More Discussion of the Dennett/Plantinga Exchange

at Talking Philosophy: The Philosopher's Magazine blog, here and here.

The comments in these threads aren't nearly as good as some of the gems in the Prosblogion thread, but Jean Kazez's remarks in the second post I linked to are worth a look. Her main reply to Plantinga's argument (for the compatibility of theism and evolution) is "so what?". Her point is that the compatibility of theism and evolution provides no reason to think God was in the process any more than that the compatibility of "Demon Theory" and disease transmission theory provides reason to think demons are behind diseases; thus, considerations of theoretical parsimony leave the evolution-plus-God theory unmotivated vis-a-vis straight evolutionary theory. This was one of Dennett's main points in his exchange with Plantinga.

My main gripe with Kazez's (and Dennett's) reply to this point is that while it's surely correct, they fail to see what goals Plantinga is trying to achieve with this line of thought. He's not playing offense here by trying to convince non-theists that God is guiding evolution with this particular point.[1] Rather, he's playing defense by arguing that evolution isn't a defeater for Christian theism. He thinks belief in God -- even belief in the Christian God, and indeed belief in much of the Christian story told in the Bible as well -- is properly basic, and thus thinks he needs no positive argument for thinking that God was/is involved in the creative process in the natural world; he thinks it's warranted quite apart from such argument. And given this, he thinks his primary task in defending the reasonableness of his theism is to fend off defeaters, such as the defeater found in standard evolutionary theory. As such, their criticism fails to engage Plantinga's point as he intended it.

But of course this doesn't get to the bottom of it, for I take it that Kazez and Dennett would say that even after we appreciate the aim of Plantinga's point, their reply arises all over again: "So what?" In other words, Dennett, Kazez, and other non-theists aren't really interested in whether theists can rationally resist challenges to their beliefs; they're interested in whether there is a good reason for non-theists to come to think that God was/is working along with natural processes, such as evolution. And their point is that Plantinga hasn't addressed that issue with his point that God and evolution are logically compatible.

Now of course, Plantinga did try to argue for this stronger claim that Dennett and Kazez (and no doubt all of us) are interested in (i.e, that God is behind the natural processes of evolution) with another line of reasoning he raised in the Plantinga/Dennett exchange -- viz., his Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN) -- but Dennett offered reasons for doubting that argument by offering a brief sketch of an account of why evolutionary processes would give us reliable cognitive faculties. Unfortunately, neither Plantinga nor Dennett brought significantly new reasons relevant to assessing EAAN. For this reason, I found the exchange, although entertaining, somewhat disappointing.

[1] I should say that Plantinga did appeal to the work of Behe at one point to argue that unguided evolution can't be the whole story. Still, that's not crucial to the most basic point of Plantinga's that I'm discussing here -- the one about fending off a potential defeater for Christian theism in evolutionary theory via demonstrating the compatibility of the former and the latter. For a thorough and devastating critique of Behe's biochemical arguments, see Paul Draper's excellent article, "Irreducible Complexity and Darwinian Gradualism: A Reply to Michael J. Behe", Faith and Philosophy 19:1 (2002), pp. 3-21. I explicate the main points of Draper's article here.


Anonymous said...

"Rather, he's playing defense by arguing that evolution isn't a defeater for Christian theism."

He's doing more than that, though: he's arguing that evolution and naturalism provide us with a defeater for naturalism. So, he's not only arguing that theism and evolution are consistent; he's also arguing that evolution and naturalism are not.

exapologist said...

Hi Eric,

I don't see that we disagree. As I say in the last paragraph of my post, Plantinga offers a defeater of naturalism with his EAAN argument. It's just that he didn't intend to do so with his other point -- the point about the logical compatibility of theism and evolution.

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