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.
Love is God, and sex conversion.
J. V. Cunningham (1971)
(4) Yet rabbinic tradition not only predicates attributes of God, especially in the thirteen middot, but also insists upon their fundamental importance.
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:
Gerard Manley Hopkins (1877)