Plantinga’s Nutty Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism

Where is Jesus?What better way to respond to atheists but to turn one of their own tools against them?  That’s the approach philosopher Alvin Plantinga tries to use with his Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN).  It’s not a new idea, and both C.S. Lewis and Charles Darwin anticipated it.  In brief, the question is: how can a human mind that’s the result of the clumsy process of evolution be trusted?

About “Darwin’s doubt,” Plantinga argues that only Christians can have confidence that their interpretation of the world is correct.  Naturalists can’t prove that minds are reliable until they’ve proven that the source of this claim (the mind!) is worth listening to.

Here’s where Plantinga claims to have turned the tables:

The high priests of evolutionary naturalism loudly proclaim that Christian and even theistic belief is bankrupt and foolish.  The fact, however, is that the shoe is on the other foot.  It is evolutionary naturalism, not Christian belief, that can’t rationally be accepted.

He says that if evolution is true, human beliefs have been selected for survival value, not truth, so why trust them?  And yet our beliefs are reliable, suggesting to Plantinga that something besides evolution created them.

Before we get into the specifics of Plantinga’s argument, let’s first establish a baseline.  Plantinga and naturalists agree that humans’ needs and desires are pretty logically matched:

Plantinga normal world

This is straightforward.  You go toward cuddly things, you run from scary things, you get to clean air if you can’t breathe, and so on.  This is the world we all know and understand.  But Plantinga imagines the naturalist’s world in which these links are jumbled.  He imagines a hominid Paul who has some problematic beliefs about predators:

Perhaps [Paul] thinks the tiger is a large, friendly, cuddly pussycat and wants to pet it; but he also believes that the best way to pet it is to run away from it.

So Paul’s instincts toward tigers keep him alive, but only by luck.  But unreasonable beliefs don’t stop with tigers.  Plantinga imagines the naturalist’s view of the world with beliefs having no connection with reality.  That is, he imagines something like this:

Paul’s response to the tiger was just a roll of the dice, and he got lucky.  But Plantinga supposes that all of Paul’s beliefs are arbitrary, not just those about tigers.  Some actions in this chart are benign, but some are dangerous.  When Paul sees something scary, his reaction is to walk toward it.  When he’s drowning, he’ll try to sleep.  When he’s hungry, he’ll satisfy that need with fresh air, and so on.  With his basic desires paired with ineffective methods, this guy is clearly too dumb to live.

This is where natural selection comes in.  Natural selection is unforgiving, and actions that don’t lead to survival are discarded.  Evolution easily explains why Plantinga’s Paul could not exist.

An article at Skeptic.com neatly skewers Plantinga’s argument with a familiar example.

If a professional baseball player [incorrectly perceived reality,] that is, if his perception of the movement and location of a baseball was something other than what it actually is, then he would not be able to consistently hit ninety-five mile per hour fastballs.

As an aside, let me admit that I have a hard time maintaining respect for those at the leading edge of philosophy.  Do they do work that’s relevant and pushes the frontier of human knowledge?  I’d like to think so, but when this is the kind of argument they give, it’s hard to keep the faith.

My advice to philosophers: when you get the urge to play scientist, better lie down until the feeling goes away.

Photo credit: Wikimedia

Related links:

  • “EAAN—a sad footnote to an illustrious career,” Shamelessly Atheist blog, 8/22/09.
  • “Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism,” Iron Chariots Wiki.
  • PZ Myers, “Alvin Plantinga Gives Philosophy a Bad Name,” Pharyngula blog, 5/29/09.
  • Michael Dahlen, “What’s So Great About Kant?  A Critique of Dinesh D’Souza’s Attack on Reason,” eSkeptic, 8/17/11.
  • Greg Kokul, “The Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism,” Stand to Reason (video, 3:59), 8/15/11.
  • “Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism,” Wikipedia.

47 thoughts on “Plantinga’s Nutty Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism

  1. “In brief, the question is: how can a human mind that’s the result of the clumsy process of evolution be trusted?”

    It’s interesting that most Christians would actually argue that the human mind can’t be trusted because of man’s fallen nature.

    Here’s just two of many Bible verses that warn against trusting in the human mind:

    Proverbs 3:5-6 Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.

    Proverbs 28:26 Whoever trusts in his own mind is a fool, but he who walks in wisdom will be delivered.

    Plantiga’s argument is simply not Biblical, but why should a Christian like Plantiga let the Bible get in the way of his philosophical arguments?

  2. I’m not up on Plantinga’s argument enough to know how sound it is. But I do know it is more sophisticated than the condescending silliness you used to characterize it.

    But all that aside, as I understand it, you believe exerts in the field are the ONLY ones who have legitimacy in criticizing an idea in that field. You also believe that ONLY the consensus defines truth, i.e., that is all you choose to trust. So the consensus of philosophers is what would matter here, since they are the experts in philosophy? What is their consensus, and is there any room for new ideas which may need to be distilled for a while before they gain traction?

    And based on your own criteria, what credentials do you, a software engineer and hobbyist atheist, (unless you claim to be an expert on atheism, if so, my apology) anyway, what credentials do you have to be able to critique a philosopher?

    Just trying to get the criteria clearly established according to your definitions.

    • I do know it is more sophisticated than the condescending silliness you used to characterize it.

      If I’m mischaracterizing it and you don’t know it, then I guess this is the blind leading the blind!

      as I understand it, you believe exerts in the field are the ONLY ones who have legitimacy in criticizing an idea in that field.

      The field I’m talking about is science–just science. Anyone can criticize anything, of course, and anyone might be able to bring up interesting points for further inquiry. But don’t expect for your argument to carry the day if you’re (1) not from that field and (2) are rejecting the consensus view.

      You also believe that ONLY the consensus defines truth

      More precisely: the consensus is the best approximation we laymen have at the moment.

      So the consensus of philosophers is what would matter here, since they are the experts in philosophy?

      That’s a different field, but I would be interested to hear what the consensus view was.

      • You seem to be asserting that you know the consensus, and are speaking from it. If not, you are out of your field. I am not asserting the consensus or writing your position in your blog. You are. So how can you critique philosophy?

        Still waiting for that answer. As a layman concerning philosophy, what is YOUR approximation of the consensus, and the source on which you base that approximation? Plantinga is writing as a philosopher, not an experimental research scientist. It is a different discipline with different rules of evidence and grounds for arguments. You can’t use research science tools for philosophical discussions. Category error.

        Don’t you see that you are doing what you criticize others for doing? You are out of your expertise, writing as if you have authority to speak on philosophy. So I’m just trying to figure out why you feel comfortable doing so.

      • You seem to be asserting that you know the consensus, and are speaking from it.

        I’m certainly fallible and can make mistakes. But the scientific consensus is the closest to a standard that we have in science, so where I make a mistake, I’ll see the error when someone points out the consensus.

        how can you critique philosophy?

        Why not? Is there a problem with critiquing philosophy?

        Still waiting for that answer.

        Then I guess you wait is over!

        Plantinga is writing as a philosopher, not an experimental research scientist.

        Y’know, that’s what I thought, too. But when I saw that he proposes to attack biology even though he’s not a biologist, I lost any respect I had for that project.

        Don’t you see that you are doing what you criticize others for doing?

        I criticize others for spouting authoritatively about science when they’re not scientists. I’m pretty sure I’m not doing that here.

  3. Seems to me you are spouting authoritatively about someone who is “known for applying the methods of analytic philosophy to defend orthodox Christian beliefs.” (Wikipedia) He isn’t writing about science. He is writing about folks who allegedly use science but cross the line into philosophy using faulty extrapolations from their research field. And you are spouting authoritatively about philosophy, aren’t you?

    So again, what is the basis for your consensus position on this topic? Surely you can’t speak to it as an expert philosopher. You are simply stating your opinion—strongly, and in a condescending way. That is your right, but you shouldn’t you be consistent in applying the standards for expertise?

    • He isn’t writing about science.

      OK. But he’s doing whatever it’s called when you attack the claims of science. We needn’t call that “writing about science.” I’m still baffled about how a nonbiologist can claim the warrant to declare that he has overturned biology.

      Surely you can’t speak to it as an expert philosopher.

      Correct.

      shouldn’t you be consistent in applying the standards for expertise?

      Indeed I should. And, as I made clear in the last post, I think I am.

      If you’re going beyond my claims about the need for laymen to avoid judging science, that’s fine. Tell me the role you think I should have with respect to philosophy. Tell me what you think would be valid and invalid for me to do.

      • As I discussed with RF2, “What is Philosophy?” is the question. Where it’s logic, the foundation of science, ethics, or maybe even politics and common sense, yes I do. Where it’s the subtleties of Hume vs. Kant (say), I don’t.

  4. Hi Bob,

    You question the value of philosophy, whether it has had some usefulness in the world. Here are some benefits from philosophy:

    1) America’s Founding Fathers were familiar with Enlightenment political philosophy (especially with Locke), and it shaped how they would view their new country.

    2) Philosophy has provided us with ethical systems that are independent of religion.

    3) Recent work in philosophy of science was put to use in a monkey trial to show why creationism is NOT science. I think it was in 1982. In fact, a part of the battle over creation and evolution takes place within philosophy of science.

    4) Philosophers can see the emptiness of totalitarian and fanatical ideologies that threaten our liberties, and so they can help fight them back.

    • I appreciate this. I see so much that seems to be deliberate obfuscation that I need someone with a clearer head to point out the value in philosophy.

      Politics, ethics, logic, and so on are obviously valueable elements of philosophy. We’re on the same page here. It’s the esoteric stuff that seems to be just mental masturbation or, in the area of theology, a smokescreen.

      • Hi Bob,

        It’s true that metaphysics and philosophy of religion appear to be less relevant to society’s problems… Still, if believers found a foolproof argument for God’s existence (and one that is reasonably easy to understand) it could have major consequences on society and on the lives of many people. Of course it had better be the God of an available religion, not the God of Deism.

  5. Rick T said: “I’m not up on Plantinga’s argument enough to know how sound it is. But I do know it is more sophisticated than the condescending silliness you used to characterize it.”

    How silly and condescending are the arguments that Creationists use against Evolution? Christian apologetics has a horrible track record of being silly and condescending.

    Rick T also said: “Don’t you see that you are doing what you criticize others for doing?”

    When Christianity cleans it’s own house of it’s condescending silliness, then maybe you’ll have the ground to stand on to when you question someone’s consistency in applying standards. I could quote a Bible verse here if you wish.

    Plantiga’s argument, even if successful, is only an argument for a deistic god. As I have already mentioned, Plantiga’s argument about the human mind contradicts what the Bible says.

    • No one disagrees that there are silly ideas around the extreme edges of Christianity, and no one I know supports those. So how about if we make a little agreement around this blog that the only ideas worthy of serious discussion are those supported by the mainstream, as represented by folks most all Christians agree with, like, say, Billy Graham or Rick Warren? (John MacArthur is a more complete theologian, but some find him too conservative.) Continuing to throw stones at the true silliness of the televangelist fringe exceptions will do nothing but chase away those who have any interest in serious discussion. I, for one, am pretty much done with that sort of cheap shot and have about written this blog off for such antics.

      Plantinga’s argument, as well as intelligent design as a whole, is not specifically Christian (nor does he claim it to be) and can only get us to a logical point of a necessity of a god or super powerful entity that created intelligently, i.e., some form of deism. It is a first step, not a be all and end all. So now that card has been played and it doesn’t find any disagreement. Move on, please, to serious issues that merit discussion.

      So, Mr. Retro, what do you think about directed panspermia or exogenesis?

      • So how about if we make a little agreement around this blog that the only ideas worthy of serious discussion are those supported by the mainstream

        I have a better idea. When anyone puts forward a Christian nut like Fred Phelps or Harold Camping, the mainstream Christians pile on and say, “Amen to that, Brother!”

        It’s when you hear statements like “Everyone knows that Fred Phelps is the quintessential Christian” or “All pastors today are just like Jim Jones” that you’re entitled to raise your eyebrows. Feel free to point out these false characterizations.

        Having you or Bob C as the official theologian in residence, passing judgment on what is and isn’t Christianity, is too cumbersome to be workable, I’m afraid.

        Plantinga’s argument, as well as intelligent design as a whole, is not specifically Christian (nor does he claim it to be) and can only get us to a logical point of a necessity of a god or super powerful entity that created intelligently, i.e., some form of deism.

        I strongly agree. It’s odd that so many Christian apologetics arguments are full of merely deist arguments. They may even realize the limitations of their argument; if so, I find them intellectually dishonest for failing to point that out to their audience.

        • As to your better idea, how many times do we have to say that Phelps and Camping are dingbats? I’ve NEVER heard ANYone say ““Everyone knows that Fred Phelps is the quintessential Christian” or “All pastors today are just like Jim Jones.” What I do hear is criticism of mainstream Christianity as if these nut jobs are it.

          So, Phelps and Camping are dingbats.
          Phelps and Camping are dingbats.
          Phelps and Camping are dingbats.
          Phelps and Camping are dingbats.
          Phelps and Camping are dingbats.
          Phelps and Camping are dingbats.
          Phelps and Camping are dingbats.
          Phelps and Camping are dingbats.

          Feel better now? Amen to your position on that. Done.

          So let’s discuss ideas that are really mainstream, or else your blog isn’t clear thinking, and it isn’t about Christianity. If you want a blog about silliness masquerading as Christianity, then look at the criticisms you’ve raised so many times about the Camping/Phelps crowd and keep repeating them.

      • Feel better now?

        Not particularly. This’ll come up again. I’ll disparage some apocalyptic nut and, instead of agreeing with me, you’ll complain that these aren’t representative of all Christians.

        And then I’ll say that, yeah, I realize that and never said that they were. And we’ll be back here again. [sigh]

        So let’s discuss ideas that are really mainstream, or else your blog isn’t clear thinking, and it isn’t about Christianity.

        I have no particular interest in focusing on just what you think is Christianity. If someone says that he’s a Christian, I usually take that at face value, realizing that many may disagree.

        That said, I do my best to focus on mainstream Christianity. I’ve made 60-some posts. How many do you suppose were relevant to mainstream Christianity? I would think almost all of them.

        And can you possibly be saying that too few of my attacks are squarely aimed at your flavor of Christianity? If your point is that you want more intense attacks, I’ll do my best!

      • I’m a little confused here. Is Alvin Plantinga considered a mainstream Christian or not?

        I’ve seen debates where William Lane Craig and Alvin Plantinga have teamed up together to take on atheists, so I’d also like to know if William Lane Craig is, or is not, considered a mainstream Christian.

        As far as panspermia is concerned, I’d have to say that I’m not aware of a large amount of evidence supporting the theory. I would have to look into it, but it doesn’t currently seem to be a very popular theory.

        With that said, there is good evidence that comets contain organic molecules. (These organic molecules can be formed by natural chemical reactions unrelated to life.) Meteorites found on Earth contain a several molecules, including amino acids, which are used by life here on Earth.

        These organic molecules and amino acids are NOT life, but they simply are the raw materials needed for life.

        Here’s where I’d like to hear your thoughts about the origin of life on Earth Rick.

        If God specially created life on Earth, what purpose would God have for littering our Solar System with comets and meteors filled with these organic molecules and amino acids?

  6. I would say most you blogs are not mainstream Christianity. And I do not give my opinion on who is or is not a Christian. The Bible explains the Fruit of a Christian. And the attributes of one who is truly born again.

    Fred Phelps and Harold Camping are not Christians by the defining marks of one who has saving faith.

    Also many of you blogs (as I have pointed out) give mis-representaions of true Chrisitianity.

    • I can’t imagine any Christian thinking that most of my posts are completely irrelevant to his position. I wrote a couple about Harold Camping–OK, those don’t touch anyone who’s not a Camping fan. But the rest?

      (BTW, has your typing gotten better all of a sudden?)

      • Is there a listing of your posts? I am sure it is somewhere, but I would like to look through the list of topics, and can’t seem to find the master index.

      • Rick:

        I can’t imagine why you’d want to read even more posts that are as poorly thought out as the ones you criticize, but to answer your question: no, there’s no master listing. The closest I have is the Recent Posts list at the home page, which just lists 20. For the rest, I’m afraid you’ll have to take them 6 to a page, clicking on Older Posts at the bottom.

        But that’s a good idea. Unfortunately, I don’t know of a way to make WordPress.com do that. I’ll add that to my wish list.

  7. Hi Bob,

    Don’t forget about the Principle of charity: you need to address the best Christian intellectuals, not only some deluded lunatics or rabid Bible-thumping fundies.

    • Agreed. Frankly it’s not like I’m tempted to move down a couple of notches to the C-level players because the top guys are so formidable. I’m happy to squarely address the best arguments. Unfortunately, what apparently is “best” isn’t much.

      But of course, I’m happy to have any reader point me to good stuff that I’ve overlooked.

      • Disagreed.

        The arguments of these self-professed top-level players in apologetics are not merely unrepresentative of most of Christianity, but frankly, unknown to most of Christianity. Drop all of these top-level players in a ditch and bury them, and what effect would you see on Christianity?

        That’s right, none at all.

        Drop the top-level players in science in a ditch and bury them, and what effect would you see on science?

        *smirk

        But wait, there’s more.

        If Plantinga et al. would like to see epistemological naturalists argue that most of our beliefs are trustworthy, based on their evolutionary basis, it’s not merely science that is beyond their grasp, but basic arithmetic.

        If 80 percent of America believes in a God …

        *smirk

  8. Pingback: MS-DOS and Objective Truth | Cross Examined

  9. Bob:

    I have reviewed your response to Plantinga’s argument, and I am going to be very frank. Please do not take personal offense, but in this situation frankness is needed:

    Your reply to Plantinga’s argument is an absolutely textbook example of responding to a straw-man caricature of an argument, rather than the actual argument that was presented. For example, your chart claims that Plantinga is suggesting that “I’m hungry” leads to the maladaptive neuro-physiological [NP] response of “get to fresh air.” Your chart also claims that Plantinga is suggesting, for example, that “I’m sleepy” leads to the maladaptive neuro-physiological response of “eat palatable food.”

    The problem is that there is nothing in Plantinga’s argument that suggests that physiological needs lead to maladaptive neuro-physiological responses. This is something that you have injected into Plantinga’s argument so as to (perhaps deliberately) mischaracterize his argument. If Plantinga actually suggested this, then you should be able to cite him as doing so. But guess what…you won’t, because you can’t, because he never made such an argument. I challenge you to prove me wrong.

    Your reply to Plantinga’s argument first creates a straw-man caricature of his argument and then proceeds to attack that straw man rather than his actual argument. I strongly suspect that you did not read his actual argument. Below is a copy and paste of some of his ACTUAL ARGUMENT that you need to respond to:

    “Natural selection selects for adaptive NP [neuro-physiological] properties; those NP properties determine content; but natural selection just has to take pot-luck with respect to the propositions or content determined by those adaptive NP properties. It does not get to influence or modify the function from NP properties to content properties: that’s just a matter of logic or causal law, and natural selection can’t modify either. Indeed, the content generated by the NP properties of this structure, on this occasion, need have nothing to do with that predator, or with anything else in the environment. True: the structure is correlated with the presence of a predator and indicates that presence; but indication is not belief. Indication is one thing; belief content is something else altogether, and we know of no reason (given materialism) why the one should follow the other. We know of no reason why the content of a belief should match what that belief (together, perhaps, with other structures) indicates. Content simply arises upon the appearance of neural structures of sufficient complexity; there is no reason why that content need be related to what the structures indicates, if anything. Indeed, the proposition constituting that content need not be so much as about that predator; it certainly need not be true.”

    Please first note the first sentence in the above citation from Plantinga’s argument: “Natural selection selects for adaptive NP [neuro-physiological] properties.”

    Now please tell us what it is in Platinga’s above presented ACTUAL ARGUMENT that suggests that physiological needs will lead to maladaptive neuro-physiological responses, such as “I’m sleepy” leading to the maladaptive neuro-physiological (NP) response of “eat palatable food” (etc). One of the key points in Plantinga’s above argument that you need to respond to is: “Indication is one thing; belief content is something else altogether, and we know of no reason (given materialism) why the one should follow the other.” All that natural selection is concerned with is that the NP response meet the NP need. It is not concerned with whether the belief leading to that NP response is true or not. A false belief leading to an adaptive NP response is just as good as a true belief leading to an adaptive NP response.

    With all due respect, once again, you need to respond to Plantinga’s ACTUAL ARGUMENT rather than a straw-man mischaracterization of it.

    • The problem is that there is nothing in Plantinga’s argument that suggests that physiological needs lead to maladaptive neuro-physiological responses.

      Then I must completely misunderstand the argument.

      As I stated in the post, Plantinga (apparently) is giving the example that our hominid Paul has, by dumb luck, a survival-promoting response to seeing a tiger. A response in accord with reality would be “Tigers are dangerous, and my proper response is to run away,” but he (again, just by luck) responds instead: “Tigers are cuddly and huggable, and my proper response is to run away.”

      Have I got it right?

      Now please tell us what it is in Platinga’s above presented ACTUAL ARGUMENT that suggests that physiological needs will lead to maladaptive neuro-physiological responses, such as “I’m sleepy” leading to the maladaptive neuro-physiological (NP) response of “eat palatable food” (etc).

      Are you asking, “Where in Plantinga’s argument did he even mention sleepiness leading to eat food?”? He doesn’t. I never said he did. I only said that Plantinga’s model of actions bearing no relationship with reality (the dumb luck approach to survival) is not what natural selection would cause.

      That was the point of the jumbled table connecting motivations with bizarre instinctive actions–evolution would simply not select for that. That creature would be too dumb to live.

      It is not concerned with whether the belief leading to that NP response is true or not.

      Right–natural selection doesn’t lead to beliefs that are correct. We’re both familiar with loads of mental biases and failings that humans are saddled with. But that doesn’t mean that natural selection can’t encourage traits that actually happen to mesh nicely with reality.

      With all due respect, once again, you need to respond to Plantinga’s ACTUAL ARGUMENT rather than a straw-man mischaracterization of it.

      Obviously.

  10. Bob, one example of a straw man is your Skeptic.com quote that “neatly skewers Plantinga’s argument”. It implies the following argument:

    1) The EAAN claims that we cannot trust our cognitive faculties.
    2) But we can trust our faculties (q.v. baseball player analogy).
    3) Therefore, Plantinga’s argument is wrong.

    The problem is that this is not Plantinga’s argument. He never claims that we cannot trust our cognitive faculties. In fact, he believes that our cognitive faculties are quite reliable. Only if naturalism were true would we not have good reason to trust our cognitive faculties.

    You say that evolution could encourage traits that actually happen to mesh nicely with reality. This is true, but the problem is that those traits wouldn’t be selected for because they mesh with reality. They would be selected for because they lead to survival. Any meshing with reality would simply be a coincidence.

    Say, there are 1000 possible beliefs which lead to survival when confronted with a hungry tiger. Evolution would select for one of those 1000 beliefs, but only 500 of which, on average, would be true beliefs. Plantinga points out that the odds of, say even 75% of the 1000 beliefs being true are extremely low indeed!

    You also said that you find Christian apologists intellectually dishonest for failing to point out that their arguments are merely for deism. I hope you’re not referring to Plantinga here because he makes it quite clear exactly what the EAAN does and does not support. In fact, he says that the EAAN is not strictly an argument for anything, but an argument against something, namely, naturalism. He’s also quite careful to define naturalism as a particularly strong form of atheism.

    • In fact, he believes that our cognitive faculties are quite reliable.

      Right. He believes that our cognitive faculties are reliable but that evolution couldn’t have made them so. What else could it have been? Must be God.

      Only if naturalism were true would we not have good reason to trust our cognitive faculties.

      And how is this conclusion justified?

      Natural selection selects those individuals who are best suited to their environment (more or less). Having actions that mesh well with reality is a pretty good trait in a well-suited individual.

      This is true, but the problem is that those traits wouldn’t be selected for because they mesh with reality. They would be selected for because they lead to survival. Any meshing with reality would simply be a coincidence.

      Hardly coincidence!

      Perhaps what you mean to say is: Because natural selection selected for belief X, that doesn’t mean that X is true. I agree with this. And, again, we can both list lots of cognitive biases (and other failings) that humans are susceptible to. Our brains are quite imperfect.

      What you’re saying instead is: If natural selection selected for belief X, it would simply be a roll of the dice whether that belief were true. Said another way, natural selection’s selection mechanism is completely orthogonal to truth; or, the truth of a belief affects not at all natural selection’s likelihood of selecting for that belief. That’s a very bold statement that needs evidence.

      Say, there are 1000 possible beliefs which lead to survival when confronted with a hungry tiger. Evolution would select for one of those 1000 beliefs, but only 500 of which, on average, would be true beliefs. Plantinga points out that the odds of, say even 75% of the 1000 beliefs being true are extremely low indeed!

      I don’t understand your point. Maybe you could expand it with examples.

      I hope you’re not referring to Plantinga here because he makes it quite clear exactly what the EAAN does and does not support.

      Nope. I’ve read very little Plantinga, so I didn’t have him in mind.

      Lots of popular apologists made deist arguments without making clear the limitations of that argument (that is, accepting it would take you only to deism, not Christianity).

  11. OK, let me try this. Imagine a prehistoric community of 1000 individuals, some humans, some animals, all at various stages of evolutionary development. On various occasions, each one of them encounters a hungry tiger. Due to random mutations, Evolution has programmed them to respond in various ways. Some run toward the tiger. Some run away. Those who run away survive. Those who run toward the tiger don’t. This is natural Selection. So far, so good.

    Enter Plantinga’s EAAN. His argument is that evolution does not care why these individuals ran away, nor whether their beliefs about the tiger were true at the time. If our belief forming mechanisms are developed as a result of random mutations, some beliefs will be true and some will be false. But the only thing that matters is survival. If a false belief leads to running away, that behavior will lead to survival.

    But can false beliefs lead to survival? Apparently so. Plantinga gives example after example of false beliefs leading to just that.

    To quote Patricia Churchland, “Boiled down to essentials, a nervous system enables the organism to succeed in the four F’s: feeding, fleeing, fighting, and reproducing. The principle chore of nervous systems is to get the body parts where they should be in order that the organism may survive….Truth, whatever that is, definitely takes the hindmost.”

    Now, in case you still believe that true beliefs are more likely to lead to survival than false beliefs, remember that that some of the individuals who ran away were lower animals such as mice or insects, and who knows whether they even have beliefs at all? Does it matter what a mouse or an insect believes? They’ve certainly survived a lot better than we have! It’s one’s behavior that is important to evolution, not one’s beliefs,. And as long as that behavior leads to survival, Natural Selection will preserve it.

    Finally, I was surprised that you’ve read very little Plantinga, given that this entire blog post is dedicated to Plantinga’s Nutty Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism. Have you read his Naturalism Defeated? This is where he presents the EAAN.

    • Due to random mutations, Evolution has programmed them to respond in various ways. Some run toward the tiger. Some run away.

      I doubt that biologists would think of this as the kind of trait that mutation can affect. I don’t know if that invalidates your example, but let’s soldier on.

      His argument is that evolution does not care why these individuals ran away, nor whether their beliefs about the tiger were true at the time.

      Right, and if you’d respond to my questions instead of simply hammering away from your own position, we might make better progress.

      You’re positing a situation where the why is irrelevant. But is that a realistic situation? Sure, let’s suppose that evolution only grades individuals on what they believe, not why they believe it. How would they have gotten that belief in the first place? You imagine that each individual is simply a box of beliefs, but obviously it doesn’t work that way. They each have a brain, which has been (up to this point) honed by evolution for survival value. It might well be pretty good at understand reality pretty accurately (again, think of the baseball playing trying to hit a fastball).

      What I need from you is arguments from biologists that your hypothesis, that natural selection puts no premium on correct reasoning, is valid.

      I was surprised that you’ve read very little Plantinga, given that this entire blog post is dedicated to Plantinga’s Nutty Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism.

      I need to be a Plantinga scholar to write a 500-word critique of one of his arguments?

      • I doubt that biologists would think of this as the kind of trait that mutation can affect.
        How would they have gotten that belief in the first place?

        Given naturalism and evolution, every trait is the kind that mutations can affect. Given naturalism, all beliefs are the result of mutations and random selection. Our brains weren’t simply honed by evolution, they were created by evolution. If evolution and naturalism are true, that’s all we have. It’s the only game in town. Every feature of every living organism is a result of evolutionary processes. That’s how they would have gotten those beliefs in the first place.

        What I need from you is arguments from biologists that your hypothesis, that natural selection puts a premium on correct reasoning, is valid.

        I’m not sure that biologists have even attempted to answer this question or are even in a position to answer it. But don’t we already agree that insects and lower animals cannot reason? Shouldn’t that be enough to convince you that correct reasoning is not necessary for organisms to survive via Natural Selection?

        You said, It might well be pretty good at understand reality pretty accurately (again, think of the baseball playing trying to hit a fastball).

        Again, the baseball illustration shows that we are indeed pretty good at understanding reality, but you can’t use what is to prove what would be if naturalism were true, because that assumes that naturalism is true.

        And no, you don’t need to be a Plantinga scholar to critique an argument of his, but it would be helpful if you have at least read the work containing the argument you are critiquing, especially if you’re going to call the argument nutty!

        • Given naturalism and evolution, every trait is the kind that mutations can affect.

          You imagine a species, some of whom run toward tigers and some of whom run away. A single species can hold within it a certain amount of variability (a little faster vs. slower; brown eyes vs. blue eyes; a little better at storing calories as fat vs. not; etc.), but I doubt that a set of beings so varied that some of them run toward tigers and some run away would be called a single species.

          I’m not sure that biologists have even attempted to answer this question or are even in a position to answer it.

          You could be right, but if so, this may put an end to our speculation. A philosopher is not the go-to guy when it comes to matters of biology, as I’m sure you’ll agree.

          But don’t we already agree that insects and lower animals cannot reason?

          Let’s not conflate two things: there’s the ability to reason vs. not having that ability (humans vs. insects, perhaps), and there’s having correct reasoning vs. incorrect reasoning (you vs. Paul the Hominid).

          correct reasoning is not necessary for organisms to survive via Natural Selection?

          Obviously, reasoning isn’t a prerequisite for evolution to act on a species.

          it would be helpful if you have at least read the work containing the argument you are critiquing

          Am I like Paul the Hominid, incredibly lucky to have struck upon the correct name and author of an apologetic argument without reading it?

          Uh, no. I read about it.

  12. Pingback: The Most Common Atheist “Refutation” of Plantinga « Believe or Doubt?

  13. But reading ABOUT something is not the same thing as ACTUALLY reading the thing itself. You really undermined your own credibility with that statement. By the way, Plantinga’s argument isn’t incompatible with evolutionary theory. It’s not evolution he’s arguing against, but NATURALISM.

  14. I’m glad Christians are being critical of arguments of other Christians against naturalism instead of simply accepting them. But I think you are making the same mistake many atheists make (and you are in good company; pro philosophers do this too).

    The core of P’s argument is about the relationship between belief and action. Beliefs have two things, mechanism and content. Now, as your chart shows, it just so happens that the content matches the action. But naturalism conjoined with natural selection has no explanation for this. Belief content is an abstract entity to be distinguished from mechanism. It has no causal powers. Thus it cannot be a factor in natural selection. It’s the mechanism that does the work. And, according to P, it doesn’t matter what the content of a belief is, just so long as the mechanism is working.

    Here’s something that might help: zombie “beliefs.” Imagine a philosophical zombie with no conscious mind, but a brain with all the mechanical/biochemical functions we have. That zombie wouldn’t have belief contents as we do, though it’s brain’s mechanism would function. We can tell an evolutionary story of this zombie’s origin terms of mere biochemical function, without mentioning beliefs once.

    So on naturalism/materialism, we have no explanation of why contents of beliefs are matched with survival.

    Plantinga, true, does mention the possibility of our belief contents being somehow causally involved in our survival (which is in no way implied by naturalism, given the above); this is where he mentions the far-out examples of false beliefs producing survival behavior. If Plantinga is right, then true contents are still not required for survival. Now it just so happens that our contents are matched with survival. But unguided natural selection has no explanation, as other content combinations could also lead to survival.

    • believeordoubt

      according to P, it doesn’t matter what the content of a belief is, just so long as the mechanism is working.

      Right. But the chameleon whose belief about the correct way to flick out its tongue to catch a flying insect is false won’t last long.

      P is correct that the belief doesn’t have to be correct … but it does help.

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