Anti-Thomist Tidbits: A Brief Critique of the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism

Just a quick little something I whipped up for you guys about an annoying bit of reasoning I see my Thomist foes use quite a lot. It’s called the “Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism.”

The funny thing is, this argument was invented by a Protestant Christian, and Thomists are Catholic. It’s from Alvin Plantinga, one of the most famous Christian philosophers of our time. You can see a summary of it on Wikipedia, but essentially, it goes like this:

Charles Darwin, the very famous scientist who himself came up with the beginnings of the theory of evolution, was more than a little suspicious about what the theory of evolution entailed. As he wrote to a friend in 1881,

“the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?”

Plantinga expounded further upon this doubt of Darwin’s. He encourages us to think about what this entails for the likelihood of naturalism. Naturalism, to use his formal definition, is pretty much atheism, the belief that there is no God and no supernatural entities, and the material world is all that exists and nothing more–let’s call this belief N. Then we have the belief that human beings evolved through the blind processes of natural selection–let’s call this E. Finally, we have the belief that our beliefs themselves are generally reliable. For instance, even though we may be wrong on occasion, we’re right more often than not. When we believe things like “Tigers are dangerous,” or “The sun rises in the east every day” or “putting your hand on a hot stove will burn you,” it’s understood that these beliefs really do reflect real features about the world around us. Let’s call this belief about our beliefs R.

Plantinga argues that given N and E, R is very unlikely to be true. That is to say, if there is no God, AND if evolution via natural selection produced human beings, we can’t assume our beliefs about the world around us are true, in the sense of reliably reflecting what’s actually there.

The belief “Tigers are dangerous” I gave above illustrates Plantinga’s point. See, the way natural selection works is that characteristics or behavioral traits which are *adaptive* get passed on to the next generation over time. However, *beliefs* can be adaptive without being true. More specifically, untrue beliefs can produce adaptive behavior. Plantinga asks us to imagine a prehistoric hominid fleeing a tiger. The hominid’s behavior is adaptive and would get passed on to his descendants, because you can’t reproduce if you don’t flee from tigers trying to eat you. But what about his beliefs? Plantinga ponders if our hominid

“very much likes the idea of being eaten, but when he sees a tiger, always runs off looking for a better prospect, because he thinks it unlikely the tiger he sees will eat him. This will get his body parts in the right place so far as survival is concerned, without involving much by way of true belief. … Or perhaps he 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. … Clearly there are any number of belief-cum-desire systems that equally fit a given bit of behaviour.”

The problem Plantinga asserts here, in other words, is that there is no correlation between the truth or falsity of any given belief and its relationship to adaptive or non-adaptive behaviors. A belief can be entirely false while still leading to adaptive behaviors, meaning it could get passed on as readily as a true belief. Thus, if we have evolved through natural selection, there is no reason to assume that our beliefs about the world are actually true. They might be, but it’s just as likely they are not. This, ironically enough, makes belief in naturalism and evolution self-refuting, because if natural selection has favored only adaptive behaviors rather than true beliefs, it is entirely possible that a belief in naturalism is actually false, and just happened to be associated with certain adaptive behaviors.

The only way around this, claims Plantinga, is some form of theism rather than naturalism. A God of some sort–not necessarily the Christian God, but some sort of deity–must have assured our cognitive faculties are actually reliable and generate true beliefs (rather than merely beliefs generally associated with adaptive behaviors). As Plantinga said, “if God has created us in his image, then even if he fashioned us by some evolutionary means, he would presumably want us to resemble him in being able to know; but then most of what we believe might be true even if our minds have developed from those of the lower animals.”

That’s a broad overview of the EAAN. Here’s why I think it’s wrong.

First, the final conclusion Plantinga draws, that “if God has created us in his image…[then] he would presumably want us to resemble him in being able to know [that is to say, hold true beliefs]” is, on its own, not exactly well-supported. Even if a God existed, why would He have created us in His image or had any interest in ensuring we know the truth? As Edward Feser, someone who appreciates the EAAN , has admitted in his book Five Proofs, many theists have not believed this: “Aristotle famously thought that the divine Unmoved Mover of the world contemplated himself eternally, but took no cognizance of us” (page 300). If such a being took no cognizance of us, why would we expect him to ensure the accuracy of our beliefs?

So then, Plantinga would claim that Aristotle was wrong and the Christians were right. It’s not enough to believe in a generic theism, you have to believe in an active, Abrahamic God who has consciously designed us or consciously maintains us in such a way that our beliefs are generally true!

Unfortunately, we then run into another problem. Namely this: If God really was ensuring the accuracy of our beliefs, why are they only “generally” accurate rather than always and infallibly so?

Not even Plantinga or Feser would deny that our beliefs are sometimes wrong. Sure, the belief that the sun rises in the east or that tigers are dangerous is a belief that’s obviously true, but what about all the other beliefs people have had throughout history? The belief that the earth was flat was a false, but relatively adaptive, belief. Once, people believed in a sort of aether surrounding the Earth rather than a vacuum. And, of course, there are beliefs in regards to religion. Feser and Plantinga would say that Jews and Muslims, not to mention all those heathens and atheists, have beliefs about God that are absolutely wrong. Indeed, Feser and Plantinga themselves would accuse each other of having false religious beliefs, because Feser is a idolater Papist and Plantinga is a filthy Prot. They can’t both be right.

But if God is somehow ensuring that our beliefs are true, how is it we can be wrong about anything? Is God just not very good at preserving the truthfulness of our beliefs and saving us from error? That’s, uh, not very comforting, and in any case, why would he be? God is supposedly all-powerful and all-knowing, right? How could he possibly fail to any extent in any pursuit? So if he really did ensure the general accuracy of our belief systems, there’s no reason he would make them anything less than absolutely perfect in every regard, including science and religion.

Edward Feser has a few reasons as to why this might be so. He quotes another philosopher, John Hicks, as saying that God created us “at an epistemic distance from him precisely so we would be free to choose whether or not to enter into a personal relationship with him.” (Five Proofs for the Existence of God, 301). More generally, Feser believes that God has legitimate reasons for allowing evil as a whole, including, assumedly, the evils entailed by people being wrong about things. As he also says in Five Proofs, “there are some goods which logically cannot be had without tolerating certain evils,” and “there must in fact be some greater good that God will draw out of instances of suffering” (295, 298). So we can extrapolate from this that Feser would say our beliefs are only generally accurate rather than unerringly accurate in order to preserve our free will, and possibly because there’s some “greater good” that arises out of us being wrong occasionally.

The problem with this is that it opens theism to similar criticisms of naturalism produced by the EAAN.

EVEN IF we allow that God could not intentionally deceive us (and that’s a chancy enough proposition on its own), there is nothing compelling Him to prevent us from being deceived, whether by supernatural demons or other natural things around us. Indeed, as we’ve just seen, Feser says God would permit us to be deceived, or simply just mistaken, in order to preserve our free will. Feser also says that God might permit such things on occasion to bring a “greater good” out of it. But why only on occasion? Given that our beliefs are occasionally wrong some of the time, it is perfectly possible they are wrong most of the time, and God is just drawing some “greater good” out of letting us be fooled constantly. This, of course, applies to religion. If there’s some “greater good” God might draw from Muslims and Jews being mistaken about Him, perhaps there’s also a “greater good” he might draw from allowing Christians to be mistaken about him. Thus, our beliefs are just as unreliable on a theistic worldview as they are on a naturalistic worldview, and our belief in any particular religion is just as self-undermining as atheism and evolution.

Feser’s bit about “epistemic distance” from God also undermines his and Plantinga’s point about naturalism providing no “justification” for assuming our beliefs are true. As Feser said on page 301 of Five Proofs, God assumedly wants us to be able to choose whether or not to worship or have a “personal relationship” with him. Okay, fine, but if that’s so, why would God bother ensuring the accuracy of any beliefs that were not related to worshipping him?

Again, it may–*may*–be true that God could not or would not intentionally deceive us. But why would that imply He has any specific interest in ensuring our beliefs about the material world are generally reliable?  For instance, to take Plantinga’s example, if someone was under the impression that tigers were cuddly and harmless, but still ran away from them because he believed that would allow him to pet them, God wouldn’t bother correcting that obviously false belief because it kept the human alive and didn’t prevent him from worshiping God.

Thus, I conclude that the EAAN is more or less a failure. If Plantinga and Feser would say the naturalist has no coherent reason for assuming his beliefs are generally true, the naturalist could say the exact same thing about the theist, both in general and in regards to religion–even an Abrahamic-style God could have some unknown reason for allowing us to hold many or even mostly false beliefs. To keep the line of argument used in the EAAN from eroding their own beliefs, then, the theist must establish the truth of three premises:

1: God has a particular interest in ensuring that human beliefs about the world are true.

2: There is no “greater good” God could derive from having us sometimes or even often be deceived by at least some non-divine effects or factors.

3: Human beliefs about the world are infallibly and always true rather than just generally reliable and true.

1 is difficult to establish, 2 is extremely difficult to establish (as Edward Feser himself notes), and 3 is just outrightly false. And if 3 is false, the theist is in a much more precarious position than the naturalist, whether or not he believes in evolution. The evolution-believing naturalist has a very simple, coherent explanation for why our beliefs are usually right but sometimes aren’t. Evolution favors beliefs that tend to be true, but they don’t have to be invariably true, because as long as our beliefs are correct more often than not, they’ll still get passed down, which explains why some incorrect beliefs, but only some, are still present in the human psyche, waiting to be winnowed out as evolution progresses. The theist, on the other hand, believes in a God that’s omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent. Why would such a being allow us to be wrong about *anything* if He has the power to ensure all our beliefs are 100% accurate, whether through direct revelation or some other means? Feser would say that God derives some “greater good” out of allowing us to be occasionally wrong. But that brings us to premise 2, because if God draws some greater good from our beliefs being occasionally wrong, perhaps He might draw an even greater good from our beliefs being often wrong, and an even greater good than that from our beliefs being almost always wrong, and so on.

Now, Edward Feser has an addition to the EAAN that ought to be addressed. According to him, it really doesn’t establish the truth of theism against naturalism in and of itself, but it does imply the truth of Aristotelianism, namely Aristotelian theology. See this article:

As Feser says,

“I also think that it is a mistake to suppose that the EAAN gives direct support to theism, specifically — as opposed, say, to a non-theistic teleological view of the world…The bottom line is that what the EAAN/”argument from reason” shows, in my view, is that we cannot coherently trust our cognitive faculties unless we suppose that they are directed toward the attainment of truth as their telos or end.”

While I’m glad Feser admits a sort of Aristotelian naturalism is tenable, I don’t think the EAAN establishes teleology to be true either. The thing with teleology, as Feser defines it, is that it’s a very regular, reliable thing. I hate doing this every time I write about this sort of philosophy, but I have to summarize yet another of Feser’s books.

As he says in The Last Superstition, teleology (as initially postulated by Aristotle) is goal-directedness, when things or phenomena are “directed at or point to states of affairs beyond themselves” (263). For instance, “the moon is ‘directed toward’ movement around the earth, as a kind of ‘goal'” (69), and “a match is ‘directed towards’ the production of fire and heat rather than (say) frost or cold; that is the ‘goal’ or ‘end’ it ‘aims’ at, even if it is never in fact struck” (238). Now, there’s a lot of other stuff about teleology as goal-directedness Feser would want us to keep in mind, but I don’t want to write it all out again. Just go here and ctrl+F “final cause” or “final causality” and you’ll learn all you need to know. The takeaway here is Feser’s claim that the EAAN means our cognitive faculties cannot be reliable unless our mind itself has a teleology–unless our mind is “directed at” truth.

I don’t think so, and here’s why. As you can tell from the examples Feser uses in The Last Superstition, teleology oughtn’t be an especially chancy matter. In fact, in most cases, what Feser calls teleology doesn’t just “regularly” generate specific effects, but *ALWAYS* generates those effects. Feser claims matches “are directed” or “point” towards fire, but a struck match will *always* generate fire unless it’s wet or away from oxygen. Feser claims the moon is “directed” to orbiting around the Earth, but it does so always and inerringly, and will do so until its orbit decays or it’s hit by a meteor or something that knocks it out.

As established above, our truth-discerning faculties are nowhere near as reliable or unerring, even if we assume they are generally so. The moon will never just fall out of its orbit on its own, but our beliefs are sometimes, arguably even often wrong. If our minds are “directed towards” truth, the same way matches are teleologically directed towards flame and the moon is teleologically directed towards orbiting the earth, how could this be so?

Feser would say I’ve answered my own question above. As my examples imply, the teleology of a thing can be foiled or “frustrated.” Spill water on a match and it won’t light, throw enough mass at the moon and it won’t orbit the Earth. So, Feser might say there just happen to be things that “frustrate” the teleology, or “directedness towards truth” of our reasoning.

The problem is, this still gives us no reason to believe our abilities of reason, and thus our beliefs, are very reliable. Even if we agree with Feser that our minds are “directed at” the pursuit of truth, how can we discern if they’re successfully achieving that teleology, or being frustrated by external factors? For instance, how can we know that any particular belief, such as “teleology is necessary for our beliefs to be true” is itself actually true? Perhaps some other factor, like a sentimental attachment to Aristotle, say, has clouded Feser’s “cognitive faculties,” and the real reason those faculties are generally reliable has nothing to do with teleology. And the only way to determine whether or not our reason is being “frustrated” is through the use of reason–questioning our own beliefs. But if our reason itself is being frustrated, we cannot rely on it to correct itself. For Feser’s argument for teleology to work, he would have to show that the human mind not only “aims at” truth, but aims at truth infallibly and unerringly, that is to say, its telos is never frustrated. And that is obviously false.

So, how would I, personally, address the concerns raised by the EAAN? Well, other thinkers have provided a variety of answers to it–again according to Wikipedia, there’s a whole book, “Naturalism Defeated?” about that. Even so, while I might not be as smart as those professional philosophers, I figure I’ll give it a crack.

I assert this: That false beliefs can be associated with adaptive behavior *ONLY* in organisms with no capacity to learn. Otherwise, in organisms with any ability to modify their own behavior, false beliefs will inevitably lead to maladaptive behaviors and thus get winnowed out.

Allow me to explain. Let’s go back to Plantinga’s example of a hominid who exhibits an adaptive behavior (running away from a tiger) based on a false belief (running away from tigers will allow you to pet them). If the hominid were a lower animal like an earthworm or amoeba, with absolutely no self-awareness or consciousness, then he would continue to perform the same behavior over and over again, so yes, in that case he would pass on his genes, despite his false beliefs.

However, if the hominid is capable of modifying his behavior over his lifetime–in other words, if he’s capable of even the lower sort of learning exhibited by, say, squirrels, birds, and some smart invertebrates like octopi–he will eventually notice that constantly running away from tigers does not allow him to pet them. In that case, he will begin to try different strategies other than running away (much like squirrels will try different strategies to reach a birdfeeder), and eventually, one of those strategies will work–which will, of course, result in him being eaten and not passing on his genes, though hopefully after he’s been able to give a tiger a little scritchy-scratch.

On the other hand, a hominid who has the correct beliefs–“Tigers are dangerous”–will perform the correct action (running away). Given that he is capable of learning from his actions, he will note that his behavior led to the desired result, which means he will continue to do it in the future, and consequently pass on his genes. This also applies to combinations of beliefs, by the by. For instance, a hominid who correctly believes tigers are dangerous, but incorrectly believes that running towards (rather than away) from them leads to safety, will find himself fatally corrected sooner rather than later. Thus, natural selection favors beliefs that are generally true, and that if a learning, behavior-modifying creature possesses many beliefs, at least more than half of those will be true, or in other words, that creature’s reasoning will be generally reliable.

As a result of this little thought experiment, we can say that Plantinga is simply incorrect. It is simply not the case that “there are any number of belief-cum-desire systems that equally fit a given bit of behaviour.” If an organism is capable of learning from its experiences and modifying its behavior, true beliefs are more likely to be associated with adaptive behaviors, at least for that particular species. Not invariably so, but if true beliefs made it even slightly more likely to exhibit adaptive behaviors, they will be favored by natural selection over time. And since human beings are obviously a species capable of learning and modifying our own behavior, the natural conclusion is that true beliefs led to adaptive behaviors (with the opposite holding for false beliefs) in us, which means that natural selection, over thousands of years, has generated a species with generally (though not invariably) true beliefs.

This does not require me to postulate the existence of any sort of deity, nor does it rely on teleology as Aristotle would have it. I do not have to concede that the mind is “directed at” truth, it is merely a matter of probabilistic chance: Minds that have true beliefs will more reliably generate adaptive behaviors in creatures that can learn.

Now, I suppose, Feser would bring up other concerns. Minds–at least human minds–must be immaterial! Learning about the world around you requires you to grasp Forms, and that falsifies naturalism! Whatever. Debating that would be a subject for a future post. But for the purposes of argument, if we assume that learning and modifying behavior is a material process, then the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism fails because true beliefs will produce more adaptive behaviors than false beliefs in organisms that can learn. And with that, my philosophy-inclined friends, I can leave you for another day.


  1. mcc1789 · · Reply

    I think human cognitive capacities, if anything, most point toward naturalism more than theism (or if we’re generous, at least toward a less teleogical worldview). The fact that most people throughout history and still today don’t believe as Christians think is right has been an argument in itself to rebut theism (or arguments-divine hiddenness and nonbelief both might fall into this).

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