Plantinga and the Futility of Faith

I wrote the other day about Thomas Nagel’s review of Alvin Plantinga’s new book and the ignorance of evolution it betrayed. Sean Carroll also reviewed Nagel’s review, but he looks more at Plantinga’s ideas about faith and how untenable they are. Nagel wrote in his review:

God endows human beings with a sensus divinitatis that ordinarily leads them to believe in him. (In atheists the sensus divinitatis is either blocked or not functioning properly.) In addition, God acts in the world more selectively by “enabling Christians to see the truth of the central teachings of the Gospel.”

If all this is true, then by Plantinga’s standard of reliability and proper function, faith is a kind of cause that provides a warrant for theistic belief, even though it is a gift, and not a universal human faculty. (Plantinga recognizes that rational arguments have also been offered for the existence of God, but he thinks it is not necessary to rely on these, any more than it is necessary to rely on rational proofs of the existence of the external world to know just by looking that there is beer in the refrigerator.)

Jerry Coyne points out the obvious:

Here Nagel misses a big opportunity: to point out that the sensus divinitatis is also operating improperly in every religion except Plantinga’s own brand of Christianity: Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Mormons, Scientologists—you name them—have all perceived different truths with their sensi divinitati. So have the many sects of Mormons, as a reader noted yesterday. And apparently that sense didn’t exist (or wasn’t working right) in humans anywhere outside of Eurasia until fairly recently. God really screwed up here.

But Sean Carroll points out something equally important:

Plantinga is clearly trying to separate “faith” from merely “things we would like to believe are true” — faith is knowledge that is put directly into our minds by God. Points for at least trying to offer a reason why we should put credence in beliefs based on faith even if the logic and/or evidence aren’t there…

So what about faith? Even if your faith is extremely strong in some particular proposition, e.g. that God loves you, it’s important to recognize that there’s a chance you are mistaken. That should be an important part of any respectable road to knowledge. So you are faced with (at least) two alternative ideas: first, that God exists and really does love you and has put that belief into your mind via the road of faith, and second, that God doesn’t exist and that you have just made a mistake.

The problem is that you haven’t given yourself any way to legitimately decide between these two alternatives. Once you say that you have faith, and that it comes directly from God, there is no self-correction mechanism. You can justify essentially any belief at all by claiming that God gave it to you directly, despite any logical or evidence-based arguments to the contrary. This isn’t just nit-picking; it’s precisely what you see in many religious believers. An evidence-based person might reason, “I am becoming skeptical that there exists an all-powerful and all-loving deity, given how much random suffering exists in the world.” But a faith-based person can always think, “I have faith that God exists, so when I see suffering, I need to think of a reason why God would let it happen.”

There are two important things here. The first is that this is the kind of rhetorical trick Plantinga has long used. In previous books he has tried to define his beliefs as unreachable by reason by declaring them to be “properly basic.” Now he’s trying to insulate them from logical challenge by offering a very bad syllogism:

1. We know God exists because he planted the knowledge of his existence in our minds.

2. In my mind, I know God exists.

3. Therefore, God exists. And the fact that lots of people don’t have that God-infused knowledge does not, in any way, make the first premise suspect.

Voila, heads he wins and tails you lose.

Page 1 of 2 | Next page