Plantinga’s Closing Argument

January 3, 2012

Alvin Plantinga’s latest book, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion and Naturalism, has received a fair amount of attention. Plantinga has even been written up in the New York Times. Having read most of his book, I will acknowledge that it confirms he is a clever polemicist. He can present a thoroughly fallacious argument with confidence, dressing it up so it appears superficially impressive.  God may not have a more skilled advocate. 

Plantinga demonstrates his formidable skills in part through the tactics he deploys in making his arguments.  Standard practice among lawyers (or most anyone trying to prevail in an argument) is to emphasize the strengths of one’s position, while spending no more time than necessary on an opponent’s points.  Of course, sometimes one has no strengths, but only weaknesses.  In that case, one hammers away at the weaknesses of one’s opponent.  And what if the opponent’s position has few, if any, flaws?  Well, invent them.  Even better: try to argue that an opponent’s perceived strength is actually a hidden, fatal flaw.  Do DNA and other physical evidence  clearly implicate your client?  Then try this argument: “Members of the jury, consider that a racist cop had the opportunity to plant the evidence.”  (Don’t worry about actually showing that the cop did plant the evidence.) 

O. J. Simpson may have had an intellectually feeble defense, but it was significantly more substantial than the pleas one can offer on behalf of God’s existence.  But now God has his dream team in the form of Plantinga.  Are science in general and evolution in particular incompatible with theism?  Obviously, it won’t do to mumble an irresolute response on that point, so try to prevail through boldness: “Members of the jury, not only are science and evolution completely compatible with theism, but it is actually naturalism that is incompatible with science.” Yes, that is the essence of Plantinga’s audacious claim. It’s naturalism, not religion, that is in conflict with science.

As those who follow Plantinga’s work are aware, he has been rehearsing this argument for the last several years, but Where the Conflict Really Lies has the hallmarks of his closing argument; he’s put everything into it. In any event, what is Plantinga’s justification for his bold bluster? First, he asks us to consider that there’s nothing in evolutionary theory, taken in and of itself, that proves evolution could not have been guided by an intelligent being. (“There’s nothing in the DNA evidence implicating Simpson that proves it was not planted.”) Right, and there’s nothing in atomic theory, taken in and of itself, that proves there are no immaterial, undetectable beings dancing on quarks. Don’t worry about the fact that God plays no useful explanatory role in evolutionary theory or that the dancing spirits play no useful explanatory role in atomic theory: as a matter of logical possibility, these claims could be true.

But isn’t assigning God—an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent being—a role in guiding evolution inconsistent with the hundreds of millions of years of pointless suffering endured by animals, not to mention the tremendous wastage of species doomed to extinction? Alvin has an answer: blame the Devil. No seriously. Lest you think I’m making this up, let me quote Plantinga on this point: “Satan and his minions … may have been permitted a role in the evolution of life on earth, steering it in the direction of predation, waste and pain (emphasis added).” In other words, if  your argument in favor of one imaginary being provokes some skepticism, just double down and suggest there may be a few more.

But let’s turn to Plantinga’s central and most ambitious claim, namely that naturalism, with its position that evolution is unguided by an intelligent being, is self-defeating. Plantinga argues that evolution rewards adaptive behavior. It doesn’t reward truthful claims. Accordingly, the cognitive faculties that generate our beliefs are not reliable insofar as we count on them to provide a truthful picture of the world. The naturalist claims evolution is true, but she can’t reliably make that claim because unguided evolution likely would have produced beliefs that help ensure survival but are nonetheless false. Acceptance of evolution might be one such false belief.

Plantinga also asserts that the theist can reliably make the claim that evolution is true, because if God guided evolution, God created humans in his “image,” with the ability to know and understand the world around them. So theism is compatible with acceptance of evolution—a cornerstone of science—while naturalism is not.

OK, let’s stop right there for a second. First, what is Plantinga’s warrant for saying God created humans in his “image” with the ability to know things—other than blind faith? (Of course, Plantinga thinks “faith” is an appropriate means of acquiring knowledge, but let’s not spend time on that bit of nonsense.) Moreover, if God allows “Satan and his minions” to play a role in evolution, “steering it in the direction of predation, waste and pain,” why couldn’t God also allow Satan to mess with evolution so our brains don’t actually track the truth, or do so only sporadically? I don’t see how the theist is in any better position than the naturalist with respect to the reliability of claims about the world.

The principal problem with Plantinga’s argument, however, is his adherence to a foundationalist approach to knowledge, which most of the rest of the philosophical world has moved beyond. Plantinga maintains there has to be some guarantor of truth on which our assertions can rest. In some ways, Plantinga offers us no more than a warmed-over Descartes. To be able to trust the reports our brain gives us we need some bit of indisputable knowledge combined with a deity who will ensure that our brain reports are (usually) accurate. Despite his protestations that he is a friend of contemporary science, Plantinga’s outlook remains firmly implanted in the seventeenth century.

We don’t need Plantinga’s imaginary foundations. Knowledge doesn’t need a guardian spirit. We can confidently rely on our brain reports because they are justified pragmatically. Right, our brains evolved to ensure survival—and one really good way to survive is to have an accurate understanding of the world, so that one can navigate one’s way through the world without getting injured or killed. Think of the many things one does each morning in reliance on accurate brain reports. One gets out of bed after greeting one’s partner. But is it really your partner? What if you’re kissing another person’s lover? Your clock tells you it’s 7:00 a.m. But what if it’s 9:30 and your risk termination? You put some eggs into the skillet, but what if those are your hands that you’re cooking? You drive to work—or are you going in the wrong direction? Your colleagues greet you, but what if they’re not your colleagues but strangers who are telling you to leave because you have no business in that building?

No need to go through the thousands of items of information our brains successfully impart to us every day, every week, every year. The point is we can rely on our brain reports because they have proven they are effective in tracking the truth about our world.

Admittedly, our brains are natural mechanisms, so they can fail. These failures are sometimes corrected, often with the assistance of others; sometimes they are not corrected. But most of us can live with a measure of uncertainty. Apparently, Plantinga cannot. He wants his guardian spirit to hold his hand and whisper to him, “Yes, you can safely cross the street now. Trust me; there really are no trucks coming.”

Given the material he has to work with, Plantinga has made a worthy effort. Doubtless, because of the emotional attachment many still have to his client, God, many will find Plantinga’s arguments persuasive. “Hey, God might have guided all those mutations through the ages. It’s logically possible.” But more and more people on the jury are not buying it. God has lost much of his credibility, and arguing “might have” or “could have” and invoking Satan and his minions to fill in gaps in the argument just isn’t going to work as well as it did in the past.