Saturday, August 09, 2008

Philosopher: Why you can't be both an evolutionist and a materialist

In "Evolution vs. Naturalism: Why they are like oil and water", philosopher Alvin Plantinga comments (Books & Culture, July/August 2008),
As everyone knows, there has been a recent spate of books attacking Christian belief and religion in general. Some of these books are little more than screeds, long on vituperation but short on reasoning, long on name-calling but short on competence, long on righteous indignation but short on good sense; for the most part they are driven by hatred rather than logic.
Plantinga cites with approval some more intellectually respectable atheist works.

But in general, many people have noticed the trend he points to. Hatred can drive good writing, but not usually good reasoning. Indeed, most of the recent "new atheist" books remind me of anti-immigration tracts . They attribute all the world's ills to religion in the same way that some attribute all the country's ills to new immigrants - and with about the same amount of justification too.

Plantinga goes on to say,
Nearly all of these books have been written by philosophical naturalists. I
believe it's extremely important to see that naturalism itself, despite the smug
and arrogant tone of the so-called New Atheists, is in very serious
philosophical hot water: one can't sensibly believe it.

Naturalists like to wrap themselves in the mantle of science, as if science in some way supports, endorses, underwrites, implies, or anyway is unusually friendly to naturalism. In particular, they often appeal to the modern theory of evolution as a reason for embracing naturalism; indeed, the subtitle of Dawkins' Watchmaker is Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design. Many seem to think that evolution is one of the pillars in the temple of naturalism (and "temple" is the right word: contemporary naturalism has certainly taken on a religious cast, with a secular priesthood as zealous to stamp out opposing views as any mullah). I propose to argue that naturalism and evolution are in conflict with each other.
The first thing to see is that naturalists are also always or almost always materialists: they think human beings are material objects, with no immaterial or spiritual soul, or self. We just are our bodies, or perhaps some part of our bodies, such as our nervous systems, or brains, or perhaps part of our brains (the right or left hemisphere, for example), or perhaps some still smaller part. So let's think of naturalism as including materialism. And now let's think about beliefs from a materialist perspective. According to materialists, beliefs, along with the rest of mental life, are caused or determined by neurophysiology, by what goes on in the brain and nervous system. Neurophysiology, furthermore, also causes behavior. According to the usual story, electrical signals proceed via afferent nerves from the sense organs to the brain; there some processing goes on; then electrical impulses go via efferent nerves from the brain to other organs including muscles; in response to these signals, certain muscles contract, thus causing movement and behavior. ...

Your beliefs may all be false, ridiculously false; if your behavior is adaptive, you will survive and reproduce.
In short, if you are a materialist, you can never hope to know that materialism is true because there is no direct relationship between your beliefs and evidence; your beliefs are merely the output of irrational forces. Read the rest here.

One can have philosophy without God, but not without a mind that is real, rather than an illusion. No wonder the new atheists (who differ from the old atheists precisely in that they do not think that the mind is real) sound like a host of "anti-" zealots. It really is the best they can do.

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