Objections to Horn One of Atheism’s Other Evolutionary Dilemma

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Objections to Horn One of Atheism’s Other Evolutionary Dilemma

In a previous essay titled ‘Atheism’s Other Evolutionary Dilemma’, it was noted that the atheistic-naturalist is forced into a dilemma given that his worldview is essentially wed to the grand naturalistic version of the evolutionary narrative, which is indeed the only live option that the atheistic-naturalist can appeal to in order to explain the existence and development of all life. On the one hand, if the atheistic-naturalist denies the grand naturalistic evolutionary narrative, then he suddenly has a worldview that has no viable explanation for the existence and apparent design of living things, as well as having a worldview that is thus based on blind faith given its lack of an explanation for biological life. On the other hand, if the atheistic-naturalist binds himself to the grand naturalistic evolutionary narrative, then the fact that that narrative has no evidence for many of its major claims—such as, for example, abiogenesis or the emergence of consciousness—also means that the atheistic-naturalist’s worldview is based on blind faith. So whatever way that he turns, the atheistic-naturalist’s worldview is not one based on evidence, but rather it is a worldview built on an edifice of faith. And since believing things on the basis of blind faith is allegedly antithetical to the spirit of atheistic-naturalism, then this dilemma means that atheistic-naturalists should actually cease being atheistic-naturalists, for they hold a worldview which is antithetical to one of their own stated principles. And so this is a serious dilemma for the atheistic-naturalist. But, as with all arguments, some objections can be offered against them, and this one is no different, and so it is precisely those objections, or at least the ones related to the first horn of the dilemma, which this essay will address.

Now, as mentioned above, the first horn of this dilemma claims that if the atheistic-naturalistic disassociates himself from the grand naturalistic evolutionary narrative then he suddenly has a worldview that has no viable explanation for the existence and apparent design of living things, as well as having a worldview that is thus based on blind faith given its lack of an explanation for biological life. Furthermore, the overwhelming appearance of design in living things—a fact admitted by many atheistic-naturalists themselves—suddenly becomes a major problem too, for if the atheistic-naturalist has no means of explaining this appearance of design in a naturalistic way, then it suddenly becomes eminently reasonable to believe that the appearance of design in living things is present because living things actually are designed by a designer.

Now, in answer to this first horn of the dilemma, the atheistic-naturalist can simply note that while the denial of the grand naturalistic evolutionary narrative would leave a large gap in his worldview, his worldview is still logically tenable even with this gap. However, there are two responses that can be made to this claim. First, it is possible to agree with this point, but then to note that the dilemma is ultimately not meant to deny the mere logical tenability of atheistic-naturalism without the grand naturalistic evolutionary narrative, but rather to point out that atheistic-naturalism is a worldview built on blind faith, and that is a point which the aforementioned objection does nothing to negate. But second, it is actually questionable whether atheistic-naturalism would be tenable—perhaps logically tenable, but not reasonably tenable—without including its only live option of the grand naturalistic evolutionary narrative as the explanation for all of biological life. After all, explaining the origin of life, language, consciousness, rationality, and so on are foundational issues, and any worldview which not only has no explanation for how these things came to be but does not even know if they could come to be on the worldview in question, is arguably not a reasonable or tenable worldview, at least not if one wishes to avoid charges of fideism. Add to this issue the fact that life gives off the overwhelming appearance of design, with the natural implication that there exists some type of designer, and it suddenly becomes less-than-tenable for a naturalistic worldview to have no explanation for the existence of biological life in the face of such a forceful appearance of design in biological organisms. And so, as stated, it is quite questionable whether or not atheistic-naturalism actually is tenable in any real sense without attaching itself to the grand naturalistic evolutionary narrative.

Next, the atheistic-naturalist, in repudiating the grand naturalistic evolutionary narrative, could offer some other naturalistic narrative to account for the origin and development of all biological life. For example, perhaps the atheistic-naturalist could claim that biological life is the result of accidental but massive freak mutations which changed biological organisms completely in one fell swoop and that such changes occurred numerous times in the past, thereby accounting for all the variety of life that we currently see. However, any such alternative narrative would very likely be even more implausible than the grand naturalistic evolutionary narrative, and it would very likely be based on just as little evidence, if not even less, than the grand naturalistic evolutionary narrative itself, and so the main thrust of the dilemma would still remain in force even with the attempt at offering an alternative naturalistic account of how biological organisms came to be on atheistic-naturalism. Furthermore, the fact that no atheistic-naturalists offer such a different account in any serious way, but rather always appeal to naturalistic evolution of some type as the method of accounting for the existence and development of biological life, thereby offers good evidence of the intellectual poverty of trying to offer a completely different naturalistic account for the origin and development of biological life.

Finally, if the atheistic-naturalist denies the grand naturalistic evolutionary narrative, and in light of the overwhelming appearance of design in biological organisms, thus appeals to some kind of naturalistic design as the explanation for biological life, then such an explanation might be viable, but it merely pushes the question of explaining biological life in a naturalistic fashion in the direction of having to provide a naturalistic account of how our designer came to be naturalistically. In essence, an appeal to naturalistic design does nothing to help the atheistic-naturalist towards explaining or accounting for biological life, it merely pushes the issue back one step. And, at the same time, since the atheistic-naturalist, in this case, is admitting to the design of biological organisms, then this admittance, in and of itself, provides support to those individuals pointing to the supernatural design of biological organisms, such as many individuals in the Intelligent Design movement. So by admitting to the design of biological organisms, even if only admitting to the naturalistic design of such organisms, the atheistic-naturalist is nevertheless providing aid and comfort, so to speak, to his ideological enemies, and this is something that the atheistic-naturalist would likely not be willing to do. And so the design option is available to the atheistic-naturalist, but it is a very dangerous option indeed, for it ultimately does little to help his position, but it does greatly help the position of his ideological opponents.

And so, the long and short of it is this:  the objections that the atheistic-naturalist can mount to the first horn of the dilemma summarized at the start of this essay simply do not improve the atheistic-naturalist’s position at all. Thus, the atheistic-naturalist’s best hope to solve this evolutionary dilemma is to object to the second horn of the dilemma, and it is precisely those objections which shall be examined in yet another essay.

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One thought on “Objections to Horn One of Atheism’s Other Evolutionary Dilemma

  1. Now that you’ve specified that by “naturalist” you mean “philosophical naturalist” (i.e. someone who claims that the natural world is all that exists), it’s clear that the argument doesn’t apply to me. I’m an empiricist and make no claims about the existence or non-existence of anything outside the physical world. I’m concerned with what can be verified empirically and the supernatural seems, at least so far, to fall outside this domain so I remain an “agnostic a-supernaturalist”. I also remain open to the idea that something supernatural could have an effect on the natural that could be verified empirically but I’ve seen no conclusive examples of this. Of course, if the supernatural can have no effect on the natural then the question becomes rather moot since the supernatural would, whether it exists or not, be irrelevant to us living in the natural world.

    As for the horns of your dilemma, I’ve already addressed them in another response. For an empiricist, the dilemma simply doesn’t exist. I’m not wedded to any theory, I simply accept the current mainstream theories as our best explanations at this time. If someone thinks they have a better theory, I’m prepared to consider it but before I accept it, I will need to see that the new theory makes testable predictions that can be verified and that it provides better and more complete explanations for the observed evidence than the present theories.

    You wrote: “After all, explaining the origin of life, language, consciousness, rationality, and so on are foundational issues, and any worldview which not only has no explanation for how these things came to be but does not even know if they could come to be on the worldview in question, is arguably not a reasonable or tenable worldview, at least not if one wishes to avoid charges of fideism.”

    We may not have the ultimate explanations for these phenomena – but then neither do you. You may think that appealing to God provides an explanation but this dilutes the concept of “explanation” into meaninglessness. An explanation should provide an understanding of the processes involved, i.e. it should suggest a mechanism for how we get from A to B. To say that God did it offers us no more understanding than saying it happened by magic, it’s essentially just another way of saying that it’s a mystery. Well, we’re all agreed that these are, for the time being, mysteries – but it seems to me that it’s only the people who are looking for natural explanations that are trying to solve these mysteries.

    By appealing to an inscrutable God, you’re basically throwing up your hands and declaring that the mysteries are unsolvable. Who knows, they may turn out to be but accepting this non-explanation before we’ve done our best to find an actual explanation strikes me as defeatist – an intellectual capitulation. We can do better – and it’s not as if science is grinding down to a halt, quite on the contrary the rate of new discoveries seems to steadily accelerate.

    What you seem to be saying is that when faced with a mystery, we should – in the interest of completeness – latch on to some explanation or hold to it by faith, otherwise our worldview will be left with a lot of holes. From an empiricist perspective, this makes no sense. I follow the evidence where it takes me and if there is insufficient evidence, I will readily accept that we currently have no explanation – anything else would be intellectually inconsistent. If this means that, in your view, my worldview has a lot of holes then we obviously have very different takes on what a worldview is. I get the sense that to you, a worldview is a complete explanation of reality, while I see a worldview as an approach to explaining reality.

    If nothing but a complete explanation of reality will do, then we have an obvious problem. Our knowledge is incomplete (and will continue to be until we’re omniscient) so the holes are there, whether you like it or not. To try to plug these holes with unverifiable non-explanations is completely unsatisfactory to me.

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