Shooting Themselves in the Foot: Why Atheistic Evolution is Self-Defeating

It continues to dumbfound me that so many atheists fail to realize the intellectual bankruptcy of their belief system—when that system is followed to its logical conclusion. This is a particularly glaring problem with those who have made a career out of spreading the “gospel” of naturalistic evolution—the view that all things are the result of blind natural processes and laws acting upon matter.

Dr. Alvin Plantinga

In 1994, Dr. Alvin Plantinga of Notre Dame University wrote a paper entitled Naturalism Defeated. His argument (and I’m simplifying and paraphrasing here) was  that if our human minds are the products of naturalistic evolution, then we cannot trust our minds to produce reliable truths about the external world. The most we could expect, Plantinga asserted, is that our minds are reliable enough to promote survival and reproduction. Therefore, the claim that naturalism is true is being made by an unreliable mind. The bottom line is that naturalism is self-defeating.

Plantinga wasn’t the first thinker to point out this conundrum of atheism. In an essay entitled “Religion Without Dogma?” the late C.S. Lewis said:

C.S. (a.k.a. Jack) Lewis

It would be impossible to accept naturalism itself if we really and consistently believed naturalism. For naturalism is a system of thought. …if naturalism were true then all thoughts whatever would be wholly the result of irrational causes. Therefore, all thoughts would be equally worthless. Therefore, naturalism is worthless. If it is true, then we can know no truths. It cuts its own throat.

Lewis continues:

I remember once being shown a certain kind of knot which was such that if you added one extra complication to make assurance double sure you suddenly found that the whole thing had come undone in your hands and you had only a bit of string. It is like that with naturalism. It goes on claiming territory after territory: first the inorganic, then the lower organisms, then man’s body, then his emotions. But when it takes the final step and we attempt a naturalistic account of thought itself, suddenly the whole thing unravels.

Well said, Jack, well said!

The self-defeating nature of naturalism is a serious inconsistency for the atheistic worldview. Only with a purpose-driven intelligent agency being responsible for the minds of men can we have confidence in the truths we ascertain about ourselves and about the world. True rationality cannot come from non-rational natural processes. Intelligence cannot come from non-intelligence. The effects cannot be greater than the cause.

9 thoughts on “Shooting Themselves in the Foot: Why Atheistic Evolution is Self-Defeating

  1. “True rationality cannot come from non-rational natural processes.”

    Isn’t this begging the question? The naturalist/atheist would affirm that evolution produces rationality, but that it is, nonetheless, “true rationality”.

    Alternatively, the naturalist/atheist can simply affirm that we are subject to forces beyond our control, and that the beliefs should not be judged on how “true” they are, but whether or not they “work”.

    Now one may think that divorcing their beliefs from truth is cutting “its own throat”. But I’m not sure it would be helpful for the theist to reply by acknowledging the utility of naturalism, but giving the “but it may not be true” objection. The fact that naturalism does tend to work is evidence (although to what degree is an open question) for its truth.

    • No, not circular at all. The claim that rationality can only be the product of a rational agent is an argument that has been well-articulated by several highly renowned philosophers. Dr. Angus Menuge is another great example. In his book, Agents Under Fire, he demonstrates why naturalistic evolution, a non-rational mechanism, cannot produce rationality nor agency. I highly recommend it.

      The theist can indeed acknowledge the utility of soft methodological naturalism in the sciences without embracing hard MN and/or wholesale naturalism. But by doing so, they do not have to abandon the belief (as the true naturalist must) that all rationality comes from a rational agent.

      Not sure what you mean by “naturalism does tend to work.” Do you mean that naturalistic explanations can account for a great deal of what we observe in the world? That’s certainly true, but what Plantinga, Lewis, Menuge, et. al. are arguing is that there are definite limits to what it can be credited with.

  2. @jbchapp, The point is not that MN can’t have rational thoughts that ‘tend to work’ (at least for true observation, empirical tests etc.). The point is that MN, and atheism in general, has *no basis* for rational thought (as CS Lewis detailed in ‘Miracles’), and actually disallows it. There is no way to get authentic cognition from a naturalistic paradigm.

    The best exit from this dilemma IMO, is not to jettison secular thoughts about the world, causation et al (though a review of what is considered fact, vs. what is an untestable assumption, is long overdue). The better option would be to jettison their *starting assumptions*, that MN is a truly-true, ‘theory of everything’ that must contain and encompass all reality, including our ultimate origins and destiny.

    Once we allow that our origin and life’s creation (whatever the timeline) may indeed be the result of a discontinuous process not originating within our space-time continuum, the rest can be studied effectively within limits of accessibility and falsifiable tests.

  3. Melissa: It is difficult to demonstrate that something cannot be done, but I respect Menuge’s work and would definitely be interested to read the book, so thanks for the recommendation. I certainly understand that there have been many who have argued that naturalism cannot plausibly account for “authentic cognition” (whatever that means); what I’m pointing out is that merely asserting that “the effects cannot be greater than the cause” is question-begging without adding more to support it. Considering phenomena like “emergence” are known to exist, it seems the *possibility* that the sum may be more than the parts needs to at least be addressed rather than dismissed.

    Lee: If naturalism can account for how authentic cognition has evolved (and it hasn’t), it seems to me that it will have its basis. We can say that it has no basis *now*. And we can make arguments as to why such an explanation isn’t plausible or forthcoming. But asserting that it cannot do so in principle seems to me to either beg the question and/or rest on an artificial semantic distinction (rational vs. non-rational).

    Semantics of this are prone to error. It won’t do to say “inorganic chemistry cannot in principle account for organic chemistry”. It may seem that by adding an “in” or “non” in front of identical terms that we can safely say one cannot account for the other, but experience proves otherwise. Perhaps I’m misunderstanding, but that seems to me the crux of the argument.

    I think the Argument from Reason is useful insofar as it puts the burden on the naturalist to account for cognition. But as I said earlier, they can easily move to a position that emphasizes utility over truth. For many, this would be deeply unsatisfying of course.

    Finally, it’s not entirely clear to me that simply inserting a “discontinuous process not originating within our space-time continuum” makes “authentic cognition” a go. How do we know our cognition is not being interfered with? It seems to me we’d rely on utility…

  4. Came here to say one thing…..

    “It continues to dumbfound me that so many atheists fail to realize the intellectual bankruptcy of their belief system”

    There is no “atheist belief system”. Atheists are just the every day people you see in the streets that don’t follow a religion. The people this article is referring to are natural evolutionary scientists. At least direct your rage at the right people.

    • Hmmm…I’m not sure I see how being “dumbfounded” can be equated with rage.

      Anyone who claims that some things are “right,” “wrong,” “good,” or “bad,” ascribes to a belief system. I’ve never met an atheist that did not hold to a set of beliefs about moral values and duties. Usually, they use some brand of relativism and/or social Darwinism to justify their ideas about such things. This is by definition a belief system, as incoherent and philosophically groundless as it may be.

  5. JB: I am guessing that you are coming from a Metaphysical Naturalist (MN) perspective (see below), which has no room for God to cause or oversee our thought processes (please correct me if I misread you). This would leave us with a very small toolbox of causative factors: Hydrogen gas (primordial, we’re told) and lots of time. The rest is all mechanics – from Hydrogen, to Humans commenting on Facebook, it’s just bumps and burps, as it were. (Oversimplification of course, but really – it has to boil down to that at some point.). Galaxy formation, the elements, planetary accretion, complicated chemicals on Earth, OOL (origin of life), development up the evolutionary ladder by random mutations – the whole enchilada.

    Although Theists can suppose that God was involved at some point(s), this is not allowed in MN. And – those same secular, mechanistic laws and processes are supposedly going on today (Uniformitarianism), so the MN folks have some heavy lifting to do, IMO. We’ve all seen Syd Harris’ cartoon: http://www.tc3.edu/instruct/sbrown/pic/miracle.jpg

    Anyway, the point that CS Lewis was making (and I concur) was that IF there is no other causative process (in MN, there is none) affecting our brain than the motion of atoms inside it (whether chaotic or predetermined; it doesn’t matter), there is no way for our thoughts to step outside of the process (as it were) and tell us all about it – or to tell us any true information, insight, analysis or comment about *anything*. It’s not ‘rational’ in that sense – and that’s the “authentic cognition” I was talking about. Cognition that truly can stand apart from the physical aspects of the brain, and tell us something independent of atoms bumping inside our brain. Otherwise, our thoughts are no more significant than a burp, signifying nothing but digestion.

    Now, I assume you DO have rational thoughts, and DO have insights and analyses worth considering. Fine – but there is no basis for it with MN. There is nothing that can “emerge”, because whatever it would be, would still be trapped as part of the system. (Note: this is not a “god of the gaps” theory – it is a simple deduction from the only allowable causative factors in MN, and logical deduction from that.) Therefore – I would consider a more robust worldview that has sufficient causative factors (including from outside the universe and nature, if need be) to explain the effects we observe today – including your own rational thought.

    Steve, re: your comment: // There is no “atheist belief system”. Atheists are just the every day people you see in the streets that don’t follow a religion.//

    Actually, genuine Atheism (“no God”) is a lot more than just Agnosticism (“not knowing”), which would be your average guy in the street (AFAIK). It claims that there IS NO God(s), and some other derivative claims from that. It is a belief system that affirms certain verities about the Universe, about Man(kind), about the (non-) meaning of our existence, about miracles, about life after death – About a whole lot of things that they posit, but with no more authority than anybody else. Even if some of them wear white lab coats, or have a last name like “Sagan”, “Crick”, “Gould” or “Dawkins”.

    Atheism MUST believe (or hold to) *Metaphysical Naturalism* (MN) – that there is no supernatural, no God, no purpose, no design or destiny of nature, or history, or any aspect of reality. It would also include Methodological Naturalism (see below) as the only way to interpret Earth, life, the Universe, or anything else.

    *Methodological Naturalism* (mn) I will abbreviate with a lower-case ‘mn’. It mainly says that science proceeds by looking only at natural causes of events (as we best might understand them), for experiments etc. Actually, I don’t have a problem with mn, as a way to *test hypotheses* about how things operate today in biology, geology etc. (again, within our field of view), without getting into the *origin* of everything, of life, and so forth, and whether – granted sufficient cause – the ordinary rules of daily life could be suspended for certain events (e.g. the Resurrection et al).

    In other words, mn would (in theory) allow for certain historical exceptions to normal processes, as well as contemplation of possible themes like teleology, purpose, destiny, super-dimensions like Heaven or Hell, etc. – they just would be outside of “science” per se. Of course, MN has no place for any of that – which is fine, but it definitely limits their toolkit of explanatory causes.

    +++++
    Requesting a Favor: I know this was directed at someone else, but please don’t use words like “rage” without warrant; I don’t think Melissa was *raging* at anyone, unless I’ve missed something. Do you “rage” against Christians just because you disagree with their metaphysics and beliefs? Is it fair to characterize you that way? (Note: Ditto for “hate” – thank you for not using that polemic.)

  6. Lee: No, I do definitely do NOT adhere to metaphysical naturalism. I would like to think, however, that I am objective in my thinking – or at least try. (This isn’t to say that you don’t). I do not hold to every theistic argument: I am not convinced by ontological or moral arguments, but I am by many cosmological and teleological arguments. And, as I said, I think the Argument from Reason has a place, but I do not feel it’s a slam-dunk against MN. MN does not, in principle, eliminate an emergentist or dualist philosophy of mind. Once can be a naturalist and still hold to a dualist model of the mind – however strained such a pairing may be.

    You stated:

    “There is nothing that can “emerge”, because whatever it would be, would still be trapped as part of the system. There is nothing that can “emerge”, because whatever it would be, would still be trapped as part of the system.”

    I think this is clearly an argument from ignorance. It’s like claiming life could not have evolved from non-life. It might be true, and we may have good reasons for doubting such a thing can be, but do we *know* this? The assumption you make is critical:

    “…IF there is no other causative process (in MN, there is none) affecting our brain than the motion of atoms inside it …”

    Again, you cannot deny that there are “systems” that “emerge” when components are arranged in a certain way. And it is precisely a kind of emergence that produces a top-down effect that a naturalist might appeal to. Now, I think we could easily find fault with such an appeal (depending on how it’s formulated), but that’s hypothetical.

    All I’m saying is that I think there needs to be more to the argument than what was presented here. C.S. Lewis was a tremendous mind, but he did have a tendency to oversimplify things (the Trilemma being another example). I would recommend, if you’re not already familiar with his work, checking out Victor Reppert (http://dangerousidea.blogspot.com), who’s done some work with the Argument from Reason.

  7. JB, thanks for your reply. I still stand by what I said (that MN has no pathway, as it were, to authentic cognition as I defined it). BUT – your comments are interesting. Maybe you can unpack “emergence” for me, as your time allows (I have other responsibilities, and will have to converse over a period of time).

    I can see something ‘emerging’ as a behavior in (e.g.,) ants. Put one ant in a jar, and observe it move around, and it’s fairly simple to describe. But put a whole bunch of them together in a colony, and you have extremely complex social behavior emerge (as it were), that would not be guessed from just watching the ant in the jar. But marvelous as it is, that seems like a ‘horizontal’ behavior (though the complex instincts and communication via pheromones etc. is amazing, and probably not fully understood).

    However, I would think that independent thought, is more of a vertical problem – where our thinking process is separate from the brain – the old mind/ body issue, which gets into substance dualism (possibly), and would probably merit some close analysis and thought (ironic).

    To the untrained observer, it might look like “emergence” (at least at this level) is just another way of saying, “Well, my starting assumptions of First Cause(s) aren’t really robust enough to explain the Effects, so… well… they must have *emerged*; that’s what they did. That must be what happened.”

    That’s a pretty big rug under which to sweep faulty, contradictory or inadequate assumptions and presuppositions – or at least *could* be used that way (not that you are, or would).

    So thanks for the input; I’ll need to think on it for a while. I did look up Emergence and Substance Dualism on Wiki, but don’t have time to dig into those either, at the moment.

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