Thursday, February 26, 2009

Plantinga vs. Dennett

So, you are sitting in philosophy club on a random Monday afternoon listening to the philosophy faculty argue back and forth at a relenting speed and think to yourself, "Is this really what philosophers do?"


Last week, February 21st to be exact, at the Central Division Meeting of the American Philosophical Association in Chicago Alvin Plantinga gave a paper and found himself in an intellectual joust with Daniel Dennett.

Succinctly, Alvin Plantinga gave a paper arguing that Christianity is compatible with evolution, and Daniel Dennett responded...with gusto.

A rather biased (but humorous) account of the entire debate can be found here. The author is clearly a fan of Plantinga concluding,

In my estimation, Plantinga won hands down because Dennett savagely mocked Plantinga rather than taking him seriously. Plantinga focused on the argument, and Dennett engaged in ridicule. It is safe to say that Dennett only made himself look bad along with those few nasty naturalists that were snickering at Plantinga.
If I am not mistaken, Plantinga once gave a talk at McNeese State University with the sponsorship of the philosophy club.


Anonymous said...

I think this is the most interesting aspect of the blog debate:

"I wrote live comments on the debate/session. I prefer to remain anonymous for various reasons, in particular because I am inclined towards Plantinga's position over Dennett's and were this to become well-known it could damage or destroy my career in analytic philosophy. This is something I prefer not to put my family through."

This speaks volume about the paradigm control that exists in intellectual discourse today.

Steve Gimbel said...

This speaks volume about the paradigm control that exists in intellectual discourse today.

No. Any analytically trained philosopher worth his or her salt better be able to pick out the obvious and to my mind intractable problem facing the Plantinga "your chocolate in my peanut butter" view. It's Ockham's razor.

Evolutionary mechanisms are random on the genetic level and reactive on the organism and species level. In ever changing environments, certain changes are helpful in promoting survival to procreation age and success in creating offspring at certain times in certain organisms and others aren't.

The selection for or against mutations occurs because of pressures (sexual or survival) at the level of the organism and the herd, not for teleological reasons from a species-level perspective, that is, there is no need to posit an extra level of design here when we understand how they can arise perfectly well without.

Could you tack on Divine Will thereafter consistently? Logical consistency is a red herring, though. It is not a question of consistency -- sure, they may be logically consistent, they could both be true together -- rather it is a question of theory-choice. Is there a reason to prefer a metaphysically much less expensive theory over a competitor that requires major additional metaphysical entities? Yeah, of course. Once you have the modern theory of evolution, active Divine Will shaping the process becomes like Lance Armstrong's dad running behind his bike to make sure he doesn't wobble and fall over. Just unnecessary.

And if someone claims the opposite, it ain't "paradigm control" to ask that perfectly fair question "How?" of a professional philosopher. You need to either show that:

(a) the theory of evolution without God somehow makes more metaphysical claims than evolution with God (probably not going to happen since the sans God option is identical to the Darwin con Dios except that it seems to have one fewer metaphysical claims so where is this extra baggage coming from?), or

(b) there is a difference in the degree of support the two theories get from all the same evidence, that is, that somehow the same observations lend a higher probability to a metaphysically more costly theory (again not going to happen because this sort of differential only happens where there is a difference in empirically equivalent theories and the one with the fewer metaphysical postulates gets the advantage).

It's not "paradigm control", it's a legit conundrum that ought to be obvious and unless you have some novel, really brilliant McGyver move up your sleeve, it seems like a dead-end to anyone with a basic background in philosophy of science. But if you do have right play, man, put the cards on the table because you will have just hit yourself a major jackpot with that argument.

Josh said...

Anon -

Are you speaking about "paradigm control" in reference to the discourse surrounding ID vs. evolution or to a larger issue of academic freedom?

I interpreted your use of "intellectual discourse today" to be a larger indictment than just the issue of evolution.

Could you please elaborate? If not, just tangle with Steve's argument. ;0

Hanno said...

It is utterly absurd to suppose that if you take Plantinga's position on anything your academic career will somehow be in jeopardy. Its Alvin Plantinga! Hello? Big name! Everyone knows Alvin's theological views, and guess what: he's not alone. He has a whole train of supporters/followers. My old professor at Penn wrote a book defending theology analytically, and had a long and distinguished career.

Hell, he was even giving his paper at the APA, a big conference, not the Mid-south central Tennessee philosophy conference.

Now if you defend Plantinga's view for bad reasons, it may have a negative impact, if you let that be well known. That is, if you put it in writing. No one knows who the hell you are, and if they do, you have no problems. If people know who you are, you are already famous, and have a secure job somewhere. Or else you could end up like Alvin, with your choice of academic positions.

No, what kept you silent was one thing: no balls. You were simply afraid of what others might think, no different than someone in high school, believer or atheist. And notice, Plantinga has em in spades.

TR said...

Since Plantinga thinks the ontological argument is sound, I would think the point of showing that evolution is consistent with Christianity is so that we can believe in evolution, not vice versa. Since we have, he claims, an a priori proof of the existence of God, and evolution is only established a posteriori, if they were inconistent, it would be evolution that would have to go.

That's my guess, anyway.

Hanno said...

I think Steve is specifically replying to anon's claim, not plantinga's argument.

Josh said...

"No, what kept you silent was one thing: no balls. You were simply afraid of what others might think, no different than someone in high school, believer or atheist. And notice, Plantinga has em in spades"

Unless of course, the person in question works for a philosophy department that has daggers drawn against Plantingans. Ideological persecution is not a myth, it is very much a reality. One only need to look at the fallout after 9/11 to see unpopular views being vilified and terminated (see Professor Churchill vs. University of Colorado).

Religiously affiliated universities practice this behavior frequently. In 2006, Jeff Nielsen, adjunct professor at BYU, was fired based on his letter to an editor of a local paper challenging the Mormon church's political stance on same-sex marriage

I don't believe it so far-fetched to see a similar line of reasoning employed at a secular institution. Change the words "church" to "science" and a letter of dismissal might look like this:

In accordance with the order of prevailing science, we do not consider it our responsibility to correct, contradict or dismiss official pronouncements by the scientific method ... Since you have chosen to contradict and oppose science in an area of great concern to scientists, and to do so in a public forum, we will not rehire you after the current term is over.

Additionally, if the anonymous blogger of the Plantinga vs. Dennett debate was a woman she would have no need for "balls"

Hanno said...

It may not be a myth, and it may be possible, but this aint it. This person's absurd claim that supporting Plantinga's view could damage his career is not the monster you fear. Let us not confuse real persecution with mild peer pressure, and misread peer pressure at that. There is nothing in his transcript that could get him in any trouble whatsoever at any institution whatsoever except for his inability to describe the actual arguments, something that must be hard to do and blog at the same time.