Nagel on Plantinga

September 19, 2012

An interesting article in the New York Review of Books in which the eminent philosopher Thomas Nagel reviews, fairly favourably, Alvin Plantinga’s recent Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism. Nagel summarizes the book’s central argument in this way:

He holds, first, that the theistic conception of the relation between God, the natural world, and ourselves makes it reasonable for us to regard our perceptual and rational faculties as reliable. It is therefore reasonable to believe that the scientific theories they allow us to create do describe reality. He holds, second, that the naturalistic conception of the world, and of ourselves as products of unguided Darwinian evolution, makes it unreasonable for us to believe that our cognitive faculties are reliable, and therefore unreasonable to believe any theories they may lead us to form, including the theory of evolution. In other words, belief in naturalism combined with belief in evolution is self-defeating.

This isn’t a new idea — if I’m not mistaken, C.S. Lewis posed a version of this argument against naturalism in one of his books — but Plantinga has devoted a good part of his philosophical work to giving it a sounder foundation. As Nagel points out, the first (positive) part of the argument draws on Plantinga’s epistemological notion of “warranted belief”, which he developed in a series of books (none of which I have read).

As I said above, Nagel is largely appreciative of Plantinga’s project:

The interest of this book, especially for secular readers, is its presentation from the inside of the point of view of a philosophically subtle and scientifically informed theist—an outlook with which many of them will not be familiar. Plantinga writes clearly and accessibly, and sometimes acidly — in response to aggressive critics of religion like Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. His comprehensive stand is a valuable contribution to this debate.

but being appreciative is not the same as being convinced. In fact, Nagel doesn’t seem to like either of the views that Plantinga addresses:

Perhaps theism and materialist naturalism are not the only alternatives.

This sounds an awful lot like a segueway to Nagel’s own book Mind and Cosmos, which bears the wordy but intriguing subtitle “Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False”. Mind and Cosmos is just out from Oxford University Press and, though I am prudently waiting to read a few reviews before I pony up, I am hoping to read it before long.

8 Responses to “Nagel on Plantinga”

  1. Janet Says:

    This is in Miracles, and we are discussing this very chapter in the C. S. Lewis Society. We did not finish discussing the chapter although we talked for twice 47 minutes. I seem to remember Plantinga’s name coming up.


  2. cburrell Says:

    I thought it might have been Miracles, but I wasn’t sure.

  3. Miguel Says:

    Interestingly, the original argument about this in Miracles was ripped apart by orthodox Catholic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe in a famous debate, which left C.S. Lewis rather traumatized, from what I’ve heard. She later, however, helped him improve that chapter to make it stand on a firmer foundation, and I think that is the version of the argument that is now found in the book. But I though I haven’t read Plantinga, from what I gather he takes the argument to a whole new level.

  4. cburrell Says:

    Ah yes, I had forgotten about that altercation with Elizabeth Anscombe! I have never been clear on the details — neither of Lewis’ original argument nor of Anscombe’s objections to it. I would hope that Plantinga would have taken care to ensure that his argument evaded her objections; she was not a woman to be taken lightly.

  5. Janet Says:

    I’m pretty sure that EA didn’t actually help CSL improve the chapter, although he did re-write it after hearing her argument. The mind boggles at the idea of anyone helping Lewis write anything. We were talking about that in the CSL group and I actually have both version in my inbox at the moment, although I haven’t had time to read them.


  6. cburrell Says:

    No, I don’t think she helped him so directly as that, but she gave him something to think about. I’d be interested in looking at the two versions myself — but I haven’t much time these days, so I’d prefer, Janet, if you’d do the hard work and report back with a summary. 😎

  7. Janet Says:

    Sure, I’ll do that. It ought to be ready for you about the time Iona graduates from college.


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