Friday, 6 March 2015

Science, religion and Alvin Plantinga

Heya everybody,

On a website I frequent and like very much, Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is true, I came across an article called The stupidest argument of the month: atheism empowers ISIS. The article deals with a piece on a blog that I hadn’t come across before. It’s called Samuel’s Notebook – A Blog of Inklingations and is located on the Patheos web channel.

Well, the Inklingations blog sadly doesn’t allow comments on blog articles, only on something that’s called Samuel’s Notepad. I wrote two comments there, and then the comments thread was closed. 😏

However, there was an additional point I wanted to make. I’m usually not good at sophisticated philosophical arguments, but this was one was so transparently stupid that I just have to add my two cents worth. ☺

In an article claiming science has no meaning unless god exists, Samuel James, the author of the blog, uses an argument made by Alvin Plantinga to support his claim that only supernatural theism gives us assurance that real scientific knowledge is possible. He puts Plantinga’s point like this:

Philosopher Alvin Plantinga is famous for articulating what he calls the ‘evolutionary argument against naturalism’. The argument is complicated in detail but simple in premise. Plantinga begins by putting two facts alongside each other that nearly all atheists agree on. First, the theory of evolution is true, and humans have descended from lower life forms over time. Secondly, humans are rational beings in a higher degree and superior way to lesser evolved creatures. Plantinga then points our attention towards a tension between these two facts. If human beings are a more evolved species of primate, then our cognitive faculties (i. e., the parts of our body and mind that allow us to be rational creatures) have evolved out of lesser cognitive faculties. But, Plantinga says, if God does not exist, then the only factors that affected human evolution are time and chance. Based on time and chance alone, why should we be confident that our rational minds – which are merely the sum of lesser evolved minds plus time and chance – are actually rational at all? What basis do we have to believe our own conclusions? How do we know we are actually capable of knowing truth more than a primate? If the only players in our existence are lesser creatures, time, and chance, how do we know we are even highly evolved at all? This astute observation was echoed by […]

Apparently, this leads to the conclusion that scientific knowledge is only possible if things unprovable by science are actually true.

I’m not sure how this can pass as a rational argument amongst reasonable people. Let’s start by what we mean by more evolved. Clearly, humans are not more evolved than some other animals when it comes to swimming in water or under water, flying, or running quickly (if anybody asks how we can know this, try to outrun a tiger).

Okay, let’s use intelligence as an area where humans are more highly evolved. A useful definition of intelligence in this context is the capability to learn, to understand and to manipulate the world around us. How can we provide evidence that humans are more intelligent than other animals? Well, humans can control the powers of fire. Humans can create and make use of electricity. Humans can calculate and predict solar eclipses. Compare our abilities in this area to the abilities of other animals, and you’ll find humans are the species with the highest intelligence. Wow, and we’ve come to this conclusion using evidence and reason, entirely without supernatural shenanigans. And it really is that simple.

I don’t know about the reasoning powers of Alvin Plantinga or Samuel James, but if budgies cannot build nuclear power stations, and humans can, then it’s pretty evident that humans are more evolved than budgies when using nuclear power stations as an indicator. Hey, see what I did there? I was able to compare the ability of one species with another, and I did that entirely without invoking the concept of god. Amazing, isn’t it?  😏