apologetics, naturalism, philosophy

Naturalism: Self-Defeating, Unintelligible, and Ungrounded (Among Other Problems)

Naturalism is self-defeating.

Naturalism’s “Grand Story” (I’m unsure of who exactly coined this phrase) includes evolution as the means by which humanity arrived on earth. I’m not here to debate that. Rather, I think that Alvin Plantinga’s “Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism” has some fairly hefty weight (see Warrant The Current Debate and Warranted Christian Belief for this argument). The argument basically goes like this:

1) On naturalism, evolution selected for our cognitive system

2) On evolution, it is what is beneficial for survival that is selected (with some exceptions–some animals are just unlucky)

3) Therefore, our cognitive system was selected for survival

4) What is beneficial for survival is not necessarily what is true (in an objective sense)

5) Therefore, we can’t know (on naturalism) that our cognitive system is truth-seeking

6) If we can’t trust our cognitive system, but we come to the conclusion that naturalism is true, then we can’t trust this conclusion

7) Therefore, naturalism is self-defeating

Now take 4). It seems to be clearly true that evolution does not select for true belief, if it selects for beliefs at all. Take an example I stole from Plantinga earlier (here)

“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” (Wartick).

To put it another way:

Take N to be metaphysical naturalism, P to be probability, R is the proposition that our cognitive facilities are reliable, and E is the proposition that our cognitive facilities have developed directly by way of the mechanisms to which contemporary evolutionary theory directs our attention.

Now P(R/N&E) seems to be low (see above). “One who accepts N… has a defeater for R. This induces a defeater, for him, for any belief produced by his cognitive facilities, including N itself; hence, ordinary naturalism is self-defeating” (Plantinga, 231).

Thus, it seems unlikely to me that naturalism can even find grounds for warranted belief on its own basis for warrant. But that’s not where the problems end. Naturalism has a major problem with consciousness.

Naturalism cannot explain consciousness.

I quote my fellow blogger, Chris Reese and outline what physicalist philosophers are saying about consciousness:

[P]hilosopher of mind . . . Ned Block . . . confesses that we have
no idea how consciousness could have emerged from nonconscious matter: “we have nothing—zilch—worthy of being called a research programme…. Researchers are stumped.”6

Berkeley’s John Searle says this is a “leading problem in the biological sciences.”7

Jaegwon Kim notes our “inability” to understand consciousness in an “essentially physical” world.8

Colin McGinn observes that consciousness seems like “a radical novelty in the universe”; 9  he wonders how our “technicolour” awareness could “arise from soggy grey matter.”10

David Papineau wonders why consciousness emerges: “to this question physicalists’ ‘theories of consciousness’ seem to provide no answer.”11

If, however, we have been made by a supremely self-aware Being, then the existence of consciousness has a plausible context.

Physicalism goes so far as to deny consciousness. I take it as self-evident that I do have consciousness. It seems entirely unintelligible to me to deny this. But then naturalists cannot even explain it. They are unable to understand it in a “physical” world. Perhaps the answer is that there is more to the world than the physical. But due to the presuppositions of the naturalist, they cannot accept this possibility.

Naturalism denies freedom of the will.

Freedom of the will is another problem for the naturalist. If all we are is, ultimately, matter in motion, then how is that we have freedom of the will? Since the big bang, matter has simply been bumping against each other in a way that was determined by the big bang. Every path is planned out by the laws of nature.

Thus, naturalism denies freedom of the will, it denies consciousness, and it refutes itself. These are but a few problems I raise against naturalism (see my other posts on the topic here and here). I thus deny naturalism its right for philosophical dominance of my (free) mind.


Plantinga, Alvin. Warranted Christian Belief. Oxford. 2000.

Wartick, J.W. “Naturalism and Groundless Truth.” https://jwwartick.com/2010/01/02/naturalism-and-groundless-truth/


The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author.

About J.W. Wartick

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


6 thoughts on “Naturalism: Self-Defeating, Unintelligible, and Ungrounded (Among Other Problems)

  1. “Naturalism denies that we have consciousness.”

    No it doesn’t. None of your quotes even say that. All they say is that we aren’t sure how. Saying we don’t know is not the same as saying it doesn’t exist.

    This strawman you’ve constructed and call ‘naturalism’ is self-defeating. But so what? I can build and knock down strawmen all day as well. It doesn’t matter to reality.

    Posted by morsec0de | March 30, 2010, 1:47 PM
    • I suppose none of the quotes demonstrated it clearly enough.My thrust against consciousness I was taking naturalism as physicalism. I’ll concede that. Perhaps Jaegwon Kim can clarify. In Mind in a Physical World, he argues that naturalists must “admit the irreality of the mental.” Mental states are nothing. They are just physical phenomena. I shall rephrase my post, thank you for the clarifications.

      “Saying we don’t know is not the same as saying it doesn’t exist.”

      Fair enough. What is your answer to consciousness, though?

      “This strawman you’ve constructed and call ‘naturalism’ is self-defeating. But so what? I can build and knock down strawmen all day as well. It doesn’t matter to reality.”

      Rather than actually addressing any actual point in my post, you’ve pointed out one inconsistency (equating naturalism with physicalism), and then decided that means the entirety is refuted. I notice no mention of Plantinga’s argument. I notice no mention of freedom of the will. Are you conceding these points? Even if naturalism can somehow explain consciousness (I fail to see how, and, judging by the quotes mentioned in the post, it seems naturalists fail to see how as well), but is self-defeating and denies freedom of the will, I don’t see how anyone can hold it. I’ve noticed this tactic quite often. Instead of actually addressing the argument at hand, one can cherry-pick one quote one disagrees with and then hammer it to death. It’s not very effective. Naturalism stands defeated.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | March 30, 2010, 10:44 PM
  2. I would like to ask one simple question: what do you mean by the “freedom of the will”?

    Posted by Cathy Sander | November 7, 2010, 12:52 AM
    • I don’t know how relevant this question is. I don’t think any formulation of naturalism allows for freedom of the will. I guess if you redefine “freedom of the will” to be “determined to do everything one ever does”, naturalism could preserve freedom of the will. But then the term is vacuous.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | November 10, 2010, 3:13 PM
  3. I have an argument against Plantinga’s argument on my YouTube channel:

    Posted by zarkoff45 | May 12, 2011, 10:39 AM

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