Alan Shlemon of the Stand to Reason ministry has written “Atheism’s Empty Soul,” an article that offers to correct atheists’ confusion about the consequences of their own worldview. In part 1, we looked at his argument in summary, and now we’ll consider the reasons.
First, naturalism leads to nihilism because humans don’t have free will
“We do what we are determined to do. We are cogs in a cosmic machine.”
I don’t have the interest to dig into the complicated question of free will. I have the impression of free will, and that’s good enough for me. Since you’re talking about worldviews, my worldview includes that.
The Christian position might be, “You’ve got free will, don’t you? Well, there you go—there must be a god to support that.” My response: (1) I see no reason why we need a god to create the impression of free will that I have, and (2) I see many traits of our reality that are incompatible with the Christian god existing (these are my silver-bullet arguments). Resolve those showstoppers first, and then we can consider if the facts of reality point to a god.
The Christian argument in this article is all attack and no defense. What I want to see instead is as much time justifying the unbelievable Christian worldview as is spent attacking the atheist worldview.
Second, naturalism leads to nihilism because knowledge is unattainable
Next, Shlemon defines knowledge as “justified true belief.” Break that apart and focus on the underlined words: you know that proposition A is true if (1) A is indeed true, (2) you believe A is true, and (3) you are justified in believing A is true (that is, you used a reliable method in coming to your belief, rather than flipping a coin).
He argues that the naturalist can never attain this kind of knowledge.
The problem for the atheist arises from the fact that their worldview of naturalism views the brain as a wholly material object, subject to the environmental forces of physics and chemistry. Such forces, however, have no interest in producing reliable cognitive faculties. Physical forces on a physical object like the brain won’t necessarily produce a trustworthy system of independent thought, reason, and logical deduction. Since we can’t be confident in our ability to attain justified true beliefs, we can’t have knowledge.
This is Alvin Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN): natural forces are, at root, just mindless physics and chemistry. Natural selection doesn’t favor truth but rather genes being passed on to the next generation. How can knowledge—justified true belief—be the result of a process that focuses on survival rather than truth?
Evolution answers the question
To see how a foundation of skills shaped by evolution can support higher-level traits, imagine learning to hit a ball with a bat. At first, you’re terrible at it, but you have reliable feedback. A pitch and a swing takes just a few seconds, and you immediately know how well you did. If your swing was poor, you have clues about what you did wrong. You can test your improvements when the process repeats seconds later. After weeks of practice, you’ll be pretty good. Your ability to hit a ball was built on accurate vision, kinesthetics (our sense of motion and body position), and muscles that adapt, all traits that evolution could select for because they benefit survival.
Another illustration: the modern human brain is no better than the one used by Paleolithic humans 12,000 years ago. How can this Stone Age brain understand calculus? How can it invent calculus?
Let’s first consider a similar question with living skin. The first nuclear radiation burns on skin happened in the twentieth century. Evolution had no chance to improve skin to better withstand gamma rays, but evolution honed skin to be general purpose. It’s durable and self-repairing, both to ancient injuries (such as scrapes, bites, and sunburn) and new ones (knives, bullets, and gamma rays).
In the same way, the human brain is general purpose. The brain selected by evolution to be good at communicating, animal tracking, and general problem solving is also good at wondering about the planets, finding natural laws, and inventing calculus. (Which leads to the tangential but fascinating question: what if the mental toolkit we inherited through evolution had been radically different? What ideas and knowledge would that have fostered that we can’t even imagine because we would have had to have inherited that toolkit to imagine them?)
To see what brainless evolution can do, look at the field of genetic programming. Here’s a project that tries to recreate the Mona Lisa with 50 semi-transparent polygons. Starting with random polygons, it evolves them by randomly changing them slightly with each generation and comparing the result with the actual painting, keeping the best approximation. That’s random mutation and selection—just like in evolution in nature. After a thousand iterations of the polygons, the image is nonsense; after ten thousand you’d say “Oh, yeah” if someone told you it was a rough Mona Lisa; and after a million, anyone would immediately identify it.
Knowledge finding is an emergent property. (I respond in more depth to Plantinga’s EAAN argument here.)
And what is the Christian alternative? That God is the homunculus at the wheel, justifying your knowledge? A little man sitting inside your head pushing the levers and pedals, driving you like construction equipment? Or maybe that the soul connects us with some sort of intelligence in the supernatural realm?
With the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism, the Christian has solved one (invented) problem by creating another: where’s the evidence for God or the soul or even anything supernatural? Even if science had no idea how consciousness, thinking, or knowledge finding arose, that does nothing to argue that God did it.
Concluded in part 3.
also has the most willfully ignorant people per capita
when it comes to understanding science.
— Mrs. Betty Bowers, America’s Best Christian