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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.”

1 Peter 3:15 Atheism beleifs Carnap Christianity Heidegger New Atheism postmodernism Vodoun

Interest in the Beliefs of Others

I have written before about personal offence and whether one should ever criticise the beliefs of others. However, I have seen discussion lately — mainly on Reddit — about whether or not atheists should care about what theists believe. One can generally ask — why should anyone ever care about the beliefs of others?

There are a variety of reasons that people should care about the beliefs of others.

First, a generic statement that must be put at the beginning of any such discussion. Atheism is the explicit lack of belief in a god. Whether this is to the denial of the existence of one (as in strong atheism) or the mere suspension of belief until positive evidence is provided (weak atheism), atheism is a reaction to a pre-existing belief system. It’s true that the word can be used in its most inclusive form to include people who haven’t even heard of the concept of a god, but usually people who present atheism-as-opposed-to-theism do so as a reaction to some set of beliefs or doctrines. This isn’t necessarily a reason to disparage either atheism taken broadly or the New Atheist movement.

Theologian Denys Turner has termed Richard Dawkins’ style of atheism an “inversion” of theism, and, regardless of whether this is fair, one wonders whether that is actually a criticism at all. It is probably a trivialisation of Dawkins’ view, but a view being identical to the inversion of some other view isn’t the same as its being false. One still has to take the additional step of showing that the inversion is false. In fairness, this isn’t to say that Dawkins is all that knowledgeable on theological or philosophical nuances, a criticism that is often levelled at him (and perhaps justifiably so.)

That the New Atheist movement (or Secular Humanism) is a reaction against traditional religious or theological positions is not necessarily to the discredit of New Atheism (or Secular Humanism.) Consider postmodernism as a reaction to modernism. Or Rudolf Carnap’s work on the meaninglessness of metaphysical language as a reaction to the work of scholars like Martin Heidegger. Or Albert Einstein’s formulation of Special Relativity as an alternative to the then prevailing aether theory of electromagnetic radiation. Academic movements based on a reaction to a preceding idea or movement are not only not unheard of, but have occasionally had a tremendous amount of success.

What this does tell us is that any discussion in this movement will probably prominently feature arguments against theistic views. Just as Carnap needed to begin his essay “Elimination of Metaphysics Through Logical Analysis of Language” with a discussion of Heidegger’s view, New Atheist literature necessarily discusses prominent organised religions. In the United States, where approximately 82% of people are Christians, this means, at minimum, a discussion of Christianity.

There is simply little else that the movement consists of. Atheists may hold several different positions (or mixtures thereof):

-New Atheism
-Skepticism
-Secular Humanism
-Unitarian Universalism
-Secular Buddhism
-Secular Judaism

But no atheist is obligated to believe any of those things, and all that any atheist is guaranteed to share with any other atheist is lack of belief in any gods. It’s not a cohesive position to be held on its own accord, but rather the rejection of certain kinds of beliefs for a wide variety of reasons.

There is simply no belief qua atheism, but there can be beliefs held by people who are also atheists.

I will next argue why Christians should care what other people believe. I start here because most often I see Christians asking why atheists care about the beliefs of others. Why, for example, is atheist literature so full of comments being critical of Christian doctrines? To contrast this, I will first talk about why Christians should be critical of the religious or philosophical views of others (which they sometimes are not, possibly due to modernising and/or liberalising influences from beyond the purview of their particular doctrines.)

This argument is more or less applicable to any number of religions or philosophies. I raise a few doctrinal points specific to Christian proselytisation, but there are similar points that can be made from the perspective of any number of different religions.

Most Christians feel that non-Christians are doomed to hell because they have not been saved. If one is not going to try to convert me, then one is essentially saying that one doesn’t care if I spend an eternity of time being tortured simply because I don’t believe the same things as they do. That’s immoral — one has the obligation to try to save the people that one meets from imminent danger if one recognises it and they do not; ergo, Christians should care.

A good analogy can be made with a burning house:

1. If Cindy doesn’t alert Bob to the fact that Bob’s house is on fire then Bob will die.

2. If (1) then Cindy should alert Bob to his house being on fire.

3. Therefore, Cindy should alert Bob to his house being on fire.

Implicit in (1) is the assumption that Cindy knows that Bob’s house is on fire. If she did not, then she would not be morally obligated to tell Bob. But given both the ability to tell Bob this life-saving information, the ramifications of not doing so, and the knowledge that Cindy has but Bob lacks, Cindy is morally obligated to tell Bob about his house being on fire.

A fortiori, if Cindy is morally obligated to tell Bob about his house’s fire, Christians are morally obligated to tell non-Christians about their beliefs. Why? Because being tortured for eternity is infinitely worse than dying in a fire.

But it doesn’t end there. There are also scriptural reasons for at least defending one’s own beliefs when they have been questioned. 1 Peter 3:15 states (in the NIV translation):

“Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”

Thus, Christians should defend their position when asked about it. They are both morally and doctrinally obligated to do so. Of course, they are also told to “do this with gentleness and respect”, so that there is a tension here between the moral obligations arising from their convictions and their doctrinal duties.

I can think of two additional reasons why Christians should care:

–Believing false things is potentially dangerous, because people form their actions in conjunction with their beliefs. If one believes something that is false, then they could act in a way that is harmful either to themselves or to others. Note that this is true of everyone, religious or otherwise.

–For scientific reasons or out of curiosity. If one thinks that position x is true, then one needs to ask why position y is so prevalent. For instance, what were the social/cultural/etc factors that led to the successful propagation of other religious movements? Why do some people reject the idea that there is a god? How do we give an account of these sorts of things that is consistent with the available empirical data?

For an atheist, like myself, there are also several reasons why one would care about the beliefs of others. Some of these overlap with the reasons given above, but there are some additional reasons as well. Some of the reasons that I care about the beliefs of others are:

– The beliefs of people drive their actions. If they believe things that are probably false, their actions might have a negative effect either for themselves or for others. As one person said, because religious people vote.

– I’m interested in people and what they believe. That’s true no matter who they are, but Christianity is a large part of my culture and the history thereof. I want to understand it because it’s interesting.

– I’m interested in philosophy, especially philosophical debates. Theology (and arguments against theology) presents an interesting area for me to flex those muscles. Actually, some of the most famous breakthroughs in philosophy — the development of modal logic for example — were developed for theological reasons. Even if I don’t agree with these thinkers, I still enjoy reading them.

– I’m interested in anthropology. Religion is one of the most fascinating activities which human beings do. I like to observe religious ceremonies and to talk to believers to find out how their cultures work, what their traditions are, and so on. If one doesn’t believe that any religion is true, there are a plethora of really interesting social scientific questions to be had here — what is the actual origin of religious experience? Why/how do people speak in tongues or seem to have seizures in certain Pentecostal rituals? Why do vodouisants in West Africa and in the Carribean seem to become possessed by the Loa? Or, for that matter, the apparent production of Zombis in Haitian Vodou? How did the Bible, one of the most famous books on Earth today, come to be? Or the Koran? In cultures that only have oral traditions, how do they maintain such a broad volume of religious knowledge (such as the Australian aborigines and their highly nuanced Dreamtime mythology)? How is that people can be inspired by cultural or religious ideas without even believing in the ontologies they embody, as actor Hugh Jackman was in his experience with Australian Aborigines? Why did the supernatural have such a strong hold in the minds of early people? What was the mechanism by which these sorts of beliefs resonated so strongly with people? If one thinks about all of the religions on Earth that one doesn’t believe in, one must realise that there is a startling scientific question posed by all of these varied beliefs.

– How did religious beliefs come to be and why are they so prevalent? Whatever one’s religion might be, I’m interested in it for similar reasons. Of course, certain religions — like western monotheisms — have a larger effect on the culture in which I live than others do. For this reason, it’s often more important to understand those traditions. But one should also study the diversity of religious beliefs in the world so that one can understand how one’s own culture biases oneself. As an example, people living in the West often assume that the words “religion” and “faith” are synonymous. However, not all religions have a conception of the word “faith”. Nor do all religions have a conception that their religion exists as a body of knowledge in competition with those of others, something that often frustrates Christian missionaries entering groups of indigenous peoples (for instance, such peoples often do not understand the idea of replacing their beliefs with Christianity; they will often include Christianity in addition to their local traditions. One example was the reaction of the Pueblo tribe to Spanish missionaries in the early 17th century, as excellently presented in PBS documentary God in America.)

One of the things that might not have occurred to religious people is that a lot of atheists are actually really interested in religion. For many of us, it was examining religions (and the questions that religions raise) that caused us, more so than anything else, to become atheists. It is sometimes said that the best way to convince someone of becoming an atheist is to study the Bible.