Evolution vs. Naturalism: What is Rational?

by Enzo

Alvin Plantinga’s article ‘Evolution vs. Naturalism’ aims to unseat the discourse of Dawkins and company that science and only science is the way to understand truth in our universe. While it is important to challenge the New Atheist rhetoric of scientism, this article is lacking.

Plantinga’s argument centers around the idea that naturalism, “…the idea that there is no such person as God or anything like God” is untenable with the concept of evolution. Evolution is blind; its forces can only move species in the direction of traits that help it survive in the species’ environment. This means that our cognitive functions are not set out to discover truth, only to survive. Plantinga says:

“The problem, as several thinkers (C. S. Lewis, for example) have seen, is that naturalism, or evolutionary naturalism, seems to lead to a deep and pervasive skepticism. It leads to the conclusion that our cognitive or belief-producing faculties—memory, perception, logical insight, etc.—are unreliable and cannot be trusted to produce a preponderance of true beliefs over false.”

He concludes that it is not rational to be a naturalist. Rationality cannot exist because the probability that our mental faculties are reliable is very low.

“If evolutionary naturalism is true, then the probability that our cognitive faculties are reliable is also very low. And that means that one who accepts evolutionary naturalism has a defeater for the belief that her cognitive faculties are reliable: a reason for giving up that belief, for rejecting it, for no longer holding it. If there isn’t a defeater for that defeater—a defeater-defeater, we could say—she can’t rationally believe that her cognitive faculties are reliable. No doubt she can’t help believing that they are; no doubt she will in fact continue to believe it; but that belief will be irrational.”

The biggest problem with Plantinga’s argument is that he is conflating the concepts of ‘true’ and ‘rational.’ Plantinga’s argument is that we cannot rationally hold to naturalism because we cannot know if what we believe is ‘true.’ Rationality has only a small relation to what is true.

If I buy the ‘Clapper’ (a sound activated electrical switch allowing consumers to clap and turn off and on their appliances) and attach it to my lamp, I can rationally assume that when I clap, my clap is turning my lamp on and off. The truth may be that I have a slightly unhinged friend turning my lamp on and off, having unplugged my Clapper as a joke, but my belief is still rational. I bought the Clapper and installed it and the effect is consistent with what I expect.

And that is how logic works. Basic philosophy students learn that a valid argument is not necessarily a true argument.  A valid argument is one in which the conclusion would be true if the premises are assumed to be true. I bought and installed a Clapper. The Clapper turns appliances off and on via loud clapping sounds. I clapped and my lamp turned off. The Clapper is working. Accepting these premises as true, my conclusion would also be true. However, my premises are not true because my friend is playing a practical joke. My Clapper is not installed and therefore my conclusion is false. However, no one would say that I was being irrational for believing my Clapper was working even though that conclusion is false. Indeed, many people would think it irrational to believe that my friend was turning my lights on and off, even if it was true!

That is where Plantinga fails in his argument. He never quite defines ‘true’ or ‘rational’ and because of that, he does not make the necessary distinguishing between the two. Even a meaning of ‘belief’ for Plantinga may run into problems. Regardless of whether we could trust our faculties to give us ‘true’ belief, we can know that we believe rationally.

Our brains have evolved from ‘lower’ life forms, there is no doubt about that. They are adapted for survival in our environment (or at least our ancestors’ environment). This may mean that we cannot know truth because our faculties are not ‘designed’ for truth, but our cognition allows us to work with certain rules of logic that we have developed over our millennia of existence. These rules, constructed through our faculties and through society, regardless of their truth, allow us to formulate rational beliefs and arguments. If atheism and naturalism are some of those beliefs, they are not irrational beliefs. They may be untrue, but still very valid.

Even some Christian philosophers accept a break in rationality and truth. Soren Kierkegaard understood that Christianity and its central tenets were not rational. Looking at how the world worked, it was irrational to believe that God existed or that Jesus rose three days after his execution. But it was central to his philosophy that these things were true nevertheless and that a leap of faith was necessary for true belief.

Plantinga, for his own side of the argument, lacks a very compelling reason why theism is not susceptible to a similar skepticism. He says, “Clearly this doubt arises for naturalists or atheists, but not for those who believe in God. That is because if God has created us in his image, then even if he fashioned us by some evolutionary means, he would presumably want us to resemble him in being able to know…” Why is it that we can presume this? Why should we not presume that God would grant us omniscience or omnipotence in his image? Why should we not presume God would grant us the ability to create wine from water or feed hundreds with just a few loafs of bread?

Plantinga falls into a similar problem that Descartes encountered when Descartes was deciding whether he existed or not. Descartes believed that since he could think, he could assume a God who was good and wanted him to be able to think. But that is not a good assumption at all. A God who was wicked or a jokester might have made him with the belief that he could think when it was really an illusion. Plantinga assumes a God who wants us to think, when the difficult work of providing a foundation for that assumption has not been done.

A refutation of the scientism nonsense that is constantly spewed by Dawkins and company is definitely necessary and especially from the religious side of things. Fundamentalist sects unfortunately define religion and their theology is generally as weak as the arguments made against them by the New Atheists. Unfortunately though, this article will not be the ammunition needed against the New Atheists.