Christian Philosopher Takes on the New Atheists

Last week, there was a nice write up on Alvin Plantinga in the New York Times.  Plantinga, whom I’ve long admired, has a new book out, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism.  The Times throws some well-deserved bouquets his way:

Theism, with its vision of an orderly universe superintended by a God who created rational-minded creatures in his own image, “is vastly more hospitable to science than naturalism,” with its random process of natural selection, he writes. “Indeed, it is theism, not naturalism, that deserves to be called ‘the scientific worldview.’ ”

Mr. Plantinga readily admits that he has no proof that God exists. But he also thinks that doesn’t matter. Belief in God, he argues, is what philosophers call a basic belief: It is no more in need of proof than the belief that the past exists, or that other people have minds, or that one plus one equals two.

“You really can’t sensibly claim theistic belief is irrational without showing it isn’t true,” Mr. Plantinga said. And that, he argues, is simply beyond what science can do.

But let me also state, for the record, that I think Plantinga’s defense of Michael Behe and “intelligent design” in his new book is very unfortunate, and possibly undermines his argument entirely.

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  • Scot Miller

    Plantinga is a brilliant philosopher, but his approach to philosophy (along with analytical philosophy of religion) tends to regard God as a being which may or may not exist in reality. While he thinks his approach makes belief in God rational (or “properly basic,” and hence not in need of “proof”), his approach merely trivializes God. Is God an object in reality which may or may not exist, or is God that which makes reality possible. I think Meister Eckhart and Paul Tillich and Peter Rollins have a better approach, in which the question of existence is really too trivial when applied to God. God does not exist; God makes existence possible. Or, to paraphrase Eckhart’s prayer, “I pray God rid me of [Plantinga’s] God.”

  • Andy Crouch

    Scot, I would love to know the place in Plantinga’s writing where he treats God as “an object in reality” (interviews with NYT reporters—or for that matter Christianity Today reporters!—who use the language of “existence” in philosophically imprecise ways don’t count). If what you say is true, he is making a sophomore-level category mistake and that would indeed be disappointing.

    Or perhaps you are misrepresenting him, his other-minds argument is consciously and explicitly analogical, and he is well aware that “God exists” is not a rigorously philosophical statement. Pending more details, I’d tend to believe the latter.

    • Scot Miller

      Andy, I’m thinking specifically of his modal argument for God’s existence, where he argues (and excuse me from cutting and pasting from Wikipedia, but I’m not in my library right now):

      1) A being has maximal excellence in a given possible world W if and only if it is omnipotent, omniscient and wholly good in W; and
      2) A being has maximal greatness if it has maximal excellence in every possible world.
      3) It is possible that there is a being that has maximal greatness. (Premise)
      4) Therefore, possibly, it is necessarily true that an omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good being exists.
      5) Therefore, (by axiom S5) it is necessarily true that an omniscient, omnipotent and perfectly good being exists.
      6) Therefore, an omniscient, omnipotent and perfectly good being exists.

      So it’s pretty clear that his very sophisticated (and controversial) modal argument for God is an attempt to say that God necessarily exists as an extra-mental reality in any logically possible world.

      But I would say that his analogical argument from God and Other Minds also treats God as a “thing” or an entity. Granted, here he’s not trying so much to prove that God exists as an extra-mental reality as he is trying to defend the rationality of belief, which is really what he’s doing with his “properly basic belief” stuff. But I think his entire approach is mistaken.

      And I don’t know how such an otherwise brilliant philosopher can possibly defend “intelligent design”. I listened to his lectures recorded at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and I think he tried to defend “intelligent design” there. Of course, as a well-trained philosopher, he didn’t overstate his argument, and tried to argue that intelligent design is an intellectually defensible position. Of course, the only way his argument would be persuasive is if one ignores scientific evidence.

      • Andy Crouch

        (Belatedly—) Thanks, Scot. Yes, I see your concern about the modal argument. Much depends on how one defines “world” and “being,” then (which probably dictates what one means by “exists”).

        I’m not qualified to judge Plantinga as a philosopher, that’s for sure. But I would be surprised if these (essentially Thomistic, yes?) objections were ones he had not encountered and responded to in some way.

  • tom c.

    Plantinga has done a lot (along with others, like William Alston and Nicholas Wolterstorff) to resurrect philosophy of religion as a viable area of philosophy in the English-speaking world (esp. within analytic philosophy), but I remain ambivalent about his work; he has also helped establish a norm for both what philosophy of religion is (apologetics of a sort) and what it means to be a Christian philosopher (see his “Advice to Christian Philosophers”).

    I’d love someday to read a book written by a diverse collection of Christians who happen to be philosophers on what it means for them to be “Christian philosophers”.

  • Keith DeRose

    Some might like Michael Ruse’s recent bit on this at:

    • Korey

      Thanks for that link. Ruse is a trusted source, as is Ken Miller. I thought Plantiga only subscribed to intelligent design in a general sense, not that he seriously held the specific arguments of Behe and others to be true and denied evolution.

  • Howard Pepper

    I doubt I’ll get to Plantinga’s book, so I’ll ask: Is he basically presenting a single polarity of theism and atheism? (“Naturalism” being placed within atheism?) I admit to not being very good at, nor particularly interested in the formal “philosophy game,” but if he’s contrasting just two paradigms as THE contending options, I object. That IS the usual way of framing things, but Process and other ways of conceptualizing God and creation which might be called akin to “eastern” thought-forms, or Native American, etc., need to be entered vigorously into the conversation. (One excellent source is “Evolution, Creationism and Other Modern Myths by Vine Deloria, and Michael Dowd does some creative work in “Thank God for Evolution”).

  • Tony Schumacher Jones

    “…Theism, with its vision of an orderly universe superintended by a God who created rational-minded creatures in his own image…” I would have to seriously object to the idea that (a) the universe is orderly and (b) it is watched over by a god. In what sense is it orderly? I would have thought that chaos theory would have been a better descriptor. In what sense is it ‘watched over’ by a god?

  • Ron Krumpos

    To a great extent, science depends on observation and religion relies on scripture. Science can now study only 5% of this Universe, since dark matter is 25% and dark energy about 70% of its critical density. Religion? According to which scriptures: the Torah, New Testament, Qur’an, Vedas, Buddhist sutras, …? Many quantum physicists contend that observation is dependent on the observer; many mystics say that relying on scripture is less significant than direct experience.

    In my free ebook on comparative mysticism, “the greatest achievement in life,” is a quote by Albert Einstein: “…most beautiful and profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and most radiant beauty – which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive form – this knowledge, this feeling, is the center of all religion.”

    E=mc², Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, is probably the best known scientific equation. I revised it to help better understand the relationship between divine Essence (Love, Grace, Spirit), matter (mass/energy: visible/dark) and consciousness (f(x) raised to its greatest power). Unlike the speed of light, which is a constant, there are no exact measurements for consciousness. In this hypothetical formula, basic consciousness may be of insects, to the second power of animals and to the third power the rational mind of humans. The fourth power is suprarational consciousness of mystics, when they intuit the divine essence in perceived matter. This was a convenient analogy, but there cannot be a divine formula.