Where the Conflict Really Lies

Plantinga's mature reflection on science and religion contends that Christianity, not Naturalism, has a foundation, which has led to the flourishing of science.

February 8th, 2012

Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, & Naturalism by Alvin Plantinga. Oxford University Press, 2011. 376pp.

The history of science is not a mere record of isolated discoveries; it is a narrative of the conflict of two contending powers, the expansive force of the human intellect on one side, and the compression arising from traditionary faith and human interests on the other.

Thus penned John William Draper in 1874 in his work History of the Conflict between Science and Religion. Over a century later, this tension still lives on in the popular imagination.

Alvin Plantinga confronts this tension in Science, Religion, & Naturalism: Where the Conflict Really Lies, arguing that Draper has things precisely backward. There is indeed a conflict between science and religion, but that conflict is not between science and Christianity (or western monotheism) but between science and Naturalism. Naturalism functions as a quasi-religion for some people by providing answers to profound questions of human existence—"Is there such a person as God? How should we live? Can we look forward to life after death? What is our place in the universe? How are we related to other creatures?"

Contrary to Draper, and to the arguments of the New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and the recently deceased Christopher Hitchens, it is this quasi-religion of Naturalism that is in conflict with science, not Christianity. If Draper had lived longer and chanced to read G. K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy, he might have received a foretaste of Plantinga's riposte. Chesterton wrote of the modern rational age: "it discredits supernatural stories that have some foundation, simply by telling natural stories that have no foundation." Plantinga's contention is just that: it is Christianity, not Naturalism, which has a foundation and which has led to the flourishing of science.

Plantinga's book is a tour-de-force, surveying a wide range of issues in the contemporary debates on science and religion. All of the main hot topics in this field are addressed, including Darwinian evolution, the "fine tuning" of the universe and Intelligent Design. It is a challenging work to read. Readers unfamiliar with how analytic philosophers go about their writing these days may find themselves bewildered in many places. Some parts of the work are technical and formal (particularly a few sections that deal with probabilities), but even the non-technical parts are filled with dense argumentation. Despite this, the majority of the work will be accessible to readers with some previous exposure to philosophy—but they should come prepared to read slowly, and with care.

This care will be richly rewarded, however, and readers may even be occasionally surprised with a delightful laugh. Here's one example, which comes after Plantinga gives a quote from another author: "I'm sorry to say this is about as bad as philosophy (well, apart from the blogosphere) gets; Christian charity, perhaps even good manners might require silently passing by the embarrassing spectacle, eyes averted." Here's another: "We don't expect science to tell us whether, say, Trinitarian Christianity is true: that's not its business. (Nor does it make much sense to suggest that since we now have science, we no longer need any other source of knowledge—religion, for example. That is like claiming that now that we have refrigerators and chain saws and roller skates, we no longer have need for Mozart.)" Plantinga's book includes many such delightful illustrations (that is, mental illustrations), ranging from flying monkeys to the appearance of cacti in surprising geographies. (These descriptions seem delightful to me, at any rate, when compared the usual fare of illustrations found in academic philosophy.)

In the remainder of this review I would like to briefly summarize some of the main lines of argument in the book. Readers unfamiliar with Plantinga's work will hopefully find particular sections or arguments that they would wish to read in more detail. Those already familiar with some of Plantinga's work may examine below to see whether this new book would be of further use to them. Plantinga has made many of these arguments before, both in public speeches and print, but this new book brings it all together in a mature and fairly comprehensive reflection on science and religion. This summary is necessarily short and does not even begin to do justice to Plantinga's reasoning, but I hope that readers will find it helpful.

The first half of the book is taken up with an able defense of Christianity against the charge that it has been disproved or discredited by science. Plantinga considers arguments brought against Christianity from four areas of modern science: evolution, the impossibility of miracles, evolutionary psychology and historical biblical criticism. He concludes that the first two are no threat at all, while the latter two are only mild threats. The first two are no threats because they arise only when philosophical assumptions are imported into to the scientific picture. For instance, evolution is only a problem for Christianity if you import into it the idea that mutations are not just random, but also unguided. A flip of a coin randomly results in either heads or tails. But none of us think that this kind of randomness poses a problem for Christianity.

Likewise, miracles only seem problematic if you import into science the idea that natural laws are unbreakable or exceptionless. But science itself doesn't say this. Science simply describes the way the world operates if nothing interferes with it—that is, if the world is a causally closed system. But science itself doesn't say, and can't say, whether the universe is causally closed. If we have good scriptural reasons to think that God raised Jesus from the dead, the fact that contemporary physics tells us "when outside forces don't interfere, people don't rise from the dead" won't phase us. When miracles occur, there are outside forces in play. In both the chapters on evolution and miracles Plantinga brings forward testimony from highly regarded scientists and philosophers of science to justify his interpretation of what is required by the scientific theories (for example, Elliott Sober, a philosopher of science at the University of Minnesota, is quoted to explain randomness as it is used in the biological sciences).

The final two purported conflicts between science and religion—evolutionary psychology and historical biblical criticism—are only mild threats because they stem from a truncated base of evidence. Both of these branches of inquiry make the methodological assumption that no supernatural entities may figure in their explanations. Because of this, it is hardly surprising that their investigations never end up confirming or even suggesting the existence of a God. Christians, in making their final determination about what to believe, do not need to limit their base of evidence to merely that of certain sciences. They are free to use, and indeed ought to use, the totality of their evidence. That God's existence appears improbable relative to some small subsection of their beliefs (the ones which would be used in an evolutionary psychology account of human action, for example) does not pose a threat to the rationality of Christian belief.

In the second half of the book, Plantinga argues for a deep harmony between Christianity and science and a deep conflict between Naturalism and science. His argument for a deep harmony is both philosophical and historical. Historically, early modern scientists engaged in their scientific inquiries in part because of their conviction that there was a single mind who created the entire universe. This mind is all-powerful and fully rational, and made the universe move according to rational mathematical laws. The simplicity, beauty and rationality of scientific laws are the kinds of thing we would expect from a powerful, loving, personal creator.

Developments in contemporary sciences, both biological and physical, confirm this harmony. In physics, for example, we now understand that many of the fundamental parameters, such as the gravitational constant and the strong force, are finely tuned to allow for carbon-based life. Modest modifications to the parameters make it impossible for living creatures to develop and survive. This provides strong evidence for the hypothesis that a powerful, loving God created the universe with these properties in order to allow for life.

Late in the book, Plantinga devotes a chapter to the contentious question of design in biology, concluding that the evidence of design remains remarkably strong. Biologists such as Michael Behe, author of Darwin's Black Box and the more recent The Edge of Evolution, have argued that many biological systems are so complex and require so many parts to be in place in order to function (this is called irreducible complexity) that their probability of having evolved through some unguided process is vanishingly small. Hence, we have good reason to think that an intelligent being participated in their development. Plantinga gives an updated iteration of this now well-worn argument. As Plantinga sees it, our strong natural propensity to think that things look designed means that the design hypothesis has strong initial support. So, the biological investigation into the origins of various systems is not undertaken with initial neutrality between design and non-design.

The critics of design, then, need to find a way to significantly undercut our strong impression of design, not just introduce some possible or weakly plausible non-design account. In this, "the partisans of Darwinism are tugging the laboring oar. True, there are reasonably plausible Darwinian explanations . . . So we can say that here too we have a partial defeater. But (in my judgment) it is an extremely partial defeater . . . Biological science, so far, anyway, has at best produced weak defeaters for these design beliefs." For those who do not feel such an impulse or inclination to see things as designed, Plantinga offers Behe's work as design "discourse" aimed at getting you into the proper circumstances to make this perception, even if it does not rise to the level of an argument which entails this conclusion.

In the final chapter of the work, Plantinga argues for a conflict between science and Naturalism. The argument centres on how to best explain the reliability of our belief-forming mechanisms (perception, memory, reason and so on). Christianity has a straightforward answer: God either directly created or providentially superintended the development of these faculties and ensured that they are aimed at forming true beliefs. The Naturalist, Plantinga argues, is in a much tougher situation. Because according to Naturalism there is no God or any other being like God, he instead must give a non-theistic evolutionary account of the origin of these faculties. Unguided evolution, though, cannot do the trick. Evolution only selects for survival and reproduction, it does not select for truth. No doubt if Naturalism is true then the belief-forming mechanisms in our brains would have to be ones which help us survive and reproduce, but why think they would also be aimed at the truth? As Plantinga puts it, "All that's required for survival and fitness is that the neurology cause adaptive behavior; this neurology also determines belief content, but whether or not that content is true makes no difference to fitness." To survive and thrive we need to act in certain ways, but that does not ensure that our beliefs will be true. So, the likelihood that our belief-forming mechanisms are reliable is low if Naturalism is true, but decently high if Christianity is true. Hence, science itself conflicts with Naturalism.

As Chesterton argued in Orthodoxy, unrestrained reason turns out not nearly so well as reason within the bounds of religion. The "traditionary faith" so despised by Draper is actually the home and hearth of today's most advanced intellectual thought. So far from being an enemy of robust rationality, Christianity is the context of its greatest expression. Truly, "the heavens are telling the glory of God" (Psalm 19:1), a God who told man to "fill the earth, and subdue it" (Gen 1:28) and who "did not leave Himself without a witness, in that He did good and gave you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness" (Acts 14:17).


David Talcott is an Instructor of Philosophy at The King’s College (NY). He is currently completing his Ph.D. in Philosophy at Indiana University, Bloomington, specializing in Ancient Greek Philosophy. He resides in New Jersey with his wife Anna and five children: Carver, Ellie, Laura, Rose, and Hope.


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