I’ve been looking forward to reading closely Alvin Plantinga’s Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion and Naturalism and was going to wait until I was deeper into the work before writing a post on it. I think I will continue to read the book and hope to write more, but I was inspired by arguments in the early chapter which deal with Richard Dawkin’s The Blind Watchmaker to make a few notes. In short, while not an admirer or supporter of Dawkin’s crusade for atheism and its associated dog and pony show, I was taken aback at Plantinga’s dismissal of Dawkin’s book.
The Blind Watchmaker is a meditation on the power of impersonal forces to generate complexity in general and intricate life forms in particular. It seeks to show that where teleological arguments once had to summon exterior guides or designers to account for complexity, Darwinism can plausibly explain it all with principles that do not require outside direction. (It, and The Selfish Gene are still great reads, though for The Selfish Gene you should try to find a copy of the first edition. It reads better without all the ostentation). Plantinga makes a great deal of mere “plausibility” in his review of Dawkin’s argument while recycling some of the standard objections to natural selection such as Michael Behe (who holds that there are structures which are allegedly impossible to create in stepwise evolution) and our inability to calculate with certainty that there has been sufficient time for gradual natural selection to produce a given complex feature. It is beyond the ability of Dawkins or any scientist to deal with these objections comprehensively, but The Blind Watchmaker is a sustained and smart argument for the plausibility of natural selection as the sufficient cause of complex life forms.
Plantinga is not impressed and he concludes that Dawkins has “[a]t best [shown], given a couple of assumptions, that it is not astronomically improbable that the living world was produced by unguided evolution and hence without design.” (WTCL p. 24). He goes on to make fun:
But the argument form
p is not astronomically improbable
is a bit unprepossessing. I announce to my wife, “I’m getting a $50,000 raise for next year!” Naturally she asks me why I think so. “Because the arguments for its being astronomically improbable fail! For all we know, it’s not astronomically improbable.” (p. 25).
This is dense. The argument can go this way as well:
p (a given level of spontaneous complexity) is not astronomically improbable
when given astronomical timescales
p (a given level of spontaneous complexity) is plausible
And a plausible, sufficient description of human origins without resort to divine intervention is a profound accomplishment. A strong defense of theism would acknowledge such and demonstrate what it (theism) has to bring to the table. Plantinga gives an early (and distressing) indication of what he thinks the strength of theism is in this argument:
For the nontheist, undirected evolution is the only game in town, and natural selection seems to be the most plausible mechanism to drive the process. Here is this stunningly intricate world with its enormous diversity and its apparent design; from the perspective of naturalism or nontheism, the only way it could have happened is by way of unguided Darwinian evolution, hence it must have happened that way; hence there must be such a Darwinian series for each current life form. 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 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. (p. 23).
Any scientist still reading will find in this a devastating takedown of theism. The nontheist has to defend her worldview within a certain framework; she has the responsibility to account for the data. When she comes short or the data is lacking, she (and nontheism) will be held strictly accountable (as Plantinga holds Dawkins responsible throughout the chapter). Not everything will be explained, and critics will highlight every failure. The theist is freer in a sense, but this freedom is rooted in a lack of responsibility. Evoking a force beyond nature that does not have to follow rules, there is no set of facts that can make the theist look bad. She has a bulletproof defense against the sort of scrutiny that will draw blood at times when applied to Dawkins.
Again, I don’t endorse Dawkin’s promotion of atheism, but I think that his brief is an example of an effective argument for materialism that theism (hate the word) has to face forthrightly. I obviously don’t think that Plantinga’s dismissal of Dawkins does that, but I am going ahead with the book and hope to write more. For other bloggers’ takes on Plantinga, check out Prosblogion and Maverick Philosopher.