Friday, March 13, 2015

Why Naturalism Is Self-Refuting

Among the live options for worldviews on offer in modern times certainly one of the most popular among scientists, philosophers, and other academics is the view called naturalism. This view states that all that exists is ultimately explicable in terms of the sorts of explanations employed by scientists. In other words, nature and nature's laws are all there is, there's nothing else.

Most worldviews offer a Grand Story for how we got here. In naturalism the Story is some iteration of Darwinian evolution. Blind, natural processes generated life which evolved through genetic mutation, natural selection, and genetic drift to produce the grand diversity of life including man and his marvelous powers of reason. The problem with this Story, though, is that according to philosopher John Gray (who is himself a naturalist) it's self-refuting.

In a piece in The New Republic critical of his fellow atheist Richard Dawkins Gray writes:
[T]he ideas and the arguments that [Dawkins] presents are in no sense novel or original, and he seems unaware of the critiques of positivism that appeared in its Victorian heyday.

Some of them bear re-reading today. One of the subtlest and most penetrating came from the pen of Arthur Balfour, the Conservative statesman, British foreign secretary, and sometime prime minister. Well over a century ago, Balfour identified a problem with the evolutionary thinking that was gaining ascendancy at the time. If the human mind has evolved in obedience to the imperatives of survival, what reason is there for thinking that it can acquire knowledge of reality, when all that is required in order to reproduce the species is that its errors and illusions are not fatal?

A purely naturalistic philosophy cannot account for the knowledge that we believe we possess. As he framed the problem in The Foundations of Belief in 1895, “We have not merely stumbled on truth in spite of error and illusion, which is odd, but because of error and illusion, which is even odder.” Balfour’s solution was that naturalism is self-defeating: humans can gain access to the truth only because the human mind has been shaped by a divine mind. Similar arguments can be found in a number of contemporary philosophers, most notably Alvin Plantinga. Again, one does not need to accept Balfour’s theistic solution to see the force of his argument. A rigorously naturalistic account of the human mind entails a much more skeptical view of human knowledge than is commonly acknowledged.
Balfour's argument is sometimes a bit difficult to understand when encountered for the first time, but it says essentially that any trait selected for survival by natural selection can only coincidentally be a trait that is useful in discovering truth. If human reason is the product of naturalistic evolution it would have been selected for because it somehow conferred survival value, not because it was reliable in finding truth. There's no necessary connection between knowing truth and survival of a species.

In her recent book titled Finding Truth: 5 Principles for Unmasking Atheism Secularism, and Other God Substitutes Nancy Pearcy quotes a number of naturalist thinkers who make this point but who don't seem to realize that it undercuts their own naturalism (The following draws upon an excerpt of Pearcy's book at Evolution News and Views). Pearcy writes:
Of course, the sheer pressure to survive is likely to produce some correct ideas. A zebra that thinks lions are friendly will not live long. But false ideas may be useful for survival. Evolutionists admit as much: Eric Baum says, "Sometimes you are more likely to survive and propagate if you believe a falsehood than if you believe the truth." Steven Pinker writes, "Our brains were shaped for fitness, not for truth. Sometimes the truth is adaptive, but sometimes it is not." The upshot is that survival is no guarantee of truth. If survival is the only standard, we can never know which ideas are true and which are adaptive but false.

An example comes from Francis Crick. In The Astonishing Hypothesis, he writes, "Our highly developed brains, after all, were not evolved under the pressure of discovering scientific truths but only to enable us to be clever enough to survive."
But, Pearcy tells us, that means Crick's own theory cannot be relied upon to be true.
To make the dilemma even more puzzling, evolutionists tell us that natural selection has produced all sorts of false concepts in the human mind. Many evolutionary materialists maintain that free will is an illusion, consciousness is an illusion, even our sense of self is an illusion -- and that all these false ideas were selected for their survival value.
The same thing is often said about morality. "It's an illusion," philosopher Michael Ruse wrote, "fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate." But if all of these things are the illusory products of evolution how do we know that the theory of evolution and the naturalistic worldview it supports are not also illusions? Why should we think these things true if our thinking is as likely to lead us to falsehood as it is to lead us to truth? Pearcy continues:
A few thinkers, to their credit, recognize the problem. Literary critic Leon Wieseltier writes, "If reason is a product of natural selection, then how much confidence can we have in a rational argument for natural selection? ... Evolutionary biology cannot invoke the power of reason even as it destroys it."

On a similar note, philosopher Thomas Nagel asks, "Is the [evolutionary] hypothesis really compatible with the continued confidence in reason as a source of knowledge?" His answer is no: "I have to be able to believe ... that I follow the rules of logic because they are correct -- not merely because I am biologically programmed to do so." Hence, "insofar as the evolutionary hypothesis itself depends on reason, it would be self-undermining."
Pearcy goes on to show that Darwin himself, and many of his followers, argued that man's mind leads him to belief in God but that our minds, being the product of blind chance and selection, are too untrustworthy to credit that conclusion. Yet they never applied that same skepticism to the theory of evolution itself.
People are sometimes under the impression that Darwin himself recognized the problem. They typically cite Darwin's famous "horrid doubt" passage where he questions whether the human mind can be trustworthy if it is a product of evolution: "With me, 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."

But, of course, Darwin's theory itself was a "conviction of man's mind." So why should it be "at all trustworthy"?

Surprisingly, however, Darwin never confronted this internal contradiction in his theory. Why not? Because he expressed his "horrid doubt" selectively -- only when considering the case for a Creator.

In another passage Darwin admitted, "I feel compelled to look to a First Cause having an intelligent mind in some degree analogous to that of man." Again, however, he immediately veered off into skepticism: "But then arises the doubt -- can the mind of man, which has, as I fully believe, been developed from a mind as low as that possessed by the lowest animal, be trusted when it draws such grand conclusions?" That is, can it be trusted when it draws "grand conclusions" about a First Cause? Perhaps the concept of God is merely an instinct programmed into us by natural selection, Darwin added, like a monkey's "instinctive fear and hatred of a snake."

In short, it was on occasions when Darwin's mind led him to a theistic conclusion that he dismissed the mind as untrustworthy. He failed to recognize, though, that to be logically consistent he needed to apply the same skepticism to his own theory.
Pearcy concludes the excerpt with a quote from Oxford mathematician John Lennox who wrote that according to atheism "the mind that does science ... is the end product of a mindless unguided process. Now, if you knew your computer was the product of a mindless unguided process, you wouldn't trust it. So, to me atheism undermines the rationality I need to do science."

One way to summarize all this is to say that you can believe your reason is trustworthy or you can believe in naturalistic evolution, but you can't believe in both.