Is Evolution Compatible with Naturalism?


The theory of evolution tends to be upheld as the temple of naturalism. Indeed, Richard Dawkins is noted for having remarked, “I couldn’t imagine being an atheist prior to 1859,” the year the Origin of Species was first published. Although theism tends to be on the defense, in recent years naturalism—the view that the universe is a closed system—has come under attack in the philosophical literature. In particular, rather than vindicating naturalism, some philosophers argue that evolution actually defeats naturalism.

The argument takes on a variety of different forms and is largely attributed to the philosopher Alvin Plantinga, who is a bit of an intellectual giant in academia. The refutation is dubbed “the evolutionary argument against naturalism.” Although the argument is not necessarily persuasive, pinpointing where exactly it goes awry is surprisingly difficult. By evolution, Plantinga means descent with modification. Naturalists tend to regard human beings as purely material objects. With that background in mind, the evolutionary argument against naturalism tends to take the following form:

Human cognitive faculties are shaped by natural selection. Human cognitive faculties include our ability to remember, perceive, and discern truth. Neurology produces behavior that is either adaptive or non-adaptive. Presumably, beliefs produce behavior that is either adaptive or non-adaptive. Yet evolution is not concerned about truth but survival. Therefore, we have no basis for trusting our cognitive faculties according to evolutionary theory, including the belief that evolution is true. Thus, evolution coupled with naturalism commits self-defeat.

It should be emphasized that the argument does not attempt to illustrate that evolution is false. Of course, no one would deny that our cognitive faculties do not always correctly discern truth. The argument is that, under naturalism, we have no basis for thinking our cognitive faculties are equipped to discern truth. The evolutionary argument against naturalism therefore holds that one cannot rationally hold evolution and naturalism to be true at the same time. On theism—the view that there exists a personal God that brought creatures into existence in order to know him—the ability of our cognitive faculties to discern truth is high. Therefore, according to this reasoning, there is deep concord between evolution and theism; and deep conflict between evolution and naturalism.

Rather unsurprisingly, the evolutionary argument against naturalism is not without its critics. Opponents of the argument suggest Plantinga assigns initial probabilities without empirical evidence, thus tweaking the argument in favor of theism in advance. Furthermore, the argument assumes that the entire belief structure woven together inside our skulls is completely shaped by natural selection. Other philosophers have argued that evolution, when properly understood, would favor truth-seeking faculties over false seeking faculties. For example, believing that a tiger consumes people is of greater survival value to someone who lives on the African Savannah as opposed to someone who does not believe that a tiger consumes people.

Pinpointing where exactly the evolutionary argument against naturalism goes awry has generated a plethora of responses in the towers of academia. So much so that an entire book has been dedicated to refuting Plantinga’s argument entitled, Naturalism Defeated? Whether or not the argument succeeds, one truth remains: naturalism is on the defense.

By Nathan Cranford


Calvin College
Christian Scholar’s Review

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