Friday, February 10, 2012

On "Where the Conflict Really Lies" (Pt. 3)

[Series explanation and index here.]

Chapter One - Continued

Dawkins' Subtitle

Famous science writer (and infamous atheist) Richard Dawkins gave his book The Blind Watchmaker a provocative subtitle: "Why the evidence of evolution reveals a universe without design." Plantinga points out — rightly — that the naturalistic evolution of living beings would not imply a naturalistic universe overall. It's a bad subtitle, except for marketing purposes.

(As an aside, I was frustrated with The God Delusion for much the same reason. Dawkins treats biological evolution as a fatal blow to theism, or at least he comes off that way.)

Plantinga is much more concerned with the implication that "the evidence of evolution" reveals a lack of design in human beings. If biological evolution only happened to produce God-like creatures (us), then the all-important theological claim that God intentionally created us in his image is false. But does evolutionary science really show that humanity arose by happenstance?

Notice how low the bar is set. Dawkins must prove there is no room for a divine hand in human development, or Plantinga succeeds.

...and I think he does succeed. After all, the bar for Dawkins is set very high:
"Nor does [Dawkins] try to show either that there is no such person as God, or that, if there is, it is not possible that he should have somehow set up and directed the whole process. And why should he? After all, he’s a biologist and not a philosopher."1
Plantinga further points out that Dawkins hasn't shown how the mental can arise from unthinking material. (How lazy!)

After all, he's a philosopher and not a biologist

Not content with an easy defensive victory, Plantinga decides to attack Dawkins on his home turf.

Stop me if you've heard this one before: Atheists can't appeal to God to explain the diversity of life, but they can appeal to natural evolution! This — and not the strength of the evidence — is why atheists are so passionate about claiming life evolved naturally. Michael Behe, author of Darwin's Black Box, has challenged Darwinist orthodoxy and has yet to be adequately answered. Atheistic scientists like Dawkins are only going by their feelings and guesswork that natural evolution can explain it all. Plantinga writes:
"There is no attempt at the sort of serious calculation that would surely be required for a genuine answer. No doubt such a calculation and hence an answer to those questions is at present far beyond our knowledge and powers; no doubt it would be unreasonable to require such a calculation; still, the fact remains we don’t have a serious answer."2
Silly scientists, only addressing Behe's specific challenges and not proving him wrong in principle!

I used to believe evolution was motivated by atheism, but only because I was kept in ignorance by my family, my church, and my private school. This isn't good advertising for the harmony of science and (certain kinds of) religion! Now I read Plantinga's claim that biologists aren't doing the serious work to give serious answers to objections and it just blows my mind.

Biologists are the ones doing real work. No wonder they sometimes get testy; they have to put up with lazy, ill-informed, or irrelevant criticisms from a society that demands biologists admit God might guide genomes, but doesn't demand that meteorologists admit God might guide cold fronts. Can the weather man prove cloud formation is entirely made plausible by natural processes alone? Maybe if we had school boards demanding recognition of "Divine Wrath Stormology" we would have the equivalent of Dawkins making naturalistic claims and the equivalent of Plantinga writing:
"For the nontheist, undirected [weather] is the only game in town, and [the exchange of heat energy] seems to be the most plausible mechanism to drive that process. Here is this stunningly intricate [atmosphere] with its enormous diversity and apparent design; from the perspective of naturalism or nontheism, the only way it could have happened is by way of [an] unguided [hydrological cycle]; hence it must have happened that way; hence there must be such a[n Aristotelian] series for each current [rain storm]. The theist, on the other hand, has a little more freedom here: maybe there is such a series and maybe there isn’t; God has created the [meteorological] world and could have done it in any number of different ways; there doesn’t have to be any such series. In this way the theist is freer to follow the evidence where it leads."3 (substitutions for the sake of parody)
Assembling a Modern Eye, One Cell at a Time

Maybe you think I'm being too harsh on Plantinga's science. Please watch this short clip of Dawkins explaining how eyes could plausibly have evolved in a gradual manner:

Dawkins - Eye Evolution

Make sense? Starting from light sensitive cells on the skin, small changes would have been progressively more helpful. We see other animals with eyes all along this range, so it's not even much of a hypothetical. Yet somehow Plantinga picked eye evolution as a good place to question the plausibility of natural selection:
"We can see this as follows: consider a particular human eye—one of Dawkins’s, for example; assign a number to each cell contained in that eye (as with certain kinds of build-it-yourself toy kits); let the first member of the series be a creature that has cell number 1, the second be one that contains cells number 2 and number 1; the third contain cell number 3 plus cells number 1 and 2, and so on. This won’t quite work; for this eye to function, there will also have to be an appropriate brain or part of a brain to which it is connected by an optic nerve. But you get the idea: clearly there is such a series. Of course that by itself doesn’t show much; if it’s to be relevant, the length of the series will have to be constrained by the time available, and each step in the series will have to be such that it can arise by way of genetic mutation from a previous step. Furthermore (and crucially), each mutation will have to be fitness-conferring (or at least not unduly costly in terms of fitness), so that it’s not too improbable that they be preserved by natural selection."4
Did you catch what he did there? Plantinga thinks eye evolution is about starting with one cell present in a modern eye and progressively adding single cells in their modern places. This is like enumerating each building in, say Chicago, then thinking Chicago started with one of those modern buildings and progressively added every other modern building on the list until filling out the whole thing. That's not how Chicago came to be the way it is and it's not how biologists think living systems came to be the way they are. The "toy kit" view leaves out all the intermediate history of what worked at the time and what shaped what came after, but isn't a subset of what we have now.

I wouldn't fault a person for initially misunderstanding evolution as a straightforward cell-by-cell buildup toward current lifeforms. But I do expect more from a published book that's largely about evolution.

Note: The Kindle Edition does not use traditional page numbers. I'm using "k. 93" to indicate Kindle location 93. This book is 6,220 locations long.

1. Plantinga, A. (2011). Where the conflict really lies: Science, religion, and naturalism [Kindle Edition]. New York, New York: Oxford University Press. k. 393.

2. ibid. k. 465.
3. ibid. k. 485.
4. ibid. k. 441.   


  1. Trying out the new comment system. Hopefully it won't choke and discourage people from commenting as often as the built-in Blogger comments have (reportedly) done.

  2. I just wanted to say I really enjoyed your analogies. "Stormology" indeed...