Which came first, the mind or the material?
Richard Dawkins may not be a card carrying member of the philosophers guild, but Daniel Dennett sure is.1 In his book, Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Dennett argues that our natural — rather than intelligently designed — origin has profound implications for our lives outside of biology class. He compares the Darwinian Revolution to the Copernican Revolution, since both drastically changed our views about our place in the world.
One of the largest shifts, as Dennett tells it, was believing that a mind (God) brought the physical world into existence...to believing that the physical world brought minds into existence.
I admit this is a harder sell than the natural design of the human eye. At least with an eye, we all agree that having the parts in the right places will result in a functioning organ. There is much less confidence — even among atheists — that having the parts in the right places for a functioning brain will result in a functioning mind. (In fact, this is the reason I call myself a naturalist, but hesitate to identify as a physicalist; I'm not convinced that consciousness has been explained by the physical sciences.)
Clash of the Extremists
It's easy to paint Dawkins or Dennett as zealots for naturalism who go beyond what science strictly requires of modern educated people. Here are some options I see for theists:
- God brought the kind of physical world into existence which was capable of producing human-like beings by natural processes. Since it did, it's still correct to give God the ultimate credit.
- Our world could have produced human-like beings by natural processes, but didn't happen to do so. God tweaked the natural world to set things going in our direction.
- Our world could not have produced human-like beings by natural processes.
- No possible world — in the broadly logical sense — could have produced human-like beings by natural processes.
"So neither Dennett nor contemporary evolutionary theory shows that possibly, all of the features of our world, including mind, have been produced by unguided natural selection. But assume (contrary to fact, as I see it) that this is in fact possible in the broadly logical sense. If so, is it also biologically possible?"2In a previous post, I explained that Augustine was reluctant to accept the standard interpretation of the days of creation because he held to a theology which made it hard for him to imagine God working on something over time. Plantinga's position also comes from a theological stance that God is the same in all possible worlds. This makes it hard to imagine that features of our world with close ties to God's intentions could differ in other logically possible worlds.
You keep using that word...
Plantinga does try to address the question as if naturalistic evolution were logically possible, but still questions whether it is possible given the way our physical world works:
"For, of course, it is perfectly possible both that life has come to be by way of guided natural selection, and that it could not have come to be by way of unguided natural selection. It is perfectly possible that the process of natural selection has been guided and superintended by God, and that it could not have produced our living world without that guidance."3Q: Do you know what we call "guided natural selection"?
A: Artificial selection.
Rationalism and Empiricism
Let's talk about Plantinga's other signature area: the rationality of theistic belief. Through much of the twentieth century, certain philosophers brushed off theism as an idea unfit for even bothering to consider whether it is true or false; theism is irrational either way. Plantinga wrote a series of books which essentially argued — and argued successfully, I think — that if (a certain kind of) theism is true, then theism is not irrational.
What puts people off is that Plantinga can maintain his brand of Christian belief in a way that is almost in principle immune to contrary evidence and needs no positive evidence or arguments!
"But suppose Swinburne’s arguments are indeed unsuccessful, and add that the same goes for all the other theistic arguments—for example, the moral argument as developed by George Mavrodes and Robert Adams, and the cosmological argument as developed by William Lane Craig, and all the rest. Does it follow that one who believes in God is irrational, unjustified, going contrary to reason, or in some other way deserving of reprimand or abuse or disapprobation? No. After all, one of the main lessons to be learned from the history of modern philosophy from Descartes through Hume is that there don’t seem to be good arguments for the existence of other minds or selves, or the past, or an external world and much else besides; nevertheless belief in other minds, the past, and an external world is presumably not irrational or in any other way below epistemic par.
Are things different with belief in God? If so, why?"4Until philosophers can defeat his theism on these terms, Plantinga is content to reject natural human origins because it doesn't fit the internally consistent story he believes about the world. Whatever the substantive fruits of science may be, the spirit of scientific inquiry is to look and see what is true about the world. This attitude of empiricism is very different from free-floating rationalism. Granted, we do need some minimal philosophy before empiricism can get to work, but theism — let alone a niche kind of theism — is not required.
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 and Dennett have beards. Dawkins does not.
2. Plantinga, A. (2011). Where the conflict really lies: Science, religion, and naturalism [Kindle Edition]. New York, New York: Oxford University Press. k. 701.
3. ibid. k. 712.
4. ibid. k. 754.