It’s hard to tell which falling straws are a good guide to the way the wind is blowing.
Is it the one whose label can be drawn from the research Cosmo Landesman wrote about in the Sunday Times recently?
The average Briton feels a hundred percent fit and healthy only 61 days a year, according to a report out last week. . . . . What has turned us into a nation of hypochondriacs?
Or is it the one drawn from the research indicating that the UK’s stiff upper lip reluctance to trouble the doctor is adversely affecting this country’s treatment of cancer?
Should we be dashing to the GP at the first faint whiff of trouble or should we stop whinging and ignore our trivial aches and pains.
I was sitting in the GP’s surgery having decided I was more likely to be one of those who let the curable turn into the untreatable rather than someone with a highly volatile twinge magnification system. I clearly had a serious case of late-onset lung rot: I really needed to be here.
While I waited to be called, to distract myself from dwelling on how few days were probably left for me to put my house in order, I listened to a BBC radio interview with Professor Brian Cox. Among the interesting ideas he shared was the view that, although he doesn’t believe in God himself, there is nothing at all in science that rules God out (or, as I suspect he could have added, rules Him in either).
If research data cannot even clarify for certain whether I should go to the doctor’s or not, how can we fairly expect science to determine the God question – one for which it is totally unsuited. Incidentally, you may be relieved to learn that my cough will not carry me off just yet. So much for my experiment with hypochondria.
A Deep Concord
Thank heaven (my view, obviously) that some people are talking sense about the science vs religion issue from within the scientific community. I’ve already written on this blog about Rupert Sheldrake, Eben Alexander, Ken Wilber, Jenny Wade, Margaret Donaldson and others. Now I can add Alvin Plantinga to my list.
I need to own up from the start that there are dozens of pages of his book, Where the Conflict Really Lies, that I simply don’t understand. These occur when he resorts to symbolic logic to explain his point. Maybe it is the briefest way to explain a complex issue. Maybe it is the best way of cutting out any of the cognitive biases that can creep in from dodgy heuristics. Maybe it’s the best way of showing the opposition what a big hitter he is. Whatever the reason it leaves me outside the warmth of his argument in the winter cold with my nose pressed fruitlessly against the glass. I’ve found though that skipping such pages doesn’t affect my basic grasp of the rest of what he says, and what he is saying is welcome and compelling stuff. Take this for starters from his introduction:
If my thesis is right, therefore—if there is deep concord between science and Christian or theistic belief, but deep conflict between science and naturalism—then there is a science/religion (or science/ quasi-religion) conflict, all right, but it isn’t between science and theistic religion: it’s between science and naturalism
He defines ‘naturalism’ as ‘the thought that there is no such person as God, or anything like God.’ He sees it as a kind of religion.
He doesn’t claim that the expression of religious feeling is universally benign but he’s clear that, not only do religions not have a monopoly on the creation of suffering, but also their efforts in that direction are comprehensively upstaged by secular ideologies:
. . . . the world’s religions do indeed have much to repent; still (as has often been pointed out) the suffering, death, and havoc attributable to religious belief and practice pales into utter insignificance beside that due to the atheistic and secular idiologies of the twentieth century alone.
This is a point Jonathan Haidt has also addressed in his humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis.‘ In his view idealism, and this is not by any means restricted to religion, has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing (page 75).
The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism — the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.
The Real Conflict
To go back to our main argument, Plantinga clarifies where the conflict seems to lie for him:
There is no real conflict between theistic religion and the scientific theory of evolution. What there is, instead, is conflict between theistic religion and a philosophical gloss or add-on to the scientific doctrine of evolution: the claim that evolution is undirected, unguided, unorchestrated by God (or anyone else).
If there is no deep-seated conflict for Plantinga between the theory of evolution and theism, the same is surprisingly not true in the case of naturalism and science:
I argue that the same most emphatically does not go for science and naturalism. . . . . there is deep and serious conflict between naturalism and science. . . . it is improbable, given naturalism and evolution, that our cognitive faculties are reliable. . . . . a naturalist who accepts current evolutionary theory has a defeater for the proposition that our faculties are reliable. . . . naturalism and evolution are in serious conflict: one can’t rationally accept them both.
Later posts will come back to this point again but I probably need to clarify this summary of it. Basically he argues that, from naturalism’s perspective, all beliefs are reducible to neuronal activity and all that evolution ensures is that the actions that neuronal activity produces are conducive to our survival. The content of our beliefs is an irrelevant by-product of this neuronal activity and cannot be relied on for its truth value. All that is required is that the action patterns produced by our synaptic activation keep us alive. There is no need for the beliefs we also coincidentally hold to be true and therefore no guarantee that they are. There are therefore no good grounds in terms of a completely reductionist evolutionary theory for believing that naturalism is true. After all, believing in naturalism would have had no survival value in our prehistory and therefore no warrant in this version of evolutionary theory. For this reason naturalism disqualifies itself as a well-founded belief system.
The evangelical atheists have, in Plantinga’s view, grossly overstated their case (pages 24-25):
Dawkins claims that he will show that the entire living world came to be without design; what he actually argues is only that this is possible and we don’t know that it is astronomically improbable; for all we know it’s not astronomically improbable.
The nature of the situation is, in Plantinga’s view, much less clear cut. He starts with a simple statement of naturalism’s position before exploring some of his doubts about it (page 34)
Life itself originated just by way of the regularities of physics and chemistry (through a sort of extension of natural selection); and undirected natural selection has produced language and mind, including our artistic, moral, religious, and intellectual proclivities. Now many—theists and others—have found these claims at least extremely doubtful; some have found them preposterous. Is it really so much as possible that language, say, or consciousness, or the ability to compose great music, or prove Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, or think up the idea of natural selection should have been produced by mindless processes of this sort? That is an ambitious claim.
He looks at Dennett’s position (page 35): ‘Darwin’s dangerous idea as set out by Dennett is a paradigm example of naturalism’ and calls it seriously into question (pages 37-38):
Locke believed it impossible in the broadly logical sense that mind should have arisen somehow from “incogitative matter.” . . . . Contrary to Dennett’s suggestion, the neo-Darwinian scientific theory of evolution certainly hasn’t shown that Locke is wrong or that God does not exist necessarily; it hasn’t even shown that it is possible, in the broadly logical sense, that mind arise from “pure incogitative” matter. It hasn’t shown these things because it doesn’t so much as address these questions.
Plantinga feels that the Dawkins and Dennett position is creating a major problem in the States at least (page 54):
The association of evolution with naturalism is the obvious root of the widespread antipathy to evolution in the United States, and to the teaching of evolution in the public schools. . . . As a result, declarations by Dawkins, Dennett, and others have at least two unhappy results. First, their (mistaken) claim that religion and evolution are incompatible damages religious belief, making it look less appealing to people who respect reason and science. But second, it also damages science. That is because it forces many to choose between science and belief in God. Most believers, given the depth and significance of their belief in God, are not going to opt for science; their attitude towards science is likely to be or become one of suspicion and mistrust.
One of the main purposes of Plantinga’s book is to scotch this misconception for good and all (page 55):
Well, if we think of the Darwinian picture as including the idea that the process of evolution is unguided, then of course that picture is completely at odds with providentialist religion. As we have seen, however, current evolutionary science doesn’t include the thought that evolution is unguided; it quite properly refrains from commenting on that metaphysical or theological issue.
And that is what makes it seem worthwhile spending another three posts exploring various aspects of his argument – and even that will barely scratch the surface of this brilliant book.