Gary Gutting, professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame and an editor of Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, writes regularly for The Stone, a NYTimes forum for contemporary philosophers and other thinkers on issues both timely and timeless. In today’s piece Gutting interviews his Notre Dame colleague, Alvin Plantinga, born in 1932, and now at 81 years the John A. O’Brien Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Notre Dame. Throughout his long career Plantinga has argued in his many works that some people can know that God exists as a foundation belief, one that requires no argument in support.
Now that’s pretty much his position or “argument” in this interview, and with all due respect to the philosopher and his substantial accomplishments I don’t agree with him. No less than Pope Francis he is holding onto the past, the past of Christian religion no less, not willing to make the changes in his thinking made necessary by the huge changes in the world about him. No less than the Pope does he refuse to accept what biological science has revealed to us about us and our past.
But in spite of all this I will give him two stars for what he does say in response to Gary Gutting. First, in regard to what he says about the atheists, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens, and their like. For Plantinga, and for me, when the atheist says there is no God he is saying more than he can possibly say, or at least possibly know.
And Richard Dawkins, as a scientist, especially should know that. So going right alone with Plantinga I would agree that the unbelievers, such as myself, Dawkins, et al. ought to call themselves, if they would call themselves anything at all, not atheists but agnostics.
Or better, and much more eloquently, as in the words of Jacob Bronowski in his 1973 book, The Ascent of Man,
“Human knowledge is personal and responsible, an unending adventure at the edge of uncertainty.” To say there is no God is personal, perhaps, but not responsible, and hardly does such a definitive statement suggest an adventure at the edge of uncertainty, that is, the real adventure that is science, leading our unending quest for knowledge of ourselves and of the world.
The second star I would give Plantinga is for a good telling or a very old story, and reading his story one almost believes, as when inside a soaring, Gothic structure such as Chartres cathedral, that there is a God up there who loves us, and who sent us his only son to die for our sins and ultimately our salvation. But as someone said, “where’s the beef,” either in the words of the biblical story, or stories, or in any piece of religious art?
Well, there isn’t any. Beauty, yes, even perhaps a hint of truth and definitely some goodness, but otherwise no substance. Religion and art tell good stories, but are they true? One might even say that science has all the beef. Perhaps the “atheists” call themselves atheists, not because they “know” (what’s the evidence?) but to stop true believers, fundamentalists of all stripes, from placing obstacles on our road to knowledge.
Here from the interview, is the Biblical story in Plantinga’s words:
“Think about it: The first being of the universe, perfect in goodness, power and knowledge, creates free creatures. These free creatures turn their backs on him, rebel against him and get involved in sin and evil. Rather than treat them as some ancient potentate might — e.g., having them boiled in oil — God responds by sending his son into the world to suffer and die so that human beings might once more be in a right relationship to God. God himself undergoes the enormous suffering involved in seeing his son mocked, ridiculed, beaten and crucified. And all this for the sake of these sinful creatures.
I’d say a world in which this story is true would be a truly magnificent possible world. It would be so good that no world could be appreciably better. But then the best worlds contain sin and suffering.“
I would ask Plantinga to tell me how “on earth” does this story, both the biblical, and Gospel portions, jibe with the “evolution story.” For after all evolution, as opposed to the stories in the Bible, has mountains of evidence in its support. No less than gravity or electricity Darwinian evolution is real, and true. It’s not “just a theory” as some would have it.
Then specifically in regard to Plantinga’s account of God’s actions who is able to grasp that point in time (in history?), when He, God created free creatures? What were these “free creatures” that suddenly appeared? Free swimming amino acids, RNA, DNA, prokaryotes, the first primates? Who were they, and when and where did they first show themselves, these timeless, pastless “free creatures” of Plantinga’s account?
This is not to say that the story of Adam and Eve, and then the new Testament story of God’s sending his own son to bring us back from the brink, aren’t good stories, that which has been convincingly demonstrated over and over again during some thousand years of history to be absolutely captivating, to say the least. But they’re only stories, myths. There is no evidence to support them, as say the fossil evidence for Lucy, although, just as the stories of dragons and fairies and elves and Rudolfs and Santa Clauses and all the rest, they appeal to the child still within all of us. And we would all probably like to go on believing them.
On the other hand, aren’t the stories of science of a different nature, based on real evidence, on what things are, rather than what we’d like them to be, and as such aren’t they much more satisfying? Don’t these stories appeal to the adult within us? Science has shown us the no less captivating tale behind every living thing including us, homo sapiens sapiens. The point is, behind every living thing lies a captivating tale of how the forces of nature and chance transformed them, step by genetic step, into the creatures they are today.
Now compare what you have just read from Alvin Plantinga with the following popular scientific account of our origins. I take this from Chip Walter’s January 2013 book, Last Ape Standing. Which account is real? Which one can you believe to be true based on the evidence?
“Over the past 180 years we have so far managed to stumble across unearth, and otherwise bring to light evidence that twenty seven separate human (or hominid) species have evolved on planet Earth. As you may have noticed, twenty-six of them are now no longer with us, done in by their environments, predators, disease, or the unfortunate shortcomings of their DNA. The lone survivor is peculiar, and peculiarly successful, upright walking primate that calls itself, a little self-importantly, Homo sapiens sapiens, the wise, wise one. In most circles, we simply call them you and me.
Of all the varieties of humans who have come and struggled and wandered and evolved, why are we the only one still standing? Couldn’t more than one version have survived and coexisted with us in a world as big as ours? Lions and tigers, panthers and mountain lions, coexist. Gorillas, orangutans, bonobos, and chimpanzees do as well (if barely). Two kinds of elephants and multiple versions of dolphins, finches, sharks bears, and beetles inhabit the planet. Yet only one kind of human. Why? …
If we hope to place our arrival on the scene in any sort of perspective, it’s a good idea to remember that every species on Earth, and every species that has ever lived on Earth (by some estimates thirty billion of them), enjoyed a long and checkered past. Each came from somewhere quite different from where it ended up, usually by a circuitous, and startling, route. It’s difficult to imagine,for example, that the blue whales that now swim the world’s oceans, gray leviathan submarines that they are, were once furry, hoofed animals that roamed the plains south of the Himalayas fifty-three million years ago. Or that chickens and ostriches are the improbable descendants of dinosaurs. Or that horses were once small-brained little mammals not much taller than your average cat with a long tail to match. And the Pekinese lapdogs that grace the couches of so many homes around the world can trace their beginnings to the lithe and lethal gray wolves of northern Eurasia.
The point is, behind every living thing lies a captivating tale of how the forces of nature and chance transformed them, step by genetic step, into the creatures they are today. We are no exception. You and I have also come to the present by circuitous and startling route, and once we were quite different from the way we are now.”