God’s artillery opens fire

Julian Baggini reviews Alvin Plantinga’s “Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion and Naturalism”. This article appears in Issue 60 of The Philosophers’ Magazine. Please support TPM by subscribing.

It’s hard to resist the pull of military metaphors when talking about the recent battles between religion and the so called new-atheists: Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchins, Sam Harris et al. Fighting talk is only natural when combatants on both sides have often been vicious in their attacks. And like the western front in World War I, for all the blasts and flashes, neither side ever manages to advance its trenches. Yet in the very definition of madness, both forces persist in trying the same tactics that have never worked before as though they might suddenly prove efficacious.

So it is with some anticipation that God’s army has finally moved one of its heavier pieces of artillery to the front line. Alvin Plantinga is no household name, but in philosophy and theology he is widely recognised as one of the world’s smartest Christian thinkers. His new book, Where the Conflict Really Lies, is not just a robust defence of religion against the claim that it is defeated by science, but also a bold counter-attack.

If you want to make sense of this quagmire, where do you begin? With the question of where we all begin, because that is the key issue that Plantinga’s book illuminates. Those on the naturalist side of the debate – people who believe that the natural world is all there is – start with evidence, the hard, objective kind that anyone can examine and assess for themselves. For the religious, however, it’s quite different. “Maybe a few people accept religious beliefs strictly on the basis of what they take the evidence to be,” writes Plantinga. “But for most of us, our religious beliefs are not like scientific hypotheses” and “we are none the worse [for that].”

Plantinga is here referring to his enduring contribution to the theory of knowledge, his idea that some beliefs we have are “properly basic”. The belief that other people have minds and are not just zombies or automata, for example, is not one we can ultimately justify. Nonetheless, not only is holding such a belief justified, I’d be considered psychotic if I didn’t hold it. Belief in God, argues Plantinga, stands alongside other beliefs we can be “fully and entirely rational” in holding, even if we have no evidence or argument at all.

To his opponents, there is a clear difference between the basic beliefs that fit together and that everyone does and must share, and the enormous variety of religious beliefs that are clearly optional and which contradict each other. However, if you do grant that religious beliefs are properly basic, you effectively provide a Get out of Jail Free Card for almost (but not all) apparent cases of conflict between science and religion. The argument here is simple. For the naturalist, certain religious claims become untenable on the scientific evidence base. Perhaps surprisingly, the religious would agree. But, they would add, their evidence base includes facts other than scientific ones, such as the existence of a loving creator. If you add that to the scientific evidence for evolution, you will think that the most likely explanation for the emergence of life is that God works through random mutation to ensure creatures like us have evolved. And, he claims, nothing in evolutionary theory denies that possibility. The idea that the process is entirely unguided is a “metaphysical or theological add-on”. For all the theory says, “God could have achieved the results he wanted by causing the right mutations to arise at the right times, letting natural selection do the rest.”

There is much more in this book, including the latest iteration of Plantinga’s argument that naturalism undermines itself. Briefly, if you are a naturalist and so believe that human minds are simply the product of unguided evolution, you have a reason to think minds will enhance our survival prospects, but no reason to think they will generate true beliefs. So you no longer have any good reason to trust that your belief in naturalism is true. Hence the title of Plantinga’s book: the real conflict in which science is embroiled is with naturalism, not religion.

As usual, this is clever, but there are plenty of replies. And counter-replies. And counter-counter-replies. What Plantinga really shows in this mainly readable but often academically opaque book is why the war will end only in exhaustion. Where the conflict really lies is right down at the very basis of why people believe what they do, yet the war is fought over the beliefs themselves. It’s like trying to get rid of Japanese knot weed by hacking at the stems when the root system is too deep, too capable of regenerating itself even when viciously cut. Plantinga has a pretty sharp scythe and generally speaking he wields it well, despite some viciously personal attacks on the new atheists. But all he’s done is provide space for his own weeds to thrive for a while before they too are cut down to size and the whole cycle starts again.

Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion and Naturalism by Alvin Plantinga (Oxford University Press), £17.99/$27.95.

Julian Baggini) is co-founder of TPM and the author of The Ego Trick (Granta).

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11 Comments.

  1. “in philosophy and theology he is widely recognised as one of the world’s smartest Christian thinkers.”

    That says more about the state of philosophy than anything else. His sensus divinitatis is so easy to knock down it’s unbelievable that a philosopher would even contemplate it. Well, he’s a theologian, not really a philosopher, and it’s disgraceful that philosophers give him any credit at all.

    Plantinga, “But for most of us, our religious beliefs are not like scientific hypotheses … we are none the worse [for that].”

    Well, that would be his opinion wouldn’t it. I don’t recollect any theist claiming they are worse for believing in God. Occasionally you get the odd atheist thinking it might be nice and cosy being a theist; but generally people tend not to think they are worse for holding the beliefs they hold. A pointless point.

    ‘properly basic’? Please!?*! “The belief that other people have minds and are not just zombies or automata, for example, is not one we can ultimately justify.”

    Not by proof, the obsession of some philosophers. But by ‘it works’, which is not only all science can offer, but it’s all any human can offer. We can’t prove anything outside the confines of some set of premises. Logical proof is only a stepping stone, a checks-and-balances measure that the reasoning we are undertaking gets us from A to Z. The problem is always, how did we get to A, and where do we go from Z. The notion of a ‘sound’ argument is philosophically a dead end. There is no sound argument, because every argument there ever was relied on a chain of premises stretching back into and infinite regress, or starts from a definition or a tautology.

    All we have is our observation of what seem like pretty good starting points that are productive. They are logically arbitrary given the unbounded space of possibilities. So, ‘there is a God’ and ‘there are the axioms of geometry’ stand on equal footing, logically, as possibilities. We cannot ‘prove’ that God does not exist or that the axioms do not hold (in the context in which they do hold). But when we start to use them we find that geometry actually allows us to do stuff, and allows us to show that the stuff we do is a direct consequence of assuming the axioms of geometry hold. Nothing has ever been derived from belief in God, other than more speculative fantasy. It’s fantasy heaped on fantasy, with no confirming evidence whatsoever.

    “To his opponents, there is a clear difference between the basic beliefs that fit together and that everyone does and must share…”

    No. It’s much worse than that. We can’t tell why we hold all our beliefs. Science regularly shows that many of our beliefs are nothing more than temporary models that help us understand the observations we make. We have no solid beliefs. The reason scientists sometimes sound ‘certain’ is merely from the comparative efficacy of a scientific world view in getting results and getting things done; when compared, that is, to bogus woo of religion and other mystical systems. It is not an absolute certainty, or a logical once and for all proof. Scientific certainty is no more than a contingent acceptance is what we now know as a being a sufficient working model.

    “However, if you do grant that religious beliefs are properly basic…”

    But why the heck would you? Why wouldn’t you grant that astrology is properly basic and that the science that supposedly contradicts it, while being useful, is actually wrong in that the heavens can foretell one’s future (and, it turns out about as accurately as any religious prediction). This is God awful philosophy. God himself, if he exists, must be pulling his white bushy beard out at the illogical gymnastic of characters like Plantinga.

    “But, they would add, their evidence base includes facts other than scientific ones…”

    There is no other basis known to man. We are have sense and reason (and under materialist physicalism these amount to the same processes of neurons in two specific contexts), and we start with our basic human fallible but sufficient common sense, and develop methods of making the use of senses and reason more reliable through greater rigor: science. That’s it. All claims about any other faculties are not only completely unevidenced, but can also be explained by science as illusions, delusions, errors. It can be shown, for example, that a brain can create its own internal experience of voices without corresponding sound entering the ears – people can hear voices when the brain stimulates its own auditory systems; and under surgery neurons can be directly stimulated to cause the conscious patient to ‘hear’ sounds. Where does that leave sensus divinitatis? In Plantiga’s imagination.

    “If you add that to the scientific evidence for evolution, you will think that the most likely explanation for the emergence of life is that God works through random mutation to ensure creatures like us have evolved.”

    Only if you presuppose a God – one of those unevidenced premises. But why would you presuppose a God, or a good God, or an evil God, or two gods, or a multitude of gods, or fairies. Why is it not obvious that Plantinga is merely dipping into the boundlessness of possibilities and plucking his one God out of his ass? Take a look here at the complete hogwash that is possibilism:

    http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/elements/2013/04/schmidhuber-eagleman-science-religion-artificial-intelligence.html

    And on Plantinga specifically:

    “Plantinga argues that Christian believers have a sixth sense, a “sensus divinitatis” that allows them to sense God, with that sense defective or absent in nonbelievers. One could, of course, equally generate an infinite range of similar hypotheses, none scientifically testable, such as “only Zeus believers have a working Zeus sense,” “only ghost believers have a ghost sense,” and so forth, but the possibility of leaping outside the realm of science into a morass of untestable possibilities brings us no closer to a genuine rapprochement between science and religion than we were in the time of Goethe’s “Faust.””

    But, Julian, you give us a run down on Plantiga’s response to naturalism:

    “Briefly, if you are a naturalist and so believe that human minds are simply the product of unguided evolution, you have a reason to think minds will enhance our survival prospects, but no reason to think they will generate true beliefs. So you no longer have any good reason to trust that your belief in naturalism is true.”

    And then you say, “As usual, this is clever, but there are plenty of replies.”

    Well, no it isn’t clever at all. It merely misrepresents naturalism as understood from a scientific perspective. It’s a straw man.

    Plantinga is quite right that there is “a reason to think minds will enhance our survival prospects, but no reason to think they will generate true beliefs”. That’s the whole point of the contingency of science. Science works on the observed (but again unproved) premise that our beliefs often do not generate true beliefs. The whole development of scientific methodologies is founded on the observation that we can’t rely on our personal minds coming up with true beliefs. And the consequence is that it also implies that neither can Plantiga’s mind, when he believes in sensus divinitatis. This isn’t refuting naturalism through some clever logic, but contributing to its confirmation by way of evidence of Plantinga’s incompetent logic.

    “What Plantinga really shows in this mainly readable but often academically opaque book is why the war will end only in exhaustion.”

    It need not end that way, if only some philosophers would do some damned philosophy on his ass and point out what a fraud he is.

    “Where the conflict really lies is right down at the very basis of why people believe what they do…”

    And this is an empirical issue about the way human brains work, and will eventually be resolved by the hard work of science, and possibly by some decent analytical philosophy, if philosophers could actually be bothered to drag themselves away from their own possibilism and see that not all possibilities are likely or useful to contemplate with any seriousness. Where are the practicing solipsists? Marcus again, “The final strategy of those seeking compatibility between religion and science is to retreat into something that is reminiscent of solipsism, the family of beliefs that allows me to entertain the falsifiable yet dubious notion that I might be the only person in the universe (with everyone else just a figment),” which leads to his choice of Plantiga as an example.

    “Plantinga has a pretty sharp scythe and generally speaking he wields it well…”

    Apparently only in the minds of theists and some philosophers. Others see through this fraud.

    “and the whole cycle starts again”

    Your mistake is to think of it as an endless cycle instead of an iterative process of learning on the behalf of the human race as they come to terms with science. The outcome isn’t inevitably in favour of science, as we can see the ignorant being motivated to unbelievable beliefs by characters like Plantinga. So it is a battle for the rational application of our fallible senses and reason, and in opposition to the lazy slip-shod logic and incompetent deluded philosophy that assumes that because we can’t disprove solipsism or theism we perhaps ought to take them to be true. No. We cannot keep going down these blind allies of possibilities, because in these fantasy worlds lies the possibility of the deepest human cruelty being justified without evidence.

    Plantiga uses logic when it suits his case, but denies it to naturalism, and plays on the unavailability of proof in the naturalist cause, which naturalists are already aware of, and hopes to slip it by everyone when he uses it – which seems to succeed with respect to some gullible philosophers. What a bogus move.

    “Yet in the very definition of madness, both forces persist in trying the same tactics that have never worked before as though they might suddenly prove efficacious.”

    Julian, this is equally bogus, because the naturalist tactics of showing up this guff for what it is has never changed. It has merely become more vocal and more impatient with the leniency and accommodationism that some scientists and philosophers offer toward the religious.

    So, where is the proof of sensus divinitatis, or evidence for it? What of this bogus appeal to the improvable case for naturalism? What are you actually saying Plantiga has to offer? How are you taken in by this second rate theologian?

  2. Tom Firth-Jones

    Ron that was an excellent reply. Echoed some of the frustrations I have been having with Plantinga’s work and these uncritical reviews of his work, and articulated in a far more lucid way than I’d have managed.

  3. donald fortson

    “Nothing has ever been derived from belief in God, other than more speculative fantasy.” What about loving your neighbor as yourself, do good to those who trespass, these have been derived from belief in God, I think, and they seem to work, at least most of the time.

  4. Donald, Unless you believe that canids, primates, and many other mammals believe in God then reciprocal altruism has been around much longer than brains capable of imagining a deity or the means to preach about it.

  5. Donald,

    As Michael says. But also, we don’t have access to the early modern human thoughts and how they developed these ideas; and we have no access to early language and how they were expressed. Then, do you suppose that early documented civilizations didn’t appreciate these very same ideas? So, when Egyptians, who to modern monotheists believed in religious nonsense, also appreciated these ideas do you attribute these ideas to their gods? And if their gods were false is it the case that their ideas about humans relationships are not directly related to their religious beliefs, but rather their religious beliefs are just used as a vehicle to express what is naturally, evolutionarily, socially, human interaction?

    Modern monotheists have a very short span of appreciation. Typically defined by their own particular religion. Everything prior to their religions is seem as mistaken or incomplete. And what about the future when humans have ‘evolved’ further, either naturally or artificially, to a state where they have much better mental abilities than we have now so that religion, all religion, is seen as dark age superstition. This tendency to attribute correctness to one’s own religion, one’s own time, as if this right now is how some imagined god wanted humans to be seems so naive and parochial.

  6. donald fortson

    Hello All,
    All I am trying to say that belief in God, today, does not mean more speculative fantasy if it works for believers, in lived life.

  7. Donald,

    Early in our history (and for most, ever since) we attributed agency to random events. Attempting to appease unseen arbitrary agents – “who” rewarded us with random, intermittent reinforcement – is probably why religion ran off the rails from the very start. The modern peace-loving Western religious believer enjoys a bounty of privileges bestowed upon him in the name of God and empire and seized by the application of the sword and the fire. Indeed, it takes a very selective reading of our Abrahamic traditions to skip all the killing and capturing and ethnic cleansing of the “out group.” Still, over the course of human civilization we have learned to extend our “in group” and to apply The Golden Rule to our growing circle of friends. Despite the bipolar messages received from Bronze and Iron Age deities we no longer need to rely on written records of revealed truth in order to live peaceably with our neighbors. If we’re inclined to be good to our own without being told to, why not eliminate the middle-man? Be well.

    Michael

  8. “widely recognised as one of the world’s smartest Christian thinkers” – it’s tempting but no, I’ll resist…

    Platinga’s arguments are so vacuous it’s hard to know where to start.

    So for a start “those on the naturalist side of the debate” are people who believe the natural world is all we can KNOW, not necessarily all there IS.

    Next…“But for most of us, our religious beliefs are not like scientific hypotheses” and “we are none the worse [for that].” Well yes I’m afraid you are, because your beliefs are no more than hunches and guesses and wishful thinking and confirmation bias….just because you have them does not make it so.

    And on…”their evidence base includes facts other than scientific ones, such as the existence of a loving creator” – this is called MAKING SHIT UP.

    Platinga’s argument that naturalism undermines itself is what exactly? Why would a naturalist not have reason to believe that our brains could generate true beliefs? Or that our collective brains could not develop a system to discover and verify facts about the world. This is not incompatible with the fact that our brains can also get it wrong. This doesn’t mean naturalism undermines itself.

    It’s exhausting only in the sense that one might become exhausted due to repetitive and incontrollable face-palming.

  9. Ok ‘Plantinga’. Sorry.

  10. @Ron Murphy: you say “It merely misrepresents naturalism as understood from a scientific perspective. It’s a straw man.”
    What exactly naturalism as understood from a scientific perspective?

  11. I think both sides are making straw-man arguments. Straw man God, straw man Science.

    I have little patience for “christian thinkers” who create arguments just so that their own beliefs can be justified. But I think atheists do the same thing, and are no smarter for it. The concept of truth still needs to be assessed. And before all you skeptics yell “SCIENCE” at me, I will warn you that yelling louder and with more clever comebacks does not necessarily make you right. And the scientists HAVE been the loudest since the perceived “death of God” during the scientific enlightenment. God has essentially become a straw man in the time since. It’s become a children’s toy for people who believe in mythological literalism. We need not concern ourselves with people who believe in myths as fact and not as allegory. There are intelligent religious people too, you know.

    Religion and life and science used to be so woven together in people’s lives that it didn’t make sense to separate them. Science (and don’t tell me people didn’t have basic scientific notions before the enlightenment or else they could have never figured out what they should and should not eat, etc.) gave people facts and religion gave them meaning and value, not to mention rules of behavior, and they were two sides to a full human life. If you’re going to be skeptical towards religion I think it’s only fair to be skeptical towards all of your moral values, but if you don’t wish to do that you’re philosophically cowardly in my opinion.

    So, I will posit now that humans don’t have access to “big t” Truth, and if that’s the case, then arguing over whether religion is True or not is a fun exercise in futility. There are more interesting questions to be asked, like what religion does for people’s lives and why. What are these “religious experiences” that so many people claim to have, and why are so many of them similar and accessible through similar means? Why do they do strange things to the brain during scans? (I’m willing to also posit that prayer and meditation have a lot in common, and both have the effect of changing the mind.) Why are people so scared of religion these days when it can be a valuable psychological tool, used by people on their own psyche to rid themselves of depression or emptiness, give them a more meaningful life, and make them more charitable and compassionate towards others. (And, again, I don’t mean religion in the childish of some version of the “my dad can beat up your dad” argument.) I mean religion in general, which can and has been taken more subtly, more metaphorically. The Bible (though in the grand scheme of things I don’t believe Christianity specifically has been successful at keeping people from being shitty to each other) should never be used as a scientific text. But a science textbook doesn’t need to be used as a moral guide either. Also, the exact same feeling can be easily derived from a sense of wonder in the natural world, a sense of smallness in the grand scheme of things, and a sense of powerlessness in the face of grand forces that we have no control over. It has a calming effect on the brain, allowing it to function better, in my experience and from what I gather from further reading. Why not call this a spiritual way of seeing the world, if not religious, and why not be proud of this capacity?

    And if anyone wants to learn about any of this in a much better written way, I suggest to you “The Varieties of Religious Experience” by William James. Now there is an interesting take on religion. None of this “here’s why God is true” bullshit. Platinga, (and I’ve read several of his papers) next to a person like James or Kierkegaard, doesn’t seem very “smart” at all.

    We’re all better than childish arguments, fellow philosophy lovers.

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