting outside’ science altogether and discovering from that extra-scientific vantage point that science conveys an accurate picture of reality—and in the case of scientism, that only science does so.

The rational investigation of the philosophical presuppositions of science has, naturally, traditionally been regarded as the province of philosophy. Nor is it these presuppositions alone that philosophy examines. There is also the question of how to interpret what science tells us about the world. For example, is the world fundamentally comprised of substances or events? What is it to be a ‘cause’? Is there only one kind? … Scientific findings can shed light on such metaphysical questions, but can never fully answer them. Yet if science must depend upon philosophy both to justify its presuppositions and to interpret its results, the falsity of scientism seems doubly assured.” (Feser, 2010)

Philosophy is Prior to Science

Professor Feser’s comments not only demonstrate the futility of scientism, they also illustrate the philosophical underpinnings of science, such as science’s dependence on philosophy for establishing its rational basis, interpreting its results and justifying its methods. It is therefore absurd to state that the only way we can know about the world is through scientific inquiry, since this activity is dependent upon assumptions that are not determined by science. In Australian Rationalist, writer Terry Noone reinforces Feser’s insights on science’s reliance on philosophy with the following astute observations:

“Underlying the empirical method are a number of assumptions which are not themselves justifiable by that method, nor by any other product of materialism. … The problem with all of these assumptions is that, in an empirical materialist sense, their existence is not provable by observation. They are classic examples of Gödel’s incompleteness theorem which states, more or less, that no system can explain itself from evidence arising exclusively within that system. This is not to say that the assumptions are incorrect. As stated above, science works and we are all grateful for its positive achievements. What science cannot do is explain itself on its own terms and this should lead us to be at least cautious in embracing materialist empiricism as the sole acceptable method for acquiring knowledge in all areas of human experience. The fundamental basis of science is not material, or susceptible to empirical examination. It is on a different level to the physical. It is in fact metaphysical. This may explain the traditional hostility of some philosophers of science to so called speculative philosophy. It may be that is simply too difficult to understand metaphysical concepts from the standpoint of materialism. It requires not so much pulling a number of rabbits out of a hat as pulling the hat itself out of nothing.” (Noone, 2013)

Thus, it would appear that philosophy is the rational basis of science. Further, philosopher John Kekes makes a strong case for regarding philosophy as the very paradigm of rationality:

“A successful argument for science being the paradigm of rationality must be based on the demonstration that the presuppositions of science are preferable to other presuppositions. That demonstration requires showing that science, relying on these presuppositions, is better at solving some problems and achieving some ideals than its competitors. But showing that cannot be the task of science. It is, in fact, one task of philosophy. Thus the enterprise of justifying the presuppositions of science by showing that with their help science is the best way of solving certain problems and achieving some ideals is a necessary precondition of the justification of science. Hence philosophy, and not science, is a stronger candidate for being the very paradigm of rationality.” (Kekes, 1980)

On that basis, philosophy has a serious claim to being prior to science. Indeed, since everyone has an ontological perspective, and since engaging in metaphysics, ethics, logic, and philosophy in general, is unavoidable, philosophy could be considered the predicate of conceptual thought.

Empiricism vs Rationalism vs the Middle Ground

Given its vigorous exaltation of empirical evidence, Hugh’s version of naturalism seems to either disregard or downplay the crucial interaction between theoretical analysis and experimentation in research within physics and other scientific disciplines – an interaction that is an inherent part of much of the scientific endeavour. As notable English astronomer, physicist, and mathematician Sir Arthur Eddington noted some time ago:

“Observation and theory get on best when they are mixed together, both helping one another in the pursuit of truth. It is a good rule not to put overmuch confidence in a theory until it has been confirmed by observation. I hope I shall not shock the experimental physicists too much if I add that it is also a good rule not to put overmuch confidence in the observational results that are put forward until they have been confirmed by theory.” (Eddington, 1935)

Such a middle-ground approach is adopted in “a moderate version of naturalistic epistemology” described in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. It states that an extreme version of naturalism argues that:

“To bring epistemology on the right path, it must be made a part of the natural sciences and become cognitive psychology. The aim of naturalistic epistemology thus understood is to replace traditional epistemology with an altogether new and redefined project.”

In contrast, a moderate version of naturalism:

“does not require of its proponents to replace traditional epistemology. Rather, this moderate approach accepts the need for ‘cooperation’ between traditional conceptual analysis and empirical methods.” (SEP: ‘Epistemology’)

In terms of epistemic justification, the competing fundamentalist positions of rationalism and empiricism miss the mark. A moderate or middle-ground approach is the most sensible position as we know that the empirical and the theoretical are both of value and often intersect, and that there are limits to the applicability and epistemology of each domain.

Take the limitations of empirical science for instance:

“It is generally accepted by philosophers of science that scientific theories can never be finally confirmed. For starters, the past may not be an absolutely reliable guide to the future, so that what has been observed might not be what will be observed in the future, even in the same circumstances. This is part of the problem of induction. Moreover, for any given experimental result, there might be several theories capable of predicting that result, so how do you know which is the correct theory, given that evidence? This is the so-called under-determination problem.” (Wilkinson, 2016)

Moreover, the success of Albert Einstein’s methods abolished the prevailing notion since Newton and Hume that hypotheses may be derived only from observation. For Einstein, creative ideas leading to deductions were just as important, if not more so, to generating theory as inductive generalisations from sensory experience. Einstein stated:

“It seems that the human mind has first to construct forms independently before we can find them in things. Kepler’s marvelous achievement is a particularly fine example of the truth that knowledge cannot spring from existence alone, but only from the comparison of the inventions of the intellect with observed fact.” (Einstein, 1982)

Elsewhere, Einstein was quite explicit on this issue:

“We now know that science cannot grow out of empiricism alone, that in the constructions of science we need to use free invention, which only a posteriori can be confronted with experience as to its usefulness. This fact could elude earlier generations, to whom theoretical creation seemed to grow indirectly out of empiricism without the creative influence of a free construction of concepts. The more primitive the status of science is the more readily can the scientist live under the illusion that he is a pure empiricist.” (Pais, 2005)

Although we require sense-experience to attain valid knowledge about many things, for other things reasoning provides valid knowledge, either alone or in conjunction with sense-experience. The calculation of the circumference of the Earth by the Greek mathematician Eratosthenes of Cyrene is an apt example. Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the Earth by measuring the shadow cast by the sun on identical sundials at the Egyptian cities of Alexandria and Aswan. The gnomon of each sundial was perpendicular to the Earth, and the measurements were taken at noon on the day of the summer solstice. There was no shadow at Aswan, but a shadow of 7.2o at Alexandria. From this anomaly Eratosthenes knew that the Earth had to be spheroid – 2,300 years before anyone had actually seen the evidence from space. Knowing the difference between the two cities, he was also able to calculate the Earth’s circumference to be about 24,500 miles. The significance of Eratosthenes’ experiment is not the remarkable accuracy with which he was able to compute the circumference of the Earth, but his demonstration that empirical confirmation is not necessarily required to gain knowledge of the physical world, and that knowledge can be attained from investigating the paradoxes in our experience, rather than just from experience itself.

Of course, there are also examples of scientific discoveries made through the interplay of theory and data without any physical experimentation: British physicist Paul Dirac predicted the existence of antimatter purely on the basis of mathematical considerations, and modern string theorists such as Edward Witten work at the cutting edge of mathematics. Black holes were predicted based on singularities in the tensor equations of relativity, and the Big Bang itself was discovered mathematically by Belgian astrophysicist Georges Lemaitre before it was detected empirically.

This important interaction between theory and data gives us an indication why a New Scientist editorial discussing the origin of our orderly universe from nothing stated:

“Without an escape clause, physicists and philosophers [emphasis added] must finally answer a problem that has been nagging at them for the best part of 50 years: how do you get a universe, complete with the laws of physics, out of nothing?” (Editorial, 2012)

The mention of philosophers by New Scientist in this context is notable in light of Hugh’s belief that an announcement by a team of philosophers that they had discovered “an incontrovertible answer to the existence of the universe” would be “greeted with derision.” Given the experimental and theoretical nature of research into the origins of the universe, and the fact that there are philosophers engaged in theoretical analysis at the forefront of such research (see for example: Smolin, 20152), the notion of an interdisciplinary team consisting of philosophers and physicists and/or cosmologists making such an announcement would only come as a surprise to the uninitiated.

Philosophical Inquiry

Hugh claims “The supernatural is defended by proposing methods of enquiry beyond the scope of empirical science,” and that “the supernaturalist posits other means of evidence.” What this entails exactly appears to elude Hugh, as he remarks “it’s not entirely clear what this ‘evidence’ is.” Fortunately, I can reveal to Hugh that these other methods of inquiry and means of evidence typically involve either deductive philosophical arguments based on solid empirical and/or metaphysical premises, or abductive inferences drawn from observational data. For example, one of the argument’s I have employed so far in my case for a transcendent reality (the kalām cosmological argument) starts from well-supported metaphysical and empirical premises and draws a conclusion that necessarily follows from these premises. In other words, the argument is neither entirely empirical nor merely analytic. Instead, it combines premises that have firm empirical and metaphysical foundations with a logically sound (deductive) conclusion. Thus, Hugh’s allegation that proponents of supernaturalism generally seek to justify the existence of a transcendent reality “by inventing [their] own special realm of supernatural evidence” is erroneous.

Exhibit A

Big Bang Graphic - gif

Hugh asks “Where is Exhibit A?”, yet there are plenty of ‘exhibits’ right under his nose. Since we’ve been discussing it already, I submit the Big Bang as my first exhibit in this debate. This cosmological event involves the creation of the natural world from nothing. The question we need to ask is: What logically sound inferences can be drawn from a beginning point at which complete nothingness became an early stage of the physical universe? According to Stephen Hawking, “the idea that time has a beginning … smacks of divine intervention” (Hawking, 1988: p46) and “A point of creation would be a place where science broke down. One would have to appeal to religion and the hand of God.” (Grossman, 2012). A New Scientist editorial echoes Hawking’s view:

“The big bang is now part of the furniture of modern cosmology, but [Fred] Hoyle’s unease has not gone away. Many physicists have been fighting a rearguard action against it for decades, largely because of its theological overtones. If you have an instant of creation, don’t you need a creator?” (Editorial, 2012)

The late Sir Arthur Eddington, Professor of Astronomy, Cambridge University, expressed the implications thusly:

“The extrapolation towards the past…gives real cause to suspect a weakness in the present conceptions of science. The beginning seems to present insuperable difficulties unless we agree to look on it as frankly supernatural.” (Eddington, 1940:117)

Further, John Maddox, a former editor of the world’s pre-eminent science journal Nature, stated in an editorial in the 10 August 1989 issue that the theory of a Big Bang origin of the Universe was “philosophically unacceptable” because it gave theists “ample justification” for inferring supernatural creation. (Maddox, 1989). Thus, many physicists and cosmologists perceive the notion of a beginning of a universe ex nihilo as lending credibility to the biblical notion of a supernatural designing intelligence. The fact that many of them reject the inference from observational data that the universe had a transcendent cause is often based on the inference’s theistic implications and therefore reflects their materialistic or naturalistic commitments, not the plausibility of the inference. Of course, the empirical data doesn’t prove the transcendent cause is God; it merely suggests that an inference to supernatural causation is plausible on evidentiary grounds.

Framing the Debate?

The accusation that “supernaturalists seek to frame the debate in a philosophical, rather than scientific manner” is bewildering for a number of reasons:

Firstly, Hugh would be hard pressed to find any authoritative scientific or philosophical body that would consider a debate between adherents of competing metaphysical positions (eg, philosophical naturalism and theistic supernaturalism) over the ultimate nature of reality to be a scientific debate. Perhaps Hugh would like to cite a professional or government source to support this allegation.

Secondly, as mentioned above, Hugh admits that “Ontological naturalism is indeed a philosophical position”, so why he thinks arguing whether naturalism depicts reality more accurately than supernaturalism constitutes a scientific debate is a bit of a mystery. A debate on the validity of philosophical positions cannot be anything other than a philosophical debate, no matter what type of supporting evidence is cited. Hugh follows this admission with: “but as a study of the ultimate nature of reality it cannot be simply hived out and segregated from science.” That is correct, however neither of us are segregating our respective views on the constituents of ultimate reality from science. Philosophical propositions are not formed in a vacuum and many, including my own, employ scientific findings in one or more of their premises. Similarly, Hugh appeals to science in this debate, but his posts heavily rely on philosophical arguments. In fact, his post prompting this response chiefly consists of philosophical claims and arguments – from its very title (regarding the philosophical burden of proof), to what counts as a valid epistemology, through to what constitutes the soundest metaphysical explanation of reality.

As I have pointed out in previous posts, proponents on each side of the ‘naturalism versus supernaturalism’ debate often use scientific facts and empirical data as supporting evidence for their respective positions. But this does not change the nature of the debate, which is philosophical in character. That scientists are engaging in metaphysics when they advocate a naturalistic worldview, whether empirical considerations form part of the rationale behind their naturalism or not, is expressed cogently by British philosopher Roger Trigg.

“Those who say that science can answer all questions are themselves standing outside science to make that claim. That is why naturalism—the modern version of materialism, seeing reality as defined by what is within reach of the sciences—becomes a metaphysical theory when it strays beyond methodology to talk of what can exist. Denying metaphysics and upholding materialism must itself be a move within metaphysics. It involves standing outside the practice of science and talking of its scope.” (Trigg, 2015)

Professor Trigg’s comment is well supported by numerous authoritative sources. For example, The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains:

“…naturalism is a decidedly philosophical approach and an entrant in the grand debate about what is the true global view. As noted above, naturalism is itself a philosophical view, though it claims to be a rejection of a great deal that historically has been distinctive of philosophy. Even if naturalism is articulated in strictly empirical terms, and strives to be scientific, we are still faced with the issue of whether strictly empirical terms are adequate to capture and express all that there is and all we can know. It is not as though naturalism can avoid questions about whether it is itself a true view, and all the associated concerns about how to interpret truth, and what would make it a true view. The issue of whether naturalism is true may be the sort of issue that is not clearly resolvable in exclusively naturalistic terms. At least it seems that the view that it can be, is itself a distinctively philosophical view. Once we begin to explore such questions, we are of course doing philosophy, even if our aim is to make the case for naturalism.” (IEP: ‘Naturalism’)

Therefore Hugh’s accusation against exponents of supernaturalism shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the debate, which is innately a philosophical one and, hence, does not need to be ‘framed’ that way

Conceptual Concerns

In summary, a naturalistic worldview that accommodates macroevolution, scientism, empiricism and verificationism is in serious trouble, being both incoherent and self-defeating. Hugh insists that his brand of ontological naturalism “is justifiable on its own terms,” however from his posts on the topic so far it seems that these terms are designed to shield his worldview from counterarguments and disconfirming evidence. Aside from evading the onus of proof by equivocating on the definition of weak naturalism, Hugh adopts an epistemology that restricts admissible counterarguments against his philosophical position to just those entirely based on empirical evidence, and even then he only deems such counterargument to be legitimate if they interpret the evidence, or its implications, in the context of methodological naturalism.

Hugh states, “By weakening naturalism to a belief held in the absence of evidence to the contrary, weak naturalism becomes an even more formidable opponent to supernaturalism.” Hugh’s confidence in the validity of his version of naturalism notwithstanding, I find nothing “formidable” about “a belief held in the absence of evidence to the contrary”; one that simply “appeals to the lack of evidence for anything supernatural”. Indeed, theists could similarly apply the same dubious reasoning and proclaim that supernaturalism is a formidable opponent to naturalism because of the absence of evidence to the contrary. Very few naturalists would be convinced by such an argument, and rightly so.

Hugh claims that weak naturalism leaves itself “open to disproof by evidence of a supernatural realm,” however, as I have argued, what Hugh considers ‘evidence’ is distorted through his adherence to a flawed epistemology. More accurately, and with the greatest of respect to Hugh, his worldview mainly leaves itself open to disproof by being conceptually flawed. The naturalism Hugh embraces is in deep self-referential trouble. There is no good reason to believe it and, given its unsalvageable epistemological problems and other substantial difficulties, many valid reasons to reject it.



  1. Hugh himself acknowledges the equivocation in his reply of January 13, 2017 to a comment about his essay ‘Naturalism vs Supernaturalism – the False Dichotomy’. He states: “Yes, I concede that I equivocate between weak naturalism and strong naturalism in my essay.”
  2. Physicist Lee Smolin of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, which aims “to advance our understanding of the universe at the most fundamental level, stimulating the breakthroughs that could transform our future,” states:

“Cosmology has new questions to answer. Not just what are the laws, but why are these laws the laws? How were they chosen? We can’t just hypothesise what the initial conditions were at the big bang, we need to explain those initial conditions. Thus we are in the position of a computer program asked to explain its inputs. It is clear that if we are to get anywhere, we need to invent new methods, and perhaps new kinds of laws, to gain a scientific description of the universe as a whole. Physicist James Hartle has talked about the “excess baggage” that has to be left on the platform before we can board the train to further progress in cosmology. In work together with philosopher Roberto Mangabeira Unger [emphasis added], we believe we have identified several of pieces of this baggage. The first thing that must be discarded is the assumption that the same kind of laws that work on the scale of small subsystems of the world work, scaled up, at the level of the whole universe. We call this assumption the cosmological fallacy because it leads to a breakdown of predictability – as in the multiverse.

“… Mangabeira Unger and I [emphasis added] propose three principles, which we argue are necessary to underlie any theory capable of explaining big cosmological questions – like the selection of the laws and initial conditions of the universe – in a way that is open to experimental test.” (Smolin, 2015)



Blackburn, S (2005) The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy Oxford University Press. pp. 331-32.

Editorial (2012) ‘The Genesis problem’ New Scientist (2847) 11 Jan 2012.

Eddington, A (1935) New Pathways in Science. Cambridge University Press. p.211.

Eddington, A (1940) The Expanding Universe. Penguin, Middlesex, UK. p.117.

Einstein, A (1982) ‘On the occasion of the 300th anniversary of Kepler’s death’ in Ideas and Opinions. Three Rivers Press, New York. p.265.

Feser, E (2010) ‘Blinded by scientism’ Public Discourse 9 March 2010.

Grossman, L (2012) ‘Why physicists can’t avoid a creation event’, New Scientist (2487) 11 Jan 2012.

Hawking, SW (1988) A Brief History of Time Bantam, London. p.46.

Kekes, J (1980) The Nature of Philosophy, Rowman & Littlefield, New Jersey. p.158. Cited in: Moreland, JP & Craig, WL (2003) Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, InterVarsity Press, Illinois. p.348.

Maddox, J (1989) ‘Down with the Big Bang’ Nature (340) 10 August 1989. p.425.

Noone, T (2013) ‘Can materialism explain itself?’ Australian Rationalist. Summer 2013: p.5.

Pais, A (2005) Subtle is the Lord: The Science and Life of Albert Einstein. Oxford University Press. p.14.

Smolin, L (2015) ‘So you think there’s a multiverse? Get real’ New Scientist 17 Jan 2015. pp.24-5.

Trigg, R (2015) ‘Why science needs metaphysics’ Nautilus (29) 1 October 2015.

Wilkinson, T (2016) ‘Was Einstein Right? by Clifford M. Will’ [Book Review] Philosophy Now (117) Dec 2016-Jan 2017.


A Fallacy of Cosmic Proportions – the Kalam Cosmological Argument

A further response to Gary Robertson’s Is naturalism more probable than supernaturalism? which was a rejoinder to Naturalism vs Supernaturalism – the False Dichotomy


Most contemporary philosophers regard the cosmological argument as unconvincing. Despite the best efforts of William Lane Craig, the famous argument never recovered from the assault it took at the hands of David Hume and Immanuel Kant. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, even noted theologian, Alvin Plantinga concludes “that this piece of natural theology is ineffective”. Other philosophers similarly reject the argument: Michael Martin (1990: chap. 4), John Mackie (1982: chap. 5), Quentin Smith (Craig and Smith 1993), Bede Rundle (2004), Wes Morriston (2000, 2002, 2003, 2010), and Graham Oppy (2006: chap. 3).

To hang one’s metaphysical hat on the cosmological argument is to watch it sail away on the breeze.

William Lane Craig’s recent form of the Kalam Cosmological argument:

  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
  2. The Universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the Universe had a cause.
William Lane Craig

William Lane Craig

Gary Robertson disagrees the KCA invokes the fallacy of composition by applying the same principle of causality which applies to the universe’s constituent parts, to the universe as a whole. Citing philosopher Edward Feser, who unconvincingly asserts that “it is hard to see how” things which are individually contingent are no less contingent when part of a group, the objection conveniently ignores what is so special about the mystery of existence.

The universe is not merely just an assortment of planets and stars. The riddle of existence, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”, would not be a riddle if it could be so simply answered, “it must have been caused!”. The riddle is founded upon Parmenides famous statement – “from nothing, nothing comes”. So, when musing about the answer to existence itself, the question becomes perspicuously different. We are now talking about the origin of existence itself, and why does it exist instead of nothing at all, and how and whether it arises from nothing.

Further, the powerful and interacting forces of nature, such as the pulling and repulsing of gravity, which determine the complex relations between physical things within the universe, tells us emphatically that reality is more than just a hamper full of stuff. The universe is not a glass menagerie, nor is it a bag of mixed lollies.

We could further speculate on the origin of the principle of causality. One assumes that the theist would say it was part of God’s creation. Viz. not an eternal principle. Thus, it’s circular and self-referential to invoke the causal principle to explain the existence of the universe of which it is a part.

And so, for the aforementioned reasons, it is indeed a fallacy of composition to assume that what is true of causality in the universe applies to the universe itself.

Gary Robertson disputes my objection to premise 1 of the KCA, that the universe had a beginning, by claiming the consensus of physicists and cosmologists agree the universe had a beginning. This may well be true, but I could more powerfully argue that a larger consensus of physicists and cosmologists reject a supernatural cause of the universe. As stated, a consensus of philosophers rejects the KCA! A consensus, being a survey of opinions, does not prove anything. Thus, the challenge to premise 1 remains.

Gary claims a brute fact, in the sense of an eternal force governing all of nature, can be ruled out, because it would have to exist before the Big Bang and be either timeless or self-caused. Thus, it would either transcend or sit outside of nature. But this objection only suggests such a force would sit outside of Gary’s rather narrow view of “nature” – which evidently constitutes the known universe from the time of the Big Bang.

Even on Gary’s definition this does not preclude a “supernatural” force. But if we did discover such a force, or identify it through evidence gathered in the material world, it’s only a matter of semantics as to whether we would name it as natural or supernatural. Thus, it’s a reification fallacy, given that human definitions have no bearing on what actually exists in the universe. Further, scientists consider the prospect of multiverses to be eminently possible, but none posits these as supernatural, as they would be under Gary’s definition.


Brute Facts and Necessary Beings

nexessary being

The denial of God as a brute fact highlights the special pleading required to insert God as a necessary cause. Gary Robertson cites Broussard (2016) who exempts God from being an unexplained brute fact, because his existence is explained by his essence. It seems childish and unnecessary to point out how circular this argument is – how can the essence of a hypothetical, unverified being ever be established – not to mention how it might be used in favour of any potential being, thing or force.

From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on the Cosmological Argument:

“If theists are willing to accept the existence of God as the necessary being as a brute fact, why cannot nontheists accept the existence of the universe as a brute fact, as a necessary being? Bede Rundle, for example, argues that what has necessary existence is causally independent. Matter has necessary existence, for although it undergoes change as manifested in particular bits of matter, the given volume of matter found in the universe persists, and as persisting matter/energy does not have or need a cause. This accords with the Principle of Conservation of Mass-Energy, according to which matter and energy are never lost but rather transmute into each other. As indestructible, matter/energy is the necessary being. Consequently, although the material components of the universe are contingent vis-à-vis their form, they are necessary vis-à-vis their existence. On this reading, there is not one but there are many necessary beings, all internal to the universe. Their particular configurations are contingent, but since matter/energy is conserved it cannot be created or lost.”

The theist argues that the existence of the universe points to a necessary being – since all contingent things look to something else for their existence. Thus, the creator is a necessary being.

But the theist also maintains that the universe at some point did not exist, and in fact, was created from nothing by the necessary being. This indicates that the description of a creator as a necessary being is contingent on his own decision to create a universe, in such, that if the universe did not exist there could be no necessary being. Since the universe could have failed to exist by the theists own argument, then the concept of a necessary being becomes self-defeating.

hume's necessary being

Finally, even if we accepted the Cosmological argument, it still doesn’t get us to God. If we accepted the logic that everything has a cause, this does not demonstrate a cause which is “supernatural”, or some kind of deity.

The further arguments B and C presented to purportedly deduce the nature of a cause are silly arguments. For instance:

“B. It is logically impossible to provide a natural explanation for how nature came into existence as such an explanation must assume the existence of nature in its opening premises, thus committing the circular fallacy.”

No, it may mean that nature contains another element which is as yet unobserved. Or even an existing element of nature which has the, as yet unrecognised, property of seeding the universe. Further, a brute fact is a candidate because, by definition, it has no explanation.

The theist is all too keen to fill any uncertainty with supernatural explanations. As per my previous post, it will not be philosophers who solve the riddle of the universe’s origin. It will not happen by using logic. The secrets of nature have been gradually revealed using the scientific method. Cosmologists, astrophysicists and many other scientists continue to search the universe for answers. It is now time to dispense with the semantic trickery of the cosmological argument and indeed the other discredited logical arguments, and look to Hadron colliders, telescopes and space probes for the answer.

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.


lightning church

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.