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Evolution vs. Naturalism

Alvin Plantinga

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Why they are like oil and water.

As everyone knows, there has been a recent spate of books attacking Christian belief and religion in general. Some of these books are little more than screeds, long on vituperation but short on 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. Of course there are others that are intellectually more respectable—for example Walter Sinnott-Armstrong's contribution to God? A Debate Between a Christian and an Atheist1 and Michael Tooley's contribution to Knowledge of God.2 Nearly all of these books have been written by philosophical naturalists. I believe it's extremely important to see that naturalism itself, despite the smug and arrogant tone of the so-called New Atheists, is in very serious philosophical hot water: one can't sensibly believe it.

Naturalism is the idea that there is no such person as God or anything like God; we might think of it as high-octane atheism or perhaps atheism-plus. It is possible to be an atheist without rising to the lofty heights (or descending to the murky depths) of naturalism. Aristotle, the ancient Stoics, and Hegel (in at least certain stages) could properly claim to be atheists, but they couldn't properly claim to be naturalists: each endorses something (Aristotle's Prime Mover, the Stoics' Nous, Hegel's Absolute) no self-respecting naturalist could tolerate.

These days naturalism is extremely fashionable in the academy; some say it is contemporary academic orthodoxy. Given the vogue for various forms of postmodern anti-realism and relativism, that may be a bit strong. Still, naturalism is certainly widespread, and it is set forth in such recent popular books as Richard Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker, Daniel Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea, and many others. Naturalists like to wrap themselves in the mantle of science, as if science in some way supports, endorses, underwrites, implies, or anyway is unusually friendly to naturalism. In particular, they often appeal to the modern theory of evolution as a reason for embracing naturalism; indeed, the subtitle of Dawkins' Watchmaker is Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design. Many seem to think that evolution is one of the pillars in the temple of naturalism (and "temple" is the right word: contemporary naturalism has certainly taken on a religious cast, with a secular priesthood as zealous to stamp out opposing views as any mullah). I propose to argue that naturalism and evolution are in conflict with each other.

I said naturalism is in philosophical hot water; this is true on several counts, but here I want to concentrate on just one—one connected with the thought that evolution supports or endorses or is in some way evidence for naturalism. As I see it, this is a whopping error: evolution and naturalism are not merely uneasy bedfellows; they are more like belligerent combatants. One can't rationally accept both evolution and naturalism; one can't rationally be an evolutionary naturalist. The problem, as several thinkers (C. S. Lewis, for example) have seen, is that naturalism, or evolutionary naturalism, seems to lead to a deep and pervasive skepticism. It leads to the conclusion that our cognitive or belief-producing faculties—memory, perception, logical insight, etc.—are unreliable and cannot be trusted to produce a preponderance of true beliefs over false. Darwin himself had worries along these lines: "With me," says Darwin, "the 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?"3

Read the entire article on the Christianity Today Books and Culture website (new window will open).

Posted: 18-Sep-2008

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