Another Objection to Atheism’s Evolution Dilemma

The Reconquista Initiative

Presents…

Another Objection to Atheism’s Evolution Dilemma

In response to the dilemma that evolution poses to atheism, commentator Andrew offers yet another objection to this argument, and since his objection is quite interesting, it is well-worth a detailed response. As such, and before considering the objection in its various parts, let us first review Andrew’s whole objection, which is the following:

[QUOTE] Possible counter-argument:

(1) Across societies and times, and continuing to the present, there is great variety in what people believe with respect to the supernatural, including much contradiction.

(2) Given the presence of this contradiction, it is obvious that much of what humanity believes about the supernatural is false.

At this point, many atheist apologists assert “given that much of it is false, it’s reasonable to treat it all as false”. This is a stupid argument, not the least because for any given true belief it is possible to concoct a plurality of beliefs that are like to it but are false. To put an extreme example, there is exactly one true solution to “X = 2 + 2”, but the set of false solutions is infinite in the natural numbers alone. The presence of many false solutions does not disprove the existence of a true one.

But let us instead go in a different direction:

(3) Despite most societies holding false beliefs about the supernatural, most remain functional to a greater or lesser extent.

(4) Thus, while having belief in the supernatural may be a survival benefit, whether such a belief is accurate or not confers little to no benefit.

(5) In contrast, having more accurate beliefs about the natural world typically leads to a survival benefit to the peoples or societies involved.

(6) Having shown that inaccurate beliefs about the natural world decreases survival, while having inaccurate beliefs about the supernatural does not, it’s reasonable to conclude that our minds are tuned towards accurately tracking the natural but not the supernatural.

I’m sure there are ways to nitpick this, but I think the core idea represents a legitimate challenge. One could answer it by showing that a particular set of beliefs about the supernatural leads to better outcomes, but I think that in this context “better” draws in more moral baggage (and thus needs more apologetic work) for the theist than “survival advantage” does for the atheist (as long as he/she avoids holding up survival as a moral good).

How would you deal with this? [UNQUOTE]

So, have looked at the whole objection, let us now dissect it in detail; therefore, let us consider Andrew’s initial claim, which is the following:

[QUOTE] Possible counter-argument: (1) Across societies and times, and continuing to the present, there is great variety in what people believe with respect to the supernatural, including much contradiction. [UNQUOTE]

 Now, the first thing to note in response to Andrew’s claim is that we need to distinguish between what could be called ‘primary’ belief differences and ‘secondary’ belief differences, where secondary beliefs are those that are built upon the primary ones and which would not exist without the primary beliefs being in place first. And to understand what I mean, think, for example, of the history of the Titanic. A primary difference concerning the Titanic would be a debate over whether or not the ship actually sank, whereas a secondary difference would be whether it sank as a whole ship or broke in half before doing so. In the same way, when it comes to the variety of supernatural beliefs, we must separate primary differences from secondary ones, and when we do so, we find that there is not that much primary difference between supernatural belief systems. For example, nearly all supernatural systems believe that gods exist, that spirits exist, that these spirits can have an effect on the world and can be interacted with, that there is a life after this one, and that there is an after-life punishment for misbehavior in this life. Now, in terms of secondary differences, this is where the great deal of variety rests. For example, is reincarnation or resurrection true, or is God the greatest conceivable being or not, and so on. And so in terms of secondary beliefs, there are indeed differences.  Nevertheless, the point is that at a fundamental level, different supernatural belief systems are quite similar, and they all obviously agree that atheistic-naturalism is false.

Notice as well that if the atheist objects to the distinction between primary and secondary differences, then he runs into a problem for himself. Why? Because the same distinction applies to natural things, such as science, as well. For example, consider evolution. Though most atheists concur that evolution occurred, they differ on what the main mechanism of evolution was, whether it was continually gradual or rapid then slow, or whether such things as group-level selection occur or not. So even in the realm of evolution, we have primary agreement with secondary disagreement. And the same could be extended to other sciences as well, not to mention numerous other domains such as history, for example. So the point here that the atheist cannot object to such a distinction, nor object to the importance of this distinction, without also undermining his own beliefs about numerous natural subjects as well.

Now, Andrew continues:

[QUOTE] (2) Given the presence of this contradiction, it is obvious that much of what humanity believes about the supernatural is false. [UNQUOTE]

In the case of outright contradictions, this would be correct. And yet we must be careful here, for things can be contradictory on a secondary level without being contradictory on a primary one. Again, think of evolution: atheists agree that evolution occurs, but some might believe that group-level selection occurs while others do not, and yet these secondary-level contradictions do not negate the primary belief that evolution did occur. And the same could be true for supernatural belief systems. So, for example, two different supernatural systems could have contradictory accounts of the origins of, say, spirits—which would be a secondary belief—and yet both could be correct about the primary belief that spirits exist. So a contradiction in secondary beliefs need not be a contradiction in primary ones. At the same time, we must also be careful of claiming that things are contradictions, when, in fact, they are not. For example, Hinduism holds that hundreds and even thousands of gods exist, and yet Christianity teaches that only one Supreme God exists. However, this is not necessarily an outright contradiction, for what Hinduism considers to be lower-case ‘g’ gods, Christianity would consider fallen angels separated from God, thereby seeming to be gods in this world; after all, Christianity teaches that Satan is the prince of this world, and Satan’s power certainly makes equal to something like a lower-case ‘g’ god. And so again, we must be cautious before we claim that something is an outright contradiction rather than just being a definitional difference.

Next, Andrew states:

[QUOTE] At this point, many atheist apologists assert “given that much of it is false, it’s reasonable to treat it all as false”. This is a stupid argument, not the least because for any given true belief it is possible to concoct a plurality of beliefs that are like to it but are false. … The presence of many false solutions does not disprove the existence of a true one. [UNQUOTE]

This is true and correct. Furthermore, consider that much of past science has been shown to be incorrect, and this trend is no doubt bound to continue into the future, and yet this does not mean that we should treat all of science as false. At the same time, even though we could offer numerous different theories to account for our empirical observations, and even though most of these theories would be false and even contradictory, this does not mean that one of them is not the correct one. So again, Andrew is correct in his point above.

Additionally, note that even if we take this objection seriously, then, at best, it seems that what could be argued is that much of the secondary aspects of supernatural beliefs are false, and that it is reasonable to treat these secondary aspects as false or be agnostic about them; but that does not mean that it is reasonable to treat the primary beliefs as false. After all, think again of the evolution example: though it might be reasonable to be agnostic about whether group-level selection occurs, or whether evolution is gradual or not, or what the primary evolutionary mechanism is, this does not mean that it is reasonable to be agnostic about whether or not evolution occurred at all. Now you might have other reasons to discount certain primary beliefs about evolution, but just because there is a dispute about the secondary aspects of it should not necessarily be one of those reasons. And so again, distinguishing between primary and secondary beliefs is critical in this case.

But now Andrew moves to his main objection:

[QUOTE] But let us instead go in a different direction:

(3) Despite most societies holding false beliefs about the supernatural, most remain functional to a greater or lesser extent.

(4) Thus, while having belief in the supernatural may be a survival benefit, whether such a belief is accurate or not confers little to no benefit.

(5) In contrast, having more accurate beliefs about the natural world typically leads to a survival benefit to the peoples or societies involved.

(6) Having shown that inaccurate beliefs about the natural world decreases survival, while having inaccurate beliefs about the supernatural does not, it’s reasonable to conclude that our minds are tuned towards accurately tracking the natural but not the supernatural. [UNQUOTE]

So, this is Andrew’s main argument. And as we examine it, let us look at Point 3 first. Note again that this point does not distinguish between primary and secondary differences. Indeed, this point, even if accepted, should read that most societies holding false secondary beliefs about the supernatural remain functional to a greater or lesser extent. And this will be an important issue shortly.

Next, note Point 4. Again, the difference between primary and secondary beliefs needs to be brought to the forefront. After all, it would be highly beneficial to a person’s survival to have correct primary beliefs about the supernatural, such as having the correct belief about whether spirits actually exist and can be interacted with to aid human survival; by contrast, it may not be beneficial to have accurate secondary beliefs about the supernatural, such as whether those spirits are Hindu gods or Christian demons or whether. So it can be true that being accurate in terms of primary beliefs about the supernatural may have an enormous survival benefit—for example, think about the survival advantage granted by knowing that a spirit exists who can make it rain food from the sky and knowing how to ask this from him—while at the same time, the survival advantage granted by having accurate secondary beliefs about the supernatural is minimal—such as knowing the spirit’s exact name or history. Furthermore, it is also interesting to note that being accurate about certain supernatural beliefs—such as the belief in the existence of interactive and human-assisting spirits—could be much more important from a survival perspective than numerous beliefs about the natural world, such as that evolution is true or that the Earth revolves around the Sun. Indeed, if I was a human trying to survive in a harsh environment, being accurate about certain supernatural beliefs would be much more important for my survival than being accurate about certain natural facts. After all, if I am going to use valuable time and resources for a supernatural purpose, such as making offerings of food, or animals, or prayer, then it would be highly beneficial to be accurate about whether or not the use of that time and those resources for the supernatural purpose will actually have a survival-enhancing effect or not. By contrast, if I am inaccurate in my beliefs about evolution or other abstract scientific or mathematic or philosophical facts, then this does little to nothing to harm my survival chances. Thus, accuracy concerning the supernatural could be much more important, from a survival perspective, then accuracy concerning abstract and non-survival-related facts about the natural world.

Now, onto Point 5. Here the assumption is made that having more accurate beliefs about the natural world leads to survival benefits. But does it? Well, consider some issues with this claim. For example, at present, Western societies are much more advanced in terms of having accurate beliefs about the natural world when compared to other more primitive cultures, and yet primitive cultures, at least from an evolutionary perspective, appear to be outbreeding Western societies quite well. In fact, accurate beliefs about such natural world things as abortion and contraception do not seem to be helping the demographic survival of Western peoples but actually hindering them, thus making them less successful, at least when viewed from an evolutionary perspective. So it is not clear that having accurate natural world beliefs leads to greater survival from an evolutionary perspective; or, at the very least, it is not clear that having accurate beliefs about natural world issues not directly related to one’s survival—such as abstract science, or philosophy, or mathematics—is in any way beneficial. However, note as well that it is even questionable whether having accurate beliefs about survival-related natural-world issues does increase one’s survival chances. After all, imagine, for example, that a person believes that, for human beings, exchanging saliva through kissing for five minutes leads to reproduction, whereas engaging in actual intercourse is just a medicinal action which transfers “critical chi energy” from one person to another; now, every time that this particular person “reproduces” through kissing, he then also has intercourse to replenish his chi energy. Now these beliefs about reproduction are false, and yet in comparison to a person with true beliefs about reproduction, would the person with false beliefs be any less reproductively successful? It is not clear that they would be less successful. After all, the person’s body would engage in all the right actions to reproduce even though he had completely false beliefs about what he was doing. Furthermore, a whole society with such a false belief about reproduction could nevertheless still reproduce just as well as a society with true beliefs about the subject. So again, it is not clear that accuracy about natural-world issues is more beneficial for survival. And indeed, for a further example of this, think of a person who believes that all predators with sharp teeth also have poison in their teeth; now such a person might have a false secondary belief about predators, but if he ran from predators just as hard as someone with a true belief about predators, then the person with a false secondary belief would survive just as well. Thus, again, it is not clear that accurate beliefs about secondary survival issues are needed for a person to have a survival benefit. In fact, in some cases, having outright delusional beliefs might aid in a person’s survival; for example, a man who is objectively ugly, physically weak, and undesirable, but who falsely believes that he is God’s gift to women, may be more reproductively successful, simply through his endlessly persistent efforts to reproduce, then a similar man who has an accurate view of himself and thus never tries to reproduce because he is accurate in his assessment of his undesirability. So, in some cases, false beliefs about the natural world may actually be more beneficial than true ones!

And finally, Andrew concludes his argument by saying that since having inaccurate beliefs about the natural world decreases survival, while having inaccurate beliefs about the supernatural does not, then it is reasonable to conclude that our minds are tuned towards accurately tracking the natural but not the supernatural. But, as shown, all the points leading to this conclusion are, at best, questionable, and, at worst, wrong. And so the conclusion itself is questionable.

And yet an even further problem with Andrew’s argument—at least in terms of its ability to undermine the dilemma that evolution creates for atheistic-naturalism—is that Andrew’s argument actually creates its own dilemma for the atheistic-naturalist given that a parallel argument can be made concerning the accuracy of our cognitive faculties for scientific and/or philosophical beliefs, and since atheistic-naturalism is a philosophical belief which largely draws on scientific facts for its justification, then this parallel argument serves to undermine atheistic-naturalism just as much as the original dilemma did. Not only this, but Andrew’s argument can even be flipped on its head to support supernaturalism while undermining atheistic-naturalism. And to understand what I mean, consider this argument which mirrors Andrew’s original argument:

  1. Despite most societies, in the past, as well as the present, holding false beliefs about science (biology, cosmology, etc) and about philosophy, they nevertheless remained functional to a greater or lesser extent.
  1. Thus, while having some type of philosophical and scientific beliefs may have a survival benefit, whether such beliefs are accurate or not confers little to no benefit.
  1. By contrast, having accurate primary beliefs about the supernatural world—whether it exists or not, whether the beings in it can interact with the world, etc—typically leads to a survival benefit to the peoples or societies involved in such beliefs given that accurate primary beliefs about the supernatural world will dictate whether or not to devote time and resources to dealing with this world or not. Indeed, if an interactive supernatural world exists, then having an accurate belief concerning it could literally be the difference between life and death for a society, or it could mean greater success than a competing social group who does not have such an accurate belief about the supernatural world.
  1. So, having shown that accurate beliefs about science and/or philosophy have little to no survival-benefit, while having accurate beliefs about the supernatural would have a survival benefit, then it’s reasonable to conclude that our minds are tuned towards accurately tracking primary beliefs about the supernatural world but not about science and/or philosophy. Or, at the very least, our minds are more accurately tuned to tracking primary beliefs about the supernatural world in comparison to accurately tracking beliefs about science and/or philosophy.
  1. But since atheistic-naturalism is a philosophical point-of-view largely based on the findings of science, then if human cognitive faculties are not tuned towards being accurate about such beliefs, then humans have a reason to doubt their accuracy concerning the truth of atheistic-naturalism while nevertheless having confidence about their accuracy concerning supernaturalism.
  1. And if we nevertheless do believe ourselves to be accurate concerning scientific and/or philosophical beliefs, then we have all the more reason to be more confident concerning our belief about supernaturalism, for we are tuned to be more accurate about primary supernatural beliefs then we are about scientific and/or philosophical beliefs.

And so, the long and short of it is this:  if human evolutionary survival is indeed linked to humans having reliable cognitive faculties, then evolution, in and of itself, arguably gives us a reason to trust the reliability of our cognitive faculties concerning the supernatural more than it does concerning science, philosophy, or the atheistic-naturalism that grows out of them. And so appealing to a connection between our evolutionary survival and reliable cognitive faculties will not help the atheistic-naturalist avoid Atheism’s Evolution Dilemma.

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Anno Domini 2016 12 23

Non nobis Domine, non nobis, sed nomini tuo da gloriam

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3 thoughts on “Another Objection to Atheism’s Evolution Dilemma

  1. I’ve been reading your posts about Plantinga’s EAAN argument and some objections to it. I’m familiar with the argument and I don’t think you’ve addressed what I believe to be the main objection to it. What I see as the fatal flaw in Plantinga’s argument is that he mysteriously disregards empirical observation as a source of belief. His premise seems to be that, on a naturalist view, our beliefs are solely the result of evolution. This strikes me as a rather odd proposition – I know of no naturalists that hold to this view. Clearly, our beliefs are not all inherited genetically nor do they all form in our brains through an internal process, isolated from the world around us. Rather, they are shaped by our empirical experience through our interaction with our surroundings using our senses and through our access to the common human experience (i.e. our culture). Our belief that tigers are dangerous may have a genetic component but it’s also reinforced by our empirical experience, either by direct observation or indirectly through our culture. This, IMHO, is what’s missing in Plantinga’s argument and why it ultimately fails.

    I would agree with Plantinga that if our beliefs were entirely the result of internal processes within our brains, we would have no particular reason to trust them. In fact, we would have every reason to distrust them – beliefs arrived at based on no or limited information usually tend to be wrong. Fortunately, we have a way to test the validity of our beliefs (and correct them if they turn out to be wrong): empirical verification. If we’re able to make objective observations, we can always put our beliefs to the test by making predictions of what we should be able to observe if our beliefs are true. This is essentially the scientific method and its remarkable success is a clear testament to its validity as a method of verifying our beliefs.

    So where does this leave theistic beliefs? Can they be tested empirically? It seems not – at least not if the deity in question is postulated to be omnipotent. Such a deity could, literally, create any conceivable evidence which means there is no prediction we could make that could be falsified by empirical observation. This seems to leave the theist with the kind of “interior beliefs” (i.e. beliefs that cannot be tested empirically) that we’ve agreed are unreliable on a naturalist view. Of course, the theist can claim that the naturalist position is incorrect but then that’s the very point of contention. To simply assume that naturalism is false in order to demonstrate that theistic beliefs are true would be entirely circular. All in all, I’d say that without the possibility of empirical verification, it’s the theist who has the epistemological problem, not the naturalist.

    There is of course the possibility that the proposed deity intervenes and produces evidence that is irrefutable and convincing. I don’t know what that evidence would be but I’m sure that an omnipotent and omniscient deity would know exactly what would convince even a skeptic. Until that happens, the rational position seems to me to be that of the atheist agnostic: I don’t claim to know that no deity exists but due to a lack of evidence, I hold no belief in any such deity.

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    1. KR,

      I don’t have time to respond in detail now, but based on an initial reading of your objection, it has little force against Plantinga’s EAAN and even misses the nuances of his argument. However, I have only read your objection once, so I may be mistaken. Nevertheless, your objection is written in good faith and deserves attention, and so I will be happy to respond to it if I have the time (likely in a quick post). No guarantees as to when, but I will try to deal with it soon.

      Regards.

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      1. Looking forward to your response. To restate my objection to the EAAN, my main point is that Plantinga misstates the naturalist position. On a naturalist view, everything about us – including our beliefs – is the result of nature and nurture, i.e. our genes and our environment (family background, cultural background, education, life experiences etc.). In the versions of the EAAN that I’ve seen, Plantinga seems to completely omit the “nurture” part. In his version of the naturalist universe, our beliefs are entirely the result of evolution, i.e. our genes. Our empirical experience (either direct through personal observation or indirect through our culture) seems to play no part, which makes no sense to me and is definitely not the position of any naturalist I know.

        The brains holding our beliefs are, on the naturalist view, obviously the result of an evolutionary process but since these brains have the capacity to take in information through our senses and learn from this experience, Plantinga’s conclusion – that the naturalist has no way of knowing if his beliefs are true and every reason to suspect that they’re not – is clearly false. Empirical verification provides us with a method of testing our beliefs by calibrating them against observed reality. The success of the scientific method clearly demonstrates the validity of this approach. Since omnipotent (and therefore unfalsifiable) deities cannot be tested this way, it seems the theist is in a much more questionable epistemological position than the naturalist.

        In your reply you say that my objection “has little force against Plantinga’s EAAN”, does this mean that you think Plantinga actually addresses the possibility of verifying our beliefs empirically? If so, can you point to where he does this? There are several versions of the EAAN circulating so it’s entirely possible I may have missed this. You also state that I miss the nuances of Plantinga’s argument, can you elaborate on what those nuances are and how they address my objection?

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