Alvin Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism

Here’s the link at First Things. (H/T ECM)


Although Darwin admits he wasn’t much of an abstract thinker, he could not shake the “inward conviction” that “the Universe is not the result of chance.” Unlike many who followed after him, he appears to have intuitively understood the paradox of combining naturalism with evolutionary theory: If evolution is a non-teleological process, it undercuts our ability to trust that we can form true beliefs and convictions.

To have trustworthy convictions, we have to have properly functioning noetic equipment (i.e., a brain, spinal cord, sensory apparatus, etc., that recognize reality). But can a strictly materialistic, non-teleological, evolutionary process produce such reliable equipment? The philosopher Alvin Plantinga, one of the greatest thinkers of our era, thinks the answer is “no.” Although his argument is too complex and tightly argued to be adequately summarized, the basic outline of his case shows his point to be all but incontrovertible.

Plantinga claims, not that evolution is untrue, but that the truth of evolution is incompatible with the truth of naturalism. “As far as I can see, God certainly could have used Darwinian processes to create the living world and direct it as he wanted to go,” he argues. “Hence evolution as such does not imply that there is no direction in the history of life.”

What does imply that life is not directed, he adds, is not evolutionary theory itself, but the theory of unguided evolution: the idea that “neither God nor any other person has taken a hand in guiding, directing, or orchestrating the course of evolution.” For our purposes, we’ll call this view “evolutionary naturalism.”

Evolutionary naturalism assumes that our noetic equipment developed as it did because it had some survival value or reproductive advantage. Unguided evolution does not select for belief except insofar as the belief improves the chances of survival. The truth of a belief is irrelevant, as long as it produces an evolutionary advantage.

If you want to hear Plantinga giving a lecture on this same argument live on a university campus, click here.


In a talk given at The Veritas Forum at Oregon State University in January 1996, Professor Alvin Plantinga presents an evolutionary argument against naturalism. In a complex, but important philosophical argument, he argues that it is not rational to accept belief in naturalism and evolution, because such beliefs provide no rational basis for trusting our cognitive faculties.

Or you can watch the videos that I posted a while back.

The argument first appeared in his book “Warrant and Proper Function“, published by Oxford University Press in 1993. It should be noted that Plantinga is a Calvinist, a supporter of middle knowledge, and has lent some support to intelligent design. In his latter years, he has turned feisty, and writes snarky things to confound atheists.

3 thoughts on “Alvin Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism”

  1. Just to be clear, Plantinga doesn’t claim that the truth of evolution is incompatible with the truth of naturalism (as the summary indicates). Rather, his contention is that a person can’t rationally believe both that naturalism is true and that their cognitive faculties are the product of evolution. For example, in Where the Conflict Really Lies (p. 310), he writes, “What I will argue is that naturalism is in conflict with evolution, a main pillar of contemporary science. And the conflict in question isn’t that they can’t both be true (the conflict is not that there is a contradiction between them); it is rather that one can’t sensibly accept them both.”


  2. Per your reference, I think it would be a very interesting (and helpful) “read” to view a collection of his latter “feisty and snarky” writings purposed to confound atheists…or, a summary of them.


  3. This seems similar to C.S. Lewis’s argument in “The Abolition of Man.” Pure materialism provides no rational basis for belief in the power of the mind to reach a credible belief. Materialism saws off the limb on which the materialist is trying to sit.


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