When Biologists give Philosophy a Bad Name

Posted: June 12, 2010 in Evolution, Philosophy

By Vern Crisler, 2010

On his blog, evolutionary biologist PZ Myers has written a critique of philosopher Alvin Plantinga’s “Naturalism Defeated” argument:


Plantinga’s more detailed discussion of the subject can be found here:


Plantinga’s critique is not directed at naturalism per se or at evolutionary theory per se, but at the combination of the two.  He allows that either naturalism is true or that evolution is true, but never a combination of the two.  His argument thus allows for the rationality of theistic evolution but not of naturalistic evolution. 

On the whole, Myers’ claims in response to Plantinga are generally worthless, as are those of the cheerleading squad that follows in the Comments section of his Blog.  Here is how he starts out:

“I’ve read some of his [Plantinga’s] work, but not much; it’s very bizarre stuff, and every time I get going on one of his papers I hit some ludicrous, literally stupid claim that makes me wonder why I’m wasting time with this pretentious clown, and I give up, throw the paper in the trash….”

Now, I happen to disagree with Plantinga’s epistemology (reliabilism), but to call him a “pretentious clown” and to dismiss his work as “bizarre stuff” or “ludicrous” or “stupid” is hardly the sort of discourse one expects from members of the academy.  After all, professors are supposed to set an example of calm, rational argument — at least for their students.  If they bark and snicker like hyenas over a fresh kill, why should they be entrusted with the task of teaching and molding students to become scholars?

Myers doesn’t like it that Plantinga referred to books by the new atheists as “long on vituperation, but short of reasoning, long on name-calling but short on competence, long on righteous indignation but short on good sense; for the most part they are driven by hatred rather than logic.”

As I read it, Plantinga is referring to books, not people.  What he says may in fact be perfectly true.  The books may indeed be incompetent, short on reasoning, lacking in good sense, and motivated by hatred.  However, Myers thinks it’s ironic because Plantinga “opens his paper with a name-calling screed in which he lambastes others for writing name-calling screeds.”

Again, Plantinga mentioned books.  I don’t see any persons mentioned.  Does Myers think that calling a book stupid is the same as calling its author stupid?  Merely turn the question around: is calling a person stupid the same as calling his argument stupid?  See the fallacies of relevance section in your nearest book on logic.

Myers himself has no hesitation in using ad hominem, i.e., arguments against the person instead of against the argument.  He apparently wants us to understand that Plantinga is really the odd man out, “[e]specially when, as we read further, we discover that Plantinga is the one lacking in competence, good sense, and logic.”

Will Myers provide us with an argument?  Not yet, for he first wants to summarizes Plantinga’s views.  He quotes Plantinga as saying that “natural selection doesn’t care about the truth or falsehood of your beliefs; it cares only about adaptive behavior. Your beliefs may all be false, ridiculously false; if your behavior is adaptive, you will survive and reproduce.”

In response, Myers says “Yes, exactly! Just believing in something, whether it is Christianity or physics, doesn’t mean it is necessarily true.”

We haven’t seen the argument yet — merely a faulty summary of one of Plantinga’s points.  Plantinga wasn’t talking about belief and truth-value, as Myers’ assumes, but about belief and adaptive-value.  Will we get an argument?

Not quite, for Myers merely substitutes classification for argument.  He describes Plantinga’s view as “creationist,” and believes the “naturalism defeated” argument is merely another “creationist” argument about the improbability of chance producing complex biological structures.

However, Plantinga is not providing a probabilistic argument with respect to ontology (structure).  What he is doing is providing an argument with respect to epistemology (true or false belief).  He is arguing that unlike structure, belief is invisible to natural selection.

Myers continues with his summary and refers to Plantinga’s thought experiment involving a hypothetical population who behaved in adaptive ways but had mostly false beliefs.  I shall call this a Plantinga-world.

Here is where Myers provides us with something approaching an argument.  He references fire, and believes the inhabitants of the Plantinga-world would be able to answer the question, is fire hot?  Myers comments:

“I think that in reality they would have used experience and their senses to winnow out bad ideas, like that fire is cold, and you’d actually find nearly 100% giving the same, correct answer. Plantinga does not seem to believe in empiricism, either.”

He further says, “A large part of our behavior will be functional (not contradicting reality) and some of it will even be adaptive (better fitting us to reality), and a lot of it will be neutral (contradicting reality, perhaps, but in ways that do not affect survival), but this does not imply that our cognitive faculties are necessarily and implicitly reliable. We could have highly unreliable cognition that maintains functionality by constant cross-checks against reality — we build cognitive models of how the world works that are progressively refined by experience.”

Let us examine the argument.  In the first place, Myers fails to note, or at least understand, that Plantinga had already successfully addressed this sort of objection.  In the “Naturalism Defeated” essay he said, “Could Paul’s beliefs really be mainly false, but still lead to adaptive action?  Yes indeed; perhaps the simplest way to see how is by thinking of systematic ways in which his beliefs could be false but still adaptive. Perhaps Paul is a sort of early Leibnizian and thinks everything is conscious. . . ; furthermore, his ways of referring to things all involve definite descriptions that entail consciousness, so that all of his beliefs are of the form That so-and-so conscious being is such-and-such.  Perhaps he is an animist and thinks everything is alive.  Perhaps he thinks all the plants and animals in his vicinity are witches, and his ways of referring to them all involve definite descriptions entailing witchhood.  But this would be entirely compatible with his belief’s being adaptive; so it is clear, I think, that there would be many ways in which Paul’s beliefs could be for the most part false, but adaptive nonetheless.”

To apply the lesson to the question of knowledge of fire, the inhabitants of a Plantinga-world may experience an unpleasant sensation when they touch fire, but they may have mostly false notions as to what the cause is.  Perhaps they think the fire is a god, and the pain from getting close to the fire is due to a direct punishment from the fire god rather than from the fire itself.  Others may think it’s a different god at work, punishing them at the precise moment they touch the fire.  Others may think they are suffering from a physical malady that returns at just the moment they get close to a fire.

Plantinga’s point is that there is a virtually infinite set of false beliefs that can be formed to explain any phenomena.  Yet as long as correct behavior is the result of those false beliefs, natural selection does not care.  It is only interested in behavior. In other words, natural selection is not concerned with truth-value.  It has no reason to favor true beliefs over false.

As such, there is no naturalistic explanation of why we should develop cognitive faculties that are reliable, i.e., truth-conducive — producing true belief more often than not.  If our cognitive faculties aren’t reliable, then we cannot be assured that any of our beliefs formed by such faculties are true.  Hence, it follows that even the belief in the conjunction of naturalism and evolutionary theory cannot be rationally held. 

Plantinga had pointed out that we cannot simply assume that the inhabitants of the Plantinga-world have reliable cognitive faculties. The point of the illustration was to show that if naturalism & evolution are jointly true, then it’s probable that our cognitive faculties are unreliable.

In his discussion of functional behavior and functional cognition, Myers made a leap from behavior to cognition without providing a bridge between them.  How do we get from one to the other?  Because behavior and belief are not essentially bound to one another, Myers cannot just jump from functional behavior to functional cognition without assuming the very point at issue.

Myers goes on: “Plantinga really thinks that one of the claims he is arguing against is that materialists/naturalists assume our minds are reliable.”

Of course, in light of Darwin’s Doubt, if our minds are not reliable, then the claim that our minds aren’t reliable would also be unreliable.

Myers continued: “To which I say…exactly! Brains are not reliable; they’ve been shaped by forces which, as has been clearly said, do not value Truth with a capital T. Scientists are all skeptics who do not trust their perceptions at all; we design experiments to challenge our assumptions, we measure everything multiple times in multiple ways, we get input from many people, we put our ideas out in public for criticism, we repeat experiments and observations over and over. We demand repeated and repeatable confirmation before we accept a conclusion, because our minds are not reliable. We cannot just sit in our office at Notre Dame with a bible and conjure truth out of divine effluent. We need to supplement brains with evidence, which is the piece Plantinga is missing.”

Here is a case of a man who so desires to repudiate Plantinga’s argument that he virtually makes the argument himself.  It is obvious that this biologist has not really thought through the philosophical implications of his empiricism.  He claims that our minds aren’t reliable (self-stultifying though the claim might be), but then allows that our minds can test and confirm and measure.  He has forgotten that if our minds are unreliable in one case, they are also unreliable in the other.

One of the commentators, by no means friendly toward Plantinga, noticed the fallacy in Myers argument:

“PZ’s frustrated response that science is the way to correct our mind’s unreliability misses the mark, I’m afraid, since scientists rely on their flawed minds to decide how to use scientific tools to eliminate subjective errors.  Plantinga is positing a version of philosophical scepticism, and in this case ‘crosschecking’ the brain by using the brain just won’t do.  It’s like reading two copies of the same newspaper to double check a fact.  Sorry, PZ gets a FAIL on this one.”

I don’t think Plantinga is positing “philosophical skepticism” so much as he is showing the consequences of what happens when one combines naturalistic assumptions with the theory of evolution.

In any case, Myers needs to spend a few more years studying philosophy and epistemology before attempting to mimic the new atheists in how much he can bluster and insult and still manage to miss the whole point.


  1. Interesting post. I agree that PZ Myers does not provide good criticism. I think Plantinga’s argument doesn’t work but I have yet to read a counterargument that I think hits the nail on the head as to why it fails.

    To my mind the key is Occam’s razor. If we take the razor to be largely reliable as a methodological maxim then we can, I believe, see where Plantinga argument fails.

    There are indeed many different ways to understand reality. However, if Occam’s razor holds then simpler theories (consistent with the data) will tend to give better predictions.

    Also in terms of strict complexity the rules of logic are really quite simple. Most alternative system which favoured beliefs that are not harmful (but untrue) would have to be quite complex.

    Given that evolutionary processes will tend to favour organs that achieve the most with the least energy expenditure it seems likely that brains should have evolved to follow Occam’s razor and logical rules.

    Incidentally some biologists claim that evolution has no direction. For instance there are some on record as saying that intelligence involving is unlikely because evolution has no direction. I think this position will, with time, be understood to be a mistake.

  2. Vern Crisler says:

    Hi Barnaby,

    Your position is that true beliefs are favored because of Occam’s razor. IOW, evolution does not want to expend the energy on too many false beliefs. Because of this, natural selection will favor truth-apt cognitive faculties.

    It is not clear to me why evolution would favor any expenditure of energy for any belief whatsoever, true or false.

    Belief requires complexity (complexity in cognitive equipment), and complexity is a drain on evolutionary resources. Why would natural selection want to expend energy on it?

    As Plantinga intimated, natural selection is not interested in logical rules. If the right sort of behavior is the result, the belief can be just any thing you please.

    Natural selection is blind — as we are told by Darwinists — so it has no reason to favor true belief over false belief. It has no reason to favor those who are logical over those who aren’t — as long as it gets adaptive behavior.

    I agree that evolution has to be directional, but Darwinists haven’t really faced up to the real problems with such directedness. (See my essay, “The Antiquity of Man” for a discussion.)


  3. Jonathan says:

    I think Thomas Nagel provides a much more sophisticated version of Plantinga’s argument in his ‘The Last Word’ which, among other things, offers a robust defense of the traditional high estimation of reason, in response to biological reductionism. The fact that he is not an apologist for Christianity makes his defense all the more difficult to defeat.

    That said, I believe the basic thrust of Plantinga’s argument actually amounts to a defense of the traditional idea of ‘reason’ from the radical empiricism of biologists i.e. guys in white coats who say ‘we’ve figured out how your mind works’. Hate all that stuff.

    • Vern Crisler says:

      Hello Jonathan,

      I’m not sure why you think Nagel’s argument is more sophisticated than Plantinga’s given that Nagel is relying on or summarizing Plantinga’s argument. (See Last Word, p. 135, footnote 13.)

      I’m glad you and Nagel have a high estimation of reason. The question is how to account for it. Plantinga’s argument grants almost everything to Darwinism — unfortunately Plantinga in fact believes the theory of evolution is true — but he does not grant the naturalistic component. That’s all he is arguing against.

      I doubt whether Plantinga is concerned with the “traditional idea of reason.” Rather, he is approaching things from the angle of epistemological reliabilism, a relatively recent fad among philosophers (one I don’t agree with).

      Thanks for commenting!


  4. Jonathan says:

    I did notice Nagel’s reference to Plantinga. I had also read Plantinga’a argument elsewhere, in his critique of The God Delusion. I have only noticed this line of argument in the last few months.

    I debate on the philosophy forums. I am generally on the ‘spiritual-green-left’ of the spectrum, I suppose you would say. It never occurred to me to question evolution till Dawkins came out with God Delusion. It had the rather opposite effect on me than intended. But then, I have always opposed materialism, although from something of a different perspective to most Christians.

    However I still accept the narrative of evolution, the progression through various species, culminating in H Sapiens. But I am now beginning to doubt that ‘natural selection’ is the cause of what happened. I also feel that the Darwinist account is unavoidably reductionist. In fact I have started to oppose Darwinism, which ten years ago I never would have considered doing.

    So I am interested in which way you don’t think ‘the theory of evolution is true’, if you could point me to a passage here on your site. Thanks!

    • Vern Crisler says:

      Hi Jonathan, there are innumerable critiques of the theory of evolution that are accessible on the web, but I’ve tried to discuss it from a philosophical perspective on my blog. If you’re interested in evolution from that angle, I would suggest my essay on the “Antiquity of Man” at:


      The issue of scaler complexity is a real problem for Darwinism in my opinion, and like you, I see no way that natural selection could provide an adequate explanation for it.

      Nagel is an interesting philosopher and has admitted right up front that psychology (“fear of religion”) is an important component of how we approach all of these issues.



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