Update: Over at Cosmic Variance, Sean Carroll nicely picks apart (“unpacks,” to use the odious jargon of postmodernism) one part of Plantinga’s argument: the claim that science, like religion, ultimately rests on faith. As we all know, this is a base canard whose force depends on conflating two disparate ways to construe faith.” Among Sean’s criticisms is this:
Sometimes you will hear that “science requires faith,” for example faith that our sense data are reliable or that nature really obeys laws. That’s an abuse of language; science requires assumptions, just like anything else, but those assumptions are subject to testing and updating if necessary. If we built theories on the basis of our sense data, and those theories kept making predictions that turned out to be wrong, we would examine and possibly discard that assumption. If the universe exhibited a chaotic jumble of non-lawlike behavior, rather than falling into beautiful patterns, we would abandon that assumption as well. That’s the most compelling thing about science: it always stands ready to improve by casting out an old idea when the evidence demands it.
Philosopher and Sophisticated Theologian™ Alvin Plantinga recently published another book in his continuing attack on naturalism, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism. It’s a dreadful tome that I discussed in a recent post (see included links for more on Plantinga’s bizarre apologetics), and I’ll just quote myself to describe what the book is about:
My latest incursion into Sophisticated Theology™ involves reading Plantinga’s new book, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (2011, Oxford University Press). His thesis is, as usual, that there is no conflict between science and religion, but a profound one between science and naturalism. I won’t reprise his argument except to say that involves the specious claim that natural selection could not have given us senses that enable us to reliably detect the truth, so that ability must have been conferred by God (see my post on that argument here).
Plantinga also claims that our ability to detect the “truth” (which includes, of course, the presence of God and Jesus) must therefore be the result of a sensus divinitatis (“divine sense”) installed in us by God.
If you want to see Plantinga’s argument taken apart, read the short (77-page) book Science and Religion: Are They Compatible?., which is a back-and-forth between Plantinga and Dan Dennett. (Spoiler: Dennett wins by using the Supermanism Gambit.)
Plantinga has always evinced a sympathy for Intelligent Design, too, and in the book (and elsewhere) he praises the pathbreaking work of IDer Michael Behe of “irreducible complexity” fame.
So how could a famous real philosopher—not a theologian but an unbeliever—dole out any praise for Plantinga’s book? I’m referring to Thomas Nagel, who has reviewed Plantinga’s book in the last issue of The New York Review of Books. Perhaps it’s germane that Nagel, a highly respected philosopher of mind at New York University, has just published his own anti-materialist book that attacks evolution: Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Concept of Nature is Almost Certainly False, whose Amazon blurb includes this:
The modern materialist approach to life has conspicuously failed to explain such central mind-related features of our world as consciousness, intentionality, meaning, and value. This failure to account for something so integral to nature as mind, argues philosopher Thomas Nagel, is a major problem, threatening to unravel the entire naturalistic world picture, extending to biology, evolutionary theory, and cosmology.
Nagel’s NYRB review of Plantinga, “A philosopher defends religion,” isn’t wholly positive, but it’s laudatory enough to be disturbing, and make me wonder what in the world has happened to Nagel. From Nagel’s review:
God endows human beings with a sensus divinitatis that ordinarily leads them to believe in him. (In atheists the sensus divinitatis is either blocked or not functioning properly.) In addition, God acts in the world more selectively by “enabling Christians to see the truth of the central teachings of the Gospel.”
If all this is true, then by Plantinga’s standard of reliability and proper function, faith is a kind of cause that provides a warrant for theistic belief, even though it is a gift, and not a universal human faculty. (Plantinga recognizes that rational arguments have also been offered for the existence of God, but he thinks it is not necessary to rely on these, any more than it is necessary to rely on rational proofs of the existence of the external world to know just by looking that there is beer in the refrigerator.)
Here Nagel misses a big opportunity: to point out that the sensus divinitatis is also operating improperly in every religion except Plantinga’s own brand of Christianity: Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Mormons, Scientologists—you name them—have all perceived different truths with their sensi divinitati. So have the many sects of Mormons, as a reader noted yesterday. And apparently that sense didn’t exist (or wasn’t working right) in humans anywhere outside of Eurasia until fairly recently. God really screwed up here. But Nagel does get in a telling lick:
It is illuminating to have the starkness of the opposition between Plantinga’s theism and the secular outlook so clearly explained. My instinctively atheistic perspective implies that if I ever found myself flooded with the conviction that what the Nicene Creed says is true, the most likely explanation would be that I was losing my mind, not that I was being granted the gift of faith. From Plantinga’s point of view, by contrast, I suffer from a kind of spiritual blindness from which I am unwilling to be cured. This is a huge epistemological gulf, and it cannot be overcome by the cooperative employment of the cognitive faculties that we share, as is the hope with scientific disagreements.
Sadly, Nagel hands out approbation to other claims by Plantinga:
Still, when our faculties lead us to beliefs vastly removed from those our distant ancestors needed to survive—as in the recent production and assessment of evidence for the existence of the Higgs boson—Plantinga’s skeptical argument remains powerful. Christians, says Plantinga, can “take modern science to be a magnificent display of the image of God in us human beings.” Can naturalists say anything to match this, or must they regard it as an unexplained mystery?
This argument—that humans can do stuff that was never directly favored by natural selection—is identical to Alfred Russel Wallace’s argument for God based on the observation that the brain of a “savage” is “an organ quite disproportionate to his actual requirements.” Thus, although Wallace hewed in the main to his rival Darwin’s views, they diverged when it came to human cognition. Darwin saw this as just another product of natural selection; Wallace imputed it to God or another teleological force.
But hasn’t Nagel ever heard of a “spandrel“? Our complex brain, evolved to live in groups, produce language, and suss out the complex mentalities of our group-mates, has simply proven capable of being co-opted for other things. Is playing the piano proof of God? What about building airplanes? Crows and monkeys can make tools to get food despite their ancestors never having done so (this ability is passed on culturally): did God give these animals a “Corvus divinitatis” or a “Simias divinitatis”?
In the last two paragraphs, Nagel foreshadows what will come in his own book, I think:
The interest of this book, especially for secular readers, is its presentation from the inside of the point of view of a philosophically subtle and scientifically informed theist—an outlook with which many of them will not be familiar. Plantinga writes clearly and accessibly, and sometimes acidly—in response to aggressive critics of religion like Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. His comprehensive stand is a valuable contribution to this debate.
No it’s not. Read the book if you don’t believe me.
I say this as someone who cannot imagine believing what he believes. But even those who cannot accept the theist alternative should admit that Plantinga’s criticisms of naturalism are directed at the deepest problem with that view—how it can account for the appearance, through the operation of the laws of physics and chemistry, of conscious beings like ourselves, capable of discovering those laws and understanding the universe that they govern. Defenders of naturalism have not ignored this problem, but I believe that so far, even with the aid of evolutionary theory, they have not proposed a credible solution. Perhaps theism and materialist naturalism are not the only alternatives.
Nagel has fallen for the God-of-the-gap trap. The credible solution is to do more work to find out how the structure of the mind produces consciousness, and how natural selection might have acted to promote that feature. Does Nagel think that science has used all its resources on this problem, and failed? Does he not know how relatively primitive neurobiology is right now? Nagel has just thrown up his hands and said, “You people haven’t explained it, therefore perhaps Plantinga is right.” Or there might be “another alternative.” Curious that Nagel doesn’t propose what that alternative might be. I guess he’s purveying a Philosophy of the Gaps.