Theistic Notebook

February 27, 2011

Alvin Plantinga on Science and Religion: Are they Compatible? Part 1

Alvin PlantingaWhat follows is part 1/3 of my transcription of Plantinga’s opening statement during his exchange with Daniel Dennett in 2009. The mp3 is available here. Also, Plantinga and Dennett co-authored a book shortly after this debate.

“Science and Religion: Where the Conflict Really Lies”
Speech delivered by Alvin Plantinga at the 2009 American Philosophical Association Central Division Conference.


“Science and Religion: Where the Conflict Really Lies.”  That’s the title.  Our question is this: are science and religion compatible?  A useful project would be to try to make this question more precise.  What is religion?  What is science?  What is incompatibility and in what varieties does it come?  There is explicit contradiction, implicit contradiction, contradiction in the presence of plausible assumptions, improbability of conjunction, and the like.  Some claim that theism itself is inconsistent; in which case, naturally enough, it will be incompatible with science … and everything else [audience laughter].  Others retort that the same goes for science: current general relativity is incompatible with current quantum theory, so that current science itself is inconsistent.  In which case, it is incompatible with religion … and everything else [audience laughter].  These are good topics, but they’ll have to wait for another occasion.

Here I’ll assume that we have at least a pretty good rough grasp of the question.  I won’t be talking about religion generally but about specifically theistic religion and in particular Christian belief.  But the Christian part will be less important than the theistic part.  When I speak of Christian belief I am thinking of C.S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity”: something like the intersection of the great Christian creeds.  So although what I say is explicitly concerned with Christian belief, it will also be relevant to many varieties of Judaism and Islam.

Why think there is conflict here?  Many suggestions have been offered.  For example, theistic religion endorses special divine action in the world, miracles for example.  But such action would contradict the laws promulgated by science.  Another example, there is such a thing as the scientific worldview and it is incompatible with theistic religion.  Christian belief implies that human beings have been created in God’s image, but contemporary evolutionary theory—properly understood— implies that neither God nor anyone else has designed, planned, or intended that human beings come to be.  Evolutionary psychology is full of theories that are incompatible with theistic understandings of human beings.  Some scientific Biblical scholarship argues that historical claims of Christianity—for example, that Jesus rose from the dead—are false, or anyway groundless.  These are all of great interest, but I’ll limit myself on this talk 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 anti-theistic 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.  And finally:

(4) That naturalism—the thought that there is no such person as the God of the theistic religions or anything like—God­ is an essential element in the naturalistic worldview, which is a sort of quasi-religion itself in the sense that it plays some of the most important roles of religion.  And, I’ll argue that the naturalistic worldview is in fact incompatible with evolution.  Hence, there is a science and religion (or quasi-religion) conflict alright, but it’s the conflict between naturalism and science, not between theistic religion and science.

Part 1 – Contemporary Evolutionary Theory is Compatible with Theistic Belief

The term “evolution” covers a variety of theses.  There is the ancient earth thesis for example.  There is the thesis of decent with modification.  That is the thought that the enormous diversity of the contemporary living world has come about by way of offspring differing—ordinarily in small and subtle ways—from their parents.  There is the common ancestry thesis:  the claim that­—as Gould put it—­there is a tree of evolutionary descent linking all organisms by deep ties of genealogy.  I’ll use the term “evolution” to refer to the conjunction of these three theses.

There is also (4), the claim that the principle mechanism driving this process of descent with modification is natural selection—natural selection winnowing random genetic mutation.  Since a similar proposal was characteristic of Darwin—he said natural selection has been the main but not exclusive means of modification—we’ll call this thesis Darwinism (so that’s the fourth thesis).

Now it’s clear I think that there’s no conflict between theistic religion and the ancient earth thesis or the descent with modification thesis or the common ancestry thesis.  According to theistic belief, God has created the living world, but of course he could have done so in many different ways and in particular in ways compatible with these theses.  What about the fourth thesis, Darwinism?  Is it incompatible with theistic religion?  Many apparently think so.  Among them are Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett seated here to my left [audience laughter], George Gaylord Simpson and many others, and far to the other side Phillip Johnson.  But are they right?  Where exactly would such an incompatibility arise?

A suggested source of conflict has to do with the Christian doctrine of creation—in particular the claim that God has created human beings in his image.  This requires that God intended to create creatures of a certain kind, and planned that there be creatures of that kind.  Rational creatures perhaps, with a moral sense and a capacity to know and love him.  It requires that God intended to create creatures of such a kind, and then acted in such a way as to accomplish this intention.  This claim is purely consistent with evolution (those first three theses), as conservative Christian theologians have pointed out as far back as 1871 with Charles Hodge at Princeton.  But is it also consistent with Darwinism?  It looks as if it is.  God could have caused the right mutations to arise at the right time.  He could have preserved populations from perils of various sorts, and so on.  And in this way, by orchestrating the course of evolution, he could have ensured that there come to be creatures of the kind he intends.  Now what is not consistent with Christian belief, however, is the claim that evolution and Darwinism are unguided or I’ll take that to include being unplanned and unintended.  What is not consistent with Christian belief is the claim that no personal agent (not even God) has guided, planned, intended, directed, orchestrated, or shaped this whole process.  Yet precisely this claim is made by a large number of contemporary scientists and philosophers who write on this topic.  There is a veritable choir of distinguished experts insisting that this process is unguided; indeed, sometimes insisting that it is part of the contemporary scientific theory of evolution itself to assert that it is unguided so that evolutionary theory as such is incompatible with Christian belief.

According to George Gaylord Simpson for example, “Man (and no doubt woman as well) is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind.” [i]

In this connection, the late Stephen Jay Gould and others have emphasized what they take to be the chancy, contingent, and undirected character of evolution.  If the evolutionary tape were to be rewound and then let go forward again, the chances are we’d get creatures of a very different sort from the ones actually present on earth.  The chances are we’d get nothing much like Homo sapiens.  But Gould’s suggestion, I think, presupposes that God has not guided and orchestrated the course of evolution; and hence, can’t be appealed to as a reason for supposing that he has not done so.  Given the biological evidence and the proposition that God has indeed created human beings in his image … [audience cough obscures a few words] … Gould’s suggestion is wholly implausible.  For if the tape were rewound and then let go forward again, no doubt God still would have intended that there be creatures created in his image, and would still have seen to it that there be such creatures.

What about the fact that genetic mutations are said to be random?  You might wonder whether genetic mutations could be both random and intended and caused by God.  If these mutations are random, aren’t they just a matter of chance … blind chance?  But it is no part of current evolutionary theory to say that these mutations are random in extent, implying that they are uncaused (they are said to be caused by cosmic rays for example), and still less that they occur just by chance.

According to Ernst Mayr, the dean of post-World War II biology, “When it is said that mutation or variation is random, the statement simply means that there is no correlation between the production of new genotypes and the adaptational needs of an organism in a given environment.” [ii]

Elliot Sober puts the point a little more carefully (or maybe more fully), “There is no physical mechanism (either inside organisms or outside of them) that detects which mutations would be beneficial and causes those mutations to occur.” [iii]

The point is that a mutation accruing to an organism is random, just as neither the organism nor its environment contains the mechanism or process or organ that causes adaptive mutations to occur.  But clearly a mutation could be both random in that sense, and also intended (and indeed caused) by God.  Hence, the randomness involved in Darwinism does not imply that the process is not divinely guided.  The fact (if it is a fact) that human beings have come to be by way of natural selection operating on random genetic mutation is not at all incompatible with their having been designed by God and created in his image.  Therefore Darwinism is entirely compatible with God’s guiding, orchestrating, and overseeing the whole process.  Indeed it’s perfectly compatible with the idea that God causes the random genetic mutations that are winnowed by natural selection.  Maybe all of them.  Maybe just some.  Those who claim that evolution shows that humankind or other living things have not been designed apparently confuse the naturalistic gloss on the scientific theory with the theory itself.  The claim that evolution demonstrates that human beings and other living creatures have not—contrary to appearances—been designed, is not a part of or a consequence of the scientific theory as such, but a metaphysical or theological add-on.  Naturalism implies of course that we human beings have not been designed and created in God’s image, because it implies that there is no such person as God.  But evolutionary science by itself does not carry this implication.  Naturalism and evolutionary theory together imply the denial of divine design.  But evolutionary theory by itself doesn’t have that implication.  It is only evolutionary science combined with naturalism that implies this denial.  Since naturalism all by itself has this implication, it’s no surprise that when you conjoin it with science—or as far as that goes anything else: the complete works of William E. McGonagall, poet and tragedian for example, or the Farmer’s Almanac, or the Apostle’s Creed—the conjunction will also have this implication [audience laughter].


i Simpson, Gaylord. The Meaning of Evolution: A Study of the History of Life and of Its Significance for Man. Rev. ed. Yale University Press, 1967. 345.
ii Mayr, Ernst. Toward a New Philosophy of Biology: Observations of an Evolutionist. Harvard University Press, 1989. 99.
iii Sober, Elliot. “Evolutionary Theory without Naturalism.” Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Religion. 3. Oxford University Press, 2008.

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February 21, 2011

An Intro to the Philosophy of Religion, Ch. 2

Intro to the Philosophy of ReligionIntro
Given how much time and effort we spend deliberating over future choices and decisions, the claim that the future isn’t settled is seductive.  But what kind of knowledge would an God have if the future isn’t settled?  On the other hand, if God does have perfect knowledge of future events, does this imply that our free choices are illusory–that we couldn’t have chosen otherwise?  Even if we bracket concerns about the ontology of time, the proposal that God is omniscient (knows all past, present and future facts) generates plenty of puzzles for philosophical theologians to work out.

Past, present, and future
Some scientific theories (e.g., special and general relativity) suggest that past and future events really exist at some “spatio-temporal distance from here and now.”  According to this view of time, known as eternalism,  Elvis is as real as your left foot.  There is also presentism, the view that only the present exists (sorry, Elvis).  Presentism maintains that the future is not settled, and our experience of the passage of time is real.  Why are these theories of time relevant to the philosophy of religion?  Because one’s view of divine foreknowledge and providence will hinge heavily on whether or not future events are real.  If the future is real, then it’s hard to deny that an omniscient being has exhaustive knowledge of it.

Eternal and everlasting
Rea and Murray distinguish between being eternal and being everlasting.  An eternal being is timeless, while an everlasting being exists for all time.  They move on to discuss the doctrine of eternity, which implies that every aspect of an eternal being’s life is immediately present.  But consider how this affects our broader picture of God.  What if other great-making properties require change, such as being an agent?  Perfect-being theology aims at conceptualizing the greatest conceivable being, so if being eternal and being an agent are both great-making properties, then they aren’t compossible if agency requires change and eternality precludes change.  Why does agency require change?  Agency seems to entail that an intention to act precedes an act.  Furthermore, “to act” seems imply a time before the act.  Could an eternal agent’s intention merely accompany the act (rather than temporally precede the act)?  William Lane Craig often illustrates a simultaneous cause and effect by asking us to imagine a bowling ball sitting on a pillow. The bowling ball causes the pillow to assume a curved shape.  Now, imagine that the bowling ball and pillow exist like this timelessly.  Although they don’t use this illustration, Murray and Rea think some explanatory relations could be atemporal.[1]  They move on to briefly consider if an omniscient being could be accompanied by a temporal world without undergoing any change.  The answer lies too deep beneath theories of the ontology of time, but we are left with a winking suspicion that they reject the reality of temporal passage.

Omniscience
Rea and Murray begin this section by offering a simple definition of omniscience (knowing every truth) and summarizing some philosophical objections (e.g., the impossibility of a set of all propositions).  They conclude that none of these objections are obviously fatal for the common-sense view of omniscience.  A more serious revision of omniscience is required if one denies that God can know facts about what humans will freely choose in the future.  On the other hand, an omniscient being might be excused for not knowing what we will freely choose if those facts were logically impossible to know.  To help sort this out, Rea and Murray construct an argument for theological fatalism.

Suppose that Sally is now reading a book.  Let t be the present time; let t* be a time 1,000 years before now; and let Ps be the proposition that Sally will read a book 1,000 years hence.  Furthermore, let us assume (as seems obviously true) that one is free with respect to an action only if one has a choice about whether one performs it.  Then we may reason as follows:

  1. Ps was true at t*.
  2. God is omniscient.
  3. An omniscient being believes every true proposition and has no false beliefs.
  4. Therefore, at t*, God believed that Ps was true.
  5. Premise 4 entails that Sally reads a book at t. (That is, it is impossible that premise 4 be true and Sally not read a book at t.)
  6. No human being has ever had a choice about the truth of premise 4.
  7. For any proposition p and q, if p is true and p entails q, and if no human being has ever had a choice about the truth of p, then no human being has ever had a choice about the truth of q.
  8. No human being–and so not even Sally–has ever had a choice about whether Sally reads a book at t. [From 5, 6, 7]
  9. A person is free with respect to an action only if that person has a choice about whether or not to perform the action.
  10. Therefore: though Sally reads a book at t, she does not do so freely. [From 8, 9]

Premise 1 could be circumvented if one maintains that Ps had no truth value (neither true nor false) at t*.  But what kind of proposition is neither true or false?  Furthermore, denying premise 1 would force us to reject eternalism in favor of presentism (which may or may not be problematic).  What other premise can we challenge?  Premise 6 might be contested on the grounds that our free actions actually “update” God’s past beliefs–the present changes the past.  Rea and Murray find this to be as absurd as it sounds, but they do entertain the possibility that premise 6 could be rejected on other grounds.  Counterfactual power is the power to do something that one didn’t in fact do, such that if had one exerecised that power, the past would have been different.  In that sense, Sally could have a choice about the truth of Ps.  Had she freely chosen not to read a book, the past would have been different (important: this is not the same as saying that Sally changed the past.)  Rea and Murray think this objection might work, and would be especially attractive to compatibilists and Ockhamists.

Four Views on Divine Providence

  1. Open Theism: many future facts (particularly those involving free agents) are unknown to God, but he is still able to accomplish his goals by anticipating our choices with a high probability of success.  The theodician value of this position is overrated.  Since God is able to intervene during the gap of time between the intention to act and the physical act itself, he could still be charged with culpability for many evils.  Given open theism. God can’t see that we’ll act a certain way 1,000 years in advance; but he still “sees” it as soon as he knows our intention to act.  Thus, he could prevent many evils that humans have intentionally brought about.
  2. Responsivism: God makes providential decisions based on his foreknowledge.  For instance, he knows you will die in a car crash and intervenes by giving you a flat tire.  Sounds simple, but wouldn’t God also know about his own intervention?  That causes a problem for explaining  his intervention.  We are stuck with two options: a) God has incomplete foreknowledge or b) his divine interventions explain and are explained by his foreknowledge.
  3. Molinism: the idea is that God has middle knowledge of counterfactual truths.  In the middle of what?  Necessary truths are independent of His will (natural knowledge).  Contingent truths, for the most part, are dependent on His will (free knowledge).  A third category, middle knowledge, falls in between; it contains truths that are contingent but nevertheless independent of God’s will.  For instance, “If Tyson punched Gandhi, he would punch back.”  This may be false in the actual world, but there is also a possible world where this counterfactual is true.  God doesn’t decide which counterfactuals obtain (though he knows).  His free creatures decide which counterfactuals obtain.  God knows what his free creatures would do in a variety of situations, and uses this middle knowledge to make decisions.  Thus, God exercises a great deal of control, but there may be situations where no amount of divine intervention could bring about certain free responses from us–for instance, freely choosing to trust in God for salvation.  “Nevertheless, God could at least guarantee that everyone who would, under some possible set of circumstances, freely choose a relationship with him finds themselves in just such circumstances.”  Of course, I can think of objections to that.  Perhaps placing John in the circumstances to freely choose precludes placing Sally in such circumstances.  What if there is no possible configuration of circumstance where all who would freely choose do freely choose?  This view affords some interesting responses to the problem of evil (why God allows suffering) as well as the question of hell.  But there are also problems.  It’s difficult to explain how counterfactuals of freedom are guaranteed to be true, if they are indeed free choices.
  4. Calvinism (also Thomism and Augustinianism): all truths are dependent on God, but human freedom is compatible with determinism.  Calvinists take quite literally verses like Prov 16:33.  It is impossible for creatures to thwart the will of God.  This makes the problem of evil a greater obstacle, since God ordained all events.  But nevertheless, humans are morally accountable despite their actions being fully determined–the crucial Calvinist claim that Rea and Murray find to be implausible despite the history of great philosophers and theologians who have affirmed it.[2]

1 An example of Craig using this illustration in a debate.
2 The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry goes into lengthy detail, but readers without a degree in philosophy may struggle.  I would recommend reading the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry first.

February 18, 2011

An Intro to the Philosophy of Religion, Ch. 1

Filed under: Notes — David P @ 3:56 am
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Intro to the Philosophy of ReligionMurray and Rea begin by narrowing their scope to Western monotheistic religious traditions, which aligns with their primary goal “to provide a properly representative introduction to the field of philosophy of religion as it has developed in English-speaking countries over the past fifty years…”

An important distinction is drawn between “God” as a proper name and “God” as a title (i.e., referring to the President of the United States versus Ronald Reagan). Philosophical theologians are more interested in the latter.  “On the other hand, if and when ‘God’ is used as a title, we can learn quite a lot about what God is or would be like simply by unpacking our concept of the role associated with the term ‘God.'”  The next three chapters will be mainly concerned with unpacking our concept of God by discussing the divine attributes.

Perfect-being theology
If God is the most perfect being, then he has “the greatest possible array of great-making properties.”[1]  Broadly speaking, there are extrinsic and intrinsic great-making properties.  For example, muscularity is an extrinsic great-making property because it depends on external factors.  Perhaps for a marathon runner this wouldn’t be desirable, but for a lumberjack it would.

How are great-making properties determined?  Often by appealing to our  fundamental intuitions.  This parallels how we evaluate moral theories: we intuitively deem it wrong to torture a baby for fun.  However, there can be disagreement over intuition; furthermore. even after we come up with a list (or more precisely, a set) of great-making properties, some of them may not be compossible.  Parsing out the divine attributes and the relations among them has been a fruitful and engaging task for philosophical theologians.  Given some set of divine attributes: what problems arise or what conflicts need to be resolved?

Omnipotence: perfect power
“God’s power explains and entails that God creates all that there is, sustains it in existence, and confers on those things the powers and limitations that they have.”   The infamous “paradox of the stone” calls into question the conceptual coherence of omnipotence.  Can God create a stone so big that he cannot lift it?  Some theists respond that omnipotence extends only to that which is logically possible, and thus this paradox presents no problems for omnipotence because the allegedly rock is impossible.  Not even God can make square triangles, married bachelors, or rocks too big for his lifting abilities.  Another theistic response to the stone paradox is to draw a distinction between God’s lifting powers and his making powers.  If God’s lifting and making powers are both unbounded, then the paradox seems to dissolve.

Assuming a simple definition of omnipotence (as the ability to actualize any logically possible state of affairs) is coherent, how does it relate to other things we know about?  Omnipotence certainly appears to clash with human freedom.  Think about what you had for lunch yesterday; could you have chosen otherwise?  If a different choice was logically possible, then this appears to limit God’s ability to actualize any logically possible state of affairs, assuming he wished to actualize the state of affairs in which your freely chose to have a different lunch menu.  Human freedom aside, omnipotence and perfect goodness appear incompatible as divine attributes.  If God’s nature is to do good, how could it be true that God can do anything; after all, it is logically possible to do evil?  More specifically, if God is impeccable (unable to sin), then doesn’t this limit what he can do?  Denying impeccability is one solution, but then philosophical theologians are left with a different problem: a perfect being who cannot sin seems better than a perfect being who merely doesn’t sin.  Other theists maintain that God is able but unwilling to perform acts that are evil, much like we are able to swing an axe but unwilling to do so when someone’s arm is underneath.  In that sense, perfect goodness doesn’t degrade omnipotence, and we have preserved God’s perfect goodness as more than mere accident.

Creation and Providence
Divine concurrence holds that God is involved in bringing about each and every event–perhaps what the apostle Paul had in mind when he wrote, “In God we live, and move, and have our being.”  Some prominent positions on divine concurrence:

  1. God must make a causal contribution to every creaturely act, in order for him to perfectly know the future (Aquinas).
  2. Divine concurrence is necessary, otherwise his (free) creatures could thwart his plans or goals.
  3. Causation involves new things or properties coming into existence, so God must be the ultimate source of all new being.

There are difficulties here for philosophers to work out or at least clarify.  Two wills are at odds: God’s and man’s.  Are they jointly sufficient and individually necessary to bring about some states of affairs?  Problematically, if God’s causal contribution is not sufficient, we run the risk of free human agents thwarting God’s intentions.  The relationship between divine providence and human free is one of the most perplexing issues in the philosophy of religion.

Maximal Benevolence – which possible world should God create?
Theists believe God to be maximally benevolent (perfectly good).  Some problems with this have already been discussed, but this argument claims that God lacked freedom in creation because of his good nature.  He must create the best possible world.

  1. God is omniscient and thus aware of all the possible worlds he can create.
  2. God is perfectly and unsurpassibly good and unfailingly drawn to do that which is best.
  3. Free agents can will an action that is less than the best only if they either fail to understand what is genuinely best, or fall prey to a weakness of will, thus choosing contrary to what they know to be best.
  4. God is susceptible neither to ignorance of the best nor weakness of the will.
  5. Therefore, God cannot do anything less than the best.
  6. Since our world exists, either it is the best world, or it is one among other worlds that are tied for best.
  7. To have morally significant freedom, one must be able to choose among alternatives of differing moral quality.
  8. If our world is best, God could not refrain from creating it and is thus not free in creating it.
  9. If our world is tied for best, God could not choose among worlds of differing moral quality and thus would lack morally signficant freedom in creating.
  10. Thus God lacked morally significant freedom in creating.

Aquinas denied premise 6, arguing that there is no single best world but instead a series of increasingly better worlds ad infinitum.  So how might God choose from these infinite worlds?  No matter which world he chooses, there could always be a better world; consequently, some philosophers (such as William Rowe) have concluded that God is a morally surpassable creator.[2]  However, others have disputed Rowe’s claim that a better possible world implies a better possible creator.[3]  Finally, some theists attempt to solve this problem by denying altogether that God is obligated to create the best possible world.

1 Thomas Morris, The Concept of God (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 35.
2 William Rowe, “The Problem of Divine Perfection and Freedom,” in Eleonore Stump (ed.), Reasoned Faith (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993).
3 Daniel and Frances Howard-Snyder, “How an Unsurpassable Being Can Create a Surpassable World,” in Faith and Philosophy 11:2, pp. 260-8.

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