MANY PEOPLE WOULD RATHER DIE THAN THINK; IN FACT, MOST DO. — BERTRAND RUSSELL

Falling down a wormhole courtesy Alvin Plantinga

 from over at the Cross Examined blog on Patheos recently considered philosopher and Christian apologist Alvin Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism, which essentially states that if evolution is true, human cognitive function developed in such a way as to support survival, but not necessarily beliefs as truth. Thus, according to this argument, how can we trust what we think we know about the world? And if we can’t trust our own ability to glean truth reliably, God must be the conduit by which we mere humans can know things.

As Seidensticker phrased it:

In brief, the question is: how can a human mind that’s the result of the clumsy process of evolution be trusted? About “Darwin’s doubt,” Plantinga argues that only Christians can have confidence that their interpretation of the world is correct. Naturalists can’t prove that minds are reliable until they’ve proven that the source of this claim (the mind!) is worth listening to. … He says that if evolution is true, human beliefs have been selected for survival value, not truth, so why trust them? And yet our beliefs are reliable, suggesting to Plantinga that something besides evolution created them.

As Seidensticker correctly points out, Plantinga presents some rather strained logic that through the example of a man named Paul, who Plantinga reckons could in theory just as easily act arbitrarily in response to stimuli in the environment rather than based on a system in which desires or needs correlate with action. Take Plantinga’s example about Paul:

Perhaps [Paul] thinks the tiger is a large, friendly, cuddly pussycat and wants to pet it; but he also believes that the best way to pet it is to run away from it.

There’s no reason that I can see to suppose that a person would act in this way given all we know about human nature and our environmental behavior, but nevertheless, here are two charts showing some expected actions of humans versus arbitrary responses to stimuli based on Plantinga’s logic:

Expected action. Credit: Bob Seidensticker

Expected actions. Credit: Bob Seidensticker

Arbitrary actions. Credit: Bob Seidensticker

Plantinga’s arbitrary actions. Credit: Bob Seidensticker

Here’s Seidensticker’s basic conclusion about Plantinga’s argument:

Paul’s response to the tiger was just a roll of the dice, and he got lucky. But Plantinga supposes that all of Paul’s beliefs are arbitrary, not just those about tigers. Some actions in this chart are benign, but some are dangerous. When Paul sees something scary, his reaction is to walk toward it. When he’s drowning, he’ll try to sleep. When he’s hungry, he’ll satisfy that need with fresh air, and so on. With his basic desires paired with ineffective methods, this guy is clearly too stupid to live.

This is where natural selection comes in. Natural selection is unforgiving, and belief sets that don’t lead to survival are discarded. Evolution easily explains why Plantinga’s Paul didn’t exist.

This explanation is straightforward enough. For Paul to continue to exist, he would not take arbitrary actions such as are listed in the second chart. If he and his clan acted in this way all the time, they would surely die off very quickly. But Plantinga went further, as hinted at in the first quote presented above, asserting that if we assume both naturalism and evolution are true and that our cognition may be unreliable — known as Darwin’s doubt and dubious in any case — that God must be the one behind our ability to know and understand the world.

According to Plantinga:

… this doubt arises for naturalists or atheists, but not for those who believe in God. [How does he know?] That is because if God has created us in his image, then even if he fashioned us by some evolutionary means, he would presumably want us to resemble him in being able to know; but then most of what we believe might be true even if our minds have developed from those of the lower animals.

Of course, even Plantinga is wise enough to know this is pure sophistry, and such is the apologist’s propensity to knowingly pedal shit to the masses behind the ruse of philosophically sophisticated rhetoric.

First, this argument rests on the far-fetched assumption that God, even if he created us in his image, would “want us to resemble him” in knowing things. How do we know that God wasn’t more interested in keeping us in the dark all along? If you read Genesis, God created man in his image only in some nebulous, undefined sense. Perhaps he was created in God’s image based on physical appearance, for instance. Clearly, God did not create man “in his image” based on an ability to know truth, as Plantinga seems to claim. God explicitly attempted (poorly) to hinder man from obtaining knowledge by forbidding him to eat the fruit he so conspicuously placed in the garden. By eating the fruit, man gained knowledge of his own nakedness, basic human anatomy, and therefore, biology, and his own mortality. Doctrinally speaking, this was obviously not the plan, and man was supposed to stay in a state of innocence, that is, lacking knowledge and being familiar only of his immediate surroundings, the animals, plants, etc. (Of course, God’s designs not going “as planned” presents all kinds of problems for claims of God’s omniscience, but I’ve covered that extensively elsewhere on this site).

Presumably, knowledge about science was indeed not in “God’s plan” since for many people after 1859, evolution and the recession of creationism from the mainstream were big reasons many believers left the fold, which, presumably again, was not in God’s plan either. So, the argument that God was a sort of conduit of knowledge for us humans falls flat.

The only complaint I had with Seidensticker’s piece was that he kept referring to Plantinga only as a “philosopher” rather than the Christian apologist that he actually is:

As an aside, let me admit that I have a hard time maintaining respect for those at the leading edge of philosophy. Do they do work that’s relevant and pushes the frontier of human knowledge? …

My advice to philosophers: when you get the urge to play scientist, it’s best to lie down until the feeling goes away.

As such, I would take a large measure of exception with describing Plantinga as joining other mainstream scholars in being at the “leading edge of philosophy.” Plantinga isn’t playing science. He isn’t even playing philosophy. He’s playing rhetorical  games to attempt to make his theological mind, which only leans slightly toward philosophy, right with what he knows to be true, even if he won’t admit it, about science and evolution.

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About the Author

Jeremy Styron
Jeremy Styron
I am a newspaper editor, op-ed columnist and reporter working in the greater Knoxville area. This is a personal blog. Views expressed here are mine and mine alone.

15 Comments on "Falling down a wormhole courtesy Alvin Plantinga"

  1. Robert Firth | August 29, 2013 at 9:06 pm |

    Thank you for the post. I too found Plantinga's "argument" a pile of steaming you-know-what. But even worse was his contempt for the subject under discussion, namely evolution. His "Paul" is indeed a ridiculous straw man, but had the author bothered to study a book or two, he would have found real examples of false beliefs that promote survival.

    An obvious one is this: "All snakes are venomous". False, but pretty safe, since one who believes that will avoid all snakes, including the venomous ones. The converse belief, "No snakes are venomous", will probably get you killed. This kind of asymmetry is typical of our (imperfect) thought processes: when in doubt, play safe.

    Oh, and he's also wrong about tigers. You can't escape them by jumping into the river, because they happen to be excellent swimmers.

  2. Jeremy Styron jeremystyron | August 30, 2013 at 1:41 pm |

    Thanks for reading, Robert, and glad you enjoyed the post on Plantinga's logic-bending brand of apologetics. I've seen him treated like some kind of philosophical superhero in Christian circles. As ever, Christians read whatever they can to support their beliefs, not to challenge them. If Christianity was so self-evidently true, it wouldn't need defending, would it?

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