Saturday, January 4, 2014

Quick and Dirty: A potential defeater for the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism

I wanted to throw up a quick post about an idea I have to try and refute Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism.  This isn’t intended as a full rebuttal, but more of an idea for an approach to refute it. 
I’m actually looking for feedback on whether or not this approach works or is fundamentally flawed.
The thrust of his argument is that since evolution only selects based on adaptability we can't necessarily trust the reliability of our cognitive faculties on naturalism (the assumption that there is no god).
An example he uses is that of a human and a lion, the truth value of a human's belief's about lions is separate from whether or not those beliefs produce adaptable behavior.  On naturalism we have no reason to suppose our beliefs about a lion being dangerous and wanting to eat us, therefore we should run and hide from it. 
We similarly could have evolved the belief that we should run from the tiger because in order to make tigers happy you should run and hide from them.  The thought is that through the eyes of evolution, both sets of beliefs produce equivalent adaptability and so either could have been selected for.

A Potential Defeater
The main idea I have is to accept that for many areas of belief our cognitive faculties could very well be unreliable given naturalism, however this does not mean that all beliefs we have would be unreliable.
My theory is that there would be a small set of beliefs that would necessarily have to be true in order for them to be adaptive.  Good examples of this would be the belief that I am hungry or not hungry; cold or not cold.  Basically any binary proposition that directly impacts our survival would necessarily have to be true in order for it to be adaptive.
This is basically the law of identity, from which we could get the three basic laws of logic.  I take it that Plantinga's argument doesn't argue against the reliability of the senses, so we'd have that level of reliability.  I think that once we're able to combine the basic laws of logic with the senses evolution can eventually come up with a cognitive process that is reliable in modelling the world as we perceive it through the senses.  We would at least start by differentiating between different kinds of things, say the difference between self and other.  It would be adaptive at least to differentiate between say lions and people, and identifying things like cause and effect through binary mechanisms.
The goal is to see if in principle we can get from that to identifying something akin to science, or some other reliable method that we can use to identify whether our beliefs are true by subjecting those beliefs to whether or not they correspond to what our senses tell us the world is like.
That's the quick and dirty idea of it anyway. Start small and establish some beliefs like logic, self and other, which when combined with our reliable 5 senses to arrive at something true.


  1. Yeah, part of me thinks that the EAAN is so fabulously stupid that it's not worth "refuting," mostly because what you describe as your tack above seems obvious. I think a chief problem with the EAAN is that the term "cognitive faculties" isn't well defined -- it seems to include perceptions (blue), reactions (instinctive movements that result from nervous stimuli, such as recoiling from fire), the ability to form thoughts / think logically, and also the ability to hold beliefs and act on them in a planned way. Something about the EAAN just reminds me of a Thomist or whatnot countering science because it doesn't account for the substance of "fire." I'm all like, "Yeah, no, what?"

    1. Cal,

      Thanks for the comment, between what you wrote and looking at some of the latest videos by YouTuber KnownNoMore, I think the argument about reliable belief mechanisms has all sorts of genuine issues.

      It starts becoming an argument against material accounts of the mind, per Plantinga's reformulation in the Wikipedia link.

      Still, I wanted to thank you for the feedback.

  2. Yeah, on re-reading my comment I think that maybe I didn't really offer you much in the way of feedback, though -- not really in the way that you were asking for.

    One thing that has occurred to me, though, is that the EAAN is resilient because (oddly) it offers so many different ways to be rejected. It's somewhat counter-intuitive, but it seems that arguments that are wrong on many levels interest us more than one's that can only be refuted in just one way.

    Just to choose two (of sooo many) problems, I'd re-frame the EAAN example to include a bear (not a lion). The reason for this is because I've come across the debate many times on whether or not you're better off running from a bear, or playing dead. This seems to frame Plantinga's question in a more tractable way, because now we're discussing whether or not it's rational to hold a belief that you're better off running from a bear or playing dead.

    Plantinga seems to want to make the bear question (better off running or playing dead?) one that ignores the mechanisms that drive the behavior -- selection. It seems like a kind of equivocation, really -- the question as framed should be, "What behavior when facing a bear most likely leads to genetic replication," but Plantinga somehow turns this into a question that is completely untethered from the driving force behind behavior (selection).

    It's as if the EAAN says, "If there were no natural selection, how would we know that our planned behavior is based in reality?" Then I would agree, we would not.

    Oddly, the question he truly asks of the naturalist (the bad one just above, the one that ignores the role of natural selection on planned behavior) is the question that we could ask of any religious belief: "If there is no way to determine whether or not your faith-based beliefs are true, how can we come to trust any of our faith-based beliefs?" Again, I would agree with (his question) turn on his religious beliefs; we do not.

  3. I think Plantinga goes wrong if he suggests that we evolve beliefs at all. We evolve instincts. When these instincts are favourable they work, and support evolution. I think humans and some animals evolved the ability to think abstractly, which leads to beliefs. This allows for things like tool making and imagination and creativity. Only much later does logic appear, well after we have started to change our environment rather than our environment change us. I think you are right cognition and complex abstract thought needs to occur, I would think likely as a by-product of developing more and more complex instincts, and then this, leads to developing logic and critical thinking. These in my view don't lead to "truth" which is not knowable, but only very high levels of consistency.

    "When the men come in ships and ask me questions, do you hear them asking questions kitty? Maybe you think they are singing songs? Perhaps they ARE singing songs to you kitty, but it only seems to me that they are asking me questions? Perhaps I am tired." (to paraphrase Douglas Adams).

  4. fun fact: Plantinga thinks to have knockdown argument against naturalism. If you even just search for a possible way of how we can come to known things due to purely natural processes, this already means, that you aren't persuaded. According to Plantinga his argument already settles it.

  5. I came across your blog and was having a read of it. I have considered the EAAN and have wondered whether communication was the answer to the EAAN.That is communication both short term and preserved, such as books offers a means of increasing the probability of true beliefs over false beliefs. Thoughts?