Joe Carter is at it again. Though he claims he’s not going to post a while on the topic of naturalism, we all know he’ll be back. He always comes back.

In a recent offering, he wrote:

Knowledge – justified, true belief – cannot be produced by unreliable noetic equipment (brain, spinal cord, senses, etc.). If we believe that it is possible to obtain knowledge, we must believe that our noetic equipment is reliable, hence designed for the task of producing reliable beliefs. But if our noetic equipment is produced by blind, undirected forces, then our equipment is not reliable.

In other words, if evolution is true, then there is no reason to trust that our cognitive abilities actually work.

My intention is not to repeat the comment war that occured. Rather, I’m quite persuaded by this challenge to Carter’s post: “Joe, here’s the question I want answered: How do you know our noetic equipment is reliable? If you say, because it arose from a rational process, then you’re assuming you’re noetic equipment is reliable enough to determine that fact. Please explain why you’re allowed to beg the question and I’m not.”

It’s actually rather simple. Assume Carter is begging the question here. Even if he is, he enjoys the freedom to do so, given that on his hypothesis, reliability of the senses is not a problem. His explanation is simple–they’re designed. The naturalist does not enjoy this position. On what grounds are our noetic faculties reliable? On the fact that they evolved to be? If they evolved over time, then it seems the probability of their reliability is significantly lessened, if not destroyed. If the reliability of noetic faculties is a problem for anyone, it is a problem for naturalists, not theists.

My point is not to suggest this is a good argument but simply to point out that not all questions apply trans-hypotheses. Some questions are more forceful for theists than for atheists, and consequently the theist has a greater responsibility to provide reasonable answers to them–one thinks of the problem of evil as one example. The the question of evil exists, it is more easily explained on a naturalist hypothesis. The problem of evil is a problem for theists, not naturalists. However, the problem of the reliability of cognitive faculties is more properly a problem for naturalists, not theists. It’s important in examining various worldviews to realize that not all questions apply equally to every worldview.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. “If they evolved over time, then it seems the probability of their reliability is significantly lessened, if not destroyed.”

    I would love to see a warrant for that claim. Sadly, it’s more than Carter has offered in support of his own thesis.


  2. Jim,
    For a philosophically robust presentation of the argument, you’ll have to see Alvin Plantiga, who was the first one to formulate it.

    The claim you mention seems to be sufficiently warranted by the fact that natural selection acts only to improve reproductive fitness. Our reasoning faculties, therefore, are aimed not at truth but at increasing reproductive fitness and are therefore unreliable for any other activity – such as arguing about the truth of Naturalism :-).


  3. Gabe,

    That’s a simple fallacy. It’s like claiming that a hammer is unreliable at breaking windows because its function is “only” pounding and pulling nails. That “only” has to be justified, not assumed.


  4. Jim,
    the claim is not that our cognitive faculties are certainly unreliable given naturalism, the claim is that the probability that they are reliable is “low or inscrutable” (Plantiga’s language).

    Suppose the only thing I know about a hammer is that it’s function is pounding and pulling nails. It may be good at a great many other things, but I am not justified in believing that it can reliably perform other functions (i.e., breaking glass) without some additional information – for instance, my background knowledge that a hammer is hard and glass is brittle.

    I don’t have any information regarding the effectiveness of hammers at killing porpoises. Cerainly this is not warrant to assume they can be reliably used for this purpose!

    Likewise, one is not justified in believing that unguided natural selection can produce faculties aimed at truth as a side-effect without independent evidence that this is the case. And such evidence is not forthcomming.


  5. Ah, so you’ve hit upon the dynamic nature of knowledge that Carter (and others) seem to ignore in the discussion. You can learn that something is reliable by experimenting with it. Hit the porpoise with the hammer. (Actually, don’t, please.)

    Which is why I have a difficult time swallowing the Kimon’s stone objection. We’re not at the beginning of knowledge-formation; we may have warrant to trust our faculties that others–both human and not–have not until this point in time.

    Part of the paucity of the evidence for evolutionary epistemology can be traced to its relative newness as a discipline; perhaps some can also be explained by faulty models of evolution. There’s more to it than mutation and selection.


Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *