Friday, February 17, 2012

On "Where the Conflict Really Lies" (Pt. 5)

[Series explanation and index here.]

Chapter Two - Continued

Draper's Evidential Argument

Dawkins and Dennett are meant to represent the position that evolutionary theory has ruled out theism, or at least traditional Abrahamic theism, or at least Plantinga's interpretation of God creating humankind in his image. Paul Draper will now represent the position that evolution at least constitutes significant evidence against theism.

Without getting into Draper's supporting arguments,1 the basic idea is that we would be relatively less likely to discover that our origins are evolutionary in a world created by God than we would in a fully natural world. The discovery that our origins actually are evolutionary, therefore, constitutes some evidence that we live in a fully natural world. You may recognize this as a form of inference to the best explanation.

Suppose Draper is correct and the fact of evolution counts in favor of naturalism. Plantinga counters by saying that other facts weigh in favor of theism, e.g. that there are intelligent beings on Earth with a moral sense who worship God. Such beings would be relatively more likely to exist if there is a God who wanted them to exist, than in any scenario without a similar guarantee. At this point, I would argue that the facts of moral and religious diversity would be odd in a world with one God who wants a unity of morals and which Plantinga might play the Calvinism card. And so it goes.

Remember Plantinga's theology about theism being necessarily true? He also complains about Draper assuming theism is a contingent matter. (I really need to write a post on this topic sometime.)

Science Education
"A solid majority of Americans are Christians, and many more (some 88 or 90 percent, depending on the poll you favor) believe in God. But when that choir of experts repeatedly tell us that evolution is incompatible with belief in God, it’s not surprising that many people come to believe that evolution is incompatible with belief in God, and is therefore an enemy of religion. After all, those experts are, well, experts. But then it is also not surprising that many Americans are reluctant to have evolution taught to their children in the public schools, the schools they themselves pay taxes to support. [...] The association of evolution with naturalism is the obvious root of the widespread antipathy to evolution in the United States, and to the teaching of evolution in the public schools."2
I pretty much agree with Plantinga's point that equating evolution and naturalism is a foolish move if you want evolution taught in public schools. To use the weather analogy, meteorology might be controversial in middle school classrooms if Richard Dawkins were out there claiming the hydrological cycle reveals the truth of atheism.

At the same time, Plantinga is badly mistaken about the primary source of "the association of evolution with naturalism." He acts like American Christians are being duped into thinking there's a conflict between evolution and their religious beliefs. Nope. They came up with that idea on their own. Naturalists like Dawkins are reacting, not instigating. For many American Christians, taking Genesis as history is an essential doctrine, despite Plantinga's quick dismissal earlier in the book.

Come to think of it, this book bothers me the same way Intelligent Design books and articles usually do. There's no outright affirmation of the basic scientific discoveries that divide Old Earth Creationists from Young Earth Creationists. It's all about leaving things open for Christians, even when it's the equivalent of leaving open geocentrism. Plantinga is like a politician trying to please a broad base while hoping his scientifically literate constituency and his anti-science constituency don't notice he's refusing to stand with either of them.

Natural Evil

Setting the Genesis issue aside, what about the argument that evolution doesn't fit the picture of a good God who cares for the well-being of his creatures? As Darwin wrote:
"I had no intention to write atheistically, but I own that I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars or that a cat should play with mice."3
Plantinga gives a possible reason why God may allow so much suffering that can't be blamed on humankind.
"God wanted to create a really good world; among all the possible worlds, he wanted to choose one of very great goodness. [...] Among good-making properties for worlds, however, there is one of special, transcendent importance, and it is a property that according to Christians characterizes our world. For according to the Christian story, God, the almighty first being of the universe and the creator of everything else, was willing to undergo enormous suffering in order to redeem creatures who had turned their backs on him. [...] The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. He was subjected to ridicule, rejection, and finally the cruel and humiliating death of the cross. [...] All this to enable human beings to be reconciled to God, and to achieve eternal life. This overwhelming display of love and mercy is not merely the greatest story ever told; it is the greatest story that could be told. No other great-making property of a world can match this one.

If so, however, perhaps all the best possible worlds contain incarnation and atonement, or at any rate atonement. But any world that contains atonement will contain sin and evil and consequent suffering and pain. Furthermore, if the remedy is to be proportionate to the sickness, such a world will contain a great deal of sin and a great deal of suffering and pain. Still further, it may very well contain sin and suffering, not just on the part of human beings but perhaps also on the part of other creatures as well. Indeed, some of these other creatures might be vastly more powerful than human beings, and some of them—Satan and his minions, for example—may have been permitted to play a role in the evolution of life on earth, steering it in the direction of predation, waste and pain."4
What I'm hearing is that huge numbers of sentient beings suffered over millions of years to provide a fitting background for God to suffer briefly. Answers like this are why I recommend people read apologetics books rather than Dawkins, Dennett, et al. if they want to risk their faith.

1. See for a more detailed analysis.
2. Plantinga, A. (2011). Where the conflict really lies: Science, religion, and naturalism [Kindle Edition]. New York, New York: Oxford University Press. p. 53
3. Darwin, C. (1860/1911). Charles Darwin to Asa Gray. In F. Darwin (Ed.), The life and letters of Charles Darwin (vol 2). New York, NY: D. Appleton and Company. p. 105
4. Plantinga (2011). p. 58


  1. Note, the first time I loaded this page, there was "a problem loading Disquis".  It resolved as soon as I refreshed.

    That being said, here are three comments, in ascending order of commentary:"Plantinga is like a politician trying to please a broad-base"

    I agree.  This has honestly bothered me for the longest time that people like Plantinga and Craig are unwilling to own up to the scientific consensus and say that we must turn to Theistic Evolution (BioLogos) like Collins.~"Answers like this are why I reccomend people read apologetics books rather than Dawkins, Dennett, et al. if they want to risk their faith."

    This is pretty accurate, but you have to (1) already have the questions in mind and (2) already be examining answers critically.  It's far too easy to never really consider the Problem of Evil, or just accept Plantinga's answer unthinkingly.  Though, I agree that if you already have serious doubts, you'll be more troubled by Plantinga's responses than Dawkin's re-statements.Given my currently ongoing debate with Cl and your occasional comments on the Problem of Evil here and there, I'd be interested in seeing you someday write an entire essay about your thoughts on how the Problem of Evil shapes up.  I'm interested in what you think of the in my opinion far harder to defeat theodicies than the non-answers of Calvinism and God's glory.  (I'd also be interested in seeing Plantinga not give such silly theodicies in his books -- he at least could employ his own Unknown Purpose defense...)~"I pretty much agree with Plantinga's point that equating evolution and naturalism is a foolish move if you want evolution taught in public schools."

    I agree that it's a foolish move from a public relations standpoint, but privately among ourselves, we still might want to know whether evolution actually implies the basis for an inference to naturalism.

    I think the failure of Genesis to explain this issue + the scientific failure of Genesis in general + the argument from poor design definitely explain why evolution is threatening to Christianity, though I don't think it could rule out all potential gods.

  2. I don't think anything, even in principle, can constitute positive evidence against theism in general.

    Scenario 1: Imagine any fully natural world.

    Scenario 2: Suppose that — in addition to this natural world — a God exists who is responsible for its existence. No properties intrinsic to the natural world have changed. The only differences would lie in relational properties.

    Complete knowledge of this natural world would reveal no evidence for or against the existence of God.

    But, as you implied, we're not typically dealing with people who believe in "super deism" scenarios. Almost half of all Americans believe in a God who created human beings "pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so." It's hard to throw a rock in a science library without hitting a textbook which disputes that kind of religion.

  3. Isn't it implied in theism, or at least in ordinary theistic belief, that God is responsible for the specificity of the natural world? Aren't its features taken to indicate the desires of God? 

  4. At some level, yes. But any world that looks fully natural could conform to God's desires, if God's desires are left completely unspecified.

    Of course you're right that religious believers in practice do attribute more specific desires to God, limiting the set of compatible worlds. Plantinga insists God wanted a world which has human-like beings. Evolutionary theory, without a very strong version of determinism, can easily be taken to imply we might not have been. This is what he finds so unacceptable.

  5. On a "traditional" notion of God, we do not lack specification about God's desires. Moral perfection, or the desire to do the good, is inherent in the concept. The difficulty is in ascertaining what the Good is, and if you don't believe that we have epistemic access to moral properties (perhaps because they don't exist and we're in the dark as to what they'd be if they did), it follows that any set of worlds is, for all we know, compatible with God's existence. But knowing that some world is incompatible with God's existence is not impossible in principle; that would only follow given a controversial premise about morality. (Of course, this implies that "in principle" objections are those that follow from principles every or most reasonable people accept)   

  6. I'm not so sure that goodness is intrinsic to the traditional concept of God. That would mean the idea of an evil or morally neutral God would be as incoherent as a square circle.

    Meanwhile, I do consider the idea of an impersonal God to be as incoherent as a square circle. An impersonal God is no God at all, while an evil God is a conceivable type of God.

    I know some philosophers have tried to make a laundry list of perfections intrinsic to the concept of God — including, notably, existence — but this quickly causes problems as perfections start to conflict with each other. I'm not a fan of atheological arguments which highlight one of these conflicts and conclude there must not be a God. To me, these only show that there isn't a God of a particular kind.

    Of course, showing a problem with a particular kind of God is entirely useful in a discussion with someone who believes in that kind of God. Darwin's worries about providential care were on point because many theists did and still do believe in that sort of God. I think evolution (guided or not) does call that notion into question. "Maybe demons are responsible for evolution" is such a ridiculous reach that Plantinga all but affirms the problem with his response.

  7. Unless we have a specification of God's moral character, I agree that there's nothing in the natural world that could be construed as evidence against him.

  8. "Meanwhile, I do consider the idea of an impersonal God to be as incoherent as a square circle. An impersonal God is no God at all"

    Interesting position.  Could you elaborate?

  9. It would seem that the position of many theists is even if we have a specification of God's moral character, there is very little we can specify about our world. For example, God might be live the colour red, there still might be a horrible level of blue because it is necessary for a greater, eternal redness.
    Sorry, Peter Hurford, this isn't an attempt to drag you back into a debate over necessary suffering, I suggest you ignore this.
    I merely mean once you start believing in the inherently untestable, you can 'justify' any position with more untestable assertions.

  10. Well, I should point out that I'm not a realist about concepts. The idea of God is not this Platonic thing that we can either be right or wrong about.

    It's an empirical matter whether a given person can or cannot make sense of "impersonal God" or "evil God" according to her idiosyncratic notion of God. Of course, it might be tricky to figure this out if she believes there is, in fact, a good God or a personal God.

    So my claim about "personal" being intrinsic to the concept of God and "good" not being intrinsic is short for a claim along these lines: most people, if carefully questioned, will make sense of "evil God" but won't make sense of "impersonal God." (Or at least that I'm in this category.)

  11. Blogger itself is marking some comments as spam which (somehow) show up in my 'recent comments' widget but don't get moved to Disqus as spam so I can just mark them 'not spam.' I'm having to mark them 'not spam' in the Blogger console, then go to the Disqus console and reimport all comments from this blog.

    Does anyone know of a setting I could change to fix this? It's frustrating!

  12. Well stated, and I agree with you about not being a realist about concepts.  But I do think people often think they can make sense of concepts they cannot actually make sense of (think of someone who thinks there are a finite amount of primes or someone who accepts p-zombies), so I was wondering where you personally thought the concept of an impersonal God was incoherent.

    Basically, you say that most people won't make sense of "impersonal God".  Why is that?...It seems like some people indeed do make sense of such a concept at least superficially (Einstein, Spinoza, etc.)...

  13.  There is a "God" by the definition I use iff rock-bottom reality is (or has) a conscious mind. (Consciousness being the personhood criterion I already apply to humans and other beings.) So a demiurge who isn't rock-bottom wouldn't count. A mindless natural order wouldn't count, no matter how awe-inspiring it is. Pantheism where reality as a whole is conscious would count.

    Others are free to use alternate definitions, but the notions of a conscious vs. non-conscious foundational reality is the important distinction to me.