By Juan Bernal
Some people defend theism by arguing that theism represents a reasonable philosophy because it is consistent with the prevailing scientific picture of reality. Such defenders of theism claim that the sciences (i.e., the relevant sciences) have not proven beyond all doubt that a belief in God is false. Sometimes they add that despite all our accrued scientific knowledge of the physical and biological world, God, as conceived by Western theology and areas of Western theistic philosophy, could exist somehow and somewhere behind the scenes, beyond the scope of the sciences and critical, rational inquiry. In short, according to the defenders, belief in God has not been refuted by any of the sciences.
Prima facie, this appears to be a very weak position, arguing that something is reasonable just because it could (possibly) be true:
That p could be the case despite the fact that the body of evidence available fails to support p is a very weak basis for belief in p. Most people, in their rational moments, would agree that for just about any value of p, ‘that p could be true’ is a very weak (even non-existent) basis for asserting the truth of p. The same can be said regarding the fact that not-p has not been logically demonstrated. None of these support the assertion that p is true, To take the contrary position is to open the gate to the ‘truth’ of a large set of myth, fiction, fantasies and such. After all, the sciences do not concentrate on refuting every creature of human myth and fantasy, but very few take seriously the hypothesis that such creatures of myth and fantasy are real.
However, there are some philosophers who exempt this rational skepticism when the value of p is a particular, venerated belief in God. Among these philosophers and students of philosophy we find such people as the Christian philosopher, Alvin Plantinga and my e-mail correspondent, Pablo. For these people, the concept of God developed by Western theologians and theistic philosophers is special, categorically different from other mythical and fictional entities that the sciences don’t bother to refute.
This philosophy comes out in Plantinga’s insistence that belief in God is consistent with science and with evolutionary science in particular. According to him, the sciences and even Darwinian’s theory of evolution do not deny the possibility that God may have acted behind the scenes in guiding evolution at key points. He admits that scientists do not assume this to be true, but points out that they don’t explicitly deny it. God could have guided evolution. According to him, the claim by “naturalists” that evolution is a blind, unguided process is a philosophical claim, not one having a scientific warrant. (I believe that Pablo also holds to this view.)
Opponents like Daniel Dennett (with his Superman character) and my fellow skeptic, Chuckles (who once satirically promoted the mythical Greek god, Poseidon, as a competitor to the Judeo-Christian version of “God”), counter these theistic tactics by turning the table and making similar claims for their candidates for theistic supremacy, Superman and Poseidon. The theists shut them down by insisting that the cases are very different because the concept of God favored by the theists is a very special concept, not at all one that compares with ideas and images of mythical, fictional entities such as Superman and Poseidon.
Why do Plantinga, Pablo, and other defenders of theism allege that the cases are so different? The reasons given take various forms. Plantinga at one point mentions that, contrary to Dennett’s superman character, God is a necessary being. He also stresses that, whereas God could have guided evolution, Dennett’s Superman character could not. Pablo on occasion has argued that the concept of God has been developed and refined to a fine point — which is internally consistent and affirmed by millions of theists — something which we cannot claim for any of our alternative candidates, whether Dennett’s Superman or Chuckle’s Poseidon.
So how effective are these claims? For the skeptic, it is not at all obvious that the theistic belief in and concept of God establishes any kind of priority. With respect to the theological notion of “necessary Being,” it is a longstanding philosophical counter-argument that you cannot establish the reality of X merely by declaring X to be a necessary being. It is not even clear that the concept of necessity (as in mathematical or logical necessity) even applies to real existence. Plantinga’s statement that his God is a necessary being, whereas alternative candidates for godhood and designer of evolution are not, looks to be nothing more than special pleading.
When we turn to the argument that Western theology and theistic philosophy somehow establish a priority for a specific concept of God, we find that the argument fails on several key points: there is no single concept of God which is accepted by all major schools of theology and all theistic philosophers who write on the subject. Even when we limit ourselves to Western theism, we find a variety of God concepts held by different theologians, philosophers, and churchmen. Selecting one of these as the official version, as Pablo does, and arguing that this concept of God should be given favorable status will not do as an effective argument that such a God has a better claim to reality than any alternative candidate. Arguing that p is likely true just because honorable theologians have struggled for centuries to refine the concept and show that p is true is not an effective argument that the proposition p has a better chance of being true than any competing propositions, r,s,t,…
Given that neither the great Alvin Plantinga nor the honorable Pablo have made a good case for their claim that the god concept familiar to Western theologians and theistic philosophers is special and has ontological priority, neither one has a basis for denying that the same could-be-true tactic can also apply to alternative candidates for godhood that we might care to promote. Just as the sciences have not proven that the Christian God does not exist, they have not proven that Superman or Poseidon do not exist. If we allow the reasonableness of belief in God on the basis of his could-exist status, we must allow the same type of ‘reasonableness’ to belief in Superman or in Poseidon.
Hence, the Plantinga’s claim that his God could be real despite the naturalists view that theism gets no support whatsoever from the sciences completely fails as a way of showing the special status and reasonableness of his Christian theism.
Thinking further on this little exercise, we might conclude that in either case (Plantinga’s Christian God and Superman/Poseidon) we’re just playing around with mythical, fictional notions. That’s all that is happening, folks! And such musings on myths and fantasies have nothing to do with a scientifically-based, well-reasoned view of reality.