The Substance of Consciousness
May 23, 2023
January 06, 2009
In his recent Boston Review article, Alex Byrne seriously misrepresents the lay of the land in current Anglo-American philosophy, especially when we take the long view of the last several decades. As Quentin Smith has documented, (Philo 4/2 : 3-4), there has transpired since the late 1960s a veritable revolution in Anglo-American analytic philosophy with respect to the philosophy of religion in general and natural theology in particular. It is atheism that is in retreat and theism that is on the rise. Tangible measures of the sea change that has occurred is evident in the number of new philosophy journals devoted exclusively to the philosophy of religion, in the burgeoning market in philosophy of religion textbooks, in the demand among university students for courses in philosophy of religion, and in the percentage of graduate students in philosophy who are Christian theists. The difference between the discipline as it appeared back in the 1930s or 40s and today is like the difference between night and day. Byrne’s tendentious spin on Dean Zimmerman’s words obscures the point that outspoken, highly respected Christian philosophers are numerous today, even though many of their colleagues (like Byrne?) are dismissive of their religious beliefs.
Equally misrepresentative is Byrne’s characterization of contemporary Christian philosophers as content with “pulling up the drawbridge and manning the barricades, rather than crusading against the infidel.” Never mind the ugly militaristic imagery. Insofar as they have engaged in defensive operations, Christian philosophers have done so in order to show that the shopworn anti-theistic arguments like the meaninglessness of religious language, the vaunted presumption of atheism, the incoherence of theism, and the problem of evil are, to borrow Byrne’s phrase, “underwhelming” and do not stand up to scrutiny. Moreover, Christian philosophers certainly have gone on the offensive as well, as all of the traditional theistic arguments—cosmological, teleological, axiological, ontological—find numerous articulate defenders today (I list some in my piece in Christianity Today, July 2008, pp. 22-27).
Byrne similarly misrepresents Plantinga’s work on religious epistemology, epitomized in Warranted Christian Belief. On one level, Plantinga’s work is defensive in showing that Christian belief can be wholly rational, justified, and warranted even in the absence of arguments and that atheistic objections to the contrary all fail. On another level, however, the work is a frontal assault on atheistic naturalism, as Plantinga argues that there is no acceptable account of warrant (and, hence, of knowledge) that does not appeal to the notion of the proper functioning of our cognitive faculties, a notion best cashed out in terms of their functioning as they were designed to, and, moreover, that naturalism is rationally unaffirmable, since on naturalism our cognitive faculties are selected not for their being truth-conducive but survival-conducive, so that we can have no confidence in the truth of their deliverances—including, ironically, the truth of naturalism.
The question raised in the final paragraph of Byrne’s article is squarely addressed by Plantinga’s religious epistemology. Plantinga agrees that, for the most part, Christian theists “do not believe that God exists on the basis of any argument.” Plantinga thinks that there are, in fact, good arguments for God’s existence and has defended over two dozen of them; but he thinks they’re not necessary in order for religious belief to be justified or warranted. In that sense Plantinga concurs with Byrne that “The funny thing about arguments for the existence of God is that, if they succeed, they were never needed in the first place.” That is to say, if theistic arguments are sound, then God exists and has likely furnished us with cognitive mechanisms that yield warranted theistic belief independent of argument. But when Byrne opines, “How they know that God exists, if they do, is itself unknown,” then he has simply failed to be attentive to Plantinga’s epistemological model, for that model does explain how it is that Christian belief is warranted apart from argument. To assert otherwise is just to ignore all that Plantinga has written on the subject.
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