A friend of mine who wishes to remain anonymous took an account of the dialogue between Plantinga and Dennett at last weekend's APA. I know that many were interested in this, so I am copy/pasting it below. The account is opinionated (i.e., the author openly expresses his perspective on what went on throughout the account), and it is heavily sided in favor of Plantinga and against Dennett. So I welcome any disagreements about what went on in the comments section.
How important was such a meeting, and of what worth is discussion about it? Did Plantinga or Dennett take away anything new by way of argument or philosophy from the meeting? Probably not. Did anybody in the audience learn anything new by way of argument or philosophy? Maybe; perhaps some people there never heard some of Plantinga's arguments, and they learned something new.
So I'm not sure how important the meeting was from the standpoint of philosophy. But I'm interested in reading/hearing discussion about the meeting to get a better idea of how theism and atheism are perceived by the philosophical community. I'm curious to hear how atheists might have perceived what went on at the meeting. So comments from that standpoint (and not necessarily only that standpoint) are welcome.
The account of my friend begins below:
For those of you who do not know, on February 21st, the Central Division of the American Philosophical Association - the main professional body of American philosophers - hosted a kind of debate. I say "kind of debate" because one philosopher gave a paper, the other commented and the first philosopher replied and the floor opened for questions. But in fact the session was a debate.
The debate was between Alvin Plantinga and Daniel Dennett. Plantinga is one of the founders of the Society of Christian Philosophers and one of the fathers of the current desecularization of philosophy. He is widely regarded - even by his critics - as one of the finest epistemologists of the last fifty years and one of the finest philosophers of religion since the Medieval period. Daniel Dennett is one of the New Atheists and is a well-known proponent of atheistic Darwinism and critic of religion. He is widely regarded - even by his critics - as one of the most important early philosophers of mind that opened the field to cognitive science and evolutionary biology. He has contributed enormously to the serious study of the mind and its relationship to the brain. Both philosophers are over sixty and perhaps at the height of their philosophical powers. They have also faced off before but, as far as I know, not in person.
Plantinga was the presenter. The session asked the question of whether science and religion were compatible. Plantinga argues that they are and that in fact the scientific theory taken to be most incompatible with religion - evolutionary theory - is not only compatible with Christian theism (the religious view Plantinga defends) but is incompatible with Christian theism's most serious opponent in the scientific world - naturalism. Naturalism is the view that physics and the sciences can give a complete description of reality. Plantinga defines it as the view that there is no God or anything like God.
I was at the talk. It was packed with professional philosophers and graduate students in philosophy, most of whom sided with Dennett. I wrote live comments on the debate/session. I prefer to remain anonymous for various reasons, in particular because I am inclined towards Plantinga's position over Dennett's and were this to become well-known it could damage or destroy my career in analytic philosophy. This is something I prefer not to put my family through. I almost didn't publish these comments at all, but as far as I could tell, this would be the only public record of the discussion.
Friends, if you can identify me, I request that you keep my identity secret. I am sharing my thoughts as a service to the philosophical community and all those who have an interest in such debates. But I prefer not to suffer at the hands of my ardently secular colleagues. This is not to say that all secular analytic philosophers are this way; they most certainly are not. But enough of them are that I cannot risk being known publicly.
The talk began at 2:30 pm on Saturday, February 21st, 2009 in the Palmerhouse Hilton in downtown Chicago in the Crystal Room on the third floor. I got there early. What follows are my live thoughts. All opinions are my own. And while I am inclined towards Plantinga's position, I was once a Dennettian and still admire much of his work. I tried to go in with an open-mind and be even-handed. Perhaps I was unsuccessful, but at least I tried.
2:18 pm - The room was moved because the original room was full thirty minutes before the talk. People rushed down the stairs in a hotel full of elevators. There's a kind of excitement in the room and it's not clear the Christian to non-Christian ratio. Dennett has arrived and is setting up his equipment. It seems appropriate somehow that Dennett would be using technological equipment where Plantinga gives a more traditional sort of talk.
2:20 pm - Plantinga enters. The tension between the titans fills the room.
2:21 pm - No immediate greeting between the two figures. Dennett stares at his computer. It is awkward.
2:22 pm - Plantinga's handouts begin to be passed around. Surely there won't be enough.
2:23 pm - The room is overflowing. Numerous prominent philosophers on both sides are here. It's fascinating that a room full of philosophers should be so divided on this issue. It is perhaps the first time in centuries that Christians have been such a high concentration of professional philosophers.
2:24 pm - I can't find an electrical outlet, but my new little laptop will keep on going throughout the initial remarks. I apologize if I cut out during the Q&A.
2:25 pm - Still no eye contact. Both figures appear uncomfortable. I'm probably reading into their body language, but they seem to realize that something hangs on the match.
2:27 pm - Plantinga attempts to make eye contact with Dennett. Dennett still refuses.
2:28 pm - Dean Zimmerman comes to speak with Plantinga. He's a reminder to me that the Christians have some heavy hitters intellectually. Michael Tooley, a prominent secularist, is here. So is Eleanore Stump, a prominent Christian philosopher and known worldwide for her expertise in Medieval philosophy, particular Aquinas. Peter Van Inwagen, president of the Central Division is here. For those who don't know, he is one of the most prominent metaphysician alive and is an Anglican.
2:29 pm - Dennett and Plantinga make awkward attempts at conversation. Dennett still seems uninterested. I wonder what this foreshadows. It is almost time for the talk to begin. The room is stuffed like sardines.
2:30 pm - Organizer tries to get the original group in the session to leave to make room. It is clear that no one will leave - a facile attempt. They won't move us again.
2:31 pm - The floor in the area around the podium fills up.
2:32 pm - Brian Leiter, a prominent secularist, well-known Nietzsche scholar, philosopher of law, who is quite famous/infamous for his internet blog, enters the room in the back. I am surprised he came.
2:33 pm - Dennett is having technical difficulties.
2:34 pm - The session begins. Plantinga is speaking and Dennett is replying. There will be a half hour of questions after an hour of 'going at it', to use the host's words. Dennett notably doesn't clap for Plantinga.
2:35 pm - Plantinga begins to speak. He looks like Abraham Lincoln. Dennett looks like Santa Claus. Feel free to imagine these two as those characters.
2:36 pm - Plantinga begins to define his terms. He will speak about whether theistic belief is compatible with science. Christian belief is the intersection of the Christian creeds. He will argue that there is no conflict between theistic religion and science.
2:37 pm - Plantinga discusses possible sources of incompatibility. You probably are aware of these standard lines. They are going by too quickly for me to record in my cramped position.
2:38 pm - Plantinga argues that contemporary evolutionary theory isn't incompatible with theistic belief. But instead is in conflict with naturalism. He also thinks that theistic religion could be rational even if science conflicted with it (this last is particularly controversial claim, to my mind).
2:39 pm - The conflict is between naturalism and science. Dennett is smirking under his grand beard. If Plantinga missteps his description of evolution, Dennett is going to pounce on him. Ultimately the argument doesn't quite hinge on all the details of how evolution occurs, so I hope this does not side-track them.
2:40 pm - There is no conflict between theism and the central tenets of Darwinism. God could have used evolutionary mechanisms to create the world.
2:41 pm - God intended to create creatures though, with a moral sense, free will and so on. This intention appears incompatible with Darwinism, but it isn't. God could have caused random mutation (This initially strikes me as odd, but makes sense later.)
2:42 pm - Theism and evolution are only incompatible if evolution is essentially unguided. And some assert that the assumption of unguidedness is essential to evolutionary theory. (Why would they make this additional, non-scientific but metaphysical claim? Why bother to provoke?)
2:44 pm - Plantinga is talking about Gould. I missed the point. Sorry!
2:45 pm - Are random mutations really compatible with theism? We don't have to understand randomness as incompatible with theism.
2:46 pm - I have gone from 75% to 65% on my battery. Ack!
2:47 pm - Don't mix naturalistic metaphysics with science, says Plantinga. Naturalism is incompatible with theism by definition but not evolution.
2:48 pm - Plantinga makes witty joke. He and Dennett both have their own unique style of wit. They are hard to describe. Plantinga has the dry wit of a lighthearted grandfather. Dennett's wit is more like that of someone aiming directly at communicating concepts in the most creative way he can. Plantinga seems more concerned with careful, methodical, clear philosophy, Dennett with exciting, compelling, shocking ideas. Perhaps this helps explain why they have the positions they do.
2:50 pm - Plantinga cites Dawkins as saying that Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually satisfied atheist. Dennett nods vigorously.
2:51 pm - Plantinga mentions Michael Behe, calls the argument serious. Dennett appears stunned, understandably. It's not clear whether Plantinga intended to be provocative by speaking up for this 'much maligned' intelligent design theorist. Plantinga says the ID argument is compelling but inconclusive as the complexity of the cell is more probable on theism than naturalism (but it isn't clear how much more).
2:52 pm - A tendency to believe in God is suggested by evolutionary studies of religion, but Plantinga is shockingly arguing that this makes more sense on theism than naturalism. He briefly mentions the main lines of his book, Warranted Christian Belief.
2:53 pm - The demise of the teleological argument doesn't speak against rational belief in God. This is a standard argument of Plantinga's. He believes that belief in God is properly basic, belief in God is warranted even if the believer has no reason for this belief.
2:54 pm - The apparent waste in evolutionary history isn't incompatible with theism and neither is suffering and death in evolution. It doesn't even speak against it. It's a version of the problem of evil, which Plantinga denies is a defeater for theism. There is no logical incompatibility and it has been hard to state a probabilistic argument from evil. It's not clear what the argument is, particularly as the literature becomes more complex.
2:55 pm - The really good possible worlds all involve divine incarnation and atonement and so all the best worlds have sin and suffering - an old view that many Christian philosophers resist today. He even mentions that outrageous (to the naturalist) idea that the demons are part of the errors in human development. Dennett is clearly stunned and amused. He probably thinks Plantinga's claims are insane or at least silly. Plantinga's orthodoxy is completely unabashed. It is commendable that he is wholly without embarrassment, something rare for a modern Christian. Perhaps it signals an attitude to come.
2:58 pm - While naturalistic evolution may be simpler than theistic evolution, this is not an all things considered defeater. There are many propositions conjuncted here to which a probability is assigned. The argument is becoming complicated but the effect is that probabilistic judgments become very difficult when evaluating alternative large conjunctions of propositions.
3:00 pm - The argument is full of probabilistic language. It isn't complicated for the room but it is complicated to live blog.
3:01 pm - A hard problem is explaining the mechanisms of the cell. Plantinga's argument never hinged on this view before. He's arguing this, perhaps, to try to show that even the most maligned arguments for theism have something to them. Dennett will be unaware that Plantinga didn't advance these 'bad' arguments all along. Remember: Plantinga's argument is merely that the complexity of the cell is more likely on theism than naturalism. This is a very different claim than what most understand the ID argument to be. It's not a proof of theism but a comparative probabilistic judgment. The argument would work even if the complexity of the cell were 70% likely on naturalism so long as it is significantly more likely on theism.
3:03 pm - To be honest, I think Plantinga would do better not to be so flagrant in his defense of these much maligned arguments, as it shuts off the minds of those he hopes to convince. I can see the value, but why not just make the solid arguments that don't cause naturalists to scoff?
3:04 pm - He does say, however, that from agnosticism the design argument isn't necessarily any good. The theist already accepts theism. The claim is merely that the theist's view is confirmed more by evolutionary biology than the naturalist's view is. Note though, that he is not yet to the point of providing defeaters for the conjunction of theism and naturalism. He is still arguing that evolution and theism are not incompatible. Also remember that Plantinga makes these probabilistic claims tentatively.
3:06 pm - Just because there is scientific evidence against theism doesn't necessarily refute theism or provide defeaters. Theism may have evidence on its behalf or it may have a wholly different source of warrant. If the latter is true, then the warrant for theism may outweigh scientific evidence. The Christian doesn't have to change her views according to current science.
3:08 pm - Now Plantinga approaches the defeater for naturalism. He claims that naturalism is a quasi-religion and science contradicts it. One cannot rationally accept both naturalism and evolution.
3:09 pm - Naturalism usually is tied to materialism, so for now he will tie them together.
3:10 pm - The key claim: the probability that our faculties track the truth on theistic evolution is much higher than it is on naturalistic evolution. Plantinga is now reviewing the formal probability theory that the argument appeals to.
3:11 pm - Plantinga continues to give the argument. Basically, naturalistic evolution selects for belief faculties which form beliefs that track survival - and loosely. But an entirely false set of beliefs might track survival. Naturalistic evolution therefore has no tendency to select for true beliefs. I am radically simplifying the argument; please forgive me.
3:13 pm - Plantinga is arguing that his argument will work on a variety of versions of physicalism, even on a view that mental states supervene on physical states. It is worth noting that theism and materialism are compatible and so materialism could be true. It is the conjunction of naturalism with evolution that causes the problem.
3:15 pm - Plantinga argues, following Pat Churchland, that in evolution "Truth, whatever that is, gets the hindmost." Dennett is shaking his head and continues to appear amused. Imagine Santa with a sense for the absurd and ironic and a strong snarky streak. Less appealing, admittedly, but still an interesting character.
3:17 pm - I have heard the Plantinga argument from sites on the internet. I'm honestly at a loss to predict how Dennett will reply. I saw him discussing what appeared to be his comments with Stephanie Lewis (the wife of the late, great metaphysician, David Lewis). Perhaps he has something interesting up his sleeve. I will be disappointed if he doesn't.
3:18 pm - Plantinga holds that if our faculties aren't truth-tracking then our belief in evolution has a defeater. As a result, we should reject the conjunction of naturalism and evolution.
3:19 pm - Plantinga is finished. Dennett claps! He is eager to begin.
3:20 pm - Dennett is going to use powerpoint to reply to Plantinga. Dennett is a very large man. Not fat, but very large. Plantinga is tall but his form is not imposing. Dennett is going to argue that Plantinga makes some true claims. Evolution is compatible with theism. We don't have to have a conception of randomness that is incompatible with theism.
3:21 pm - He is quoting himself. His prose is very cute. He is arguing that he agrees with Plantinga but that Plantinga's claims don't support his [Plantinga's] conclusion. How do we tell the difference, say, between bred animals and unbred animals? How would Martian scientists tell? Dennett is getting laughs, and his strategy is interesting, if I understand it.
3:22 pm - It has been over an hour and I am at 50%. I think I will make it.
3:23 pm - Dennett argues that it is hard to tell what is designed and what isn't. He has some really great examples. He is true to form, very amusing. Plantingian dry wit vs. Dennettian cuteness. My sense for the laughter indicates that Dennett's supporters are more numerous. Not a surprise. Predictably, each figure gets laughs from their people.
3:24 pm - You can see where Plantinga is going in his arguments, which is a virtue. With Dennett, he is building up to a shock. This is also cool. I like both.
3:26 pm - A failure of imagination is not an insight into reality, a point Dennett makes against philosophers all the time.
3:26 pm - Here comes the punch line - the theistic hypothesis can't be refuted. But so what? It is independently unlikely. If we can account for evolution without the divine, then we should accept it. Even if we found user's manuals in junk DNA, this wouldn't show that natural selection isn't the answer, as we could have been tampered with by naturalistic intelligence long ago.
3:27 pm - Contemporary evolutionary theory can't rule out ID. "Except on grounds that it is an entirely gratuitous fantasy." Is the punchline an insult?! I am concerned that Dennett is not yet addressing Plantinga's argument.
3:29 pm - Sure, the intelligent theist can keep going on believing. He calls theistic belief a fairy tale. Now he's getting explicitly insulting. He thinks theistic belief can corrupt our common epistemological fabric and involve theism into politics. He shows a slide mocking the eschatological views of Christians. He calls theism an unrespectable position, and compares it to astrology. He says it is irrational and doesn't deserve respect. He gets laughs. He doesn't look good to the theists. Once he got nasty, a cold pall covered the room. He compares theism to holocaust deniers and things have gone off the rails. This is outrageous. All Plantinga must do to beat Dennett now is to reply with grace. For Plantingian dry wit, this is easy.
3:32 pm - "Is Plantinga's theism in any better position than these other fantasies?" He's going to create a Plantinga-guided natural selection. It is hard to explain, but the argument basically mocks Plantinga. I am incensed. The response is a long string of insults, and little more. This is pathetic. I had more faith in Dennett. He is just making the Flying Spaghetti Monster argument and getting laughs from real, intolerant jerks. It is going on and on. Sigh. I wanted this to be interesting! Dennett does not understand what a disservice he does his cause by not taking his smartest opponents seriously. He will lose thoughtful acolytes as a result.
3:38 pm - Now he moves to assess Plantinga's claim that random mutation is not incompatible with theism. He then moves to the third claim that Plantinga asserts that Dennett agrees with but is concerned to mock.
3:40 pm - We are at 43%. Dennett continues to insult. I wonder if any Christian philosophers will go after Dennett. If they respond with firm, but kind replies, they will expose Dennett's rudeness effectively. Dennett has made himself extremely vulnerable because he is mocking Plantinga, who is arguably one of the finest epistemologists of the last fifty years.
3:41 pm - Plantinga can't champion Behe and Dennett is going to mock him. I thought so. Behe is a transparent concoction of fantasy, etc. Behe looks like a theologian without naturalism. Dennett claims that Plantinga's denial of naturalism makes Behe looks worse. Dennett recounts Plantinga and Peter Van Inwagen's invitation to debate Behe in 1997. He is seriously mocking not only Plantinga but Van Inwagen as well. He thought the Behe book was a joke and this made Plantinga and Van Inwagen look bad.
3:43 pm - Dennett is going after Plantinga by means of Behe. Dennett is now going after Plantinga's view that he has the mental ability to make the relevant probabilistic judgment about the probabilities of the cells. Dennett thinks that he is making Plantinga look very, very bad. But this is far from clear. For those on the fence, they will likely think Dennett is being a serious jerk.
3:45 pm - Dennett is now attacking Behe. He has an interesting claim that the probability of trusting Behe's probability judgment is quite low. This is a bit specious, given that Plantinga has other means of making the probability judgment. Again, all he needs to do is judge that the probability of cell complexity is higher on theism than naturalism. It appears that Dennett's reply is that Plantinga has no justifiable method of making the relevant probability judgments. There's a subtle implication that because Plantinga isn't a scientist he should shut up.
3:48 pm - The room is quiet save some snickering, presumably by naturalists. Dennett has effectively made the discussion ideological. Even at most lowest estimation of Dennett, I never thought he would go so far.
3:49 pm - Dennett now goes after Plantinga's argument that naturalism has a defeater. Finally! Dennett thinks the claim that probability that our faculties track the truth on naturalism is low is false. He thinks we can use reverse engineering to figure out how evolution tracks the truth. So far, this does not address Plantinga's point but I am still open, though a bit upset by Dennett's truly nasty comments.
3:50 pm - Evolution can design syntactic engines that track the truth. We need high reliability devices in the biosphere to evolve. Words can evolve and they can represent our reasons. Plantinga is talking about sensory faculties though. It is also still possible that even with the evolution of words we can still be substantially misled by the quality of our faculties.
3:52 pm - I have just realized that Dennett is taking far too long. The session is supposed to end in 8 minutes. Dennett argues that naturalism is an alternative religion. Dennett is ending with a joke. He is now going after the Christian fish. It is clear that something terrible is coming. Dennett tried to come up with an alternative to traditional Christian Ictus. He notes that it is an acronym and so he tries to come up with a latin acronym for Darwin. It translates as follows: "Destroy the author of things to discover the nature of the universe." This was his last response. Basically, he is talking about murdering God. Dennett has revealed a deep wickedness in his character. I will never take him seriously as a philosopher again.
3:55 pm - Plantinga begins. He claims that he isn't clear as to how what Dennett said bore on Plantinga's claim. This is true Plantinga. He first asks what the argument is. He is unphased and was clearly prepared for this. He is exposing the point that Dennett only told stories and really didn't make an argument against Plantinga's claim. This is a wonderful way to reply. Ignore the profound insults that culminated in a suggestion that we kill God to understand the universe. Appear un-phased and focus on the philosophy. Dennett was classless. Plantinga is only focusing on the argument. A Goliath ad hominem attack is felled by the simple stone of careful analysis.
3:59 pm - It is not clear what the analogy is between God and Superman and other silly beings. He is just suggesting that there is no similarity between God and Superman, as Dennett claimed. Note that this strategy is very subtle. He is addressing the argument in simple terms and showing gradually that there was nothing to Dennett's claims. Note that above I had trouble understanding Dennett's arguments, but not Plantinga's. I thought that was just me but now it is clear that Dennett built a house of cards.
4:01 pm - I am at 33%. I don't know if I will make it. Plantinga has a different view about the Behe experience. He thought Behe held his own. Plantinga was disappointed with Dennett's reply to Plantinga's argument.
4:02 pm - Plantinga thinks Dennett didn't mention the argument. Dennett interrupts and says he mentioned premise 1. Plantinga says, "Yes, Dennett did mention premise 1, and I am grateful for that." The room erupted in laughter. I added my own guffaw. Dennett is collapsing and is clearly furious. It is clear that Dennett just didn't make any arguments.
4:04 pm - Questions begin. The first question comes from the front. The guy stands. He is having trouble articulating his question. He argues that having truth-reliable faculties is selected for. This is an easy claim for Plantinga to strike down. Plantinga makes the reply that faculties are indeed adapative but that truth-tracking isn't essential to adaptiveness.
4:08 pm - Question to Dennett about the Superman hypothesis. There are many smart Christians in the room who believe in God rather than Superman and doesn't that make the difference? Dennett is making the claim that people maintain their faith without rational belief. He is insulting every Christian in the room by assuming that their beliefs can be explained away as irrational.
4:10 pm - Question about some debate at Baylor. The man is talking about his own talk and discussion with Behe. We should be suspicious of Behe's intellectual quality, he claims. He is then going after the evolutionary argument against naturalism. He defends the view that the content of mental states is fixed by causation. I realize that the man is Michael Tooley, a famous secular philosopher. (Why did he spend his question telling a story about himself? How self-indulgent?) He thinks that the theory of mental state content shows that the probability of truth-tracking on naturalism is high. It is not clear to me why. Couldn't causality lead to systematically false but adaptive beliefs? Plantinga makes this point.
4:13 pm - Dennett interrupts and argues to combat Plantinga's wit. Plantinga doesn't resist. Now Dennett is actually talking about the argument. But he still is not addressing the point. If a mental state ceases to track truth, then it won't be adaptive, he claims.
4:15 pm - I have decided to try to ask a question but I didn't have my hand up soon enough. I was going to try to press Dennett on the substance of Plantinga's argument. The next question addresses the first premise and argues that it proves too much, that the probability of all naturalistic beliefs is low and that this is weird.
4:17 pm - Questions continue and they don't address Plantinga's argument. The last question concerns why we should think that the probability of naturalism is high. How does Dennett's assign probabilities to metaphysical positions? That seems weird, the questioner notes. This is an interesting question.
4:21 pm - Dennett responds by arguing that we have an undercutting defeater from theism from the evolutionary scientific study of religion.
It is clear that most in the room are naturalists. But the questions were not acrimonious. Dennett was the only one who was mean. I don't know how most people reacted to it. I have to admit that I think Dennett behaved like a serious jerk. I am extremely disappointed in his reply to Plantinga. It is clear that this is a man with serious character defects.
Post-script: It has been about ten minutes since the session ended. I spoke to Peter Van Inwagen about the talk and he said it was an expected performance and that while it was a clash of worldviews, it was an interesting clash in two styles of doing philosophy. Initially, I thought to myself, "Yeah, Plantinga thinks philosophy is about arguments; Dennett thinks it is about stories." But on further reflection I realized that Van Inwagen had a point. Dennett believes that science can tell us many things about metaphysics and epistemology, that we work from science to these positions. Plantinga thinks of these matters rather differently.
On another note, I walked around and listened to various conversations (not eavesdropping really, just listening for loud reactions to the session). The Christian philosophers were particularly interesting. They were not upset, surprised or even moved. They were wholly unphased. They were so unphased that they weren't even discussing the session. I was floored at Dennett's behavior but they reacted as if Dennett's hateful, childish behavior was to be expected. I thought they would be upset, but from what I can tell they simply expected Dennett to compare theistic belief to holocaust denial and to advocate murdering the Almighty. I guess I was wrong to expect more from him.
In my estimation, Plantinga won hands down because Dennett savagely mocked Plantinga rather than taking him seriously. Plantinga focused on the argument, and Dennett engaged in ridicule. It is safe to say that Dennett only made himself look bad along with those few nasty naturalists that were snickering at Plantinga. The Christians engaged in no analogous behavior. More engagements like this will only expand the ranks of Christian philosophers and increase the pace of academic philosophy's desecularization.