Stanford Review - Archive - Volume XXX - Issue 1 - Opinion
Evolution, Naturalism, and a Dash of Plantinga
by Jeff Russell
When my friend Joe-Joe told me that a philosopher named Plantagin was coming to Stanford, I was a bit confused. "Wait," I said, "do you mean Plantinga? Alvin Plantinga?" "Maybe," he said. "As in God, Freedom, and Evil Plantinga?" I pressed. "Um. . . ." Joe-Joe wavered. He sent me an email a couple days later: "yup. it's plantiga. february 13. mark it down."
I marked it down.
Alvin Plantinga, though his name may not be ready on the lips of all, is one of the world's foremost Christian philosophers. The John A. O'Brien Professor of Philosophy at Notre Dame, he is the author of notable books on epistemology and philosophy of religion, including Warrant: The Contemporary Debate; God, Freedom, and Evil; and Warranted Christian Belief.
Furthermore, Plantinga is a personal hero -- one of those maverick philosophers who isn't afraid to revive arguments from the twelfth century. The Philosophical Lexicon even coins a word in his honor: alvinize, v. To stimulate protracted discussion by making a bizarre claim. E.g., "His contention that natural evil is due to Satanic agency alvinized his listeners." It didn't matter what he'd be talking about -- I was going to hear him.
Dr. Plantinga's lecture, sponsored by Campus Crusade for Christ and Cornerstone Ministries, filled Annenburg auditorium on a Thursday night. The talk was entitled "An Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism." Plantinga attempted to show that there is something inherently problematic about believing both in naturalism -- the doctrine that there is nothing outside of nature: no God, no other supernatural influences -- and in evolution -- the theory of natural selection that we all learned in high school, unless you're from Kansas. Clearly he chose a provocative title, since Darwin's popularizers (T.H. Huxley, Richard Dawkins, etc.) have held up evolutionary theory as one of the pillars of a naturalistic worldview.
A tall, thin, bearded man with the dignified demeanor and comportment of a scholar, Plantinga lectured in clear, measured syllables, never raising his bass voice and frequently reading directly from notes that he handed out before the talk. He made his points in the organized and unembellished style of a philosophical demonstration. The argument ran on the technical side, which I suspect may have disappointed those members of the audience expecting a more heated and dynamic bill de fare. But, while erudite, his rhetoric was clear, direct, and kept lively by Plantinga's knack for witty examples -- always the best part of philosophy. His anecdotes ranged from the misadventures of Paul the primitive hominid to accounts of car accidents; he noted, "If you have five eyewitnesses to an accident you might get five different reports, . . . . but there will be a deeper underlying agreement. There will be agreement, for example, . . . . that there are such things as automobiles."
The main gist of the argument proceeded as follows: if you believe in both naturalism and evolution, then it follows that your brain and your thoughts are all products of evolution. But if the only constraint on your mind is that it be well-adapted to what Patricia Churchland calls "the four F's: feeding, fleeing, fighting, and reproducing," then what reason do you have to believe that your mind actually forms true beliefs?
Plantinga argued that you have two alternatives: either the content of your beliefs affects your behavior or it doesn't. If content has no bearing on behavior, then the content of your beliefs could not possibly influence your evolutionary success, so that content would probably be false. But even if the content of your beliefs does affect your actions, false beliefs could do the job of keeping you alive just as well as true ones.
For example, if there is a tiger in your vicinity, the thought process "there is a tiger nearby; therefore, I should run like billy-o" might save your hide -- but so could the thought "ah, a big orange thing! If I run away from it, maybe it will be my friend," or "gosh, maybe now would be a good time to work on my mile time." But since all the stupid beliefs keep you alive just as well as the right one, evolutionary processes would promote stupid beliefs as readily as intelligent ones. So if evolution is calling the shots, all of your beliefs might very well fall in the category of "stupid, but effective."
Here's Plantinga's punch line: naturalism and evolution are ideas produced by human minds. But if human minds are as likely as not to produce false beliefs, then we have a reason to doubt that naturalism and evolution are true. This means that if you believe in naturalism and evolution, you have a good reason not to believe in naturalism and evolution: the doctrine defeats itself. So it doesn't make sense to believe in it.
The subsequent question-and-answer time was a mixed bag, as open Q&A usually is. Plantinga fielded screwball questions ranging from "what probability would you assign to the existence of God?" to "who created God?" as the audience edged toward the door. But despite a general malaise that set in as questions turned into interrogations or speeches, some good points emerged.
On the one hand, strong objections came up against the idea that false beliefs might be as adaptive as true ones. Sophomore Aria Haghighi pointed out that verisimilitude is important for purely perceptual judgments: "Is it more adaptive," he asked, "to see a tiger there and the tiger to actually be there -- the perception is reliable -- versus to not see a tiger when it's there or see a tiger when it's not there?" Plantinga's response: certainly the true belief is adaptive, but this does not rule out equally adaptive false beliefs in many circumstances: "For example, suppose you think that what you are seeing is a witch-tiger." This belief would be false, but just as adaptive.
On the other side, Dr. Plantinga made a number of poignant general observations on Christian epistemology. "I believe in God not because of some argument or proof, but just as I believe in other people. I believe that you are having thoughts and feelings, but I don't believe this on the basis of some argument. . . . . It's not a matter of believing in God on the basis of arguments -- like the cosmological argument, the ontological argument, or the argument from the divine -- it comes in some other way. And I think that thinking of it as a matter of coming through experience is a very good way of thinking about it."
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