Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Philosophical Elitism on the March

Alvin Plantinga is widely regarded as a leading Christian apologist and philosopher of religion.  Perhaps his most notable philosophical contribution in the field of epistemology is his so-called "Reformed Epistemology", which holds that belief in God is justified without evidence or argument.  According to RE, belief in God is said to be properly basic, or foundational - the same as the axioms of logic or mathematics are considered to be properly basic beliefs that are universally accepted and require no justification.  Thus, RE constitutes a rational basis for belief in God, despite the utter lack of any objective evidence that would provide justification for an empiricist to believe.  A major difference between this and the properly basic beliefs of an empiricist epistemology is the fact that belief in God can be rationally denied without creating a problem of functionality or coherency in one's worldview.

RE is good news for theists who want to believe in God, but understand that observation of the physical world doesn't support that belief.  Scientific discovery has systematically shown that natural explanations supplant the traditional beliefs of God as being the only reasonable way to explain the things in our world.  Even in areas where a definitive natural explanation has not yet been reached, there is still ample reason to think that there is some natural explanation, and no need to resort to God as the fallback position.  Modern science leaves theists in a bind.  If they fully embrace it, they will be compelled to abandon belief.  But this is not acceptable to them.  For the religionists, religious faith must supersede science, lest their beliefs be challenged.  Fortunately for them, they can turn to religious philosophy.

Having found security and comfort in the idea that their faith is completely rational and justified, because their philosophy tells them so, theists are armed with the assurance that their belief in God is beyond question, and empirical evidence can never sway them from that belief.  This situation creates tension between religious philosophy and science.  Religionists would like to accept the findings science, and they are willing to do so as long as they don't contradict religious faith.  Whenever these contradictions become apparent, it is science, and not religion, that they choose to abandon.  Often, they insist that conventional science is wrong, as we see with the ID movement that rejects the logical conclusions of evidence-based science in favor of pseudo-scientific theories ginned up specifically for religious believers.  More generally, they think that science just doesn't have the capability to grasp the reality of God.  Science lacks that indefinable something that the faithful have - a sensus divinitatis.

The tension and animosity also extends those who make the rational choice to embrace science as a superior means to know and understand the world.  If they think that philosophy alone doesn't provide that means, they are accused of "scientism".  The need for objective evidence to justify belief is derided.  Religionists place philosophy in a position of superiority over science, because (religious) philosophy gives them what they want most, and science doesn't.  It is a bulwark against science that could lead to disbelief.  Many even think that any philosophical argument is superior to beliefs based on scientific facts and evidence.  (I honestly don't know how anyone can rationally hold to this claim, because philosophical arguments can be, and often are, in complete disagreement with one another, which implies that some philosophical arguments must be completely wrong.)

Furthermore, the adherents of the primacy of philosophy often go beyond the mere assertion that belief in God is justified by philosophy.  They extend that concept to belief in all of the metaphysical notions that their religion holds in addition to the existence of God.  It's all one big package deal.  If you can believe in God because of RE, you can believe in souls and other spirits.  You can believe in a heavenly paradise, and an abode for the damned.  You can believe in miracles, and all the things your religion says are true, without any evidence or any scientific reason to think that such things could even be possible.  All this is based on the assumed primacy of philosophy over science.

Plantinga himself makes arguments based on his own metaphysical assumptions, such as the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism, in which he denies that the natural process of evolution should produce any human cognitive functionality capable of rational thinking and true beliefs.  This is contrary to a scientific understanding of evolution, and founded on Plantinga's metaphysical notions, along with his ignorance of the scientific theory.  How ironic, then, that he condemns scientists for their ignorance of philosophy.  But in his view, I suppose, knowledge of science is irrelevant.  He has philosophy on his side, and that's all that matters.  Science be damned.

And we see this attitude reflected in the comments of religionist internet warriors everywhere.  Take this one, for example.  The religionist is unconcerned about the fact that Plantinga is ignorant of science, and justifies the assertions of the EAAN based on the notion that it is a philosophical argument rather than a scientific one.  Well, perhaps it is a philosophical argument, but it is still scientifically ignorant.  And it doesn't reflect the way evolution works.  It is wrong.

I don't lack respect for philosophy in general.  I lack respect for religious philosophy, because it is used to justify all kinds of beliefs that otherwise have no rational basis.  This is much like the bible being used as the sole basis for believing what the bible says.  It doesn't make sense if you step back and take a broader, more objective look at your reasons for belief.  Most of all, I lack respect for the intellect of religionists who rely on religious philosophy as a substitute for genuine rational thinking, and then go around belittling those of us who think that science actually works better.


  1. So well constructed, Skep; insightful.

    The emotional/psychological state that is termed 'sensus divinitatis' by Plantinga is now what science research ascribes as the HADD [hyperactive agency detection device]. THIS ARTICLE mirrors pretty much the science behind your argument, Skep. Religionists must respond to these explanations if they are ever going to maintain any form of credibility going forward.

    For much of Western human history Philosophy was simply an enabler, a hand-maiden of Theology. That relationship ended during the Enlightenment period when Science emerged as the most powerful epistemological and ontological tool around which genuine, substantive, evidenced-based philosophical thought and discourse could be properly prosecuted. Unfortunately religionists refuse to acknowledge that Theology is, today, no longer a discipline of any credible merit, academically or intellectually. Its explanatory power has been thoroughly dismantled in the light of the ever burgeoning quanta of knowledge and information about us, the environment, the world, the universe, and even about gods and religious belief no less, that the sciences provide us.

    Plantinga imagines we have a 'sensus divinitatis' module through which he asserts a belief in god is properly basic. But sensus divinitatis doesn't explain or tell us how we can discern which of the countless manifestations of God known to human kind is the real one. So we are back to square one. Shiva, Ganesha, Baphomet, Jesus, or the Rainbow Serpent of the Aboriginal Australians? The scientific explanation, however, can and does give us an insight into why we believe and why the variety of so many gods.

    Plantinga of course has invested an enormous amount of time and personal energy holding on to the vestiges of a discredited theory and tradition into which he was inculcated. It would be fair to say he would be incapable of acknowledging the truth of his predicament. 'Sensus divinitatis' is a rather forlorn apologetical attempt, to forge a new field at explaining why people might be imbued with a sense of religious otherliness. But it explains nothing and has little more explanatory power than a goddidit moment. For those who still rely on theology as their primary explanatory mechanism, philosophy is the last refuge to prop up their god belief.

    1. Evolutionary psychology aside, I find it hard to understand how anyone educated in philosophy - even theists - could see RE as anything but a blatant exercise in begging the question.