Christianity Today has published this lengthy review of The God Delusion. The review’s author is Alvin Plantinga, who is often described as America’s foremost philosopher of religion.
As regular readers of this blog are aware, I find the central truth claims of Christianity to be rather implausible, to put it kindly. I am also aware, however, that rather a lot of people feel differently. I have no trouble with the idea that all of those people are mistaken, but I do find it difficult to dismiss them all as fools. So I keep reading religious literature, in the increasingly vain hope that I will someday find some germ of intellectual respectability underlying the whole thing.
For that reason I read Plantinga’s review with great interest. To date I have been extremely unimpressed with the published criticisms of Dawkins’ book, but if anyone could devise a cogent counterargument it would be Plantinga. Noting the considerable length of the review (just under 4500 words, not counting endnotes), I figured that Plantinga must have put considerable effort into his arguments. At last, I thought, I would find what serious, high-powered Christianity has to offer against Dawkins’ assertions.
So you can imagine my disappointment when I discovered that Plantinga’s proposed refutations are not merely wrong, but mostly stupid. His smug tone suggests that in his mind he has delivered some devastating answers indeed. In most cases, however, I do not think he has even understood the questions.
I plan to devote several posts to Plantinga’s arguments. Here I will simply address Plantinga’s closing shots, where he suggests that an adherence to a materialistic conception of evolution leaves us with no sound basis for trusting our perceptions of the world around us.
Toward the end of the book, Dawkins endorses a certain limited skepticism. Since we have been cobbled together by (unguided) evolution, it is unlikely, he thinks, that our view of the world is overall accurate; natural selection is interested in adaptive behavior, not in true belief. But Dawkins fails to plumb the real depths of the skeptical implications of the view that we have come to be by way of unguided evolution. We can see this as follows. Like most naturalists, Dawkins is a materialist about human beings: human persons are material objects; they are not immaterial selves or souls or substances joined to a body, and they don’t contain any immaterial substance as a part. From this point of view, our beliefs would be dependent on neurophysiology, and (no doubt) a belief would just be a neurological structure of some complex kind. Now the neurophysiology on which our beliefs depend will doubtless be adaptive; but why think for a moment that the beliefs dependent on or caused by that neurophysiology will be mostly true? Why think our cognitive faculties are reliable?
Plantinga is rather fond of this argument; he has made it in a variety of venues. It has been refuted many times, but he does not seem to have received the memo.
Plantinga is worried that if our cognitive faculties evolved via a naturalistic, unguided process, then we have no basis for thinking they are providing us with reliable information about the world. This worry is justified only if you imagine that organisms possessing genes that cause them to misperceive reality will consistently outreproduce those who perceive things accurately. In organisms that reproduce slowly, like humans, it will nearly always be the case that those who perceive the world accurately will live longer and reproduce more successfully than those who do not.
That assertion seems so obvious that it is hardly the sort of thing for which one provides evidence. But if evidence is needed, just consider that there are a variety of brain defects that can cause people to misperceive the world around them, and those people routinely have to be protected from themselves. No one has ever enhanced his fitness by taking hallucinatory drugs.
So I would say the idea that we evolved via an unguided mechanism that favors only immediate survival provides a sound basis indeed for assuming our cognitive faculties are reliable. But perhaps I am wrong. Maybe it is an unwarranted leap of faith on my part to think natural selection would prefer fact and accuracy to hallucination and error. Can Plantinga offer a sounder basis?
From a theistic point of view, we’d expect that our cognitive faculties would be (for the most part, and given certain qualifications and caveats) reliable. God has created us in his image, and an important part of our image bearing is our resembling him in being able to form true beliefs and achieve knowledge. 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 naÃ¯ve 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.
The cold realities of natural selection leave Plantinga worried that his cognitive faculties are unreliable. A better solution, he thinks, is to hypothesize into existence a loving God who has created us in his image, and that part of that image includes an ability to perceive things accurately. (One is left to wonder what basis God has for thinking He is perceiving things accurately). If we simply assume that such a God exists, then, according to Plantinga, we have a sound basis for believing our cognitive faculties are accurate. Still with certain caveats and qualifications, of course. This is reminiscent of the man who tries to open a can of food by assuming he has a can opener.
How is Plantinga’s solution different from simply assuming directly that our cognitive faculties are accurate and cutting out the middle man?
Do you see what I mean? Plantinga is one of the most thoughtful Christian theists on the planet and yet when called upon to defend his beliefs he produces only a farrago of arrant nonsense. He is so fond of this inane argument, that he belabors it for two further paragraphs. If there is anyone reading this who believes that Plantinga has a point and that I have overlooked some subtlety to his argument, please explain it to me in the comments.
The rest of Plantinga’s essay fares little better, but we will leave that to future posts.