Following Dr. Vince Vitale’s cosmological argument, he presents a second line of evidence that he claims “points to God.” He asks why we should trust our cognitive faculties if humans came to exist as a product of an unguided evolutionary process? He claims that without a supernatural guiding force, atheistic evolution would only give us reasoning faculties that are conducive to survival, and not conducive to truth (beginning at 17:54):

If you think atheistic, unguided evolution is all that determines human development, then you only have reason to believe that your beliefs are beneficial for survival. You don’t have reason to believe that your beliefs are actually true.

…To believe in atheistic evolution and think your beliefs are true is like stepping on a scale and thinking it’s going to tell you the time. Scales aren’t aimed at telling time, they’re aimed at telling weight. And in the same way, atheistic evolution is aimed at survival, it’s not aimed at truth.

A point of clarification in this argument is that it is not meant to show that atheism or evolution are false, only that if both are true, then all of our beliefs are unjustified, and we are left with a kind of radical skepticism.

How the atheist can respond

Vince is arguing that there is a massive gulf between true beliefs on the one hand, and beliefs that help an organism survive on the other. An atheist can push back against this claim by showing why the two are not so far apart after all.

Consider what is required for an organism to pass on its genes. At a minimum, it must successfully find food, avoid predators, defend itself if necessary, and find a mate–all things that require a basic level of awareness and thinking. If an organism fails at any of these basic tasks, it probably won’t pass on its genes. Therefore, over thousands and millions of generations, the organisms that do survive will more often have the ability–and the underlying cognitive systems–to produce a minimal degree of accurate beliefs about their local environment. In other words, there is good reason to think that evolution selects for reliable belief-producing mechanisms.

How Evolution Gave Us Brains that Track Truth

So, despite what Vince claims, if atheistic evolution is true, our reasoning faculties can still be aimed at producing reliable beliefs even if evolution doesn’t specifically select for individual true beliefs.

Vince’s analogy of stepping on a scale and expecting it to tell the time is partly true and partly false. It’s true in the sense that our reasoning abilities can sometimes fail us. When thinking about things beyond our local environment, such as cosmological physics, cell biology, or quantum mechanics, we can easily make mistakes and our reasoning can fail us. This would be like stepping on a scale and expecting the time–it’s the wrong tool for the job. We need additional instruments to get us the information we want. Our minds were not evolved to think in certain epistemic environments, and we need other methods and tools to assist us. But this doesn’t suggest that we can’t trust any of our beliefs, only that we should be aware of our inferential limitations and use skepticism to identify if and when we’ve gone wrong.

Problems with the supernatural designer hypothesis

Vince is arguing that a designer is a better explanation. But this view introduces several problems of its own. For one thing, what does it say about the designer that it would use evolution to bring about higher forms of life? Even if the theist denies that human beings evolved, there is still the problem of other sentient animals capable of suffering that existed for millions of years before humans. [1] Evolutionary history is a record of struggle, suffering, disease, and death. Why would the designer allow for so many animals to suffer and die, with no apparent moral or rational benefit? This the evidential problem of evil. 

A common response from theists is that God’s reasons for allowing so much suffering, like that from natural evil prior to human existence (and thus not caused by human free choice), is beyond our ability to comprehend. In other words, God has his reasons, but we’re not in a position to know. Maybe someday we will, but right now we don’t. This answer ends up committing the theist to a position of agnosticism about God’s intentions, goals, and reasons for action. There is evidence of a lot of suffering, which on its face does indeed seem pointless, but we are told, rest assured, God has morally sufficient reasons. Here the theist is admitting that there exists a massive gulf between their understanding and God’s reasons for action: on the face of it, evolutionary history may look as if God is an animal killing psychopathic maniac. But, the theist insists, we can trust the reliability of our beliefs about God, that he’s all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving, and has certain desires and goals for human beings, life, and the whole universe.

It seems to me this response puts the theist in the same sort of position of radical skepticism that had previously been leveled at the atheist. God can just as easily be incomprehensibly evil as incomprehensibly good. For all the theist knows, when they step on the scale to measure their weight, they’re only seeing a string of meaningless symbols, or worse, symbols meant to device them. After all, they’re not in a position to understand God’s reasons for doing what he does, including the reasons for designing our cognitive systems the way he did–on the face of it, it may seem one way, but really, it’s something very different.

Moreover, Vince’s argument is only a criticism of the rationality of belief in atheism and evolution together; it’s not an argument that “points to God.” It could be that atheism and naturalism are both true, and we’re left without an independent reason to know if our beliefs are true or just conducive to survival. So what. That is merely an unfortunate position to be in. It doesn’t help the case for Christian theism.

References

  1. In Vince’s book co-authored with Ravi Zacharias, Why Suffering?, the Old Earth view is affirmed as “the most plausible explanation of the Christian claim on creation…” (page 33). However, this view faces problems with explaining animal death, disease, and suffering prior to human existence. If humans were created long after many of the animals, then animal death could not have been caused by human activity.
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