UPDATE: Over at the Chronicle of Higher Education, Michael Ruse has also gone after Plantinga. Ruse has apparently read the book and notes that Plantinga spends a whole chapter defending Michael Behe’s ideas about intelligent design, noting that Plantinga “spend[s] pages engaged in intellectual fawning all over Behe.” Ruse also criticizes Plantinga for dismissing anti-ID arguments by Dawkins and me, and praises our scientific acumen while managing to get in a few licks at the same time: “ I think Dawkins is crude beyond belief when it comes to philosophy and theology. And frankly, Coyne’s obsessions are nigh psychoanalytic.” What—Ruse doesn’t like cats or cowboy boots?
Alvin Plantinga, like John Haught, is regarded as a sophisticated and serious theologian. (Although he’s formally a Christian philosopher at the University of Notre Dame, he’s published lots of books defending God, engaging in apologetics, and so on, so there’s little doubt he qualifies as a theologian.) Plantinga was also president of the American Philosophical Association, which is a serious achievement, and this week’s New York Times profile (see below) says this about his achievements:
From Calvin [College], and later from the University of Notre Dame, Mr. Plantinga has led a movement of unapologetically Christian philosophers who, if they haven’t succeeded in persuading their still overwhelmingly unbelieving colleagues, have at least made theism philosophically respectable.
I wasn’t aware that theism had become respectable among philosophers. In fact, I thought that most philosophers were atheists. Perhaps readers can enlighten me here.
At any rate, I’ve read some of Plantinga’s books and articles and haven’t been terribly impressed; they’ve merely confirmed what I said earlier:
I’m starting to realize that there is no sophisticated theology; there are merely evasions and fancy language to get around the problematic lack of evidence for God and the palpably immoral statements in scripture.
But my already-low impression of Plantinga has been further degraded by remarks he made in a piece in Tuesday’s New York Times by reporter Jennifer Schuessler, “Philosopher sticks up for God,” It was inspired by Plantinga’s new book, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion and Naturalism. I haven’t yet read it, but in the Times Plantinga says some amazingly stupid things.
First he proffers the obligatory (and uncivil!) slurs against the New Atheists:
In “Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion and Naturalism,” published last week by Oxford University Press, he unleashes a blitz of densely reasoned argument against “the touchdown twins of current academic atheism,” the zoologist Richard Dawkins and the philosopher Daniel C. Dennett, spiced up with some trash talk of his own.
Mr. Dawkins? “Dancing on the lunatic fringe,” Mr. Plantinga declares. Mr. Dennett? A reverse fundamentalist who proceeds by “inane ridicule and burlesque” rather than by careful philosophical argument.
For those accommodationists who claim that the incivility is all on our side, or emanates on the religious side only from fundamentalists, note the invective. But Plantinga’s main point is that the view of a theistic God is actually more supportive of science than is materialism or naturalism:
Theism, with its vision of an orderly universe superintended by a God who created rational-minded creatures in his own image, “is vastly more hospitable to science than naturalism,” with its random process of natural selection, he writes. “Indeed, it is theism, not naturalism, that deserves to be called ‘the scientific worldview.’ ”
Mr. Plantinga readily admits that he has no proof that God exists. But he also thinks that doesn’t matter. Belief in God, he argues, is what philosophers call a basic belief: It is no more in need of proof than the belief that the past exists, or that other people have minds, or that one plus one equals two.
“You really can’t sensibly claim theistic belief is irrational without showing it isn’t true,” Mr. Plantinga said. And that, he argues, is simply beyond what science can do.
A brief correction first: natural selection is not a “random process.” It’s a process that combines the random production of mutations with the deterministic process of natural selection itself. I hope he understands that.
And how can a “scientific worldview” be one that doesn’t demand proof—or, rather, strong empirical evidence? Science is all about evidence, and is not equivalent to mathematics, which is a very refined form of logic in which results follow ineluctably from premises. And as for the past existing, well, it might all be an illusion produced by aliens, but empirical evidence tells us that the past did indeed seem to exist (we have documents, fossils, radiometric dating, and our own personal histories), so that’s something that’s empirically proven to our satisfaction.
Science simply doesn’t operate on what Plantinga calls “basic beliefs,” by which he apparently means “beliefs for which one needs no empirical support.” If Plantinga wants to call theism more hospitable to science than materialism, than by all means let us include as “science” homeopathy, astrology, and spiritual healing. After all, for many those too are “basic beliefs.”
By all scientific lights, theism is irrational because it isn’t true. That is, there is no evidence in its favor—not a jot. Perhaps Plantinga is using such a refined definition of “truth” here that it bears no relation to our common notion. In the same way, Plantinga could assert that “You can’t sensibly claim that belief in fairies and leprechauns is irrational without showing it isn’t true.” The absence of evidence, where there should be evidence, is indeed evidence of absence.
Plantinga adheres, like the Catholic church, to the notion of “theistic evolution”: that God didn’t just set up the process and let it roll, but actively intervened from time to time (humans are the most obvious example for theists). That’s why Plantinga is such a fan of Michael Behe’s form of intelligent design, which does allow for some non-theistic evolution as well.
Mr. Plantinga says he accepts the scientific theory of evolution, as all Christians should. Mr. Dennett and his fellow atheists, he argues, are the ones who are misreading Darwin. Their belief that evolution rules out the existence of God — including a God who purposely created human beings through a process of guided evolution — is not a scientific claim, he writes, but “a metaphysical or theological addition.”
No, it’s a scientific claim. The scientific understanding of evolution is that genetic variation is created by a process of random mutation (there are a few other sources as well), which is then subject to natural selection or genetic drift. We have seen no evidence to the contrary: no evidence for non-random mutation, as would occur if God guided evolution, or of any strict directionality in the evolution of humans (remember all those extinct hominin lineages that diverged in body shape, brain size, and other traits?). And there are all those design flaws in modern humans, which must reflect the actions of a Trickster God.
But wait—there’s more!
These are fighting words to scientific atheists, but Mr. Plantinga’s game of turnabout doesn’t stop there. He argues that atheism and even agnosticism themselves are irrational.
“I think there is such a thing as a sensus divinitatis, and in some people it doesn’t work properly,” he said, referring to the innate sense of the divine that Calvin believed all human beings possess. “So if you think of rationality as normal cognitive function, yes, there is something irrational about that kind of stance.”
“Sensus divinatis” is a fancy term for “lots of people believed and still believe in God.” But in that case the sensus divinatis is not working properly in more and more people all the time. In fact, it’s almost disappeared in Scandinavia and much of Western Europe, and is waning in the US. Did God remove it? The fact that many people evince a belief or a behavior is no more evidence for God than is the fact that our ancestors used to kill each other at alarmingly high rates, and so had a sensus homicidus.
There’s some back and forth between Plantinga and Dennett (the two had a somewhat acrimonious public debate that’s been turned into a book), but Plantinga’s most damaging admission comes toward the end:
Mr. Plantinga and Mr. Dennett do agree about one thing: Religion and science can’t just call a truce and retreat back into what the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould called “non-overlapping magisteria,” with science laying claim to the empirical world, while leaving questions of ultimate meaning to religion. Religion, like science, makes claims about the truth, Mr. Plantinga insists, and theists need to stick up for the reasonableness of those claims, especially if they are philosophers.
Why is this damaging? First, because many religious claims about the “truth” have already been disproven by science. The creation story, the fable of Adam and Eve, and the myth of Noah are just three. (Note that many still adhere to these “truths”.) But there’s not one instance of a scientific claim that’s ever been disproven by religion. Second, if religion lays claim to the “truth,” then why can’t religious people agree on what that truth is? If “truth” has any meaning at all, it has to be the same for everyone—at least if it is, as Plantinga implies, analogous to scientific truth. Yet we know that the fundamental “truth” claims of different faiths are not only divergent, but conflicting. They’re not truths at all, but simply claims. Science answers questions; religion can only “address” questions but never answer them.
But at least Plantinga, a theist, argues that God intervenes in the world and that we can discover “truths” about that intervention. This lays him open to a whole slew of criticisms that don’t apply to deists.
If claims like Plantinga’s are taken seriously by secular philosophers, then philosophy is in more trouble than I thought.