Friday, March 2, 2007

Plantinga on Dawkins

Books and Culture features a review by philosopher Alvin Plantinga of Richard Dawkins' much talked about anti-theistic book The God Delusion. Plantinga's essay is a bit longish, but every paragraph rewards the reader with wonderful insights into both the shortcomings of Dawkins' book as well as the shortcomings of the metaphysical naturalism upon which the book relies.

An example of what Plantinga has to say about the latter comes toward the end where he recaps an argument that he's been making for years and which no one seems able to refute:

But from a naturalist point of view the thought that our cognitive faculties are reliable (produce a preponderance of true beliefs) would be at best a naive hope. The naturalist can be reasonably sure that the neurophysiology underlying belief formation is adaptive, but nothing follows about the truth of the beliefs depending on that neurophysiology.

In fact he'd have to hold that it is unlikely, given unguided evolution, that our cognitive faculties are reliable. It's as likely, given unguided evolution, that we live in a sort of dream world as that we actually know something about ourselves and our world.

If this is so, the naturalist has a defeater for the natural assumption that his cognitive faculties are reliable-a reason for rejecting that belief, for no longer holding it. (Example of a defeater: suppose someone once told me that you were born in Michigan and I believed her; but now I ask you, and you tell me you were born in Brazil. That gives me a defeater for my belief that you were born in Michigan.) And if he [the naturalist]has a defeater for that belief, he also has a defeater for any belief that is a product of his cognitive faculties. But of course that would be all of his beliefs-including naturalism itself. So the naturalist has a defeater for naturalism; naturalism, therefore, is self-defeating and cannot be rationally believed.

The real problem here, obviously, is Dawkins' naturalism, his belief that there is no such person as God or anyone like God. That is because naturalism implies that evolution is unguided. So a broader conclusion is that one can't rationally accept both naturalism and evolution; naturalism, therefore, is in conflict with a premier doctrine of contemporary science. People like Dawkins hold that there is a conflict between science and religion because they think there is a conflict between evolution and theism; the truth of the matter, however, is that the conflict is between science and naturalism, not between science and belief in God.

Plantinga spends time throughout the review analyzing Dawkins' argument that God had nothing to do with the appearance of living things. The argument distills to this:

1. We know of no irrefutable objections to the claim that life is solely the product of mechanical processes.

2. Therefore, life is the product of mechanical processes.

In other words, because it is possible that life arose without God, therefore life must have arisen without God. Plantinga writes:

It's worth meditating, if only for a moment, on the striking distance, here, between premise and conclusion. The premise tells us, substantially, that there are no irrefutable objections to its being possible that unguided evolution has produced all of the wonders of the living world; the conclusion is that it is true that unguided evolution has indeed produced all of those wonders. The argument form seems to be something like:

We know of no irrefutable objections to its being possible that p; Therefore, p is true.

Philosophers sometimes propound invalid arguments (I've propounded a few myself); few of those arguments display the truly colossal distance between premise and conclusion sported by this one. I come into the departmental office and announce to the chairman that the dean has just authorized a $50,000 raise for me; naturally he wants to know why I think so. I tell him that we know of no irrefutable objections to its being possible that the dean has done that. My guess is he'd gently suggest that it is high time for me to retire.

Dawkins' most talked about anti-theistic argument in The God Delusion is one which reasons that since the biological world is very complex, and since the more complex something is the more improbable it is, and since the Creator of life would have to be even more complex than what He created, the Creator must be an extraordinarily improbable being - so improbable as to be not worth believing in.

Plantinga explains why this argument is essentially nonsense, but there's one reason for rejecting it which Plantinga doesn't delve into very far. When we say that the complexity of the living world is improbable we mean that it is improbable that it could arise solely by unguided processes. The processes that produced it must have been purposeful. It is highly improbable that a stick would appear to be whittled to a point if only mechanical forces ever acted upon it, but it's not at all improbable that the stick takes on this appearance given the existence of a boy with a knife.

In other words, complex living things are only improbable on the assumption that they arose by happenstance. They're not at all improbable if there's an intelligent creator.

Moreover, although it's improbable that complex things will be produced by purely mechanical processes, God is not something which is produced. God is a necessary being which does not depend on anything else for His existence. Thus it is a category mistake to talk about the improbability of God coming to be. God is not the sort of thing which "comes to be."

Dawkins either doesn't understand the concept of necessary and contingent being or he simply confuses God with contingent entities, which is perhaps why Plantinga observes that Dawkins is no philosopher.


The Anti-God Crusade

Denyse O'Leary has an excellent series of posts on the New Atheism and its accompanying neuroses at The ID Report.

Links to each of the posts in her series can be found at the bottom of the post linked to above.


The Threat We Face

Our highly esteemed staff of professional foreign policy experts here at Viewpoint have been cautioning us for over three years now that the biggest threat we face from our enemies may be a scenario something like this: A terrorist organization manages to smuggle a single suitcase nuke into a major American city. They publicly announce, falsely, that they have numerous such weapons planted in cities around the country and demand that we get out of the Middle East, abandon Israel, and impeach the current president or they will begin to detonate these bombs.

The nation is hurled into crisis. Everything shuts down because people are afraid to go into our cities. The economy begins to plummet and chaos reigns in our urban centers. The administration stands firm, however, and refuses to bend to the blackmail. The terrorists tell us that we asked for it, and set off their one bomb killing tens of thousands of Americans and destroying, say, Manhatten.

They then announce that we have one week to comply with their demands or they will detonate another. No one knows, of course, that there isn't another. So panic ensues. The pressure on the White House to capitulate would be irresistable. The United States would almost have to yield and the door would swing wide open to the Islamofascists who would sweep the world imposing Islam on every nation on earth.

That's the scenario that causes our greatest anxiety. Now Michael Crowley of the New York Times Magazine writes an article on former Senator Sam Nunn that says that his greatest nightmare is a scenario very similar to the one we've outlined above. It's really quite disconcerting.

Even moreso since despite the Islamists' stated determination to destroy us, the Democrats' biggest concern seems to be preventing the president from eavesdropping on terrorists' phone calls and otherwise acting as a president should when our very existence is under assault. For some of the president's opponents, the most frightening threat to our future is not the likelihood of nuclear terrorism on our shores, but rather that the average mean temperature of the planet has gone up almost a degree in the last century.

As if to illustrate the unseriousness that exists in some precincts of the left in the face of the most serious threat to our national survival since the Cuban Missile Crisis, a television person named America Ferrera recently delivered herself of the opinion that America won't be free until George Bush leaves office. This empty-headed nonsense was boffo with her audience, of course, but it's positively moronic given the nature of the real threats that face us.