If anybody qualifies as a Sophisticated Theologian®, it’s Alvin Plantinga, an emeritus professor at Notre Dame who also wears the hat of philosopher (he was once president of the American Philosophical Association). And yet when I read him, I realize again that “sophisticated theology” is but a thin veneer of fine words applied over the rickety plywood of unevidenced faith.
I’ve finished reading Plantinga’s 77-page exchange with Dan Dennett, the small book Science and Religion: Are they compatible?. (It’s only $10 on Amazon, but your money’s better spent by applying it to the hardcover edition of WEIT, which is now on sale on Amazon for just a dollar more.) Plantinga, of course, argues “yes,” and his argument is a strange one.
As I’ve noted before, Plantinga sees no conflict between science and religion, but a definite conflict between science and naturalism. His premise here is that science, conceived as a mechanism for finding truth, is incompatible with naturalism’s claims that humans evolved by unguided evolution. According to Plantinga, there’s no reason to assume that unguided evolution would provide humans with senses that would give them reliable information about the universe, and so our ability to apprehend truth is compromised. But we can get back on the rails if we’re theists, for God has provided us with that essential supplementary way to find truth, the sensus divinitatis:
Both untutored observation and current research in the scientific study of religion suggest that a tendency to believe in God or something like God, apart from any propositional evidence, is part of our native cognitive endowment. Furthermore, if theistic belief is true, it probably doesn’t require propositional evidence for its rational acceptance. As I argue in Warranted Christian Belief, if theistic belief is true, then very likely it has both rationality and warrant in the basic way, that is, not on the basis of propositional evidence. If theistic belief is true, then very likely there is a cognitive structure something like John Calvin’s sensus divinitatis, an original source of warranted theistic belief. In this way belief in God, like belief in other minds, has its own source of rationality and warrant, and doesn’t depend on argument from other sources for those estimable qualities.
Note that here Plantinga is basically saying that we don’t need stinking evidence for God, because we have that sensus divinitatus, which is obviously a great way to find truth because it’s part of our God-given “cognitive endowment.” But also note that Plantinga keeps saying, “if theistic belief is true,” as if somehow that belief does need evidence. And of course he doesn’t provide any—not an iota.
Dennett responds correctly: yes, humans are subject to deception by illusions, but on the whole our species, and others, have evolved to have senses that detect what is true about the world, for we couldn’t survive if we just stood our ground as a big predator ran towards us and thought, “Well, that might just be an illusion.”
And that goes for every other species that needs to find food, secure mates, or escape predators: in other words, all species. Animals, by and large, are truth-apprehending organisms (though they can get fooled by things like mimicry), and our own species is also a truth-seeking organism. Further, our ability to actually find truth is shown by the fact that science can make predictions and calculations that are supported: we find microbes that cause disease and antibiotics that kill them, we can predict the structure of a protein from the genetic code, and we can accurately predict when the next solar eclipse will occur.
I want to add that Plantinga is a theistic evolutionist: he thinks that God somehow guided evolution (he floats the idea that God actually caused “random” mutations to direct evolution in a particular way), and that he has special admiration for Michael Behe:
In any event, however, current molecular biology may offer the materials for a different sort of argument from design, as explained in the much maligned Michael Behe’s recent book, The Edge of Evolution. His argument is one of the few serious and quantitative arguments in this area. We have the living cell, both prokaryotic and eukaryotic, with its stupifying complexity and its multitude of elaborately complex protein machines. Behe argues that unguided natural selection is probably incapable of producing these protein machines. His argument is quantitative and empirical rather than a priori; its centerpiece is the saga of the malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciperum [sic] and its long trench warfare with the human genome. I don’t have the space here to outline his argument; but to me as a layman, the argument seems reasonably powerful, though far from conclusive. If Behe is right, or anywhere near right, the probability of the existence of the cell as we find it is much greater on theism than on naturalism. And if this is so, the argument from design is reinstated at a deeper level. What current biological science takes away with one hand, it restores with the other.
Plantinga, then, adheres not just to theistic evolution (some of whose adherents merely claim that God started off the evolutionary process and let it run unimpeded), but also to intelligent design (ID). Given the fact that Behe’s arguments have been totally debunked by scientists, Plantinga’s admiration for Behe and ID disqualify him as a sophisticated theologian, for he’s not sophisticated enough to accept modern science. And remember, the Dennett/Plantinga book came out this year, so Plantinga had plenty of time to read scientists’ arguments against Behe’s book which appeared in 2007.
Remember that when accommodationists lump “theistic evolution” in with “naturalistic evolution” when they spin data from polls, they’re accepting people like Plantinga as supporters of evolution. Survey data show that many Americans who seem to accept evolution in principle nevertheless claim that God somehow intervened in the evolution of Homo sapiens, thereby excluding humans from the naturalistic evolution accepted by scientists. A recent Gallup poll, for instance, showed that 40% of Americans saw humans as having been directly created by God in their present form within the last 10,000 years or so (i.e., young-earth creationism), 38% saw them as having developed from less advanced forms of life over millions of years, but through a process guided by God (theistic evolution), while only 16% accepted that humans evolved from earlier species through a process unguided by God (nontheistic evolution).
That means that only 16% of Americans buy the concept of naturalistic evolution that is accepted by scientists. Do we really want to count people like Plantinga as allies when we push for evolution to be taught in public schools?
Plantinga clearly underscores the conflict between Christianity and the scientific (naturalistic) conception of evolution:
What is not consistent with Christian belief, however, is the claim that evolution and Darwinism are unguided—where I’ll take that to include being unplanned and unintended. What is not consistent with Christian belief is the claim that no personal agent, not even God, has guided, planned, intended, directed, orchestrated, or shaped this whole process. Yet precisely this claim is made by a large number of contemporary scientists and philosophers who write on this topic.
It’s time for us to point out clearly and forcefully that people like Plantinga are not on the side of science. They are creationists.
I want to highlight one more point: Plantinga, far from being sophisticated, makes the same superannuated arguments for God’s existence. Dennett, for example, points out that Christianity is not much different from a made-up creed called “Supermanism,” which Dan describes like this:
Perhaps, you think, Plantinga’s theistic creed is in better position than any science-fictional fantasy. Let us consider, for concreteness’s sake, a candidate. Superman, son of Jor-el, also later known as Clark Kent, came from the planet Krypton about 530 million years ago and ignited the Cambrian explosion. Superman “could have caused the right mutations to arise at the right time, he could have preserved populations from perils of various sorts, and so on; in this way, by orchestrating the course of evolution, he could have ensured that there come to be creatures of the kind he intends” (Plantinga, p. 4).
Superman, according to my hypothesis, seeded a handy planet so that in the fullness of time he could have playthings, a sort of Super Ken and Barbie World. A rather adolescent project, perhaps, but nevertheless a motivated instance of intelligent design.
Now the burden of proof falls on Plantinga to show why his theist story deserves any more respect or credence than this one. I myself cannot see any rational grounds for preferring his theism over my Supermanism—which I don’t espouse, but see as perfectly consistent with contemporary evolutionary theory. Moreover, I can describe experiments that could make my Superman hypothesis highly probable if they panned out.
Plantinga’s response shows that, far from sophisticated, he just relies on the same shopworn and philosophically unsupportable arguments for God:
As a matter of fact, atheism is a lot more like solipsism than theism is like Supermanism. Superman is certainly an impressive young fellow, but clearly not much greater than Captain Marvel, or even the Green Lantern. God, on the other hand, is all-knowing, all-powerful, and wholly good; furthermore, God has these properties essentially; he could not have been ignorant or impotent, or evil. He has also created the world.
Still further, according to classical theism, God is a necessary being; he exists in all possible worlds; it’s not even possible that he should fail to exist. And since he has the property of being omniscient essentially, his believing a proposition is logically equivalent to that proposition’s being true. Further yet, many theists hold that God’s will, what he approves and disapproves, is the standard for right and wrong, good and bad. Superman may be faster than a speeding bullet and more powerful than a locomotive, but he is pretty small potatoes when compared with God. (It’s a little embarrassing to have to point out these obvious differences.)
Is this “sophisticated”? No theologian in the world is going to convince me that it’s impossible for God to fail to exist because he’s a “necessary being.” Science has shown that he’s not “necessary” for anything we know about the universe. And saying that “many theists hold” this-and-that isn’t evidence, it’s just an assertion about what some people think. One fallacy of theology is to equate “truth” with “classical theism,” or with “what many theists hold.” And of course that’s how Plantinga supports his thesis that God is “all-knowing, all-powerful, and wholly good.” How does he know that?
This is where the sophistication shows itself to be a thin veneer, gussying up the plywood of pure faith to make it look like mahogany.
Plantinga violates Hitchens’s Razor as well:
According to Christopher Hitchens, “religion should be treated with ridicule, hatred and contempt.” Those who think like him ordinarily don’t propose serious arguments against the truth of religious belief—theism for example; they prefer sneering condescension and mockery.
We don’t need to propose serious arguments against the truth of religious belief because that belief must provide its own evidence, which it hasn’t done. And we all know that what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.
Finally, I’ll mention one more specious argument of Plantinga: his ridiculous claim that science is damaged by asserting that evolution is a naturalistic, unguided process:
This association of evolution with naturalism is the obvious root of the widespread antipathy, in the United States, to the theory of evolution. Insofar as Dennett and others proclaim conflict between evolutionary theory and theistic belief, they exacerbate this distrust of evolution—a distrust that spills over to science itself, with a consequent cost in public support of science. The health and welfare of science is therefore damaged by promoting these myths to the effect that current evolutionary theory is in conflict with theistic religion. Of course that’s not much of a reason for those who believe those myths to stop promoting them. What it does mean, though, is that there is very good reason for exposing them for the myths they actually are: the damage they do to science.
If anything damages science here, it’s the claim that evolution required the assistance of God. Remember that Plantinga accepts Behe’s arguments for Intelligent Design. Claiming that science is damaged if we don’t accept that God tinkered with the evolutionary process is like saying that science is damaged if we don’t accept that apples couldn’t fall from trees without God’s help.
Plantinga’s admission that “current evolutionary theory is in conflict with theistic religion” should scare accommodationist organizations like the National Center for Science Education, because it clearly shows the incompatibility of evolution with even liberal faiths.
So much for sophisticated philosophy. Plantinga is one of the big guns of the science-and-faith arguments; and his lucubrations here must surely represent “the best arguments for God” that we, as atheists, are required to take on. We are supposed to take Plantinga’s claims very seriously. And yet this is the kind of stuff he believes. How many “sophisticated theologians” do we have to read before we abandon the whole enterprise as a bad, mind-numbing business?
UPDATE: P.Z. just posted reminding us that he took apart some similar arguments of Plantinga two years ago. I like P.Z.’s point that our cognitive faculties aren’t fully reliable and that’s why we need science as a check on illusions. But I’d emphasize as well that that all the instruments that we design to scientifically test for and measure phenomena still depend on the assumption that our senses are reliable, especially when their perceptions are replicated. After all, we could read a dial wrong, or see the wrong position of a band on a gel. The key is not just the general reliability of our senses, but that the results of our senses are replicated among different investigators. That’s why science wins and religion, whose “truths” can’t be replicated by different faiths, or even different adherents to the same faith, loses.