Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Interview with Alvin Plantinga

Last month we noted a discussion in the New York Times of philosopher Alvin Plantinga's new book Where the Conflict Really Lies. In this book Plantinga addresses the question of the nature of the alleged incompability between science and theism and, as one would expect from the man who is arguably the most consequential philosopher of the last half century, offers many excellent insights into the matter.

Paul Pardi did a very good interview with Plantinga recently in which the philosopher talks, inter alia, about the themes of the book. Here's Pardi's introduction:
Dr. Alvin Plantinga is one of the foremost living philosophers. He has been writing and lecturing on almost all branches of philosophy for all of his long career and has had a tremendous amount of influence on how we think about metaphysics, epistemology, logic, and faith. His influence on the philosophy of religion has been so extensive that Christianity Today recently called him “the greatest philosopher of the last century” and “the most important philosopher of any stripe.”

Dr. Plantinga taught at Calvin College in Grand Rapids Michigan and spent most of his long career at Notre Dame University. His most important work has been the Warrant series culminating with Warranted Christian Belief in which he argues that a person can be fully justified in believing in God’s existence even if that belief is not grounded on evidence as it’s typically understood.
Pardi himself has an interesting story to tell which you can read here.

Two Absolutes

Techne at Telic Thoughts wonders whether a moral relativist could ever be trusted. Along the way he makes a helpful distinction about moral absolutes:
There are at least two ways to be a moral absolutist. The first way is to argue that if action X is absolutely and intrinsically morally wrong then action X is ALWAYS absolutely and intrinsically morally wrong. Call it “universal moral absolutism”. The second way is argue that if it is wrong for one person to commit act X in situation Z, then it is wrong for any person to commit act X in the same situation Z. The second view thus allows for a situation where action X in situation Z is wrong but is not absolutely and intrinsically wrong at different moments. Call it “situational moral absolutism”.
In other words, torture, for example, might be situationally wrong but not intrinsically wrong. It may be absolutely wrong to torture for pleasure or for punishment, but not wrong to torture in order to save the lives of thousands of people who will be blown up in a terror attack unless the perpetrator in custody is compelled to divulge what he knows about the impending attack.

Whether you agree or disagree with this example, the distinction is nevertheless helpful. It may be absolutely wrong to lie to cover up one's own malfeasance but not wrong to lie to the Nazis who are searching for the Jews you are hiding in your attic.

On the other hand, there are acts which certainly seem to be universally wrong, beating a child with one's fists, for example, or sexually abusing a child. No plausible situation could ever provide justification for such things.

My own inclination, however, is to say that there are only two universal moral absolutes: Love others and do justice. The reason beating a child is universally wrong is that there are no circumstances under which it could be loving or just. Lying to the Nazis in the circumstance we describe above, on the other hand, would be both loving and just and, in fact, telling them the truth about the Jews hiding in your attic would be neither just nor loving and would thus be the morally wrong thing to do.

What do you think?

Last Gasps

Newsweek features an article that claims, based pretty much on the testimony of one young al Qaeda fighter, that his organization is all but dead. I take the report of a single witness with a heavy dose of salt, but it's an interesting story nonetheless. Here's the lede:
Deep among North Waziristan’s mountains, far from any village, Hafiz Hanif finally tracked down the remnants of his old al Qaeda cell last summer. The 17-year-old Afghan had wondered why he hadn’t heard from his former comrades in arms. They didn’t even answer his text messages in May, after the death of the man they all called simply the Sheik: Osama bin Laden.

Now Hanif saw why. Only four of the cell’s 15 fighters were left, huddled in a two-room mud-brick house, with little or no money or food. Except for their familiar but haggard faces, they looked nothing like the al Qaeda he once trained with and fought beside. They welcomed him warmly but didn’t encourage him to stay. They said the cell’s commander, a Kuwaiti named Sheik Attiya Ayatullah, had gone into hiding. The others had either run off or died. “Why should we call you back just to get killed in a drone attack?” Hanif’s friends explained.

Is it still too soon to write al Qaeda’s obituary? Over the past two years, the group’s ranks have been ravaged by America’s unmanned-aerial-vehicle attacks and by a steady exodus of demoralized jihadis fleeing Pakistan’s tribal areas.

When Newsweek interviewed Hanif (his nom de guerre) for our Sept. 13, 2010, cover story, “Inside Al Qaeda,” he estimated that the group had roughly 130 Arabs in Waziristan, along with dozens more Chechens, Turks, Tajiks, even recruits from Western Europe. But little more than a year later, he estimates there are no more than 40 to 60 al Qaeda operatives of any nationality on either side of the border. “Al Qaeda was once full of great jihadis, but no one is active and planning opera-tions anymore,” he complains. “Those who remain are just trying to survive.”

The son of longtime Afghan war refugees living in Pakistan, Hanif had just turned 15 when (against his parents’ strenuous objections) he ran away to join the war against the U.S. forces in his home country. That was in early 2009, and for the next year and more, the bright but impressionable boy lived among al Qaeda fighters in the isolated wilds of North Waziristan.

His parents finally persuaded him to return home in June 2010, but he headed out again this past June in hope of reconnecting with his old unit. He was shocked by what he found. “The flower is wilting,” he told a Newsweek correspondent who met with him in December in a Taliban safe house near the Afghan town of Khost. “I think the once-glorious chapter of al Qaeda is being closed.”
If this last statement is true it's not just al Qaeda which is suffering its last gasps but so is the credibility of those who have, over the last nine or ten years, repeatedly admonished us that the policy of killing terrorists was counterproductive because it only created more of them. Their claim seemed counterintuitive then and it seems manifestly foolish now.

The Newsweek story doesn't mention any of these folks, but someone ought to do a Google search and post their names for future reference. It's good to know whose opinion is worth heeding and whose isn't.