Notable atheist and Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins once remarked to A.J. Ayer at an Oxford college dinner that he couldn’t imagine being an atheist before 1859, the year Darwin’s Origins of the Species was published: “[A]lthough atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” However, according to one argument by Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga, this statement (in a certain sense) may actually not be true.
First, just what do we mean by naturalism? In short, naturalism “eschews or rejects appeal to the supernatural, and traces our origins back to blind and uncaring forces” . Thus, physical reality is all that exists; no supernatural or personal forces lie beyond the scope of the universe. As Plantinga says, “to be a naturalist is not to believe anything special – e.g., that there aren’t any fairies, or angels, or gods; to be a naturalist is to adopt a certain attitude, an attitude involving among other things an exclusive commitment to science in guiding one’s opinions” .
Plantinga’s argument has three relevant areas of concern:
- (1) Theism: the belief that a wholly good, all powerful and all knowing person exists: one who has beliefs (or knowledge), aims and intentions and acts to accomplish them.
- (2) Naturalism: As Plantinga interestingly says: “The theistic picture minus God.”
- (3) Cognitive Faculties: The powers or faculties of capacities whereby we have knowledge or form belief: memory, perception, reason, and maybe others.
Plantinga’s argument can be stated as such: Given the acceptance of our belief in naturalism, what is the reliability of that belief given our arisal through successive evolutionary history via blind and uncaring forces? or, as Ernest Sosa further explains: “[T]he probability that our cognitive faculties are reliable must be either quite low or at best inscrutable. This defeats any belief we may have in the reliability of our faculties. Absent such belief, finally, we are deprived also of epistemic warrant (Authority, justification) for all beliefs deriving from such faculties” . The thrust of the argument however, is its devastating conclusion: “But among those beliefs is the very belief in naturalism, which therefore defeats itself” . Consider Plantinga’s further explanation: