From the archives: Plantinga’s inexcusable faults (review of Where The Conflict Really Lies)

I’m reposting this post, from December of last year, in large part because I’m planning on incorporating it into my upcoming book. I need to figure out how to shorten it, though, so feel free to tell me about any bits you thought were unnecessary.

I don’t expect Plantinga’s fans to ever totally agree with my negative assessment of Plantinga. My disagreements with them are too big. For one thing, I assume most of Plantinga’s fans think that what academic philosophers do is generally worthwhile, where as I don’t think that. But I hope that even fans of academic philosophy will agree that it is possible for a philosopher to screw up badly when writing about topics outside of his expertise, and this is what Plantinga does when writing about evolution.

Many specialists in philosophy of science have actual degrees in the area of science they write about, even if it’s just a bachelor’s. Of course, it’s possible to know quite a bit of science without formal training, but I think it’s safe to say that if you’re going to do serious academic writing on science without such formal training, you’ll need to put in a fair amount of effort educating yourself.

How much? Well, enough that you don’t make any mistakes that would be obvious to an undergraduate studying the field you’re writing about. Enough that you call tell the difference between something one scientist said once, and something most scientists in the relevant field consider a well-established finding. Popularizations can be useful, but you’d be wise not to rely too much on them. Certainly, if you find a particular popularization’s description of the evidence for a scientific claim lacking, you should do more research, rather than assume it is the science and not just the popularization that is flawed.

In fact, the safest policy is probably is to assume the experts are right when they can agree that something is certain (or nearly certain). But if you must disagree, or come to the defense of views generally regarded as fringe, at least be careful. Don’t rush in as you might rush in to a debate in your area of expertise. First make a real effort to understand why the experts think what they do. Be ready for the possibility that their reasons will be stronger than you thought at first. And if you do that and still aren’t convinced, be willing to clearly explain why you aren’t convinced.

Things not to do include: hand waving dismissals of the evidence for widely-accepted findings, jumping to the conclusion that the opinion of the experts is merely the product of bias, and declaring that none of the scientists who’ve criticized the fringe view you favor are worth responding to.

These rules should be common sense, and I think most philosophers who write about science follow them. Plantinga, however, has a long history of breaking them when writing about evolution. An early example is Plantinga’s paper, “When Faith and Reason Clash: Evolution and the Bible.” It opens with a tidy statement of how religion and science at least seem to conflict:

Taken at face value, the Bible seems to teach that God created the world relatively recently, that he created life by way of several separate acts of creation, that in another separate act of creation, he created an original human pair, Adam and Eve, and that these our original parents disobeyed God, thereby bringing ruinous calamity on themselves, their posterity and the rest of creation.According to contemporary science, on the other hand, the universe is exceedingly old-some 15 or 16 billion years or so, give or take a billion or two. The earth is much younger, maybe 4 1/2 billion years old, but still hardly a spring chicken. Primitive life arose on earth perhaps 3 1/2 billion years ago, by virtue of processes that are completely natural if so far not well understood; and subsequent forms of life developed from these aboriginal forms by way of natural processes, the most popular candidates being perhaps random genetic mutation and natural selection.

He then discusses a number of ways of handling this apparent conflict. He notes that some Christians think they should always be willing to reinterpret the Bible to accommodate science, but says this view is “deplorable.” In fact, though Plantinga says he accepts that the Earth is old, he also says that “One need not be a fanatic, or a Flat Earther, or an ignorant Fundamentalist” to be a young-Earth creationist.

Then Plantinga says he thinks the theory of evolution is probably false, and tries to argue that the evidence for it is weak. This section of the paper is by Plantinga’s own admission “hand waving,” and includes at least one howler: Plantinga complains of “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.”

This is an idea creationists seem to have gotten from a misunderstanding of Stephen Jay Gould’s idea of punctuated equilibria, and Gould has put a lot of energy into correcting this misunderstanding. One place he corrects it is his essay “Evolution as Fact and Theory,” which happens to be the one piece of Gould’s writing that appears in Plantinga’s bibliography. Gould explains that “Transitional forms are generally lacking at the species level, but they are abundant between larger groups.” Plantinga’s mistake is so big, and so avoidable, that it suggests he wasn’t really even trying to get his science right.

After making a mess of discussing the evidence for evolution, Plantinga decides that the confidence scientists have in evolution must be due to philosophical prejudice and confusion. This, of course, is not something you can actually infer from a “hand waving” discussion of the evidence, but it may explain the sloppiness of that discussion. Why read Gould carefully, or take him seriously when he tells you you’re suffering from a serious misconception, if you can dismiss him as philosophically prejudiced?

In more recent years, Plantinga has backed off from his stronger anti-evolution comments, but is still uncomfortable with evolution, just in denial about his discomfort. In 2010, Michael Ruse wrote an articledescribing Plantinga as having “long harbored a distrust, even an ardent dislike, of evolutionary theorizing in general and of Darwinian thinking in particular.” Plantinga replied that this was a “misrepresentation” showing Ruse’s “distressing inability to make relevant distinctions,” because Plantinga’s view wasn’t that the theory of evolution is false, just that it’s a “modern idol of the tribe” and a “shibboleth.”

This reply makes no sense. It’s possible dislike an idea without being confident enough to say it’s false. Also, Plantinga’s rationale for calling evolution an “idol of the tribe” seems to have been that some people have said you are ignorant if you doubt evolution. But if people say you are ignorant if you doubt that the Earth is roughly spherical, that doesn’t make round-Earthism an “idol.” That Plantinga would give such a lame excuse for calling evolution an “idol” does suggest a dislike of the theory.

Plantinga’s latest book, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism is surprisingly unforthcoming about what he now thinks about evolution. A New York Times article on the book says that “Mr. Plantinga says he accepts the scientific theory of evolution, as all Christians should.” But I can’t find anything to that effect in the book, so presumably the NYT’s claim is based on an interview.

Also, in the book (marked as pp. 8-9 in the Kindle edition), Plantinga makes a point of defining “evolution” to include common ancestry but exclude Darwin’s theory of natural selection. This, combined with various negative remarks about Darwin’s theory, makes me think that Plantinga now accepts common ancestry but still rejects natural selection (or at least thinks natural selection can’t explain very much). But Plantinga isn’t forthcoming about any of that. This is significant, partly because it avoids the question of whether he was too careless in his previous writing on evolution.

Now I don’t know how to talk about the handling of science in Where the Conflict Really Lies without talking about Plantinga’s really appalling hypocrisy about matters of “tone.” Russell Blackford has complained about this with respect to John Haught and Alister McGrath, but Plantinga is even worse here. He complains about “invective, mockery, ridicule, and name-calling” used by his opponents, but indulges in plenty of it himself.

For example, Plantinga describes Richard Dawkins and Peter Atkins as “dancing on the lunatic fringe” and describes Dawkins’ argument in The Blind Watchmaker as taking the form “p is not astronomically improbable therefore p.” Daniel Dennett is described as wanting to keep Baptists in “something like zoos,” apparently a reference to this paragraph in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea:

I love the King James Version of the Bible. My own spirit recoils from a God Who is He or She in the same way my heart sinks when I see a lion pacing neurotically back and forth in a small zoo cage. I know, I know, the lion is beautiful but dangerous; if you let the lion roam free, it would kill me; safety demands that it be put in a cage. Safety demands that religions be put in cages, too—when absolutely necessary. We just can’t have forced female circumcision, and the second-class status of women in Roman Catholicism and Mormonism, to say nothing of their status in Islam. The recent Supreme Court ruling declaring unconstitutional the Florida law prohibiting the sac-rificing of animals in the rituals of the Santeria sect (an Afro-Caribbean religion incorporating elements of Yoruba traditions and Roman Catholi-cism) is a borderline case, at least for many of us. Such rituals are offensive to many, but the protective mantle of religious tradition secures our toler-ance. We are wise to respect these traditions. It is, after all, just part of respect for the biosphere.

There’s a big differences between saying “religions should be put in cages” and saying “religious believers should be put in cages”–you can’t literally cage a religion, which makes it obvious that Dennett was speaking metaphorically. Maybe Plantinga knew what Dennett meant, wasn’t trying to deceive anyone, and just thought it would be funny to twist Dennett’s words. Even granting that, though, Plantinga’s antics strike me as bizarre. (In mentioning this bit involving Dennett, I worry that such nonsense isn’t worth anybody’s time, but I want to give a taste of just how strange this book sometimes is.)

Plantinga frequently complains about anti-evolutionists being called ignorant. And I’ve called Plantinga ignorant in the past. But now I think the problem isn’t ignorance–it’s something much worse. He’s clearly done a lot of reading on evolution. Maybe he doesn’t know the topic as well as one really should to write about it academically–his reading list is weighted towards popular works and works written by philosophers–but he’s doing pretty well for a layman.

The problem, rather, is that he seems to have been reading less for understanding, and more to find things to snark about. Not that snark is always bad! Sometimes it’s deserved, and it can be fun to snark! But being eager to snark about a topic you don’t understand very well is setting yourself up to look like a fool, and that’s what Plantinga has done.

There’s much to criticize in Where the Conflict Really Lies, but I’ll limit myself to one more especially clear illustration of my main point. Plantinga devotes an entire chapter to the work of Intelligent Design proponent Michael Behe. His final assessment ends up being cautions but positive: Behe’s work doesn’t provide “irrefragable arguments for theism” but does “support theism.” But in reaching this conclusion, Plantinga barely bothers to discuss what other scientists have had to say about Behe’s claims.

Here is how Plantinga describes the response to Behe’s first book, Darwin’s Black Box, which argues that certain biochemical structures couldn’t possibly have evolved through random mutation and natural selection:

Not everyone is pleased. We are in the neighborhood of cultural conflicts (“culture war”) where feelings run high; the level of vitriol, vituperation and contempt heaped on Behe’s unsuspecting head is really quite remarkable. There are screams of hysterical anguish, frenzied denunciations, accusations of treason (how could an actual scientist say things like this?), charges of deceit, duplicity, deviousness, tergiversation, pusillanimity, and other indications of less than total agreement. One is reminded of the medieval philosopher Peter Damian, who said that those who held a certain position (oddly enough, one different from his own) are contemptible, not worthy of a reply, and should instead be branded. Many of those who comment on Behe seem to think along similar lines. These screeds are not of course the sort of thing to which one can give an argumentative reply: they aren’t so much arguments as brickbats.

Again, notice the hypocrisy: describing criticisms of Behe as “screams of hysterical anguish” is pointlessly insulting. No one is literally screaming in anguish. (Contrast Dawkins’ infamous description of the God of the Old Testament: the Old Testament really does contain commands to kill gay men, exterminate entire tribes, etc.) Similarly, I’ve never heard anyone dismiss Darwin’s Black Box as unworthy of reply or suggest Behe be branded.

Well, maybe Plantinga knows of attacks on Darwin’s Black Box that are as bad as he says. It’s hard to tell, since the footnotes only cite a single example, an online article written by physical chemist Peter Atkins. Atkins doesn’t discuss Behe’s arguments in any detail, explaining “Specialists far more competent than me,” have already done so and providing a couple hyperlinks.

Atkins does, however, make one serious and strictly scientific criticism of Behe: Behe falsely claimed that the scientific literature is largely silent on molecular evolution. This is a criticism Plantinga could have given an “argumentative reply” to (except maybe in the sense that there is no good defense of Behe on this point). Thus, Plantinga’s description of the scientific response to Darwin’s Black Box turns out to be untrue even of the one example he gives.

Plantinga does decide one critic of Darwin’s Black Box is worth replying to, philosopher Paul Draper. That suggests he could not find a single scientist worth replying to, but that can’t possibly be right. The instant I began reading Plantinga’s discussion of Draper, I recognized Draper’s criticism of Behe as one that’s also been made by many scientists (H. Allen Orr, for example). (The struck-through sentence is wrong, but for reasons that do not affect my main point, see here.) And Plantinga ends up admitting that Draper’s criticisms of Behe are correct, but tries to minimize the damage:

It’s important to note that the possibilities Draper suggests are merely abstract possibilities. Draper doesn’t argue or even venture the opinion that in fact there are routes of these kinds that are not prohibitively improbable; he simply points out that Behe has not eliminated them…As far as I can make out, Draper is right: Behe’s argument, taken as Draper takes it, is by no means airtight. Behe has not demonstrated that there are irreducibly complex systems such that it is impossible or even monumentally improbable that they have evolved in a Darwinian fashion—although he has certainly provided Darwinians with a highly significant challenge.

Unfortunately, scientific critics of Darwin’s Black Box have argued that there are worse problems with the book than mere lack of logical airtightness. These are criticisms Plantinga could have given an “argumentative reply” to, but he chose not to. Whatever you think of Behe or his critics, this is no way to do serious academic writing on a scientific subject.

I’ve addressed only a fraction of Where the Conflict Really Lies, but I’ve made my point: Plantinga is an embarrassment to philosophy. Not for giving bad philosophical arguments–I’m not arguing that here, and anyways plenty of influential philosophers have occasionally been guilty of bad arguments. No, what’s embarrassing is that Planting has persistently screwed up something that academic philosophers nowadays mostly get right: understanding the science before you try to philosophize about it.

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