Thomas Nagel writes a review of Alvin Plantinga’s recent book, Where the Conflict Really Lies, which James Beebe has also nicely reviewed here at Prosblogion.
Nagel’s review is well-written and charitable. He covers much territory by summarizing large swathes of Plantinga-philosophy in succinct paragraphs, all without sacrificing accuracy. (He even appears to have carefully read footnotes from Plantinga’s other works.) His only objection seemed to be that Plantinga does not consider naturalist theories of mental content. Plantinga doesn’t cover them in this book, but he deals with a number of them in a recent PPR paper.
So, as one very familiar with Plantinga’s work, I was impressed with Nagel’s review.
Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism, Oxford University Press, 2011, 376 pp., $27.95 (hbk), ISBN 9780199812097
Reviewed by James R. Beebe (University at Buffalo)
Alvin Plantinga, philosophy of religion’s most distinguished contemporary statesman, has once again produced a carefully crafted book that raises compelling challenges to widely held doubts about the cogency of belief in God. Where the Conflict Really Lies began as Plantinga’s 2005 Gifford Lectures, and pieces of it have appeared in Science and Religion: Are They Compatible (Oxford, 2011, co-authored with Daniel Dennett), and in a handful of articles. It is filled with the kind of careful analysis, philosophical rigor and understated humor that have become hallmarks of Plantinga’s notable career.
The central claims of Where the Conflict Really Lies are the following:
- There is no conflict between theistic religion and the scientific theory of evolution.
- There is no conflict between science and the common theistic belief that there have been miracles.
- There are superficial conflicts between Christian belief and evolutionary psychology, on the one hand, and scientific scripture scholarship, on the other, but these conflicts don’t provide defeaters for Christian belief.
- There is deep concord between science and theistic religion.
- There is deep conflict between science and naturalism.
Plantinga’s case for (v) is a restatement of his well-known evolutionary argument against naturalism, which first appeared almost twenty years ago in Warrant and Proper Function (Oxford, 1993). Because this argument will be familiar to many and because I found the 300 pages that preceded Plantinga’s most recent statement of it to be more thought-provoking, I will say nothing further about (v) in this review.
Sahotra Sarkar lives just down the road from me in Austin, a grand town I visit often, and is in some way affiliated with the philosophy department there–I don’t know if it’s a courtesy appointment or what because I couldn’t locate his CV–and I’m a BIG fan of the UT philosophy department (though, of course, not the football team :-)–so I don’t want to cause trouble. BUT Sarkar is mean, and he attacked my friend Bradley Monton in a screedish review for NDPR. I’m honestly surprised–and dissapointed–that NDPR saw fit to publish this review at all. It’s not Sarkar’s first such one-sided rant. His review of Steve Fuller’s book showed his inability to review fairly (I didn’t like the book either, but it’s just not the case–as it rarely is–that the book had not a single redeeming feature).
His suggestion that Brad’s book is “one philosopher’s attempt to cash in” is insulting and demeaning. Worse, it’s false. I have been talking with Brad about philosophy of religion for about eight years now, and he is completely honest in his investigations, sincere in his affirmations and denials. And I am at a loss to understand the force of the following statement.
“Monton’s self-portrayal as an atheist who thinks that some Intelligent Design (ID) arguments have enough force to make him less certain of his atheism, though not eschew it altogether.”
“Self-portrayal”? Does he think Brad is lying about being an atheist or lying about thinking some ID arguments have *some* force? Is it now some kind of “weakness” to admit that arguments which contradict one’s views have *some* force? I have been unable to come up with some non-weasily understanding of these claims.
The end of the semester is fast approaching, which means an even more hectic academic schedule, followed by a vacation. This post will be a brief remark on Sobel‘s treatment of omniscience, which completes his interlude on divine attributes. Following this, I will leave off until after the holidays, at which point I will deal with the remainder of the book, which treats arguments against the existence of God, and also ‘Pascalian’ practical arguments for belief in God.
The main puzzle Sobel finds with omniscience is one pushed by Patrick Grim. The thrust of the argument is this: (1) a Cantorian diagonalization argument shows that there can be no set of all truths. But, (2) for any being, there is a set containing all and only the propositions known by that being. Therefore, (3) no being knows all truths. (This is my simplified reconstruction; Sobel spells out some of the set-theoretic details related to (1).)
As Sobel rightly points out, there is no reason for the theist to accept (2) and, as a result, the argument fails. (Sobel also considers a similar argument from Grim to the effect that the sentence ‘there is a being who knows every proposition’ fails to express a proposition, because there are no propositions about all propositions. Sobel is, I think, correct in saying that Grim’s premises involve details of a theory of propositions, rather than just an intuitive definition of propositions and ‘aboutness’, and any theory of propositions that has this consequence is clearly unacceptable.) All I want to note here is that Sobel doesn’t point out what I take to be one of the more interesting reasons theists might reject the premise. Consider the following argument in support of (2):
(a) For every distinct proposition p known by a being S, S is in a distinct mental state which (partly) constitutes S’s knowledge that p.
(b) No being can be in a proper class of distinct mental states.
Therefore, (c) No being can know a proper class of propositions, i.e. (2) is true.
(a) is plausible insofar as knowledge either is itself a mental state (as Williamson says), or else is partly constituted by belief, which is a mental state. (b) seems plausible probably because we typically think of mental states as concrete entities, and we balk at the idea of a proper class of concrete entities. (Having countably or continually many concrete entities is mind-boggling enough.)
I think Sobel probably has an argument like this in the back of his mind, and this is why he offers the suggestion (pp. 384-388) that if we aren’t too wedded to pure actuality and atemporality as divine attributes, we might hold that only some set of propositions is before God’s mind at any given time, but these propositions are such that God can easily (instantaneously) deduce any of the other propositions from them whenever he likes. Sobel calls this ‘virtual’ knowledge.
But, as Sobel realizes, the theist is at liberty to reject (b), and so to continue rejecting (2). What Sobel doesn’t seem to realize, is that certain theists, those who accept the strong (Western) form of divine simplicity, are under independent pressure to reject (a). According to this view, God is identical to each of his attributes. Therefore, if God knows that p, and God knows that q, then God’s knowledge that p = God’s knowledge that q = God, and similarly for God’s belief in each of these propositions. If this idea makes any sense (and I suppose we shouldn’t just take for granted that it does), then God can know a proper class of propositions without being in a proper class of mental states.
[Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net]
After considering arguments for the existence of God, Sobel has a brief interlude on the divine attributes, before going on to arguments against the existence of God. Chapter 9 concerns omnipotence and the famous Stone Paradox. Sobel defines omnipotence (roughly) as the ability to do anything that can be done. (He improves this basic definition in a few ways, but these need not concern us.) The Stone Paradox, Sobel rightly recognizes, is no real problem for omnipotence as such, for if a being can do anything that can be done, then that being can take away some of the powers it has, just as I can take away some of the powers that I have. As a result, there is no problem with an omnipotent being creating a stone it can’t lift; it is simply that it must lay aside its omnipotence in the process. However, as this analysis shows, essential omnipotence is something else altogether, and this points to a more general problem: the God of the religious tradition has essential properties (in fact, it is most common, historically, for theologians to hold that he has all of his properties essentially). But then there are things I can do that God can’t, such as making myself less knowledgeable. (Of course, God could make me less knowledgeable; what he couldn’t do is make himself less knowledgeable.) Sobel comes up with a proposal for a coherent understanding of the feature the theologians want to attribute to God, but denies that this feature is properly described as ‘omnipotence’. In this post I will discuss Sobel’s proposal. In the next post, I will make a proposal of my own, and argue that it is sensible to call the feature I identify ‘omnipotence.’
Sobel says that although nothing could be essentially omnipotent, a being could possess a feature Sobel calls ‘only necessarily self-limited power’ (ONSLIP). This is the property of being such that:
[one is] capable of each task t that it is logically possible that some being should do, which is such that (i) for each attribute, if any, that x has essentially, x’s performing t is consistent with its having this attribute … and (ii) if x has necessary everlasting existence, then performing t is consistent with its continuing to exist. (p. 365)
In other words, God’s power is limited only by God’s own nature. This is, I think, the sort of thing the theologians have in mind. However, as Sobel points out, a being might have this feature and not be anything like omnipotent. To use his example, a being might be “essentially incapable of creating something from nothing” (ibid.), and so be an ONSLIP without having that power. So Sobel is right that the property of being an ONSLIP ought not to be called ‘omnipotence’ (or ‘almightiness’). I wonder, however, if perhaps we might get an omnipotence “worth the name” by specifying the sorts of attributes the being can have essentially. For instance, an ONSLIP who essentially possesses all positive properties (if we can get a decent understanding of ‘positive’ in this context) is not going to seem limited to us in the way an ONSLIP who is essentially incapable of creating something from nothing does.
[cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net]
Over on my personal blog, I have, for the last six weeks or so, been reflecting on Jordan Howard Sobel’s 2003 Logic and Theism: Arguments For and Against the Existence of God, and I have been invited to continue my series here at Prosblogion. Earlier posts have discussed, among other things, a variety of ontological and cosmological arguments. We join the discussion in chapter 7, Sobel’s critique of teleological (design) arguments.
Much of this chapter is devoted to Hume interpretation and to explaining Bayesianism. The latter seems to be one of several places where Sobel has not decided whether he is writing a textbook or a monograph. As for the former, the ‘analogical’ version of the teleological argument is, I think, not the strongest version and, although I haven’t conducted a survey of the various treatments, I would be surprised if Hume’s version turned out to be the best. After all, Hume is at most a half-hearted supporter of the argument; even he doesn’t think his argument is all that compelling. (Because the argument is contained in the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, there are even some who doubt whether Hume means to endorse it at all.)
The first really interesting thing in this chapter is the discussion of whether the appearance of design in the biological world, or other facts about biology, might manage to make theistic evolution more probable than unguided evolution (pp. 272-277). Sobel makes essentially two points: first, with the possible exception of pre-biotic evolution (the development of the first life forms) there aren’t really any ‘gaps’ left for a God to plug, and, second, that given what we now know, evolution really doesn’t look planned or, at least, whoever was doing the planning could’ve done a better job of it.
The first point, I think, is completely misguided, but I am not inclined to blame Sobel because so many of his opponents are misguided in this way. Hume (according to Sobel) believed that some kind of indefinite and probably imperfect designer was needed to bring about life. ‘Intelligent Design’ advocates frequently claim that there is some feature of the world that must have happened by a supernatural entity interfering with the course of nature. Hume didn’t mean to be defending the religious tradition, but many of the ID folks are trying to do just that. Now, a frequently cited problem with ‘God-of-the-gaps’ arguments is that history shows that ‘gaps’ have a tendency to get plugged with perfectly naturalistic solutions. Some ID folks have tried to solve this by giving some kind of reason for thinking that some of the ‘gaps’ are special and unlikely to be plugged. For those who are trying to defend the religious tradition, however, there is a bigger problem: the doctrine of divine sovereignty. The God of western monotheism can never be a ‘God-of-the-gaps’: either he is Lord of all creation, or he does not exist. This is not, in itself, an argument against law-breaking miracles (though I’ve got some of those); it is just to say that, from the perspective of the religious tradition, we must attribute the whole natural order to God, rather than only crediting God with deviations from the natural order. In my view, then, the plugging of ‘gaps’ should not be troubling to traditional theists, though it might be troubling for non-traditional theists/deists such as Hume might have been. This, let it be stressed, is because even if there were unfillable ‘gaps,’ this would not help to support theism. I would even go so far as to say that such ‘gaps’ would be evidence against the existence of God, as traditionally conceived. (In addition to my paper, see Christine Overall, “Miracles as Evidence Against the Existence of God,” The Southern Journal of Philosophy 23 (1985): 347-353. Also, I recently stumbled upon this short news item which quotes Guy Consolmagno, the Vatican astronomer, comparing ID to Paganism, on the same grounds I’ve mentioned.)
Sobel’s second point is more interesting. Although Sobel doesn’t consider a theory that has God accomplishing his purposes through natural evolutionary processes without law-breaking interventions (this is the account I favor), he does point to some issues that should trouble evolutionary theists. The evolutionary process is brutal and seems to proceed by fits and starts. Many species die out; many animals have useless organs of various kinds; the system depends crucially on death and suffering. Wouldn’t we expect God to do better?
On the other hand, from an engineering/design principles perspective, evolution is really quite pretty: it’s a self-improving system. And not just self-improving like Bayesian learning for artificial intelligences; self-improving like going from ooze to the human brain. That’s quite an improvement! There are problems about a benevolent God accomplishing his purposes through death and suffering, and I don’t mean to minimize those. But they may be counter-balanced, at least to some degree, by the sheer impressiveness of the system. Furthermore, since Sobel is interested in considering non-traditional gods (p. 259), we might consider a designer who doesn’t care about pain and suffering and just wants to generate sophisticated and intelligent creatures from the simplest basic principles possible. Such a designer would, it seems, be very likely to choose a process like evolution.
It seems to me, then, that evolutionary theory has two effects on the debate at this point: (1) it rules out some, but by no means all, non-traditional gods, and (2) it introduces some new complexity to our treatment of the problem of evil. However, contrary to Sobel’s assertions (pp. 272-274), it has not undermined any argument for the traditional God which was any good to begin with.
[cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net]
So I’m teaching this honors undergrad class on C.S. Lewis and the Problem of Evil here at Baylor. Today we covered parts of “Animal Pain” from _The Problem of Pain_. I must say that well prior to reading Rowe, I was very struck with the problem of animal pain. I regard it as in certain ways much more troubling than the problem of human pain. In fact, it constitutes–and I’m probably not alone here, though at one time it was rare to find anyone who even talked about it–one of the two objections to theism which have any real weight with me, and it bears much, much weight.
In the chapter, Lewis suggests that…
SO, I’ve been reading Stephen Meyer’s Signature in the Cell, I’m about three quarters through, and I have to say that it’s been an enjoyable read so far. Just as fun has been my reading group for this book with two biology majors, a biochemistry major, and a biological engineering major; they help explain the biology concepts to me.
The book’s undergone a lot of controversy; I was motivated to read it primarily by Thomas Nagel’s (in)famous recommendation. There’s a lot to criticize about the book, and people have pointed to possible errors in biology that I’m currently not in the position to assess. There are also some little errors. For example, Meyer writes, “It follows that mind–conscious, rational intelligent agency–what philosophers call “agent causation,” now stands as the only cause known to be capable of generating large amounts of specified information starting from a nonliving state” (341). Of course, this is not what philosophers call “agent causation”, so it’s an error, but it’s a “little error” because nothing of significance falls on it. (In my opinion, most of the critical blog posts on the net that I’ve read so far focus on little errors and not at all on Meyer’s overall argument for ID.) Also, the book is longer than it needs to be, although I often enjoy his excursions and illustrations.
Sometimes I wish I lived in the UK. I can’t imagine such a rational and fair discussion airing in the states, not even on NPR maybe.
Interview on Australian ABC affiliate.
Article in the Guardian on the old “New Atheists.”
Morris’s cool book _Inevitable Humans_.
A summary of some of his ideas from Wikipedia.
Simon Conway Morris’s homepage in the Department of Earth Sciences, Cambridge U.
He’s well known for his work on evolutionary convergence, the fact that certain features seem to evolve independently and almost inevitably. This has lead him to make the controversial claim–for which he however makes a good case based on the convergence data he’s famous for in his field–that if there were life on other planets, it wold likely resemble life on Earth to a remarkable degree.
There are two potential applications of his work (at least) concerning the design argument. One is that it would settle a dilemma posed in this paper by Dougherty and Poston: “A User’s Guide to Design Arguments.” I.e. it would show that there is possibly a good fine-tuning argument for God’s existence, but not a good biological design argument.
Second, it would go some way toward defeating the “strange alternative forms of life” objection to the fine-tuning argument.
I welcome both these results.