against naturalism

This is the title of Alvin Plantinga’s opening chapter in a collegial debate he recently wrote with atheist Michael Tooley called Knowledge of God. Plantinga thanks Tooley for “his clear, rigorous, and detailed statement of a version of the atheistic argument from evil (p. 151),” and then pretty much dismantles it.

As I read Plantinga’s chapter I often thought that Cornelius Van Til would have loved this, for he basically proves Van Til’s point that belief in God is necessary to know anything. Van Til tried, unsuccessfully I think, to demonstrate that belief in the Christian God is necessary for knowledge. He relied on the unity and diversity in the Trinity, saying this solved the one and the many problem that beguiles philosophers, and he argued the idealist notion that comprehensive knowledge is necessary for all knowledge (we don’t know anything unless we know everything, and such comprehensive knowledge is found in God, who reveals some of it to us).

While interesting, Plantinga’s arguments are better. He argues that we only have warrant for our epistemic faculties if we believe they are functioning properly, but what would this even mean in a naturalistic universe? (Plantinga rightly asserts that naturalism is the dominant form of atheism). Proper functioning assumes a designer who intended his creation to function a certain way. If there is no God then the universe lacks intention, and so it would be impossible to say whether or not something is functioning properly. Even the concept of malfunctioning loses meaning. Plantinga says the problem is not merely that a naturalist can’t tell whether or not something is functioning properly, it’s that the concept itself lacks meaning in a naturalistic worldview (p. 21).

Furthermore, we only have warrant if we believe our epistemic faculties are successfully aimed at truth. But the best a naturalist can say is that they are aimed at survival advantage. For example, someone who is stricken with terminal cancer may choose to optimistically insist they will beat it. Their optimism may increase the time they have left, and so contribute to their survival, but no one would claim their beliefs are successfully aimed at truth (p. 11).

Finally, Plantinga argues that a naturalist can’t even account for the concept of belief. Naturalistic materialism (materialism is the dominant form of naturalism) can account for the “electro-chemical or neurophysiological” firings in our brains, but it cannot explain how these “neuronal events” are able to produce beliefs that have content. It’s not simply that naturalists don’t know how it happens but that they can’t see how it could. The content of beliefs is an immaterial thing. How could the material events in a physical brain come to hold immaterial content? The question itself makes little sense in a naturalistic world (p. 34-35).

Plantinga concludes that committed naturalists must give up the right to hold beliefs, including the belief that naturalism is true. And so naturalism is self-defeating, and no rational person could rationally hold it (p. 68-69).

This chapter should earn Plantinga an honorary doctorate from Westminster Seminary—not that either side needs this but wouldn’t it be nice to see?—and should become a staple of apologetics for years to come. If you’re into Christian philosophy, you need to read this.






10 responses to “against naturalism”

  1. Same argument, different source: Alvin Plantinga’s book “Where the Real Conflict Lies” He also expands on the deep concord between science and theism. It’s good stuff.

  2. It is a good argument!

  3. Tom Beetham

    Thanks Mike! Good stuff.


  4. I heard Plantinga lecture a few months ago at the bookstore on East Paris. I still am not really sure I grasp the crucial point: “Naturalistic materialism (materialism is the dominant form of naturalism) can account for the “electro-chemical or neurophysiological” firings in our brains, but it cannot explain how these “neuronal events” are able to produce beliefs that have content.” I think I am a little unclear about why the beliefs have to exist independently of the chemicals in order to have content.

  5. […] against naturalism ( […]

  6. […] against naturalism ( […]

  7. Mike, thanks for distilling this no doubt dense chapter. I do not, however, understand your third to last paragraph. You write, “The content of beliefs is an immaterial thing.” What exactly does that mean? Could you provide an example? Thanks so much!

  8. Seth Horton

    @ Rick and Derek. I’m not a philosopher, but I think the claim that the content of beliefs is immaterial can be demonstrated by this exercise: Think a thought; for example, “God is simple (or love, or just, etc.).” Now draw that thought. To my knowledge, everything made of matter is drawable. Even sub-atomic events can be theoretically diagrammed. So can the chemical activity of the brain. A thought, “God is simple,” cannot be drawn (neither can its referents [“God” and “simplicity”] for that matter (no-pun-intended).

    But take a simpler (no-pun-intended) thought, “Pie is yummy.” You can draw a yummy looking pie (maybe, depending on your artistic capacities, but that’s beside the point). You cannot draw the thought, “Pie is yummy.” [This one might break down, since I am assuming researchers can visibly represent the physiological response of the brain to pleasurable tastes. But even that is not the same thing as the thought I have created in your mind, despite having no current face-to-face interaction by which to express to you that some, currently imaginary pie, if consumed, will stimulate your brain to give you the experience of pleasure.].

    Or maybe that’s not what Wittmer meant at all…

  9. mikewittmer

    That is a good way of explaining it, Seth, especially for an OT guy! Plantinga’s point is that every thought requires physical activity in the brain but also content–what the brain is thinking. The content of the thought is often about material things–e.g., the pie on the counter–but the content itself is immaterial, which is why it could so easily transfer to your brain, and so now you are hungrily pining for pie. A thought must be immaterial to be shared.

  10. […] See also Mike Wittmer’s recent, “Against Naturalism.” […]

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