Monday, September 27, 2010

Plantinga and Dennett

I love getting free books—it’s one of the perks of being a professor. Last week I received a book called Science and Religion: Are They Compatible? (Oxford, 2010). It’s a debate between philosophical heavyweights Alvin Plantinga and Daniel Dennett. In it, Plantinga argues that science and religion are compatible, and that it’s naturalism (the view that there are no divine beings and the natural world is all that there is) that doesn’t fit well with science, while Dennett lashes out at the notion of intelligent design and argues that attempts to fit religion with science are intellectually dishonest. I’d say the book is well worth reading.

Rather than summarize the debate, I’ll just highlight two points from Plantinga that I think are quite profound. First, he observes that some people, like Dennett, find theism absurd, and address it only to subject it to ridicule. And, Plantinga says, "they are entirely within their rights to do so: It’s a free country. But why should the rest of us, those who find theism perfectly sensible and in fact believe it . . . why should we be swayed by what Dennett and company do or don’t find incredible?" (60)

That’s a good reminder: the fact that some people (even famous and intelligent people) think religion ridiculous doesn’t give the rest of us reason to think it’s false—especially since the arguments against religion that such people give are often extraordinarily weak (it’s like they don’t even try).

Second, Plantinga notes that many theists mistakenly believe that evolution and theism are incompatible; and he places some of the blame for that on those who, like Dennett, loudly proclaim that they are. Evolution most certainly does not show that God does not exist, Plantinga says; but by asserting that it does, Dennett and others promote public distrust of evolutionary theory and of science. It’s an interesting point: so-called defenders of science (and Richard Dawkins deserves a mention here) are doing their discipline a profound disservice by actively (and scornfully) turning religious believers away from it.
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