Apologetics: September 2007 Archives

I mentioned in this post the one place I've found something in D.A. Carson's writings that I disagree with, and I wanted to explain in detail what that is and why I disagree with him. I've summarized Alvin Plantinga's Reformed Epistemology in this post, so I refer you to that for the basics of the view. Carson discusses the view in Letters Along the Way, pp.151-156 and in The Gagging of God pp.186, 188. In the first book, some of his critique is from what he (or possibly Woodbridge) thinks Plantinga gets wrong about Calvin. I have little to say about that, since I haven't read Calvin on the issue and am not interested in what he said for the sake of getting him right, at least not with respect to this issue. I do think Carson (and Woodbridge) ought to get Plantinga right if they're going to critique him in print, and I don't think that actually happened in this case.

In Letters Along the Way, Plantinga comes off as if he denies the possibility of establishing the existence of God with evidence, as if he doesn't think there is any evidence whatsoever to support Christian belief. Nothing could be further from the truth. Plantinga thinks several arguments for the existence of God are convincing. He thinks there is good evidence to support belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I'm not sure where this understanding of Plantinga is coming from, but it doesn't fit with Plantinga's actual beliefs or his discussion in the piece Carson and Woodbridge cite ("Reason and Belief in God", in Faith and Rationality, ed. Plantinga and Wolterstorff).

What Plantinga does say is that evidentialism is false as a requirement on knowledge. Evidentialism takes knowledge to be impossible without either evidence or self-evident truths. He allows that people disagree on the value of the evidence, and so he doesn't think evidential arguments will be convincing enough to those with highly skeptical standards. I don't know of anywhere where he simply denies the possibility of gaining support for Christian beliefs with evidence, however. He just doesn't think you need evidence to have knowledge of God. Plantinga does recognize (rightly) that there are no standards agreed on by all sides that we can use as the basis of rational arguments for God. The atheist can just deny any premise necessary to get out of the argument. That's how philosophical arguments work, no matter what the conclusion is. But that's a far cry from thinking such arguments are inconclusive or unsound. To make that jump would require making it in every area of philosophy, making no argument successful or sound. This is simply not Plantinga.

The discussion continues with a number of claims that I find it hard to see as responsible Plantinga exegesis. Woodbridge and Carson compare Plantinga with Barth, with whom I see no comparison. Barth rejects the kind of natural theology that Plantinga has spent a good deal of time defending, even if he's recognized that atheists can deny a premise to any valid argument to get out of accepting the conclusion. Plantinga does discuss the objections he sees to natural theology in the works of Bavinck, Calvin, and Barth. But he does so in order to show that his rejection of evidentialism is in the general Reformed tradition, not to agree with everything in those thinkers' rejection of natural theology. He in fact says that the natural theologian can respond to some of their complaints, and he gives a defense of natural theology before going on to continue his critique of evidentialism and response to the no-evidence argument.

Richard Dawkins is often accused of being a fundamentalist atheist. He dismisses theism almost without argument. The arguments he gives are often straw men or miss the point in some other way. He shows little familiarity with the best philosophical representatives of theism, and since his work on atheism is actually philosophy he's really dropped the ball in backing up his views. It ends up looking like mere dogmatism without much allowance for dialogue with the other side, i.e. fundamentalism.

Dawkins' response:

The answer to the familiar accusation of atheist fundamentalism is plain enough. The onus is not on the atheist to demonstrate the non-existence of the invisible unicorn in the room, and we cannot be accused of undue confidence in our disbelief. The devout churchgoer recites the Nicene Creed weekly, enumerating a detailed and precise list of things he positively believes, with no more evidence than supports the unicorn. Now that’s overconfidence. By contrast, the atheist says the humble thing: of all the millions of possible entities that one might imagine, I believe only in those for which there is evidence – trombones, pelicans and electrons, say, but not unicorns or leprechauns, not Thor with his hammer, not Ganesh the elephant god, not the Holy Ghost. 

Macht at Prosthesis offers a reply, and I think he's right. What atheists are rejecting when they reject theism is not mere theism. They reject a whole set of beliefs and values, a way of life, a kind of community, a view on the meaning and purpose of life, and so on. They reject the fundamental conception of how most people in the world today and throughout history have seen the significance of their lives and how they live. That does seem to me to be disanalogous with merely not believing in an invisible unicorn that someone else tells you is in the room.

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