The Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism

“If there is no God, then all that exists is time and chance acting on matter. If this is true then the difference between your thoughts and mine correspond to the difference between shaking up a bottle of Mountain Dew and a bottle of Dr. Pepper. You simply fizz atheistically and I fizz theistically.” – Douglas Wilson

Mr. Wilson is hitting on an interesting notion in the worldview of naturalism. It seems that if our minds are the products of naturalistic evolution, then there wouldn’t be any reason to think we can think reasonably. Such is the basis for the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism. Let’s start off with a few definitions.


Defeater – a belief that gives reason to think another belief is false.
R – our cognitive faculties are reliable
N – naturalism is true
E – evolution is true

Outline of the Premises

  1. Given the truth of naturalism and evolution, the probability that our cognitive faculties are reliable is low. Symbolically: Pr(R|(N&E)) is low
  2. The person who believes N&E (naturalism and evolution) and sees that Pr(R|(N&E)) is low has a defeater for R.
  3. Anyone who has a defeater for R has a defeater for pretty much any other belief she has, including (if she believed it) N&E.
  4. Therefore, the devotee of N&E (at least such a devotee who is aware of the truth of 1) has a self-defeating belief.

1. “The probability of our cognitive faculties being reliable (R) is extremely low given naturalism and evolution (N&E).”

  • There is what’s called ‘the problem of the four Fs’. This is the realisation that natural selection only sorts for behaviors conducive to Feeding, Fleeing, Fighting, and Fertility. This leads to the unnerving conclusion that evolution does not sort for the truth our beliefs; it only sorts for beliefs that are advantageous to survival. A false belief that is conducive to survival therefore, does not get weeded out by evolution.
  • The theist is perfectly within her right to accept or reject the theory of biological evolution. She can affirm that evolution is the means by which God populated the planet with diverse forms of life and human beings, being unique in God’s view, were endowed with rationality. On the other hand, she can deny the theory of evolution and say that God specially created all of life. In either case, she can still be confident in the reliability of her cognitive faculties because N is false in her worldview.
  • On the other hand, the naturalist does not have God or anything like God within his explanatory resources. Because of this, evolution is ‘the only game in town’ meaning he cannot decouple evolution from his naturalism. Thus, if the argument is sound, the committed naturalist is in real trouble.

2. “The person who believes N&E (naturalism and evolution) and sees that Pr(R|N&E) is low has a defeater for R.”

  • When the naturalist recognizes that the probability of R is immensely low, it follows logically that he has a reason to disbelieve R.

3. “Anyone who has a defeater for R has a defeater for pretty much any other belief she has, including (if she believed it) N&E.”

  • When a person comes to what he believes is a reasonable conclusion, he takes for granted the reliability of his cognitive faculties. By recognizing that his cognitive faculties are unreliable, he cannot even get off the ground to reason. This means that any prior beliefs he holds cannot be considered reasonable conclusions and ought to be abandoned. These beliefs include Naturalism and Evolution which leads to the conclusion that…

“Therefore, the devotee of N&E (who is aware of the truth of premise 1) has a self-defeating belief.”

Summary: The gist of this argument is that if naturalism and evolution are true, then you cannot trust your own mind to come to true beliefs. Thus, it is unreasonable to be both a naturalist and an evolutionist.

Check out the forum for this blog on Facebook for discussion of this post and many other topics!

Additional Resources

The formulation of this argument that I presented is by Alvin Plantinga.

Maverick Christian has a great outline of this argument


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11 responses to “The Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism”

  1. agnophilo says :

    Evolution is not random though, it is a cumulative process of trial and error by which life is adapted to it’s environment. We have eyes that perceive the world because the environment we evolved in is one with light. While we have discovered many problems in perceiving reality (such as our eyes being neither telescopic nor microscopic) and it is clear that understanding the world is a similarly cumulative process of discovery, I see no more reason that evolved beings could not come to understand their environment than I do that the molecules of water in a river could not find the ocean.

    • caplawson says :

      Hi, thanks for reading! I think I completely agree with you. The quote at the beginning is catchy but could be misleading. To clarify what I mean by evolution, the definition I have in mind is: genetic mutations occur randomly but natural selection then acts to remove those which are not advantageous to the four Fs. Your example of the eye is perfect. Millions of years of foraging has allowed for trichromatic vision to evolve which is why we can spot red berries in a green bush, for example. Evolution can select for these types of tangible traits. However, evolution is blind to beliefs. If beliefs result in advantageous behaviour, then that’s all that matters. The truth of said beliefs is irrelevant.

      Think about primitive African tribes for example. Some of them have managed to survive effectively in their environment for hundreds of thousands of years to the present day despite having false beliefs (e.g. the great Juju on the mountain as Richard Dawkins likes to mention). Would you consider their minds to be reliable to reach reasonable conclusions? If not, considering that the exact same evolutionary process that created their mind also created your mind, why should you trust yours over theirs? The only variable is the environment in which you were raised and I don’t see any reason why one should value a chunk of land in the West over a chunk of land in Africa.

      Anyway, I think the EAAN is an interesting thought experiment. If you’d like a more rigorous overview including several more examples, I’d encourage you to check out Maverick Christian’s blog linked at the end.

      • agnophilo says :

        I do not think that there is a 1 to 1 relationship between genes and beliefs though. If beliefs were directly a product of natural selection I would agree with you, but they’re not. As I said to someone in another blog, I can ride a bicycle, but I don’t think I have a bicycle gene that allows me to do that. Nor do I think there is a poetry gene or a math gene etc. But just as I have genes for arms and legs which allow me to do more than one thing with those limbs, I have genes for memory, conceptualizing the world, 5 senses, learning etc, which I can use to many ends. The take-away I think is that when we believe in something for purely statistical reasons like what country we happened to be born in, as people often do, that we are behaving in a blind, darwinian way. But if we learn to be self-critical, think skeptically, not assume our beliefs are infallible, and seek out other points of view, we have a much better chance of finding truth, whatever it may be. This, I think, is why science works much better than religion when it comes to discovering new things.

  2. caplawson says :

    I’m going to agree with you again, here. Self reflection is certainly a virtue and should be encouraged. However, it seems I may have miscommunicated the idea. I’m not saying beliefs in and of themselves are passed down genetically or produced by natural selection. Rather, the belief forming functions or “cognitive faculties” as I mentioned in the original post and “genes for conceptualising…etc” as you put it. It that sense, we’re saying the same thing. (I’ll use “faculties” as my terminology from now on)

    It then seems to follow that these faculties can be shaped by natural selection (as long as materialistic naturalism is still presupposed). These faculties are selected/shaped for how well they produce useful beliefs, but not necessarily true beliefs. Back to the earlier example, would you trust the cognitive faculties of a primitive African tribesman to reliably reach true conclusions? (Remember, these are the same faculties that produced the belief in the great Juju, witch doctors, etc). If you can’t trust the cognitive faculties of a primitive tribesman to be reliable, what reason would you have to trust your own faculties given that both came about by the same process? It seems to me that your cognitive faculties can be trusted to get your body parts in the right place such that you can survive and subsequently propagate your genes. Any self-test one performs presupposes one’s cognitive faculties are already reliable.

    • agnophilo says :

      It makes sense that a the ability to understand/perceive the environment would only be useful if that perception was accurate. I don’t think we would evolve specifically to believe something false any more than we would evolve specifically to see things that aren’t there – though both do sometimes happen. I think the eye evolved to perceive reality as it is as a survival strategy and sometimes goes wrong, and similarly our minds evolved to perceive reality as it is and sometimes go wrong. And of course just as you can poke out someone’s eyes you can shackle a mind with fear, dogma, peer pressure etc.

      • caplawson says :

        So, the argument isn’t that we evolve to have specifically false beliefs. It’s saying that given materialistic naturalism, our cognitive functions are produced only by evolution. And evolution produces only cognitive functions that produce useful beliefs. What then is the relationship between useful beliefs and true beliefs? It seems that there is no correlation between the two. A false belief can produce useful behaviour and a true belief can produce detrimental behaviour.

        For example, suppose there is a prehistoric man who believes that tigers are sacred creatures that if touched will turn you to stone. Because of this belief, whenever he sees a tiger, he runs far away from it to be sure he doesn’t get turned to stone. Now, this is obviously a false belief; however, it is useful because it prevents him from getting killed by tigers. He could have a long string of false beliefs like this one that are false yet produce behaviours conducive to the four Fs. As such, these unreliable faculties are ‘rewarded’ by evolution. False and Useful.

        Conversely, consider a prehistoric man who comes to the conclusion that God does not exist (which is true since we are still presupposing materialistic naturalism). He is so overcome with despair at this conclusion that he kills himself. His cognitive faculties are reliable and have led him to a true belief that then resulted in a detrimental behaviour. Evolution then ‘punishes’ the genes for a reliable cognitive system. True and Detrimental.

        The conclusion here is that a useful belief is not necessarily true, nor a true belief useful. There certainly are instances where this is the case (e.g. the belief that eating avocados will stave your hunger and provide energy for hunting). The argument is not saying that evolution makes you have false beliefs. Rather, it’s saying that evolution only has the capabilities to select for cognitive functions that produce useful beliefs but not necessarily true beliefs (i.e. evolution ‘doesn’t care’ if you come to true conclusions or false conclusions as long as they help you survive).

        Now, we apply the reasoning to ourselves. We know that our cognitive faculties have evolved to produce useful beliefs. However, what guarantee do we have that our faculties can reliably produce true beliefs? Self examination won’t work because it presupposes our faculties are already reliable. It would be using our cognitive faculties to test our cognitive faculties. It’s like saying “I think I’m 6 feet tall and since I’m 6 feet tall, I’ll measure my height to my height”.

        I think our chief disagreement lies with the relationship between the usefulness and ‘truthiness’ of a belief. Would that be an accurate statement or have I misunderstood your perspective?

        • agnophilo says :

          I think that generally a belief that is accurate will be more useful than one that is inaccurate – and as I said since there is not a 1 to 1 relationship between genes and beliefs there is no “tigers turn you to stone” gene, there is rather genes for cognition which can, like any other gene, go wrong. So these general abilities will evolve depending on whether they are generally useful, not based on specific conclusions of individuals. Remember species evolve, not individuals. Also I take issue with both the notion that not believing in a god would make one suicidal (there are primitive tribes that don’t have any belief in gods that are perfectly happy and content). The depression that comes from losing faith is a result of having it to begin with, the same way a child who finds out santa isn’t real feels crushed but one that was never told santa was real to begin with feels fine. And just as pain is useful but can also be harmful/crippling but is still selected for because it is more useful than harmful (and is compensated by things like pain-killing endorphins), realistic understanding of one’s environment could easily be more useful than harmful. And honestly I can’t imagine we are not, at least in some sense, perceiving our reality accurately given that we can do so many things with it. I cannot imagine people being able to put a man on the moon when all their life is some whacked out delusion. Of course maybe we just dreamed that up too and it never happened, right? : P

          That being said our minds are full of irrational impulses, logical fallacies, our eyes play tricks with us, our memories deceive us etc, which is why as I said I think the key to reality is meta-thinking – thinking about thinking, being self-critical, examining multiple viewpoints etc.

      • caplawson says :

        As a point of clarification, I didn’t mean to imply that an atheistic worldview leads to suicide. I’m terribly sorry if I caused any offence in what I said. The purpose was to provide an example wherein a true belief could result in a behaviour which is not evolutionarily advantageous; in retrospect, there are better examples I could’ve used and I apologise. (As an alternative, let’s take a cue from Sherlock Holmes and use the belief that the Earth goes around the Sun. While this is true, there isn’t anything particularly evolutionarily advantageous about it.)

        After reviewing this conversation, it seems to me that there are two miscommunications going on.

        First, we seem to have different definitions of ‘true belief’. I’m using a more broad definition which is ‘any mental conviction that corresponds to reality’. It seems you have a more restricted definition of ‘realistic understanding of one’s environment’. However, there are many beliefs that are true and not a part of one’s environment. Mathematical truths, logical truths, metaphysical truths, and ethical truths for example cannot be found in the environment; they are independent of the environment.

        Second, I’m not saying that evolution selects for specific beliefs. Evolution selects for cognitive faculties. These cognitive faculties are what we use to arrive at specific beliefs. Now, imagine the set of all useful beliefs. Some of these beliefs are false, some of these beliefs are true. The subset of useful beliefs which are true (UTs) and the subset of useful beliefs which are false (UFs). If a set of cognitive functions can consistently arrive at Useful beliefs, evolution will select for it. So, as far as evolution is concerned, cognitive functions that reach all UTs are no different than functions that form all UFs or any mixture thereof.

        Let me try another analogy. Suppose there is a box filled with bowling balls and golf balls. Some of the golf balls are red, some are blue and the same goes for the bowling balls. I’m going to pick ten balls out of the box. Your job is to grade me on how well I pick out bowling balls. The catch is that you have to do it blindfolded. You shouldn’t have a problem telling the difference between a golf ball and a bowling ball while blindfolded. But, how would you tell the difference between a red bowling ball and a blue bowling ball? While blindfolded, you couldn’t! So, if I hand you ten red bowling balls, or ten blue bowling balls or five/five or seven/three or one/nine it’s all the same to you. I get the same grade with any combination of colours. With this in mind, these would be the substitutions:

        You = evolution
        Me = cognitive functions
        red bowling ball = Useful True belief
        blue bowling ball = Useful False belief
        red golf ball = NonUseful True belief
        blue golf ball = NonUseful False belief

        You give me a passing grade. Now, suppose Bob comes up to me and tells me to go back to the box and pick out all of the red balls. Would Bob, knowing agnophilo’s grading process, be justified in trusting that I could reliably pick out red balls? He doesn’t know what method I use. All he is guaranteed is that I can, somehow, reliably pick out bowling balls that may or may not be red. He isn’t even guaranteed that I can get a single golf ball, let alone all of the red ones.

        Obviously, this is an oversimplification as is the case with all analogies. In summary, if materialistic naturalism and evolution are true, then there isn’t a good reason to think our cognitive faculties can reliably form true beliefs.

        Finally, like you, I do believe that our cognitive faculties are reliable (otherwise, I wouldn’t be engaging in this great conversation). But, I reject one of the conjuncts of N&E, namely N. I think I’ve covered everything. Was there anything I skipped over or misrepresented?

        • agnophilo says :

          While it is true that we are literally blind to some things (like invisible radiation and that there could be other things we are oblivious to), The fact that there isn’t a 1 to 1 relationship between beliefs and genes to me seems to, while not debunk your notion of our fallibility, debunk the idea that we would necessarily be incapable of understanding reality because of the nature of natural selection. While yes there are probably genes which do give people a tendency to believe x, y, or z thing, like maybe people who are more prone to fear might be more likely to be racist, these are not absolutes, they are statistical variations which must exist in a situation where no two minds are identical. I do not think that someone is genetically pre-determined to accept a complex worldview or belief or not accept it except by simply being incapable of understanding it to begin with.

          As for the atheism leading to suicide thing – I’ve been told that sort of thing by christians for years. I recently was talking to a co-worker at a temp job and she suddenly turned to me and said “wait, are you atheist?” I said yes, and she said “but you’re so nice and friendly!” I asked her what she expected and she said she thought I’d be wearing all black and be depressed (and I assume she thought I would be an asshole/evil, but she didn’t say). Sadly this is a reaction I am very familiar with. But thank you for clarifying that you didn’t mean that, I do appreciate it.

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