Add Alvin Plantinga to the “faith = belief – evidence” list…October 15, 2007 — Deacon Duncan
Writing for christianpost.com, Chuck Colson grudgingly concedes that the “New Atheists” are proving quite successful at getting their point across.
Their message is simple: There is no God, and people who believe there is a God are simply being irrational. But is faith in God truly irrational?
And how will Colson rebut the claim that God is merely a philosophical construct invented by men? He appeals to a philosopher. And the philosopher makes the same claim that Geisler and Turek do: that Christian faith-without-evidence is valid because unbelievers (allegedly) also accept faith-without-evidence.
The much-respected philosopher Alvin Plantinga is well-versed in the arguments employed by these atheists. He has debated his secular colleagues many times on the question: “Is it reasonable to presuppose that God exists?”
Their response, of course, is “no” because they believe only in physical phenomena and a material universe. Plantinga then asks them whether it is rational to believe that other people have minds. After all, there is scarcely more material evidence that other people have minds, as distinct from brains, than there is for God’s existence.
When the philosophers say “yes,” Plantinga argues that believing in God is just as rational as believing that other people have minds: Both conclusions reflect a faith of sorts.
Notice, Plantinga is highlighting the lack of evidence for the existence of the mind, and using that to justify the idea that faith is a valid alternative to evidence, in the case of the mind and in the case of God as well. Brandon and macht may not approve, but it seems there is no lack of Christians willing to defend the claim that having faith is a valid alternative to having evidence. They really have no choice–they don’t have any genuine evidence, so they have to argue that faith is valid on its own.
By the way, I think there are several problems with Plantinga’s argument. First of all, if we’re going to admit that this is an argument about whether or not we should presuppose God’s existence, we’ve as good as conceded that God’s existence is a consequence of our presuppositions. If He existed in the real world, and interacted with it in a way that was consistent with the Gospel, then we would not need to presuppose His existence any more than we need to presuppose the existence of the earth and sun and moon. Indeed, we wouldn’t need to appeal to human philosophers to imagine for us some artful and clever justification (rationalization?) for believing in God’s existence, since ordinary observation would be more than adequate, even for an unsophisticated child.
Secondly, Plantinga assumes that it is valid to assume that people do “have” minds. It’s an arguable proposition, but it’s not a given that this is a true proposition, or even a correct description. For example, to say that people “have” minds is to imply that a “mind” is a thing that possesses independent existence, that it is an entity unto itself. That’s not necessarily the case however.
Consider a candle. Does a candle “have” a flame? In our naive perception, we might think so: we can see the flame, we might even be able to hear it and smell it. We can’t actually touch it, but if we put our fingers close to it (or in it) we can feel the heat. But is it a thing in and of itself? Technically no. A flame is a process by which the fuel (melted wax) undergoes a chemical reaction that breaks the fuel into simpler components and releases light and heat energy. The flame does not “exist” independently of the process. If we stop the process (by blowing out the candle, for instance), the flame does not go somewhere else. It simply ceases to happen. It has no independent existence apart from the process that produces the artifacts we observe (heat and light)
In the same way, the phenomenon we naively perceive as “the mind” is a physical process involving the natural function of the brain and nervous system. If anything interferes with the physical processes of the brain (alcohol, injury, death, etc), the “mind” ceases to manifest, or manifests in impaired ways. It’s not a thing that possesses an existence unto itself, independently of the processes that produce it. The idea of a “mind” is simply a perceptual construct we use to simply and conveniently refer to a more complex physical process.
The Bible isn’t about people inferring God’s existence by drawing philosophical analogies to the invisible inner workings of the brain. The Bible is about a character Who shows up in the real world, visibly, audibly and tangibly, and whose actions reflect a desire and ability to interact with each of us in ways that would leave no doubt about His existence. But God consistently and universally does not behave that way in real life. Plantinga, and Colson argue for the validity of faith apart from evidence because they know that the evidence which should exist, which cannot fail to exist (if the Gospel were true), does not exist. That’s why it’s all about presuppositions, and not about reality.