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Is Atheistic Naturalism Inherently Inconsistent?

Updated on February 7, 2013

The increase in atheism, particularly in the form of naturalistic atheism, in the modern age has led to endless debates over whether God exists or not. Most of these debates have involved arguments trying to contend for why one view or the other has more evidence in its support - evolutionary theory is said to support that there is no God, for example. Or the existence of a supposed 'inherent moral sense' is evidence that there is a God. And etc.

In the past few decades, however, some theists have proposed a couple of different arguments contending that atheism is inherently inconsistent. In the development of these arguments, an entirely new form of logical fallacy has been developed: self-referential incoherence. If a philosophy, religion, worldview or whathaveyou cannot be proven based on its own presuppositions, it must be false.

That was a dense sentence, and a difficult one to explain. Let's look at some of the arguments and see if we can make some sense of it.

C.S. Lewis
C.S. Lewis | Source

C.S. Lewis and the Argument From Reason

C.S. Lewis, known both for his literature (e.g. The Chronicles of Narnia) and his writings on theology and philosophy (Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain, etc), wrote one of his longest and most complex books on Christianity, entitled Miracles in 1960 (3 years before his death). In this book, C.S. Lewis offered a brief, rather undeveloped argument about the logical inconsistency of atheism that has since been called 'the argument from reason.'

Lewis basically argues this: Naturalism is the idea that the universe is a 'closed system.' That is, there is nothing outside of natural forces that explains what happens in the universe. This requires believing that, ultimately, there is no intelligence behind what happens in the universe (no God, nothing) - all that happens is ultimately 'chance' - the result of ultimately meaningless natural causes and forces that have no reason behind them. This means that our minds are also the results of accidents. How, then, can we trust our minds to come to true beliefs? How, then, can we come to know that there is no God in the first place? Our minds can't be trusted since they are the result of accidents.

In Miracles he writes: "A theory which explained everything else in the whole universe but which made it impossible to believe that our thinking was valid, would be utterly out of court. For that theory would itself have been reached by thinking, and if thinking is not valid that theory would, of course, be itself demolished. It would have destroyed its own credentials. It would be an argument which proved that no argument was sound-a proof that there are no such things as proofs-which is nonsense. Thus a strict materialism refutes itself for the reason given long ago by Professor Haldane: `If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true ... and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.'" [Haldane, J.B.S., "Possible Worlds," Chatto & Windus: London, 1927, p.209] But Naturalism, even if it is not purely materialistic, seems to me to involve the same difficulty, though in a somewhat less obvious form. It discredits our processes of reasoning or at least reduces their credit to such a humble level that it can no longer support Naturalism itself."

Lewis explains a similar point in The Case for Christianity: ‎”Supposing there was no intelligence behind the universe, no creative mind. In that case, nobody designed my brain for the purpose of thinking. It is merely that when the atoms inside my skull happen, for physical or chemical reasons, to arrange themselves in a certain way, this gives me, as a by-product, the sensation I call thought. But, if so, how can I trust my own thinking to be true? It’s like upsetting a milk jug and hoping that the way it splashes itself will give you a map of London. But if I can’t trust my own thinking, of course I can’t trust the arguments leading to Atheism, and therefore have no reason to be an Atheist, or anything else. Unless I believe in God, I cannot believe in thought: so I can never use thought to disbelieve in God.”

Basically, if atheism is true there would be no way to know that it were true. We cannot prove atheistic naturalism to be true if we accept the premises of atheistic naturalism. If it is true, it must be false.

Recently, Victor Reppert has written a book discussing, building upon, and defending C.S. Lewis's argument: C.S. Lewis's Dangerous Idea.

Philosopher Alvin Plantinga
Philosopher Alvin Plantinga | Source

Alvin Plantinga

More recently, renowned philosopher Alvin Plantinga (at the University of Notre Dame) has offered an argument along similar lines, which has come to be called the 'Evolutionary argument against naturalism.'

Plantinga is more specific about the details of evolutionary theory. He is not arguing against evolution per se, in fact both Lewis and Plantinga believe in a form theistic evolution (that creatures have evolved under Divine guidance). But he is arguing that naturalistic evolution, evolution taking place merely as the outworking of ultimately accidental, irrational, natural causes is itself an inconsistent viewpoint.

The most important part of his argument is his contention that the ability to come to true beliefs - to have a mind that has any ability to come to any truth whatsoever - could not have merely evolved through purely natural causes. The ability to come to true beliefs has no inherent survival value. What matters for survival is what you do not what you believe. Therefore, the survival of the fittest does not mean that the fittest have working minds. It just means that, for whatever reason, they have engaged in behaviors that lead to a higher survival rate. He gives hypothetical examples of a pre-historic human being who has a high survival ability, but does not necessarily come to true beliefs.

Plantinga writes: "Perhaps Paul very much likes the idea of being eaten, but when he sees a tiger, always runs off looking for a better prospect, because he thinks it unlikely the tiger he sees will eat him. This will get his body parts in the right place so far as survival is concerned, without involving much by way of true belief. ... Or perhaps he thinks the tiger is a large, friendly, cuddly pussycat and wants to pet it; but he also believes that the best way to pet it is to run away from it. ... Clearly there are any number of belief [and] desire systems that equally fit a given bit of behaviour." (from the book Warrant and Proper Function).

The ability to come to true beliefs could not have evolved through random, natural, causes - or else we could not trust our minds whatsoever. If naturalism is true, our minds cannot be trusted since there is nothing to necessitate that they evolved with an ability to come to true beliefs. Once again, then, if naturalism is true, naturalism cannot be proven to be true because our minds cannot be trusted. It is Plantinga that coins the phrase 'self-referential incoherence' to explain this sort of logical inconsistency: an idea is incoherent when it cannot prove itself on its own grounds (prove itself with reference to itself).

Below are a few of Alvin Plantinga's most influential books:

Some have pointed out that Darwin himself noted this potential problem with naturalistic evolutionary theory. He wrote: "But then 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 any one trust in the convictions of a monkey's mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?"

What do you think? If there is no God can our mind be trusted? Does Naturalism prove itself wrong? Is it 'self-referentially incoherent'?

Alvin Plantinga on the Evolutionary Argument Against Atheism


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      newenglandsun 4 years ago

      Sorry, the majority of your arguments here are either straw-man or severely outdated.

      Michael Ruse has a response to the EAAN in a book entitled The Cultures of Creationism available on Amazon.