Thursday, December 1, 2011

As Silly As Superman

Alvin Plantinga was once the most celebrated professor at my alma mater, Calvin College. He didn't become Catholic but he did move to the somewhat Catholic University of Notre Dame. Anyway, he wrote an article about a debate he had with Daniel Dennett on Science and Religion. He makes a bunch of interesting points but I just want to react to one point Dr Dennett made.
Dennett agreed with my first claim: that in fact there is no conflict between evolution and theistic belief. He went on to say, however, that many very silly claims are compatible with science-for example, Supermanism, according to which that redoubtable comic book character is real. (But the way Superman flies around without the benefit of wings or aircraft? The way he can leap over tall buildings in a single bound? Is that really compatible with current science?)
My first reaction is that calling something silly does not really belong in a philosophy forum. Silly things can be true. I can say atheism is silly. It does not prove anything. What I think he means to say is that we need evidence to believe in superman. If he existed, at least on this planet, we would expect to have some significant, documented, physical evidence. Since we don't have that we can say there is no reason to believe he exists. If he didn't exist we would not expect the world to be any different than it is now. So it is more rational to believe he does not exist.

So can't you make the same argument about God? Not at all. God is not an entity existing within the physical world. St Thomas Aquinas thinks of God as the essence of being itself. Like Merton said in Seven Story Mountain:
And the one big concept which I got out of its pages was something that was to revolutionize my whole life.” That concept was aseitas, a word “which can be applied to God alone, and which expresses His most characteristic attribute…” Merton learned from Gilson that God does not require any justification for existence, for his very nature is existence... Merton realized that God is not one being among many, but ipsum esse subsistens—the sheer act of being itself. He had never imagined that people could speak of God in such an intellectually satisfying way, but Gilson showed him otherwise.
So God is fundamentally different from superman so the evidence we would expect to find is going to be very different. If you can imagine Hamlet trying to prove Shakespeare existed. The fact that he searched his castle and didn't find him would not prove that he didn't exist. He isn't in the play. He is the author. Hamlet could reason that because he is a character in a play there must be an author. We can do that. We can reason that way about God. That is not called science. It is called metaphysics. Science isn't going to find Him. To expect science to find God like we would expect it to find superman is just to misunderstand what Christians believe about God.

The other side of it is the incarnation. God would not be findable with our senses and analyzing the physical world except  for Christmas. God became man. So He is one being among the many beings in this world. So He does give science a fighting chance. In fact, there are enough miracles that any scientist that wants to can find some very strong evidence for a miracle. That is not evidence we would expect to find if God existed. It is only evidence we would find if God existed and wanted to be found. If He wanted to intervene in human history and have a relationship with us.

Does this evidence prove God exists? No. The existence of Jesus and the existence of miracles does not preclude any other explanations. Often we can conclude that with our existing understanding of the world we cannot find another explanation. That does not mean there isn't one. God always seems to leave that door open at least a crack.

That is really at the heart of Dennett's objection. God could give us evidence that is massive and undeniable. What he is saying is that the expected evidence is not the same as it would be for superman but it should be larger not smaller. Why does God not make his existence physically obvious? That is a fair question. God asks us to walk by faith and not by sight. Why does He do that? He asks us to accept Him without the kind of scientific evidence we want. That is a hard thing to do.

Still this should not be confused with a logical objection. It is not impossible that God exists and always makes belief and unbelief logically plausible options. Just like it is not impossible that God exists and asks us to live through extreme suffering. It is a hard reality to accept but it is not something we can exclude based on evidence and reason.

In fact, the evidence is quite strong that man cannot settle in either camp. One of the big arguments against theism is that people have such a strong tendency to doubt God's existence. But the same is true for atheism. People don't settle there either. Many have tried. Certainly in our day many have tried. But for most if not all the transcendent has a way of creeping back in over and over. You would think a God who does not exist would leave people alone. So if you don't want to walk by faith you are just out of luck. Whether you believe in God or not it is going to take faith.


  1. Very good, Randy. The Superman reference is what I call a "boggart-God".

    The Christian God, to New Atheists who are enamored of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and Invisible Pink Unicorn critiques, is something like the boggart in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: He looks mean and frightening, but if you just point your wand and yell “Ridikulus!” He—and all His silly, mentally-crippled believers—will become powerless to hurt you.

    But the God of FSM/IPU arguments, the God against which Carl Sagan posited his dragon and Bertrand Russell his teapot, isn’t the God of Christian philosophy. The “Christian” arguments in which the FSM and IPU references are sprinkled are very simplistic straw men that have little to nothing in common with the more robust Aristotelian and Thomist arguments. The boggart-God of the FSM/IPU critiques is rendered powerless through ridicule … but it never had power of its own to begin with, because it wasn’t the real thing.

    The atheist tries to get us focused on the boggart-God because it distracts us from the real weakness of his position. He can’t know there’s no God the same way he can know there’s no NFL game scheduled for this coming Sunday. He can’t know there’s no immaterial component to the universe the same way he can know there’s no planet inside the orbit of Mercury. Strictly speaking, he can’t even know there’s no invisible dragon or pink unicorn.

    Ultimately the argument is a distraction, a straw man that also serves as a means to sneer believers to death. Like you, I think the best we can ask for in an argument either way is plausibility without any overt paralogisms.

  2. Thanks Anthony,

    The Flying Spaghetti Monster is a common theme for internet atheists. Dennett is supposed to be a more serious thinker. But he makes basically the same argument. If we can't get above that level at the American Philosophical Association that is a very bad sign. Ed Feser always complains how many otherwise brilliant philosophers make elementary errors when discussing the Philosophy of Religion. No other branch of philosophy sees philosophers from other branches jumping in and displaying an ignorance of the most basic arguments in the field. That kind of outburst that would have embarrassed scholars 100 years ago.