• Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism

    Christian Philosopher Alvin Plantinga is well known for posing a challenge to metaphysical naturalism (the view that nature is all there is, no supernatural beings) with evolution: he says that evolution will only favor belief-forming mechanisms in the brain that lead to survival, not necessarily to truth. Any situation will usually have more than one belief that allows you to survive but is not true. An example Plantinga gives is this: in order to survive primitive man must run away from tigers. Lots of false beliefs could cause primitive man to run from tigers (if the man wanted more than anything to pet the tiger, and also believed that running away from the tiger would allow him to do this). So, given that evolution favors only beliefs that lead to survival, and there are many beliefs that can do this but aren’t true, the odds are pretty low that evolution would produce reliable minds (unless God guided evolution, which naturalists do NOT believe). This means that under the naturalist’s tent, evolution probably didn’t create reliable minds, which means that you can’t trust your mind, which means you can’t trust your belief in evolution and/or naturalism. It is a self-defeating belief system, in Plantinga’s eyes.

    Many of my fellow atheists are annoyed by this argument, but not me. I view this as a riddle that’s worth an answer. Here’s what Eric Schliesser has to say:

    “Let’s grant — for the sake of argument — the claim that ‘Mechanisms of belief formation that have selective advantage in the everyday struggle for existence do not warrant our confidence in the construction of theoretical accounts of the world as a whole.’ What follows from this?

    “My quick and dirty answer is: nothing. For the crucial parts of science really do not rely on such mechanisms of belief formation. Much of scientific reason is or can be performed by machines; as I have argued before, ordinary cognition, perception, and locution does not really matter epistemically in the sciences.”


    Category: Uncategorized


    Article by: Nicholas Covington

    I used to blog at Answers in Genesis BUSTED! I took the creationist organization Answers in Genesis to pieces. I am the author of Atheism and Naturalism and Extraordinary Claims, Extraordinary Evidence, and the Resurrection of Jesus. I am an armchair philosopher with interests in Ethics, Epistemology (that's philosophy of knowledge), Philosophy of Religion, and Skepticism in general.

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    1. Whether or not an argument like this is successful, it has a funny consequence. As soon as you convince someone that reason is unreliable, it seems they are perfectly warranted to say “OK, I no longer view your argument as compelling”.

      1. Is it not the position that reasoning in a naturalist framework is unreliable? But if it is anchored in God, then it is reasonable. Ie naturalistic reasoning is self-refuting, but theistic reasoning isn’t.

    2. If our minds are unreliable guides to what is true then that would apply to belief in the supernatural as well as the natural. I don’t see how Plantinga can think this argument wins him any support for the supernatural over the natural.

    3. Plantinga got it right. The fact that some believe in the supernatural and some don’t is proof that human reasoning and beliefs are unreliable. We need some other way to verify and confirm what we believe. That’s what we call empirical evidence.

    4. I always thought the EEAN was bizarre. In order for it to work, it seems to me your beliefs would have to be totally independent of (a) each other (b) your actions and (c) the feedback you get from the consequences of your actions.

      Interestingly enough, in the original version of the argument, Plantinga has “Paul” (the caveman in the example) jumping into a lake to get away from the tiger. When it was pointed out to him that tigers can swim, Plantinga dropped that part, blissfully unaware that he was thereby undercutting his own argument!

    5. I would tend to think that beliefs and belief systems are cultural rather than evolutionary. People who didn’t run from tigers tended to not reproduce. People who did run from tigers did reproduce. That’s evolutionary.

      Believing that the thunder was caused by a god is a belief. It’s an explanation for some event that is not understood. At the time, it was a just so story, no one could prove it wrong. Now, we know what causes thunder, so the use of thunder as an attribute of the gods is not a part of our culture.

      Maybe it’s a part of our humanity that we create stories for things we don’t understand. I would tend to think not though. We do have an evolutionary imperative to be a part of the tribe and have people like us and be around us. Telling stories, pretending to know things that no one else does, these are things that could be helpful in that tribal sense.

    6. This means that under the naturalist’s tent, evolution probably didn’t
      create reliable minds, which means that you can’t trust your mind, which
      means you can’t trust your belief in evolution and/or naturalism.

      And are our minds reliable? Our perceptions and cognition are prone to many illusions, with examples so abundant that I will mention only one, the Monty Hall problem.
      Also, “under the naturalist’s tent,” over half of people believe that they have a magical invisible friend. Does that sound like we are super-rational creatures?
      Furthermore, because our minds are prone to such illusions, it is important that we have developed reasoning and empirical investigation to winnow the wheat from the chaff. Beliefs which are backed by reason and science are therefore more valuable, while those based on vague feelings (e.g. sensus divinitatus) should be discounted.
      Plantinga knows nothing about evolution, which is ironic since he has criticised others (Dawkins) for dabbling in philosophy.

    7. ‘Many of my fellow atheists are annoyed by this argument, but not me. I view this as a riddle that’s worth an answer. ‘

      Of course it is.

      And how does producing ‘true’ beliefs help (as Plantinga seems to think it is)

      Suppose I see a black bomb ticking in my room.

      I produce the true belief that a black bomb ticking in my room will kill me, and I will survive if there is no black bomb in my room.

      So I paint the bomb white.

      Then there truly is no black bomb in my room.

      Problem solved! Except….

      Daniel Dennett calls this the ‘frame’ problem.

      There are literally an infinite number of true beliefs than can be generated in any situation.

      How does the human brain manage to choose the tiny number of true beliefs which are helpful?

      God knows!

      That would be Plantinga’s answer.

      And I think it would also be Dennett’s answer as well, even if he meant something different by those words than what Plantinga would mean.

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