The past couple of weeks in my D.Min. program have included some fascinating readings, lectures, and conversations. Dr. Alvin Plantinga’s newest offering, Where the Conflict Really Lies, kicked things off. In the book, he makes the argument that there does exist deep conflict between science and religion, but it is not the conflict that one ordinarily supposes.
Plantinga appeals to Newtonian and Quantum physics, microbiology, astronomy, and cosmology to show that what conflict does exist between Christian theism and science is superficial at best. He then uses those same fields to show deep concord between Christian theism and science, and deep conflict between science and naturalism. Scientific theory is agnostic about metaphysical and theological questions. Naturalism, however, is not.
Yet to follow the science, Plantinga asserts, one is forced to conclude vis-à-vis a naturalistic interpretation of the evidence that the trustworthiness of one’s cognitive faculties is very, very low. Why? Because a naturalist’s commitment to unguided natural selection as the driving force of evolution necessarily entails that only those functions which aid in reproduction and evolutionary adaptation have a high probability for selection and preservation in the future generations of a given species. Rational cognition, it seems, fails to meet the evolutionary adaptive criteria.
Plantinga asserts that one cannot reason one’s way to a scenario of unguided natural selection resulting in the development of trustworthy reasoning skills. The probability is just too low. So the naturalist is caught in a bit of a pickle. On the one hand, he claims that all that can be known about our existence comes through rational reasoning. But on the other hand, that same reasoning leads to the conclusion that the ability to reason could not have come about through the process of unguided natural selection. That, in turn, forces a move by which the naturalist must conclude that if his processes of cognitive reasoning have led to such an fundamental, untrustworthy conclusion, the process itself must be untrustworthy and all conclusions based on that process are subject to being jettisoned.
If you are confused by the above paragraph, you’re in good company. It is a circuitous argument that includes a lot of philosophical shorthand that I had to read and re-read to attempt to understand. (If I’ve missed anything here, I’m sure my colleagues will note it in the comment thread below.)
In all, Plantinga does a decent job of describing how much of the debate between atheists and Christians is on the order of superficial conflict. It is to the areas of deep concord and deep conflict that the discussion should turn. Yet as long as one side can get a rise out of the other by dwelling on matters of superficial importance, that turn will be waylaid. Critics of Plantinga say that his argumentation succumbs to confirmation bias from the outset and are happy to dismiss the volume altogether. While it does seem, at times, that Plantinga leans heavily on assumptions supporting Christian theism, he does so to the same degree that Dawkins, Dennett, and the other “New Atheists” employ assumptions supporting their respective theses.
Alongside Plantinga, I was reading and listening to Dr. Peter Boghossian, a professor of Philosophy at Portland State University. Dr. Boghossian was gracious enough to join us for our cohort’s weekly chat and let us put some questions to him about why he adheres to his particular methodology for atheism (or, I think he would say, skepticism). Again briefly, Dr. Boghossian holds that faith is a “cognitive sickness” that results in holding widespread delusions. He asserts that all faith claims are necessarily objective knowledge claims about the world and defines faith as “belief without evidence.” He claims that he is willing to revise any belief he currently holds, provided that he is presented with sufficient evidence to warrant a change of belief.
In his public lectures, Dr. Boghossian can come off as intentionally confrontational toward his dissenters (indeed, he thinks that “people of faith” have been the recipients of too much intellectual hand-holding), which serves for quite an engaging talk but can limit civil debate. In our chat, however, Dr. Boghossian was an absolute gentleman, kind and attentive, honest and straightforward (though I couldn’t help but wonder if he didn’t feel a little like the only sane man in an asylum—all the rest of us are clearly delusional).
My point of contention with Dr. Boghossian begins with (what I perceive) is an intentionally vague understanding of what constitutes “evidence” and a corresponding bit of rhetorical sleight-of-hand that allows him to redraw what kind of evidence is admissible for inclusion in a given debate regarding faith claims. It is easy to take for granted that all parties at the table agree on the same working definitions for the basic concepts being discussed. However, disagreements in these basics often lead to two or more parties talking past one another.
So, I posited a simple question to Dr. Boghossian during the chat: “Peter, I am hoping for some clarification around your evidence base. You often say that you are willing to reconsider any belief you hold if there is substantial evidence to warrant reconsideration. You seem to hold an assumption that there is a commonly shared understanding of what constitutes ‘evidence’ and what does not. Evidence in science presumably has a narrower definition than it does in, say, law. So, my question is simple: What does/does not count as ‘evidence’ warranting a belief’s consideration?”
Now, if you’ve ever been in a text-based chat before, it can be disorienting. There are often several streams of conversation occurring simultaneously as one scrolls back and forth between locations in the chat thread. I was not surprised, therefore, when the question went unanswered. It might have simply gotten lost in the shuffle.
So I posted it a second time. Still, no response from Dr. Boghossian, though there were a couple affirming, “good question, Andy” comments from others in the chat room. Finally, I posted a third time. This third posting elicited the tongue-in-cheek pleas of my colleagues to have the question addressed (my friend Russ quipped, “Peter: Please, oh please, for the love of … god? … answer Andy’s question or he’ll get cranky…). Dr. Boghossian graciously apologized, saying that he was typing as fast as he could in order to address as many questions as possible.
His brief response was to say, “It’s not possible for me to respond to ‘what constitutes good evidence,’ as this is a radically contextual question. I’d have to know what, exactly, is the claim in question before I could even begin to answer this.”
So it seems, on the whole, that Dr. Boghossian’s evidence base is a moving target, open to the inclusion of some types of evidence at some times (historical testimony, perhaps) and closed to that same type of evidence at others. I also noted that he modified my question by adding the word “good” as an adjective describing “evidence.” I was not asking what constitutes good or valid or convincing evidence. That is a second order concern. First, we must all understand what we mean when we say “evidence” in the first place.
Why does this matter? Because Dr. Boghossian’s entire diagnosis of faith as a “cognitive sickness” rests on what does and does not constitute valid evidence. By his definition, a narrow evidence base necessarily results in a greater population of deluded people than a wide evidence base. What I may want to bring “to the adult table” (a phrase he often employs in referring to discussions about faith based on the presentation of evidence) may include things that I find out, upon arriving at the adult table, are inadmissible to those already seated. Were that to happen, I would be banished back “to the children’s table” (the corollary pejorative he uses in the same breath) to sit and think about what I’d done.
I think it would be fascinating to continue discussions with Dr. Boghossian around the question of evidence. If the bounds of an evidence base are fluid, then so must the definition of faith be fluid. One cannot have static understanding of faith based on fluid definitions of evidence and belief (though we did not, in our discussion, broach the question of what qualifies as belief). This may all sound like silly semantics, but if the stakes are sufficiently high, then semantics are important.
Are the stakes sufficiently high? As a person of faith, I think so. But leave my faith out of it for a moment. Dr. Boghossian is working with one of his students (or former students, the exact relationship is unclear to me) on a proposal that would have the DSM-IV (the standard of mental disorder classification) revise its definition of delusion so that the current religious exemption is removed. Presently, a diagnosis of delusion has three criteria: certainty, incorrigibility, and implausibility. All that simply means is that the person is certain of the content of the delusion, is unwilling to consider evidence to the contrary, and the content of the delusion itself contains beliefs that are highly implausible. There is also a common understanding that religious beliefs, while they may seem to present these three criteria to the skeptical observer, are different than delusions, falling more in line with things like memory, illusion, or perception.
So, I think the stakes are high. Before we go about clinically diagnosing people who hold religious beliefs (especially those we don’t find particulary appetizing) as mentally ill, we need to be quite certain that we’re all on the same page with how we are going to define things like “evidence.” If we can do that, I’m game for whatever discussions come next.