Second Guessing Richard Carrier, Part I

You may have heard of him in certain internet circles, and perhaps you have even seen him give a talk or two in your hometown. Richard Carrier is a pop-atheist who is avidly against the notion of a historical Jesus, a fervent defender of naturalism, and a compulsive “potty mouth” when it comes to critiquing people he disagrees with.

Interestingly, Carrier is also popular for being un-popular. In other words, he’s in the vast minority when it comes to denying a historical Jesus altogether claiming the gospel accounts were inspired by pre-existent pagan myths. You can find much of this in his book On the Historicity of Jesus.

My present purpose for writing, however, has to do with one of his most recent articles: ‘Plantinga’s Tiger and Other Stupid Sh@$,’ (yes, he actually says the word *gasp*). Much of the article has to do with his latest obsession over Tim Keller. For some reason, Carrier has been critiquing a pastor in New York City on one of the only apologetic books the dude has ever written. Apparently, Carrier thinks Keller is one of Christianity’s front-line guys. No offense to Keller, but he’s a pastor who hardly writes about apologetics, relatively speaking.

Keller, however, is not my concern here. In his article, Carrier claims that Keller “relies a lot on Alvin Plantinga for his illogical arguments,” and then proceeds to criticize some of what Plantinga has written.

Carrier’s Objection

The specific area of Plantinga’s work Carrier tries addressing is Plantinga’s argument for the improbability of rational belief of naturalistic evolution (a mouthful, huh?). We will delve into what that argument is in the next post, but first, we need to read Carrier’s characterization:

Keller relies a lot on Alvin Platinga for his illogical arguments on this. But Plantinga has no expertise in evolutionary science; and his arguments are illogical and unscientific, indeed hilariously stupid. He thinks, for instance, that it would be more likely for evolution to program us with a zillion random commands (like “always run from tigers”) than a single general intelligence algorithm that would be able to figure out what things kill us (instead of having to have been genetically programmed to know that in advance); and would be able to figure out when we should run from a tiger or stand our ground and kill it for food or to save our village.

Carrier seems to think that since Plantinga has no expertise in evolutionary science, then he’s not qualified to speak on the subject. But Plantinga is not trying to develop a model for evolutionary anthropological cognition, or characterize how natural selection developed the biological neurological synapses in the human brain, for example. Plantinga, rather, is hitting on a philosophical issue, and if Carrier’s thinking was sophisticated enough on this subject, he would’ve picked that up.

The problem Plantinga is getting at is essentially a problem of probabilities which, in the final analysis, is a philosophical issue, not biological. Granted Plantinga’s resume, I think he’s more than qualified to speak on the matter. Carrier then moves to describe Plantinga’s argument as such:

He thinks, for instance, that it would be more likely for evolution to program us with a zillion random commands (like “always run from tigers”) than a single general intelligence algorithm that would be able to figure out what things kill us (instead of having to have been genetically programmed to know that in advance).

This is an unfortunate caricature.

First, I’m not entirely sure where Carrier gets this from (perhaps a dream?). Dr. Plantinga did a 1.5 hour talk at the Veritas Forum where he states his argument. You can find it here. In his talk, Plantinga describes multiple theses on evolution. He discusses both the common ancestry thesis and Neo-Darwinian natural selection. Keep in mind that Plantinga, in this video, is stating his argument within the context of a broader conversation about where the conflict really lies between evolution and the Christian system.

This means that Plantinga is trying to identify where Christianity and evolution could be compatible (I disagree with him biblically and theologically, for the record. I don’t think they are compatible at any point). Plantinga isn’t trying to say he believes, per se, in a theistic natural selection, but merely points out that God, in His power, could have ordained an evolutionary process to His glory (again, I do not think God actually did this, but nevertheless, we have to admit that He could have done this if He wanted to).

In identifying where evolution and Christianity could possibly be compatible, he comes to the major point of contention—the point at which Christianity and evolution cannot find compatibility. The allegation from the naturalist, that natural selection is ultimately unguided, is the real point of dispute between Christianity and naturalistic evolution, Plantinga thinks. It is this principle of an unguided process of natural selection with which Plantinga deals in his argument. Thus, in the tiger example, Plantinga was trying to draw out an improbability which arises within the naturalistic evolutionary paradigm.

In his talk, Plantinga says, “What I want to argue is that you cannot sensibly believe both naturalism and evolution (23:30).” Already we can see that Carrier is failing to grasp the core of Plantinga’s argument in his article. Rather than honestly explore what Plantinga is actually arguing, Carrier says stuff like, “Not only is Planting’s idea impossible—his model would require billions of trillions of years to even get to any point of being useful…” Wait. “his model”?

His model of what, exactly?

Plantinga is arguing against the rationality of belief in natural selection, and an incompatibility between natural selection and naturalism (as characterized by people like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and others). Plantinga is doing what scholars do. He’s considering the work of experts and formulating a response. In Plantinga’s case, it’s a philosophical response because plantinga is a philosopher. From a philosophical standpoint, Plantinga finds Dawkins, Dennett, and others unsatisfying.

Dr. Plantinga goes on to say, “I’m going to take naturalism to include materialism with respect to human beings… If you object and say, ‘Well, a naturalist doesn’t have to be a materialist about human beings,’ then what I’m really arguing against is naturalism, materialism, and evolution, saying that you cannot hold sensibly to all three of those things.”

Carrier has already failed in addressing Plantinga’s actual argument. Instead he piecemeals the man’s words by extracting an illustration, failing to contextualize that illustration, and then builds a faulty rebuttal upon that same non-contextualized illustration. This is called a straw-man. A straw-man is an informal fallacy where a person argues against something other than the other person’s position, all the while claiming to argue against that person’s actual position. It’s like telling everyone you’re going to ping the side of a barn with a football, but instead throw it to the left into the pig-pin… while still claiming to hit the barn.

It just doesn’t work.


This ends part one of my response to Carrier’s article. In my next post, I will attempt to clarify Dr. Plantinga’s actual argument, and then in light of his argument, evaluate Carrier’s construal of it. It can already be seen, with what little we’ve covered, that Carrier seems to lack the ability to accurately represent his opponent.

In the next article, I will show how this is indeed the case, and exhort his followers to consider his articles more carefully.

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