I’ve begun to realize that some of us need to read and answer the arguments of sophisticated theologians, for that wasn’t really done in the four New Atheist volumes. (And for good reason, too: why should those guys deal with arguments for a proposition plainly lacking empirical support?)
I don’t plan to write a book on this stuff, but I will go after their arguments from time to time on this website. I think it’s a useful exercise for three reasons: it gives us ammunition to answer the frequent accusation that nonbelievers haven’t come to grips with the “best thought” (I cringe to write that) about theology, it shows us how transparently fatuous all of these arguments are, and if we are against religion we must take on not just the “regular” believers but also their academically respectable spokespeople. Knowing these arguments is also useful in debate, for I don’t think many theologians have ever faced serious opposition to their ideas, at least on the debate platform.
On my birthday last year (oy, what a present!) I analyzed some of the arguments of Alvin Plantinga, world-famous theologian and accommodationist, former president of the American Philosophical Society, emeritus professor at Notre Dame, and author of many books on apologetics. Surely he represents the best and most sophisticated strain of theological thought, though, as someone who accepts evolution, he’s shown a surprising affection for the intelligent-design arguments of Michael Behe.
Today, my brothers and sisters, I’d like to speak briefly on Plantinga’s evidence for God’s existence, at least as laid out in his chapter “Reason and Belief on God”, pp. 102-161 in The Analytic Theist: An Alvin Plantinga Reader (James F. Sennett, ed., 1998, Eeerdmans Publishing Co.). That chapter itself (free pdf here) is taken from a book edited by Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff: Faith and Rationality: Reason and Belief in God (1983, University of Notre Dame Press). Page numbers are taken from the Sennett-edited reader.
I’ll try to do justice to Plantinga’s arguments, though if you think I’ve distorted them, feel free to post below.
As we know, there’s no good empirical evidence for God’s existence, and to finesse that Plantinga argues against evidentialism: the idea that one’s belief in God must be grounded in evidence if such belief is to be intellectually respectable. His warrant in this chapter is to show that one doesn’t really need evidence to believe in God:
So presumably some propositions can properly be believed and accepted without evidence [JAC: I give some of his examples below]. Well, why not belief in God? Why is it not entirely acceptable, desirable, right, proper, and rational to accept belief in God without any argument or evidence whatever? (p. 121)
After reviewing the history of theological evidentialism, beginning with Aquinas, Plantinga presents his own argument: that belief in God is a properly basic belief. A “properly basic belief” is one for which one doesn’t need evidence, for it is manifest to the senses immediately. Plantinga is fond of using philosophical logic to “clarify” ideas like this, and so this is how he defines his term:
For any proposition A and person S, A is properly basic for S if and only if A is incorrigible for S or self-evident to S. (p. 150)
What he means by A being incorrigible for S is twofold: 1) it’s not possible for S to believe A and that A would be false, and 2) it’s not possible for S to disbelieve in A if A is true.
Here are some examples of beliefs that Plantinga considers “properly basic,” i.e. beliefs for which one doesn’t need evidence. I’ll leave it to readers to judge whether evidence is unnecessary here:
- I had breakfast this morning
- I see a tree
- That person is in pain
- And, of course, there is a God
Plantinga sees these beliefs as prima facie evident,that is, as beliefs that “you are under no obligations to reason to [these beliefs] from others you hold. . ” (p. 151). Nevertheless, he doesn’t see these beliefs as “groundless”: for such beliefs are held on the basis of other beliefs (i.e., turtles all the way down). That, of course, is a kind of evidence, but more on that in a minute.
But of course what is “evident’ to one person may not be so for others; for example, you may be deluded about whether you had breakfast, and the tree you see may be a hallucination. This is especially true for belief #4 above. How does Plantinga get around that? By asserting that the grounds for belief may differ from person to person and from community to community:
Accordingly, criteria for proper basicality must be reached from below rather than above; they should not be presented ex cathedra but argued to and tested by a relevant set of examples. But there is no reason to assume, in advance, that everyone will agree on the examples. The Christian will of course suppose that belief in God is entirely proper and rational; if he does not accept this belief on the basis of other propositions, he will conclude that it is basic for him and properly so. Followers of Bertrand Russell and Madelyn Murray O’Hare may disagree; but how is that relevant? Must my criteria, or those of the Christian community, conform to their examples? Surely not. The Christian community is responsible to its set of examples, not to theirs. (p. 151)
I find this evasive, self-serving, and intellectually indefensible. What he is saying is that what counts as “grounds” (i.e., evidence) for God for some people won’t—and needn’t—count for others. That, of course, is a big difference between science and theology. Moreover, he says that it doesn’t matter what counts, so long as someone (or a group of believers) thinks it counts. But remember that here he’s not just talking about what people believe, he’s talking about what exists, and what warrant we need to believe in that existence. In other words, if a pesky atheist doesn’t like your evidence, that’s too damn bad: God is still there.
Of course this argument can be used to support all kinds of nonsensical beliefs. Plantinga brings up one: belief in The Great Pumpkin, of Peanuts fame. One could also adduce the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or any of the other deities that have been worshiped through history. Plantinga immediately dispels such nonsensical beliefs in a paragraph immediately following the one above:
So the Reformed epistemologist can properly hold that belief in the Great Pumpkin is not properly basic, even though he holds that belief in God is properly basic and even if he has no full-fledged criterion of proper basicality. Of course he is committed to supposing that there is a relevant difference between belief in God and belief in the Great Pumpkin if he holds that the former but not the latter is properly basic. (p. 151).
And what, exactly, is that relevant difference?
Thus, for example, the Reformed epistemologist may concur with Calvin in holding that god has implanted in us a natural tendency to see his hand in the world around us; the same cannot be said for the Great Pumpkin, there being no Great Pumpkin and no natural tendency to accept beliefs about the Great Pumpkin. (pp. 151-152).
What a tangled thicket of logic we must make our way through here! First of all, not everyone has a natural tendency to see God’s hand in the world, and even if they do, how does Plantinga know that that tendency was implanted by God, rather than having been taught to credulous children by their parents or preachers? Is there really a “natural tendency” to accept beliefs in God without having been taught them? And which God?
And on what basis does he say “there is no Great Pumpkin”? After all, that is a statement about reality—and Plantinga is using “basic belief” in God as a criterion for what really exists. He is not allowed to say that there is no Great Pumpkin if somebody—anybody—considers the Great Pumpkin a “properly basic belief.” There is a natural tendency among Muslims to accept a God different in nature from the God of Christians: that is the Islamic “basic belief.” According to Plantinga, that’s okay, because Muslims have different criteria than Christians (yeah, because they were brought up by Islamic parents!). But we’re talking about more than just beliefs here, we’re talking about what exists. And how does one adjudicate among competing existence claims—about Jesus versus Mohamed, for example? According to Plantinga, you can’t: each community has its own “basic beliefs” that can’t be argued against. It’s madness. It’s no way to find out what’s true.
Now Plantinga really doesn’t think that belief in God is just prima facie evident, or at least that it’s intellectually respectable to think that. He is, after all, an intellectual. He argues further that God belief rests on other beliefs (aka “turtles”):
In this sense basic beliefs are not, or are not necessarily, groundless beliefs.
Now similar things may be said about belief in God. When the Reformers claim that this belief is properly basic, they do not mean to say, of course, that there are no justifying circumstances for it, or that it is in that sense groundless or gratuitous. Quite the contrary. Calvin holds [Plantinga is agreeing with him here] that God “reveals and daily discloses himself in the whole workmanship of the universe,” and the divine art “reveals itself in the innumerable and yet distinct and well-ordered variety of the heavenly host.” God has so created us that we have a tendency to see his hand in the world around us. More precisely, there is in us a disposition to believe that propositions of the sort this flower was created by God or this vast and intricate universe was created by God when we contemplate the flower or behold the starry heavens or think about the vast reaches of the universe. (pp. 153-154)
And so, Plantinga gives us a list of the real basic beliefs that support a belief in God (the lower turtles):
Of course none of the beliefs I mentioned a moment ago is the belief that God exists. What we have instead are such beliefs as:
- God is speaking to me
- God has created all this,
- God disapproves of what I have done,
- God forgives me, and
- God is to be thanked and praised.
These propositions are properly basic in the right circumstance. (p. 154, items renumbered for convenience). .
. . . From this point of view it is not wholly accurate to say that it is belief in God that is properly basic; more exactly, what are properly basic are such proposition as [(1)-(5)], each of which self-evidently entails that God exists. It is not the relatively high-level and general proposition that God exists that is properly basic, but instead propositions detailing some of his attributes and actions. (p. 154)
Remember, these are incorrigible beliefs: beliefs that it is impossible to hold without them being true!
I find this unbelievable, for all the propositions adduced above presume that God exists, so you know who is speaking to you, you know who has created all this, and you know who is forgiving and loving and yet demands to be thanked and praised. How can you use those “basic beliefs” to support the notion that “God exists” if they all presume that God exists? How can you intuit, for example, that “God is to be thanked and praised” unless you have a basic belief that there’s a God in the first place?
And of course none of this justifies (nor does Plantinga attempt to justify) the” basic beliefs” in Plantinga’s own brand of Christianity, including his beliefs in the divinity of Jesus and the beneficence of God. Or are those not basic beliefs, but beliefs lifted from scripture?
To paraphrase Orwell, one has to be a theologian to believe things like this: no ordinary man could be such a fool. This is not a coherent intellectual argument: it is a patently transparent exercise in trying to prove God’s existence in the absence of evidence. It is apologetics: the practice of making stuff up post facto to buttress what you already know must be true. And, at bottom—and despite all the intellectual gymnastics of Dr. Plantinga—it all comes down to revelation, to what a particular group of people happens to find amenable as a “basic belief.”
This cartoon, more than any words I could write, expresses the difference between science and theology (just substitute “the theological method” in the second panel):
(swiped from Richard Carrier’s blog)