Category Archives: Science

Ham Sandwiches and Tennis Nets: Plantinga takes on Dennett

Continued from here.

I’m starting to worry that Plantinga is going to chase me decisively into the atheist camp before I get to the end.  Maybe I will try out for Hitchen’s old spot in The Four Horsemen.

Plantinga begins the second section of his book with a consideration of Daniel Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, which I (as with The Blind Watchmaker) liked quite a bit and which Plantinga (as with The Blind Watchmaker) holds in low esteem.  The NYT Review of Where the Conflict Really Lies has a little back and forth between Dennett and Plantinga, which one hopes will be good for sales.  His first criticism of Dennett is that Darwin’s Dangerous Idea reprises Dawkins’ assertion that natural selection can account for complexity without recourse to the supernatural.  Plantinga is still not impressed but he does have a new version of his joke:

You’ve always thought Mother Teresa was a moral hero; someone wanders by and tells you that we don’t know it’s astronomically impossible that she was a complete hypocrite.  Would you be impressed?  So far theism doesn’t seem much threatened by Darwin’s dangerous idea.

Plantinga then turns to his second criticism which is of Dennett’s treatment of theological arguments.  I will mention as an aside that by now I am starting to wonder to whom Plantinga’s book is addressed.  In the course of critiquing Dennett, Plantinga writes:

Dennett mentions only one of the theistic arguments, the design argument, and even there he ignores the work of Richard Swinburne, the preeminent contemporary exponent of that argument, who over a period of at least thirty years or so has produced a powerfully impressive, and highly developed version of this argument. (Plantinga, p. 42)

Dr. Swinburne seems to be an extremely accomplished philosopher and there is a very good Wikipedia entry on his work, but I’m not sure how many those not au courant in analytic philosophy are going to be nodding along with Plantinga at barbs such as that.  I was in graduate school for the better part of a decade and have never (until today) heard of him.  My loss I’m sure, but I hope for the sake of his finances that Plantinga has stuff in his book for those of us who could not pick Swinburne out of a line-up of post-war intellectuals.  Anyway, Plantinga takes on a very memorable passage in DDI, so memorable in fact it was floating before my eyes as I was writing in the last post.  Here is Dennett’s passage:

The philosopher Ronald de Sousa once memorably described philosophical theology as “intellectual tennis without a net,” and I readily allow that I have been assuming without comment or question up to now that the net of rational judgment was up.  We can lower it if you really want to.  It’s your serve.  Whatever you serve, suppose I rudely return as follows:  “What you say implies God is a ham sandwich wrapped in tinfoil.  That’s not much of a God to worship.”

With reference to Plantinga’s assertion that theism is preferable to nontheism because it is less constrained (see the last post), I think that Dennett’s vivid picture can be brought with devastating effect:  nontheists insist on having the net up at all times. Theists insist in keeping the net up when materialists are trying to move the ball across but reserve the right to lower it for their advantage.  Plantinga will call all faults.  The fact that theists have the capacity to selectively ignore the constraints that non-theists work under is not, in my eyes, a positive.  In response to Dennett, Plantinga drops some more names:

That’s a memorable description, all right, particularly if you call to mind the work of such classical philosophical theologians such as Thomas Aquinas, John Duns Scotus, and Jonathan Edwards, or such contemporary theologians as Robert Adams, William Alston, Eleonore Stump, Richard Swinburne [!], Peter van Inwagen, and Nicholas Wolterstorff, all of whose work, in terms of intellectual rigor and cogency, compares very favorably with that of Dennett (or, for that matter, de Sousa). (p. 43-44).

This does bring to mind Einstein’s observation that a really good argument does not need a list of authorities.  And while I don’t care for Dennett’s (or Dawkins’) tone at times, as best as I can recall they did not at any point attempt to overwhelm me with a catalogue of important people I had never heard of before.  But I would point out that Dennett’s paragraph, vulgar though it may be, is the distillation of a routine Enlightenment argument against incorporating the claims of revelation within a rational consideration of the possibility of God.  It memorably captures the essence of Rousseau’s Profession of Faith of the Savoy Vicar, which illustrates the impossibility of even briefly “lowering the net” of argument to admit revelation as in the method of Pascal (don’t deprive yourself of reading Rousseau!).  Dennett’s rendition is not an exact descendant of Rousseau’s which is (on the surface at least) concerned with revelation and not the general existence of the Deity, but my point is that Dennett has on what to stand on in his critique of philosophical theology.  (Later on Plantinga will dismiss the entire Enlightenment critique of supernaturalism:  “[It] has little to be said for it, the various strands of this case have been examined at length and have been found wanting” (p 62).  So there you go.)

I will close this section with a note of where I come from in all this.  I am an observant Jew with training in both the sciences and philosophy.  I am not a hardened atheist and I don’t find persuasive what Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens et. al. write about religion:  I think their understanding is deficient in many respects.  However, I find their writings about science compelling and I think that books such as The Blind Watchmaker and Darwin’s Dangerous Idea make persuasive cases for the plausibility of a complicated universe with complex life forms that have arisen without a designer.  That even a plausible secular origin of life can be sketched in this manner is an awesome achievement, and Plantinga’s dismissal of this accomplishment leaves me cold.  I’m hoping that the later chapters will demonstrate the positive contributions of philosophical theology to our understanding of the world, rather than continuing to tear down the trendy new atheists as tedious as they may be at times.

In the next installment I will agree with Plantinga about some stuff.

Dawkins and Plantinga

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.