Using Philosophy of Science to Evaluate Claims in Philosophy of Religion

I offer this post as a tribute to my exceptionally well-spoken colleague at

Please excuse the “flat-earthed” numbskullery throughout the essay, but I think that you’ll find the treatment a bit more thorough than the last. 🙂

Yours In Contemplation,


Can Ideas in Philosophy of Science Be Used to Defeat Bad Arguments In the Philosophy of Religion?

            It is an understatement to say that the study of philosophy is a monumental undertaking. Understanding any one field of study in philosophy requires at least marginal familiarity in a breadth of others. For example, philosophy of science, philosophy of mind, and philosophy of language are all deeply interconnected; success in any one of them requires a strong apprehension of the other two. The same can be said of philosophy of religion. Because of the implications, one must be keenly aware that claims made in philosophy of religion must be backed up by epistemological, metaphysical, and existential philosophical principles. But let’s say that a philosopher of religion attempts to utilize the “heavy artillery” found in the philosophy to prove a religious argument. What kind of success can be expected? Can a philosopher of religion with theistic worldviews properly wield the information that science, and the study thereof, has to offer? There seems to be a conflict; how can a theistic philosopher of religion claim that his argument is based on science if he believes in supernatural explanations for phenomena that the scientific community specifically rejects or excludes? Enter Alvin Plantinga; widely touted as the “most important living philosopher”, Dr. Plantinga has made a name for himself by arguing against the naturalistic philosophers of science for decades. But there is a serious problem with his methodology; he is a Christian-theistic dualist, and most importantly, a reformed epistemologist. As a result, Plantinga begins every argument from the standpoint that belief in God is a “properly basic belief,” and that those not appealing to this sensus divintatis will not be able to obtain the proper Peircian abduction; simply put, he believes that non-Christians will be on the wrong side of any dispute where God’s influence comes into question. It is the goal of this paper to look at Plantinga’s work, particularly that from his latest book titled, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (hereafter, Conflict), and evaluate it in the context of a non-theistic (but not atheistic) perspective that appeals to concepts in the philosophy of science. By the end, we will hopefully be able to determine if such work can properly be considered philosophy, or if it is merely theology.

Section I

First, the science stuff. It is important to recognize how science works if we are to analyze whether its conclusions are being properly presented, or if they are being manipulated and exploited. The lay of the land in philosophy of science is a contentious one; no surprise here. After all, isn’t all of philosophy about debate? Surely it is, but the philosophy of science seems even more unsettled than other disciplines. In fact, there is even debate within the literature that argues about just how unsettled it is! Some say that it is reasonably settled that science is constantly progressing toward the truth in a definite sense, while others subscribe to a more pessimistic abduction that claims “science is bankrupt”; all new theories that will ever be will meet the same discredited fate as their predecessors. And of course, there is everything in between. Generally speaking, however, the principle of progressive scientific theories being a fortiori stronger than the previous ones has a sizeable number of adherents. But dispute still exists, e.g. Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn, and Imre Lakatos. These “Who’s Who” philosophers of science have progressively built upon each other’s theories (the structure of the theories, not the content) of what makes science credible. Popper thinks that falsifiability is the salient factor in determining how close a theory is to “truth”; Kuhn posits that socio-scientific paradigms are the principal justification for prevailing theories; Lakatos believes that sophisticated methodological falsificationism is the basis for a progressive scientific program that reveals the best theory; and so on. The question can then rightly be asked, “Why appeal to science if there is so much discord? Of what value is science?” The process of elimination popularized by Popper made falsification important because it advanced scientific credibility by shifting the goal of experimentation from proving a theory, to trying to defeat it. The theory with the most verisimilitude is the one whose predictions successfully withstand myriad attempts to disprove it. Kuhn, on the other hand, viewed this as valuable only in performing “normal science,” or that type of science performed within a certain paradigm adhered to by the scientific community despite any anomalies. It is scientific revolutions (paradigm shifts), according to Kuhn, that propel science forward. Lakatos takes the best of both ideas and has presented an approach known as the research programme. Now, rather than proving theories true or false, the success of a theory depends on whether it is progressive, or deteriorating; whether it produces new, novel empirical data that leads to new theories and hypotheses, or if falsification successfully chips away that the hypotheses first offered with the theory. Think of it as a rubber band ball with a marble at the center, the marble is the theory, and each rubber band is a hypotheses meant to defend the theory. Successfully defended hypotheses continue to add to the ball with new findings, and falsified hypotheses eat away at the size and strength of the ball/theory.

You may be asking, “What does this have to do with Alvin Plantinga?” I assure you, it has every thing to do with Alvin Plantinga, as you will soon see. But it is imperative to fully understand all of the components of the forthcoming argument before we can proceed. In this section, I have tried to illustrate the lay of the scientific land. Contrary to the belief of some, “good” science is always in a state of flux. Science is essentially this; research on a particular theory tends to continue with further observation of successful empirical claims, that eventually produces changes at the top theoretical levels, which produce novel theories upon which further hypotheses can be made, and then tested. This unending process is the motive power behind the marvel that is modern science.

Section II

            In the previous section I have tried to illustrate through one example, although there are many, that science is much as Lakatos claims it is; a progressive research program. This applies to all areas of science, even the fields of study with very firm, well-proved, highly insulated theories such as evolution. It is certainly the case that the core of evolutionary theory is based on a solid foundation laid by Darwin, and Huxley. The hypotheses that surrounded the theories have survived countless attempts at falsification, and thus, has enjoyed widespread acceptance. But that does not mean that the “puzzle” of evolution is entirely solved; questions remain in the valence of evolutionary theory. One such puzzle is how the human brain came to be the way it is today, and what is responsible for our highly evolved cognitive abilities. Research performed by scientists like Philipp Khaitovich at the Partner Institute for Computational Biology in Shanghai, China, are trying to answer these very questions. So, is there any justification for saying that evolutionary theory has a settled, definitive, and unanimously assented to answer vis a vis human cognition? The answer appears to be an emphatic, “No.”

Let us move on to Dr. Plantinga’s strongest, and most forceful argument in Conflict, known as the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN). Recall that Plantinga is a Christian-theistic-reformed-epistemologist, among other things. The goal in Conflict is to show that atheists, and naturalists are mistaken when they posit that science and religion are in conflict. Atheism, of course, is the denial that God exists. Plantinga avers that naturalists are a stronger form of atheist; those who believe that all questions have a natural/physical/empirical explanation, and that supernatural answers should be excluded or rejected. Next, Plantinga invokes Darwin’s Doubt:

“With me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?” 1

Plantinga has now set up his argument. If one accepts that naturalism is true, and also accepts that evolution is true, then he argues that there is no reason to believe that our cognitive faculties are reliable. Theism, on the other hand, says that our cognition is a result of being created in the image of God, and therefore, our cognitive abilities are reliable in virtue of our God-likeness. In this way, Plantinga makes the claim that science is not in conflict with religion, but that science is in conflict with evolutionary theory and naturalism. (After all, how can we perform reliable science if we have unreliable cognitive faculties?) His formal argument is outlined as follows:

P1) The probability (P) that our cognitive capacities are reliable (R) given that naturalism (N) and evolution (E) are true is low; [P(R/N&E) = low].

P2) If one accepts N&E, and believes that [P(R/N&E) = low], then one has a defeater for thinking R.

P3) If one has a defeater for thinking R, one has a defeater for any belief he has, including N&E.

P4) If one who accepts N&E thereby has a defeater for N&E, N&E is self-referentially incoherent

C) Therefore, N&E is self-referentially incoherent and cannot rationally be accepted

This argument is made even stronger by the fact that no defeater exists for the defeater of N&E, for if there was such a proposition, the original defeater would defeat it and the argument would disintegrate into circularity. (You cannot appeal to your reason to prove that your reason is not faulty.) So on the presumed insulation from rebuttal the EAAN appears quite successful. Given this rather strong initial approximation of Plantinga’s argument, there seems to be very little that the evolutionary naturalist may appeal to if he stays within the confines of the philosophical boundaries as presented. However, perhaps there are other avenues for the evolutionary naturalist to pursue. We will examine them now.

Let us consider the support for the argument; premise one. Plantinga puts a great deal of faith in his first premise, and without it, the rest of the argument fails. He appeals to definitions for the most part, particularly the definition of evolution, and appeals to the likes of Nietzsche, Nagel, Stroud, Churchland, and Darwin to support his definition of evolution. Because of “Darwin’s Doubt,” a necessary consequence that he points to is that because evolution is only concerned with fitness by way of adaptive behavior, we have no reason to believe that our cognitive abilities are the result of evolution, since evolution favors traits irrelevant to reliable cognitive abilities, like true belief. He appeals to Nagel to bolster his claim:

“If we came to believe that our capacity for objective theory (true beliefs, e.g.) were the product of natural selection, that would warrant serious skepticism about its results.” 2

Again, he appeals to some authority in Patricia Churchland:

“Boiled down to essentials, a nervous system enables the organism to succeed in the four F’s, feeding, fleeing, fighting, and reproducing. The principle chore of the nervous system is to get the body parts where they should be in order that the organism may survive … Truth, whatever that is, definitely takes the hindmost.”3

As presented, Plantinga tries to convince the reader that there is a unanimous agreement within the scientific community; that all scientists doubt our cognitive abilities because evolution does not favor true belief, but only adaptive behavior. While it is true that adaptive behavior is critical to “fitness”, his suggestion that true belief has nothing to do with it is presumptuous at best. Scientists such as Philipp Khaitovich suggest that every part of our cognition is the result of an evolved metabolism of glutamate in our brains that is not shared by our primate relatives, leading to enhanced structures, and therefore, abilities.4 This entails that our highly evolved frontal lobe (the locus for understanding) is vastly more sophisticated than the cerebellum of lesser-evolved primates. There seems to be no coincidence that our brain is more evolved, and that we are capable of advanced levels of understanding. And why couldn’t this be so? Human beings are apex predators only be means of our cognitive abilities; otherwise we would not fare so well in the animal kingdom; we are not as defensively gifted as large or very swift animals; we are not as suited for hunting as stronger, tooth-and-claw gifted predators; and we are much less adaptable to environmental changes. We could have instinctively recognized some need that our survival depended on, but not known how to achieve those ends without a progressively sophisticated cognitive repertoire. Therefore, our adaptive behavior can be a direct result of our highly evolved cognitive capabilities, and our fitness not merely confined to adapted habits employed by a large enough number of humans to persist in survival.5

In short, there is no consensus about what factors caused our adaptive behavior. For this reason, it does not seem reasonable for Plantinga to appeal to such a narrow view of evolution given that the views held in the scientific community are quite diverse. The entire concept of evolutionary epistemology as outlined above (with contributions from the likes of Karl Popper, Donald T. Campbell, and Nobel Laureate Konrad Lorenz) was wholly ignored by Plantinga.  It seems strange that with this single objection, we can reasonably challenge the basis for Plantinga’s premises (especially P1), undercutting their strength (if any remains). To save this premise, Plantinga would have to prove that his interpretation of evolution is the only accepted version currently being used (or at least has the agreed upon Peircian abductive result); but that is an untenable proposition, so his argument fails.

Section III

            I know what you’re thinking; “There is no way that an undergraduate philosophy student with no particular expertise in any one field has defeated “the great Alvin Plantinga’s” EAAN!” And your intuition is correct; this author has not accomplished such a feat. The only success that this author may claim for himself is that he applied Popper’s falsifiability principle to Plantinga’s argument, in addition to some formal logic reasoning. Additionally, it can be said of Plantinga that his method was flawed; he rested the entire weight of his EAAN against the assumption that science comes to such steadfast accords when it comes to even widely accepted accords. One can suggest to Plantinga, for future reference, that rather than try to affirm the consequent, that is, confirm his positions, he try to first falsify them. In this manner the parts of his theory that survive falsifiability will demonstrate strengths in the remaining structure, and can point him to superior hypotheses that may survive further assault. One such method for improving his EAAN would be to reject his approach based an imaginary scientific consensus about cognitive and epistemological evolution, and focus instead on the nature of our true beliefs, e.g., that semantic properties do not supervene on NP (neurophysiological) properties, that they are separate. Of course he will be appealing to some form of dualism at that point, but no one said that arguing that naturalism is in conflict with science would be easy.

It is my hope that this paper has demonstrated a successful application of principles found in the philosophy of science against fallacious arguments in other disciplines, in this case, philosophy of religion.



1: Charles Darwin to W. Graham, July 3, 1881, in The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, ed. Francis Darwin (1897; repr., Boston: Elibron, 2005), 1:285.

2: Nagel, The View From Nowhere (Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 79.

3: Churchland, Journal of Philosophy LXXXIV (October, 1987), p. 548.


5: Ideas presented were the postulations of the author, but later confirmed as recognized research in work by Lorenz, specifically: Lorenz, Konrad, Behind the mirror. (1978.) Mariner Books. pp. 261.


Personal note: This author has the utmost respect for Dr. Plantinga as a philosopher, theologian, and person. No vitriol, prejudice, ad hominem, red herring, or other unfair tactic was intentionally used against such a distinguished man. The entire point of the article focused on methodology that could actually lend a hand to Plantinga’s work, but in the interim, his EAAN fails to pass muster because of its shaky foundations. If the Professor shores up his foundations, perhaps by taking on epistemological evolution, and prevailing, then his EAAN with have considerably improved success.


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5 Responses to Using Philosophy of Science to Evaluate Claims in Philosophy of Religion

  1. Ryan says:

    A fine work. I’m very happy to have found this. I’m particularly interested to see what the response will be from someone who understands Plantinga’s argument better than I do. It’s difficult to do so, but if I were to try, in the interest of progress, to find fault with any arguments, I’d say that there does seem to be a disconnect between showing that the development of human cognition is part of our fitness as a species on the one hand with the ability of modern human cognition to faithfully ascertain truth on the other. I can’t express what I’m trying to say very well, but the short version is that being on the path and having arrived at the destination are different things. We could very well be qualitatively better at reasoning than other animals as a result of evolutionary processes without having arrived yet at a point where our reasoning is reliable. Falsification of Plantinga’s argument would require that at least some who ascribe to N&E believe that we have reached that point, would it not?

    • On N&E, human cognition is generally considered to have a great deal of verisimilitude. The same goes for theists of all kinds, and most atheists. The principal difference is what gives us our ability to apprehend truth? On N&E it is nature and evolution (obviously); to the theist it is God in virtue of our being created in his image.

      Most individuals do believe that human thought is capable of apprehending things the way they are, and are therefore reliable. Only those who believe in Descartes’ evil genie (or those who took the Matrix waaaaaaayyy too seriously) would think that we observe things not as they are, but in some weird, arbitrary sense. If you’re interested, I suggest reading some of the British Empiricists like Locke, Hume, and Berkeley, among others. There’s a lot to be said about the debate between idealism and realism, but most philosophy (on the analytic side, anyway) as settled on realism.

      Good questions, friend. Very good indeed.

      Yours in Contemplation,

  2. whitefrozen says:

    You’ll have to forgive my flat-earth remark – it’s something said with a smile, and not meant to be demeaning. This is an interesting reply/rebuttal of his idea – which, I think, broadly, is still solid. Or, at the very least, causes one to think through their position a little more thoroughly.

    I would agree, however, that he does tend to ignore ideas in evolutionary epistemology – and conceding that, I would say that your criticism RE his argument’s foundations are largely correct. My hope is that he refines it (as he has been doing, for some time now) in the future – because as I said, I think his argument broadly speaking is pretty strong.

    • My Philosopher Friend,

      No apologies needed as I was quite sure that the flat-earth comment was in jest. I, too, enjoy a good snipe here and there. Hell, it seems to be all I do to the poor theist philosophers I’ve been studying lately! Rest assured, however, that the atheists will also have their day in my crosshairs. (I look forward to taking Dawkins DOWN!!!!!)

      That said, I think that Plantinga did a damn good job with the EAAN, except for the critical flaw that, on my view, kills it – his omission of any reference to evolutionary epistemology outside of the assertions made by Churchland, Nagel, et al. Frankly, those statements are not universally definitive of the general sentiment of philosophy or philosophers who support N&E. Omitting Lorenz was a huge mistake in my opinion.

      Plantinga, though, has an easy way out; he can have the best of both worlds by claiming that the type of evolution we underwent, upon which our reliable cognitive faculties relies, is also because of God. He can claim from his theistic position that God designed evolution to work that way, and to allow our brains to continue to evolve and provide for greater understanding in the future. He can use this technique by saying the type of evolution he assails is only that which is conjoined with naturalism/atheism.

      Of course, I take issue with his definition of naturalism, so we could just go round and round on that one. 🙂

      It’s always a pleasure to hear from you, Philosopher. 🙂 I’ll hoist one in your honor later…

      Yours In Contemplation,

  3. whitefrozen says:

    The pleasure is all mine – I’d reply further but sleep beckons. I have a feeling this is the beginning of a long and fruitful series of conversations on this subject…

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