How do non-theists explain the reliability of our cognitive faculties given Plantinga’s EAAN?



Plantinga argued in his Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN) that given naturalistic evolution we cannot expect our cognitive faculties to be reliable. This contradicts our experience that these cognitive faculties actually are reliable.

According to a set of lecture notes, page 2, Plantinga claims that Quine and Popper do not see a problem with naturalistic evolution, however, others, notably Darwin, do see a problem. In Where the Conflict Really Lies (WTCRL, 316-325) and these notes (page 3) he calls this “Darwin’s Doubt”.

Traditional theism has a way out of the problem since God gives human beings what is needed to have knowledge.

It seems that non-theists should be able to do something similar perhaps with panpsychism or punctuated equilibria as an evolutionary theory as long as they avoid the materialism with respect to human beings that Plantinga references in WTCRL. The justification for the truth of the content of our cognitive faculties need not go all the way to a God.

How do non-theists, who do see a real problem with naturalistic evolution, explain the reliability of our cognitive faculties?

Frank Hubeny

Posted 2018-04-24T19:09:37.627

Reputation: 18 742

1I think it is easy to answer, but I would love what committed non-theists have to say about it. – IsThatTrue – 2018-04-24T19:35:04.820

Did you read the Responses in the linked Wikipedia article? Plantinga's argument relies on Bayesianism, which incidentally Quine and Popper reject. But even assuming that the problem exists Plantinga himself does not have a solution to it, "because God" has the same reliability problems as evolutionism on his own terms. Indeed, it just reproduces the Cartesian Circle. – Conifold – 2018-04-24T21:22:11.037

@Conifold The theistic add-on to evolution allows it to be guided. This protects the theistic position from the reliability challenge the EAAN offers to naturalism. That is, it explains why our cognitive faculties are as reliable as we experience them to be. The challenge to theists is elsewhere. If our cognitive faculties are guided why are they not perfectly reliable? Plantinga answers that in the Free Will Defense regarding the logical problem of evil:

– Frank Hubeny – 2018-04-26T18:31:15.823

The problem is that for naturalists "because God" explains nothing. Plantinga posits God together with postulating that he provides an explanation. This only works if "God is not a deceiver" can be reliably established, and we find ourselves in the Cartesian Circle. So Plantinga talks about a problem that naturalists do not acknowledge as theirs, but they acknowledge it as his and one he can not solve. – Conifold – 2018-04-29T21:14:49.643

@Conifold My question makes two assumptions (1) The EAAN is a convincing argument against naturalism. (2) Theists have a way out of the problem, that is, the EAAN does not apply to them. What I am asking is whether more general non-theism, not naturalism, has a way out as well. I suspect it does but I would like to hear what it is. I am not asking for a defense of naturalism nor an argument against theism. That would be some other question. – Frank Hubeny – 2018-04-29T22:03:20.800

Neither "X is a convincing argument" nor "Y has a way out of X" can be assumed if you are asking for responses to X, both can be disputed by a response. If you are looking for hypothetical responses to a problem produced by Plantinga's own framework you should change the title since it has little to do with how actual non-theists frame reliability. – Conifold – 2018-04-29T22:22:57.113

@Conifold I am looking for an explanation why our cognitive faculties are as reliable as they are that does not include naturalism and does not include theism. Why am I looking for this? The EAAN convinces me that naturalism is not the answer. I know I could take a theistic route but I am looking for a non-theistic route. An accepted answer referencing Buddhism is one I had not thought of. If you have another answer please provide it. – Frank Hubeny – 2018-04-30T11:14:37.057

I encourage you to inspect your reasons for finding the argument convincing. First, a long list of cognitive biases shows that we do have many false but adaptive "beliefs". Second, Plantinga arrives at probability of forming true beliefs by assigning Bayesian priors. A classical example of how one can get any desired answer by doing that is the base rate fallacy. Ironically, these and other probabilistic paradoxes illustrate that our probability intuitions are adaptive but misguided.

– Conifold – 2018-04-30T23:49:26.620

3The premise of the question is wrong. Our cognitive faculties are notoriously unreliable. – Kevin Krumwiede – 2018-05-01T07:35:14.300

@KevinKrumwiede Not as I see it. You are welcome to offer an answer with this perspective. It is not just Plantinga where I am getting my suspicion of naturalism. See Thomas Nagel's Mind and Cosmos. Plantinga has a nice argument that I can quickly reference. – Frank Hubeny – 2018-05-01T12:41:40.300

@Conifold Again, this is not a question about the EAAN. You are welcome to ask such a question that challenges it, but that is not my question. In this question I accept that argument. I am only interested in answers that I cannot use the EAAN on. – Frank Hubeny – 2018-05-01T12:46:31.820



It is true that human reason reaches vastly beyond what is needed for hunting a mammoth, or even for handling more complex situations arising from social behavior and language.

Sure, a lot in nature feels counter-intuitive, but this doesn't preclude us to tread on such ground. The grasp of the structure of space by Euclid, for example, was so firm that he even singled out the axiom, which is problematic (the parallel postulate), as problematic (obviously, he still used it, but avoided it when possible). And this is only the beginning, if we think about the upper reaches of theoretical physics and mathematics.

But I don't see how all of this gets us to a theistic God, who is conceived as an all-powerful and omnibenevolent Creator of the Universe.

It would “only” be an argument against the modern worldview of the contemporary secular elite which is based on physicalism and Darwinism.

By this, I don't mean the crazy idea that Darwinian evolution would turn out to be totally flawed (= has no explanatory power or gets the facts seriously wrong) – it suffices to be incomplete (similar to classical physics). Rationality might in part have immaterial features (so physicalism would be false) and teleological processes might exist in nature (very broadly speaking), which aim at the development of rationality.

Such kind of atheistic worldview might feel odd and unsatisfactory, but that seems to be rather a result of our cultural biases, which we should strive to overcome. In India, they never had those big troubles about such proposals:

Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla also point out that when there are no composite objects in this world, how can there be an Intelligent Being who is supposed to produce them? It is like proving that an ant-hill is the creation of a potter. Even objects like houses, stair-cases, gates, towers etc. are made by persons who are many and who have fleeting ideas. If the opponent means only this that all effects presuppose an intelligent cause, we have no quarrel with him because we also maintain that this diverse universe is the result of intelligent actions. We only refute his one Intelligent and Eternal Creator.

Chandradhar Sharma: A Critical Survey of Indian Philosophy
(emphasis mine)

NB: the ant-hill of the Indian harvester ant looks like a clay pot.


Posted 2018-04-24T19:09:37.627

Reputation: 3 455

The Buddhist positions you reference look promising. I agree that the EAAN applies only to an extreme form of atheism and materialism of the mind. – Frank Hubeny – 2018-04-26T18:25:35.913


Our cognitive faculties - alike to our bodily organs - have developed in adaption to our ecological niche. We know the basic mechanisms of evolution like mutation and selection. We know that the gene pool of the species as well as the individual living being adapts due to the feedback we get from our surrounding. Due to this feedback - our experiences - we permanently update our interior world-model.

Our cognitive faculties are adapted to every-day life and we have different means to detect when they fail.

But of course our cognitive faculties are not infallible, in particular they are not reliable in every situation. Hence I would doubt any such premiss.

Jo Wehler

Posted 2018-04-24T19:09:37.627

Reputation: 17 204



  • Complex analysis doesn't have anything to do with our ecological niche. There has to be a better explanation… at least you have to invoke social group behavior / language. 2. Maybe you can access this? If Selesnick & Owen are right, the adaption story has some serious holes in it. Why does in a normal person classical logic “sit upon” an intrinsic quantum-like logic which is far removed from our ecological niche (and this process is disturbed in schizophrenics, who then actually perform better on certain tasks)?
  • – viuser – 2018-04-27T00:53:44.227