Tuesday, March 27, 2012

On "Where the Conflict Really Lies" (Pt. 12)

[Series explanation and index here.]

Chapter 10

Deep Conflict

This final chapter of Where the Conflict Really Lies is devoted to the "real conflict" between science and naturalism implied by the book's title. What sort of conflict? Not a logical conflict, but that a person who accepts evolution can't sensibly accept naturalism.
"By way of analogy: I can’t sensibly believe that there aren’t any beliefs, or that no one has true beliefs, or that my beliefs are all false. These things are all possible, but I can’t sensibly believe them. In the same way, I mean to argue that one can’t sensibly believe both naturalism and the scientific theory of evolution."1
Plantinga's evolutionary argument against naturalism is one of his signature ideas. It's well known among philosophers and, because of this book, increasingly familiar to the general public. Plantinga eases readers into the argument, but I'd rather shove everyone into the pool. Here's how it goes:
(1) The probability of [our cognitive faculties are reliable] given [naturalism]and[our cognitive faculties evolved] is low.

(2) Anyone who accepts [naturalism]and[our cognitive faculties evolved] and sees that [(1) is true] has a defeater for [our cognitive faculties are reliable].

(3) Anyone who has a defeater for [our cognitive faculties are reliable] has a defeater for any other belief she has, including [naturalism]and[our cognitive faculties evolved].

(4) If one who accepts [naturalism]and[our cognitive faculties evolved] thereby acquires a defeater for [naturalism]and[our cognitive faculties evolved], then [naturalism]and[our cognitive faculties evolved] is self-defeating and can’t rationally be accepted.

Oh, you wanted that in English? The upshot is that a person who believes her cognitive faculties arose by unguided evolution might be fine...until she realizes that unguided evolution is more likely to have produced people with mostly false beliefs than people with mostly true beliefs. This means her own beliefs are more likely to be false than true. Which means she's probably wrong in thinking that her cognitive faculties arose by unguided evolution.

This makes "my cognitive faculties arose by unguided evolution" a self-defeating belief in roughly the same category as "all my beliefs are false."

As you might imagine, there's a lot of detail to unpack in Plantinga's premises and a variety of ways his argument can be criticized. If you find it intriguing, I would encourage you to pick up Plantinga's book for this last chapter if nothing else. The best place to explore criticisms is James Beilby's collection Naturalism Defeated? Essays on Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism.

My own criticism of Plantinga's argument is that he relies on a strong form of dualism between brain states and beliefs-as-propositions. I reject this dualism.

Parting Thoughts

On the whole, I would recommend this book as a decent introduction to a whole spectrum of pro-theism and anti-naturalism arguments. It's not a balanced introduction by any means. Plantinga is often unfair to naturalism (and Young Earth Creationists!), but he's not obscenely unfair like William Lane Craig or R.C. Sproul's crew. This book could be significantly improved in the second edition by sticking to defense in the chapters supposedly (but not really) set aside for defense. I am usually on Plantinga's side when it comes to defending religion against de jure objections, i.e. attempts to marginalize religious faith as irrational without addressing the question of whether it is true.

That's it for this series! I would love to hear what others think of this book if you have (or once you have) read it.

1. Plantinga, A. (2011). Where the conflict really lies: Science, religion, and naturalism [Kindle Edition]. New York, New York: Oxford University Press. p. 310

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