Objections to Horn Two of Atheism’s Other Evolutionary Dilemma

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Objections to Horn Two of Atheism’s Other Evolutionary Dilemma

In a previous essay titled ‘Atheism’s Other Evolutionary Dilemma’, it was argued that the atheistic-naturalist is forced into a dilemma given that his worldview is essentially wed to the grand naturalistic version of the evolutionary narrative, which is indeed the only live option that the atheistic-naturalist can appeal to in order to explain the existence and development of all life. On the one hand, if the atheistic-naturalist denies the grand naturalistic evolutionary narrative, then he suddenly has a worldview that has no viable explanation for the existence and apparent design of living things, as well as having a worldview that is thus based on blind faith given its lack of an explanation for biological life. On the other hand, if the atheistic-naturalist binds himself to the grand naturalistic evolutionary narrative, then the fact that that narrative has no evidence for many of its major claims—such as, for example, abiogenesis or the emergence of consciousness—also means that the atheistic-naturalist’s worldview is based on blind faith. So whatever way that he turns, the atheistic-naturalist’s worldview is not one based on evidence, but rather it is a worldview built on a foundation of faith. And since believing things on the basis of blind faith is allegedly antithetical to the spirit of atheistic-naturalism, then this dilemma means that atheistic-naturalists should actually cease being atheistic-naturalists, for they hold a worldview which is antithetical to one of their own stated principles. And so this is a serious dilemma for the atheistic-naturalist. But, as with all arguments, some objections can be offered against them, and this one is no different, and so it is precisely those objections, or at least the ones related to the second horn of the dilemma, which this essay will address.

Now, the second horn of the dilemma notes that if the atheistic-naturalist does indeed tie himself to the grand naturalistic evolutionary narrative, then he also encounters the problem that his worldview is based on blind faith, for the fact is that the grand naturalistic evolutionary narrative has little to no evidence for many of its major claims—such as, for example, abiogenesis or the emergence of consciousness. And so, if the atheistic-naturalist embraces naturalistic evolution as the explanation for biological life—as he essentially must since it is his only live option—then he still does not escape from the charge that his worldview is one which is based on a blind faith and a lack of evidence concerning many of the most significant claims that he believes. And yet, in response to this horn of the dilemma, the atheistic-naturalist can mount two main objections.

Enough Evidence

First, the atheistic-naturalist can simply claim that, in fact, there is sufficient evidence for all of the major claims of the grand naturalistic evolutionary narrative. Now, in the face of such a claim, the only truly appropriate response is laughter, for anyone making this sort of a claim has, quite frankly, drank the naturalistic Kool-Aid. After all, the truth is that atheistic-naturalists, apart from largely fact-free and often contradictory speculations, actually have no explanations for such events as the origin-of-life, or the existence of consciousness, or the existence of human language and rationality. And this is not even to mention the fact that more mundane issues, such as the origin of eyes or wings or molecular machines, are given little more than a naturalistic just-so story as the explanation for their existence. Thus, it truly is the case that any atheistic-naturalist who asserts that there is evidence, let alone sufficient evidence, for many of the major claims of the grand naturalistic evolutionary narrative, is living in a fantasy world. So this is the first point to make.

However, let us, for the sake of argument, dive into this fantasy world as well, and let us thus pretend that there is evidence, even good evidence, for many of the claims of the grand naturalistic evolutionary narrative. Does this fact help actually help the atheistic-naturalist? Not necessarily, and the reason for why this is so is deliciously ironic, for it is a case in which the atheistic-naturalist is hoisted up by one of his own favorite petards: namely, that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Indeed, since many of the claims of the grand naturalistic evolutionary narrative are truly extraordinary given that they are by no means mundane or common or observed or experimentally confirmed, and since they defy many aspects of our repeated experience—after all, we have no experience of life coming from non-life naturalistically, or consciousness emerging without prior breeding by conscious people (and these are just two examples that can be provided). Furthermore, as atheistic-naturalists routinely love to stress in the case of extraordinary miracles, it would take a massive amount of directly observed evidence for them to even consider contemplating the idea that a miracle occurred, and so is it any different for a non-naturalist to ask that the same standard be met for claims which the non-naturalist considers extraordinary in nature, such as that life can come from non-life naturalistically or that consciousness can emerge from mere matter-in-motion. Thus, the point here is, is that even if the atheistic-naturalist had evidence for all the major claims inherent in the grand naturalistic evolutionary narrative—which he does not—this fact, in and of itself, would be insufficient to make belief in atheistic-naturalism rational for many individuals given the atheistic-naturalist’s own endorsement of the idea that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, for since many of atheistic-naturalism’s claims are extraordinary, and since this saying is largely subjective, then the atheistic-naturalist could never—or at least only with great difficulty—provide the extraordinary evidence necessary to make belief in his extraordinary claims rational. And so, as stated, the atheistic-naturalist is hoisted by his own petard.

Thus, the first option that the atheistic-naturalist proponent of naturalistic evolution can use to avoid this dilemma comes with its own serious difficulties and it does not negate the force of the dilemma.

Reasonable Faith

Now, the second option that the atheistic-naturalist who endorses naturalistic evolution can use against this dilemma is to essentially appeal to the so-called ‘success of naturalistic science’. Indeed, the atheistic-naturalist can claim that since science has allegedly been so successful in providing naturalistic explanations for physical phenomena while at the same time never having had to appeal to supernatural explanations for such phenomena, then it is reasonable to expect that science will provide us with a naturalistic explanation for the phenomena that atheistic-naturalism cannot, as of yet, explain. In essence, this is a position of ‘promissory-naturalism’, where the atheistic-naturalist has faith that science will eventually provide an answer to the problems that atheistic-naturalism currently cannot explain. And by appealing to this sort of promissory-naturalism, the atheistic-naturalist can claim that his belief in the worldview of atheistic-naturalism is not one which is built on blind faith, but rather it is built on a reasonable faith, which is borne from the success of science, and which assures the atheistic-naturalist that atheistic-naturalism will eventually have all the answers it seeks. There are, however, a vast number of problems with this appeal to promissory-naturalism.

First, note that, at best, this objection means that atheistic-naturalism is based on a reasonable faith, and yet, for all that one hears from atheistic-naturalists, one would get the impression that any position based on faith is not a rational one, and so it can be wondered why atheistic-naturalists can have a faith position, even an ostensibly ‘reasonable’ one, when they normally deny the validity of such positions to other worldviews. Should not such allegedly evidence-demanding atheistic-naturalists remain, at best, agnostic about atheistic-naturalism until and unless the grand claims of atheistic-naturalism are shown to be the case through evidence? And, to make matters worse, since such atheistic-naturalists also routinely claim that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, then, once again, we can wonder if it would not be more consistent for such atheistic-naturalists to refrain from believing in the grander claims of their worldview until and unless the extraordinary evidence for those claims was presented.

Second, and connected to the first point, it can be wondered whether atheistic-naturalists are truly consistent when it comes to this appeal to the present success of some discipline as being the grounds for having a reasonable faith in that discipline’s future success. For example, imagine a Christian who argues that since we continue to find ancient copies of the New Testament and the Gospels, then we can have a reasonable faith that we will soon find a Gospel dating back to within a few years of Jesus’s life; now, would the atheistic-naturalist be willing to grant the Christian a reasonable faith in this case, or in another case like it, or rather would the atheistic-naturalist simply dismiss the Christian’s promissory-gospelism and tell the Christian to come back once he actually has the evidence in hand, and then the atheistic-naturalist will believe it? Since it is almost a guarantee that the latter is the case, then can the atheistic-naturalist be any more surprised when people do the same with his promissory-naturalism?

Third, note that the atheistic-naturalist’s alleged claim that science has been so successful in providing naturalistic explanations for all phenomena and never having to appeal to supernatural explanations is a rather grand claim, and yet it is one which is readily disputable. For example, the certified miracles of Lourdes provide a number of cases of events examined by science which nevertheless have no naturalistic explanations. Furthermore, a number of cases in Craig Keener’s massive book Miracles also provide numerous examples of events that science arguably could not explain. So the claim that science has been so successful at explaining alleged supernatural events naturalistically is not only highly questionable, but even false. And while it is true that the atheistic-naturalist will no doubt dispute the aforementioned claims in favor of the miraculous, it can also be noted that perhaps trusting an atheistic-naturalist’s impartial assessment of these things is about as sound as trusting a defendant’s mother to be an impartial juror at that defendant’s murder trial.

Fourth, another cause for concern with the ‘success of science’ appeal is that quite often, when the so-called naturalistic explanations are examined in detail and with some scrutiny, what was claimed to be a naturalistic “explanation” turns out to be much more of a naturalistic just-so story. Indeed, when the atheistic-naturalist is asked to provide a clear explanation of how some phenomenon occurred naturally, what is all too often encountered is actually just a naturalistic conjecture, supposition, and appeal to possibility and/or plausibility. Or it is a massive extrapolation based on very meager evidence. For example, within evolutionary biology, because micro-evolutionary changes are seen to occur and are posited to have a blind and unguided naturalistic explanation for their occurrence, this evidence is then used to support the claim that massive macro-evolutionary changes can occur and thus serve as the explanation of all life. But this is just an astounding extrapolation that is completely unwarranted by the evidence that supports it. And so the point here is that the appeal to these naturalistic just-so stories and extrapolations in place of actual explanations raise doubts concerning just how seriously we should take the claim that science has been so successful in providing actual naturalistic explanations for phenomena, rather than just providing naturalistic possibilities for those phenomena. At the same time, another factor to note is that in certain cases, the explanations that atheistic-naturalists offer, do not actually explain the phenomenon in question, but rather just explain it away. For example, concerning consciousness, certainly atheistic-naturalists do not actually explain what consciousness is or how it arose, but rather they simply say that consciousness is an illusion, thus not explaining the phenomena in question, but rather just eliminating it from consideration. And so this is another technique that should give one pause concerning the claim that scientific explanations for phenomena have always moved in the direction from supernaturalism to naturalism, for in many cases, and for some of the most important phenomenon—such as consciousness, is just one example—the atheistic-naturalist is not so much explaining the phenomena in question but simply getting rid of it so that it does not cause an impediment to the rationality of his worldview. And so, the fact that many proffered naturalistic explanations are not even really explanations at all thus makes the appeal to promissory-naturalism a rather weak promise.

Next, note that the ‘success of science’ appeal is also rather general, and as such, it is questionable whether the appeal to the success of science actually works when science is separated into different disciplines, as it should be in order for it to be properly appealed to in support of the cause of atheistic-naturalism. For example, do the successes achieved in physics or chemistry apply directly to biology or psychology? Of course not, for these are all separate fields, each with their own successes and failures, and each with their own track-record. So when discussing such a thing as the naturalistic explanation for a historical event like the origin-of-life on our planet, which is the purview of a forensic science, it is rather unsound to appeal to the success of an experimental science like physics in order to claim that origin-of-life studies will ultimately provide a naturalistic explanation for the origin-of-life. Furthermore, in certain fields, and thus when looking at particular disciplines, such as origin-of-life studies, it is questionable whether science has been moving towards having a naturalistic explanation or actually away from it; indeed, consider, for example, that science has been studying the origin-of-life since, arguably, the time of Darwin, and yet not only is science not closer to an explanation for the origin-of-life, but given the complexities discovered by science in even the simplest cell, a naturalistic explanation for the origin-of-life seems further from discovery at present than closer to it. Indeed, when the first cell was thought to be nothing more than just a glob of stuff, a naturalistic explanation for it seemed highly plausible, but as science showed us that the cell was a thing filled with complexity and molecular machines, the provision of a naturalistic explanation for such a thing seems further off than it was before, not closer. Thus, science itself, by trying to find a naturalistic explanation for such things as the origin-of-life, and yet not finding such an explanation even after both greater and longer searching for it, thus pushes us away from a naturalistic explanation, not towards one. And the same could be said for such things as the naturalistic explanation of consciousness, language, and so on. And so, in many cases, science is making the chances of finding a naturalistic explanation for certain phenomena less successful, not more so.

Finally, even if, for the sake of argument, it was granted that science was been successful in always providing naturalistic explanations for certain phenomena, this would not necessarily count as evidence in favor of atheistic-naturalism. Why? Because science, as it is practiced today, is a discipline that uses an approach of methodological naturalism, which in essence, states that only naturalistic explanations are viable scientific explanations. And so what this means is that of course science has always provided naturalistic explanations for certain phenomena—when it provides explanations at all—for those are the only types of explanations it is allowed to provide in order for those explanations to count as scientific ones! And so can it be any surprise that science always seems to come up with naturalistic explanations? Can it be any surprise that a scientific explanation is always a naturalistic one? Of course not, for the whole system is designed to only accept naturalistic explanations. But then the whole ‘success of science’ shtick is just a Catch-22: if an explanation is naturalistic, it is scientific, but if the explanation is not naturalistic, then it is not scientific, and so naturalistic explanations cannot fail to be scientific while non-naturalistic explanations can never be scientific. In fact, the use of methodological naturalism means that science will appeal to a naturalistic explanation for phenomena even if it is the false explanation for that phenomena! Furthermore, since the atheistic-naturalist can always appeal to promissory-naturalism, what this means is that the atheistic-naturalist never has to admit that some phenomena does not have a potential naturalistic explanation, for he can endlessly claim that science is still seeking an explanation, and since a scientific explanation must be a naturalistic one, then if a scientific explanation is ever found, it will be considered naturalistic. But what all this means is that the appeal to the success of science as a support for the reasonableness of promissory-naturalism is both useless and without force, for it is a rigged game where science always generates naturalistic explanations, and where no explanations exist, promissory-naturalism can be continuously and endlessly appealed to. And so, given the fact that promissory-naturalism is the magical promise that never expires, the appeal to promissory-naturalism does not look reasonable, but rather it appears contrived, unfalsifiable, and dogmatic.

And so, for all these reasons the appeal to the success of science as a means of making belief in promissory-naturalism reasonable is a rather weak move; furthermore, since we are not merely worried about a naturalistic explanation for how some phenomena came about naturalistically, but whether it even can come to be naturalistically, then the fact is that, in such a case, it is more rational to wait for to see if a naturalistic explanation is even possible for the phenomena identified in this dilemma than it is to trust to promissory-naturalism. Consequently, this option does not save atheistic-naturalism from the force of this dilemma.

Agnosticism and Theism

Now, in saying all of the above, please note that the dilemma that the grand naturalistic evolutionary narrative provides to atheistic-naturalism is not, in and of itself, an argument for theism. Rather, it is a dilemma which is meant to show that the atheistic-naturalist, in order to be rational, should be an agnostic about the truth of atheistic-naturalism, but he should not be an actual atheistic-naturalist, for it is not rational to be so. Thus, at best, this dilemma should merely move an atheistic-naturalist away from atheistic-naturalism towards agnosticism, but not necessarily towards theism.

Finally, and as argued in these past three essays, let it be noted that while atheistic-naturalism suffers from a dilemma where both horns point towards blind faith when it is coupled with the grand naturalistic evolutionary narrative, the same problem does not arise for a worldview like theism, especially Christian theism. After all, on theism, God is infinite in power, ability, and knowledge, which means that we know, by definition, that God would have the power to create life, consciousness, and so on. Thus, on theism, while there might be a question of how God created these things, there is no question that God could do so, and so theism is a worldview that does indeed have a genuine ‘reasonable faith’ concerning these questions, for we know that God could do these things even if we do not know how He did them. By contrast, atheistic-naturalism, as argued, only has a blind faith concerning these matters given that it neither knows how these things occurred naturalistically or even if they ever could occur naturalistically. And this is the critical difference, for whereas theism, by definition, knows that God could create these things, the atheistic-naturalist does not even know if these things could come about on atheistic-naturalism, let only how they did come about. Therefore, whereas theism combined with evolution offers no ‘blind faith’ dilemma to the theist, naturalistic evolution combined with atheistic-naturalism does indeed offer such a dilemma to the atheistic-naturalist.

And so, the long and short of it is this: the grand naturalistic evolutionary narrative does indeed pose a dilemma for atheistic-naturalism, and the various objections that can be mounted against this dilemma do not save atheistic-naturalism from its force. Thus, in light of this dilemma, the atheistic-naturalist, if he is to be rational, has good grounds to move away from atheistic-naturalism and towards agnosticism.

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Anno Domini 2017 01 06

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

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6 thoughts on “Objections to Horn Two of Atheism’s Other Evolutionary Dilemma

  1. “After all, on theism, God is infinite in power, ability, and knowledge, which means that we know, by definition, that God would have the power to create life, consciousness, and so on” Wow. Just wow. Plain Tales from the Hills, eh?

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      1. Keith,

        You are either ignorant or intellectual deceptive. The simple fact is that God, by definition, is the greatest conceivable being, ergo, He can do anything logically possible. Now, there is no logical contradiction is God creating life, or consciousness, etc., and so God can do so. This does not mean that God exists, but it does mean that there is no difficulty in accounting for the existence of these things on Christian theism, like there is on atheistic-naturalism. Ergo, Christian theism is a reasonable faith whereas atheistic-naturalism is a blind faith, for the atheistic-naturalist does not even know if these things could come about on his worldview, let alone that they did.

        It’s pretty simple.

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      2. Not quite so simple, I think.
        Can a maximally great thing create? Isn’t creation additive?
        Or do we simply define the ability to create as an essential part of maximal greatness?
        If one resorts to the latter, I don’t see how the conclusion says anything at all, except that great is great – which is great, but so what?
        These questions have been around for a long time without satisfactory answers, except the ones that lead to the conclusion that God is something which exceeds our conception…

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  2. Since you’re still directing your argument against philosophical naturalism, I have to ask if you often run into people who hold to this position? I’m asking because off the top of my head I can’t think of any. I haven’t taken a poll but considering that even Richard Dawkins acknowledges that he can’t be 100% sure that no god(s) exist, my guess is that they are pretty rare. I also think that you’re making an unnecessarily convoluted argument against the philosophical naturalist position. All you need to do is to ask: how do you verify the non-existence of something you have no means of detecting? I suppose the philosophical naturalist can put up some kind of philosophical argument about what it means for something non-physical to “exist” but I think that’s about as far as it goes.

    It seems to me that you’re making an overly complex argument against a rather exotic fringe position, which strikes me as somewhat pointless. Like I said, I haven’t taken a poll but it’s my impression that most atheists – at least the ones that spend any time thinking about these things – tend to take a “follow the evidence” approach, i.e. some kind of empiricism. As I’ve already stated, against this position, your argument simply doesn’t work. The horns of the dilemma you’re setting up don’t exist for an empiricist. I neither deny nor affirm any scientific explanations, I provisionally accept them as our best current explanations but always remain open to the possibility that new evidence may prove them wrong. When there is insufficient evidence to form a theory, I readily acknowledge that we don’t yet have one. From this position, it naturally follows that I take an agnostic atheist position on the existence of god(s): I can’t claim that no god(s) exist but due to insufficient evidence, I hold no such beliefs.

    I think the main difference between you and me is that you want answers and I want knowledge. You want answers to the great mysteries (the origin of the universe, the origin of life and the origin of consciousness) and you want them now. The problem is that the answer you’ve found – God – doesn’t provide any understanding of these phenomena. You’re simply covering up a mystery with an even bigger mystery. If God is beyond our understanding (which is what theists tend to claim) then how can appealing to God be an explanation for anything?

    I also want explanations for these great mysteries but to me, an explanation has to bring understanding and the God explanation cannot provide this. I see no other way of gaining understanding of a phenomenon than empirical investigation. This inevitably means that our explanations are only going to be as good as our available data and when the data is lacking, we have to concede that we don’t have an explanation. This is what you don’t seem able to accept – the uncertainty of not having an explanation – but that’s just reality: our knowledge is incomplete. If you can’t accept reality, you clearly have a problem.

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