17 December 2011
As many of you will know, Alvin Plantinga has a new book out.(1) It’s called Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (Oxford UP, 2011).
It’s an important book for us here at TheBestSchools, but I haven’t had a chance to digest it yet, so I won’t discuss it here today. What I want to discuss, instead, is a nasty attack on Plantinga by Jerry Coyne that cannot go unanswered.(2)
Coyne wrote a column about Plantinga two days ago with the provocative title, “Remarkably Stupid Remarks by a Sophisticated Theologian.” Coyne’s column was occasioned by a sympathetic profile of Plantinga that ran in The New York Times two days before, called “Philosopher Sticks Up for God.”
Among other things, the Times reporter mentions Plantinga’s use of Calvin’s concept of the sensus divinitatis—the idea that human beings are endowed with a sense for perceiving the divine that is analogous to the senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell.
First, he claims he has read “some of Plantinga’s books” and was not “terribly impressed” by them. That’s interesing. I would love to know which ones, and I can’t help feeling curious about what, precisely, the verb “to read” means to Coyne in this context. But let that pass.
He goes on to discuss a number of points from the new book with which he takes issue. I don’t have space to discuss them all here, so I will focus on Coyne’s discussion of the sensus divinitatis. Here is what he has to say on this topic:
“Sensus divinatis” [sic] is a fancy term for “lots of people believed and still believe in God.” But in that case the sensus divinatis [sic] is not working properly in more and more people all the time. In fact, it’s almost disappeared in Scandinavia and much of Western Europe, and is waning in the US.
What is fascinating is that Coyne—who of course thinks he’s being cleverly ironic—has hit the nail on the head. Just not in the way he thinks.
How is that? This will take a little explaining.
First, I must note that I am myself an atheist (see “Two Kinds of Atheists“). So, why doesn’t that put me on Coyne’s side against Plantinga (pictured at left)? That is what I need to explain. In order to do so, I must give my reasons for being an atheist in some detail.
A theist, by definition, is someone who believes in the existence of a personal God, meaning a mind-like entity transcending the visible, material universe, who both created the universe and has a concern for particular human beings (particular providence). I simply do not find the claim that such an entity exists credible. This makes me a non-theist, or atheist.
What is wrong with the claim that a personal God exists?
Setting aside everything having to do with the Bible, the historicity of Jesus, his resurrection, and so forth, I will focus on a single question, which is to my mind the strongest argument in the general vicinity of theism. The question is this:
Why is there something, rather than nothing? Why not just nothing at all? (And by the way, widespread rumors to the contrary notwithstanding, the primordial quantum vacuum is not “nothing,” in the relevant sense.)
I freely admit that this question appears to make perfect sense. This means the material universe is “contingent,” as philosophers put it, meaning it is “not necessary”—it did not, so far as we can tell, simply have to exist. Therefore, it is reasonable to ask why it does in fact exist. Or, at least, it sure seems like we have every right to ask that question—and to expect that there is an answer to it, however hard it may be for us to discover what the answer is.
If all of this is correct, then the only conceivable answer seems to be that there is a source, or “ground,” of being outside of or beyond (transcending) the material universe that caused it to come into being and also sustains it in being from moment to moment (because one can also ask: What stops the universe, once it exists, from ceasing to do so?).
The theist’s answer to this question is: A personal God created the material universe ex nihilo (out of nothing—and I mean nothing). It is this answer that I find unpersuasive.
The reason I find it unpersuasive is not, or not primarily, because one can then ask: Where did God come from?
Obviously, it would achieve nothing to posit a “ground of being” for the contingent material universe that was itself contingent. And that is why theologians do no such thing. Rather, they speak of God’s being or existence as “necessary.”
And this is where I balk, for two reasons.
First, I balk because there seems to be not much difference between talking about a “necessary ground of being” and saying “I don’t understand.” It is very difficult to attach any positive meaning to the idea of a transcendent, necessary ground of being.
The other reason I balk is that I can’t help suspecting there is a category mistake involved in talking about the “necessity” of the existence of any real thing, even a ground of being. When we speak of the ground of being’s existing “necessarily,” perhaps we are conflating the nomological sense of “necessity”—in the earth’s gravitational field an unsupported object necessarily accelerates at 32 feet per second squared—with the logical sense of the word—if all men are mortal and Socrates is a man, then necessarily Socrates is mortal.
But if that is the case, then why does the question”Why is there something rather than nothing?” seem to make perfect sense? To this, I have no answer.
On the other hand, even if I were to conclude that the idea of a transcendent, necessary ground of being makes sense and answers the question “Why is there something, rather than nothing?,” that still would not make me a theist. The ground of being is the sort of concept that Pascal called the “God of the philosophers,” and it is a long from from the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”
These are my main reasons, then, for calling myself an atheist. So, what’s the difference between me and Coyne? The main difference, I’m afraid, is that I’m willing to admit I may be wrong.
Note that being willing to admit I’m wrong—recognizing that it is possible that a personal God may exist—does not make me an “agnostic.” I still have a settled opinion to the contrary. What it makes me is a non-fanatic.
Although I believe as I do, for the reasons I’ve mentioned, I can easily imagine what it would be like to come down on the other side of this question. I think I understand in some measure why theists believe as they do. It is relatively easy for me to imagine myself being one of them.
All of this convinces me that these are matters about which dogmatism is wholly inappropriate. On the capital question of the reason for the material universe’s existence, science is both deaf and dumb. What matters, rather, is feeling in one’s bones the radical contingency of our own existence and that of the universe itself. Or not.
What matters is being temperamentally capable of “getting” what religion is all about. That, and having a little bit of humility.
Of course, “getting” something—understanding what it would be like to seriously entertain a claim as true—and assenting to it are two different things. On this point, the Romanian-French atheist thinker, E.M. Cioran, once made a pertinent comment:
What advantage would having faith be to me, since I understand Meister Eckhart just as well without it?(3)
Now, a Christian might protest that neither Cioran nor I really “get” religion in the way we claim to do. We are not really in full possession of the sensus divinitatis. If we were, then we would directly experience the presence of God, our doubts would fall away, and we could not help believing the evidence of our own senses.
What such a Christian would surely say is that, though all human beings are endowed by God with a sensus divinitatis, in cases like those of Barham, Cioran, and Coyne, the sense is impaired, to varying degrees.
After all, why shouldn’t my failure to believe in God be proof that the sensus divinitatis is impaired in me, in just the same way that my failure to read the 20-20 line on the eye chart proves my vision is impaired? And if that is the case, then perhaps a remedy may be found for the one impairment as for the other. Moreover, Pascal has informed us what it is. For faulty vision, I ought to put on my spectacles; for faulty perception of God, I ought to get down on my knees and pray.
I know all of this—in theory. But, alas, in practice some impairments of our faculties are easier to correct than others. I am comforted, though, by the thought that plenty of believers also experience doubt—impairment of the sense of the divine. Take, for example, the young priest in Georges Bernanos’s great novel (and Robert Bresson’s powerful film), Diary of a Country Priest. So, at least I am in good company.
In any case, the point here is not what I believe, or even why I believe it. The point is that perfectly rational people in possession of the same empirical evidence may very well disagree about the existence of God. And I am happy to describe the difference between us as depending upon the relative health of our respective faculties for perceiving the divine. Because I, too, feel such a faculty within myself, however feebly, and I can imagine what it would be like to feel it much more strongly than I do.
That is why Coyne’s self-satisfaction is misplaced, and why the intended irony in his claim that the sensus divinitatis is malfunctioning in more and more people today is probably the literal truth. All it takes is reading Coyne and his New Atheist friends to become convinced that there is indeed a terrible epidemic of spiritual myopia ravaging the land. Indeed, from the evidence of Coyne’s own writings, we may infer that his sensus divinitatis has quit working almost entirely. I suppose it withered away, like a muscle that is never used.
Personally, I prefer to call this sort of spiritual blindness “scientific philistinism.” However, if others wish to call it atrophy of the sensus divinitatis, they will get no quarrel from me.
Coyne ends his ill-tempered tirade against Plantinga by saying:
If claims like Plantinga’s are taken seriously by secular philosophers, then philosophy is in more trouble than I thought.
To this, an obvious rejoinder springs to mind:
If claims like Coyne’s are taken seriously by reputable scientists, then science is in more trouble than I thought.
(1) Plantinga requires no introduction to anyone with a passing familiarity with the philosophical scene in America over the past 40 years; however, for non-philosophers, suffice it to say that Plantinga is the author of The Nature of Necessity (Oxford UP, 1974), Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford UP, 2000), and numerous other books which, collectively, have probably contributed more than any other body of work to the revival of theism as a respectable position among professional analytical philosophers.
(2) Coyne is a noted evolutionist, a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago, and a prolific blogger with a large and devoted following.
(3) Cioran, E.M., Drawn and Quartered, tr. Richard Howard (Seaver Books, 1983); p. 65. (Originally published as Écartèlement [Gallimard, 1979].)