The Naturalist: An Overzealous Peacock

You know the saying, “The best defense is a good offense?” With defending belief in God, I find a very different tactic to be worthwhile. Instead of attacking the opposition’s premises, the more prudent route would be to permit, even to encourage, those who raise objections against belief in God to explain themselves. Like a peacock, let the so-called rational objectors spread their feathers.

After examining the feathers—their beliefs and arguments—for an alternative worldview, you begin to notice that it has its own difficulties.  Sometimes the problems are obvious.  Sometimes they are subtle.  All the same, the beliefs and arguments that are antithetical to theism begin to unravel in a series of intriguing problems and puzzles.

One overzealous peacock in competition with theism is naturalism, a worldview advocated by atheists that they find more plausible than theism.  Naturalism strives to reduce all of reality to natural phenomena (explanations), while negating all supernatural explanations.  You don’t need the superfluous, superstitious, supernatural or religious stories when you have naturalism, silly.  Sounds simple and intuitive enough, right?  Don’t get too hasty.  Don’t buy this beautiful bird without a critical examination first; even an observant naturalist would encourage rational prudency over quick acquiescence.

Atheists, like Timothy Williamson, and theists, like Alvin Plantinga, respectively characterize naturalism as a “dogma” or a “quasi-religion” because it purports to answer certain questions about reality. In the words of Williamson, “there is only the natural world, and the best way to find out about it is by the scientific method.” Plantinga additionally notes that naturalism includes a materialistic belief, that “human beings are material objects and neither are nor contain immaterial souls or selves.”

So, on naturalism, if we don’t possess souls, and if God is not the Creator of the Heavens and Earth, then how has it all come to be? How have we human beings come to be? In response to the latter question, the naturalist-rabbi would rub his (naturally-grown) stubble and say something like, “Why, we are the latest creatures to come about through a process of natural selection, m’boy!” All of the currently available scientific evidence supports natural selection.  Natural selection is thus the ontological, quasi-religious answer proposed by naturalism.  Praised be the salient aspects of the geological record! Gloried be the astonishing genetic similarities found in all living things!

By now we have a more nuanced understanding of naturalism.  We know that naturalism is itself composed of several principles of belief.  Firstly, it’s most sacred epistemological discipline is some sort of strict application of the scientific method.  Secondly, it embraces materialism, the belief that only physical things exist.  Thirdly, in opposition to nihilism, naturalism grants the possibility that you can obtain certain true beliefs about the world.  Lastly, all of creation is attributed to a process of natural selection.

Let us denote naturalism as so: (N).  Remember (N) and the four things it represents.  While I’ve found an elaboration of the first three principles to be wanting, let’s move on to inquire more about natural selection.

A naturalist will affirm the general characterization of natural selection found in the words of Darwin himself:

“[N]atural selection is daily and hourly scrutinizing, throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest; rejecting that which is bad, preserving and adding up all that is good; silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers, at the improvement of each organic being in relation to its organic or inorganic conditions of life.”

Natural selection preserves whatever proves to be good and discards whatever is bad.  Natural selection is here, it is there, it is truly everywhere.  This all has the ironic ring of religious rhetoric and serves as a source of inspiration for many naturalists.

Nevertheless, Darwin’s poetic characterization of natural selection requires clarification. What does it mean for natural selection to “reject that which is bad,” or to “preserve all that is good?” What constitutes the “improvement of each organic being…?” The answer to these questions will be met with resistance from naturalists, and only naturally it does; within the answer lies an inconvenient conclusion that they have to confirm.

On natural selection, our behavior is adaptive, enabling us to engage in the activities of survival and procreation. It is this “adaptive” behavior that answers our previous questions.  Again, what does it mean for natural selection to “reject that which is bad,” or to “preserve all that is good?” Natural selection rejects those behaviors that are not conducive to survival and reproduction while preserving those behaviors that are conducive to survival and reproduction.

For example, a single woman who masters facebook as a social network can utilize it to her advantage in her search for a mate.  She can avail herself to those facebook members in whom she sees promise.  Perhaps she accomplishes this by “liking” a number of facebook posts published by some intriguing guy.  She might also write an “lol” to a joke that he posted, when, between to you and me, the guy’s joke really wasn’t all that funny.

This sort of theorizing about social behavior on facebook, whether it is based on rigorous research or mere speculation, is inspired from the most uncontroversial principle of natural selection.  It is that our behavior is adaptive in a way that is conducive to survival and reproduction.  Let’s call that principle (E) for short.

(E) is the principle that our behavior is adaptive in a way that is conducive to survival and reproduction.

Though theists can comfortably agree to a form of (E), there lies a devastating conclusion for the naturalists when we consider (N) and (E) together.  Given (N) and (E), natural selection is unguided. Assuming unguided natural selection, where everything is selected to ensure our survival and the survival of our genes, is the truth of our beliefs, is the very content of what we believe, actually relevant? Does truth matter to survival?

You see, the thing is, given (N) and (E) there is no reason to find one’s thoughts and cognition to be reliable.  Who says that natural selection selects true beliefs over false ones that allow us to survive?  In order to survive and to procreate, our beliefs certainly don’t have to be true.  Unguided natural selection doesn’t have to ensure your successful search for truth in addition to your survival, birdbrain.

After a moments’ hesitation, perhaps for an annoyed rolling-of-the-eyes, a naturalist might amend her claim to something like, “It should be obvious that our ability to survive and to procreate raises the likelihood that our beliefs about the world are true.  Our beliefs are very likely to be true by virtue of the fact that we’ve both made it this far in our ancestor-descendant line.”  This appeal is about as helpless and as futile as it was for me to google the evolutionary development of a peacocks’ prefrontal cortex.

There is a difference between the content of our beliefs, and the behavior induced by them.  In a reality where (N) holds true, the content of our beliefs is independent of the fact that the behavior induced by them is adaptive.  For example, a med school student takes a life-preserving antibiotic while appreciating the minutia of its medicinal effects.  I take an antibiotic, because it is life preserving, but with a distinctly separate and comparatively primitive understanding of medicine.  Same behavior.  Different beliefs.

In such a reality, we can actually hold whatever beliefs we want up there in that neural soup called a brain.  So long as principle (E) is satisfied, you can believe whatever you want.  Whatever beliefs do not succeed in (E) are rejected while those beliefs that succeed in (E) are preserved.  Those beliefs could be true.  They could also be false.  (So why not believe in God, who encouraged mankind to care for its environment, to be fruitful and multiply?  That seems to jive with (E) quite nicely.)

Furthermore, there is a 50-50 chance that our beliefs are, in fact, true. Given the myriad of beliefs anyone might have, the chance of most of our beliefs being true is very low.  It’s like flipping a coin many times and naively expecting all flips to turn up Tails.  Now, throw into the mix our cognitive faculties, this would include things like memory, perception, sight, and intuition.  Our cognitive faculties are the apparati by which we derive said “true” beliefs.  They too, according to naturalists, have emerged from an unguided process of natural selection.

Thus, given (N&E), we have good reason to believe that the reliability of our cognitive faculties is extremely low.  (N&E) is the ideal mishmash of principles that lead us to conclude that we’re just machines whose genes are selected for nothing other than our ability to have adaptive behavior.  Given (N&E) Naturalists are fond of the satirical description of alluding to God as appealing to a “blind watchmaker.”  All they have to do now is to admit, under (N&E), that this blindness would aptly describe ourselves as well.  Why would anyone, then, be rationally compelled to additionally put stock in concepts like feminism, politics, the value of corny jokes, or a dual education?  To a naturalist, these things are all devoted in fulfilling the service of (E), but let me remind you, (E) does not select for truth.

This reveals that the naturalist’s own beliefs discredit themselves. This type of problem is known as a “defeater” for a specific worldview. A defeater is a set of beliefs that are incompatible with one another.  The rationale in support of one set of beliefs is used to undermine the rationale in support of the other.  The beliefs (N&E) undermine the reliability of our cognitive faculties.  If the reliability of our cognitive faculties are undermined, then the beliefs we derive from them are undermined as well.

William Craig nicely summarizes the defeater:

[I]f naturalism was true, the probability that our cognitive faculties would be reliable [given naturalism and evolution] is pretty low. For those faculties have been shaped by a process of natural selection which does not select for truth but merely for survival. There are many ways in which an organism could survive without its beliefs’ being true. Hence, if naturalism were true, we could not have any confidence that our beliefs are true, including the belief in naturalism itself! Thus, naturalism seems to have a built-in defeater that renders it incapable of being rationally affirmed.

We have uncovered a serious problem that the naturalist must confront. It is a problem with their own belief in unguided natural selection, about which the content of our beliefs are irrelevant, so long as they promote evolutionary fitness. If naturalists maintain that beliefs are, in fact, relevant to our survival, then the naturalist is tasked with explaining how naturalism is itself a reliable set of beliefs.

The naturalist might consider making an about-face from the false sense of security that she derives from her physics or biology laboratory. She could cease her habitually trivializing the reliability of our cognitive faculties to explain how, through natural selection, she can confidently come to believe that naturalism is true. Let’s not forget, these are the same faculties from which we infer spirituality and the supernatural.

When a naturalist parades their rationale around long enough, the impotency of their worldview begins to reveal itself.  A naturalist’s internally inconsistent dogma renders the idea of naturalism from an aggressive peacock to that of a lame duck.



R = “Our cognitive faculties are reliable.”

n = Naturalism

e = Natural Selection

D = “One has a defeater for [1]”

C = “Your cognitive faculties lead you to believe that [1] is true”

(1) Pr(R|n&e) < i

(2) (n&e) & (1) → Dr

(3) Dr → (x)(Cx → Dx)

(4) Cn

(5) Dn

1. Pr(R/N&E) is low

2. Anyone who accepts or believes N&E 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 any other belief she thinks she has, including N&E itself

4. If one who accepts N&E thereby acquires a defeater for N&E, N&E is self-defeating and can’t rationally be accepted

conclusion: N&E can’t rationally be accepted


This defeater for naturalism is attributed to Alvin Plantinga.

Due to technical difficulties, there are no footnotes for this article. For a complete list of the author’s sources, please contact: [email protected]