The Philosophical Naivety of Alvin Plantinga and SJ Thomason’s Failure to Restore the God of the Gaps

This is a response to a blog by SJ Thomason:

SJ announces in the first paragraph:

“The intention of this blog is to offer reasons to reject naturalism and scientism.”

Unsaid but revealed at the end of her blog is the additional intent of claiming validity for god of the gaps arguments with this abolition of science. She starts with a philosophical statement by Alvin Plantinga to support a claim that human intellect alone cannot ground the validity of science. From there she borrows from William Lain Craig a list of things she asserts science can’t explain and ends with an uninformed attempt to align the big bang with the creation myth in Genesis. Her misrepresentation of physics and cosmology is too obvious to require treatment here. But as she starts out with philosophy, I’ll take the opportunity to address the fundamental philosophical issue that is rarely addressed but critical to the discussion.

She quotes a passage by Alvin Plantinga from his book “Naturalism Defeated”:

“But if naturalism is true, there is no God, and hence no God (or anyone else) overseeing our development and orchestrating the course of our evolution. And this leads directly to the question whether it is at all likely that our cognitive faculties, given naturalism and given their evolutionary origin, would have developed in such a way as to be reliable, to furnish us with mostly true beliefs. Darwin himself expressed this doubt: “With me,” he said, “the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?”

This is fairly straightforward as far as it goes. There is a long line of skeptics concerning our direct understanding of reality, including Kant, Hume, Nietzsche, and to a lesser extent, Heidegger. Kant famously proposed that time and space were no more than subjective senses and that innate a priori reason governed our ordering of sense data from the external world so we could construct some sense of our surroundings in our imagination. Contemporary neuroscience expands on Kant’s basic concept, with leading researchers such as Donald Hoffman describing our minds as a type of computer screen interface that presents our surroundings to us not as they are, but as what could be easily and quickly understood for practical use; an evolutionary adaptation that enabled our survival on the Savannah and later led to our domination of the planet. The things of our understanding don’t exist as we imagine them, just as the icons on our computer screens don’t look anything like the streams of bits they represent. Even space and time are merely subjective strategies for ordering sense data. In fact, our minds did not evolve to render truth, but rather to give quick icons of only what is practically important at the moment. We really have no idea what reality would be outside our subjective representations.

This certainly limits scientific understanding, and these limits are at the very heart of contemporary physics where logic, basic causality and 3d space no longer suffice to understand what really happens at the level of string theory. But most importantly, it doesn’t invalidate science either. There is some correspondence between our rational representations from sense data and something outside our imagination, and that correspondence is infinitely useful. As Hoffman puts it, if he sees a bus hurtling toward him, he gets out of the way because, while he doesn’t take the representation literally, he does take it seriously. The correspondence is what enables us to survive. This evolved understanding works well within the narrow band of the Newtonian realm in which it evolved, but less so the more we go beyond that range, either macro or micro.

So Plantinga is correct that science will not explain the entire universe, and what it does explain is only a computer screen representation of the bits. From there, though, he reveals his own philosophical naivety when he draws the false choice between science (which he assumes to equate to naturalism) and faith in metaphysical divinity. If we expand naturalism to mean simply understanding drawn from the physical world, we can then allow another critical addition to our modes of understanding, and one far more primordial than reason and science.

Long before we developed our capacity for reason, we knew the world by feeling. As we absorbed the vibrations around us those vibrations (e.g. sound and light) resonated within us causing moods. We can still see this relationship in the German language where the word for mood – “Stimmung” literally means voicing or tuning. It implies the sympathetic vibrations of our own strings with that from the world outside. When theists insist science cannot explain beauty, meaning or morality, they are quite right. But then science was never intended to be the proper mode of understanding for such things. We have always understood these through “Stimmung”, and as we refine our aesthetics, we refine our relation to the world through beauty, meaning and morality. Nietzsche saw our greatest mode of relating to the vibratory essence of the Will of the universe to be through music. Heidegger saw it through poetry, which is really originating language before the music is wrung out of it – logos in its original pre-Socratic and pre-rational meaning. These enable our most primordial connection to reality, and even today precedes our rational arguments. As Burke knew, rational argument is almost always in service of justifying our feelings.

Morality is a case in point. Mammals in general, and pronouncedly among primates, have evolved innate sensibilities that have enabled greater cooperation, not only within a group, but outside also. This has enabled our creation of civilizations and determined our morals. It appears that we share with other mammals an innate sense of empathy and fairness.

David Hume was onto something important when he described morality as a sense to be cultivated. A matter of taste improved over time. The thing that sets us apart from beasts as civilized beings. Over the millennia we have refined these sensibilities in a way that traces an arc toward more acceptance of others, greater cooperation, and caring. We have come far from the Biblical barbarity of genocide, slavery, killing of non-believers, and eye for an eye revenge. From our standpoint these discarded practices literally cause us sensible distress. Disgust. Offense to our more refined sensibility. As such, morality is not objective. It wouldn’t undergo continuous refinement if it were, but looking back it most undeniably has. Being pre-rational it also cannot by determined through reason as Kant believed nor does it essentially consist of law. It cannot be rationally characterized or derived.  But it is real and is grounded in our own nature, which itself is grounded in Being. Through our contemplation of this nature and refinement of these sensibilities we arrive toward the only authentic morality. This is not man as fallen, but man ascending from apes. We now can more clearly interpret the myth of the Garden of Eden as Eve bravely eating the apple of knowledge and daring the ascent of man from the dim delight of animals to the conscious participation with Being.

When Heidegger was asked why he never wrote anything on morality, he answered that we don’t yet even know the right questions to ask. Ethics has been a failed enterprise for the entire history of philosophy. But at our moment in time, the question of morality, along with the question of meaning, approach us as the most urgent matters. As Heidegger wrote, we are too late for the gods and too soon for Being. But today it is time. And we do know the questions to ask. Meaning and morality can only be determined out of our own nature, and our nature authentically thought as an integral aspect of Being. And if our nature is such that we sense that empathy, fairness and tolerance are characteristics of the good, then for humans that is morality. The question is: How can our nature enable us to live more authentically with Being. The question takes us along a path where we carefully consider what already has been revealed in the moral arc to this day. And with that consideration in mind look to what Being reveals to us going forward and in that revelation remain steadfast in the refusal to resort to metaphysical explanations for what yet remains concealed. To remain silent in the presence of what cannot yet be spoken is our task.  No gods for the gaps or imagined otherworldly solutions. All the answers are here before us on this path if we have the ears to hear them. And the courage to dare the consequences. The answer will come from a philosophical/poetic inquiry of the revelations, firmly grounded in the Being of this very world, and not reduced to scientific measurement and classification. SJ is quite right that science cannot answer these two paramount questions. Nor can metaphysical imagining of gods and their laws.

In not considering an ontological approach, Plantinga and SJ continue a naivety that traps them in the old, discarded and failed attempts and mired in the false choice of science or metaphysics.

SJ’s final move is to resurrect the long-ago refuted Kalam Cosmetological Argument and then attempt the absurd trick of reconciling the big bang to the biblical creation myth. This failure rests on her misunderstanding of cosmology itself. We need not repeat all of that here because it all collapses from the failure of P2 of the argument itself:

P2: The universe (time, space, and matter) began to exist.

The simplest criticism of that premise is that it is an unwarranted assumption. First of all, the big bang did not simply come about out of nothing. There is debate among physicists about whether it came about from an infinitely dense singularity, a quantum field, or from no big bang at all but rather eternal permutation of local pockets of order within an always existing greater universe. But no theory posits an absence of preexisting energy or material and thus there is no real beginning. Just transformation of something that simply always existed.

There is no justification for assuming a first cause to the universe. From that, there is no need to insert a god into a gap. Theists often reject this by claiming it is illogical to assume something always existed without a cause. Perhaps, but Plantinga and SJ themselves began with a critique of reason’s inability to explain reality.

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