Review of Plantinga & Dennett’s “Science & Religion: Are They Compatible?”

When I found out that Alvin Plantinga and Daniel Dennett co-authored a book, I was shocked. I could not think of two more diametrically opposed philosophers. It turned out that the book, entitled “Science and Religion”, resulted from a debate between the two famed philosophers at the American Philosophical Division Meeting in Chicago for 2009. The book consists of alternating short readings from each philosopher. The book contains a transcript of the original debate along with two more essays from each philosopher. Having now read the book, I think that Plantinga largely missed the point of Dennett’s arguments and that Dennett was probably more terse than he should have been.

The debate organisers had asked the two philosophers to discuss whether science and religion were compatible. However, the debate topic promptly changed when both philosophers agreed that there was no logical inconsistency between theism and science.

I’ll start by describing the arguments given by the respective parties and then offer commentary on some aspects of Plantinga’s argument I found problematic. Then I will briefly describe the response that I think Plantinga should have given to Dennett, followed by the response that I think Dennett would have given.

Plantinga argues:

1. Theism — in particular, Christian theism (Plantinga calls this “classical theism”) — is compatible with modern evolutionary theory. According to Plantinga, evolutionary theory is consistent with the idea that God guided the evolutionary process. One might object that evolution is random (and is therefore unguided). However, no part of evolutionary theory states that evolutionary events do not have causes; in fact, there are (often) causes cited for mutations. One such cause could be divine intervention.

2. The reliability of our beliefs is inconsistent with the conjunct of evolution and naturalism (where naturalism is *defined* as strong atheism — i.e. as the belief that are is no God or god-like beings). Plantinga argues that evolution cares only about adaptivity, not about truth tracking.

Dennett:

3. In response to (1): True, at least some forms of theism are consistent with evolution. But many things are logically consistent with evolution and that they are consistent is not evidence that theism is the case. Consider Supermanism — the thesis that Superman (son of Jor-El and an alien from the planet Krypton) caused the Cambrian explosion.

In response to (2): Dennett provides two replies:

4. Human brains evolved to track truth; that they do so is a sign that they are functioning properly. Just as the proper functioning of our hearts is to pump blood, the proper functioning of our neurophysiology is to produce correct beliefs about the world. Importantly, Dennett argues that the various parts of our bodies have functions to which they were tuned by evolution. Our hearts pump blood efficiently because that is the function they evolved to have. Brains track truth because that is what brains were evolved to do. So, evolution *is* truth tracking after all.

5. While it is true that our beliefs are, at least in part, the product of our neurophysiological states, they are also the product of our collective cultural evolution, discourse, and deliberation. So, while there might be poor beliefs that are produced by evolution, cultural evolution tends to expunge the bad and leave us with the good (this is why scientific — or, more generally, intellectual — progress is possible at all).

Plantinga:

6. In response to (3) (in particular, to Supermanism): Plantinga characterises the Superman thought experiment as trying to show that theism is absurd (or just as absurd as supermanism). Plantinga argues that Dennett, and the other New Atheists, may think that theism is absurd (or as absurd as Supermanism), but they have not provided an argument to show this point (or so Plantinga asserts). Plantinga argues that since there are a tremendous number of religious people in the world, and they do not appear to be irrational, it’s not clear that theistic belief is irrational. Thus, it would be incumbent on the New Atheists to argue for the irrationality of theism, something which Plantinga charges they have not done.

7. In response to (4): Plantinga does not think that organisms need to have accurate belief states in order to survive. Rather, organisms only require unconscious indicators that result in “correct” actions when provided with a given stimulus.

8. Plantinga does not provide a response to (5).

Analysis

I think that there are a number of problems with Plantinga’s strategy. One particularly vexing problem concerns (6). Plantinga mischaracterises Dennett’s argument. Arguing that theism is absurd (or as absurd as Supermanism) would be a rather poor rhettorical strategy; after all, Tertullian* notwithstanding, presumably no one holds beliefs which they think are absurd (again, in the Supermanism sense). However, that’s not what Dennett appears to be arguing.

The argument which Dennett presents concerns the burden of proof.

When Plantinga argues that theism is compatible with modern evolutionary theory, Dennett is right to respond with agreement. There are many things which are logically consistent with our best scientific theories, but the more interesting question is which of those things is the case. Supermanism is one idea which is logically consistent with our best scientific theories, but we do not think Supermanism is something that anyone should believe. Thus, Dennett presses Plantinga to do more than just argue for the logical consistency of theism with evolution. Dennett asks, can Plantinga provide us with a positive argument for theism? Dennett’s argument was categorically not to assert that theism is an absurd claim (though, no doubt, Dennett does think that).

In this book, Plantinga does not provide us with a positive argument for theism; instead, all he can offer is an argument against what he calls naturalism (really, a strong form of atheism). However, to be consistent with the rest of his work, there is a response that Plantinga should have given to Dennett instead of the one that he gave.

Plantinga should have responded that he does not need to give a positive argument for classical theism. Plantinga thinks that there is an additional sense — the sensis devinitatis — which provides human beings with non-propositional information concerning the existence of God. On Plantinga’s account of religious justification, theists are justified in their beliefs because belief in God is properly basic in virtue of having been caused by the sensus divinitatis. On Plantinga’s account, theists are people who have the proper sort of sensory experience to justify god-beliefs. Just as we do not ask people to justify that they are having the experience of the color purple when they see a purple object, Plantinga thinks people do not have to justify their having theistic beliefs.

In turn, Dennett could have responded with at least two arguments:

–that the best explanation of religious belief is not that it is caused by the sensus divinitatis. Rather, the best explanation would be in terms of standard evolutionary psychology, cultural evolution, sociology, anthrology, etc (that is, the sort of thing Dennett details in “Breaking the Spell”). Naturalistic (though not in Plantinga’s sense!) explanations of religious belief and  experiences are capable of explaining much more than classical theism (for example, they can give good explanations of the global diversity of religion. They can also explain why we see the sort of religions that we do and not others, etc).

–even if the best explanation of religious belief was the sensus divinitatis, if non-theists are truthful about their belief states, then they apparently lack the sensus divinitatis (or atheists have an inactive sensus divinitatis, etc). If theists would like to convince non-theists then it is incumbent on them to provide other lines of argument/evidence than to appeal to non-propositional sensory experiences which are closed off to the rest of us (or so they would claim). Theists certainly do not have to convince non-theists, but one would think that the point of debate is to convince those who disagree with oneself. Thus, while some theists might claim that they do not want to convince others, they should refrain from asserting arguments for their position. Furthermore, given Plantinga’s account of religious beliefs, theists might think that convincing an atheist that God exists would be rather like trying to convince a blind person that you are experiencing purple. Since such an endeavour would be utterly futile, debate would be pointless. However, Plantinga both participated in a debate with Dennett and writes books arguing for theism. Thus, Plantinga presumably thinks that there is a point to the debate.

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*Tertullian famously stated: “Credo quia absurdum” — “I believe because it is absurd.”

8 Comments

  • Jaime Wise
    December 19, 2012 - 4:03 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this post. I don’t have a background is philosophy, yet everything was clear without seeming simplistic. I have one question: In terms of their respective fields, how effective or competent do you think each author is?

    • Dan Linford
      December 19, 2012 - 8:07 pm | Permalink

      I think both are highly competent philosophers. Plantinga’s work on modal logic is extremely well known, though his opinions are often controversial and I don’t think most philosophers share them (surveys actually show that most philosophers are atheists, while Plantinga is a kind of champion of Christian philosophy). Dennett is well known for his work in philosophy of mind, evolution, and, more recently, his work on atheism. It was actually the fact that both are heavy weights that made the book really exciting to get and to read.

  • December 19, 2012 - 4:46 pm | Permalink

    It sounds like a short book. Or are you only focusing on one section of it?

    Is there a distinction to be made between experiencing the sensus divinitatus and observing the sensus divinitatus? The one would of course be inaccessible to atheists (generally speaking), but whereas the sense seems like an attempt to de-abstract theism, the latter should be observable at least as a brain phenomenon that theists can experience and atheists can’t (again, generally speaking).

    Also: I remember Christopher Hitchens correcting the common interpretation of Tertullian’s quote, i what talk i do not remember (“The Four Horsemen”?). Anyway, this post makes the same point. In summary, “The idea was that the first Christians would not have believed such palpable nonsense unless it had happened.” While anyone who follows the spread of certain “alternative” medicines would probably not be swayed by this argument, it is somewhat more charitable an interpretation of Tertullian’s “argumentum ad absurdum“.

    • Dan Linford
      December 19, 2012 - 8:37 pm | Permalink

      >It sounds like a short book. Or are you only focusing on one section of it?

      It’s only 77 pages. I read it on an airplane.

      >Is there a distinction to be made between experiencing the sensus divinitatus and observing the sensus divinitatus? The one would of course be inaccessible to atheists (generally speaking), but whereas the sense seems like an attempt to de-abstract theism, the latter should be observable at least as a brain phenomenon that theists can experience and atheists can’t (again, generally speaking).

      I don’t know what Plantinga would say about this, but there are a few things to consider here.

      I don’t think Plantinga would necessarily characterise the sensus divinitatus as a brain phenomenon. Plantinga is presumably a substance dualist, meaning that he thinks there are two substances in the world — one physical and the other supernatural. The latter is what constitutes our souls (and probably God as well). As a substance dualist, there are a whole range of mental phenomena which Plantinga would probably not characterise as physical phenomena (presumably, these would be soul phenomena).

      As far as observing the sensus divinitatus in other people, so far as I understand his position, Plantinga apparently thinks that it’s something like qualia. Suppose that you observe the color purple. Now, the color purple is not a wavelength of light. Rather, the color purple is the way in which your brain interprets a sensory input corresponding to a given wavelength of light (actually, a collection of wavelengths; our eyes are not sensitive enough to distinguish between individual wavelengths). We can now ask the following sort of question — when you experience purple, do you experience the same thing as I do? You can look at my neurophysiology and perhaps observe that we have the same structures. But if you are a substance dualist of a particular kind, the fact that we share the same sort of neurophysiological structures is not enough to establish that we have the same kind of subjective experiences. So while we receive the wavelength of light as sensory inputs, we still have the question of whether or not we are really having the same sort of experience.

      When Plantinga says that this sort of knowledge is non-propositional what he means is that you cannot fully express every detail of the sensory experience in language. There will always be a large portion of information that is left out. You can point out different purple objects in the world and say that each produces the experience of purple for you, and I can agree that I have what I call purple experiences when I see those same objects, but we cannot really know that we both mean the same thing with our respective purple talk (all we could know is that we pick out the same objects with that talk). We could easily imagine that whenever you have experience A, I have experience B; since we cannot get into each other’s heads, we can never know whether A is the same as B.

      Similarly, someone who advocates the existence of something like the sensus divinitatus might not think they could communicate their God experiences in any sort of coherent way. You could no more explain what it is like to see purple to a blind person than a theist could explain their God experiences to an atheist.

      >“The idea was that the first Christians would not have believed such palpable nonsense unless it had happened.”

      Yes, I am aware of this more charitable reading of Tertullian. Nonetheless, I don’t think it matters for my argument. I was commenting on whether or not people took on views which they thought were absurd. Tertullian clearly advocated doing so, even if he had an interesting (though flawed) argument for doing so.

      • December 19, 2012 - 8:57 pm | Permalink

        Aha. So, i was wrong to describe sensus divinitatus as “an attempt to de-abstract theism”; it is no more demonstrable a phenomenon or defensible a claim than the existence of a god in the first place. I don’t mean that pejoratively; just that i misconstrued Plantinga’s point. (While it does allow one to speak of “reasons” for god-belief, it doesn’t seem to be a stronger or weaker position than, say, fideism. Am i still missing something?)

        Indeed, the strength of Tertullian’s argument doesn’t affect your own, and you didn’t really seem to be drawing one interpretation over another; but as a habit i try to caricature my adversaries’ arguments as little as possible, and i didn’t want a possible instance to go unchecked.

        • Dan Linford
          December 19, 2012 - 9:09 pm | Permalink

          >it is no more demonstrable a phenomenon or defensible a claim than the existence of a god in the first place.

          Well, Plantinga tries to provide an argument for the view that theistic belief does not require justification because it is properly basic. Just as we do not ask people to justify that they are having the experience of the color purple, Plantinga thinks we should not ask people to justify that they are having an experience of the divine. You are right to point out that this has a relation to fideism; it is actually a form of fideism.

          > i didn’t want a possible instance to go unchecked.

          As you shouldn’t. You did the right thing; Tertullian is often (probably too often) misunderstood.

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  • dx
    February 10, 2015 - 9:51 am | Permalink

    Sensus Divinatus reminds me of “The emperors new clothes” by Hans Christian Andersen.

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