Sunday, March 01, 2009

Theism defended

Several days ago, at the American Philosophical Association meeting in Chicago, the Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga of Notre Dame squared off against Daniel Dennett of Tufts, a leading spokesman for the New Atheism who has been described by Stephen Jay Gould as a “Darwinian fundamentalist.” The entire account of their skirmish, “live-blogged” by an anonymous young philosopher, is worth reading.

Plantinga advanced a probabilistic argument against evolutionary naturalism, arguing that the complexity of the cell is more likely under theism than as a result of what Richard Dawkins has called “the blind, unconscious automatic process which Darwin discovered.” That is, it is more probable that complexity results from intelligence than from randomness. The sworn enemy of evolution is naturalism, not theism.

According to Plantinga, what theism denies is natural selection, not evolution; for God might have selected evolution as the means for revealing his intelligence. But naturalism has no means of accounting for the truth of its own claims. If natural selection is (as Dawkins puts it) “the explanation for the existence and apparently purposeful form of all life,” and if human theories (including the theory of natural selection) are a result of this blind and purposeless chance, then how can anyone know whether any theory (including the theory of natural selection) is true? The assertion of its truth is circular and question-begging. The theory might only be the random result of blind chance. Without reference to an intelligence independent of natural selection there is no possible defense of the theory of natural selection.

In reply, Dennett was largely abusive. Theism corrupts “our common epistemological fabric”; it is a fairy tale; it is no better than astrology. At one point he compared theism to Holocaust denial. And this is particularly rich, coming from an apostle of atheism. The Holocaust was the state-sponsored industrial-scale campaign to obliterate a people who had remained intact for millennia out of their unshakable belief in God. The Holocaust was a collective organization of militant atheism, which clamored for the removal of God’s chosen people—theism’s most irrational symbol—from the face of the earth. To associate the spiritual heirs of its victims, who decline to abandon theistic belief out of a refusal (in Emil Fackenheim’s words) to hand Hitler a posthumous victory, instead with those who wish to cover up the crimes of the perpetrators is to engage in propaganda little more sophisticated than the slur that the Israelis are the New Nazis. So much for respecting “our common epistemological fabric”!

Because it cannot defend its dogmas in its own terms, naturalism is reduced to calling names. The inevitable consequence of its denial of intelligence and purpose is what Pope Benedict XVI calls the “dictatorship of relativism.” Note well: Benedict does not intend an assault upon the natural sciences, which he credits with having “greatly increased our understanding of the uniqueness of humanity’s place in the cosmos.” What troubles the Holy Father is the “self-limitation of reason,” the narrowing of human rationality to the conviction that “only the possibility of verification or falsification through experimentation” can lead to truth. The scientistic conviction is not itself verifiable or falsifiable through experimentation; the belief in science’s all-sufficiency is not itself a scientific truth. But it serves as a claim to status and power. And because it also serves to silence any other inquiry into purpose and meaning—philosophy, literature, history—it raises the ego and its relativistic pursuits to absolute rule.

The error that most theists commit is seeking to enter into debate with scientistic naturalism on its terms. But the existence of God cannot possibly be verified or falsified through experimentation. And the search for “evidence” of his existence is doomed to disappointment (or, what is worse, to simpler and more elegant explanation in scientific terms). What if, as in the Hebrew bible, the existence of God is simply not a problem? What if, as Plantinga said in Chicago, “belief in God is warranted even if the believer has no reason for this belief”? What if the problem, instead, is not to account for what the believer is tempted to advance as “evidence,” but to acknowledge it—and to account, if for anything, then for its power to move the believer to gratitude or recognition? Not everyone will be so moved; not everyone will be so ready to speak, like Cather’s Bishop Latour, of miracles “so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always”; but for some this will constitute a significant human problem, which does not yield to a satisfying scientific explanation.

As one such person, let me offer six propositions in defense of theism.

(1) If God can be defined then he is subordinate to human reason.

(2) Any proposition of the form God is P (whether P is replaced by “omnipotent,” “just,” the Christians’ “love,” or any other predicate) is a vulgar error.

God is love. Then by conversion
Love is God, and sex conversion.

                            J. V. Cunningham (1971)
(3) The only possible exception—the proposition God is God—is a meaningless tautology.

(4) Yet rabbinic tradition not only predicates attributes of God, especially in the thirteen middot, but also insists upon their fundamental importance.“A covenant has been made with the thirteen middot—when the children of Israel recite them they will not be turned away emptyhanded” (b. Rosh Hashanah 17b).(5) Where is God in propositions about him? He is the is.“And God said to Moses, ‘Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh.’ He continued, ‘Thus shall you say to the Israelites, ‘Ehyeh sent me to you” (Exod 3.14).(6) Propositions about God are not philosophical efforts to define him, but liturgical efforts to praise him. As here:Glory be to God for dappled things—
   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
     For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
   Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
     And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
     With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
               Praise him.

                            Gerard Manley Hopkins (1877)


Tim D. ( said...

I am intrigued by your analysis.
I would add that the varieties of religious experience remain powerful and universal. Atheists would like to argue against religious experiences, but fortunately the evidence in favor of an ineffable God and God's influence remains persuasive. How else, for example, can one explain the majestic inspiration for and the importance of Hopkins' poetry? "God's Grandeur" frames the problem nicely: Man might interfere with (or deny) God's grandeur, but the Holy Spirit nevertheless remains as a source of all that is good and worthwhile in mankind's existence.

Novalis said...

Great post, and I would agree with you that true atheism is dogmatic and dull. But all your arguments point toward the true humility of agnosticism, not theism.

Outside of philosophy seminars human beings nearly universally worship God not in the abstract, but in highly specific (and notoriously manifold) forms. If human reason cannot ultimately demonstrate the truth of its claims about the natural world, how can it claim that any one of the vast smorgasbord of God concepts throughout history is "the one?"

God is a sublime possibility, but not one from which any specific inferences follow. To my mind, Emily Dickinson was the best theologian who has ever lived.

I am not sure whether, psychologically, human beings can maintain stable social groups in the absence of religious belief in at least a fraction of their members, but that remains to be seen (Denmark and Sweden seem to be doing pretty well though); yet this is a contingent and pragmatic issue, and not the kind of support I think you would insist on for theism.

Novalis said...

Another way of expressing it is from the point of view of the Aztecs greeting the Spaniards--their (very legitimate) question would have been, not "Why God?" or "Why theism?" but rather "Why YOUR God?"

D. G. Myers said...

[A]ll your arguments point toward the true humility of agnosticism, not theism. I don’t know. Why isn’t an agnostic theism possible? That is, a religious belief under which knowledge of God is not at issue, but how to serve him.

If human reason cannot ultimately demonstrate the truth of its claims about the natural world, how can it claim that any one of the vast smorgasbord of God concepts throughout history is "the one?" Why is any such claim necessary to theism? Or even to my peculiar and law-burdened theism, which holds (incredibly) that by refraining from eating pork or approaching my wife when she is in her menses, I am somehow serving God? Henry James said that the house of fiction has many windows. Kal v’homer the house of God!

D. G. Myers said...

By the way, the best expression of the viewpoint I am trying out here is probably Martin Marty’s Cry of Absence (1983), which speaks in the voice of a faith that is intimate with doubt. In answering the New Atheists, Michael Novak was far less successful in last year’s No One Sees God, which tried to speak in a similar voice.

Jim H. said...

Dr. Myers,

As usual, an intriguing, provocative post. Some responses and reactions from my agnostic position:

As for your 6 propositions, no real argument here except to note that prop.5 is still of the form 'God is x', only using the copulative grammatically as a descriptor. (See Tillich's 'ground of all being' arguments) And therefore is, per prop.6, merely another species of what you call 'praise'.

Yet, praise, as I've argued over at WoW, does not and, indeed, cannot confer ontological status on the presumed object of its adulation. Praising x does not make x exist. That is magical thinking. It speaks, at most, to the character/nature of the praiser. It is a feeling—call it a feeling of thanksgiving; of blame; of obligation; of abnegation of responsibility for one's own action; or of one's own limitations and littleness in the face of an awesome, frightening, amoral universe, whatever.

As for your analogy, I'm not so sure the German people under the influence of Hitler and the Nazis can truly be characterized as 'atheistic'. Militant, yes. Evil, absolutely. It is certainly comforting to believe they were atheistic and to call them out as such, but if you asked them and observed people's day to day lives, and followed them into their churches, many—even as they either participated in the perpetration of their government's and military's and industry's vast crimes against humanity or blithely ignored the same—certainly would take exception. Many said their prayers at meals, read their Bible, crossed themselves, went to church, kneeled, listened to sermons, took the sacraments, sang triumphal hymns, in fact called themselves Christians (Catholics, Lutherans, whatever, etc.) And the only evidence of god-recognition has to be the confessions and practices of its adherents. If you say you believe in god, I am in no position to challenge that. I may say your observable practices are inconsistent with the tenets of my or even your own faith, but that's as far as I can legitimately go. It may be too sweeping a generalization to assert the Holocaust was a result of German atheism. Why not a militant theism (masking a nativist, cultural, racial, homophobic, anti-Semitic bigotry) jealously seeking, like Jacob, to usurp god's blessings from its older equally theistic brother? However, I'm not a historian and much research and qualification would be necessary to resolve this issue—I am certainly open to persuasion. I merely raise the question.

As stated, however, your argument carries a certain emotional appeal which goes ad hominem a Dennett. It's a takedown, but not one that advances your theism argument, I fear. But, assuming arguendo that the Germans were truly atheistic and the Holocaust was the result of a "collective organization of militant atheism", the most you can derive is that a theism of some sort (agreed-upon and mutually acknowledged) is an important, indeed possibly an essential component in forging and cementing a lasting national identity capable of surviving millennia of purges and pogroms and holocausts. Not a bad argument, really. But it is decidedly not an argument for the existence of a god. It is a cultural argument.

As I've argued, and will continue to do so, the atheistic position relies on faith to the same degree as the theistic position—it is merely the negative position: As a formal, logical matter, 'I believe that x' is the same as 'I believe that not x.' Both are opinions; neither is grounded in fact. Indeed, formulated thus 'x' and 'not x' have the same ontological status. Let the theists and atheists argue til they're blue in the face; until both acknowledge the philosophical and logical and, yes, ontological identity of their arguments, it's all just fun and giggles. Neither knows; they both merely assert that they do through some perceived and privileged insight.

As for your other point, to ascribe 'intelligence and purpose' to natural processes is equally as problematic as denying same. Who's to decide whether 'god is out to get you' is true or 'god blesses you' is? One is paranoid, the other is wishful thinking. And who's to decide whether 'god has acted and specifically intervened in nature, in human development, and, indeed, human history, and even, as some claim, in individual lives and political elections and football games' is true or bullshit? The same goes for 'god is real' vs. 'not-god is real' or 'god is not real' (however you formulate it)?

My answer is that the one who decides (or claims to decide) these questions is the one who either has or is seeking authority (whether spiritual, political, or otherwise) over others.

As a newly 57-year old (and many happy returns), I'm sure you'll recognize the origin of this sentiment from the the sixties slogan: "Question authority."

Jim H.

Dale said...


The Hopkins quote is a lovely bit of verse; thanks for bringing that forward.

As for the six propositions, I am less enthusiastic.

(1) If god cannot be defined, praise is empty and pointless. Hopkins is praising what he takes to be the effects of a god. "God-originated nice things" is one way to think of what he lays out before us so elegantly, but if that originating god is not defined (let alone if that god cannot be defined), there is no reason to connect god with the effects, and therefore the "praise" is fundamentally misdirected and confused. Or, perhaps, "praise" is not the word we commonly spell that way in English, but intended in some other way.

(2)-(3) OK then: propositions of the form "god is X" are either "vulgar errors" or tautologies. Fair enough. So again what are we asked to praise? And upon what grounds?

(4) I honestly don't know how this stands alongside (1), (2), and (3). If it negates them, or vice-versa, then you don't have six propositions at all.

(5) "He is the is" sounds more like the tautology option of (3) than the "vulgar error" of (2), but I claim no expertise in what constitutes "vulgar error" in this connection. So this appears to be a repeat of (3). The reaffirmation of (3), in turn, tends to support the view that (4) is negated by (1), (2), and (3) rather than vice-versa.

(6) This one is at least getting somewhere, but only if we take the statement as normative. In terms of plain fact -- of counting discrete instances over time -- I'm afraid it's plainly wrong, or at very least unsubstantiated. Ink by the ton has been spilled making definite truth claims about what god is, isn't, wants, likes, dislikes, plans, prioritizes, etc.

If you're saying with (6) that "god" is a convenient word for the process of seeking and appreciating the beauty and truth in the world, I can follow the process with you wholeheartedly and unreservedly. I see no point in evoking "god" for this; and I point out that this is an extremely confusing use of "god." There are better words to use.