This is something that has to be put simply and firmly: There is no design option in the theory of evolution by natural selection. The words ‘natural selection’ rule it out, and for someone like Plantinga to say that this is not settled is simply farfetched nonsense. In his Gifford Lectures, Where the Conflict Really Lies, which I forbear to buy, based on the Kindle sampler, Plantinga argues the improbable theory that Christianity and science are compatible whilst naturalism and science are not. Of course, once again he depends upon the hopelessly quixotic argument that naturalism, dependent as it is on the merely chance occurrence of the existence of intelligent organisms, cannot make good its claim to knowledge, for there is no reason to suppose that the deliverances of such an organism might be true. As he says (in the Kindle sampler of his book):
I argue that it is improbable, given naturalism and evolution, that our cognitive faculties are reliable. It is improbable that they provide us with a suitable preponderance of true belief over false.
I find it truly hard to believe that Plantinga can repeat, without blushing, such vacuousness. The point is that our cognitive faculties are not reliable, as he says, and that they do not provide us with a suitable preponderance of true belief over false, and this is precisely why science is so necessary, and why religion is almost sure to be simply wrong. Science depends upon the cooperation of many minds. It is a self-correcting methodology, that corrects for the lack of reliability of our cognitive faculties. As Plantinga must know, this is the earliest of philosophical problems: the conflict between appearance and reality. This conflict was recognised very early. Indeed, the whole of early Greek philosophy may be seen as a way of dealing with the disagreement and dialectic that this conflict produces. The Sophists, after all, prided themselves on their rhetorical ability to make the weaker reason appear the stronger.
Plantinga continues from the above in the following way:
But then a naturalist who accepts current evolutionary theory has a defeater for the proposition that our faculties are reliable. Furthermore, if she has a defeater [for this] …, she has a defeater for any belief she takes to be produced by her faculties.
Well, yes indeed, so she does, and that is why she must submit that belief to the rigorous testing and retesting of her peers, and, after that rigorous testing she has every reason rationally to accept that the belief is true, or, if it fails the test, that it is false. Plantinga seems to think that origin of our cognitive faculties makes a difference. If our cognition is the result of divine planning, so that there is some coordination between how things really are and our beliefs, then we can have greater trust in them. But why should this be so? If Plantinga’s proposal is true, would we not have to check to make sure? Could we then simply claim that our beliefs are true simply because we have them? Of course not. Even Plantinga, one supposes, knows better than this. But it is on this supposed reliability that his religious beliefs depend absolutely, since there is no other evidence than the beliefs that people hold that they are true. And so right here, at the foundation of his attempt to show “where the conflict really lies”, we see the weakness of the foundations of his thought.
I have mentioned before, I think, how it was that I came, so late in life, to read Darwin’s masterpiece, On the Origin of Species. Perhaps it would be worthwhile to repeat the story here in a bit more detail. The biographical details may be inaccurate, but that will not matter, since it happened very much like this. One summer, as we were getting ready for holiday, a little propaganda piece from a local fundamentalist church was left in the Rectory doorway. It’s main purpose was to declare that evolutionary biology conflicted with the inspiration of God’s word and was thus to be rejected by faithful Christians. I think it also added something to the effect that some churches accepted evolution and were, thus, unfaithful to God’s word, and therefore could not guarantee — as the sect in question could do — redemption and eternal reward. But that item, of course, may be just my faulty memory, and a settled disposition to distrust fundamentalists.
In any event, since this piece of fundamentalist propaganda had been widely distributed in the town, door to door, I thought I ought to respond to it. Knowing nothing at all about evolution, but knowing that it was the accepted theory of how life on earth came to be, I set about on its defence. I started by reading Darwin — a very good place to start, I thought, though, in the event, it didn’t solve all the problems alleged by my doughty fundamentalist neighbours. Needless to say, however, I was completely bowled over by Darwin. The Origin, I found, to my delight, is a masterpiece of English prose, not only a scientific tour de force. By the time I had finished, our holiday was upon us, so I had to manage some very quick, and much less classic, prose, than Darwin’s, if I were to leave behind something to help the faithful ponder helpfully on issues which, even then, I did not know had become such a sensation south of the border. I quickly jotted down some notes, but then realised I did not have enough to go on, so I dashed off some questions to a professor of biology at Dalhousie University, who answered very quickly and graciously indeed, even though I do not now remember his name. The outcome was a short essay which I left behind in the parish newsletter for parishioners to read in my absence.
But reading Darwin was more epochal than that, at least for me. I realised, as I read, that a whole world of which I had remained completely ignorant, beckoned, and that it raised challenges for faith that I could not then answer. I had three years yet to serve in the parish, and during those three years, as I faced, not only Darwin and other writings on evolution — I chanced upon Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea shortly after having read Darwin — but also the fact that my beloved wife Elizabeth had been so obviously selected out — the fact that all that had seemed so stable and reliable until then started simply to slip and slide and become an unstable mass of doubts and questions, which, during that last three years, I began to explore, quite openly, with the people I then served. I had already joined forces, as it were, with Don Cupitt, but was not prepared to go all the way with him; but now, it seemed, I was being driven further, much further, indeed, and faith itself became, not a sham, but something near allied. I used to say in those years to Elizabeth that I could no longer find positive things to say about the lections appointed for the day, or about the beliefs that more and more were overshadowed by grief and doubt.
In the end, as most of you will know, faith could no longer stand, and it was brought crashingly to earth with the Archbishop of Canterbury’s speech to the House of Lords opposing Lord Joffe’s assisted dying bill. That was, for me, the watershed moment, but the flow was all in that direction already, and it only took that speech to make the slope precipitous. Darwin was at the centre of it. It seemed clear – how could it not have been? — that there was no larger point or purpose to my life, and that all my frenzied attempts to find a larger framework in which to place it was simply a delusion. I should have seen it much sooner. I remember during those last years in ministry someone who was doing a Doctorate in Ministry at Acadia University Divinity School, in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, who used me as one of his test cases for the effect of personal experience on styles of ministry. He did a detailed interview with me of my experiences and how I thought that impinged upon my practice. Later, he sent me a copy of his dissertation, of which I saved at least his conclusions regarding me. When I read it now, I am surprised that Elizabeth does not figure in the story at all, and yet hers was the decisive influence upon my life and on my ministry. Without her, my life would have taken an entirely different course. Without her, Darwin, I suspect, would have been left unread, and certainly, without her, and without her suffering, the problem of pain would probably have remained, as it clearly is for most theologians, simply an academic puzzle.
Does that mean, as Plantinga seems to suggest, that I should doubt the conclusions to which I have come? After all, I was led on this intellectual journey largely by a series of chance events. It was only by sheer chance that Elizabeth and I should have met, and even more a chance that we should have fallen so in love, and by chance too, that we should have married, and despite our very different ages (27 years in the difference!), that our marriage should have been so full of good things. A further chance it was that fundamentalists should have chosen that moment to propagandise the neighbourhood, and just by chance that I should have taken the challenge so personally, and read Darwin, and followed that up with further exploration of the theory of evolution — all, I freely acknowledge, at a very shallow level — and chance that the potent combination of Elizabeth’s debilitating illness and Darwin’s theory should have led me, as it led Darwin himself, to realise that natural selection is so casually brutal to those we love, and therefore that the idea of the goodness of a god should be so improbable and unbelievable. But none of those chances lead me to say that the theory of evolution is untrue or doubtful, because it is so solidly backed up by repeated confirmation, and by its consistency with what Darwin simply did not know, about genes and DNA, and the molecular structure of inheritance, and the purely natural character of selection. We can explain why certain things have been selected, because we can show, in at least some cases, what led those characteristics to have survival value in the environments in which they were selected. But there is simply no evidence at all that this process is the result of design, and every reason to think that it was not. And the main reason for believing that it was not designed by a gracious and loving creator is that it is so desperately cruel.
That is the journey I set out on that summer’s day, trying to think of a holiday that Elizabeth and I could have, where Elizabeth’s growing disabilities would not be an obstacle and where her love of travel could be enjoyed. And so we set out, that August day in 2002, on a journey across this great country that we shared, and that she had, in a special way, made my own, which was also and intellectual journey that would lead me, five years later, to declare my unbelief, but not even now to sever myself from the church that, in a sense, brought us, completely by chance, together, and made us so wonderfully one for the few years that she had left to live. And when people say how cruelly Christopher Hitchens was cut off from life at 62, I remember now that Elizabeth was even more cruelly cut off from all that she loved and held dear at the young age of 38, still full of life till the very end, though it was one she chose, instead of letting the sands of life run out through even more cruel suffering yet to come. But it was that choice that determined for me finally, and without any question, that life is not designed by someone else. We can decide, and need not sit idly by, watching it happen to us. Hitchens was, I think, terribly wrong in this, to believe, as he puts it, in what may be his final essay, that there is a something “that properly belongs to a life span.” We get to choose, if we want, what we are prepared to endure, and what our span of life properly will be; and just because there is suffering yet to come, does not mean that it properly belongs to your life span unless you choose to endure it. And that is one reason why we need to say firmly, but politely, to Plantinga, that he is simply wrong. There is no design, and the gods have nothing to do with it. They are delusions, and to enforce belief in them, as so many do to their children, is not only to perpetuate delusion; it is also unkind, as any imagined god must be, given that we live in such a world at this.