From the archives: Ignorance: Comparing Dawkins and Plantinga

Here’s a post from back in December 2010, just after I had left graduate school. It’s another one that I’m likely to refer back to in the future, and will satisfy people who’ve been hoping to see me talk more about Plantinga.

A good chunk of my blogging over the next few weeks will be following up my post on leaving philosophy for neuroscience, particularly my comment about the worthwhileness of philosophy. Among other things, I’m planning on doing a (likely multi-part) review of Gary Gutting’s book What Philosophers Know,which I had mentioned in the previous post, and a post on how I’ve bought in to bad philosophical arguments in the past.

I’ve decided to start off with something simple though: the scientific ignorance of some philosophers, and the philosophical ignorance of some scientists, and why I think the former is much worse than the latter. I’ll focus on two famous cases: Alvin Plantinga and Richard Dawkins.

I’ve written about the allegations of ignorance against Dawkins here. To put it briefly, while Dawkins certainly isn’t an expert in philosophy or theology, the attempts to dismiss him on these grounds are simply absurd. It’s silly to complain that he doesn’t cover everything, and as far as I can tell, the allegations that he’s misrepresenting the people he’s attacking themselves depend on misrepresenting Dawkins.

Also, as Dawkins puts, theology isn’t a subject. It has failed to produce a body of results in the way that, say, chemistry and physics have. It makes sense to criticize someone for being ignorant of scientific facts; it makes no sense to criticize someone for being ignorant of theological facts. It makes sense to criticize someone for ignoring the best evidence for a scientific theory; it makes less sense to criticize someone for ignoring the best evidence for the existence of God, because the experts can’t even agree on whether there is any good evidence, much less on which evidence is the best.

Now if you want an example of someone who really does deserve to be criticized for the things they’ve said on a subject they’re ignorant of, it’s hard to think of a better example than Alvin Plantinga writing on evolution. Well, just about any anti-evolutionist would do, but Plantinga is an interesting case because he is aware of his own ignorance, but uses superficially humble declarations of ignorance as a cloak for philosophical self-importance:

If the question is simple, the answer is enormously difficult. To think about it properly, one must obviously know a great deal of science. On the other hand, the question crucially involves both philosophy and theology: one must have a serious and penetrating grasp of the relevant theological and philosophical issues. And who among us can fill a bill like that? Certainly I can’t. (And that, as my colleague Ralph McInerny once said in another connection, is no idle boast.) The scientists among us don’t ordinarily have a sufficient grasp of the relevant philosophy and theology; the philosophers and theologians don’t know enough science; consequently, hardly anyone is qualified to speak here with real authority.

The implied assumption of this paragraph is that while it may be problematic for non-scientists to spout off about science, but its just as bad for non-philosophers to talk about topics philosophers have declared to be theirs. So really, it isn’t actually that bad for philosophers to spout off about science.

But a quick read Plantinga’s discussion of science brings up howlers beyond anything Dawkins has been accused of. Plantinga complains, for example, about “the nearly complete absence, in the fossil record, of intermediates between such major divisions as, say, reptiles and birds, or fish and reptiles, or reptiles and mammals” (wrong) and implies that the evolution of the eye is absurdly improbable (also wrong).

It’s hard not to see Plantinga’s essay as a bit dishonest: He quotes Gould on the lack of transitional forms, but ignores Gould’s complaints about how his words on the subject had been twisted (in spite of quoting a different section of the Gould’s “Evolution as Fact and Theory,” where Gould lodges that complaint.) He also uses the infamous Darwin quote on the apparent absurdity of the evolution of the eye, while ignoring Darwin’s proposal for how the eye evolved.

However, I still think that on the whole, Plantinga’s statements on evolution are probably the result of ignorance. I suppose some creationist tract told him that bird-reptile transitions were lacking, and therefore he assumed that Gould’s complaints about having his words twisted must have been hairsplitting. Here, ignorance isn’t really much of an excuse–the mistake could have been avoided if Plantinga had bothered to go ask a qualified paleontologist, “is this right?” Still, I think Plantinga is a fine example of the consequences of scientific ignorance. And they’re far worse, far less excusable, than the consequences of philosophical ignorance or theological ignorance as seen in someone like Dawkins.

Now it may be that there are worse examples of philosophical ignorance to be found than Dawkins. (Any suggestions?) However, it’s not clear what such an example would even look like. True, it’s possible to be clearly wrong about what some philosopher has said, but such mistakes rarely (if ever) put one at risk of mistakenly rejecting a well-established philosophical finding, because philosophy doesn’t have much in the way of findings.

Another point: When I’ve talked with friends about Plantinga’s (and some other philosophers’) statements about evolution, they’re always surprised. They expect being a philosopher to make people generally reasonable. I’ve never been surprised in this way, though I guess I should be. In the past I’ve bought in to the idea that studying philosophy brings with it a kind of general-purpose rationality. Now I think that was a mistake. Philosophy at best makes people more rational in some ways, while being useless in many other ways. It may even make people more likely to say foolish things on certain subjects, if they mistake their ignorance for philosophical insight.

  • ‘Tis Himself

    Plantinga has never impressed me as a philosopher. I’ve read some of his writings and I’m astonished at how many logical fallacies he uses. I’ve seen him use false dichotomy, equivocation, begging the question, and especially special pleading.

    Plantinga is ignorant about science but that doesn’t stop him from bashing various scientific topics, particularly evolution. Even then his attacks on strawman biology aren’t particularly good.

    • Andrew G.

      Also the fallacy of composition, in the classic form of the “atoms don’t have X, so if physical brains are solely made of atoms, then brains can’t have X either”.

  • slc1

    In the immortal words of Richard Feynmen,

    “Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.”

    • slc1

      Ach, Feynman

    • Konradius

      Thanks! I try to find at least one point I disagree with with all of my heroes, and this one will cover Feynman.
      I still need one for Greta Cristina, Victor Stenger and Dan Dennett.
      I’ve got Harris (spirituality, free will), Dawkins (his intro ‘you’re lucky to be born’), Hitchens (Iraq war, duh) and Jerry Coyne (Free will) to name a few.

      • jamessweet

        Don’t get too excited, Konradius, although the quote is widely attributed to Feynman, there are no quality sources. He may or may not have actually said it.

  • wonderer

    I’ve done a lot of debating in theology forums, and I’ve found that it isn’t uncommon for theists to use philosophical arguments as justification for remaining ignorant. These theists seem to be some of the least reachable.

    As you’ve pointed out, Plantinga is a prime example of this with his “Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism”, and unfortunately I encounter a fair number of apologists who barely comprehend Plantinga’s argument who consider Plantinga to have proven naturalism to be an unreasonable perspective to hold. Such apologists then proceed to justify their own ignorance of science in turn.

    I really wish I knew of a very well written and accessible take-down of the EAAN, that I could point to when I encounter such people.

    • James M

      Platinga engages in word salad. Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.

  • One Brow

    Philosophy, like mathematics, trains to to think deductively. You can make wildly irrational, valid deductions in either field.

    Science trains to think inductively and empirically. It does not protect you from making mutually incoherent assumptions and conclusions.

    Like oil and vinegar (add a little bit of core assumptions as parsley), you need both to get a good salad dressing.

  • noastronomer

    Plantinga’s quote is full of errors and faux humility. My choice:

    The scientists among us don’t ordinarily have a sufficient grasp of the relevant philosophy and theology

    That’s because neither philosophy nor theology are relevant to evolution, or biology or in fact any branch of science.

  • David Evans

    “That’s because neither philosophy nor theology are relevant to evolution, or biology or in fact any branch of science.”

    Do you include philosophy of science in that judgement?

    I have often heard scientists criticize a proposed theory for not being falsifiable. Isn’t that an appeal to a philosophical principle?

    • Patrick

      Somewhere in here, maybe in your post, maybe in his, maybe in the combination, is an equivocation fallacy.

      With a sufficiently broad definition of philosophy, science is philosophical.

      This does not entail that the sorts of things people in the Philosophy department do on a day to day basis are therefore useful to the people in the Science departments.

      • mnb0

        There isn’t an equivocation fallacy. Falsifiability definitely belongs to philosophy, not because philosophers brought up this principle (it was already common practice in at least physics), but because it cannot be empirically tested.
        David Evans’ question is relevant.

    • Sam C

      Of course science has a philosophy in a loose sense of the word. Just as one might say “my philosophy of cooking is to use lots of fresh ingredients”.

      One could ask “is philosophy of science useful to scientists?”. But it might be more useful to ask “are philosophers of science useful to scientists?”. I think the answer would be a resounding “no!”.

      Those philosophers who don’t understand science are clearly irrelevant. Those who do understand science have nothing useful to add.

      • mnb0

        Like Karl Popper you mean?

  • Friendship Quotes

    From the archives: Ignorance: Comparing Dawkins and Plantinga | The Uncredible Hallq great ideas for this world!

  • Voyaging

    Plantinga has affirmed himself as a believer in evolution more than once. Are you really this incapable in your studies? You really have nothing worthwhile to say in your posts beyond what strictly supports your dogmatic beliefs.

    • Chris Hallquist

      Really, where? From his latest book, I couldn’t quite tell if he accepts common ancestry now. I suspect he does, but is just having trouble fully owning up to past mistakes. Even if he fully corrected his past mistakes, though, he’d still be a good example of the foolish things scientific ignorance leads people to say.

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