Monday, February 10, 2014

Alvin Plantinga peddles theological nonsense in the New York Times

The New York Times ran an interview with theologian Alvin Plantinga conducted by philosopher Gary Gutting that reveals in stark relief the contrast between philosophical inquiry and theological apologetics. Whereas philosophy, at its best, attempts to ascertain the truth, theology, even at its best, is no more than searching for reasons to believe what is already decided. The question posed in the title of the piece, “Is Atheism Rational?” may not have been answered in the interview, but we did learn the answer to the question,, “Does theology have the tools with which to judge rationality?”

The answer is “No.”

Right off the bat, Plantinga misapplies an analogy, drawing confused and inane conclusions.
No one thinks there is good evidence for the proposition that there are an even number of stars; but also, no one thinks the right conclusion to draw is that there are an uneven number of stars. The right conclusion would instead be agnosticism.
Comparing the question of the existence of a God to the question as to whether the number of stars is odd or even isn’t even comparing apples and oranges, so dissimilar are the two questions. No one seriously denies or questions the existence of stars. Even as I write this there is a rather large star brightening the sky.

We are not asking if stars exist, we are not even asking how many stars there are, or what exactly constitutes a star. (Is a black hole a star? Brown Dwarf? Coalescing gasses?) Instead, we are asking a completely irrelevant, unanswerable question: whether the number of stars is odd or even, and comparing this to the question of whether or nor it is reasonable to believe that there is no God. Perhaps we should ask if the number of possible Gods is odd or even instead.

The question of relevance is also important. If there are good reasons to believe in a God, then there are big philosophical implications. If there are an even number of stars, the implications are philosophically irrelevant.

Plantinga plays his last card fairly early in the interview, saying, “I should make clear first that I don’t think arguments are needed for rational belief in God. In this regard belief in God is like belief in other minds, or belief in the past. Belief in God is grounded in experience, or in the sensus divinitatis, John Calvin’s term for an inborn inclination to form beliefs about God in a wide variety of circumstances.”

Here’s the main fault with Plantinga’s view, and the reason why the title of the piece, “Is Atheism Rational?” is so inappropriate. Rational arguments, according to Plantinga, are not needed to believe in God, in fact, rationality plays no part in deciding on whether or not to believe in God at all. Some of us are born or have inculcated within us the “divine sense” and some of us lack this inborn feature. Atheists are, as one well-meaning Christian television host once said to me, “faith blind.” I replied, as politely as I could, that perhaps being faith blind is the right way to be, and that susceptibility to faith was some sort of mental disorder. She was not amused, but conveniently Plantinga has now supplied a Latin name for the disorder, “sensus divinitatis.”

Plantinga further compares belief in God to a belief in the belief that other persons have minds and a belief in the past, as if no evidence exists for either, and the only way humans know these things is through some sort of inborn sense. This is of course poppycock, as the existence of minds can be implied by studying the way human beings devote so much of their mental processes on determining what other people are going to do. The existence of the past is inferred from memory, historical evidence and our progress into the future. The existence of a God, then, is hardly comparable.

Of course Plantinga stumbles in trying to talk his way around the problem of evil, the argument against God that points out that an all-good, all-powerful God could not build a world in which babies suffer from cancer or millions die in ethnic holocausts. Plantinga argues that suffering in the world is the result of human free will, but this does little to ameliorate the billions of years of suffering creatures on this planet endured before humans came into existence a scant ten million years ago.

When people say that things like “the best worlds contain sin and suffering” I wonder at their ability to empathize with the plight of the billions of humans who have lived and died in misery, slavery, deprivation, horror and tragedy. To so flippantly dismiss the problem of evil as a consequence of free will is to not truly contemplate the evil of this world.

Plantinga’s last arguments concern his position that one cannot be both a materialist (believing that the universe is all there is and contains no supernatural elements) and believe in evolution. Says, Plantinga, “The belief that both materialism and evolution are true is self-refuting. It shoots itself in the foot. Therefore it can’t rationally be held.”

How Plantinga gets to this conclusion is a non-stop barrage of sophistry and spurious arguments the dissection of which is the job of a more patient writer, but in short, Plantinga believes that evolution can only produce beliefs, not necessarily true beliefs. Since there are reasons to doubt the veracity of our beliefs, our only choices are extreme skepticism or a rejection of evolution.

If you are thinking, “Huh?” and “What?” then you are in good company, because like most of what passes for theology, that’s a load of nonsense, nonsense Plantinga peddles happily.


  1. I guess I'm agnostic. I figure if God is good, gods are better.

  2. I was totally underwhelmed by Dr. Plantinga arguments. Many Christian posters refer favourably to his work, but if this is an indication of his arguments, all I can say is the emperor has no clothes.

  3. Plantinga (and the more populist William Lane Craig) are the Barnum and Bailey of philosophy. They are sophists, apologists and showmen. Their musings are empty and worthless, but superficially persuasive enough for the unreflective mind.

  4. I'm a patient reader; so please give me your argument against Plantinga's argument that there can be no truth if our beliefs are the product of evolution.

  5. Wow, Steve. This is a very underwhelming, disappointing criticism. I expected more from you. You're a smart guy but this piece makes you appear as though you were either lazy or misinformed when you wrote this. What gives?

    1. Could you be more specific? I thought Plantinga made nearly zero sense in the NY Times piece, but you seem to think I didn't give his stuff enough thought. What am I missing?