Andrew Sullivan links to a number of other sources talking about a new book by Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga. Atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel reviews that book and gives it far more deference than it is due, mostly because Nagel appears to be pretty clueless about evolution.
The interest of this book, especially for secular readers, is its presentation from the inside of the point of view of a philosophically subtle and scientifically informed theist—an outlook with which many of them will not be familiar. Plantinga writes clearly and accessibly, and sometimes acidly—in response to aggressive critics of religion like Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. His comprehensive stand is a valuable contribution to this debate.
I say this as someone who cannot imagine believing what he believes. But even those who cannot accept the theist alternative should admit that Plantinga’s criticisms of naturalism are directed at the deepest problem with that view—how it can account for the appearance, through the operation of the laws of physics and chemistry, of conscious beings like ourselves, capable of discovering those laws and understanding the universe that they govern. Defenders of naturalism have not ignored this problem, but I believe that so far, even with the aid of evolutionary theory, they have not proposed a credible solution. Perhaps theism and materialist naturalism are not the only alternatives.
But this is nonsense. Evolution accounts quite well for the development of consciousness. Consciousness is an artifact of the brain, which we know evolved over very long periods of time. We can trace that evolution very easily through many lines of evidence in several fields, from paleontology to molecular biology to cognitive neuroscience. We may not yet know the very precise details, but there is no evidence at all that consciousness operates on anything but a material basis. The fact that we can alter consciousness by altering the biochemistry of the brain clearly argues otherwise. And Jerry Coyne points out that, even if there are some yet-unanswered questions on this front, Plantinga’s god-of-the-gaps argument has never been valid:
Nagel has fallen for the God-of-the-gap trap. The credible solution is to do more work to find out how the structure of the mind produces consciousness, and how natural selection might have acted to promote that feature. Does Nagel think that science has used all its resources on this problem, and failed? Does he not know how relatively primitive neurobiology is right now? Nagel has just thrown up his hands and said, “You people haven’t explained it, therefore perhaps Plantinga is right.” Or there might be “another alternative.” Curious that Nagel doesn’t propose what that alternative might be. I guess he’s purveying a Philosophy of the Gaps.
This is made all the worse by the fact that Plantinga’s basis for his doubt about evolution as an explanation comes from Michael Behe’s utterly discredited claims about irreducible complexity. This is hardly surprising, since Behe’s argument is also a god-of-the-gaps argument.