March 23, 2017

March 14, 2007


Alvin Plantinga: The Dawkins Confusion; Naturalism ad Absurdum

The Dawkins Confusion
Naturalism ad absurdum.
by Alvin Plantinga

Dawkins is perhaps the world’s most popular science writer; he is also an extremely gifted science writer. (For example, his account of bats and their ways in his earlier book The Blind Watchmaker is a brilliant and fascinating tour de force.) The God Delusion, however, contains little science; it is mainly philosophy and theology (perhaps “atheology” would be a better term) and evolutionary psychology, along with a substantial dash of social commentary decrying religion and its allegedly baneful effects. As the above quotation suggests, one shouldn’t look to this book for evenhanded and thoughtful commentary. In fact the proportion of insult, ridicule, mockery, spleen, and vitriol is astounding. (Could it be that his mother, while carrying him, was frightened by an Anglican clergyman on the rampage?) If Dawkins ever gets tired of his day job, a promising future awaits him as a writer of political attack ads.

Now despite the fact that this book is mainly philosophy, Dawkins is not a philosopher (he’s a biologist). Even taking this into account, however, much of the philosophy he purveys is at best jejune. You might say that some of his forays into philosophy are at best sophomoric, but that would be unfair to sophomores; the fact is (grade inflation aside), many of his arguments would receive a failing grade in a sophomore philosophy class. This, combined with the arrogant, smarter-than-thou tone of the book, can be annoying. I shall put irritation aside, however and do my best to take Dawkins’ main argument seriously.

Chapter 3, “Why There Almost Certainly is No God,” is the heart of the book. Well, why does Dawkins think there almost certainly isn’t any such person as God? It’s because, he says, the existence of God is monumentally improbable. How improbable? The astronomer Fred Hoyle famously claimed that the probability of life arising on earth (by purely natural means, without special divine aid) is less than the probability that a flight-worthy Boeing 747 should be assembled by a hurricane roaring through a junkyard. Dawkins appears to think the probability of the existence of God is in that same neighborhood—so small as to be negligible for all practical (and most impractical) purposes. Why does he think so?

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8 comments

Matt, Thanks for the posting.  Plantinga is rock solid, and it’s always good to have a repertoire of resources available when someone enamored with Dawkins or Hawking comes along.

[1] Posted by Nyssa on 3-14-2007 at 07:50 AM · [top]

The Plantinga commentary is itself a complicated read. I imagine the book is rather difficult to manage. It is easy for theologians to dismiss these works, but not so for the layman. I was taught as a child the primary reason we had priests was to explain things like this to us using their training and piety. Still holds true. If we read the enemy’s stuff, we shouldn’t forget to check it out with a priest. Doesn’t hurt to have Stephen Hawking weigh in on the subject either.
The principal arguement that God must be too complex to exist is rather odd. Perhaps it is difficult for the author to accept that there is something out there that he doesn’t understand. I doubt the average rain forest tribesman understands the Bernouli Effect causing wing lift, thus allowing heavier than air flight. Doesn’t mean that there are not aircraft, just that he is too limited in education to understand them quite yet. He needs a revelatory experience or two with a bush pilot.
Tell you what else. Dawkins never has had a visit from the Holy Spirit. A visit where His presence was unmistakable. You quit worrying about things like the Bernouli Effect and Over Complicated Deities. “I am who I am.”

[2] Posted by teddy mak on 3-14-2007 at 08:03 AM · [top]

At the risk of being trivial (and offending biologists, marine or otherwise) let me relate a proverb from when I was a Physics graduate student:

A Philospopher/Theologian asks—why does it exist?
A Physicist asks—how does it work?
A Chemist asks—what is it made of?
A Mathemetician asks—can I quantify it?
An Engineer asks—can I build one?
An Economist asks—how much will it cost?
A Biologist asks—would you like fries with that?

I have been much distressed by people in the discusisons surrounding our current difficulties who quote scientific research who have no idea what the scientific method, reproducible results or statistically signifigant & non-biased data are.

[3] Posted by Justin Martyr on 3-14-2007 at 09:35 AM · [top]

This is an excellent article, as one would expect from Dr Plantinga.

[kvetch]
I really <u>do</u> wish, though, that some web elf (or perhaps a html toiler gnome) would proofread these pieces and fix places where the (presumably) automatic HTML conversion from WP or publishing formats has failed.  For example, Dr. P’s quote from Hawking:

... reduction of the rate of expansion by one part in 1012 at the time when the temperature of the Universe was 1010 K would have resulted in the Universe’s starting to recollapse when its radius was only 1/3000 of the present value and the temperature was still 10,000 K.6

... makes little sense as posted; proofreading would have provided something better like:

... reduction of the rate of expansion by one part in 10<sup>12</sup> at the time when the temperature of the Universe was 10<sup>10</sup> K would have resulted in the Universe’s starting to recollapse when its radius was only 1/3000 of the present value and the temperature was still 10,000° K.<sup>[n6]</sup>

... or some other convention could be adopted for “scientific” numerical notation.  (10^10 is the format used by programmers; spreadsheet jockeys use 10E10—either would be preferable to simply ignoring the superscript.)
[/kvetch]

[4] Posted by Craig Goodrich on 3-14-2007 at 11:18 AM · [top]

[kvetching] is good

[5] Posted by Fr. Chip, SF on 3-14-2007 at 12:39 PM · [top]

Teddy mak said: “The Plantinga commentary is itself a complicated read. I imagine the book is rather difficult to manage.”

I heard AP speak to the Society of Christian Philosophers, some years ago at W.KY Univ.  I understood two things in particular that Dr. Plantinga said, “Good evening” and “Thank you very much.”  At some point in the talk, I wrote a note to my friend that “this is like listening to someone speak a language where you know every third word.”  My friend, a serious intellectual himself, wrote back, “It’s actually like someone teaching algebra without a blackboard.”

[6] Posted by Miss Sippi on 3-14-2007 at 04:59 PM · [top]

Dawkins never has had a visit from the Holy Spirit.

Let us all pray that Dawkins is gifted with such a visit.

[7] Posted by Fr. Greg on 3-15-2007 at 02:09 PM · [top]

Lest anyone think that it is just the religious that are disappointed in Dawkins’ book, Shannon Love at the excellent ChicagoBoyz weblog, an atheist and devoted fan of Dawkins, <a >panned it</a> as well:

I read about half of the book, skipping to the parts I thought would hold the most interest and pursuing the index (something I always do with new books). In the end I put it back on the shelf. I couldn’t bring myself to plunk down $30 for such low-quality work. It has the distinction of being the first Dawkins book I will probably never own. Granted, I had heard podcasts about the book and seen some supposed excerpts that raised my eyebrows, but I assumed that, in the manner of such things, those snippets represented the “village atheist” view that did not capture the nuance and sophistication of Dawkins’ work. Unfortunately, those previews did capture the essence of the work. If anything it’s even worse than they suggest.

[8] Posted by Jeffersonian on 3-15-2007 at 02:25 PM · [top]

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