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.
Welcome to Atheism and the City. This blog is about exploring atheism through contemporary urban living. I live in New York City, the secular metropolis, and I have an avid interest in all things religion, science, philosophy, politics, and economics. I am an atheist, a humanist, a philosopher and a thinker, and the purpose of Atheism and the City is to write about my thoughts and experiences on the subjects and topics that I have a passion for. Feel free to respond to any post whether or not you agree.