a bio-theological irony?

another post broadly relating to the philosophy of science – I’m back to skimming through Plantinga’s “Where the Conflict Really Lies” (WTCRL), so I may have more such thoughts inspired over coming hours/days. If they’re original (not directly from the book), or there’s something new I understand by reading it again, I may continue to post these, largely for my own future reference, as I hope to prepare some talks on related things.

While it it may be deemed rude to generalise (and I apologise for any inaccuracy perceived here) atheists, in my experience, are often very sceptical of arguments for God based on mere logical possibility, or, a bit stronger, on conceivability (I take it that that which is really conceivable is logically possible, while not all that is logically possible is really conceivable). There is an idea, for instance, that because God (in the classical theistic tradition) is a ‘necessary’ being, if it is logically possible that God exist, God does in fact exist. I can see why this doesn’t go down well with atheists – some are not philosophically educated so just don’t get it, but also the concept of God as necessary being is not infrequently mishandled or inadequately explained by apologists. So, questions of modality should be treated carefully; fair enough – (I’m not interested in bypassing the intellectual work by equivocating on the word “possible” when an atheist is up against a wall and admits that she thinks that “sure, it’s possible that God could exist”). But furthermore, ‘religious sceptics’ (it’s hard to find a suitable term here) are often also suspicious or highly critical of arguments to the effect that God more probably exists than doesn’t, or that God plausibly exists. What they want, if they’re particularly naïve, is proof – or often and a bit more fairly, knock-down evidence that God is real.

The real problem is that such critics of religion are not consistent. They’re not consistent firstly because they don’t demand this kind of thing in other areas of their life. In most relationships, we don’t trust people based on either proof or ‘knock-down evidence’ (whatever that is); in science, we have no convincing proof (that I’m aware of) that the world will continue behaving in the way we have become accustomed to it doing, etc. But, finally to the point of this post – the religious sceptic who believes that evolution is much to be preferred as an explanation of the biosphere over intelligent design – and I’m yet to meet one who takes the opposite view – is likely to accept (though they probably haven’t considered it!) an argument based on something little stronger than conceivability. Note that I am not going to say that this is entirely improper – there may be no other way to deal with the question of whether evolution is the best account – but if that is indeed the case, they should also be open to similar arguments when offered in support of God’s reality. I think, incidentally, that there is plenty more work to be done by Christians in the field of contrastive explanation along these lines.

Richard Dawkins, in The Blind Watchmaker, (for this post, I’m going by Plantinga’s account, pp. 14-30 of WTCRL) seems to make use of such an argument, in any case. He’s happy (it seems) to accept that the default position when viewing the apparent design of life’s complexity is to accept that it was in fact designed by an intelligent agent – but then he proceeds to show that, contrary to what design theorists will expect, an evolutionary process is quite able to produce these complex structures. The argument is something along the lines of ‘as far as we can tell, it’s not hugely improbable that life’s history is adequately accounted for in naturalistic evolutionary terms – therefore, this is the correct explanation!’ Dawkins’ view is not just that evolution could’ve possibly, in a logical sense, led to the current facts, but that it is in some way plausible that it did; but his argument to the plausibility of naturalistic evolution seems to be to try to show that the steps are not demonstrably restrictively improbable (without actually, as far as I know, going anywhere near to realistic calculations of the relevant probabilities; just nice Darwinian tales hoping to prime our imaginations such that we begin to consider them ‘conceivable’).

For details and replies to other possible forms of Dawkins’ argument you’ll have to read this section of Plantinga’s book, but as he points out,

“the argument form

p is not astronomically improbable



is a bit unprepossessing.” 

Note, I hope to read more of philosopher of biology Elliott Sober’s work soon – no doubt he is considerably more careful than RD. Perhaps having done so, I will give up on teleological arguments; we shall see! (Given, however, that Plantinga lists Sober amongst those who offered advice concerning WTCRL and that book managed to be published by OUP, there seems to be a pretty high-level philosophical discussion happening around some of this stuff). Watch this conceptual space.


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