Coyne on Sophisticated Theology: The Geography Argument …

Jerry Coyne has decided that the New Atheists really should engage what he derisively calls “sophisticated theology”. This is good. He’s doing it himself. This is neutral. He’s not doing it very well. This is, of course, very bad.

I hope to get back to Coyne’s first recent attempt, his Sunday sermon, but I won’t address that here because there’s a lot to say about that, some of which is mine and some of which is likely Plantinga’s. I want, however, to address the latest one, since it has a smaller scope. But the one thing that really, really annoys me about both these attempts is Coyne’s complete inability to stick to the actual argument that Plantinga is talking about, and it’s patently obvious here. Coyne points out that he’s taking on something in The Analytic Theist: An Alvin Plantinga Reader (ed. James F. Sennet, 1998, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) (though he typos it as “The Analystic Theist). Specifically, he’s dealing with chapter 7. Now, for those of you unfamiliar with philosophical readers, let me point out that these things are, basically, a collection of specific essays that are written for a specific topic, and so unlike actual full books don’t have a general overarching theme or argument that’s directly and deliberately and consistently built on over the entire work. Taken all together with a fair bit of wrangling, you can generally get the overall system out of them, but each individual essay will be generally addressing not an overall worldview, but a specific argument or, in fact, a specific counter-argument. So this chapter is, therefore, almost certainly focusing specifically on one argument and one argument alone, and not much if anything else. An argument that Coyne identifies:

This post bears on a frequent argument about the irrationality of religious belief: if you were born in Saudi Arabia, you’d hold the tenets of Islam sacred and aver that Christian belief was wrong; if you were born in Mississippi, you’d have exactly the opposite view. How can you think your belief is right if it would differ depending on the conditions of your upbringing?

So, specifically, it is about how the warrant for your belief changes because you note that in other areas different and contradictory beliefs are held. Fair enough; that is a standard atheist argument and it is one that I belief that Plantinga is addressing, so so far, so good. Let’s see how long that lasts.

Anyway, before getting into the argument itself, Coyne speculates about Plantinga’s goal and takes a shot at theology in general:

Plantinga’s goal—for theology is not an honest attempt to find the truth, but a post facto rationalization of what the theologian already believes—is to show that his brand of Christianity is the best faith, and that it is rational, justified, and warranted to think that the faith you were brought up with is really the right faith, and that adherents to other religions are simply wrong.

Huh. Well, first, depending on what Coyne calls theology I can say that when I do it it isn’t that, or at least it isn’t that anymore than any scientific theory does that when someone challenges it. Second, this goal seems to have absolutely nothing to do with the purported argument that Coyne literally just talked about about a paragraph or two before. Coyne starts from saying that Plantinga wants to defend against this specific challenge, and then moves immediately to insisting that Plantinga is trying to say primarily that Christianity is right and the others are wrong. What argument, then, is Plantinga trying to make? I think Coyne’s first paragraph is right, and the latter one is just him imposing his own beliefs on Plantinga’s work and pushing Plantinga’s quotes and text into further arguments because Coyne can’t actually address — and it seems doesn’t understand — Plantinga’s defense against the argument outlined in the first paragraph.

Coyne was nice enough to link to the actual paper, and Plantinga outlines what he’s trying to do. He’s trying to defend exclusivism:

The claim is that exclusivism as such is or involves a vice of some sort: it is wrong or deplorable; and it is this claim I want to examine. I propose to argue that exclusivism need not involve either epistemic or moral failure, and that furthermore something like it is wholly unavoidable, given our human condition.

So, no notion of defending the idea that he’s right and Muslim’s and that are wrong, but instead simply defending the idea that holding that belief is neither epistemically nor morally wrong. And what belief is that:

One is to continue to believe what you have all along believed; you learn about this diversity, but continue to believe, i. e., take to be true, such propositions as (1) and (2) above, consequently taking to be false any beliefs, religious or otherwise, that are incompatible with (1) and (2). Following current practice, I shall call this exclusivism; the exclusivist holds that the tenets or some of the tenets of one religion—Christianity, let’s say—are in fact true; he adds, naturally enough, that any propositions, including other religious beliefs, that are incompatible with those tenets are false.

So note that Plantinga is using Christianity as an example, but that in no way implies that if he talks about Christian beliefs those are the only ones that can be true, or that only Christians can be true exclusivists. So when Coyne tosses out the two things that Plantinga believes:

In other words, he’s a Christian. How can he show that Muslims and Hindus are wrong? His whole chapter is an attempt to do just that, or, rather, to show that it’s perfectly rational and justifiable to hold that view, and not rational or justifiable to say either, “All faiths are correct,” “No faith is correct,” or “Well, the plurality of faith means that I can’t judge which faith is right.” It’s one of the most annoying pieces of self-justification I’ve ever seen, and truly underscores the difference between science and religion You can read it for free here.

what he’s actually doing is elevating the example into being the actual argument, which Plantinga explicitly denies he’s doing. If you contort Plantinga’s goal, you might be able to hold him to be accepting that you can’t say that all faiths are right, none are, or that you can’t say, but only the last one is really explicitly stated. Plantinga even seems to suggest that naturalism is indeed one of the views that you could be exclusivist about:

Now there are many who do not believe these things. First, there are those who agree with me on (1) but not (2): there are nonChristian theistic religions. Second, there are those who don’t accept either (1) or (2), but nonetheless do believe that there is something beyond the natural world, a something such that human well-being and salvation depend upon standing in a right relation to it. And third, in the West and since the Enlightenment, anyway, there are people—naturalists, we may call them—who don’t believe any of these three things.

So, already Coyne’s interpretation of the argument is highly, highly suspect. I don’t have the time and energy to comprehensively review Plantinga’s arguments right now, so let me move back to what Coyne is saying. He quotes Plantinga saying this, addressing a comment by John Hick about the sociological and geographic impact on religious belief:

As a matter of sociological fact, this may be right. Furthermore, it can certainly produce a sense of intellectual vertigo. But what is one to do with this fact, if fact it is, and what follows from it? Does it follow, for example, that I ought not to accept the religious views that I have been brought up to accept, or the ones that I find myself inclined to accept, or the ones that seem to me to be true? Or that the belief-producing processes that have produced those beliefs in me are unreliable? Surely not. Furthermore, self-referential problems once more loom; this argument is another philosophical tar baby.

For suppose we concede that if I had been born in Madagascar rather than Michigan, my beliefs would have been quite different. (For one thing, I probably wouldn’t believe that I was born in Michigan.) But of course the same goes for the pluralist. Pluralism isn’t and hasn’t been widely popular in the world at large; if the pluralist had been born in Madagascar, or medieval France, he probably wouldn’t have been a pluralist. Does it follow that he shouldn’t be a pluralist or that his pluralistic beliefs are produced in him by an unreliable belief-producing process? I doubt it.

Coyne’s reply:

I think that if you adhere beliefs that you were taught as a child, or that are common where you live, and that is the factor explaining most of the variation among people in religious belief (which I’m sure it is), then yes, you should be deeply suspicious about whether your belief is indeed true. If one faith happens to be true, and Plantinga believes that his brand of Christianity is, then all the Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs who hold their incorrect faiths based on where they were born are wrong by virtue of geography.

First, where does Plantinga talk about it being something he was taught as a child here, and about that giving it warrant? Or about what gives it warrant in the first place? He doesn’t. He simply asks if that simple fact — that there is geographic variance — should do anything to your warrant for holding that belief. And the answer seems obvious: it shouldn’t. Imagine that we — being taught as children that the world is round — noted that in a number of societies around the world people believed that it is flat. Would that in any way impact our belief that the world is round? I’d hope not; we do seem to have quite good warrant and justification for that belief. The same thing can be said about Plantinga’s example of pluralism; there are a number of societies that do not consider pluralism valuable or useful, and yet their existence in no way causes us to question those beliefs, since we think they are warranted. So ultimately Plantinga’s claim is that simply pointing out that other cultures hold conflicting beliefs does nothing to impact the warrant of the beliefs we have. If we are warranted in believing those things, we are still warranted even if we find out that others disagree.

Now, what Coyne could argue is that theistic beliefs are not, in fact, warranted at all, which is not an unfair argument. But it has nothing to do with the argument under discussion. Plantinga is simply addressing the idea that differing views really do impact the warrant we can have for our religious beliefs, and pointing out — quite reasonably — that they don’t. Coyne’s whole argument against Plantinga’s argument, then, is based on ignoring the argument that Plantinga is making and addressing and instead smuggling in a completely different argument and smugly pointing out that Plantinga doesn’t address it. Yeah, he’s not trying to address it. Why don’t you address what he is addressing?

So we can see, then, that Coyne’s attempt to contrast that idea with science simply fails, because it doesn’t address exclusivism at all. Those scientists have, presumably, data that conflicts with their own conclusions. But imagine that either set had, in fact, carefully scrutinized their data and methodology and therefore knew that all possible bias was excluded. Would the mere fact that another set of scientists had done their own experiment and found different results change any of that? Absolutely not. They’d rightly, I think, believe that they had done it properly and the other team had introduced bias into their experiment and data, at least until they had clear evidence that undercut their actual warrant. Again, Coyne can claim that theists have no warrant, but again that’s a completely different argument.

Likewise, if you are a Christian because your parents were Christian and imbued you with the faith, that should cast doubt on whether you really arrived at Christian beliefs through a process of rational scrutiny, or whether your “rationale” for being a Christian is simply a post facto confabulation.

First, why is this? Has Coyne eliminated all of his childhood beliefs and cast them into so strong doubt that he can’t believe them until he scrutinizes them? Unlikely. Second, again, he’s claiming that childhood beliefs aren’t warranted, but then whence would come pluralists belief in pluralism or most people’s faith in democracy? Both of these points focus in on one key structure: if you are going to argue that theistic beliefs are not warranted, how many of Coyne’s beliefs is he going to be willing to give up on that basis as well? Coyne hasn’t even thought of that — despite Plantinga giving him one explicit example that Coyne quoted — let alone decided what it all means and how he will handle it.

Coyne then simply says that Plantinga “lays on the sophistry” with this quote:

Suppose I hold

(4) If S‘s religious or philosophical beliefs are such that if S had been born elsewhere and elsewhen, she wouldn’t have held them, then those beliefs are produced by unreliable belief-producing mechanisms and hence have no warrant;

Once more I will be hoist with my own petard. For in all probability, someone born in Mexico to Christian parents wouldn’t believe (4) itself. No matter what philosophical and religious beliefs we hold and withhold (so it seems) there are places and times such that if we had been born there and then, then we would not have displayed the pattern of holding and withholding of religious and philosophical beliefs we do display. As I said, this can indeed be vertiginous; but what can we make of it? What can we infer from it about what has warrant and how we should conduct our intellectual lives? That’s not easy to say. Can we infer anything at all about what has warrant or how we should conduct our intellectual lives? Not obviously.

Except that this is just Plantinga stating his actual argument: If I claim that the fact that if I was born in another place or another time I would believe differently than I do now actually had any impact on the warrant I have for my current beliefs, then I’d have to accept that this holds for any belief I might have. But then all of my beliefs are less warranted by that fact. So that’s ridiculous. So it at least isn’t clear what impact — if any — this geographic thing should have on the warrant for my beliefs. Note that Coyne has not actually ever addressed that, except as an aside to “Taught you by your parents as an article of faith”.

Coyne’s amazing ability to miss the point continues. He moves on to talking about what he says is Plantinga’s second argument for why Christianity is right, when as we all know by now Plantinga is, in fact, making no such arguments at all. The argument is this:

But then clearly enough if (1) or (2) [the Christian beliefs given above] is true, it could be produced in me by a reliable belief-producing process. Calvin’s Sensus Divinitatis, for example, could be working in the exclusivist in such a way as to reliably produce the belief that (1); Calvin’s Internal Testimony of the Holy Spirit could do the same for (2). If (1) and (2) are true, therefore, then from a reliabilist perspective there is no reason whatever to think that the exclusivist might not know that they are true.

Recall again that Christianity is an example, not an argument or definition. Coyne waxes eloquently about … something completely unrelated, actually:

I think this comes from Plantinga’s idea that the epistemic warrant for belief must differ from the epistemic warrant for science. If we were to judge “warrant” of a scientific view whose support was solely that a) you were taught it and b) you think it’s right because you have a “Sensus Scientificus” installed by God, then your scientific beliefs would immediately become suspect.

Which, of course, wouldn’t mean that it didn’t have warrant. Science may reject it out of hand, but philosophy might not. But, again, missing the point. The point is that if that position is true and therefore did warrant the belief — which here in the quotes Plantinga is not asserting as a fact, despite Coyne’s attempts to make it seems such — then the fact that, say, Muslims don’t accept that and believe otherwise would not impact the warrant the Christian — again, for example — has for their beliefs. The Christian could just be right, and the Muslim just wrong. Or, given other ways to get warrant, the Christian could be wrong and the Muslim right. Again, all Plantinga is defending here is exclusivism in general, not a particular view. Coyne’s inability to stay on topic makes his reply completely tangential to the thing that he calls sophistry. How can you call something sophistry by appealing to things it was never intended to address and pointing out that it didn’t, in fact, address those things it didn’t intend to address?

The fact is that at most one faith can be correct (and almost certainly none of them are), and that none of Plantiga’s arguments are remotely convincing to the skeptic that Christianity is the right one. What he is doing here, as always, is making stuff up to show that Christian belief is rational and true. He’s providing Christians with shaky but fine-sounding academic arguments to buttress their beliefs.

And Plantinga isn’t trying to address the skeptic about Christianity here. So of course they won’t be convincing to the skeptic. They shouldn’t be. So Coyne’s accusation of making stuff up and giving fine-sounding but shaky arguments is based on a complete misunderstanding of what Plantinga is talking about.

Now, maybe it’s just me, but if you’re going to claim that you’re addressing a sophisticated theological view but demonstrate that you don’t understand it and are in fact arguing against a completely different argument that is not being stated, to me that means that you failed to address it. I’m not sure if everyone will agree with that, but to me it’s clear here that Coyne has not addressed Plantinga, and so has not addressed the theology Plantinga presents, and has not demonstrated anything about the approaches of science and theology or that Plantinga is engaging is sophistry. And note that the title is claiming that Coyne is going to show Plantinga’s sophistry. He’s nowhere near there. Epic fail, as they say.


2 Responses to “Coyne on Sophisticated Theology: The Geography Argument …”

  1. Coyne and Sophistication … « The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] exactly demonstrated that he actually understands what he’s criticizing (see examples here, here, and here for just a few of […]

  2. Phillipse on the Reformed Objection | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] it isn’t justified. This is an interesting tack to take because as we’ve already seen Plantinga has already taken on that argument and found it wanting. So it’s interesting that Phillipse is relying on an argument against Plantinga that Plantinga […]

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