Friday, May 10, 2013

Alvin Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN) Part 1

Imagine that you're a hominid walking on the plains of East Africa a million years ago. You suddenly hear a rustle in the bushes. Is it a lion or just the wind? It's safer to assume that it's a lion just in case because you'll be more likely to survive if you do. But if you assume it's just the wind and it is a lion - you're lunch! It's not a mystery to see why evolution has favored the former rather than the latter. The former is a type one error, a false positive. It's assuming that there's something there that isn't. The latter is a type two error, a false negative. It's assuming that there isn't something there when there is.

Our tendency to assume that there is some intentional agency behind what is often just an unintentional natural process, is the reason many psychologists, neuroscientists and biologists believe why we created many religions and gods. You could say, in a way, that evolution has favored false positives and beliefs that were baseless in reality. This explains why religious belief persists today in so many people along with superstition. Millions of years of evolutionary programming are not easily shaked off.

The Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga has tried to make the argument that evolution combined with naturalism would lead us to believe that evolution would favor false beliefs over accurate beliefs and that if naturalism were true, we wouldn't expect our cognitive faculties to have evolved to accurately comprehend reality. Thus, according to Plantinga, naturalism is a self-defeating position.

This argument has been picked up by the likes of William Lane Craig as well as many other amateur Christian bloggers and it is becoming one of those things atheists like me are beginning to hear over and over again. I've been debating with a Christian blogger over this very issue recently and it's encouraged  me to learn a few things about evolution and the theistic mindset.

When I first heard Plantinga's argument, my immediate reaction was to question an aspect of the theistic evolution which he and many other Christians hold to. Namely, if we are the product of divinely guided evolution whereby god selected for our cognition being accurate, then how do you explain things like mental illness and irrational/superstitious beliefs like voodoo, Mormonism, talking snakes, and flying horses carrying "prophets" to heaven, as well as thousands of other false gods and religions (Christianity included)?

The only answer theists have is the doctrine of original sin. Other than that, they must admit their designer is either incompetent and/or intentionally cruel. This poses a serious problem for the theist because there is no evidence that an episode of original sin ever took place. In fact, all the evidence is against it. There never was a bottleneck of just two individual people, and there never were two first "people" either. Humans gradually evolved over millions of years, and there never was an ape that literally gave birth to a fully evolved human being. If you have to believe there was in order to be a Christian, then you might as well join the ranks of creationists like Ray Comfort and Kent Hovind.

Furthermore, the evolutionary process involves necessary cruelty to those animals involved in it, so the theist must believe original sin was retroactively applied before humans had souls or had even evolved. That speaks of a rather cruel designer who'd punish animals for hundreds of millions of years for what two evolved humans were going to do at some point in the future (not to mention how cruel it was towards all the humans who lived before the alleged sin took place). The only other explanation I heard other than the fictional Adam & Eve scenario, is that somehow an angel fell and it pissed god off, and so god therefore chose to create the world using evolution with its necessary suffering and mutations as a punishment. There is absolutely no evidence backing the fallen angel scenario, and it must be believed on even more faith than the Adam & Eve myth.

So, if theistic explanations for why there are defective brains don't pan out we are left with evolution by natural selection it seems to me. So addressing Plantinga's argument, can we explain why or how evolution would favor belief content being true?

I will address his argument head on in part 2 because I don't want this post to run on forever. I find extremely long posts annoying even though I admit I'm as guilty as charged of it.

To be continued...


  1. I find it interesting that evolution - it select those traits that provide a survival advantage - would selecrt in favor of God. We would instead suppose that evolution wouold select in favor of a brain that could see reality as it is. However, according to naturalists, a belief in God represents a distortion of reality. Perhaps instead, such a believe confers survival value then and also now, as many studies demonstrate.

    1. Yes, evolution does favor false positives which explains why we have religions and superstitious beliefs. But, evolution also selects for accurate cognition which can discern what is false from what is true.

    2. That you will have to show. It isn't clear to me that it does.

      Also, again, if human beings do have subsistent rational souls, then there was plausibly a first man born from a non-human specimen. Even Richard Dawkins conceded the possibility of something like that in his discussion with Rowan Williams, when they came to the point about language acquisition.

    3. Even if I granted you that scenario, there's still no need to invoke divine intervention anywhere. Plus, you'd still have to make the case that there was a bottleneck of two people. And you'd have to explain what caused the bottleneck. Did your perfectly loving god cause a disease or a massive volcano so that he could actualize his plan of withering down the population to just two "people"? Some god that would be.

      You know our debating got me thinking about atheistic syllogisms. I just quickly thought of one based on the debating we've been having. I haven't refined it yet and it's a first draft but please tell me what you think of this argument below:

      1. If god chose to use evolution as the method of creating human beings and all other forms of life, then god knowingly chose the method that requires the greatest amount of suffering.
      2. If humans are the product of gradual evolution guided by god, humans must have acquired souls at some point during the process.
      3. Once human beings had souls, they could be rewarded in an afterlife for the suffering they endured while they were alive.
      4. If higher level primates are capable of third order pain awareness (knowing they are experiencing pain) then our pre-human hominid ancestors did too and they did not have souls.
      5. Therefore god chose to create humans using a method that knowingly would involve conscious suffering that was not logically necessary.
      6. An all-good, perfectly moral god who is incapable of unwarranted cruelty would not create beings that could consciously suffer in a way that was not logically necessary.
      7. Therefore, the traditional notion of god who is all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good does not exist.

      For premise two, even if you believe that fully rational humans appeared at once, we still have enough evidence that our hominid ancestors and cousins like Neanderthals had language capability and that means they certainly had higher functioning cognitive rational faculties than modern day chimps and gorillas.

      Please tell me what you think.

    4. You could call this Mike's evolutionary argument against god (EAAG)!

    5. Mann: We would instead suppose that evolution wouold select in favor of a brain that could see reality as it is.
      Seeing reality as it is is hard - it took thousands of years to come up with quantum mechanics.
      Rather, a brain which can apply generally useful heuristics which are usually good at discerning what is real, and do so in real time, provides an advantage over a brain that see's reality as it is, but cannot react in real time.
      As such, we detect agency where there is none - anyone who has been startled by the wind rustling leaves is familiar with this. Far better to react quickly with false positives, than to ignore the possible predator lurking in the grass.

      Mann: However, according to naturalists, a belief in God represents a distortion of reality.
      Well, since god doesn't exist, a belief in god is more accurately a delusion.
      The belief in gods and spirits can be explained by the same false positive producing agency detection described above.

      Mann: Perhaps instead, such a believe confers survival value then and also now, as many studies demonstrate.
      Even if it did confer survival advantage, that doesn't make it true - you're committing the naturalistic fallacy.

    6. Mann is totally hopeless. He asserts that there exists no transitional fossils, then I send him a list of transitional fossils and I ask him to refute their validity. Then he says he can't because he's not a biologist. That's creationist logic 101 for you.



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