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Sunday, 10 January 2010

Alvin Plantinga

Yet another new hero! Below is the man in his own words, reviewing Dawkins’ The God Delusion. I shall also post a link to a very witty lecture.

For the moment I will attempt to summarise (with apologies to Dr Plantinga) what seems to me to be the essence of his argument: that belief in unguided, purposeless evolution is incompatible with materialism – indeed, incompatible with coherent thought of any kind.

Theists (including Christians, of course) believe that God is the Author of the Universe. We believe that the Universe, like everything in the Universe, has a cause. We believe that God’s Purpose is the cause of the Universe. In other words, “In the beginning was the Word.” God is not part of the Universe any more than Jane Austen is part of Pride and Prejudice.

We also believe that the Universe is, to some extent, intelligible. One of the reasons we are unshakeable in this belief is that all of us (not just theists) are unshakeable in our conviction that we do understand, to various extents (depending on our education, intellect and interest), things about the Universe. We understand it because it is orderly and because we have tools for understanding it, including our power to observe it and our power to reason about it.

You may have considerably better developed reasoning power than I have and I may acknowledge this; but neither of us thinks that that Logic (or the Grammar of Thought) is arbitrary. Neither of us thinks that there are other equally valid ways of doing Science or Philosophy. So much so, that when I expose a flaw in your argument, I expect you to concede that you were wrong. You expect the same of me. Neither of us, even on the ropes, appeals to another way of thinking. Our appeal is always to Reason. Reason is absolute.

Up to this point the theist and the materialist are in agreement – Reason is absolute! The disagreement is in our answers to the question: What is the source of Reason?

The theist believes that Reason is part of the fabric of the Universe – it is given. Like space, time and matter/energy, Reason proceeds from the mind of God. Our minds (because we are made in God’s image) can do Reason.

The materialist has no such comfort. He has no answer to other questions: Why is there a Universe? How did inorganic matter produce life? He does have an answer to one (relatively trivial) question: How did the first life metamorphose into the plethora of life forms we see about us? Undirected, blind, random mutation and ‘natural selection’ is his smug answer. I am always surprised that materialists seem so content to ignore the more profound for the relatively trivial. Moreover, he was forced to this conclusion by his materialistic premise – there is no God; so evolution must be undirected. How can Dawkins entrust his ‘intellectual fulfilment’ to the Darwinian scheme of things – a theory that explains so little?

Foolishly complacent, though, the materialist blunders on. Darwinism explains everything, he says, ignoring the origin of the Universe and of Life. But another trap awaits him.

Undirected, blind, random mutation and ‘natural selection’ explain everything about every organism, including human beings. Every adaptation, every organ, every facility, every behaviour, every feature of every individual and every society. Even the achievements of Shakespeare, Mozart and Bach and, astonishingly, the ability of some humans to do advanced mathematics! To what evolutionary pressure was that an adaptive response?

[Our thinking processes discover pi and Fibonacci sequences and, lo and behold, pi and Fibonacci sequences are everywhere!]

And here is the trap. Darwinian theory (to which the materialist must subscribe, or something very like it) is about adaptations which ensure reproductive success. So, some behavioural adaptations can (if we are generous) plausibly be ascribed to natural selection. Let’s go for altruism. This is hugely problematic for the materialist and, therefore, hugely amusing for the theist. But let’s go for it anyway. You can make a case for the reproductive advantage of altruism (feed babies; don’t eat them), provided you forget, for the time being, about somewhat less altruistic behaviours (gassing 6 million, for example). The point is: this is behaviour we are talking about! It’s not about thinking. Let’s suppose a mutation arose that made people believe that eaten babies haunt you, are poisonous, make the spirits cross or whatever. The adaptive advantage (more babies) would accrue whatever the belief, whatever the process (valid or not).

‘Natural Selection’ has no interest whatever in the validity of the thinking behind the behaviour; only in the effects of the thinking on behaviour. Rational – Irrational? What Me Worry?

So, although a particular belief might be a mutation, how do RM and NS manufacture the whole edifice of valid thinking?

The trap is sprung! Only the theist has any real justification in his allegiance to Reason. The materialist has sawn off the branch on which he was sitting. Reason, for him, is just an adaptive responsive that happened to work. What he calls Reason is a feature of the mind, which is nothing more than a feature of the brain, which was formed by RM & NS. NS wasn’t trying to invent the Grammar of Thought; NS was ‘trying’ to ensure more babies. The theist has a commitment to Reason as an absolute. The materialist has to believe that Reason is like any other contingent aspect of human behaviour or physiology.

The materialist pays lip service to Reason. He has no justification for his pretended veneration. Nothing he asserts, not his materialist philosophy, not his belief in natural selection, not his world view, not his morals, not his politics, not even his science, has the slightest rational foundation.

Fortunately, of course, most materialists behave (most of the time, when they are not preaching materialism) as though Reason is the God-given Word.

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