Plantinga vs. Dennett

Since God’s getting a lot of attention on the previous thread, some might like to read this blow-by-blow of a debate at the Central APA meeting in Chicago last week. Alvin Plantinga gave a paper arguing that Christianity is compatible with evolution, and Daniel Dennett responded.

The anonymous writer doesn’t try to be non-partisan (he’s a Plantingan), but gives an entertaining account of the goings-on.  The drama of the lap-top battery certainly had me on the edge of my seat.  (Damn those things!)  Anyhow, enjoy.

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33 Comments.

  1. It was a blow by blow account, indeed, but it didn’t spell out the blows. So it wasn’t clear how Plantinga argued and Dennett only told stories. Is there a more reliable account of the exchange around? The debate intrigues me. The only time I ever heard Plantinga, he was so obviously arguing from some basic theological presuppositions (unsubstantitated) – yes, I know that he calls them properly basic, or something like that, but even that doesn’t impress me – that I wondered why he called himself a philosopher rather than a theologian. Anyway, it was an interesting take on a contemporary issue, but it didn’t settle anything, or make clear what might have settled it. Since the unnamed writer didn’t really give us Plantinga’s arguments, it’s hard to know what the issues really were. Is there a video of the debate somewhere?

  2. Eric,

    Just finished reading the whole thing through. In the comments someone says there’s an mp3 of the whole thing here–

    http://www.megaupload.com/?d=WN2X9G6W

    I will have a listen when I get a chance. I gather from “anonymous” that Plantinga thinks theism is not just compatible with evolution, but more likely than naturalism, give evolution. So people who believe in evolution not only can be theists (instead of naturalists) but should be. With God, you can explain the course of evolution better than without (says Plantinga). I shall look forward to listening and getting a better grip on this (er, surprising) conclusion.

    An interesting issue comes up in the comments–why does “anonymous” post anonymously? He says it’s because there’s bias against theists in the philosophy profession. For what it’s worth–I think anonymous is correct.

  3. Heh, he doesn’t just say there is a bias. He says:

    “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.”

    And if you think THAT is correct, i.e. that simply having theistic beliefs could damage his career in academic philosophy then…well. I think that’s quite loathesome. I guess fundies come in all stripes both theistic and atheistic.

  4. I read the debate summary. I don’t see why Dennett has an obligation to be respectful to Christianity, except perhaps because there are lots of Christians and it’s not nice to offend lots of people. But in itself, as a system of ideas, Christianity has no special claim to respect any more than the collected works of Chairman Mao on Dialectical Materialism do. By the way, about 35 years ago lots of Chinese believed in the little red book of Chairman Mao, and perhaps it would have been nice to respect them. Or maybe not?

  5. I don’t see what’s so loathsome about philosophy departments demanding that their faculty don’t hold unsubstantiated beliefs that are at odds with both logic and science. (Not that phil. dept.’s can really afford to actually demand stuff like that in the religion-friendly USA.)

    They can demand some other stuff, though: some of the people who comment under the above anonymous contribution have argued that it’s perfectly acceptable for Christian colleges to demand that their faculty sign papers promising that they won’t engage in homosexual activity.

  6. Tea

    Well on further review I suspect that annonymous is probably way off base and is being hyperbolic (and that I employed some hyperbole of my own). Upon reading the whole document and some of the attendent comments he seems a timid fellow who has a persecution complex. So I’m not sure how seriously I want to take his claim.

    Having said that, I definitely don’t think that philosophy departments should become the thought police and unduly restrict dialogue. Your statement “demanding that their faculty don’t hold unsubstantiated beliefs that are at odds with both logic and science” begs the question. The whole point is to explore to what degree relgion and science can or cannot be made to agree with each other (see the previous thread based on Baginni’s review of QoT).

    So yes I think it’s loathesome if a PHILOSOPHY department starts shutting down dialogues based on some idea that logic and science have settled all these questoins once and for all. I have full confidence that reason and science are robust enough to defeat their adversaries without any help from the UNIVERSITY.

    As for the question of respect mentioned by Amos above, I agree there is no reason to respect beliefs of any stripe whatsoever. One does not respect beliefs or customs, or practices. One respects the people who have them and perform them when and where it is possible to do so. Obviously if somone holds the belief that you are bad and must be destroyed then it’s time to stop respecting them. But generally speaking, my default position is to begin with a posture of respecting people, which means taking them as seriously as I can up to the point where the position becomes untenable.

  7. Faust: Precisely, as you say, one should respect people and there are lots of people who are Christians and these days very few believers in the thought of Chairman Mao. Hence, it is easy to be implacable in criticizing the Dialectic Materialism of Mao (I’m not talking of Marx himself who has his merits and never mentioned dialectic materialism), but it’s hard to be harsh, as was Dennett, when criticizing Christianity because one will hurt the feelings (it’s not good to hurt people’s feelings) of one’s fellows who are Christians. But there’s a trap there, because Christians are validly demanding respect as human beings (the few surviving Maoist deserve respect as human beings too), but then
    use one’s tendency to respect others to demand a special respect for their faith, which I might venture to suggest has even less rational basis than Maoism.

  8. He has no obligation to be respectful (perhaps Kant would think differently here) yet he does have an obligation to address the compatibility claims of theism (which does not necessarily require Christian belief) and evolution, and a lack of respect for the principles of the belief may inhibit his ability to properly do this. This is a consistent inadequacy to Dennett’s, Dawkins etc. arguments against religious claims. They typically argue against the poorest claims and ascribe them to religious concepts as a whole, which often leads to some form of ridicule, most often of Christianity (their target tends to be the Christianity that expresses the deity in anthropomorphic terms–”How could you possibly believe this nonsense!”. A book like the Tao of Physics or even perhaps (and this will probably stoke some dissent) the Phenomenon of Man are examples of theology and science finding a common coherent ground. Dismissiveness that subsequently appeals to a groups dispositions does not necessarily lead to logical conclusiveness, more often than not it’s simply preaching to the choir. A mistake that the religious of all ideological guises are prone to make. Hence, in a roundabout way, I agree with the comments concerning respect made by Faust and amos.

    On another note I think it’s unfortunate that someone with analytic training (There’s a joke there, that analytic philosophy is redundant) feels that he can’t openly express his support for theistic claims–and that’s even if this particular fellow does have a complex of sorts. If it’s logical for an organism to exist from a composition of lower order existents, I don’t see how a transcendent “God” is not by analogy also logically possible. If they are to then claim that, how do you know, there is no evidence, I would reply that “do your cells know of your existence”. The knowledge of its existence is not ultimately the determining factor in whether something exists or not….but now I’m getting tangential…Herbert Marcuse leveled a similar criticism on the analytical tradition. The limitation and restraints it places upon logical expressions in turn eliminates our understanding of experiences that fall outside of those logical expressions. The evolution of language itself is in some ways a process of finding expression for new experiences. What is is not what will always be.

  9. I really think that the days of ignoramuses who think they can “argue” against Christianity without making any effort to understand it, resorting to tired old tropes about “Spaghetti Monsters” etc.. are drawing to a close. See eg the commentary in The Selfish Gene Delusion

  10. As long as mainstream religion treats homosexuals as if they are ill or sinful, as long as there continue to be ‘end-timers’, as long as the religious believe God is worth dying or killing for and as long as the Vatican employs an Exorcist and engages in other such silliness, then I think mockery shows restraint.

    Of course, these beliefs do not apply to everyone who believes in God. However they apply to mainstream religion, which Nicholas urges us to take seriously. Nicholas, do you distance yourself from all of the above?

  11. Nicholas,

    How much effort did you make to understand the Flying Spaghetti Monster? Dismissing it as a “tired old trope” shows that you’re an ignoramus who probably shouldn’t participate in such a debate.

    I mean, how else do you explain the fact that I *love* pasta, and that so many people who are much smarter than you are absolutely in love with Italian cuisine? How else can you make sense of the phenomenon of Linguini Putanesca? Pasta is communicating with you – why are you refusing to listen to it?

    That being said, I honestly cannot believe that serious philosophers are finding it worthwhile to participate in such absurd debates, the sole aim of which is to try to demonstrate that if we forcibly skew some incredibly vague and unsupported suppositions, we just might be able to show that they don’t completely contradict everything else we know about the world.

  12. [NB this isn't specifically a reply to Nicholas Beale, although it starts off as one]
    The Flying Spaghetti Monster only appears a “tired old trope” to you, I suspect, because it’s such a strong argument against belief in any deity of insubstantial spirit stuff that it keeps appearing all the time.

    If we need to study theology & Christian apologetics in order to remain atheists, should we also make an in-depth study of the Talmud, Koran, Bhagavad Gita, and so on? Or could we possibly make a broad argument for the lack of belief in all the above?

    Theology of all stripes begins with belief. For those of us without belief, it doesn’t even get off the ground. I suspect that’s the major difficulty with the exchange between Dennett and Plantinga – it’s all very well to present compatibility arguments, and there are enough religious scientists out there to make a convincing argument for compatibility. On the other hand, stronger claims against what Plantinga calls “naturalism” are a lot more difficult to make convincing.

  13. Faust and Amos,

    If you lived in Nazi’s or Chairman Mao’s times, do you think you would also become a Nazi or one who believed in the little red book of Chairman Mao? Is it possible for you to have “persecution complex”? (The same question I have put to my students, and I appreciate those young people’s honesty in giving me that positive answer.)

    I think it is very difficult for the individual to struggle against the powerful national machine. I should have no difficulty believing that if in ancient Rome, you will be one of the audience cheering for the barbaric gladiatorial fighting, or if in a tribe practicing cannibalism, you will scalp your ememy, just as I have no difficulty in understanding that now in America, you are waving that belief-flag with American stripes singing high praise for the freedom and democracy heavily tinted with American ideology.

  14. Lucia: It’s not probable that I would have become a Nazi in Hitler’s Germany, since I’m Jewish. I might have become a Maoist in Communist China (I think that the fervor of the Red Guards was a generational thing), but that really wasn’t my point. I used Mao’s Red Book as a example of a ridiculous doctrine, but no more ridiculous than Christianity in philosophical terms.

  15. When I read in that account of the mano a mano that Dennett was fixing his equipment I thought ‘Oh no, he’s brought the Transmogritron’. For the less technical amongst you the T. replaces Theta particles in the brain with Phi (Phusis for Theos). Then he began having trouble with his equipment – Gremlins are like that, God is good. However he seemed to have fixed it but by 3:29 according to our valiant reporter, who put life, limb and tenure on the line, Dennett was suffering from a breakdown in urbanity due to leakage from the Transmogritron. A sure sign is logorrhoea. Sad really.

    Result: Sad Santa 0. Phlegmatic Dutchman 1.

  16. “Our question: are science and religion compatible? Many points of conflict have been suggested; I’ll restrict myself to a cluster of issues having to do with evolution. I’ll argue (1) that contemporary evolutionary theory is not incompatible with theistic belief, (2) that the main antitheistic arguments involving evolution together with other premises also fail, (3) that even if current science, evolutionary or otherwise, were incompatible with theistic belief, it wouldn’t follow that theistic belief is irrational or unwarranted or in any other kind of trouble, (4) that naturalism, the thought that there is no such thing as the God of theistic religion or anything like him, is an essential element in the naturalistic worldview, which is a sort of quasi-religion in the sense that it plays some of the most important roles of religion; and that the naturalistic worldview is in fact incompatible with evolution. Hence there is a science/religion (or science/quasi-religion) conflict, all right, but it is a conflict between naturalism and science, not theistic religion and science.”

  17. Jean:
    Left out the preamble to that comment. Excuse me:
    Buried in the comments I found this statement of the programme upon which P. spoke and D. answered. Having the agenda set for him may have irritated D. I’d like to listen to the mp3 but being in dial-up land here don’t have the time. I could go with the 4 points there on the face of them and (3) I have been holding something like against N.Beale

    “Our question: are science and religion compatible? Many points of conflict have been suggested; I’ll restrict myself to a cluster of issues having to do with evolution. I’ll argue (1) that contemporary evolutionary theory is not incompatible with theistic belief, (2) that the main antitheistic arguments involving evolution together with other premises also fail, (3) that even if current science, evolutionary or otherwise, were incompatible with theistic belief, it wouldn’t follow that theistic belief is irrational or unwarranted or in any other kind of trouble, (4) that naturalism, the thought that there is no such thing as the God of theistic religion or anything like him, is an essential element in the naturalistic worldview, which is a sort of quasi-religion in the sense that it plays some of the most important roles of religion; and that the naturalistic worldview is in fact incompatible with evolution. Hence there is a science/religion (or science/quasi-religion) conflict, all right, but it is a conflict between naturalism and science, not theistic religion and science.”

  18. Tea, I was distressed to find that petition at the blog where I first found the blow-by-blow. The fact that Alvin Plantinga signed it does not increase my respect for him. To say the last.

  19. I know, Jean. The whole thing is revolting, and it pains me that some of my former professors are signing the petition and blindly refusing to see how immoral it is.

  20. So I’m going to listen to the exchange later on mp3, but for now I want to address Paul’s comment which I think goes to heart of the matter: (p.s. what is the proper coding for [quote][/quote] on this site?

    “As long as mainstream religion treats homosexuals as if they are ill or sinful, as long as there continue to be ‘end-timers’, as long as the religious believe God is worth dying or killing for and as long as the Vatican employs an Exorcist and engages in other such silliness, then I think mockery shows restraint. ”

    This relates to the general question of respect as elucidated above where I wrote “Obviously if someone holds the belief that you are bad and must be destroyed then it’s time to stop respecting them.” The difficulties surrounding science/religion debate is that while science tends to be value neutral, or at least values a particular form of neutrality, religion is, once one gets past it’s most abstract incarnations (e.g. theism per se) very much a value system with an agenda. So it’s one thing to make a compatibility argument which can be assessed as an argument with merits according to reason, it’s another to then use the room created by compatibility to advance strong judgments about the moral status of say…sexuality.

    As long as people are attempting, in good faith, to have a good discussion, with serious arguments, then by all means lets have at it! Of course already there will be disagreement about what constitutes a good argument, but that’s part of the agonistic game of argument. However, lurking in the background of any science/religion debate is the fact that the prior commitments of religious people often (but not always!) involve very harsh judgments of other people, as well as attempts to shape the laws and conventions of the broader society. On the one hand, the possibility of a reasonable and serious discourse guided by principles of reason. On the other, culture war. This is why the New Atheists often express their concern for “moderate religion” as they are concerned that if they give an inch they will be taken for a mile. Better to crush the insipid stupidity of arbitrary and irrational belief than to allow extreme fanaticism to crawl in through the back door!

    This is also why when we talk about “religion” we almost invariably wind up back at Christianity. Really most of these discussions for those of us in the west are about Christianity/Science, or sometimes Islam/Reason. No one is arguing about the Balinese gods Barong and Rangda because there is no one in the debate who has any prior commitments to such entities. The “religion” label employed by the New Atheists is never anthropological or psychological, it is always in the end polemically oriented towards the real opponents, which are the truth claims of western monotheism, especially Christianity which is the biggest enemy. Conversely, the religious side is almost always in the end committed to Christianity of some form or another, although religions in general tend to band together around their common cause (see http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/7906595.stm for example)

    So in a sense all these discussions are “masks” worn by the two sides of a culture war. While Science and Religion may have some compatibility, what is clear is that at least some of the moral commitments of at least some of the people involved in the debate most certainly do not. The tension between the two sides probably has a great deal more to do with the latter than with specific difficulties of the former.

    No doubt the above is an oversimplification, but there is something to it I think.

  21. And I would speculate that one reason Christianity was and is so popular is because it appeals to at least three very powerful parts of evolved human nature; love, anxiety and violence. The endorsement of love, the resolution of anxiety and the promise of violence towards those who choose not to believe is a heady mix.

    Christianity relies on things we care about already; things that have evolved for very natural reasons. Indeed perhaps it is because we care about such matters that we call Christianity into doubt. It is because we care about love, because we wish to reduce the anxiety created by the falsehoods and inconsistencies in the Christian message and because we do not wish to be violent towards other people in the world that Christianity must be examined.

  22. Amos,

    My point is no one can be independent from any belief / doctrince in any form, whether he/she is a skeptisist or agnostic, or whatever. Your doctrine “…no more ridiculous than Christianity in philosophical terms” is no more, if no less, rediculous than doctrinal Christianity, actually.

  23. Faust, you say,

    […lurking in the background of any science/religion debate is the fact that the prior commitments of religious people often (but not always!) involve very harsh judgments of other people, as well as attempts to shape the laws and conventions of the broader society….]

    Isn’t it often the case that the non-religious people also “involve very harsh judgments of other people?” And I don’t know how you measure and distinguish the degree of “harshness” involved in this judgment matter. It is unfair to draw such a sweepy conclusion about religious people.

    There are many different cases among believers (some are out of a religiuos habit, some out of culture, while there are also trend-followers or even insincere believers), but true serious believers, through their inner or outer experiences, have found out sth. they hold to be true, so that they take it as a criteria for their action in real-life situations. This tenacity to what they think of as right and incompatability with what they think of as wrong is, in my opinion, the “prior commitments”.

    I can see your point that the best way out in not allowing “extreme fanaticism to crawl in through the back door” is through dialogue or argument. But I am unsure whether this religion/science debate can get us anywhere. They start from different assumptions, so EACH will “shape the laws and conventions of the broader society”. In many issues they are like two parallel lines, therefore incompatible.

  24. Paul,

    […because it appeals to at least three very powerful parts of evolved human nature; love, anxiety and violence..]
    Aren’t these also the features shared by many other major religions? So they cannot explain away why Christianity is so “popular.”

  25. I’m not familiar with all the world’s religions, but I always thought love was given much more centrality in Christianity. I always thought it was Christ’s emphasis on this that won people over (in addition to the ‘miracles’).

    However if you wanted to make the same point about other religions, then I’d agree with you, more or less. There does seem to be less violence and eternal damnation in other religions I suppose, but they’re not really that popular (I think?).

    I suspect all of them try and provide answers to things that make us worry. If they didn’t, then what why would we care so much if they were right or wrong?

  26. Paul,

    I roughly agree with you. Further thoughts reveal that your points are related to three major religious themes: love, suffering in this world and retribution in the afterlife.

  27. I really think that the days of ignoramuses who think they can “argue” against Christianity without making any effort to understand it, resorting to tired old tropes about “Spaghetti Monsters” etc.. are drawing to a close. See eg the commentary in The Selfish Gene Delusion

    How about people who think they can “argue” against The Selfish Gene without making an effort to understand it?

    Just to point to one error in your essay, there is no “denial” of the importance of the social group in TSG. It extensively discusses behavioral interactions at the level of kin group, reciprocal altruism, etc. You are perhaps thinking of “group selection”, which is sometimes confusingly promoted as an alternative to “selfish genes”, but in fact modern group selection models are mathematically fully compatible with kin selection, the gene-centered view.

  28. Lucia:

    You write:

    “Isn’t it often the case that the non-religious people also “involve very harsh judgments of other people?” And I don’t know how you measure and distinguish the degree of “harshness” involved in this judgment matter. It is unfair to draw such a sweepy conclusion about religious people.”

    1. Yes non-religious people make very harsh judgements of other people all the time. I might be an american nationalist that makes very harsh judgments about mexicans crossing the border. Obviously I could also be agnostic, atheistic, or theist and it wouldn’t necessarily change much. So I’m not suggesting that being religious is the only source of harsh judgments.

    2. Nevertheless religions ARE a source of harsh judgements. By “harsh” I mean a judgement about types of persons or behaviors of persons that suggest a need for control or violence towards said persons or behaviors. Being harsh doesn’t automatically mean that it is wrong. Life imprisonment for certain crimes is harsh but sometimes justified. The question is: what are our justifications for harsh judgments.

    3. Religions supply ample justification for harsh judgements. They are not the only source of such justifications, but they are certainly a ready supplier of them. The question then becomes what is the justification of those justifications, i.e. the truth claims of religion, and the viability of knowledge via revalation.

    4. So finally to the central point: when some religious people, the religious people who pumped millions of dollars into the yes on prop 8 campaign in California to change the constitution of the sate specifically in order to restrict the legal options of people that have a particular sexual orientation then yes at that point you people who have decided to judge other people to the point where they feel they need to pass constitutional law in order to restrict their behavior and legal options. This is justified by reference to a “holy book” which “reveals” that an “eternal being” has decided that such individuals are engaged in “evil” behavior that must be punished and controlled. In other countries such indivudals are actually killed for this crime (almost invariably under the auspices of some religion).

    5. Is this a sweeping generalization? I specifically said BUT NOT ALL, in order to avoid such a generalization.

  29. Just thought I’d add one more comment–about the Dennett portion of the MP3. I finally got through the whole thing and he’s actually really great. Contrary to the anonymous live blogger’s account, he does respond to Plantinga’s arguments. He just does so lightly, with a lot of humor, and without all the needless technicality and jargon in Plantinga’s talk. The whole MP3′s a lot of fun–

    http://www.megaupload.com/?d=WN2X9G6W

  30. Faust,

    Your justification makes it seem not so sweeping, I mean the generalization :-). But let me get to the core issue of your post: viability of knowledge via revelation.

    Since it is impossible to argue extensively about the “viability” of Christian knowledge here, let’s just focus on homosexsual (morality), sine you mentioned it. No doubt Christians object to homo-act according to the holy book (But it is certainly wrong to skew policy-making by illegal and immoral means, and to kill people for that matter, as these practices go against other Christian doctrines.) But sofaras the immorality of homosextuals is concerned, is there any problem with this truth claim and value judgement? Of course discussion can be avoided if this is a sensitive issue.

  31. The burden of proof lies with you Lucia. Let’s hear your arguments in defence of the truth-claim. Nicholas has been diplomatically silent on this issue. Perhaps because he knows discussing any arguments re the immorality of homosexuality damages the Christian position almost irreparably.

    For a reasonable person signing up to Christianity it’s a bit like buying flights from a budget airline. You see a flight for a £1 and think “wow, that’s cheap” and then, after you’ve committed yourself to the idea of a holiday, they hit you with the additional costs. I believe it’s called the ‘foot-in-the-door’ sales technique (to be contrasted with the ‘door-in-the-face’ technique favoured by the fundamentalists).

  32. Lucia: Maybe I misunderstand. If so, my apologies.
    Are you claiming that homosexuality is immoral?
    What could be immoral about two consenting adults loving each other or even just giving each other pleasure?

  33. “is there any problem with this truth claim and value judgement?”

    Yes. It is a simple argument from authority. I dispute the authority. I could argue that adulterers should be stoned to death on the basis of Deuteronomy and have textual support. Who decides what texts should be left in and left out. etc. If it’s human beings who have decided this, why should they be considered infallible? No doubt OTHER arguments from authority (e.g. Papal authority).

    In any case, again this all goes back to what I was writing before, there are many dimensions to the science/religion debate. some of them are very sophisticated. But underneath the philosophical tussle is a culture war.

    Here is the funny thing: I have no problem whatsoever with Christians arguing their case with whatever arguments they can come up with from authority or otherwise. I DO have a problem with them legislating their conclusions into law. If the purpose of human freedom is so that humans can find their way to God on their own then restriciting human freedom any more than is necessary is a violation of God’s will.

    Of course…God did blow up some cities along the way. But that’s up to him, not up to Christians.

    In any case, Christendom does Christians no favors in my view.

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