|Dr. Coyne marshals his forces|
for the attack.
Before reading Coyne's comments this morning, I first reread an old piece called "Response to Behe's Critics, IIA and IIB," that I posted a few years ago on Amazon, which analyzed Coyne's review of Michael Behe's The Edge of Evolution. In those posts, I listed some two dozen dubious arguments Coyne advanced, many of which involved logical errors, or just plain misreading Dr. Behe. Number 20 seemed particularly portentious:
(20) Coyne: "Science long ago dispensed with the notion of a scala natura: a progressive ladder of life with humans at the top."
DM: "This is confused. If we talk about value and meaning, that is a philosophical, moral, or religious question, not a scientific one. Fortunately most scientists are well-rounded and human enough to recognize that in fact, some organisms are more significant than others. (At least after office hours.) If we're talking about complexity or intelligence, then even science can recognize a scale in nature. But Coyne seems to be artificially narrowing the subject to the criterion of adaptability, or how long a species has evolved."
Coyne: "So what scientific reason can there be for singling out just one species as the Designer's goal? How do we know that the goal was not butterflies or sunflowers?"
DM: "When scientists ask such stupid questions, I despair of common sense in the Academy. If science cannot tell us that people are more significant than sunflowers, that only goes to show the limits of science, not that Pascal and petunias are morally equivalent. A scientist with no theology ought at least to supplement his intellectual diet with a little philosophy."
Now, reading Coyne's "Sunday Sermon" this morning, it seems Coyne has "followed my advice," and added "a little philosophy" to his intellectual diet. But he eats too fast, and fails to properly digest what he reads. The results are not pretty:
"I don’t think many theologians have ever faced serious opposition to their ideas, at least on the debate platform."
I'll be happy to debate you on my ideas, Dr. Coyne, if you would like to remedy that alleged defficiency.
"Today, my brothers and sisters, I’d like to speak briefly on Plantinga’s evidence for God’s existence, at least as laid out in his chapter “Reason and Belief on God”, pp. 102-161 in The Analytic Theist: An Alvin Plantinga Reader (James F. Sennett, ed., 1998, Eeerdmans Publishing Co.). That chapter itself is taken from a book edited by Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff: Faith and Rationality: Reason and Belief in God (1983, University of Notre Dame Press). "
An excellent essay. Only, it is emphatically NOT about "Plantinga's evidence for God's existence," as Plantinga explains right away:
"In this essay I want to discuss a connected constellation of questions . . . Must one have evidence to be rational or reasonable in believing in God?" (Faith & Rationality, 16)
In fact, Plantinga makes no effort at all in this essay to give "evidence" for God's existence, nor does he promise to. Coyne thus appears, from the very beginning, to have misconstrued the purpose of the essay he purports to be criticizing.
"As we know, there’s no good empirical evidence for God’s existence . . . "
Coyne is preaching to the other flowers on the forest floor, here. Considered philosophically, it is hard to know how anyone could possibly know that "there's no good empirical evidence for God's existence," still less be so smug about it. Has Dr. Coyne checked all the planets in every galaxy, for such evidence? Or even interviewed everyone on this planet? One should be more cautious about claiming universal negatives.
In fact, Coyne apparently has not even bothered to read the places where Plantinga really does offer evidence for Christianity.
This, at any rate, is a statement of dogmatism, not what Plantinga might call "the deliverances of empirical reasoning." Or perhaps Coyne takes the lack of evidence for Christianity as "properly basic?"
"After reviewing the history of theological evidentialism, beginning with Aquinas, Plantinga presents his own argument: that belief in God is a properly basic belief. A “properly basic belief” is one for which one doesn’t need evidence, for it is manifest to the senses immediately."
This, too, grossly mistates Plantinga's argument. Plantinga explicitly says that one can only define "properly basic" beliefs inductively, not with an a priori definition. Even the "foundationalist" definition of proper basicality that he give on page 75, then dismisses, does not assume that the properly basic object is "manifest to the senses immediately:"
"For any proposition A and person S, A is properly basic for S if and only if A is incorrigible for S or self-evident to S."
This Coyne misconstrues as Plantinga's own definition:
"Plantinga is fond of using philosophical logic to “clarify” ideas like this, and so this is how he defines his term:
For any proposition A and person S, A is properly basic for S if and only if A is incorrigible for S or self-evident to S. (p. 150)But this is NOT Plantinga's definition of Proper Basicality. Plantinga explains this in the immediately prior sentence:
"The modern foundationalist's criterion for proper basicality, for example, is doubly universal:"
Plantinga then gives this definition, and explains, in the following pages, why he finds the whole foundational argument wobbly. To represent this as Plantinga's own definition, betrays a grotesque misreading of the text.
Coyne is also capable of purely philosophical misconstrual:
"Here are some examples of beliefs that Plantinga considers “properly basic,” i.e. beliefs for which one doesn’t need evidence. I’ll leave it to readers to judge whether evidence is unnecessary here:
- I had breakfast this morning
- I see a tree
- That person is in pain
- And, of course, there is a God"
Coyne barges in like an Enfante Terrible, posing the questions of an amateur, indeed begging his reader to ignore careful thought, and go with their (uninformed) gut intuition. This is, of course, very much what non-biologists do, when they say, "But look at how complex the eye is! I'll leave it to the choir to judge whether or not it was designed -- but obviously it was!"
At one point, admittedly, Coyne does recognizes difficulties with naively accepting sensual data:
"But of course what is “evident’ to one person may not be so for others; for example, you may be deluded about whether you had breakfast, and the tree you see may be a hallucination. This is especially true for belief #4 above. How does Plantinga get around that? By asserting that the grounds for belief may differ from person to person and from community to community:
Accordingly, criteria for proper basicality must be reached from below rather than above; they should not be presented ex cathedra but argued to and tested by a relevant set of examples. But there is no reason to assume, in advance, that everyone will agree on the examples. The Christian will of course suppose that belief in God is entirely proper and rational; if he does not accept this belief on the basis of other propositions, he will conclude that it is basic for him and properly so. Followers of Bertrand Russell and Madelyn Murray O’Hare may disagree; but how is that relevant? Must my criteria, or those of the Christian community, conform to their examples? Surely not. The Christian community is responsible to its set of examples, not to theirs. (p. 151)"I find this evasive, self-serving, and intellectually indefensible. What he is saying is that what counts as “grounds” (i.e., evidence) . . . "
By persisting in conflating "evidence" and "grounds for belief," Coyne gives evidence that he needs to begin by studying Philosophy 101, not by attacking Alvin Plantinga.
" . . . for God for some people won’t—and needn’t—count for others. That, of course, is a big difference between science and theology."
But it is not. I have grounds for thinking I see a bare, leafless aspen tree outside my office window, right now. Dr. Coyne may think he has no such grounds. He may in fact have no such grounds. He may in fact have no such tree.
So what follows about the grounding of my belief in the tree? Very little. Similarly, if I think faith in God is grounded for me, or if indeed it is grounded for me, or even if God has indeed revealed Himself to me, say by sending an angel to liberate me from prison, it hardly follows that Dr. Coyne will necessarily admit that, not, perhaps, sharing those grounds. Even if faith in God is grounded for Dr. Coyne, it is also possible he denies that grounding, perhaps for reasons Plantinga (and St. Paul) mention at various points.
"Of course this argument can be used to support all kinds of nonsensical beliefs. Plantinga brings up one: belief in The Great Pumpkin, of Peanuts fame . . . And what, exactly, is that relevant difference?
Thus, for example, the Reformed epistemologist may concur with Calvin in holding that god has implanted in us a natural tendency to see his hand in the world around us; the same cannot be said for the Great Pumpkin, there being no Great Pumpkin and no natural tendency to accept beliefs about the Great Pumpkin. (pp. 151-152)."What a tangled thicket of logic we must make our way through here!"
Here one almost sympathizes with Dr. Coyne. He does, indeed, seem to find Plantinga a "tangled thicket." Perhaps he is doing his best to follow an abstract logical argument, maybe for the first time since his undergraduate days, and is finding, to his surprise, that his best is not quite enough.
What follows are Coyne's attempts to hack through that thicket:
"First of all, not everyone has a natural tendency to see God’s hand in the world . . . "
Plantinga didn't say that exactly. He said some people may think (hinting that he is sympathetic) that God has implanted an awareness of Him in us. It would not at all follow, in Plantinga's view, that given sin, everyone would retain that awareness in its full and least ambiguous form. (In our interview, indeed, Dr. Plantinga noted that he wished his own awareness were keener than it is.)
"and even if they do, how does Plantinga know that that tendency was implanted by God, rather than having been taught to credulous children by their parents or preachers?"
How does Coyne know that it wasn't implanted by God, perhaps at times by means of parents and preachers? (Though developmental psychologist Olivera Petrovich finds that it even seems to turn up among young Japanese children who are not so taught.)
"Is there really a “natural tendency” to accept beliefs in God without having been taught them?"
"And which God?"
The Creator God. The God who demands justice. The St. Paul /Calvin /Plantinga model nicely accounts for polytheism, if that is the alternative Coyne is heading towards.
When I asked Dr. Plantinga if he felt the discovery of belief in God like the Christian God in primitive cultures could be taken as evidence for this view, he agreed that it can. And as I have argued here a couple times before, I think it can.
"And on what basis does he say “there is no Great Pumpkin”?
Presumably, he has no Sensus Cucurbitus Majorus, and does not think anyone else does, either.
"There is a natural tendency among Muslims to accept a God different in nature from the God of Christians: that is the Islamic “basic belief.”
I doubt it. I think, from experience, that most or many Muslims believe in the Creator God in a similar way to Christians, even if they discount evidence that he has revealed himself uniquely in Jesus Christ. (And here, I think Plantinga would also talk about evidence.)
"And how does one adjudicate among competing existence claims—about Jesus versus Mohammed, for example? According to Plantinga, you can’t: each community has its own “basic beliefs” that can’t be argued against. It’s madness. It’s no way to find out what’s true."
Here, again, Dr. Coyne seems simply confused. Alvin Plantinga is not saying that evidence has nothing at all to say about Christian or Muslim beliefs. He is talking specifically about belief in God.
The title of the essay, indeed is "Reason and Belief in God." Philosophers tend in my experience to be careful with words and titles. Much of Coyne's confusion could be cleared up if he simply bothered to read more carefully.
I think that faith in Jesus as Christ can be much more direct than historical skeptics assume, and can in fact sideswipe a lot of the attacks by the Bart Ehrmans and John Crossans of this world. This will be the crux of my contribution to Faith Seeking Understanding.
But that is not because there is no evidence for Jesus, it is because the evidence is plain enough that ordinary readers can easily pick up on it. Even a deer, after all, recognizes a tiger, whether or not he can defend his perception to the American Zoological Association.
The point here, though, is that just because Plantinga claims some parts of the Christian faith may be properly basic to some people, it does not follow that they cannot be rationally questioned, or that other parts may not be properly basic, or to all people.
"What we have instead are such beliefs as:
"Remember, these are incorrigible beliefs: beliefs that it is impossible to hold without them being true! I find this unbelievable, for all the propositions adduced above presume that God exists, so you know who is speaking to you, you know who has created all this, and you know who is forgiving and loving and yet demands to be thanked and praised. How can you use those “basic beliefs” to support the notion that “God exists” if they all presume that God exists? How can you intuit, for example, that “God is to be thanked and praised” unless you have a basic belief that there’s a God in the first place?"
Coyne might, for instance, have noticed that all of these sentences begin with the word "God," not with the words "Jesus Christ."
- God is speaking to me
- God has created all this,
- God disapproves of what I have done,
- God forgives me, and
- God is to be thanked and praised.
Here is where Dr. Coyne should have paid closer attention to Plantinga's earlier arguments.
My immediate sensory experience might be represented, in Plantinga's terms, as "I am being appeared to treely," or "I am being appeared to aspenly."
It involves an intuitive jump -- not an argument! -- from that appearance, to "An aspen tree is standing in the late February sunshine outside my window."
This would remain the same if I were to cut the tree down and take it en masse to a botanist. "I am being audibly appeared to botanist-calling-it-aspen-ly," might describe my immediate sense impressions. I intuit the botanist's mind, as I intuit the tree itself, by means (in these cases) of sense impressions and rational (but not provable) extrapolation.
Suppose God speaks to humanity through Nature.
How do we know this is not true? How does Coyne know this is not true? It seems to work, for billions of people. And many people for whom it does not seem to work, often seem quite hostile to the idea of God, as St. Paul predicts, like Dr. Coyne himself.
"And of course none of this justifies (nor does Plantinga attempt to justify) the” basic beliefs” in Plantinga’s own brand of Christianity, including his beliefs in the divinity of Jesus and the beneficence of God. Or are those not basic beliefs, but beliefs lifted from scripture?"
That is not the subject of this book. Again, Plantinga nowhere that I know of, claims that every Christian belief is "properly basic."
"To paraphrase Orwell, one has to be a theologian to believe things like this: no ordinary man could be such a fool."
Obviously untrue. Ordinary people do often believe in God as Plantinga describes, and justifiably so, Plantinga is beginning to convince me. Coyne does not seem to have made any arguments that even hint that he is wrong.
Also, again, Dr. Plantinga is a philosopher, not a "theologian."
But if we're looking for Orwell quotes, how about this one?
"For two hundred years we had sawed and sawed and sawed at the branch we were sitting on. And in the end, much more suddenly than anyone had foreseen, our efforst were rewarded, and down we came. But unfortunately there had been a little mistake: The thing at the bottom was not a bed of roses after all; it was a cesspool full of barbed wire . . . It appears that amputation of the soul isn't just a simple surgical job, like having your appendix out. The wound has a tendency to go septic."
Arrogance is, perhaps, the name of the particular form of septus that describes a person who has had success in one field, and then assumes, without warrant, that that success allows him to take on and defeat opponents in entirely unrelated fields, without studying that field first, or even reading his opponent's argument carefully.
And it is multiply clear that Jerry Coyne has not begun to read Alvin Plantinga accurately. He is like Bambi butting his antlers on the bottom of Godzilla's foot, not having even stepped back to survey the entire creature he wants to butt antlers with, before going on the attack.