The Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism & Theistic Explanation (and the SEP)

2014-03-18T16:33:57+00:00 October 13th, 2012|Philosophy of Science|

Mohan Matthen has a nice, punchy write up on Plantinga’s ‘Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism’ (EAAN) over at NewAPPS. The EAAN has been influential in some anti-Darwinian circles (Nagel’s recent flirtation with teleology in science being one prominent example).

I think Mathen is entirely right to suggest that the EAAN relies on an “extraordinarily narrow view of evolution,” a point that needs no further reiteration; most authors interested in tackling the EAAN make some variation on this argument, from Dan Dennett to Elliot Sober. Let me instead comment very briefly on Plantinga’s proposed alternative, that is, theistic design.

Now, in part because of the EAAN, Plantinga likes to claim that theism is the only defensible epistemic position: a designed perceptual-cognitive apparatus delivers truths, an evolved one does not. To this line of thought I always enjoy quoting 14th-century French priest John Buridan, who, several centuries ago argued precisely the opposite:

“For God can form in our senses the species of sensible things without these sensible things, and can preserve them for a long time, and then … we would judge those sensible things to be present. Furthermore, you do not know whether God, who can do such and even greater things, wants to do so. Hence, you do not have certitude and evidentness about whether you are awake and there are people in front of you, or you are asleep, for in your sleep God could make sensible species just as clear as, or even a hundred time clearer than, those that sensible objects can produce; and so you would formally judge that there are sensible things in front of you, just as you do now. Therefore, since you know nothing about the will of God, you cannot be certain about anything.” (Klima, G., ed. Medieval Philosophy, p. 143).

It draws out the basic assumption Plantinga is making: he knows the will of God, and he’s willing to stake his entire epistemology on it. No thanks.

Some thinkers assumed that God’s perfection implied he could only set up the best of all possible worlds; this had the virtue of at least giving some predictive power to theo-teleological ‘explanation’ of this sort. Of course, what we ended up with was ‘perfect’ spherical orbits, geocentrism, etc., etc.; in due course, every single prediction based on ‘divine perfection’ has been falsified.

Plantinga, so far as I can tell, argues not from perfection (or even from benevolence, as Descartes did), but from imago dei, that it, from the revealed doctrine that God “has created human beings in his own image,” and that God is personal. From this, Plantinga concludes,

God has therefore created both us and the world, and arranged for the former to know the latter. Thinking of science at the most basic level as the project of acquiring knowledge of ourselves and our world, it is clear, from this perspective, that the doctrine of imago dei underwrites this project. Indeed, the pursuit of science is a clear example of the development and enhancement of the image of God in human beings, both individually and collectively. (

Plantinga slips constantly between the general terminology of theism and the more specific views of Christianity as if they were one and the same. But certainly bare theistic creation does not, in any way, necessitate imago dei (rather, it is revealed in the book of Genesis). What Plantinga has managed to show us is not that there is a logical necessity within any theistic God’s nature to provide us with veridical beliefs, but that a certain set of revealed doctrines within Christianity are compatible with knowledge about the world. How do we know these doctrines are true? It would be one thing to have a convincing a priori argument for the existence of God, and to argue from there that knowledge is secured because of some necessary fact about God’s nature. What is on offer instead is an ‘intentional story,’ that is, an account that relies on beliefs about what some (very special) agent wished to do: we have reliable faculties because God wanted us to have them. He was, presumably, free not to create us in his image, and are lucky he did so, that we may have true beliefs.

(Though I wonder why God made us prone to so many well-know, and systematic, cognitive failures: is that in his image, too? Or is it an side-effect of the fall of man? One problem with introducing omnipotence is that any observations are explicable, trivializing the solution.)

The problem is that an imago dei epistemology does not seem to follow from Go

d’s nature but God’s free exercise of will. We therefore have a parallel problem: of all the infinite things God could do, how certain are we that he would choose to create in his image? Contrast to evolution: of all the infinite things that could evolve, why reliable faculties? The difference is that I know what kind of constraints, observations, and experiments might lead me to think evolution did lead to reliable faculties, but, short of direct personal revelation, I have no idea how to confirm imago dei.

Note that if God did not create us in his image, but produces sense impressions in the manner Buridan describes, then we could believe falsely in imago dei without ever knowing it, since our beliefs do not track truth. If the naturalist’s problem is that it does not seem likely that evolution would deliver reliable faculties, the theist’s problem is that it does not seem likely that, of all infinite actions within an omnipotent being’s power, that he would create in his image. The naturalist may respond by showing that evolution was constrained, using the techniques of normal science; the theist can only refer to dogma, revelation, or, at best, a sort of abductive inference.

In this way one might assent to imago dei just because it delivers veridical beliefs–i.e., that because we believe truly, God must have created us in his image–but then the naturalist could equally argue that since we evidently do have reliable faculties, evolution must have selected for true belief.

The point is that whatever grounds we can muster for asserting we know what God would do cannot but compare poorly to naturalistic claims. An ‘intentional story’ is shakier ground, for my money, than counting on the eventual success of the selection hypothesis, which has explanatory, predictive, and technological success speaking for it. The theistic hypothesis, meanwhile, seems largely parasitical on the local explanatory failures of naturalism. And, as Dan Dennett never tires of pointing out, ‘stories’ are gratuitous: any number of intentional stories are compatible with, and explain some, of the puzzling features of reality. The question is, why privilege some stories over others? Here contingent social and cultural facts appear salient.


As a side-note, while re-reading Plantinga’s SEP entry on ‘Religion and Science’ I am reminded of how bizarre and parochial the article is: it is not a discussion of the complex relationship between science and religion in the history of philosophy, nor an overview of the current state of affairs in the literature. Rather, it functions as a showcase for Plantinga’s own views.

There is no discussion of some seminal and influential concepts–such as Gould’s ‘non-overlapping magisteria’–nor any mention of, say, the relationship between Islam and science. Instead we have enthusiastic citations of intellectually dishonest creationist frauds like Michael Behe, complete with summaries of discredited arguments about the bacterial flagellum and blood clotting meant to offer proof positive of the spurious, unscientific notion of ‘irreducible complexity’. Writes Plantinga, “not only do [these examples] challenge Darwinism; they are also, [Behe] says, obviously designed: ‘their design is about as obvious as an elephant in a living room.'” I cringe to read these words in the discipline’s most publicly-visible reference source.

Apart from endorsement of pseudo-science, we also have breathless celebration of friendly authors (Swinburne, we are told, has written the most “powerful, complete and sophisticated development of natural theology the world has so far seen” while Mackie and others merely “believe there aren’t any … cogent arguments” for theism) and armchair psychoanalysis (“insofar as naturalism is a quasi-religion by virtue of performing the cognitive function of a religion…”).

It really is an unfortunate contrast that the Wikipedia page on the same topic is more comprehensive, and only mentions Plantinga in passing, in one section, with one reference: to this SEP page–which, as the Wikipedia editors correctly discern, serves primarily as a summary of his own work and views.

The SEP’s own editorial policies, meanwhile, suggest that the Encyclopedia “is intended to serve as an authoritative reference work suitable for use by professionals and students in the field of philosophy, as well as by all others interested in authoritative discussions on philosophical topics,” and therefore that “Encyclopedia entries should therefore not be idiosyncratic or polemical, but rather strive for balance by presenting the important arguments that have been put forward on both sides of an issue. Controversial claims should be identified as such.” If Behe’s claims about ‘irreducible complexity’ aren’t ‘controversial’, what are they? Simply false? And if this article is not “idiosyncratic or polemical,” what would be rejected as such?

EDIT: Eric Schliesser weighs in. The comments are very much worth reading.

Nicholas McGinnis



  1. TomS October 15, 2012 at 7:42 am

    There are two points that I tend to raise whenever someone makes an argument against evolution in favor of “intelligent design”.
    One of those is to check whether the complaint about evolution is resolved by ID (or whatever). In the case of the EAAN, I ask whether allowing an agency which has no known method, opportunity or motives provides a resolution to any problem.
    The other is whether the complaint about evolution works at least as well as an argument against reproduction (or development, genetics, metabolism). While this might appear to be frivolous (“Scientific Storkism”), as a matter of fact many of the standard arguments against evolution were raised in all seriousness by intelligent and well-informed supporters of preformationism in the 18th century. I wonder whether the EAAN would have found any correspondence in Malebranche’s arguments for the “Vision in God”. Even if not, I wonder whether an “Reproductive Argument Against Naturalism”, attempting to show that a naturalistic account of the appearance of the brain by reproduction and development is problematic for the reliability of knowledge.

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