Thursday, September 6, 2012

Jeff Shallit's and Larry Moran's missing argument on the evolutionary argument against naturalism

Atheists Jeff Shallit and Larry Moran take exception to my post on Alvin Plantinga's evolutionary argument against naturalism. Professor Shallit, on his blog, sneers:

Michael Egnor Fails Intelligence Test 

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Alvin Plantinga's EAAN (evolutionary argument against naturalism) is so mind-bogglingly flawed, that if you meet anyone at a party who claims to believe it has merit, you should immediately find someone more interesting to talk to, because it's really unlikely you're going to have a good conversation 
Any bright high school student can see the flaws in a few minutes. In this way, it functions as a sort of intelligence test for the philosophically inclined. The fact that some philosophers actually took the argument seriously and a few collaborated on a volume entitled Naturalism Defeated? illustrates the sad state of modern philosophy. It's the philosophical equivalent of taking a bogus proof that 2 = 1 and writing an entire book explaining why it is wrong. Yes, you can do it, but why bother? 
So guess who accepts it and thinks it is "obviously valid"? Why, that paragon of ignorance and arrogance, Michael Egnor
It's not surprising, since commenters at his site have tried over and over again to explain to Egnor what the theory of evolution says, but he just can't get it.

And Professor Moran, in the comments, writes:

I've just finished reading Plantiga's latest book and I had the same impression you did. If this guy is a highly respected philosopher the what does that say about philosophy? 
As for Egnor, well, he's an IDiot, so why are we surprised?

Note, good readers, that both august professors neglected the most important ingredient in this discussion: they made no argument. They gave no reasons whatsoever for their disagreement with Plantinga's argument.

It's not an uncommon strategy among atheists and Darwinists. They sneer, insult, name-call, dismiss, but rarely offer genuine reasoned rebuttals to arguments against their ideology.

So to make it easier for Drs. Shallit and Moran to join the fray with their intellects rather than their spittle, I'll recap Plantinga's evolutionary argument against naturalism here. To make it fair for my atheist interlocutors, I won't use many big philosophy words.

First, two definitions:
We define naturalism as the belief that there is no God and there are no supernatural entities. The natural world is all that exists. 
We define evolution as the process described by modern evolutionary theory-- that man is explicable totally by random heritable variation and natural selection, as well as non-adaptive changes (random genetic drift).
The evolutionary argument against naturalism is this:
If naturalism and evolution are true, then our beliefs are evolved by natural selection. (We will ignore non-adaptive genetic drift).
Beliefs have two types of content. 
One type of belief is abstract thought-- the belief that God doesn't exist, or that pi is an irrrational number, etc. 
The other type of belief is motivation to behavior. If I believe that watering my crops will make them grow better, I'll water them. 
Evolution can only act on "motivation to behavior" beliefs. "Abstract thought" beliefs are invisible to evolution.  Natural selection doesn't read minds. The correlation of abstract beliefs to actual truth cannot be shaped by selection. 
The only way that abstract beliefs can evolve is if the abstract belief bears an incidental relation to motivation to behavior. That is, the abstract belief can evolve only if it is a spandrel. A spandrel is a incidental non-adaptive trait that is a byproduct of the evolution of another trait that is adaptive.
A mental spandrel such as abstract reasoning need have no necessary or consistent relation to the truth about the natural world. 
Thus, if evolution and naturalism are true, our beliefs evolve for mating, not for abstract reasoning. The belief in evolution and naturalism itself has no warrant. In the evolutionary/naturalist scheme, abstract reasoning of any sort is either meaningless or it's just incidental to a mating strategy.  
The belief that evolution and naturalism are true is self-refuting.  

So to Dr. Shallit and Dr. Moran, here's my challenge:

I challenge you to rebut Plantinga's argument. Demonstrate how abstract beliefs evolved by natural selection are trustworthy, and are not just incidental to a mating strategy.
Show us that belief in evolution and naturalism isn't just self-refuting gibberish.


  1. Michael,

    What makes you think that beliefs are heritable? Whether abstract, such as there is a God, or behavioral, such as irrigating crops causes them to grow better - so I'll water them, they are learned beliefs, and invisible to natural selection.

    What is capable of being genetically inherited, and hence capable of being affected by natural selection, is the ability to form beliefs. Beliefs may be adaptive or maladaptive, depending on circumstances. But the ability to form beliefs is adaptive, because if bad beliefs are adopted they can be abandoned and replaced by good adaptive beliefs.

    In the original thread on Plantinga you claimed that intuition is better than the scientific method in making the important personal decisions of life. What is intuition? Doesn't intuition largely destroy the concept of free will?

    1. Let's stick to the EAAN.

      The ability to form beliefs that motivate behavior is adaptive, because natural selection acts on behavior.

      The ability to form abstract beliefs that do not motivate behavior is not adaptive, because natural selection can't act on them.

      Therefore, abstract beliefs are at most spandrels, which bear an incidental relation to adaptation.

      Therefore abstract beliefs are not related to the real world, and are not trustworthy to provide truth.

      Therefore the belief that evolution and naturalism are true is self-refuting.


    2. Therefore, abstract beliefs are at most spandrels, which bear an incidental relation to adaptation.

      This is a clearly fallacious statement, and invalidates the entire argument.

      Thus, if evolution and naturalism are true, our beliefs evolve for mating, not for abstract reasoning.

      This is the mind-bogglingly stupid part of the EAAN - our beliefs don't evolve for mating, they evolve for survival, and if you don't think that the capability of distinguishing between true beliefs and false is of value for survival, then you really don't understand evolution to begin with. And if you don't understand evolution, you can't form an argument that "refutes" it. Plantinga clearly doesn't understand evolution, and as a result, he has formulated an argument that refutes nothing.

    3. Michael,

      I don't think that you understand Plantinga's argument. You have beliefs evolving. Whereas Plantinga was a little more subtle having the ability to form beliefs evolving.

      And anyway, acceptance of evolution isn't a 'belief'. It's supported by a lot of data from a lot of different sciences. Your proposal of 'hylemorphic dualism plus teleology' as a better explanation of evolution is however a belief; unsupported by any evidence.

      It's true that the human brain and human senses are imperfect, albeit still very good, prone to misinterpretation of sensory input and the inability to remember past events in accurate detail (most of your memories are actually confabulated; there's a small core that's true with a lot of detail added to give versimilude).

      The imperfection of the human brain and human senses is the reason why we have science; objective measuring instruments and the ability to repeat experiments. Evolution, like geology and cosmology, aren't 'historical sciences'. Whenever we make an observation we're testing theories.

    4. @bach:

      The argument is obvious. If our belief "apparatus" evolved, it evolved to enhance survival, not to discern abstract truth.

      Why then trust it to discern truth?

    5. @bach:

      Of course acceptance of evolution is a belief. Just like rejection of evolution is a belief.

      A belief is a proposition-- "X is true/false".

      The amount of data supporting or refuting a proposition doesn't alter its status as a belief.

    6. Michael,

      It's an idiotic argument. If evolution is true, then we have no way of being certain of discerning truth, including the fact that there's no God. If God exists and created the world, then the vague inner subjective feelings felt by some, not all, humans is 'evidence' of God's existence.

      You want to replace the enormous amount of evidence of evolution being true with no evidence.

  2. "[...] if you meet anyone at a party who claims to believe it has merit, you should immediately find someone more interesting to talk to, because it's really unlikely you're going to have a good conversation "
    What a vapid stance for a professor to take. Hid from dissent? Ignore opposition? Maybe he thinks he is tenured for teaching some sort of religious dogma or law? Poor guy. He needs a shave too.
    That thing on his face makes my beard cry.

    Here'y my advice:
    If you ever have a professor who tells you to run away from arguments against his ideas - change courses or get your money back! It is not likely you will learn anything of substance from him/her anyway.

    1. If you ever have a professor who tells you to run away from arguments against his ideas

      Shallit didn't say that, and even the quote you cited demonstrates that. He said if you meet someone at a party who espouses the EAAN then find someone to talk to because you are unlikely to have an interesting conversation. Because EAAN is vapid. He's not running away from arguments against his ideas, he's choosing not to spend his time engaged in a conversation with someone who is espousing an argument as empty and baseless as people who argue that the moon landings were a hoax, or that the U.S. government planned 9/11, or that the Holocaust never happened, or that reptilian aliens are infiltrating the governments of the world.

    2. @anon:

      Atheists are much more likely than Christians to believe in aliens, moon hoaxes, etc. (The Baylor study)

  3. What a load of crap. Abstract beliefs can and do motivate behavior. Your belief in God influences what you do every day.

    Abstract beliefs are a result of far more than our evolutionary legacy. A person isolated from language culture and technology from birth isn’t likely to share our beliefs, and would have no way of ascertaining truth beyond what they see with their own eyes. Our capacity for language allows us to form ideas far more sophisticated than those of other animals, and to communicate these ideas to others. Technology allows these ideas to be rapidly spread through the population and be stored for long periods of time without degradation. Technology also allows for the accumulation of ideas and knowledge far beyond what any single person is capable of retaining. When it comes to ideas and beliefs, natural selection is not the whole story. A maladaptive idea will linger beyond its existence in those that believe it, ready to infect those that stumble across it.

    Besides, evolution is not an abstract belief. It’s a theory that has been proven over and over again by converging lines of evidence from many fields. It’s as solid as the notion that the Earth orbit’s the Sun.


    1. @KW:

      [What a load of crap. Abstract beliefs can and do motivate behavior]

      But the behavior favored by natural selection is mating (survival, reproductive success, yada, yada).

      So from an evolutionary standpoint, the belief "pi is an irrational number" is favored by natural selection if it enhances mating, and disfavored by natural selection if it inhibits mating.

      If it is an evolved belief, "truth" has little to do with it. If it enhances mating, it survives. If not, not.

      Your evolved beliefs, KW, are successful mating strategies. They bear no particular correspondence to truth.

      Your idiot theory is the problem. If evolution is true, there is no warrant for assigning truth to beliefs. Beliefs, like everything else, are about mating.

      It's all about mating, you rascal.

    2. But the behavior favored by natural selection is mating (survival, reproductive success, yada, yada).

      All of which are enhanced by the ability to engage in abstract thought and formulate true abstract beliefs. Abstract thought underpins most human efforts to survive. Pretending that it doesn't is simply being mendacious.

  4. God knows I have tried to have a civilized discussion with atheists/Darwinists but all I got is, as you said, "sneer, insult, name-call and dismiss". Is it a quirk of evolution that about 5% of the world population are really incapable of understanding simple philosophical, and very logical, deduction? Is it that to understand something they have to be able to see or touch it? If this is indeed the case then that would explain their inability to think outside the "naturalism" box. This surely makes them both ashamed and angry and explains why they "sneer, insult, name-call and dismiss".

    1. Peepster: The next time you post something that that displays philosophical or logical deduction will be the first.

    2. “God knows I have tried to have a civilized discussion with atheists/Darwinists but all I got is, as you said, "sneer, insult, name-call and dismiss"”

      Keep trying Pepe, Start with making cogent arguments supported with evidence. You might also try treating others the way you would like to be treated yourself. Gratuitous insults like calling Darwinists “ashamed and angry” and “incapable of understanding” will indeed cause people to sneer, call you names, and dismiss your arguments.

      Until then you are an amusing dolt whose comments are read for their limited entertainment value if they’re read at all. Fortunately your comments are as short as your ideas are shallow.


    3. Pepe, what a hypocrite.

      In almost every one of your posts, you "sneer, name-call and dismiss" atheists, 'darwinists' and anyone else with whom you disagree with.

    4. "Peepster", "an amusing dolt", "hypocrite"

      You're really making it far toooo easy for me guys.

      I rest my case!

  5. They're not going to seriously deal with Plantinga's argument, because it's impossible to genuinely reflect on the problems with naturalism while remaining a confident naturalist.

    There are honest atheists who genuinely address such issues and try to deal with them as best they can, like Jerry Fodor, Thomas Nagel, and John Searle, but those guys rather notably lack the cocksureness and boilerplate naturalistic orthodoxy of a Shallit or a Moran. Maintaining the New Atheist pose requires one to close oneself in an anti-intellectual bubble and to dismiss any consideration of problems with one's position with a sneer.

  6. @Rich
    Yep, we see the world as just an ugly place. We just mope around, waiting to die, spewing our venom at everyone... (rolls eyes)

    You're very arrogant, in case you don't see it.
    So what are these 'refutations to their worldview' that you confront them with? And whats with the lion scenario?

  7. Rich: " of my guilty pleasures is watching atheists boil over when confronted with refutations to their worldview while acting completely uncivil, but then turning around and demanding they be treated civilly."

    I must confess that makes two of us!

    I am always looking forward to see the atheists' reactions when poked with questions about the supernatural. Their retorts are always amusing even though expected.

  8. Mulder, address the question I posed above and then relate it to human morality.

    1. Rich,

      I'd never heard that male tigers kill the cubs of female tigers to cause them to go into oestrus so that they can mate with them to produce offspring of their paternity. I thought that occurred in lions, with their social prides. Tigers I think are solitary animals meeting only for mating.

      No, it's not immoral, because morality is a human invention only applying to humans.

      I'd pose a question; if God exists, was it moral for him to set up a world in which male lions kill strange cubs for their advantage (similar to Darwin's question about the parasitic wasp laying its eggs in the body of a paralyzed caterpillar - which is then eaten alive by its larva)?

      The world is a marvelous place. There's a lot of pleasure in discovering its nature, rather than confining oneself to early iron age explanations. Christians of previous centuries studied science as a means of understanding God. A good book I've just finished 'the Rocks Don't Lie' puts this view very well.

    2. @bach:

      If God doesn't exist, and we're all just evolved meat, why on earth would you care about fairness to tiger cubs?

      Surely as an atheist you aren't claiming that there is an objective standard of morality? Where would such a thing come from?

      If God doesn't exist, there is no objective standard of right and wrong. You won the evolutionary struggle! Happy Darwin Day!

  9. If morality is a human invention, there is no morality. There is only opinion and Hitlers opinion is as valid as yours, Bach. Perhaps God put examples of immorality into nature to teach us this very point, because if killing children isn't immoral for Tigers, then it isn't for humans, since according to you we are only animals no different than the tiger.