Saturday, May 17, 2014

Alvin Plantinga at The Stone

Gary Gutting is doing a series of interviews on religion at The Stone for the New York Times. His first one was with Alvin Plantinga, emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame and sometimes inspiration for the apologetics of Dr. William Lane Craig. The interview originally appeared in February, but I took the opportunity to re-read it this past week to see how it fares against my amateur counter-apologetics. The title (and subject) of the piece is “Is Atheism Irrational?”. I’ll try to summarize Plantinga’s significant points and comment on them - but I recommend reading the article to get the full context.

Gutting opens by stating that the majority of philosophers are atheist or atheist-leaning, and asks whether their views are warranted. Plantinga replies that arguments for theism can certainly be rejected as unsound, but that’s not sufficient for atheism. Even or Odd?He then gives an example that because there’s no good reason to believe that there are an even number of stars in the sky, that doesn't give you warrant to believe that there are an odd number of stars.

You can find at least two things - that while technically defensible - render his reply unconvincing, maybe even irrelevant. First, his use of the term “atheist”. When taken literally - it simply means “not theist”. Even the dictionary defines it primarily as lacking belief, with a secondary definition being an active belief that there is no god. Yet Plantinga appears to take this secondary definition to make this part of his case. I suppose if you’re in the business of shoring up the theist edifice, then arguing against people who take the “strong atheist” position makes for more impressive rhetoric. Plantinga’s second problem is his example of “even-starism”. He attempts to draw a comparison from the warrant of this to the warrant for non-belief, yet the two aren’t even remotely comparable. In the case of even-starism, the choices are concrete and limited: there are either an even number of stars or an odd number of stars in the universe. There are no other alternative answers. The question of whether god exists is purely conjectural, and sufficiently ill-defined that further debate seems (and often is) pointless. It is a different knowledge domain than that regarding the number of stars in the universe. We know there are stars, but we don’t know if a god is even a sensible concept. We don't know how one can exist, whether it has any characteristics that we normally associate with it, or whether the god we’re describing resembles, or in fact is, one described by anyone having any belief in such things. It’s apples and oranges - the first example doesn’t imply anything about how we should evaluate the soundness of the second.

Gutting then questions Plantinga’s implication that lack of belief is unwarranted, to which Plantinga replies with Russell’s Teapot. Russell’s TeapotAgain, he’s deceptively indirect here. He states that there are good reasons to believe that there is not a teapot in orbit around the sun, assuming that Russell's example is meant to refer to a real man-made object that would have to be put in place by men. Yet Russell's Teapot - as I understand it - is meant as a parody - a broad metaphor for anything that cannot be detected. This counter example is not compelling. He appears to be rebutting a specific case that the originator never intended. You might call that a straw man.
The remainder of this interview centers on two other lines of thought - a traditional “good” argument for theism - fine tuning - and what appears to be Plantinga’s own Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism .

Until next time...

Update 6/1/2014:
From the You Learn Something Every Day Department: I found out today that Bertrand Russell first formulated his Teapot example in 1952, seven years before the Russians had put Sputnik into orbit around the earth. So Plantinga's criticism of The Teapot seems even more off-point now. Bertrand Russell, speaking in 1952 when human capability to put a teapot into orbit did not exist, was well justified in lacking belief that such an artifact was in fact in orbit. I bet Plantinga didn't know that either!

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