"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Dealing with the Dawkins gang II

In the combox to my June 12 post Dealing with the Dawkins Gang, a commenter named "arensb" raised objections that he still believes have gone unanswered. Since I find them worth answering, if only for the assumptions they reveal, I shall do so here.

Although the main target of arensb's objections is philosopher Alvin Plantinga's critique of Dawkins' "many-worlds" theory, one of his main objections is to a common theistic doctrine that Plantinga himself has criticized: the doctrine of divine simplicity ('DDS' for short), most notably expounded by St. Thomas Aquinas. As formulated in response to Edward DeVita's defense of Aquinas, arensb's objection is expressed thus (emphasis added):

God is supposed to have designed and created the universe, as well as life on Earth. He is supposed to be conscious, intelligent, to hear and answer prayers, and so forth. All of this implies a brain, sensory organs, hands, etc. (or something equivalent). This is not a simple being.

The above objection assumes that the powers attributed to God by classical theism are to be understood, conceptually, in just the same way as the corresponding powers in us. On this account, if a given entity B is "conscious" and "intelligent" and can "answer prayers," then B must have "a brain, sensory organs," etc. In other words, a conscious and intelligent entity must be embodied and thus material; if so, of course, then no such entity could be "simple," in the sense of 'simple' invoked by Aquinas: not composed of parts. Essentially, then, arensb is holding that the concept of pure spirit is conceptually incoherent. So of course there can be no such thing as analogical use of terms like 'conscious', 'intelligent', etc. which, as such, could apply to a non-material yet actual entity—i.e., to a pure spirit.

Clearly, such an assumption is incompatible with classical theism in general as well as with Aquinas' use of analogical predication re God in particular. But no reason is given why we ought to share that assumption. For the reasons already exhibited, it is taken for granted that Aquinas and classical theists are talking nonsense when they predicate consciousness, intelligence, etc. of God analogically. The stance behind that attitude is a radically empiricist philosophy of language, according to which the meaning of a predicative term is a rule for its use, which in turn can be specified only with reference to empirically describable realities. But invoking such an assumption against classical theism is an exercise in pure question-begging. And that typifies many arguments made by "the Dawkins gang" generally.

Thus, arensb also objects to Plantinga's critique of Dawkins' "many-universes" proposal. According to that proposal, one could explain the existence of our universe as that of one of countlessly many universes that could, and perhaps do, result from some initial state or singularity. Now I believe Plantinga is quite correct to reply, in effect, that even if there are countlessly many such "universes," of which ours is only one, the sort of question in response to which God as creator can be adduced an answer would remain just as it is. My own way of putting the matter is this: the question is not why this universe as distinct from others exists, but why the world exists at all, where 'the world' is the totality of things that undergo real change. If we grant as fact the speculation that there are multiple universes, the question as I pose it remains just as it is—for all the universes in question would belong to said "totality." Indeed, in such a case my question is actually more directly applicable to said multiplicity of universes than it is to any particular such universe. So, Plantinga is right that the many-universes theory misses the point. It does not address the real question to which God as creator can be and has been adduced as an answer. The only way for the atheist as such to deal with that question is to define such terms as 'world' and 'explanation' in a way that would rule out the question. And that, in effect, is what the Dawkins gang does.

While that stance certainly poses a challenge to theists as evangelizers, it does not constitute a philosophical objection to classical theism. It merely represents a decision to talk about these matters from within a purely empiricist, materialistic standpoint. Of course, empiricists and materialists often say that the decision is well-founded because, unlike religion, natural science includes agreed-upon methods for resolving disagreements. But the argument that we ought to limit our knowledge-claims to claims of that kind is a moral one. That's really the sphere where the discussion needs to move forward.
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