Posted by: gcarkner | November 29, 2012

Science & Naturalism in Conflict?

Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies. Chapter 10.

Again the following contains my summary notes on our GCU discussion of the concluding chapter of Plantinga’s important and immensely challenging book. The provocative title of this chapter is: “The Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism”. Having demonstrated that the so-called conflict between Christian theism and science is rather superficial and that there is deep concord between science & theism, Plantinga goes a step further. He reveals the deep unease, discord, even conflict between naturalism and science. P(R/N&E) is low (the probability of reliability of our rationality, given an embrace of naturalism and evolution is low).

Many of our colleagues take naturalism and science as appropriate intellectual bedfellows, working “hand-in-glove”. But Plantinga argues that naturalism is in conflict with evolution, a main pillar of contemporary science. The argument centers on the status of our cognitive faculties: those faculties, or powers, or processes that produce beliefs or knowledge in us (e.g. perception, memory, a priori intuition, introspection, testimony, induction). His argument concerns the question of the reliability of  cognitive faculties if we espouse naturalism and unguided evolution. Can we get to true belief, reliable knowledge by this path? Again it is an argument from coherence (or rather, in this case, incoherence). One of the philosophy PhD students in the group astutely noted that the philosophical argument reductio ad absurdum is also at play. We recommend that you read the entire chapter to get the full impact and clarity of his articulation on the matter.  It is helpful to note that Plantinga is considered one of the top twenty Christian scholars in the world.

Plantinga’s Argument in Summary:

1. The probability of our cognitive faculties being reliable, given a strong belief in naturalism and evolution, is low. This contains a defeater for reliability or shoots itself in the foot. It is self-referentially incoherent, involving internal contradictions. Naturalist philosophers who also notice this dilemma within naturalism include Friedrich Nietzsche, Thomas Nagel, Barry Stroud, Patricia Churchland. This is also parallel to what we know as the famous Darwin’s Doubt. (

Plantinga writes: “Churchland therefore suggests that naturalistic evolution–that is, the conjunction of metaphysical naturalism with the view that our cognitive faculties have arisen by way of the mechanisms and processes proposed by contemporary evolutionary theory–gives us reason to doubt two things:

a. that a purpose of our cognitive systems is that of serving us with true beliefs.

b. that they do, in fact, furnish us with mostly true beliefs.” (316)

2. There is an extensive discussion of reductive and non-reductive materialism as it relates to the mind-brain issue and true knowledge. Here are a couple summary quotes about the relationship between noetic content & neural pathways.

“So (given materialism) some neural structures, at a certain level of complexity of neural pathway (NP) properties, acquire content; at that level of complexity NP properties determine belief content, and the structures in question are beliefs. And the question I want to ask is this: what is the likelihood, given evolution and naturalism (construed as including materialism about human beings), that the content arising is in fact true?” (325)

“We assume that our cognitive faculties are reliable. But what I want to argue is that the naturalist has a powerful reason against this initial assumption, and should give it up.” (326)

For Plantinga there is no reason for calling belief content derived from unguided naturalistic evolution true belief. He illustrates that adaptive survival and reproduction does not need to include truth value or true belief. P(R/N&E) is low. Look for his future article in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research called “Content and Natural Selection”.

3. One acquires a defeater, if one holds evolution and naturalism together, which leads to a crushing skepticism about human knowledge. It is a reductio ad absurdum situation for any belief including the belief in naturalism itself. Chances are that most of our beliefs are mistaken (if we hold strongly to naturalism).

Conclusion: There is a fundamental discord between metaphysical naturalism and evolutionary science. Naturalism does not rest on a foundation of science (even though many naturalists falsely trumpet the claim that science is a pillar in the temple of naturalism); rather naturalism is a metaphysical add-on to science, not a necessary concomitant feature. In fact, naturalism as a worldview creates large problems for science and the merits and weight of scientific knowledge.

Gord Carkner

p.s. Revealingly, Dr. Alex Rosenberg, Philosopher from Duke University, affirms the argument of Alvin Plantinga in a debate with Dr. William Lane Craig at Purdue. He is consisted with Scientism and Philosophical Naturalism and ends in Nihilism, not able to trust his own thoughts:

Vilification/Heresy Trial of philosopher Thomas Nagel for doubting philosophical naturalism/materialism:  (well said)

See also CBC Ideas Program with Paul Kennedy called “The Myth of the Secular”

That deep emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God.  ~Albert Einstein

Philosopher Dallas Willard on Understanding Naturalism

Dr. Denis Alexander, Faraday Institute, Cambridge University speaks on Richard Dawkins.

Charles Darwin. 1 negative : glass ; 5 x 7 in....

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