The Self-Defeating Nature of Naturalism


I am currently working my way through J.P. Moreland’s The Recalcitrant Imago Dei: Human Persons and the Failure of Naturalism (SCM Press 2009). Aside from this being one of the more difficult readings I’ve gone through in a while, I’ve found the book quite informative, especially Moreland’s treatment of Alvin Plantinga’s argument concerning Naturalism (found in his book Warrant and Proper Function).

Plantinga argues that if naturalism and evolution are both true, it would still be irrational to believe in either of them. Such an argument sounds arbitrary or composed by someone so brainwashed by Theistic philosophy that he’s simply unwilling to give any ground to naturalism.

Plantinga argues that a species can survive without knowing the truth of any situation. Truth, or at least knowledge of the truth, is quite superfluous to the survival of a species, especially the more abstract a truth might be. For instance, a lion doesn’t need to know how to equate fractions in order to track down a gazelle. Even in cases of survival, the truth does not matter so long as the end result is survivability. The hunted gazelle could run away from the lion, not out of fear, but out of playful recognition. The gazelle could think the lion is playing around and thus run away from the lion in a playful manner. Once the lion is tired, the gazelle could simply get bored and gallop back to the herd. In such a case, while the gazelle’s beliefs were wrong, the survival still occurred, so the truth was irrelevant to the survival of the gazelle.

This matters because only survivability traits are passed on in naturalism. If something puts a species at a disadvantage in a certain environment, then the species will be eradicated (if the weakness is central to the make up of the species). If the species can adapt, then the undesirable trait eventually goes away as there’s no use for it.

Some could argue (and have argued) that sometimes rationality itself is a survival trait, thus humans have developed high capacities for rationality in order to survive. But humans have beliefs that seem to have no evolutionary advantage at all. If naturalistic evolution is true, then we look to the case of religion as an example of a useless belief. Believing in God serves no purpose, thus the belief becomes epiphenomenal and difficult to explain; how did this belief exist when, having no survivable qualities, it should have been unknown to the evolutionary process and lost? Why did the religious belief stay? Thus, the belief is epiphenomenal and causes problems for naturalism.

Of course, the naturalist only works himself into a deeper pit when he argues that believing in God helped ancient humans bond together, form communities, which then increased survivability. This would mean that naturalistic evolution produced a false belief in order to obtain survival. It is the same example as the gazelle and the lion; the gazelle formed a false belief that still aided in survival. Likewise, if religion is a survival mechanism then evolution adopted a false belief in order to achieve survival.

If naturalistic evolution selects false beliefs to survive, then truth is superfluous and unnecessary to evolution, meaning we cannot accept our cognitive abilities. We must begin to question our own noetic capabilities, which means we have no reason to trust in our belief in naturalistic evolution (hence the belief being irrational). Moreland uses the example of walking into a factory and seeing red widgets. You then learn that the widgets are actually being irradiated by red lights that make everything look red. The widgets could still be red, but we’d have no way to have grounds for believing the widget is red (i.e. knowing that the appearance of red is a simulacrum, one would lack sufficient epistemic warrant to say that any given widget is red, even if in reality the widget is red, for the person would have no way prima facie of knowing if the widget is red in reality or not).

Such arguments trend towards a never-ending collapse into the abyss of circular logic. Once the naturalist realizes that he has no reason to trust in naturalism, he provides a defeater for naturalism. But then he realizes that his rationality is what led to this collapse of naturalism, but he knows he can’t trust his rationality (as what appears true could be false and just an evolutionary advantage), so he now has a defeater for the defeater of his naturalistic evolution. He is now left with no defeater, but this means that he can’t believe in naturalistic evolution or his noetic capabilities because the two would inevitably cancel each other out.

While such an argument doesn’t disprove naturalism, it does show the utter lunacy of naturalism and that under no condition is naturalism actually a rational belief, even if true. Even if true, we have no reason to trust our noetic capabilities or that we have reasoned ourselves to truth, as truth is unnecessary for evolution (meaning what we perceive as truth could be a survival mechanism built on a falsehood). Thus, no matter which horn we decide to tackle, naturalistic evolution ends up being an irrational belief.

A belief in the imago Dei, however, would successfully allow for both evolution and rationality. Under such a belief, while evolution exists and natural selection still picks desirable traits, our rationality is bestowed upon us by a supernatural agent (in this case, God) and subsequently avoids the circle. Theism is able to successfully explain the claims of natural selection and how rationality can exist, as the two come about through different means. The physical aspect of humans comes via natural selection (or at least a physical process) while the rationality comes from a truth-giving God. While this requires us to presuppose quite a bit, such presuppositions are at least rational (especially in light of the multiple arguments via Natural Theology).

At the end of the day, Theism at least holds hope for being rational. Even if naturalistic evolution is true, it is still an irrational belief because it provides a defeater for any epistemic grounds. One might believe in naturalistic evolution, but one lacks sufficient reasons to make this claim if one is consistent with his theory. Thus, Theism is superior at explaining and predicting human rationality and at providing an epistemic ground for warranted belief.

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