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Plantinga on The God Delusion

Ben Witherington alerted me to Plantinga’s review of Dawkins’ book The God Delusion on Christianity Today. Now I must be frank (well, no, I don’t have to, but I will!) and say that I find philosophers provide the most annoying of reading. They seem to me to be the world’s best rationalizers, providing excellent reasons to believe what they already believe. I have previously commented on some other work by Plantinga in my post An Evolutionary Understanding of Kinds, and I found his arguments in favor of a theistic science pretty seriously unconvincing. Other philosophers regard him as a heavyweight, however, so I suppose he must be.

In this case, I haven’t read The God Delusion because I suspect it’s largely going to annoy me. I truly love Dawkins when he is writing about scientific topics, and I note that Plantinga expresses much the same sentiment for many passages on biology. Dawkins is a gifted science writer. But I find his hostility toward theism, and particularly liberal theism as kind of gratuitous. Having discovered that complexity can come from simplicity without any demonstrable guidance (a point on which Plantinga disagrees with him), Dawkins seems anxious to move forward and make claims about things he can’t possibly know.

Of course, making claims about things you can’t possibly know is a time honored religious tradition. So if Dawkins were to admit that he is speculating, I would generally have no problem with what he does. As it is, I just avoid reading those portions of his writing. I’ve already heard the argument. I’m still a theist. I shrug my shoulders and go on.

Now I’m not going to quote more than a few lines of the lengthy review. You really should read the whole thing to get the flavor. But Plantinga seems to believe that the evidence is solid for his viewpoint, and Dawkins is on thin ice. I think they’re both well past the ice, and just waiting, like cartoon characters, for the law of gravity to notice. As a theist, I look back at the chasm over which I have leapt in a classic leap of faith, and I have great understanding for those who shake their heads and call me an idiot. I think my concept of God works well with the universe as it is, but I know the evidence I see admits of other explanations.

Arguments like fine-tuning sound so good in philosophy classrooms, but when it comes right down to it, I know I have to start my argument from the point of view of a universe that was capable of producing me to think about it. In practical terms, astronomical odds against my being here are irrelevant. I’m here, after all. (Yes, I know, philosphers don’t think that’s a good answer, but I think it’s a real answer.) Even more, though, all arguments about the probability of one type of universe existing over another are founded on nothing. Nobody knows just how a universe comes into existence at all, nor at this point whether there is one universe or many, or if many, in what relationship they are to one another. We cannot even imagine what creatures might inhabit a universe substantially different from ours, and who might speculate on the existence of God because their universe was precisely designed for them.

The thing that really gets me about Plantinga’s argument, and Dawkins’s, if Plantinga has characterized it accurately, is that it places both Dawkins and Plantinga in the position of claiming their own position is true, because it hasn’t been disproven. In other words, Plantinga wants us to default to his position, Dawkins to his. Plantinga summarizes what he thinks Dawkins’s argument amounts to:

We know of no irrefutable objections to its being possible that p;
p is true.

But to me, both arguments push beyond the bounds of science, and both questions should be answered with a form of “I don’t know.” And here Plantinga has the upper hand. He is a philosopher, and is thus doing the stuff he is supposed to be doing. When he starts talking about theistic science elsewhere, I think he transgresses in the other direction, but here he is on the ground appropriate to his field. (I am an interloper in either direction, but it’s my blog and I get to interlope!) Dawkins, on the other hand, whether he intends it or not, is seen as a spokesman for science saying that there is no God, no supernatural. And science is simply not capable of testing that. It can see the effects, but it can’t track them back.

All of this leaves me in pretty much the same place I was when I started. But Plantinga’s review is interesting and well worth reading.

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  1. I’ve read both Dawkins’ book and Plantinga’s review. I have to say that Plantinga reviewed a different book from that which Dawkins wrote. Dawkins is quote specific about the particular “god hypothesis” that he is attacking, while Plantinga reviews a fictional book that apparently attacks the possibility of any kind of god at all.

    While it may irritate you, I suggest reading the book if only to be able to evaluate reviews of a different book going by the same title.

  2. While it may irritate you, I suggest reading the book if only to be able to evaluate reviews of a different book going by the same title.

    I will doubtless pay the price of failing to do that before I wrote. Write in haste, repent at leisure . . . 🙂

  3. But I find his hostility toward theism, and particularly liberal theism as kind of gratuitous.

    I’m not sure how it could be described as gratuitous. If you’re under the impression that Dawkins is anti-irrationality then I can see how you could draw that conclusion. However, Dawkins (as best I can tell) is actually pro-rationality, which means that for him the middle ground is not substantially better than the nutty fringe.

    My guess is that this is why he’s so popular amongst atheists – after years of being seen as fundamentally “anti”, it’s nice to have a positive cause to rally round.

    Dawkins seems anxious to move forward and make claims about things he can

  4. I’ve put it on hold at our local library, but I’m second in line to get it. I’ll post more and correct what I have written as necessary once I have it in hand.

  5. This is the “God Hypothesis” that Dawkins is aiming to disprove: “There exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.” (p. 31) Five pages later, Dawkins says, “This is as good a moment as any to forestall an inevitable retor to the book, one that would otherwise — as sure as night follows day — turn up in a review: ‘The God that Dawkins doesn’t believe in is a God that I don’t believe in either. I don’t believe in an old man in the sky with a long white beard.’ … I know you don’t believe in an old bearded man sitting on a cloud, so let’s not waste any more time on that. I am not attacking any particular version of God or gods. I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented.” [emphasis mine].

  6. That sounds like what I would expect Dawkins to say. While I have not yet read The God Delusion I have read a fair amount of his writing, which was why I intended to skip this book. I’m expecting it to be a book that contains everything I dislike about Dawkins, and none of the good things.

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