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Evolutionary Naturalism, Theism, and Skepticism about the External World

Evolutionary Naturalism, Theism, and Skepticism about the External World (2000)

J. Wesley Robbins

In the closing chapter of Warrant and Proper Function Alvin Plantinga claims that the combination of naturalism (according to which there is no God as conceived of in traditional theism) and evolutionary theory (according to which our cognitive capabilities are the products of blind processes operating on genetic variations) is epistemologically self-defeating.[1] Plantinga’s argument for this claim is that the probability of the proposition that our cognitive capabilities are reliable, and thus produce largely true beliefs, given naturalism, a theory of evolution, and a list of those capabilities is either low or indeterminable.

In comments published in Faith and Philosophy,[2] I pointed out that, at best, Plantinga’s argument applies only to those evolutionary naturalists who hold what I will call here, following Indiana University philosopher of cognitive science Tim van Gelder,[3] a generically Cartesian picture of the nature of mind. His argument does not apply, I noted, to evolutionary naturalists who hold what I will call here a generically pragmatist view of mind.

Plantinga reiterates his claim in a recent review of Daniel Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea.[4] He concludes his review by saying “it seems to me that there is one respect Darwin’s dangerous idea is vastly more dangerous than Dennett realizes.”[5] Its intellectual danger, Plantinga claims, is that it gives its holders reason to doubt that any of their beliefs are true.[6] This is because “the probability that our cognitive faculties are reliable (i.e., furnish us with a preponderance of true beliefs) on Darwin’s dangerous idea is either low or inscrutable (i.e., impossible to estimate).”[7] Plantinga cites Dennett himself and Richard Rorty as evolutionary naturalists who fail to see this, the real intellectual danger of Darwin’s dangerous idea. Unfortunately for Plantinga’s case, Dennett and Rorty are evolutionary naturalists who explicitly reject generic Cartesianism and hold generically pragmatist views of mind. Plantinga’s error with respect to Dennett and Rorty is due to the flaw in his argument that I identified in my earlier comments. It applies, at best, only to evolutionary naturalists whose view of mind is generically Cartesian rather than generically pragmatist.

Generically Cartesian minds are not necessarily immaterial substances. Their distinctive feature is that their states and processes are inner, or subjective, in the sense of being identifiable without reference to any particular physical instantiation or to their surroundings. In that respect, contemporary functionalist views of the mind as the software of the brain are generically Cartesian. Generically pragmatist mental states, in contrast, are contextual in the sense that they are identifiable only with reference to their social and natural environment.

Specifically, the beliefs of a generically Cartesian mind are identifiable without reference to what in their holder’s environment caused them to form that belief. Since it is possible to identify them first and then ask what caused them, it is logically possible for the content of Cartesian beliefs and what is going on in the world around their holder to vary independently of one another. It is logically possible for what they are about and what caused them to be completely different from one another and thus for all of them to be false.

The beliefs of a generically pragmatist mind are only identifiable with reference to what in their holder’s environment caused them to form that belief. It is not possible to identify them first and then ask what caused them. Consequently, it is not possible for the content of pragmatist beliefs and what is going on in the world around their holder to vary independently of one another. It is not possible for what they are about and what caused them to be completely different from one another and thus for all of them to be false.

In his review, Plantinga accuses Dennett of arbitrarily demanding that Christians provide justificatory arguments for their belief in God when it is the product of an independent source of knowledge and rightfully held without argument. I completely agree with Plantinga that Christians have every right to believe in God without argument and are not unreasonable to do so. Philosophical pragmatists like myself have never been as fussy about what people have a right to believe as Cliffordian empiricists are. We take concepts like those of deity and physical objects to be, in Quine’s words, posits vis-à-vis the deliverances of our senses. Consequently, there are no logical rules that oblige us intellectually to believe or not believe in God or in physical objects given those inputs. People who form “spontaneous” beliefs about God in various circumstances violate no obligations worth mentioning so long as they don’t harm anyone by so doing. By the same token, people who want to associate their scientific activities with such “basic” beliefs about God, and thereby engage in “theistic science,” have every right to do so. That is just good pragmatism a la William James and “The Will to Believe.”

Unfortunately, Plantinga isn’t content to let it go at that. He won’t allow that evolutionary naturalists like Dennett, once disabused of their epistemological errors about theistic belief, are also free to promote “naturalistic science” without epistemological fault. Instead, Plantinga would have us believe that people like Dennett and Rorty are in such deep epistemological trouble that they can only promote their brand of science by engaging in self-deception and double-think. Evolutionary naturalists can carry on only by fooling themselves and others about the epistemological defect of their world view, papering it over with rhetorical flourishes that amount to intellectual whistling in the dark.

Plantinga cites Darwin himself as someone who, unlike Dennett and Rorty, may have been more willing to face up to the intellectual danger of evolutionary naturalism. “Darwin himself may perhaps have glimpsed this sinister presence coiled like a worm in the very heart of evolutionary naturalism: ‘with me,’ says Darwin, ‘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?'”

Clearly, Darwin’s “horrid doubt” only makes sense on the supposition that what natural selection has produced in us by operating on the minds of our lower animal ancestors is generically Cartesian minds, all of whose beliefs might be false. Equally clearly, Plantinga’s epistemological argument against evolutionary naturalism makes sense only on the same supposition. Neither Dennett nor Rorty suppose this. They hold that what we have inherited from our evolutionary ancestors are generically pragmatist minds and that, for such minds, it simply is not the case that all of their beliefs might be false.

Another way to put this point is to say that generically pragmatist minds are characterized by folk psychological beliefs and desires. Folk psychology, as elucidated by Donald Davidson,[8]Dennett,[9] and Rorty,[10] among others, is a vocabulary that enables us to ascribe mental states to one another with very superficial knowledge of our inner workings and, indeed, of the world around us. It relies heavily on correlating overt behavior with environmental occurrences in order to determine which mental states, beliefs for example, are which. The end product is a rough and ready way for us to predict and control each others’ behavior, and that of assorted other things on earth, in terms of these ascribed mental states. The folk psychological beliefs and desires of a generically pragmatist mind, thus, are functions of a particular interested stance that we take toward things, namely Dennett’s intentional stance.

Generally speaking, we ascribe folk psychological beliefs and desires to one another by correlating individuals’ behavior, linguistic and otherwise, with what is going on in their environment. Davidson describes the process this way. We learn our first words, like “cat” and “dog,” by being conditioned to exhibit certain linguistic behavioral responses in the presence of the right sorts of public objects and events. This direct causal interaction between our linguistic abilities and public things plays a central role in determining what our words mean and refer to. Since we all can express our thoughts in language, the same thing is true of thought. The content of our beliefs, then, is a function of the public objects and circumstances in which we learn words and sentences. What goes on inside of our heads figures in the causal chain between public objects spoken of and our linguistic outputs. It does not determine what our words mean or what our beliefs are about. In that respect, beliefs are like being sunburned. Both are states that we identify in one another with reference to their external causes. Thus, external surroundings play a crucial role indistinguishing one belief from another. For example, what distinguishes someone’s beliefs about cats from their beliefs about other things is asocial history of having been conditioned to be caused to use certain words in appropriate ways by the presence of cats in their environment.

Clearly minds characterized by folk psychological beliefs and desires, unlike generically Cartesian minds, are not logically distinct from their environment. The contextuality of their beliefs disqualifies such minds from being filled with representations of their environment that are logically independent from it . Folk psychological beliefs are not separate enough from the rest of the world to be independently identifiable symbolic stand-ins, in their holder’s mind and/or language, for things outside of that inner logical space. This is the feature of folk psychology that Davidson is talking about when he says that “beliefs are true or false, but they represent nothing.” Since folk psychological beliefs are not things that we can identify first and then ask what caused them, there is no way for a set of such beliefs in toto to be about things other than their causes and thus all be false. These considerations are the basis for Davidson’s contention that the preponderance of our beliefs must be true.

The upshot is this. Evolutionary naturalists who think that folk psychology as construed by Davidson is cognitive psychology enough for ordinary everyday purposes [this includes both Rorty and Dennett] are not stuck with Plantinga’s defeater of trust in our cognitive abilities. Just the opposite. Davidson spells out the epistemological consequence of the generically pragmatist view of mind. “If words and thoughts are, in the most basic cases, necessarily about the sorts of objects and events that cause them, there is no room for Cartesian doubts about the independent existence of such objects and events. Doubts there can be, of course. But there need be nothing we are indubitably right about for it to be certain that we are mostly right about the nature of the world.”[11]

Darwin’s “horrid doubt,” thus, has nothing to do with skeptical consequences entailed by evolutionary naturalism, which people like Dennett and Rorty try to hide from themselves and the rest of us. This doubt is the function of an optional view of our minds, the generically Cartesian one. It doesn’t take Reformed epistemology to remove that doubt. It just takes a reminder of how we deploy psychological terms every day of our lives.

Plantinga’s defeater for evolutionary naturalism does not apply to those who hold a generically pragmatist view of mind. Evolutionary naturalists who think that mindless natural selection gave us generically pragmatist, not generically Cartesian, minds have no reason whatever to concern themselves with the possibility that all of their beliefs are false. We know when we ascribe beliefs to one another that, in the crucial instances, they are about the sorts of things that cause us to hold them. We thus can be quite sure that the preponderance of them are true.

Plantinga quotes Rorty to the effect that the idea that we humans are unique among all species in being oriented toward Truth is un-Darwinian. He takes Rorty’s remark to illustrate the real epistemological dangerousness of Darwin’s idea. If we take Darwin seriously, and suppose that we are not oriented toward Truth, Plantinga seems to think that this means we are would-be representers of the world for whom evolution has supplied no built-in compass to direct us toward achieving that goal.

Actually, Rorty’s meaning is quite different. He is not saying that we are would-be representers of the world whom Darwin leaves with no built-in orientation toward that which we are supposed to be representing in our thoughts. He is saying that we can use Darwin to reassert the value of a folk psychologically based intellectual self-image against generic Cartesianism. If we do so, we will think of our minds as devices that fashion and refashion tools in the form of folk psychological beliefs and desires for coping with the world rather than as devices that are supposed to form accurate representations of the world. This intellectual self-image has none of the skeptical consequences that Plantinga tries to pin on evolutionary naturalism.

What Plantinga has shown to be self-defeating, if anything, is the generically Cartesian view of our minds, a view which, if I am not mistaken, he himself holds. His claim that evolutionary naturalism per se is epistemologically self-defeating is simply mistaken. As I have shown here, it depends on whether evolutionary naturalists happen to hold a generically Cartesian view of mind. Plantinga fails to recognize that the two are not coextensive.

Generic Cartesianism generates the problem of knowledge of the external world and the specter of skepticism. If we think of ourselves in that way, we suppose that our beliefs represent something. But we are unable even to begin determining whether they correspond to what they are supposed to represent. We are stuck with conflicting, competing epistemological and metaphysical theories that are designed to resolve that problem. This is exactly the philosophical context in which the so-called evidentialist objections to theistic belief occur on the one hand and, on the other, Plantinga’s epistemological objections to evolutionary naturalism.

The generically pragmatist view of mind, in contrast, dissolves the problem of knowledge of the external world. If we think of ourselves in this way, the connection of our beliefs and desires to the world is never in doubt. Furthermore, as William James said of what he called “the pragmatic method,” the generically pragmatist view of mind is theologically neutral. Minds characterized by folk psychological beliefs and desires can be explained as a creation of God or as the product of blindly operating natural selection. However they are produced, such minds are not liable to be so disconnected from their environment that all of their beliefs are false. In which case, there is nothing to choose between evolutionary naturalism and theism so far as epistemological and metaphysical solutions to the problem of knowledge of the external world are concerned.

This, I suggest, is as it should be. So long as we have both theists and evolutionary naturalists in our midst, our society is well served to have the connection, or lack thereof, of our minds to the rest of the world removed as a source of culture war. Both parties should be free, both legally and intellectually, to place human mentality in whichever religious context they see fit. Time will tell which, if either, is the more successful view of the world. We should not let epistemological arguments of the sort that Plantinga tries to mount against evolutionary naturalism, not to mention the evidentialist objections of yore, foreclose that ongoing experiment.


[1] Alvin Plantinga, Warrant and Proper Function (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

[2] J. Wesley Robbins, “Is Naturalism Irrational?” Faith and Philosophy, Vol. 11, No. 2, April 1994, pp. 255-259.

[3] Tim van Gelder, “What Might Cognition Be, If Not Computational?” The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 92, No. 7, July 1995, p. 379.

[4] Alvin Plantinga, “Darwin, Mind and Meaning.” This review essay first appeared in the May/June 1996 issue of Books and Culture. The version cited here was downloaded from <URL:http://www.veritas-ucsb.org/library/plantinga/Dennett.html>.

[5] Plantinga, op. cit., p. 9.

[6] Plantinga, op. cit.., p. 10.

[7] Plantinga, op. cit., p. 10.

[8] Davidson, Donald, “The Myth of the Subjective.” In Relativism: Interpretation and Confrontation, edited with an Introduction by Michael Krausz, 159-172. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989).

[9] Dennett, Daniel, “Three Kinds of Intentional Psychology.” In Folk Psychology and the Philosophy of Mind, edited by Scott M. Christensen and Dale R. Turner, 121-143. (Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1993).

[10] Rorty, Richard, “Consciousness, Intentionality, and Pragmatism.” In Folk Psychology and the Philosophy of Mind, edited by Scott M. Christensen and Dale R. Turner, 388-404. (Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1993).

[11] Davidson, op. cit., p. 165.

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