Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Historical Adam

Alvin Plantinga makes my intellectual hairs stand on end. For a number of years now, he has participated in the so-called 'religion and science' debates alongside atheist counterparts like Richard Dawkins and the late Stephen Jay Gould. A well-established, well-respected Christian philosopher, Plantinga offers the intelligent believer's perspective. And yet, every time he opens his mouth or puts his pen to paper, I have to wonder whether he has actually listened to his conversation partners.

Plantinga has contributed a short piece to a Think Christian series on the historical Adam, making four basic points:
1) Science is not infallible; the "current" theories are always changing.
2) Serious Christians, going all the way back to Origen, have doubted whether the first chapters of Genesis are to be read literally.
3) What a Christian is allowed to believe regarding the first chapters of Genesis must be constrained the sorts of effects particular readings will have on other doctrines. If there's no historical Adam, for example, does that prevent you from affirming a historical fall? And if there is no historical fall, does that prevent you from affirming the necessity of Christ's incarnation and atonement?
4) And finally, it's possible, somewhere between 160,000 to 200,000 years ago, God selected a pair of proto-humans and imbued them with the characteristics essential to being 'created in the image of God'. Shortly thereafter, they fell into sin. All of their offspring, namely modern humans, can thus be said to be created in the image of God, and fallen in sin.
What I find so frustrating about Plantinga's suggestions is that he manages to do is insult the intelligence of evolutionary biologists by pandering to their way of thinking about things. The one thing he will not say is that the scientific study will not yield evidence of a single, original human pair--which it will not, not in a million years. Evolution takes place across populations, not in individuals.

To claim, as Plantinga does, God stepped in and added 'his image' to a creature's make-up at a point late in its evolutionary development is an empirical, scientific claim. Or, at least in principle, it should be. If God has done this thing, the fossil record ought to reveal something. Then again, maybe the fossil record does reveal something. Maybe human intelligence, that 'thing' that is supposed to set us apart from the rest of God's creatures, is that ingredient that God adds. Okay. Richard Dawkins preemptively lambasted the fourth claims years ago, pointing out that empirical claims are subject to verification and falsification. But God's actions (not that Dawkins believes in a God who acts in human history) are not verifiable, which means Plantinga engages in idle speculation with no scientific currency.

For reasons I stated a few days ago with reference to ancient narratives of a Great Flood, I am inclined to agree. Plantinga wants to paint a scientifically plausible picture, one which irons out the creases and fills in the gaps between two very different sorts of evidence. The direction of his argument is towards fitting the biblical narrative into a natural historical narrative of the history of life on this planet. The direction of his argument, however, should be towards clarifying the different sorts of claims being made.

One thing we do know with a fair degree of certainty is that the creation narratives were never written with the evolutionary biologist in mind. That's a good place to start. Another thing we know with a comparable degree of certainty is that an ancient creation narrative describing a set of moral relations between plants, animals, human beings, and a whole range of other natural objects is not likely to be saying the same things texts making sense of the evolutionary history of life on the planet, which relies on evidence observed in the fossil record or encoded in genetic material. That's a much better place to start, since it underscores the basic difference between these two modes of inquiry.

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