Why Religion and Logic Don’t Mix

My wife challenged me to answer an essay by Alvin Plantinga, a professor of philosophy, attempting to justify religious belief through logic. My response: LOL.

For millennia, religious apologists have advanced innumerable supposed logical arguments. It’s a fool’s errand.

Plantinga starts with the familiar idea that religion and science (particularly, evolution science) don’t conflict, because “obviously” God “could” have orchestrated the whole thing. (As could the Flying Spaghetti Monster.)

But what he says is inconsistent with theistic religion is an optional add-on to evolution theory: unguided evolution. The latter idea he labels “naturalism,” and not necessarily implicit in the theory of evolution itself.

And marrying evolution to naturalism, Plantinga says, has a big problem. We assume our cognitive faculties are reliable, “they produce an appropriate preponderance of true over false belief.” But accepting naturalism together with evolution produces a “defeater” for that assumption: “because the probability of our cognitive faculties being reliable, given naturalism and evolution, is low.”

 Accordingly, any belief they produce is more likely wrong than right – including the belief in naturalism-cum-evolution. So Plantinga concludes it isn’t religion that conficts with science – it’s naturalism!

That’s where I laughed out loud. Plantinga’s “defeater” argument is a paradox analogous to:

The sentence below is true.
The sentence above is false.

If whatever we believe is likely false, that would apply to Plantinga’s own proposition – it would likely be false that whatever we believe is likely false. It’s a logical black hole, as in my pair of sentences above. (And if there’s a low probability of any human ideas being true, that should apply much more forcefully to any religious beliefs than to any scientific ideas which, after all, are grounded in methodical investigation, unlike matters of religious faith.)

Moreover, Plantinga’s factual premise is simply wrong. Again, he asserts that “the probability of our cognitive faculties being reliable, given naturalism and evolution, is low.” This cockeyed statement, the key to his argument, is without basis or explanation, and shows total misunderstanding of evolution. It’s the essence of evolution by natural selection that successful organisms survive to propagate their genes, hence successful traits spread. The caveman who spotted the lurking lion lived to pass along his genes for such reliable cognition; the guy whose cognition was not as good got eaten. Thus does evolution (even if unguided) militate toward reliable cognitive faculties, and a “preponderance of true over false belief.” Naturalism in no way implies our beliefs are likely wrong.

(That’s not to say all our beliefs are right, or that evolution gave us perfect cognition. For example, while it did endow us with a darn good capability for seeing what’s really there, an important part of that toolkit is pattern recognition; and our pattern recognition is turned up so high that sometimes we see things that aren’t really there. Like God.)

The Law of Gravity

Meantime too, while Plantinga talks as though “naturalism” is just another woo-woo type of belief system, it’s actually the way every sane person understands the world 99+% of the time. When you drop a ball, it falls down, not up, as you are sure it will. That’s naturalism – the idea that every phenomenon that occurs is natural – it has a reason, an explanation, conforming to the laws that govern existence (even if we don’t fully understand them). Naturalism is true by definition, while “supernatural” is a contradiction in terms. If something happens or exists, then it’s “natural.”

This applies to evolution. It’s entirely reasonable to ascribe the workings of evolution to “natural” causes rather than looking for something supernatural behind it. And not hard either; the naturalist understanding of evolution makes perfectly good sense.

Plantinga was discussing a debate of sorts he had with philosopher Daniel Dennett, who said that if Christianity is not incompatible with science, the same could apply to numerous silly beliefs, such as a belief in Superman. Plantinga’s answer, quoted in full: “Superman, despite being able to leap tall buildings at a single bound and being more powerful than a speeding locomotive, is pretty small potatoes compared to God (and that’s even if we ignore the sizeable handicap of being a mere comic book character).”

Superman finds God

In other words, God is way more powerful than Superman. Shouldn’t that make belief in God way more silly than belief in Superman? (As for his being a comic book character, I fail to see why being a character in a 2,000 year old book imparts greater credibility.)

That a religious belief may not be ruled out by science doesn’t make it true, or believable. If you say the Universe is governed by the Flying Spaghetti Monster, it’s up to you to prove it to me, not up to me to disprove it.

And what all this really proves, for the zillionth time, is that religion and logic don’t mix. Believe whatever matters of faith you like. But apologists attempting logical arguments for them only make fools of themselves.

(Note: Prof. Plantinga has continued this discussion. See the comments.)

13 Responses to “Why Religion and Logic Don’t Mix”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    I would like to add to the logic side; even though our senses may not be 100% accurate, we have many people who can contribute their mostly accurate sense to give mutually supporting evidence. I have not read Plantinga’s literature but Steven Jay Gould’s ‘non-overlapping magesteria’ seems to be the same idea here. Good article. Thanks-http://sinedeo.blogspot.com/

  2. rationaloptimist Says:

    I have had an e-mail exchange with Prof. Plantinga. Here it is, in full:

    Plantinga: Thanks for your note.

    Your response didn’t have a lot to do with my argument. that’s probably because you didn’t really see the argument–what you were referring to didn’t present the argument, but just pointed readers to where they could find it (in SCIENCE AND RELIGION: ARE THEY COMPATIBLE, by Daniel Dennett and Alvin Plantinga (Oxford Press, 2011).

    One brief point: contrary to what you say, I don’t argue that in fact our cognitive faculties are unreliable. What I argue is that the probability that they are reliable, GIVEN NATURALISM AND EVOLUTION, is low. And of course I was thinking of naturalism as I defined it, not as you defined it.

    Robinson: I appreciate your reply. If you are saying the piece in Montreal Review did not adequately articulate your argument (whatever it may be), I might be inclined to agree. But I think your key point remains as stated in your second paragraph above, which I quoted precisely. And as for what exactly you meant by “naturalism,” you did seem to equate it with unguided evolution. You failed to offer any explication of the proposition that evolution + naturalism implies low probability of cognitive reliability — which I think is plainly wrong, no matter how you define naturalism.
    Indeed, high cognitive reliability is not unique to humans, but pervasive among animals — for the evolutionary reasons I explained.

    Plantinga: Right: cognitive reliability is required for fitness. If a frog sitting on a lily pad captures a fly, there must be indicators, in the frog, of the presence and distance and velocity of the fly; these indictors must be connected, in an appropriate way, with the frog’s behavior.

    Perhaps in addition to those indicators, the frog also has beliefs. If so, it doesn’t matter, so far as fitness goes, what those beliefs are and whether they are true or false. So some kind of cognitive reliability is necessary for the frog’s fitness. But nothing follows about whatever beliefs the frog may have.

    I take naturalism to include materialism about human beings (.e., the idea that human beings are material or physical objects through and through, with no immaterial self or soul). According to materialism, however, the content of belief doesn’t get into the causal chain leading to behavior; it is not by virtue of the content of a belief that the belief (as a neuronal structure of some sort) makes its causal connection with behavior. If so, materialism is committed to a sort of content epiphenomenalism. But if that’s true, then natural selection wouldn’t be able to see content or modify belief producing processes in the direction of greater reliability. But then the fact that we have survived doesn’t make it probable that our belief producing processes are in fact reliable. It only shows that we have some kinds of reliably cognitive indicators. And if so, the P(R/N&E) will be low.

    I attach chapter 10 of my book WHERE THE CONFLICT REALLY LIES, which goes into the argument in more detail.

    Robinson: Well, I give you credit for trying to disabuse me of reality. I have perused the Rube Goldberg argument in the chapter you appended. It’s the intellectual equivalent of dividing by zero; or of the sentence pair I used in my blog posting. If your “probability is low” argument is correct, it would apply to your own belief in that argument. Indeed, with much greater force than it could apply to my position, since my position comports perfectly with the reality of the world as I experience it, whereas yours does require a Rube Goldberg edifice of casuistry to arrive at.
    More concretely, you are trying to sever “belief” from cognition. You hold that even if evolution gives us generally accurate cognition, what you call naturalism (if true) would make beliefs probably false. But this distinction between cognition and belief is nonsense. Cognition leads to belief to behavior. Eyes tells us there’s a lion in the brush (cognition); thus we form a belief that there’s a lion; thus we run (behavior).
    Of course, humans form some beliefs that are not based on any cognition. And some can be wrong. That hardly means there is a low probability of any beliefs being right. Naturalism or no naturalism.

    Plantinga: You say:

    If your “probability is low” argument is correct, it would apply to your own belief in that argument.

    You’re still missing the conditional form of the argument. I say the probability of R GIVEN N&E is low; but of course I don’t accept (believe) N&E, because I don’t accept N. The point is that someone who accept both N and E has a defeater for R; people who don’t accept N and E don’t have a defeater for r or at least don’t have this defeater for R.

    Belief clearly is distinct from cognition; there are many indicators in our bodies, of, e.g., the saline content of our blood, the progress of food through the digestive tract, etc., where no one and nothing holds beliefs on those topics. It’s just not true that all indicators involve belief.

    You say:

    Eyes tells us there’s a lion in the brush (cognition); thus we form a belief that there’s a lion; thus we run (behavior).

    Right. But the question is what things would be like if naturalism, construed as including materialism, were true. And given the content epiphenomenalism materialism involves, it wouldn’t be by virtue of the content of any belief that you are caused to run. This is, of course, a very serious problem for materialism.

    Robinson: 1) So — a believer in naturalism (i.e., no God, or materialism) ipso facto has a low probability of being right, but a believer in God doesn’t have that problem? I’d say you’ve got that exactly backwards. I’d say it’s the disbeliever in materialism who’s got the problem — since his belief system is grounded (in significant part) in notions of reality that don’t correspond to anything observable (and indeed posit something “supernatural” which is incoherent as a concept) — whereas the materialist’s beliefs are based only on what’s observably true, escaping the incoherence of supernaturalism. Surely if one belief system suffers from “low probability” it’s the former. I find this argument vastly more self-evident, straightforward and compelling than yours.

    2) Of course “belief” is not exactly the same as “cognition” but you ignore how intertwined they are. The frog’s beliefs are not irrelevant to its behavior; it acts to grab the fly based on a whole complex of beliefs that it holds implicitly about how the world works and where the fly is, etc., the latter derived from cognition. Likewise it’s preposterous to say that when we run from a lion, it’s not because “of the content of any belief.” Of course it’s a result of a whole complex of beliefs, just like the frog’s action. Your hard dichotomy between cognition and belief makes no sense, so neither does your paradoxical “defeater” argument grounded on it. It certainly makes no sense to spin the supposed dichotomy between cognition and belief into the notion that materialism or naturalism somehow makes beliefs unlikely to be true even while cognition is largely accurate. That just ignores how brains actually work.
    Forgive my bluntness, but mere common sense tells us the argument is nonsense. One might even say downright silly. What it really shows is how far some will go in trying to rationalize the religious belief they desperately wish were true.
    But I will add this: I believe I’m right, but so do you, with equal conviction, and there’s no way to resolve the epistemological stand-off. Understanding this gives me at least a measure of intellectual humility.

    Plantinga: you say: Likewise it’s preposterous to say that when we run from a lion, it’s not because “of the content of any belief.” Of course it’s a result of a whole complex of beliefs, just like the frog’s action.

    Right. Of course. But the point is that GIVEN MATERIALISM, the content of a belief doesn’t enter the causal chain leading to behavior. materialism implies content epiphenomenalism. I take naturalism to include materialism; I suppose it would be possible to be a naturalist without being a materialist (although I don’t know of any naturalists who aren’t materialists). If we don’t think of materialism as included in naturalism, then my argument is that it is N&E&M, the triple of naturalism,evolution and materialism that is in self referential hot water.

    Robinson: OK. I’ll let you have the last word.

  3. Confused boy Says:

    Hello, this is my first time reading your blog and I found this post really interesting. I am a 25 year old student currently studying for my masters. I have come to a point in life where I started to question my own faith. The questions seems to bother me so much where I believe I am at a brink of abandoning my faith to become an agnostic. (I still believe there is a being that governs the laws of the universe but I would not pray to the said being.)

    What triggered this thought may seem petty but it has taken a toll on my self esteem and patience. You see, I always believe that do good onto others and others would do good to you, and god rewards those who do good. However, I came to realise that that is not entirely true. Among all the problems I faced, two are what bothers me the most which is relevant to me.

    Firstly, I have no girlfriend. I’m approaching 26 and not even once have I experienced holding hands or dating a girl. I am not shy, I am respectful and easily approachable but it seems there is something in me that girls just don’t see me as boyfriend material. My parents told me that you will get someone better, maybe next semester? But this is what they told me last year, the year before, the year before that and so on.

    Secondly, I just couldn’t secure an internship. I have good grades and I work hard at school (at times sacrificing my social life) just to have a better chance but to no avail.

    I find that out of everything that god has provided me which are essential and I am thankful for, god seems to deprive me of my wishes: a girlfriend and securing a job.

    You may feel that everybody goes through this and I am doing nothing but sound more like a lonely, ungrateful cry baby. But allow me to start my arguments:

    1. Why do I find that others of my equal (classmates, brother, and friends etc) who prays to the same god, have similar characteristics as mine (respectful, hardworking etc) gets everything that I wanted?

    2. Why is that those who are my equal (the ones I described above) could secure a wonderful internship as for me, couldn’t even find an interview?

    You see, I pray and work perhaps the same amount as them but it seems that I have to go a little further just get what I want. They have such a wonderful life and even a loving girlfriend whom they get to go out with during weekends and as for me, I am lonely. I have to work and study while my heart always questions why I am deprived of a girlfriend and a job.

    Now back to the topic of why I believe faith should not be mixed with logic. If I question my faith with logic, these are the things which keeps me up at night, and also distract my daily routine:

    1. We have so much faith in god and we place our life in his hands, yet it seems like god has no faith in us. Faith is based on belief, not knowledge. God knows everything about your life and how much faith he we have on him, yet he wants to test our faith by giving hardships (or at times pleasures)

    2. God is fair and almighty, yet there will always some people who have to work harder. (take my case) It seems like the heavenly system is no different to the worldy system: limited resources. God can’t afford to please everyone regardless of how much effort you have put in.

    3. It seems god existence is nothing but to boost its ego. God craves to be praised and and worshiped by humans. And despite the worship we give he still imposes hardship (admit it, you will always find the good people are always the ones who have a hardlife)

    You see, you don’t really question this when you see someone who has a wonderful life yet has done many bad things; they will be punished in the afterlife (or we have been taught to believe so). We start to question when we see others of our equal get the things we want and we don’t.

    Your answer will probably be that I am a victim of one of the sins: ENVY. But just ponder for a moment.

    Why is that god could not be fair to everyone? Why must god continue to test our faith when he knows that we already have faith in him? Are we created just to satisfy his ego?

    The big question when one faces a hardship: “What have I done to ever deserve this?”. There are so many people out there who deserve to be punished (again, how we were taught to believe) yet nothing bad happens to them.

    This is getting too long so I will end it here. In conclusion, you can’t mix logic with faith because the more you think about it: you may come to an answer where the ideal life is to be agnostic. No man should be forced to pray or worship in a system designed by religion.


    Dear Confused boy,

    Many thanks for reading my blog, and sharing your thoughts.

    No, you are not a “victim” of the “sin” of envy. The feelings you experience are normal and natural and not wrong. One of religion’s sins is to make people believe such feelings are sinful.

    You have put your finger on one of the things that makes the Biblical character of God so preposterous: his insane ego. Why would an all-powerful god get his knickers in such a twist over whether any lowly mortal believes in him? It’s silly. And eternal torture, no less, for people who don’t believe? Come on.

    And then of course you can’t square the idea of an all-powerful and loving god with the world as you see it. The actual world is totally inconsistent with the existence of such a god, and totally consistent with his non-existence. Yes, indeedy, life is unfair. The idea of justice being delivered in some next life is lame-o. Of course we’re all terrified at the knowledge of death and mightily wish for some escape hatch. Thus much of religion’s appeal. Yet in fact few people can actually manage to convince themselves, in their heart of hearts, that they’re Heaven-bound. That’s why so few, even the most devout, truly welcome the end of earthly life. It’s also why we remain so wrought up about justice here on Earth: in our heart of hearts, we know that’s the only place justice can occur, if at all.

    For millennia, religious apologists have wrestled with the fundamental problem of reconciling the idea of a benevolent god with a world so full of injustice and downright horror. None has ever come up with an answer the least bit persuasive.

    You feel it in your own life. You feel you are a good and deserving person, but others equally (or let’s face it, less) deserving get the things you want and can’t get. It isn’t fair. Now, your feelings are legitimate, and so is your principal concern with your own situation. But, I have to say, the injustice and unfairness of life goes waaaay beyond what you suffer. Look at Homs. Look at all of nature, “red in tooth and claw.”

    You are correct that if the God of the Bible is real, it would be wrong to worship and pray to him. One should rebel against such a monstrous tyrant. But that’s not necessary. Better to just cleanse your head of all such nonsense and deal instead with reality.

    If you search my past blog posts, you will find others dealing with this subject. One might say that for people who don’t believe in him, atheists seem obsessed with God. But of course religion is such a big part of human culture, the subject cannot be ignored.

    I will respond privately to your girlfriend problem!

    Best regards

  4. David Nicoli Says:

    “That a religious belief may not be ruled out by science doesn’t make it true, or believable.”

    Such a good quote there! Well written blog! I look forward to reading more of your blogs. I’m at a point in my journey (Agnostic) where I am reading Christian apologists and also works by atheists (Dawkins and Hitchens), and trying to make sense of it all.

  5. rationaloptimist Says:

    Thanks David. All you need do is step back and view religion “fresh,” with no preconceived bias or baggage. As soon as you really do that, getting free of all the cultural tropes confusing the issue, it will be obvious that there’s absolutely no reason to believe religious doctrines.

  6. David Nicoli Says:

    That is precisely what I have done, and noticed my beliefs crumble to the ground. Removing the bias made it increasingly difficult to sustain my faith—which I once held very dear.

  7. Andrew Robbins Says:

    Plantinga’s argument is certainly discussed in philosophical circles and by no means accepted as sound by everyone, but you have totally misunderstood the argument. The argument is that if naturalism and evolution are both true, then those facts undermine the reliability of our cognitive faculties. Darwin himself recognized this:

    “But then with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would anyone trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?”

    And Plantinga gives some slightly more technical arguments and thought experiments to support this. What he is not saying is that this only undermines the cognitive faculties of the unbeliever. Believing that N&E is true would undermine ANYONE’S reasons for believing their cognitive faculties are reliable. However, the theist does not believe N and so has no reason to doubt his faculties. Additionally, an atheist who rejects either E or N can also avoid the problem.

  8. rationaloptimist Says:

    Naturalism and evolution are both, on their face, highly persuasive propositions. To somehow conclude that if both are indeed true, that undermines the reliability of human cognition, is simply absurd. Reread what I wrote. I understood Plantinga perfectly well.

  9. Dylan Says:

    Amazing write up. You are very good at critical thinking. What is your profession may I ask?

  10. rationaloptimist Says:

    I was an administrative law judge 1977-97, now a coin dealer

  11. John Cunningham Says:

    If you were to accept anything as factual The who, what, when, where and how must all be explained and fit.
    Nothing in any religion does.
    To add to that disfunction they add information from books of literature with no printed authors. No original text. No appendix or providence listing sources.
    With items, names and situations that do not fit the time period, place or language than say a gay king had it translated and if he accepted it so should you.

  12. Elmore Says:

    This is a great blog and it hits the nail on the head. Here are some of my own thoughts on the subject.

    I’ve been thinking about this for a long time and that is the question of how could educated people that were taught to think critically still believe in religious nonsense? I’m not just talking about Christianity I’m referring to all religions. I’m not even sure how I stopped believing in it. Did it happen overnight? Was it a long thought process over time that slowly eroded it until it was gone? I’m not sure how it happened I just know that I can no longer accept it

    So I guess the first question would be when does religious belief first enter the minds of people? I would say between 5 to 10 years of age. This is the time when young children are asking questions about the world and are looking to their parents for answers. Children trust their parents and think that everything they say is absolute truth. Parents will warn their children about the dangers of life like don’t stick metal objects into electrical outlets. That would be a legitimate concern. Religious parents might also say that if you don’t believe in God you will burn in hell for all time.

    Think about that for a minute and imagine the intense fear that was placed in that child’s mind when he heard those words? This is the point of entry and from this time forward the child’s indoctrination into the world of religion begins. He is told to trust his religious teaches and through their guidance he will avoid the torture of hellfire. It is during this time that children could be sexually abused by opportunistic priests and religious leaders of other denominations. The priest could say to the child, if you tell anyone about this you will burn in hell. My thinking is that some children do tell their parents but their parents are too cowardly to do anything about it. The parents are afraid that they will be excommunicated from the church by the accused priest and face hellfire themselves.

    So what the church provides for people is protection from hellfire and a promise of eternal life in exchange for unquestioned belief and financial support. They tell you that you can never enter the kingdom of God unless you are sinless. Even the smallest of sins would be enough to send you to hell for eternity. Therefore in Christianity the sinless Son of God is killed so that his blood can wash away your sin. The church says that this is the extreme act of God’s love when it fact it shows the deep contempt that the Bible authors had for people. They say God does not hate people and that he hates sin. If that’s the case then burn the sin for eternity not the sinners. So what does the church want from people? They want power and money. So what do people want from the church? They want eternal life in infinite bliss without the fear of hellfire. In other words people are religious out of fear and for selfish reasons. When Muslim extremists flew airplanes into the world trade centers and the pentagon many Muslims said it was a brave act by 19 devout followers. Was it or was it the selfish act of 19 men who wanted to spend external life with 76 virgin women that would perform acts of sexual pleasure?

    Trying to explain religion or faith using logic and reason is like trying to mix oil and water. If you try to use the scientific method to explain faith you are doomed to failure. Logic and the scientific method cannot justify faith and faith does not require them. So if someone writes a book about religion you must take it on faith alone because if you apply logic, reason and the scientific method to the book, the book is nonsense. Someone may have a belief that is contrary to facts like Jesus rising upward in the air and disappearing in the clouds. He would have to be lighter than air like smoke. So logic brings us to the question of how could he have solid mass and at the same time be lighter than air? It is questions like this that show you that you cannot justify religion using scientific reasoning.

    Christians believe the bible is true because that was placed in their minds when they were children. If an older Christian now reads the Koran for the first time he will have no choice but to use logic and reason to determine if it is true and he will reject it on sound scientific reasoning. This would be the same result for all other religions. So in that regard the only difference between atheists and Christians is that atheists have one less religious belief. In other words Christians will apply the scientific method to all religions except their own and this would be the case for followers of other religions.

  13. Tobias Sattler Says:

    So long nothing is proved (or disproved ) i favor agnostic! Its a very well balanced philosophy / believing and no conflict with logic at all! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agnosticism

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