Evolution, Metaphysics, and Naturalism

Alvin Plantinga argues that if evolution and metaphysical naturalism are both true, then we have no reason to trust our judgments when it comes to metaphysics.

Actually, whether or not metaphysical naturalism is true, we shouldn’t trust most of the conclusions we reach in metaphysics (or a priori methods; more on that below). One only need to look at the actual world. In the actual world, if you put three philosophers in a room, they won’t agree about anything, including whether there are three people in the room.

Plantinga might very well be right that evolution wasn’t concerned with us having correct metaphysical beliefs, such as the belief in metaphysical naturalism. Nevertheless, we can be pretty confident in certain metaphysical conclusions like the question of whether God exists. After all, most philosophers and scientists actually agree that God doesn’t exist! In other words, even if we are aware that most of our metaphysical beliefs are false, it doesn’t follow that we can’t be rational (and very confident) in believing that certain metaphysical claims are true. Unlike, for example, ‘Platonism’, theism generates predictions that we can go out in the world and test [1]. And, one can/should be very confident that ghosts and fairies do not exist.

Epistemological and methodological naturalism fit well within the worldview of metaphysical naturalism, and if the history of metaphysics has shown us anything, then the conclusion is that we should derive our metaphysical beliefs from the empirical data. In other words, (pure reason) a priori speculation won’t tell you the way the world is or what exists; if it did, then the ontological argument for God could be a sound argument. In the words of Sean Carroll, “Our metaphysics should follow our physics. That’s what the word ‘metaphysics’ means”.

Objections

Someone might object to all this by saying, “That’s scientism! And scientism is self-refuting, because claiming that all knowledge is derived from science or the senses is a claim that isn’t itself scientific or derived from the senses”.

Actually, from what has been said already, it should be apparent what is wrong with this objection. We have tons of evidence from history that ‘just thinking’ really hard about the deep questions of life is not a reliable way to get at truth. Therefore, my claim is empirically based. In addition, for instance, I never said that statements that are true by definition can’t be known a priori.

Conclusion

The upshot is that one should examine a hypothesis and asks what predictions that hypothesis generates. After that, one should go out into the world and see the results. If a hypothesis doesn’t generate predictions, then (right out of the gate) that’s a huge strike against it.

Notes

[1] I actually find mathematical Platonism to be somewhat silly, and it surprises me how many skeptics are Platonists. I don’t know what it means for the number ‘2’ to just exist outside of space and time. I also don’t see any need to invoke Platonism when explaining what “numbers” are.

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12 thoughts on “Evolution, Metaphysics, and Naturalism

  1. I am always fascinated when apologists like Plantinga tie themselves in knots metaphysically when metaphysically there is “no there there.” Science was once part of philosophy, calling itself Natural Philosophy. It is by far the most successful branch (or former branch) of philosophy regarding making sense of our physical world. Yet, every “conclusion” in science is provisional, that is absolutely nothing is certain. There is a great deal that is very close to certain and for us, that is good enough to keep going.

    But arguing “if evolution and metaphysical naturalism are both true, then we have no reason to trust our judgments when it comes to metaphysics” is pathetic. Nothing about metaphysics is trustworthy as it is all smoke and mirrors (reflections of our own thinking and representative of that and that alone).

    Plantinga is one of those people who now claim the god is beyond space and time, when his religion’s scriptures claim that he walked the earth and interacted with people physically. Hey, he used to make personal appearances! At one point he hung around for over 30 years, making himself available to crowds and now he is “unavailable,” take a number?

    The problem with philosophy is that you can make shit up out of whole cloth and if you are clever it can even sound erudite. But only in the sciences is there a neutral arbiter which tells you whether you are right or wrong (provisionally any way).

    1. Philosophy of Religion blog (Does God Exist?)

      I mostly agree. Although, I would add Plantinga is more of a sophist than philosopher

    2. “But arguing “if evolution and metaphysical naturalism are both true, then we have no reason to trust our judgments when it comes to metaphysics” is pathetic. Nothing about metaphysics is trustworthy as it is all smoke and mirrors (reflections of our own thinking and representative of that and that alone)”

      So you seem to agree with Plantinga that all metaphysics is untrustworthy if have a naturalistic view. Why is he pathetic for pointing that out?

  2. jbthibodeau

    I am intrigued by what you say about numbers. Given that the number 2 has properties (e.g., it is even, it is prime, it is whole, it is greater than the number 1, it is rational, etc.), it would be weird to say that it does not exist. How can something that does not exist have properties? On the other hand, it cannot be encountered in space and time and, pretty obviously, even if there are no physical objects, 2 is still even, prime, whole, rational, etc. Nor can the number two have a beginning or ending in time. So, the natural conclusion is that two exists but that it does not exist in space and time. Why is this problematic? Why is it difficult to understand?

    1. Someone once told me that propositions had intentionality, and since propositions were not located, intentionality did not entail locality or aspect.
      Of course the intentionality in a proposition is borrowed from the speaker, and it still has locality, as we can differentiate it, in all sorts of ways, from other propositions.

      2 shares a similar fate. It’s properties are borrowed from theory. And theoretical properties are there on the basis of reliability. But the properties within the theory are also reducible to more basic concepts, like identity, which are broadly empirical.

      Personally, I never trusted 2 anyway, and prefer binary for all my mathematical needs,

      1. jbthibodeau

        One reply to my argument is to say that I am wrong to claim that things that don’t exist can’t have properties. Or rather, that it is perfectly meaningful to attribute properties to non-existent things. Sherlock Holmes, for example, does not exist, but it is perfectly meaningful to say that he is a man, speaks English, lives at 221B Baker Street, etc. So there is no problem applying predicates to fictional objects.

        The problem with this reply is that Sherlock Holmes does exist. He exists only as a character in a story, not as a concrete object in space and time. The number 2 does not exist as a fictional character. When we say that 2 is prime, we are not saying that, in the story, 2 is prime.

      2. I understand. You are not saying that, in the story, 2 is prime.
        But I am saying that, in the story, 2 is prime.
        I need a reason to consider mathematical stories distinct – in principle – from Doyle stories. You have asserted the distinction without demonstrating it.
        I can give you all sorts of reasons why they appear – in principle – to be the same.

      3. jbthibodeau

        Doyle’s stories are written by a person. The characters are inventions of this person. Mathematics is not a story written by any person. Numbers are not inventions of any persons.

        This seems right to me, but, I take it, not to you. Perhaps you can give me some reasons to think that the subjects are the same.

      4. I can make sense of Doyle’s stories because they refer to certain basic phenomena – like deduction, which finally references locality (causally related phenomena), which finally references identity.
        I know that they are fiction for the same reasons: they contradict certain basics to some extent or another. And for the same reason, I am pretty sure that Doyle could have written a story which none of us would recognize as fiction unless he told us.
        Furthermore, I do not think that Sherlock Holmes and his deductive powers somehow pre-existed Doyle, and that Doyle simply unearthed the detective, because the story elements inhere in those phenomenal basics.
        Enumeration refers to identity in much the same way. 2, and other numbers, are rooted in that phenomenal basic, and have their properties relative to the reliability of those properties on the implications of basic identity.
        In that way, numbers are very much like Sherlock Holmes.

  3. “After all, most philosophers and scientists actually agree that God doesn’t exist! In other words, even if we are aware that most of our metaphysical beliefs are false, it doesn’t follow that we can’t be rational (and very confident) in believing that certain metaphysical claims are true.”

    I think you are unnecessarily hard on Plantinga and his argument. Consider what you say here. Ok lets say most philosophers and scientists do not believe God exists. That is an argument you can make and I hear it made quite a bit. I tend to look at why they believe God doesn’t exist and I find their reasons unimpressive so I disagree with them.

    You then say “In other words, even if we are aware that most of our metaphysical beliefs are false, it doesn’t follow that we can’t be rational (and very confident) in believing that certain metaphysical claims are true.” I think you are really making a completely different point here. (not just saying the same thing “in other words”) And it is one I would generally agree with.

    But in this specific case what Plantinga set forth an argument why we shouldn’t believe our metaphysical beliefs are reliable. You seem to concede that ok maybe most of our metaphysical beliefs are false/unreliable. But you say well this one is special. Why because lots of scientists and philosophers agree with it. The problem with pointing to our beliefs when the problem is how our beliefs are generated is it just sort of ignores the problem. Richard Joyce is another philosopher who makes very similar arguments about our beliefs in morality and accepting naturalism. (He accepts naturalism and rejects objective moral realism.) He uses the example of tasseography.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tasseography

    So assume someone were to convince you all our beliefs about metaphysics or morality or X came about through the interpretation of tea leaves and they are therefore unreliable. It would hardly be a decent rebuttal to say well yeah but we all sort of belief this metaphysical thing is true. I mean if the mechanism of how we arrived at the conclusion is bunk then regardless of how many people hold that opinion will not save us.

    Your post also hints that maybe this metaphysical view of naturalism is really not metaphysical but instead the result of some sort of actual science. I am not sure what branch of science you think it comes from so I can’t really address that.

    1. Much in the EAAN turns on what randomness means in the argument. The argument works, but only against an eliminativist brand of naturalism.
      The argument is a caricature, otherwise.

  4. Loy

    According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “It is not easy to say what metaphysics is.” One thing it is not, contra Sean Carroll, is a function of physics. Carroll loves to talk about physics as if it has something to say about the fundamental nature of reality. Everybody sticks with what they know.

    You say three philosophers in a room won’t agree about anything, including whether there are three people in the room. So how can it be that “most” philosophers agree on a definition of God? (What is that definition, by the way?)

    Scientism is indeed self-refuting. Even if for argument’s sake we stipulate (nonsensically) that reasoned reflection by our greatest-yet philosophers had never increased our hold on the truth, that still would not warrant the claim that in principle it could not do so, much less the claim that all knowledge may only be derived from science or the senses.

    Science is useful if you know a priori that you’re asking a question about patterns in observable phenomena. Otherwise it’s not. Science produces data, not wisdom.

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