A Presuppositional Critique of Naturalism
If apologetics is one of your passions, and you haven’t yet read Alvin Plantinga’s book, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism, I suggest you fix as quickly as possible. Most of what I am going to say in this short post comes from Plantinga’s work.
Naturalism, in general, is the view that everything is natural, i.e. that everything there is, belongs to the world of nature, and so can be studied by the methods appropriate for studying that world, and the apparent exceptions can be somehow explained away. [Oxford Companion to Philosophy, 640] So, a naturalist is going to dismiss anything supernatural out of hand. Any source that makes supernatural claims will be summarily dismissed as unreliable, implausible, and unwarranted. One method for debating with a naturalist employs arguments and evidence, most of which come from Scripture. There is absolutely nothing wrong with employing Scripture in this way. That is one option and it is a good and acceptable one. But it isn’t the only method open to the Christian. I want to talk about another method: the presuppositional method.
One of the tactics I have employed now for years is to put the naturalist or the individual on the defensive side of the conversation, not that I am attacking them and forcing them to defend their worldview. But rather, I do this in a way that simply asks questions and as I hear explanations, I ask more questions. It becomes a conversation about their worldview and sooner than later, about the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The first thing every Christian has to understand is that there is no such thing as neutrality. Greg Bahnsen rightfully says, “The plea for Christians to surrender to neutrality in their thinking is not an uncommon one. Nevertheless it strikes at the very heart of our faith and of our faithfulness to the Lord.” [Banhsen, Always Ready] The idea of neutrality on matters like this has its origin in Pelagianism and pagan Greek philosophy and should be avoided at all costs. The Christian is to make sure the unbeliever feels the full weight of the divine imperative.
As a presuppositionalist, I like to employ a transcendental argument type most of the time when interacting with opponents of the gospel. A TA simply asks the question, in order for the condition X to obtain, what else must be the case. In other words, what must be the case in order for X to be the case? We are asking what the necessary condition is in order for X to obtain. Now, I want to return to the naturalist, the person that believes that all that exists is the natural world and that everything that happens in the natural world must have a natural explanation.
In Where the Conflict Really Lies, Alvin Plantinga argues that there is a real conflict between naturalism and the scientific theory of evolution. Now, since naturalism worships at the altar or science, this would be a real problem if it turns out to be true. What is the conflict? Naturalism tells us what reality is ultimately like, where we fit into the universe, how we are related to other creatures, and how it happens that we came to be. [Plantinga] But this philosophy, this worldview is supposedly based on a complete naturalistic understanding and explanation of a world that is purely natural at its core.
The problem begins in the human cognitive faculties. These faculties include things like memory, perception, introspection, a priori intuition, morality, etc. Now, according to naturalism, human beings, and this includes our cognitive faculties, are the product of a purposeless, cobbled together by natural selection. As Barry Stroud said, “There is an embarrassing absurdity in [naturalism] that is revealed as soon as the naturalist reflects and acknowledges that he believes his naturalistic theories of the world…I mean he cannot say it and consistently regard it as true. Patricia Churchland says, “Boiled down to essentials, a nervous system enables the organism to succeed in the four F’s: feeding, fleeing, fighting, and reproducing.”
Churchland goes on to admit that if it is true that our cognitive faculties have arisen by way of the mechanism and processes proposed by contemporary evolutionary theory, this gives us reason to doubt two things: (a) that a purpose of our cognitive systems is that of serving us with true beliefs, and (b) that they do, in fact, furnish us with mostly true beliefs. Darwin himself expressed the same doubt when he wrote, “With me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would anyone trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?”
With this in mind, we push forward to the thrust of my argument: if naturalism is true, and men evolved from primordial life forms over millions of years, then how can anyone trust the human cognitive faculties? To put it in a syllogism, Plantinga’s argument is as follows:
- If naturalism and evolutionary theory are true, then my cognitive faculties are very likely not reliable.
- Naturalism and evolutionary theory are in fact true.
- Therefore, my cognitive faculties are very likely not reliable.
- If my cognitive faculties are very likely not reliable, then I should probably not believe any beliefs that are formed using my cognitive faculties.
- The belief that naturalism and evolutionary theory is true is a belief formed using my cognitive faculties.
- Therefore, it is unlikely that naturalism and evolutionary theory is true because they are based on an unreliable belief-forming mechanism.
As Plantinga points out, if we truly believe in naturalism and evolutionary theory, we clearly have a defeater for our intuitive assumption that our cognitive faculties are reliable. Now, we bring this back to the transcendental argument. The necessary condition that must exist in order for naturalism to be the case is the reliability of the cognitive faculties. And since we had demonstrated that on a purely naturalistic understanding of reality, that condition cannot obtain, it follows that naturalism crumbles to the ground because it rests on a belief that is self-referentially incoherent as Plantinga calls is.
And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Cor. 1:30-31)