Wednesday, September 17, 2014

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Cutting Off One's Head: The Theological Attack Against Cognition

by Francois Tremblay



There is no doubt that presuppositionalism—the idea that human understanding could not come to exist or be justified without a god—has become a hallmark of Christian apologetics. Naturalism poses a problem for theologians because they cannot understand its emergentist consequences, being caught in the mindset of personal causation, and therefore believe that mind-entities or processes that seem radically different from mechanical physical laws must have been caused by a being imbued with personhood.

In an obvious sense, such arguments commit the diaphanous fallacy. But there is something more pernicious at work here. Examine a simple form of such arguments, such as “the emotions you take for granted cannot exist in the naturalistic worldview”, an argument I have been given more than once.

Now by this they usually mean one of two things: either as a critique of mental materialism, or as a critique of evolutionary explanations. In the case of mental materialism, theologians usually simply assume that matter, being impersonal, cannot give rise to personality, but this reasoning commits the fallacy of composition. Since human minds are complex systems, we have to affirm that the mind and its entities are emergent properties of groups of atoms, not simply atoms banging around randomly. Science confirms this, by showing us the functioning of brain modules and neurons.

In the case of evolution, there is no mystery about the origin of emotions. An emotion is a shortcut between a percept and a desirable response. Whether it is manifested in the fight-flight response to predators in different situations, esthetic and lust responses to desirable body types, the satisfaction we get from eating tasty food, all emotions evolved in response to specific optimization problems.

This type of argument is unsophisticated, but other presuppositionalist arguments on the human mind are more sophisticated. Nevertheless, they commit in the same fallacies.

Some theologians also try to undermine the basis for rational thought by using evolution. Cognition, they would claim, is unreliable because evolution does not ensure truth-based processes in the human mind. Therefore we must believe in God, who has an interest in maintaining truth-based processes in our minds, because it wants us to apprehend nature.

But this is a mistake that, in the title of this article, I call “cutting off one’s head”. By undermining cognition itself, the theist also undermines the basis for theistic belief. If we cannot trust the human mind, then we cannot trust the theist’s apprehension of theistic truths, from the Bible or otherwise! If we cannot, as Plantinga says, “presuppose that [our] faculties are reliable”, then we cannot presuppose that the theist’s faculties are reliable in apprehending theistic truths. Therefore the theologian cuts off his own head by arguing against the rational worldview.

One such theologian who argues against cognition from evolution is Alvin Plantinga, in his lecture ‘An Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism’. This is the case I will examine here. I have chosen a lecture instead of a formal article because it presents the theological position against naturalism in its most forceful form – i.e. that evolution undermines cognition, and that only theism can save us.

But before I begin, I must make important distinctions which are confused in Plantinga’s article, and may help us understand the issue better. I am referring to the difference between instinct, perception and rationality. Instincts are the behaviour patterns that are transmitted to us by evolutionary adaptation. Perception is the reception and transmission of information received from the exterior world. Rationality is the general epistemic position that we should validate knowledge only with objective evidence (including, of course, perception).

Plantinga’s case is based on the evolution-based biology of the naturalistic worldview. He posits that:

P(R/N&E) is low, where R is the proposition “our cognitive faculties are reliable”, N is metaphysical naturalism, and E is evolution.

Now, Plantinga makes the case that if N&E is true, then there is no guarantee that R is high at all. In doing so, he examines the correlation between behaviour and belief, and argues that all such correlations return a low probability of belief being reliable. In this, he seems to be confusing instinct with rationality. In this view, his question becomes: what is the correlation between instinct and rationality?

With this clarification, the answer is simple. Instinct is primary, since it predates rationality. Our rationality is in some ways informed by instincts, such as our instincts of logical thought, and can be hindered by instincts, such as the desire for belief. But the opposite interaction is mostly irrelevant in this context.

What therefore can we say about the possibility of rationality, given that N&E is true? We would be justified in agreeing that rationality is not guaranteed by N&E. Indeed, that is why epistemology exists in the first place: if rationality was guaranteed, we would not need standards of knowledge, we would gain knowledge instinctively. To a certain extent we do gain knowledge instinctively, but obviously not completely. But rationality is not out of our reach by virtue of N&E being true, given that we have epistemology.

But now suppose we again apply the same sort of reasoning to ourselves and our condition. Suppose we think N&E it true: we ourselves have evolved according to the mechanisms suggested by contemporary evolutionary theory, unguided and unorchestrated by God or anyone else. Suppose we think, furthermore, that there is no way to determine P(R/N&E) (specified to us). What would be the right attitude to take to R? Well, if we have no further information, then wouldn’t the right attitude here, just as with respect to that hypothetical population, be agnosticism, withholding belief? If this probability is inscrutable, then we have a defeater for R, just as in the case where that probability is low.

So P(R/N&E) is either low or inscrutable; and if we accept N&E, then in either case we have a defeater for R.

Can we accept that the argument from evolution is a defeater for R, as Plantinga says? Once again, we must remember the confusion. Certainly the argument gives us a defeater for:

  1. Instinct-based reasoning is rational.

    But (1) is not at all the same as:


    1. Perception is valid.

    2. Our reasoning, informed by rationality, is valid.

    (1) is radically different from (2) and (3), given that (2) is necessarily true (for more on this, see my article ‘The Infallibility of Sense Perception’) and (3) depends on human free will. Therefore the falsity of (1) does not at all affect the truth of (2) or (3).

    Plantinga furthers his confusion by using the standard skeptical argument of Descartes’ evil daemon (by saying that we refuse to accept the evil daemon hypothesis because it leads to absurdity, and we must reject evolution for the same reason). For those who do not know this argument, it consists of positing as possible a situation where an evil daemon is controlling all our thoughts and actions, thus making our reasoning unreliable. I discuss a variant of it in my article ‘Is Reality a Simulation Game?’.

    The point is that Plantinga’s argument from evolution is not at all like Descartes’ evil daemon argument, in fact it is exactly opposite. Let me explain why. We do not believe Descartes’ evil daemon argument because we have no evidence that shows that such a situation exists. By saying this, we obviously presuppose the rational worldview, because it is necessary for us to even examine Descartes’ evil daemon argument in the first place.

    Plantinga’s argument is self-defeating in the same way. We need rationality to determine whether specific methods are right or wrong, such as perception. Thus, Plantinga is not validated in presuming that we must be agnostic towards (2). Indeed, it makes no sense for a theologian to be agnostic towards (2), given that, as I pointed out before, the theological worldview needs (2) in order to be valid. Whether reading the Bible, perceiving the transcendent, or understanding a theological argument, the theologian needs (2). By extension, the same thing is true about (3), since rationality is necessary for the interpretation of our percepts.

    As a further example of “cutting one’s head off”, how are we to judge Plantinga’s claims about naturalism? Did he elaborate them based on rationality? If he did not, then Plantinga’s reasoning is irrational.

    His argument cannot get off the ground because, if we must be agnostic towards the validity of cognition, then we must also be agnostic towards the argument itself. Since Plantinga believes that such agnosticism is a defeater against the validity of cognition, it is therefore also a defeater for itself. Like all skeptic positions, Plantinga’s use of skepticism to attempt to undermine cognition disproves itself.

    Plantinga is therefore contradicting the facts of reality, and when he says:

    “who accepts N&E has a defeater for N&E”

    And we can rightly reply:

    “who accepts that N&E has a defeater, now has a defeater for his own position, and thus contradicts himself”

    And that any attempt to use skepticism in order to undercut rationality is “unacceptable and irrational”.

    It is always surprising to see theologians using their sworn enemies’ weapon, deconstructionism, in order to try to undercut rationality. But to the theologian, the deconstructionism of naturalism is always done with the thought “God is the only possible solution” in the back of their heads. As I pointed out at the beginning, adopting the theological worldview prevents them from acknowledging the power of naturalism as explanatory worldview.

    Plantinga concludes:

    The traditional theist, on the other hand, has no corresponding reason for doubting that it is a purpose of our cognitive systems to produce true beliefs, nor any reason for thinking the probability of a belief’s being true, given that it is a product of her cognitive faculties, is low or inscrutable. She may indeed endorse some form of evolution; but if she does, it will be a form of evolution guided and orchestrated by God. And qua traditional theist—qua Jewish, Moslem, or Christian theist – she believes that God is the premier knower and has created us human beings in his image, an important part of which involves his giving them what is needed to have knowledge, just as he does.

    This may be so, but such understanding cannot be arrived at without implicit trust in (2) and (3). How is the traditional theist supposed to conclude that God wishes us to hold true beliefs, if not from using his cognition towards the study of his particular Christian theistic beliefs? Even if we suppose that Plantinga’s case is true and that God guided evolution, our basis for believing this would be based on the skeptic presuppositions we have seen, and therefore prevents us from acquiring any such belief in good conscience.

    Now, there may seem to be a contradiction between Plantinga’s skeptical approach, presented here, and his unconditional support of Reformed Epistemology and its naive approach to perception, which I analyze in ‘Plantinga’s Basic Belief: Not Quite Basic’. But the naive view of Reformed Epistemology only applies to directly perceived facts, and does not extend to “propositional beliefs”. In his argument here, Plantinga concludes that cognition is unreliable, but the examples in his lecture clearly point to extremely complex beliefs (such as the proposition that wish fulfillment is unreliable, or Descartes’ evil daemon argument), not “basic beliefs”.

    Obviously Plantinga wants us to doubt higher-level propositions, wants us to doubt the great constructions of reason (including its champion, science), not the primitive faith of the believer, thus affirming the superiority of the theological worldview. Both of Plantinga’s conclusions are part of an anti-rational programme, where truth is to be doubted except when it applies to theism. Thus Plantinga can say with a straight face that cognition is unreliable, and that we can know theism. But of course, as I detail in “Plantinga’s Basic Belief”, the theistic “basic beliefs” are in fact quite complex, surpassing in complexity and incoherency all rational “propositional beliefs”. Thus the anti-rational approach elaborated by Plantinga is heavily based on confusion between appearance and reality.

    Last updated: 01/01/05