could there be an evolutionary argument for faith?

Some years ago, Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga produced a famous evolutionary argument against naturalism (it’s famous enough to make it to the Wikipedia page dedicated to him).

Very roughly, it goes something like this:

  • If evolution and naturalism are both true, as the New Atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens assert, we have no good grounds to expect our brains to reliably form true beliefs about the world. For within a naturalistic framework, evolution tells us our belief-generating and -testing mechanisms are wired to promote survival not necessarily truth.
  • Hence this poisons the well of both evolution and naturalism. For why should we think these beliefs are exempted from the general conditions they themselves entail all beliefs are subject to?

I have to admit that ever since I stumbled across this argument, it’s left me cold. Mostly because it feels like a parlour trick — I’m left wondering what the logician is going to pull out of his hat next.

But the other day I came across something in Lesslie Newbigin’s The Gospel In A Pluralist Society (page 28) that might just breath life into Plantinga’s argument:

Why should we rule out the possibility that things are such that human life is intended to require the taking of risks? It seems, in fact, that both human and animal life requires taking risks. What grounds are there for thinking that [the] idea of total certainty is anything other than illusion, a piece of wishful thinking that has no relation to reality?

To be fair, Newbigin’s target here is the kind of rationalism that goes back to Descartes, which looks to human reason to deliver ironclad certainty — a kind of transcendence when it comes to knowing. Yet when you hear Dawkins or Hitchens compare their hard-nosed scientific approach to faith’s wilful (and destructive) ‘blindness’, it doesn’t feel too wide of the mark.

What I find interesting is how it’s Newbigin’s observation of the natural world — the very thing evolution is supposed to be par excellence — that cuts against the rationalist hankering for transcendence.

Of course, it also resonates with the Christian conviction that we’re creatures and so all our attempts to know unfold within creaturely limitations.

But perhaps there’s an evolutionary argument for faith waiting to be made here. Or if not for faith, then perhaps simply againstDitchkinsian‘ rationalism.

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