There are heavyweights in Christian philosophy, and there is Alvin Plantinga, whose name virtually never comes up without the descriptor, “most influential Christian philosopher of our generation.” In his latest book, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism, he comes to a surprising conclusion about Intelligent Design. To put it perhaps somewhat “inaccurately but suggestively,” borrowing one of his own phrases from another context (p. 331), there’s no really good argument for ID, but there are persuasive reasons to believe it’s true regardless.
Plantinga’s specialty is in epistemology, the philosophical study of how we know, and how we know that we know. He applies this to the question of whether we can know that nature is intelligently designed, just by examining it. Following detailed and rather technical discussions of both cosmological fine tuning, he concludes that the arguments in favor of design are not compelling. The reason, in an almost criminally shortened version, is that it’s just not possible to assign probabilities to a designer and his actions in the world. Or, in another condensed form that’s likely to get me sent to jail, the problem is that everyone is bound to see what they expect to see (your chosen prior probability for the existence of God as designer will rule the outcome of the probability equation).
All kidding about criminality aside, I need to pause at this point and explain what I’m trying to accomplish here. I’m trying to provoke your interest so that you’ll buy Plantinga’s book and read it. I’m not trying to re-create his argument. There may be someone who can compress his argument into a short form suitable for a blog discussion, but I’m not that one. I only know how to point at it and say, “this is really fascinating and you oughtta come see it!”
So I shall continue pointing for a few more paragraphs.
That argument swings both ways, of course. If Plantinga is right, and if there is no good argument for God in nature’s design, there is also no good argument against God in nature. Plantinga mentions that in this context but he does not dwell much on it.
Probably he thought it was unnecessary. He had already shown that Dawkins’s argument against God is “unsound in excelsis.” For a top philosopher, he can be most entertaining at times, and never more so than when he has the opportunity to take down Richard Dawkins. He’s not unkind about it, I assure you. He only dishes out what Dawkins (Dennett, too) is asking for.
Anyway if there is no design argument, does that mean no design, and no designer? No. For Plantinga it’s much simpler than an argument. Design is just apparent in the world. We can see it, as we can see that the world wasn’t created intact in its current form just five minutes ago, that our memories are at least somewhat trustworthy, that there are other people (other minds) in the world besides ourselves. No argument that could prove these things true, yet we know them with trustworthy knowledge regardless. These are “basic beliefs:” things we know without having to call upon a string of inferences to support that knowledge.
We can see design just as clearly, says Plantinga.
The same goes if you are on a voyage of space exploration, land on some planet which has an earth-like atmosphere, but about which nothing or next-to-nothing is known, and come across an object that looks more or less like a 1929 Model T Ford. You would certainly see this object as designed; you would not engage in probabilistic arguments about how likely it is that there should be an object like this that was not designed.
(The emphasis is added.) Of course Plantinga knows that perception of this sort can be mistaken. He goes on to analyze ways we can judge whether it is mistaken: rebutting defeaters for belief, undercutting defeaters, and defeater-deflectors. Remember, I’m pointing at his point, not trying to make it here.
HIs approach to ID is by way of Michael Behe’s work in Darwin’s Black Box and The Edge of Evolution, and also by way of cosmological fine-tuning. He never mentions Stephen Meyer’s information-based approach to the design question. I was disappointed in that. Meyer’s approach is at least as significant as Behe’s, and it seems to me that Meyer’s approach bridges the logical-deductive method and the seeing that comes with basic beliefs. I would have liked to see Plantinga’s take on it.
Still the book is thought-provoking in ways beyond what I’ve hinted at here. Intelligent Design only occupies about 15% of its pages. The title, you recall, is Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism. He finds deep concord between science and Christian theism. He finds deep conflict between science and naturalism. Again, I’m only pointing—and recommending.
Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism by Alvin Plantinga. New York: Oxford University Press, USA (2011). 376 pages including index. Amazon price US$27.95 (Hardcover).