Why Religion and Logic Don’t Mix

My wife challenged me to answer an essay by Alvin Plantinga, a professor of philosophy, attempting to justify religious belief through logic. My response: LOL.

For millennia, religious apologists have advanced innumerable supposed logical arguments. It’s a fool’s errand.

Plantinga starts with the familiar idea that religion and science (particularly, evolution science) don’t conflict, because “obviously” God “could” have orchestrated the whole thing. (As could the Flying Spaghetti Monster.)

But what he says is inconsistent with theistic religion is an optional add-on to evolution theory: unguided evolution. The latter idea he labels “naturalism,” and not necessarily implicit in the theory of evolution itself.

And marrying evolution to naturalism, Plantinga says, has a big problem. We assume our cognitive faculties are reliable, “they produce an appropriate preponderance of true over false belief.” But accepting naturalism together with evolution produces a “defeater” for that assumption: “because the probability of our cognitive faculties being reliable, given naturalism and evolution, is low.”

Accordingly, any belief they produce is more likely wrong than right – including the belief in naturalism-cum-evolution. So Plantinga concludes it isn’t religion that conficts with science – it’s naturalism!

That’s where I laughed out loud. Plantinga’s “defeater” argument is a paradox analogous to:

The sentence below is true.
The sentence above is false.

If whatever we believe is likely false, that would apply to Plantinga’s own proposition – it would likely be false that whatever we believe is likely false. It’s a logical black hole, as in my pair of sentences above. (And if there’s a low probability of any human ideas being true, that should apply much more forcefully to any religious beliefs than to any scientific ideas which, after all, are grounded in methodical investigation, unlike matters of religious faith.)

Moreover, Plantinga’s factual premise is simply wrong. Again, he asserts that “the probability of our cognitive faculties being reliable, given naturalism and evolution, is low.” This cockeyed statement, the key to his argument, is without basis or explanation, and shows total misunderstanding of evolution. It’s the essence of evolution by natural selection that successful organisms survive to propagate their genes, hence successful traits spread. The caveman who spotted the lurking lion lived to pass along his genes for such reliable cognition; the guy whose cognition was not as good got eaten. Thus does evolution (even if unguided) militate toward reliable cognitive faculties, and a “preponderance of true over false belief.” Naturalism in no way implies our beliefs are likely wrong.

(That’s not to say all our beliefs are right, or that evolution gave us perfect cognition. For example, while it did endow us with a darn good capability for seeing what’s really there, an important part of that toolkit is pattern recognition; and our pattern recognition is turned up so high that sometimes we see things that aren’t really there. Like God.)

Meantime too, while Plantinga talks as though “naturalism” is just another woo-woo type of belief system, it’s actually the way every sane person understands the world 99+% of the time. When you drop a ball, it falls down, not up, as you are sure it will. That’s naturalism – the idea that every phenomenon that occurs is natural – it has a reason, an explanation, conforming to the laws that govern existence (even if we don’t fully understand them). Naturalism is true by definition, while “supernatural” is a contradiction in terms. If something happens or exists, then it’s “natural.”

This applies to evolution. It’s entirely reasonable to ascribe the workings of evolution to “natural” causes rather than looking for something supernatural behind it. And not hard either; the naturalist understanding of evolution makes perfectly good sense.

Plantinga was discussing a debate of sorts he had with philosopher Daniel Dennett, who said that if Christianity is not incompatible with science, the same could apply to numerous silly beliefs, such as a belief in Superman. Plantinga’s answer, quoted in full: “Superman, despite being able to leap tall buildings at a single bound and being more powerful than a speeding locomotive, is pretty small potatoes compared to God (and that’s even if we ignore the sizeable handicap of being a mere comic book character).”

In other words, God is way more powerful than Superman. Shouldn’t that make belief in God way more silly than belief in Superman? (As for his being a comic book character, I fail to see why being a character in a 2,000 year old book imparts greater credibility.)

That a religious belief may not be ruled out by science doesn’t make it true, or believable. If you say the Universe is governed by the Flying Spaghetti Monster, it’s up to you to prove it to me, not up to me to disprove it.

And what all this really proves, for the zillionth time, is that religion and logic don’t mix. Believe whatever matters of faith you like. But apologists attempting logical arguments for them only make fools of themselves.

Originally published on The Rational Optimist.

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