Plantinga and Creationism
A few weeks ago, an editor at MindPiff told me I could write about any topic I wanted “as long as you don’t go totally off the rails and write about ‘Why creationism is the best!’ or something.” This week’s post is about why creationism is the best. Well, not exactly. It’s more of an argument for why atheism and evolution are self-defeating when combined, but faith in God can resolve the problem. The author of this argument is Alvin Plantinga, an extremely polarizing philosopher who is, in many ways, the Christian equivalent to Richard Dawkins. This post examines his arguments against evolutionary naturalism, and his alternate options.
Naturalism is a very broad term in philosophy. Plantinga defines it to include anyone who believes that our beliefs are “determined by neurophysiology, by what goes on in the brain and nervous system.” Basically, naturalists don’t believe there’s some non-physical spirit floating inside us which experiences the world. They believe a human is just the totality of its physical parts, and our minds are just the result of the atoms in our brains shuffling around. This view by itself isn’t problematic. But, when you throw in evolution as well, a serious issue arises.
Evolution, as you probably know, involves the concept of “the survival of the fittest.” Those who are best suited to their environment will live and reproduce, whereas those who are not as well suited will die off. When you combine this view with Naturalism as defined above, you believe that humans in their entirety are the products of natural selection. Every aspect about us, from the shape of our feet to the growth-rate of our hair, is the product of the fittest surviving. In addition, our brains are the result of the fittest surviving. But, this causes a serious problem. If our brains are primarily geared towards surviving, what does that say about our truth-finding capacities? In Plantinga’s own words, “natural selection doesn’t care about the truth or falsehood of your beliefs; it cares only about adaptive behavior. Your beliefs may all be false, ridiculously false; if your behavior is adaptive, you will survive and reproduce. ”
Once you accept both naturalism and evolution, then you’ve essentially shot yourself in the foot. If your physical body is only geared towards survival, and all your thoughts come from your physical body, then why should you trust anything you believe as actually being truthful, including naturalism and evolution? There’s no reason to believe that survivability necessarily connects with truthfulness. In fact, quite the contrary –here’s just one study of many linking ethnocentrism to evolution, as it increases the capacity for survival, even though it involves false beliefs (such as belief in the superiority of one’s race) and an irrational mistrust of outsiders. Everything we believe may simply be wrong, and there’s no way to tell what’s right and what’s wrong in this scenario.
Theists don’t face this same problem. Many religions believe that humans were created in God’s image, meaning “[God] would presumably want us to resemble him in being able to know,” and “most of what we believe might be true even if our minds have developed from those of the lower animals.” Ultimately, Plantinga argues more for something along the lines of intelligent design than creationism. By believing that humans contain non-physical elements (like a spirit), and/or an omniscient God created us in his image, theists can avoid the problem that naturalism creates when coupled with evolution. If we’re created in the image of an all-knowing God (or designed to evolve in such a manner), then we have at least some intrinsic capacity for knowledge. Evolutionary naturalism, on the other hand, gives no such guarantee. Simply put, intelligent design can defend itself on this question, whereas evolutionary naturalism necessarily undermines itself.
At the end of the day, this argument is a lot less radical than it appears at first glance. You end up having to believe that A) there’s some non-physical aspect to our existence, B) evolution does not describe every last detail of our physical composition, C) survivability and truth are generally linked together, or D) we do have some intrinsic disposition towards knowing the truth (possibly as the result of being designed). You don’t have to become a Bible-thumping creationist or anything radical like that. You don’t even have to give up the belief that evolution and naturalism are absolute explanations for all of reality, assuming you pick option C. Although Plantinga’s argument does seem to have some potential problems, he does effectively show that there is some tension between naturalism and evolution, and supplementary beliefs (like option C) are necessary in order to resolve that tension.
Feature image by Scott Scheidly