Alvin Plantinga and Intelligent Design

A year or so ago, in the Chronicle, I had a rather sharp exchange with the Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga, formerly (for some 20 years) at Notre Dame and now returned to Calvin College, where he was first a student and then for many years a faculty member. I accused him of being a believer in so-called Intelligent Design Theory, the idea (promoted by among others the biochemist Michael Behe in his Darwin’s Black Box) that every now and then a designer intervened in the natural course of events to create biological entities or features that supposedly could not have been produced by such processes as natural selection. The bacterial flagellum (a tail on cells used as a propeller) is a favorite example.

Plantinga objected to my characterization of him.

Ruse claims I am an “open enthusiast of intelligent design.” (“Open” enthusiast? Is enthusiasm for intelligent design supposed to be something you should shamefacedly conceal, like addiction to watching soap operas?) Another missed distinction. Like any Christian (and indeed any theist), I believe that the world has been created by God, and hence “intelligently designed.” The hallmark of intelligent design, however, is the claim that this can be shown scientifically; I’m dubious about that.

He concluded:

Finally, Ruse suggests [Thomas] Nagel, [Jerry] Fodor, and I don’t take science seriously and have no interest in it. Nonsense. Modern science—say, physics, from the 17th century to the present—is widely and justly celebrated as a magnificent and unparalleled intellectual achievement: perhaps mankind’s most splendid effort along these lines. The fact is, I like science better than Ruse does.

Now, Plantinga has given us a full-length treatment of his views on science and its relationship to religion. I can only say that either he has changed his mind in the last year or, shall we say, he was not being entirely forthcoming. There is a chapter of the book on Intelligent Design Theory and I challenge any independent person to read it and not conclude that Plantinga accepts this theory over modern evolutionary theory, especially the dominant modern Darwinian evolutionary theory. But read the chapter yourself if you have doubts about what I claim. Make your own judgment.

What I do want to pick up on here is something – oh dear, here we go again – that came out of my exchange with the Mormons and that I think is important. This is the whole question of the extent to which one can separate out different parts of a person’s belief system and actions. I was worrying about the extent to which one can disregard what one might consider a very strange theological view of reality from a person’s beliefs and actions in other realms. I mentioned not just the Mormons but also the Jehovah’s Witnesses. I think their beliefs are absolutely barmy but I bow down before them with humility in their opposition to the Nazis.

Plantinga raises this issue for me in the other way. Not only does he spend pages engaged in intellectual fawning all over Behe – whose claims have been refuted again and again, perhaps most effectively by Kenneth Miller, biologist and practicing Roman Catholic (whose arguments against go unmentioned) – but he dismisses without argument the objections to a later Behe book promoting ID made by Richard Dawkins and Chicago biologist Jerry Coyne. Plantinga says: “the high proportion of vitriol, inventive, mockery, ridicule and name calling makes it hard to trust these reviews.”

Now let me say that these days neither Dawkins nor Coyne are friends of mine. In The God Delusion, Dawkins likened me to Neville Chamberlain, the pusillanimous appeaser of Munich, and Coyne’s last remark about me in his blog, Why Evolution Is True, was to say that a dog returns to his vomit. And let me also say that I can live with this and I write not to curry favor with them. I think Dawkins is crude beyond belief when it comes to philosophy and theology. And frankly, Coyne’s obsessions are nigh psychoanalytic.

However, Dawkins is simply the most brilliant science writer of his generation, a person whose writings are so good that they infiltrate right up to the highest levels of professional thought. The selfish gene metaphor changed our way of thinking about natural selection. Coyne is arguably the best evolutionary biologist in America today. His work on speciation is ground-breaking; his demolishing of Sewall Wright’s shifting balance theory is definitive; and he can write brilliantly for the general reader. Why Evolution Is True was probably the best book published celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of Darwin (in 2009).

Plantinga is totally unable to separate out the people from their competence as scientists. Why shouldn’t they be cross with Behe’s nonsense? What would Neville Chamberlain have said about Winston Churchill on the Nazis? Try: “the high proportion of vitriol, inventive, mockery, ridicule and name calling makes it hard to trust these speeches.” More importantly, why won’t Plantinga listen to the arguments of good-quality, professional evolutionists? In my original criticism of Plantinga, I noted a number of first-class biologists and their work and suggested that they might be considered if we are going to continue this debate. They are just not discussed at all.

So this is my beef with Plantinga – as it is with others of his ilk, including those at his institution, Calvin College, that led to the theologian John Schneider getting the sack because he suggested that Adam and Eve are not literal figures. It is not that they are Christians or that they believe in the bible or design. My defense of the legitimacy of these views is what gets me into hot water with the likes of Dawkins and Coyne. It is rather that, because of their unsophisticated versions of these beliefs, they simply are not prepared to engage in mature, responsible scholarship. And they bully those who are.

It is America’s tragedy. Crude religion perverts everything.

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