dlighe pointed me at an article in Christianity Today by Alvin Plantinga, The Dawkins Confusion. He seemed to find it interesting, and there are a lot of links to it from the blogosphere, and they seem to agree that it’s a good, solid refutation of Dawkins’s The God Delusion.
To which I can only say, WTF?
(This is pretty long; if you’re in a hurry, skip down to “Is God Complex?“.)
Most Unpleasant Character
He starts out by quoting Dawkins’s assessment that “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all of fiction.” Then writes,
He [Dawkins] and Dennett both appear to think it requires considerable courage to attack religion these days; says Dennett, “I risk a fist to the face or worse. Yet I persist.” […] Here it’s not easy to take them seriously; religion-bashing in the current Western academy is about as dangerous as endorsing the party’s candidate at a Republican rally.
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capricously malevolent bully.
— Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, p. 31
As the above quotation suggests, one shouldn’t look to this book for evenhanded and thoughtful commentary. In fact the proportion of insult, ridicule, mockery, spleen, and vitriol is astounding.
I wish Plantinga would give some examples of what he’s talking about, because as far as I can tell, there’s little or no insult or vitriol in Dawkins’s book. I suspect that Plantinga has become so accustomed to the fact that, by social convention, religious beliefs are immune from ridicule in a way that alien abduction stories aren’t, that he’s upset at Dawkins at calling it like he sees it.
The “most unpleasant character” is a case in point: in what way is Dawkins wrong? We are talking about the character who told Abraham to kill his son; lied to Adam and Eve, then kicked them out of Eden for fear that they would become immortal; prevented the Pharaoh from letting the Hebrews leave Egypt, when he had decided to do so; gave Moses laws prescribing execution for trivial offenses (including gathering firewood on Saturday); sent bears to kill 42 youths who had made fun of Elisha’s baldness; doesn’t have a single disapproving word to say against the practice of buying and selling people like farm machinery; killed everyone in the world with the exception of eight people and a floating menagerie; and so on, and so forth. His redeeming grace is that, unlike the god of the New Testament, he stops tormenting his victims once they’re dead. Pray tell, how, specifically, is Dawkins in error?
The Ultimate 747
Plantinga then turns to Dawkins’s chapter 4, “Why there Almost Certainly Is No God” (though he calls it chapter 3):
Here Dawkins doesn’t appeal to the usual anti-theistic arguments—the argument from evil, for example, or the claim that it’s impossible that there be a being with the attributes believers ascribe to God. So why does he think theism is enormously improbable? The answer: if there were such a person as God, he would have to be
enormously complex, and the more complex something is, the less probable it is: “However statistically improbable the entity you seek to explain by invoking a designer, the designer himself has got to be at least as improbable. God is the Ultimate Boeing 747.” The basic idea is that anything that knows and can do what God knows and can do would have to be incredibly complex. In particular, anything that can create or design something must be at least as complex as the thing it can design or create. Putting it another way, Dawkins says a designer must contain at least as much information as what it creates or designs, and information is inversely related to probability. Therefore, he thinks, God would have to be monumentally complex, hence astronomically improbable; thus it is almost certain that God does not exist.
I’m surprised that Plantinga can’t seem to recognize the “Who designed God?” argument when it bites him in the ass like this. Surely it’s one of the things they cover in Theology 101, no? But then again, he’s missing the point entirely. The reason Dawkins invokes the “747 in a junkyard” argument is that theists like to use the argument from design, saying that anything as monumentally complex as the eye, say, could not have arisen by natural means, and must therefore have been designed by an intelligent being — God. He quotes Dennett describing this as “the idea that it takes a big fancy smart thing to make a lesser thing.” If we are the lesser thing and God is the big fancy smart thing, then it is legitimate to ask what the bigger fancier smarter thing is that created God? And who or what created God’s creator? And so forth ad infinitum.
In other words, either the argument from design is bogus, or else there is an infinite regress of gods. You can’t have it both ways. Dawkins’s aim in this section is, of course, to point out that natural selection is a well-known mechanism (in fact, the only known mechanism) for making complicated things out of simple things. This neatly disposes of both problems.
Climbing Mount Improbable
Plantinga then digresses to criticize Dawkins’s earlier book, Climbing Mount Improbable, and specifically the idea given in its subtitle: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design.
What is truly remarkable, however, is the form of what seems to be the main argument. The premise he argues for is something like this:
1. We know of no irrefutable objections to its being biologically possible that all of life has come to be by way of unguided Darwinian processes;
and Dawkins supports that premise by trying to refute objections to its being biologically possible that life has come to be that way. His conclusion, however, is
2. All of life has come to be by way of unguided Darwinian processes.
It’s worth meditating, if only for a moment, on the striking distance, here, between premise and conclusion.
It’s been a long while since I read Climbing Mount Improbable, so I can’t tell whether this is an accurate criticism or not. Obviously, if this is a fair summary, then Dawkins is wrong. Just because something is possible doesn’t mean it’s true.
But I suspect Plantinga’s leaving something out, like maybe Occam’s Razor. If Dawkins’s argument was closer to
- Evolutionary theory accounts for all of the biological phenomena we see.
- Evolutionary theory does not require a designer
- Therefore, there is no need to postulate an unobserved designer.
then I’d agree with that. If you add a side dish of “no one’s come up with a better explanation in 150 years of assiduous searching”, then you come to the conclusion that evolution is very likely to be not only the best theory we have, but also true.
We now return to the argument that God, if he exists, is monumentally complex, and is therefore a phenomenon that requires a darn good explanation:
First, is God complex? According to much classical theology (Thomas Aquinas, for example) God is simple, and simple in a very strong sense, so that in him there is no distinction of thing and property, actuality and potentiality, essence and existence, and the like.
Okay, WTF does any of this mean, if anything? “[N]o distinction of thing and property” sounds as if it means that there’s no difference between God and God’s hair color, or God’s shoe size (and therefore, there’s no difference between God’s hair color and shoe size; presumably they’re both “gray”. Or maybe “11”). And “[no distinction of] actuality and potentiality” means that “God might decide to have pizza for dinner tomorrow night” means that God is eating pizza right now. I call bullshit.
I’d also like to know why Plantinga quotes Aquinas. Is Aquinas right? If so, how do we (or Plantinga) know? Has there been no progress in this area in the last 700 years?
(It isn’t only Catholic theology that declares God simple; according to the Belgic Confession, a splendid expression of Reformed Christianity, God is “a single and simple spiritual being.”) So first, according to classical theology, God is simple, not complex.
Of course, the Belgic Confession doesn’t give any actual arguments for believing that God is simple; the author just asserts it without evidence or justification. His reasons for believing in God are of the same quality: 1) Gee, isn’t the world a really complicated thing? Someone must have made it! and 2) It says so in the Bible.
In short, Plantinga isn’t pulling this argument out of his ass. He’s pulling it out of someone else’s ass.
More remarkable, perhaps, is that according to Dawkins’ own definition of complexity, God is not complex. According to his definition (set out in The Blind Watchmaker), something is complex if it has parts that are “arranged in a way that is unlikely to have arisen by chance alone.” But of course God is a spirit, not a material object at all, and hence has no parts.
See that “hence” there? That’s the single stupidest thing Plantinga’s written in this entire article.
First, let me point out that both “God” and “spirit” are Wittgenstein beetles. There is no widely-agreed-on description of the thing these words refer to, the way there is for “tree” or “justice”. Quite simply, the only thing the word “God” means is “whatever it is that I’m thinking of when I say `God'”. For many people, “God” means a bearded guy in the sky, or a blond, blue-eyed Palestinian from the first century. For others, it’s a disembodied mind that floats around the universe. For Spinoza and Einstein, it meant the union of all physical laws — this god isn’t even conscious.
Likewise, “spirit” is a conveniently-undefined term that comes in handy when talking about things related to God and the supernatural. If “spirit” exists, it has no properties anyone can demonstrate. So when Plantinga says “and hence has no parts”, he’s using what’s formally known as a private definition, and less formally known as making shit up.
A fortiori (as philosophers like to say) God doesn’t have parts arranged in ways unlikely to have arisen by chance. Therefore, given the definition of complexity Dawkins himself proposes, God is not complex.
And yet, Plantinga believes that God is omniscient, which implies something like a brain, sensory organs, communications between the two, and so forth. The Belgic Confession that he cites approvingly claims that God inspired the Bible, which implies that whatever this “spirit” substance is that God is composed of can interact with ordinary matter somehow, by means unknown. It also endorses Genesis in saying, “God created man in his own image”. There’s a lot of argument about what exactly this means, but at the very least it has to mean “humans have some property p, and God also has property p.”
Then there’s the trinity. I decided not to pick on that because Plantinga confesses in a footnote that he doesn’t know what it means, except that even if it means that God has three parts, he doesn’t have a fourth part shared by the three main personalities. Sure, whatever. The trinity is like a sadistic koan: you’re not supposed to understand it, but you’re supposed to believe it anyway.
In short, Plantinga claims that God is simple not because there’s evidence that led him to that conclusion, but simply because somebody else said so. And out of the mountains of contradictory and nonsensical things that have been written about God, he found this useful in trying to refute Dawkins.
But the problem remains: even if God is as simple as Plantinga claims, how did this entity manage to create the universe and inspire the Bible? In fact, how does it manage to be aware that anything exists in the first place?
So why think God must be improbable? According to classical theism, God is a necessary being; it is not so much as possible that there should be no such person as God; he exists in all possible worlds. But if God is a necessary being, if he exists in all possible worlds, then the probability that he exists, of course, is 1, and the probability that he does not exist is 0. Far from its being improbable that he exists, his existence is maximally probable. So if Dawkins proposes that God’s existence is improbable, he owes us an argument for the conclusion that there is no necessary being with the attributes of God
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy draws upon Plantinga’s works in the “God as a Necessary Being” section. Here, God is defined as having every perfection; and existence is a perfection; therefore, God is defined as existing.
By the same reasoning, I can define God’s Beer as having every beery perfection: delicious, cold, always within arm’s reach, and, of course, existence. So why isn’t there a bottle of God’s Beer in front of me?
The problem with this argument is that when you say “God has property (or perfection) p“, that’s the same as saying “if some entity doesn’t have property p, then that entity is not God.” So the argument above really boils down to “show me a god, and I’ll show you an existing god.” Just because there’s a definition doesn’t mean that there are any entities that fit the definition.
C’mon! I figured this stuff out in High School! Why is the ontological argument still circulating, and among people who study this stuff for a living? I know a lot of creationists are stupid enough to believe this, but Plantinga’s supposed to be a philosopher and theologian. He should know better.
Missing the Point 2: the Fine-Tuning Argument
Plantinga then turns to the fine-tuning argument. Notice how he goes from sensible to mental trainwreck in the space of a single paragraph:
Now in response to this kind of theistic argument, Dawkins, along with others, proposes that possibly there are very many (perhaps even infinitely many) universes, with very many different distributions of values over the physical constants. Given that there are so many, it is likely that some of them would display values that are life-friendly. So if there are an enormous number of universes displaying different sets of values of the fundamental constants, it’s not at all improbable that some of them should be “fine-tuned.” We might wonder how likely it is that there are all these other universes, and whether there is any real reason (apart from wanting to blunt the fine-tuning arguments) for supposing there are any such things. But concede for the moment that indeed there are many universes and that it is likely that some are fine-tuned and life-friendly. That still leaves Dawkins with the following problem: even if it’s likely that some universes should be fine-tuned, it is still improbable that this universe should be fine-tuned. Name our universe alpha: the odds that alpha should be fine-tuned are exceedingly, astronomically low, even if it’s likely that some universe or other is fine-tuned.
I don’t think Plantinga could do a better job of missing the point with a fusion-powered point-missing machine with point proximity restraints and GPS-enabled point-avoidance module, mounted on rails aimed directly away from the point.
Let’s say you run across an article in the paper about how Mrs. Norma Rae won $50 million in the Powerball lottery, and wonder why this article exists. Well, given the number of people who play Powerball, it was not unlikely that someone would win. And people winning the lottery is interesting, so the paper would have written about anyone, not necessarily Mrs. Rae, who won. And if no one had won, there would have been no article. Quite simple, really.
But then Plantinga comes along and says, “Yes, but the odds of Mrs. Norma Rae being the one who won are millions to one against!” I want to weep.
Are Brains Reliable?
After dismissing the question of who created God (summary: “Sure, I use God as an explanation for life on earth, but I don’t need to explain God, because… I just don’t, okay?”), Plantinga comes to an interesting philosophical question:
Toward the end of the book, Dawkins endorses a certain limited skepticism. Since we have been cobbled together by (unguided) evolution, it is unlikely, he thinks, that our view of the world is overall accurate; natural selection is interested in adaptive behavior, not in true belief. But Dawkins fails to plumb the real depths of the skeptical implications of the view that we have come to be by way of unguided evolution. […] Now the neurophysiology on which our beliefs depend will doubtless be adaptive; but why think for a moment that the beliefs dependent on or caused by that neurophysiology will be mostly true? Why think our cognitive faculties are reliable?
See that word “adaptive”? That means it has to fucking work in the real world. So there’s your answer.
Want an example of a false belief produced by an adaptive piece of neurophysiology? How about the hyperactive agency detector (HADD) that allows you to see a god where there isn’t one? (See The God Delusion, p. 184. Also, Breaking the Spell, pp. 109 et seq.)
If this is so, the naturalist has a defeater for the natural assumption that his cognitive faculties are reliable […] And if he has a defeater for that belief, he also has a defeater for any belief that is a product of his cognitive faculties. But of course that would be all of his beliefs—including naturalism itself. So the naturalist has a defeater for naturalism; natural- ism, therefore, is self-defeating and cannot be rationally believed.
This is an interesting philosophical problem because, indeed, if your methods of gathering and processing information are not 100% reliable, then you get into recursive uncertainty where you don’t know whether your your thoughts about thoughts (like how to gather information and reason about it) are true.
However, evolution has nothing to do with perfection or sophistication, and everything to do with what works now, under present conditions. And our brains are the product of evolutionary processes.
Plantinga commits the classic “any uncertainty means great gobs of uncertainty” fallacy: he imagines that since naturalistic thought processes aren’t 100% reliable, that that means they’re highly unreliable, and that our ideas are likely to be fundamentally wrong about some very important things. But a few seconds’ thought should be enough to convince you that this sort of subtle, all-pervasive wrongness can only occur in some very unlikely, solipsism-level scenarios. Especially given the fact that, as pointed out above and conceded by Plantinga, our brains have to be good enough to work in the real world.
You Call This Thinking?
Is this really considered good philosophy, or good theology? Please tell me this is an elaborate joke. Because if it isn’t, then theology is even more devoid of substance than I thought. Either that, or Plantinga’s successfully implemented what Orwell called doublethink, the ability not to see elementary flaws in one’s thinking.
I enjoy reading a good argument by people whose views I don’t agree with. “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” and all that. But this is beyond pathetic. A lot of Plantinga’s objections are not just bullshit, but elementary, obvious bullshit. I can’t understand why people take this article seriously, let alone consider it praiseworthy.