Nagel on Plantinga

This is, it seemed to me, a very fair-minded and illuminating treatment of the philosopher Alvin Plantinga’s new book, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism, by the philosopher Thomas Nagel.  Nagel comes from an atheist and secular perspective, while Plantinga’s perspective is theistic.  Much of the evaluation (and likely the book itself) is far beyond my philosophical depth, treating issues of epistemology (though I did find the discussion of the issue of the derivation of “basic knowledge” interesting, and am not sure I understand the analogy that Nagel says Plantinga draws between the operation of faith and memory).  Here is a portion where Nagel is discussing Plantinga’s view of faith:

Faith, according to Plantinga, is another basic way of forming beliefs, distinct from but not in competition with reason, perception, memory, and the others. However, it is

a wholly different kettle of fish: according to the Christian tradition (including both Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin), faith is a special gift from God, not part of our ordinary epistemic equipment. Faith is a source of belief, a source that goes beyond the faculties included in reason.

God endows human beings with a sensus divinitatis that ordinarily leads them to believe in him. (In atheists the sensus divinitatis is either blocked or not functioning properly.) In addition, God acts in the world more selectively by “enabling Christians to see the truth of the central teachings of the Gospel.”

If all this is true, then by Plantinga’s standard of reliability and proper function, faith is a kind of cause that provides a warrant for theistic belief, even though it is a gift, and not a universal human faculty. (Plantinga recognizes that rational arguments have also been offered for the existence of God, but he thinks it is not necessary to rely on these, any more than it is necessary to rely on rational proofs of the existence of the external world to know just by looking that there is beer in the refrigerator.)

It is illuminating to have the starkness of the opposition between Plantinga’s theism and the secular outlook so clearly explained. My instinctively atheistic perspective implies that if I ever found myself flooded with the conviction that what the Nicene Creed says is true, the most likely explanation would be that I was losing my mind, not that I was being granted the gift of faith. From Plantinga’s point of view, by contrast, I suffer from a kind of spiritual blindness from which I am unwilling to be cured. This is a huge epistemological gulf, and it cannot be overcome by the cooperative employment of the cognitive faculties that we share, as is the hope with scientific disagreements.

Faith adds beliefs to the theist’s base of available evidence that are absent from the atheist’s, and unavailable to him without God’s special action. These differences make different beliefs reasonable given the same shared evidence. An atheist familiar with biology and medicine has no reason to believe the biblical story of the resurrection. But a Christian who believes it by faith should not, according to Plantinga, be dissuaded by general biological evidence. Plantinga compares the difference in justified beliefs to a case where you are accused of a crime on the basis of very convincing evidence, but you know that you didn’t do it. For you, the immediate evidence of your memory is not defeated by the public evidence against you, even though your memory is not available to others. Likewise, the Christian’s faith in the truth of the gospels, though unavailable to the atheist, is not defeated by the secular evidence against the possibility of resurrection.

Asher, “Evolution and Belief”

Fascinating looking book by the paleontologist Robert Asher (Cambridge), Evolution and Belief: Confessions of a Religious Paleontologist (CUP 2012).  The publisher’s description follows.

Can a scientist believe in God? Does the ongoing debate between some evolutionists and evangelicals show that the two sides are irreconcilable? As a paleontologist and a religious believer, Robert Asher constantly confronts the perceived conflict between his occupation and his faith. In the course of his scientific work, he has found that no other theory comes close to Darwin’s as an explanation for our world’s incredible biodiversity. Recounting discoveries in molecular biology, paleontology and development, Asher reveals the remarkable evidence in favor of Darwinian evolution. In outlining the scope of Darwin’s idea, Asher shows how evolution describes the cause of biodiversity, rather than the agency behind it. He draws a line between superstition and religion, recognizing that atheism is not the inevitable conclusion of evolutionary theory. By liberating evolution from its misappropriated religious implications, Asher promotes a balanced awareness that contributes to our understanding of biology and Earth history.

Plantinga, “Where the Conflict Really Lies”

The famous philosopher Alvin Plantinga (emeritus at Notre Dame, also at Calvin College) has published Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (OUP 2011).  There was a fair story in the NY Times about Plantinga (and this book) a couple of days ago. 

I also have always thought that this on-line paper of Plantinga’s, “On Christian Scholarship,” was very interesting. 

The publisher’s description of the book follows.

This book is a long-awaited major statement by a pre-eminent analytic philosopher, Alvin Plantinga, on one of our biggest debates — the compatibility of science and religion. The last twenty years has seen a cottage industry of books on this divide, but with little consensus emerging. Plantinga, as a top philosopher but also a proponent of the rationality of religious belief, has a unique contribution to make. His theme in this short book is that the conflict between science and theistic religion is actually superficial, and that at a deeper level they are in concord.

Plantinga examines where this conflict is supposed to exist — evolution, evolutionary psychology, analysis of scripture, scientific study of religion — as well as claims by Dan Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Philip Kitcher that evolution and theistic belief cannot co-exist. Plantinga makes a case that their arguments are not only inconclusive but that the supposed conflicts themselves are superficial, due to the methodological naturalism used by science. On the other hand, science can actually offer support to theistic doctrines, and Plantinga uses the notion of biological and cosmological “fine-tuning” in support of this idea. Plantinga argues that we might think about arguments in science and religion in a new way — as different forms of discourse that try to persuade people to look at questions from a perspective such that they can see that something is true. In this way, there is a deep and massive consonance between theism and the scientific enterprise.

Among the Creationists: What’s so Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love, and Understanding?

Early next year, Jason Rosenhouse, associate professor of Mathematics at James Madison University, will publish Among the Creationists: Dispatches from the Anti-Evolutionist Front Line with Oxford University Press.

Rosenhouse, a believer in evolutionary theory, was puzzled—as am I, admittedly—that so many Americans still insisted that God created the world and human beings 10,000 years ago precisely as described in Genesis (in December 2010, Gallup reported that a staggering 40% did).  In the hopes of understanding why, Rosenhouse began attending Creationist events around the country.  In fact, Rosenhouse did so for ten years.

What he discovered challenges the conventional characterizations of Creationists as uninquisitive Bible-thumpers; rather, Rosenhouse encountered Creationists of many stripes and, through congenial discussion, learned their views could enrich his own, even if his belief in evolution remained intact.

Rosenhouse’s approach exemplifies the laudable objective of mutual respect that figures like Richard Dawkins sorely lack (see my Commentary posts on Dawkins here and here).  Rosenhouse did not become a Creationist in his journeys, and I speculate that he did not convince any Creationists that evolution was valid.  But I admire Rosenhouse’s genuine attempt to understand and treat with respect views different from his own.

Read OUP’s description of the book after the jump.  Also, read Rosenhouse’s brief description of his book here. Continue reading

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