Why R? A note on the EAAN

I’ve been starting to think seriously about Plantinga’s EAAN (Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism) over the last few days, in between other things (like a stats assignment – not actually using the programme ‘R’, though I could’ve done if I was more skilled). This is a semi-technical note that springs to mind that I find interesting; sorry to any non-philosophers glancing through these posts – once you know that ‘E&N’ means the conjunction of evolution and naturalism, you may be able to make some sense of it if you want to.

Anyway, I have been inclined towards a weakened form of the argument, which suggests that if naturalism were true, whatever the case may be for perceptual beliefs, memory and such, we would not be able to trust abstract metaphysical beliefs formed by our cognitive apparatus, for such beliefs would not necessarily have been selected for in our evolutionary history – i.e. the naturalist faces a defeater for a subset of her beliefs (including naturalism itself). Reading the Prosblogion, I found an example of such an argument here.

I’m inclined to think that a number of philosophical beliefs, including ethical beliefs, are particularly ripe for defeat by E&N, but I’ll need to read up on it more and indeed may never come to a particularly satisfactory understanding of it if I don’t brush up on epistemology and probability. If the naturalist faces a defeater for her ethical beliefs, I think she ought be concerned, but if she were to decide otherwise she wouldn’t be the first; a loss of ethics may not concern many people who are inclined to believe naturalism to be true. The more fundamental question is whether naturalism itself faces defeat. Given some cut-back form of the EAAN the ‘defeat question’ depends, I think, on how the belief in naturalism is arrived at in the first place. If it is somehow inferred from a bunch of empirical beliefs which are warranted, then the rationality of naturalism may hold in the face of the modified EAAN.

The similar point I originally intended to make in this post* was that if EAAN is cut back to questioning a subset of the beliefs of the ‘E&N-er’, it might be that this subset, in the face of the purported defeater, can be rescued (can derive its warrant) from another subset of the subject’s cognitive faculties. So, all this was to say that (it seems to me) there is a reason why Plantinga wants to target R rather than merely a subset. This is that it cuts off escape routes for the naturalist – if you introduce someone to a good reason to question their cognitive faculties wholesale, it will be hard for the reflective questioner to construct an argument in favour of their cognitive reliability, as such arguments will tend to assume the reliability that they aim to prove. Conversely, if you only undercut a portion of the naturalist’s beliefs, it may be able to be shown that in light of total evidence available to one whose beliefs are thusly undercut, naturalism (or ethical beliefs, or whatever is the target of evolutionary debunking (or epistemological skepticism more generally)) does not lack warrant.

As it is, it’s not clear how naturalism is obtained/inferred in the first place, let alone without relying heavily on abstract metaphysical beliefs/assumptions about the world – so, this speculation (in the absence of good arguments for naturalism from beliefs which are probably true given a naturalistic evolutionary history to our cognitive equipment) may be redundant, it’s just a note of caution that I will try to look further into.

 *I got the point in some form  from one of Plantinga’s replies at the end of the essay collection “Naturalism Defeated – Essays on Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism”. [I’ll find the exact reference some time]


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