Naturalism Defeated

Posted: March 2, 2009 in Evolution

This is Part 2 of the paper I’m working on called “The Antiquity of Man”: 

“No subject,” said Charles Lyell, “has lately excited more curiosity and general interest among geologists and the public than the question of the Antiquity of the Human Race….For the last half-century the occasional occurrence in various parts of Europe of the bones of Man or the works of his hands…associated with the remains of extinct hyena, bear, elephant, or rhinoceros, has given rise to a suspicion that the date of Man must be carried farther back than we had heretofore imagined.”[1]

 Lyell went on to say that the transmutation theory (what we would call evolutionary theory) was an “indispensable hypothesis” that was subject to change as more knowledge became available, but would “never be overthrown.”[2]  Lyell was very supportive of Darwin’s new theory of evolution and defended it against various criticisms while touting its explanatory value, but then he asks, “[W]ill not transmutation, if adopted, require us to include the human race in the same continuous series of developments, so that we must hold that Man himself has been derived by an unbroken line of descent from some one of the inferior animals?”[3]


In answer, Lyell willingly admitted a great deal of continuity between human and simian structure.  Speaking of the “negro’s brain” compared to a chimpanzee, he speaks of the “remarkable general correspondence between the chimpanzee brain and that of the human subject in everything save in size.”[4]  Readers must remember that 19th century scientists spoke this way about human races, emphasizing continuity of apes with “lower” races of men.  Lyell even cited Huxley to the effect that the cranial differences between races of men were greater than that between the “lowest man” and the “highest ape.”  So accommodating was Lyell to Darwinism that he was even willing to agree with those who ascribed “soul” or an “immaterial principle” to animals in order to emphasize the continuity of being between man and the lower creation.


Lyell’s view is not surprising.  An important aspect of Victorian thinking about man was that he was hardly distinguishable from apes.  Even Linnaeus could see little difference between man and ape other than from a moral viewpoint: “But as a naturalist I am concerned with other aspects of his function, and in my study of these I find it most difficult to discover one attribute by which man can be distinguished from apes, except perhaps in the matter of his canines…”


Linnaeus was merely expressing common opinion, which saw apes as merely “forest men.”  Lamarck would later argue that some animals could be transformed into other animals, and Darwin would provide a seemingly plausible mechanism for this in his theory of natural selection.  Haeckel had provided what we now know were fraudulent embryonic illustrations of evolution in action, and Darwin appealed to this “evidence” when he revisited evolutionary theory in his discussion of human descent by way of evolution.


The idea that humans are hardly distinguishable from apes is ludicrous, but we still have modern Darwinists making the same claim.  For instance, Jared Diamond says that if humans were put in a cage, their power of speech taken away and reduced to grunting, people would not be able to tell them apart from chimps.  They would be regarded as “chimps that have little hair and walk upright.” [5]


Apparently, Diamond has never seen the movie Planet of the Apes, where the main character Taylor (played by Charlton Heston) did lose his power of speech.  Yet he was able to do things that marked him out as intelligent, such as building a paper airplane, writing notes on paper, understanding conversation.  Unlike Diamond the “simian” scientists caught on rather quickly.


As we’ve seen Lyell was willing to sing paeans to continuity, just like Diamond, but he still pointed to the “enormous gap which separates Man from the brutes.”[6]  This gap involved man’s moral faculty, enabling him to know good and evil, right and wrong, or virtue and vice, and also a religious faculty that enables man to believe in a world beyond our own, and in a Being higher than himself.  In addition, man has an intellectual faculty, endowed with “improvable reason.”  While the “lowest” races of men can progress in reason, religion, and morals, this is not true of apes, who are confronted with an impassable barrier to further advancement.


Thus Lyell could not bring himself to believe that there was an “insensible passage from the highest intelligence of the inferior animals to the improvable reason of Man.”  He instead believed in the possibility of “anomalous events” or “leaps” that constituted “breaks in an otherwise continuous series of physical changes.”  According to Lyell:


“If, in conformity with the theory of progression, we believe mankind to have risen slowly from a rude and humble starting point, such leaps may have successively introduced not only higher and higher forms and grades of intellect, but at a much remoter period may have cleared at one bound the space which separated the highest stage of the unprogressive intelligence of the inferior animals from the first and lowest form of improvable reason manifested by Man.”[7]


On the basis of this saltational concept, Lyell was able to leave room for divine causation:  “The whole course of nature may be the material embodiment of a preconcerted arrangement; and if the succession of events be explained by transmutation, the perpetual adaptation of the organic world to new conditions leaves the argument in favour of design, and therefore of a designer, as valid as ever….”[8]


Darwin was not happy with this conclusion, nor with Alfred Wallace’s similar idea.  Darwin wanted no place for leaps of being or divine causation in his evolutionary project, including man’s origin.  Man himself, and his moral, religious, and intellectual endowments, must be seen as the result of small, imperceptible steps up the chain of being.


Let us look at a basic weakness of Darwin’s view and indirectly provide a belated defense of Lyell.  Suppose there was a thunderstorm in the ancient past.  Suppose organism x found shelter from the storm in a cave.  Suppose further that x entered the shelter out of pure instinct.  Now consider organism y who also took shelter there because it had the first glimmer of a true proposition p—“my chances of survival will increase if I go into the cave.”  Finally, take organism z who entered the cave because of false glimmer q—“the Pumpkin god lives in the cave and if I’m to die in this storm, I want to die with him.”


In all three situations, entering the cave was the right thing to do, and all three organisms survived the storm.  In each case, the organisms had an advantage over other organisms that did not enter the cave.  The question that confronts Darwin’s theory is why should natural selection favor y over x or z?  In our example, y was the organism that had a true belief, whereas x was motivated by instinct, and z by a false belief.  Why should nature have a preference for rationality over instinct?  Or why should nature have a preference for true belief over false belief?  As long as the behavior conferred survival value, it did not matter whether it was caused by instinct, by true belief, or by false belief.


If survival value has no necessary relation to rationality or truth, natural selection should not have cared one way or another whether rational beings evolved.  To claim otherwise is to make the same sort of metaphysical assumption we discussed earlier, that nature has a preference for rationality and truth in the same way it has a preference for complexity.  But in fact nature has no preference for either because it has no intelligence or planning.  As long as it gets appropriate behavior, it does not care what caused the behavior, whether non-rational instinct, or true or false belief.


This problem has been brought to the attention of philosophers in recent years by Alvin Plantinga.  He has put forth a much discussed argument in an essay titled, “Naturalism Defeated.”  (Available on the Internet.)  The gist of the argument is that if evolutionary theory is combined with naturalism, then the naturalist has little reason to believe his cognitive faculties are reliable.  If that’s true, then he has no grounds for thinking any of his beliefs are rational, including his belief in the conjunction of evolutionary theory and naturalism.


Natural selection rewards appropriate behavior, but such behavior can be caused by emotions, or a mixture of beliefs and emotions.  That means belief in general, or true belief in particular, is invisible to natural selection.  Or to put it another way, truth does not necessarily confer any adaptive advantage for an organism’s developing cognitive faculties.  Plantinga illustrates this with probability calculus.  R refers to the reliability of our cognitive faculties, and N refers to naturalism, and E refers to our cognitive faculties as products of evolution.  The probability that our cognitive faculties are reliable over the conjunction of naturalism and evolutionary theory has the following result:


P(R/N&E) is low or cannot be determined


The conjunction of naturalism with evolutionary theory defeats the belief that one’s cognitive faculties are reliable.  Because this latter situation defeats the rationality of all beliefs, and also defeats the rationality of the specific belief in the conjunction of evolutionary theory and naturalism, N&E are a self-stultifying combination.


In a way, Plantinga is making use of a transcendental argument.  A skeptic may argue that none of our cognitive functions are reliable.  From this he deduces that none of our beliefs are true.  Unfortunately for the skeptic, the latter deduction would undermine the initial claim, for it too would not be true.  At the least, the skeptic would have to show in a non-arbitrary way why his initial claim shouldn’t be included in the scope of his subsequent claim, but since there is no way to do this, his skepticism is self-referentially incoherent.


Plantinga is essentially arguing that evolution combined with naturalism reduces the Darwinists to the status of the above skeptic.  He refers to what he calls “Darwin’s Doubt” wherein Darwin himself expressed the skeptical conclusion: “[T]he 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?”


Given that this doubt would also self-refer to evolutionary theory, as well as to Darwin’s Doubt itself, it is self-refuting.  However, not every evolutionist need follow Darwin down this skeptical path.  Many in fact might hold to the claim of unreliable cognitive faculties without deducing skepticism about the convictions of man’s mind.  So it would need to be shown that the Darwinist who commits to the first claim must also commit to the second.


Plantinga’s way of doing this focuses on the problem of whether evolutionary theory can relate content with causation.  The problem for the evolutionist is that there are so many ways in which behavior can be caused by non-rational factors.  Thus the causal link between content of belief (true or false belief) and appropriate behavior (survival behavior) is not easy to correlate on an evolutionary basis.  From this Plantinga argues that Darwinists are left with various views of the relation of mind and matter.  For instance, on some naturalistic construals belief may be merely a shadow cast by biochemistry, and is the source of adaptive behavior.  For others, desire rather than belief might produce adaptive behavior.   Natural selection would thus favor these at least as much as any behavior based on rationality.  This would undermine the naturalist’s confidence in the reliability of his belief-forming faculties, and would also undermine any claims made on the basis of such faculties, including naturalism.


Our own view is not over the issue of whether true belief causes appropriate behavior, or whether Darwinism must commit to epiphenomenalism with respect to mind.  These are certainly difficult problems for naturalistic views.  Our point is that Darwinism has no empirical warrant for the claim that nature has a preference for true belief over false belief.  The only way  this claim can get off the ground is by assuming it as part of theory.  It thus becomes a metaphysical axiom for Darwinism that nature has a more than 50% preference for true belief over false belief.  It is only by making this metaphysical assumption of 50%+ that Darwinism can account for the evolution of truth-conducive cognitive faculties.


Much of Plantinga’s argument presupposes the validity of reliabilist epistemology, but we have reason to doubt reliabilism as a good account of epistemology.  For criticism, see our paper, “Notes on Plantinga,” as well as Susan Haack’s Evidence & Inquiry, 1993.  To us, one can have a justified true belief (knowledge) even if it’s not produced by a reliable cognitive mechanism.  Reliabilism is more appropriately related to the question of our status as knowers, not to the question of knowledge itself.  Still, even if we assume the validity of reliabilism, it seems that all Plantinga’s argument would do is show that the naturalist must have low confidence in his belief in the conjunction of evolutionary theory and naturalism.  It doesn’t show that this belief is false.


If we separate out the reliabilist component of Plantinga’s argument, there is still a powerful objection to evolutionary naturalism.  Once one calls into question any necessary relation between adaptive advantage and true belief, one has pinpointed a major weakness in Darwinism—nature simply doesn’t care what causes adaptive advantage, whether true belief, false belief, or pure instinct.  Yet Darwinism needs to give nature a preference for true belief, else there would be no foundation for the evolution of truth-apt cognitive faculties.


The bottom line is that not only can the Darwinist not explain the origin of life in general on evolutionary, naturalistic grounds, neither can he explain the origin of man on evolutionary or naturalistic grounds.  For if there is one defining trait about man, it’s that he is a rational creature, and Darwin’s theory has no convincing resources to account for this trait.


If we were to accept an evolutionary account of the development of life, we would still have the problem of accounting for the origin of man’s rationality or mind.  To borrow an illustration from Michael Behe, though greatly altered, the evolution of the scale of being by chance and natural selection would be like a blind knight entering a castle, who must ascend a nearly infinite number of stories to arrive at the top of the castle.  Unfortunately, at each level the blind knight must choose to go through a nearly infinite number of doors, almost all of which would lead to dead ends, and to the subsequent elimination of the hapless knight.  By sheer luck, if he passes through the right door—an advantageous door, so to speak—he can go up the steps to the next story.  He leaves a trail so that any knight who comes after can follow.


This latter point would be illustrative of natural selection, preserving favorable outcomes.  But even with natural selection involved, when a successful knight makes it through the right door, he will be confronted by a room similar to the first: a nearly infinite number of doors is again open to him.  The problem of finding the right door by chance meets him once again, as well as whomever might follow.  This illustrates the implausibility of life arising through chance and natural selection.


The problem is even more acute than this.  Life on earth often consists of interacting, irreducibly complex systems, ones that do not work unless all the components are in place from the start.  To illustrate this, Behe’s blind knight would have to go through all the correct doors on first try.  This is really asking a bit much of natural selection and chance.


But let us grant the scenario, no matter how absurd or improbable.  Darwinism is confronted by another difficulty, even greater than the first two.  Consider the fact that the blind knight has somehow managed by chance to stumble through all the correct doors on first try.  The difficulty is that the castle is missing many floors.  That means there are not enough steps for the blind knight to traverse.  In order to arrive at the next story, the blind knight would have to jump to the next level.  The problem corresponds to the problem of the genetic boundary that separates major types (biomins) of plants and animals.  In order for our blind knight to jump, he would need some innate or internal power that enables him to hop up high enough to reach the next level.  Or he would require aid from an outside source.  Darwinism, however, rejects any sort of innate or external causation for the origin of biological life.  Fundamental to Darwin’s theory is the idea of descent by modification, not descent by miracle.  But how does the knight reach the next floor when all the intermediate steps have been denied him?


Even if this were not such a devastating problem, there is another that dwarfs all others, the gap between man and the lower creation.  Consider our very lucky knight who managed to find his way almost to the top of the castle.  He did so all in one stroke, even jumping by natural means all of the missing floors.  Before he can complete his journey, however, he faces one last hurdle.  The top of the castle exists in a separate dimension!  This problem corresponds to the problem of explaining the evolution of rationality and mind by way of chance and natural selection.  The difference between mind on the one hand, and the instincts, emotions, and perceptual awareness of animals on the other, is not merely quantitative.  It is not a matter of merely traversing the requisite steps up the chain of being.  Rather, it is in fact a qualitative difference.  As Lyell recognized long ago, this is a problem that simply cannot be solved on a naturalistic basis.


We conclude therefore that the evolution of man is impossible.  So then, how should we handle the evidence of human culture existing with extinct animals?  Or what about stone tools and weapons?  Or fossilized humans?  What are we to make of all this if man has not evolved?  This brings us to a discussion of the three age system, and how it was developed, and how it fits into biblical history.  In future sections, we will discuss issues regarding the Ice Age, the Flood/post-Flood boundary, and the nature of Paleolithic Man and his culture.



Three Ages of Man


[1] Charles Lyell, The Geological Evidence of the Antiquity of Man, Dover edition, 2004, [1863], p. 1.

[2] Ibid., p. 316.

[3] Ibid., p. 368.

[4] Ibid., p. 375.

[5] Jared Diamond, The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal, 1992, p. 2.


[6] Ibid., p. 385.

[7] Ibid., pp. 392-93.

[8] Ibid., p. 393.

  1. The Supreme Being says:

    How does a negative argument against evolution and naturalism leave theism as the only alternative? Your article is chock-full of fallacies and misrepresentations. It is a sophmoric attempt to establish the primacy of theism.

    Unless you know the probability of a supernatural being existing now, you don’t have a prayer of passing this argument of as legitimate philosophy. I’m certain you don’t have that due to the very nature of the task, nor will you ever have it. Passing off Behe’s disguised improbability arguments like irreducible complexity as proof of the probability of theism is the old argument from incredulity leading straight for the good old-fashioned argument from ignorance: the god-of-the-gaps.

    Your conclusion that evolution didn’t happen stinks of confirmatory bias. Evolution is the most well-confirmed scientific theory in the history of our 4.5 billion year-old planet. Germ theory, the theory of gravity, the theory of electricity and the theory of relativity has less scientific evidence supporting them than evolution.

    Naturalism Defeated is Plantinga’s vainglorious attempt to shore up the bulwark of fundamentalism. Lucky for all of us his conclusions are false.

  2. Vern Crisler says:

    I’m posting this reply, but unless you give your name, I won’t approve any more. I do not like anonymous posting on blogs.

    With respect to your reply, you are under the mistaken impression that I’m trying to prove theism. I’m not a preacher or an apologist, and have no talent or calling for those professions. Thus, while my argument can be used by apologists in defense of theism, that was not my main goal. My main goal was to show that evolutionists adopt metaphysical assumptions in their theory, and theists are under no obligation to accept those metaphysical assumptions (without argument).

    You’ve claimed that my article is “chock-full of fallacies and misrepresentations” but since you did not point them out, I cannot respond to your claim other than to deny it.

    You claim that the theory of evolution is the “most well-confirmed” theory in history. But in fact there is not a shred of evidence for the theory of evolution that can stand up under scrutiny.

    With respect to Plantinga, even if his argument were fallacious or false, that would not thereby establish evolutionism or naturalism. You seem to think that failure to prove theism necessarily proves evolutionism.

    But that is the same fallacy you accused me of — thinking that the theories available constitute an exclusive disjunction.

    In any case, nothing you have presented provides even the slightest support for the theory of evolution, and is therefore an exercise in irrelevancy.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s