Saturday, February 11, 2012

On "Where the Conflict Really Lies" (Pt. 4)

[Series explanation and index here.]

Chapter Two

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 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.
The first two options are, I would argue, easily compatible with modern science. The third is typical of Intelligent Design arguments. Plantinga himself holds the fourth and most extreme position, as he lets on here:
"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?"2
In 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."3
Q: 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?"4
Until 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.


  1. 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.It's quite hard for me to understand this scenario. What do you mean by could here? Human DNA or human minds or something were about to emerge anyway, but God magically speeded up the process? Is that what you had in mind?

  2. Not quite. I have in mind a scenario where humanity would not naturally emerge at all, but not because it's impossible (as many Intelligent Design supporters claim). See, the thing that really bugs Plantinga is natural evolution's lack of guarantees.

    To use the weather analogy, it's possible for it to rain in New York City next June 1...but it might not happen to do so. If we had perfect cloud seeding, we could wait until the day before, see that the natural chance of rain is low, and choose to intervene to make it rain anyway.

    Does that help?

  3. I think that saying ‘it's possible for it to rain in New
    York City next June 1’
    is actually saying ‘we can’t tell if it will rain next June 1 in NYC’. But if we had all
    the relavant data, knew all the relevant laws of physics and were able to calculate
    it, we wouldn’t say ‘it’s possible for it to rain’.  It’s the same with the emergence of humanity:
    given the specific laws of nature, the physical constants and the initaial
    conditions of the universe, there is only one possibility, either humans come
    into being or they don’t. But God is typically thought of as all-knowing, so
    your analogy seems to break down here. Frankly, I can’t see the difference
    between the options 2. and 3.

    It seems like you’re trying to escape causal determinism
    somehow, but the only attempts to do that I am aware of are by appeal to some
    agents with minds and free will, and that can’t be the case here.

  4. And what is wrong

  5. That's a very common and well-reported problem with Disquis.  It seems unavoidable, so we'll just have to live with it.  It is better than the previous comment system, however, which occasionally wouldn't let you comment at all!

  6. It's my understanding that quantum physics took away the notion that the physical world is wholly deterministic. If I've been misinformed, please let me know. Plantinga has at least a chapter on the topic coming up later.

    Sorry about the comment system. I can't find one that does all the basics I want. A trick I used to use on Windows was to close my Notepad document, open it, copy before doing any editing, then paste into web forms. Somehow this stopped the extra line breaks from carrying over. Maybe a similar procedure will work for you.

  7. Yeah, quantum mechanics (or rather one
    interpretation of it) is a non-deterministic theory, but that only
    applies to the world at the microscopic level, and I what meant was
    macro-level determinism, since all those examples involve macro-level

    Take some simple system, where all the
    data and laws of physics seem to be known tu us. Say, an apple is
    falling from a tree. Is it reasonable to say: 'It's possible that
    this apple will fall on the ground, but it's also possible that it
    won't, because quantum physics reveals that our world is not wholly
    deterministic'? In the examples with rain and humanity the systems
    are obviously much more complicated and fewer data are known, but
    there's no difference in principle, it seems to me.

    As for the comment system, thanks for
    the tip. Surely disfigured comment is better than none (though I've
    never had any problems with the Blogger system). Anyway, it's weird
    you can't find anything unproblematic. Perhaps the reason is that
    decent comment systems are impossible in our universe.

  8. I wouldn't go as far to say you've been misinformed, but I'm also not sure how solid the consensus is on indeterminism (both in size of support and quality of support), even at the quantum level.

    This requires getting into the Many-Worlds vs. Cophenhagen Interpretation Debate, which I find very fascinating, but am not educated enough to resolve.

  9. Quantum non-determinism (if it really is that) can have effects in the macro world, e.g. Geiger counters. Since radiation is a source of mutations, I would think evolution is open to such effects in the long term.

    For kicks, though, let's say the natural world's course is deterministic.