naturalism, philosophy

Naturalism and Groundless Truth

I’ve been reflecting on the concept of “Warrant” a lot as I’m reading through Alvin Plantinga’s trilogy on Warrant (including the books Warrant: The Current Debate, Warrant and Proper Function, and Warranted Christian Belief). Just how is it that we can claim that someone is justified or warranted in believing something? This got me thinking on naturalism. I remember an example someone quoted as being Plantingian in origin (edit: I’ve finally figured out where I originally read it: it’s found in a similar form in Warrant and Proper Function), but I’d like to use my own version of what I remember from his example. I do not believe that, on naturalism in particular, but atheism in general, there can be any grounds for believing that we as humans have the cognitive means by which we can discover truth. Further, on naturalism specifically and atheism in general, there is no reason to suppose that what we regard as “truth” is in fact truth.

I think perhaps the best way to argue this would be by using an example (and it is in this example that I borrow from Plantinga… I think. It has been heavily modified by myself into a form that doesn’t resemble the original form that I remember all that much). Let us consider the case of Tim the Tiger Lover and Suzy the Warrior.

Tim the Tiger Lover has formed false beliefs that a) wild tigers are warm and cuddly and b) the best way to pet them is to sneak away from them silently. Suzy the Warrior has formed the beliefs that a) wild tigers are ferocious critters and b) they must be killed to insure the survival of mankind.

Tim and Suzy are walking through the jungle one day, when they spot in the distance a tiger. Now, Tim immediately begins joyfully sneaking away, believing that he will soon be petting that warm, cuddly tiger. Suzy dashes forward to attempt to strangle the beast with her bare hands. Suzy dies, though it seems clear that her beliefs were at least partially true (wild tigers are indeed ferocious). Tim, however, succeeds in escaping and surviving, despite this not actually being his goal.

Now, on naturalism, it seems quite obvious that Tim has succeeded. He has survived, and will thus pass his genes on to the next generation. Indeed, it seems quite likely he will pass along his false beliefs as well. For let us modify the scenario only slightly and say that it was quite dark. While Suzy was being torn to bits by the tiger, Tim happened upon a tiger cub or some other beast he took to be a tiger cub. He immediately, happily danced with it and cuddled it for a while before sneaking away to go home, having quite happily reinforced his false beliefs. So Tim, with his false beliefs enforced by some data that they are in fact true (after all, he sneaked away quietly from the tiger and managed to pet tigers), also manages to survive, and therefore pass along his genes and his false beliefs.

But this means that, on naturalism, Tim has succeeded! His genes have been passed on, and he has, in a way, won the race for survival by having done so. But if this is the case, then why should we not suppose that there are any number of these cases in fact? For there is no reason to suppose that, granting atheistic naturalism, this case and many hundreds, thousands, millions etc. of others should not be actual. Indeed, there seems to be no non-question-begging way for naturalism to claim that evolution in particular or naturalism in general is truth-oriented or truth-seeking.

Why should we then, on naturalism or atheism, suppose that we even have the cognitive capability to learn truth or discover it? The most common answer that has been given is that it is to our evolutionary advantage to know truth and use it. But this, as seen in the case above, does not seem to be true all the time, and there really is no reason to suppose it must be true any of the time. I’ll grant that we must at least learn some truths if evolution is true in order to survive, but why suppose that our species is necessarily truth-seeking? It seems clear to me that there is no reason to suppose this, and thus there is no reason to think that, granting naturalism and atheism, we should think that we know the truth or indeed can know it! For our evolutionary past could be  utterly filled to the brim with Tim the Tiger Seekers! There are any number of beliefs that we hold now, from our evolutionary forefathers, that are in fact utterly false! But we have no reason to know that or even be able to discover that, especially if they are falsely confirmed!

So if naturalism and atheism are indeed true, then there is no reason at all to suppose that anything we know constitutes true knowledge or true beliefs. There is no ground for truth in naturalism, and indeed I believe there is sufficient reason to think that naturalism would likely have us forming all kinds of false beliefs, without ever finding out otherwise. Sure, we may eventually eliminate some of them, but only while we are forming more false beliefs in the meantime!

Thus, I find this another reason to reject naturalism, which I’ve already discussed as being unintelligible and undermining things it should hold most dear.

About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.

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  1. Pingback: Naturalism: Self-Defeating, Unintelligible, and Ungrounded (Among Other Problems) « - March 30, 2010

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