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The Apparent Anti-thesis Between Science & Religion Examined
on December 21, 2011
Alvin Plantinga is back for his third very resilient attempt at confuting naturalism via the theory of evolution.
From his science vs. religion exposition, Plantinga relaunches his Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN) in this popular-level volume: "Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism." Much has changed in twenty years, from the non-theistic cast to the bombastic rants of the New Atheists, but the big change is the sundry ways atheists have attacked theism including the philosophically naïve abjuration of Plantinga's EAAN.
As a high-volume reviewer of apologetic books, I am regularly sent books and E-files that I review on Amazon. The prominent and the unknown scholars behind these philosophical and apologetic works claim to defeat non-theism and attempt to argue faithfully for Christian truth.
Some contain arguments that lack precision as they often take too much for granted when approaching sophisticated unbelieving thought. I have not given their contentions much weight, but their apparent unsupported disputations make books like "Where the Conflict Really Lies" that much more gratifying.
Herein, Alvin Plantinga offers insightful analysis that defies many of our presumptions of what science is and how religion relates to it.
Much of the territory Plantinga surveys will be familiar to philosophers, epistemologists, and apologists, yet less theoretically oriented readers are likely to find it assessable and intriguing--and often related with creditable simplicity.
The central proposal of this work is that the true conflict is not between theism and science, but is between naturalism and science.
Some Christian theists, in selected ways, feel a bit troubled by nominated aspects of modern science. Some non-theists believe that as science progresses theism must depart. But this apparent antithesis--between science and religion--is not logically genuine. The real debate is between truth and error as the author utilizes clear argumentation and numerous illustrations that demonstrate pure naturalism lacks the ontic status and conceptual framework to justify the reliability of human reason.
Plantinga, one of the foremost living philosophers and rock climbing partner of Bas van Frassen, not only answers the detractors, he also patiently demonstrates how to appropriately relate scientific truth with religious truth; seeing an unchanging, omniscient, and rational God in both.
The author reveals that the actual problem between theism and science is one of misunderstanding, tacit assumptions, incorrect definitions, and improper applications: "Here we have another important source of the continuing debate between science and religion. This confusion or alleged connection between Darwinism and unguided Darwinism is one of the most important, perhaps the most important, source of continuing conflict between science and religion. If you confuse Darwinism with unguided Darwinism, a confusion Dennett makes and Dawkins encourages, you will see science and religion as in conflict at this point. ... This confusion between Darwinism and unguided Darwinism is a crucial cause of the continuing debate. Darwinism, the scientific theory, is compatible with theism and theistic religion; unguided Darwinism, a consequence of naturalism, is incompatible with theism, but isn't entailed by the scientific theory. It is instead a metaphysical or theological add-on."
Chapter One is an outline of Plantinga's proposal "to look into the alleged conflict between religion and science; most of the alleged conflicts, however, have to do with theism, belief that there is such a person as God, rather than doctrines..." (P. 3). He sketches relevant ideas from Darwin and Dennett, but focuses his metaphysical punctilio on Dawkins as he argues that there is no true conflict between the theory of evolution and theism. He contends that many modern Darwinians mistakenly conflate distinct philosophical notions when they contend that if evolution, then not theism. The author closes this chapter: "The conclusion can be drawn, I think, is that Dawkins gives us no reason whatever to think that current biological science is in conflict with Christian belief. His reasoning was not impressive" (pp. 30-31).
As Plantinga exposes Dawkins' philosophical ineptitude, he quotes him: "All appearances to the contrary, the only watchmaker in nature is the blind forces of physics, albeit deployed in a very special way.... Natural selection, the blind, unconscious automatic process which Darwin discovered, and which we now know is the explanation for the existence and apparently purposeful form of all life, has no purpose in mind.... It has no vision, no foresight, no sight at all. If it can be said to play the role of watchmaker in nature, it is the blind watchmaker" (Dawkins: The Blind Watchmaker). At that juncture Plantinga observes: "The subtitle of Dawkins' book: `Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design.' Plantinga queries: "Why does Dawkins think natural selection is blind and unguided? Why does he think that "the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design?'" Plantinga exposes Dawkins' non sequitur concerning evolution: "Dawkins utterly fails to show that `the facts of evolution reveal a universe without design;' still the fact that he and others assert his subtitle loudly and slowly, as it were, can be expected to convince many that the biological theory of evolution is in fact incompatible with the theistic belief that the living world has been designed. Another source of the continuing debate, therefore, is the mistaken claim on the part of such writers as Dawkins that the scientific theory implies that the living world and human beings in particular have not been designed and created by God."
The subsequent chapter examines the philosophical flaws of Dennett's rigid naturalism that asserts "the living world with all its beauty and wonder, all of its marvelous and ingenious design, was not created or designed ... but produced by a random ... blind... process" (p. 31). After discussing Dennett's arguments, Plantinga perceives: "The scientific theory of evolution as such is not incompatible with Christian belief; what is incompatible with it is the idea that evolution, natural selection, is `unguided.' But that idea isn't part of evolutionary theory as such; it's instead a metaphysical or theological addition" (p. 63).
Chapter Three discusses a thought-provoking topic: the notion that "many theologians, scientists, and philosophers hold that special divine action in the world--causing a miracle, for example--is incompatible with science." But this claim "together with the hands-off theology to which it gave rise is no doubt popular, but it suffers from a common if unhappy condition: it is wholly mistaken" (p. 91). This is correct inasmuch as "classical science is perfectly consistent with special divine action" (p. 90). If one aims to remain philosophically, ontically, and epistemically accurate one must know that one cannot find a real "conflict between classical science and religion," but they are "perfectly consistent" (p. 90).
In the next chapter the author argues that the new scientific picture, including quantum mechanics, offers "even less of a problem for divine special action than classical science, even though the latter doesn't offer much of a problem" (p. 91). He places contemporary scientific research and discoveries under the bright light of demarcated and precise philosophical insights to demonstrate that "we have found no conflict between Christian or theistic beliefs and current science" (p. 125).
The ensuing essay examines the claims of evolutionary psychology and demonstrates that it lacks the metaphysical capacity to deliver a defeater for Christian theism (pp. 129-160). This in turn leads to the Chapter apropos defeaters. He argues that there seems to be a rational defeater for naturalism even as a basic belief inasmuch as one could "have a certain belief which you formed in the basic way and then you learn one way or another that the belief is wrong. I might look at a mountain goat and I might look at a spot 600 yards away and think, `There's a mountain goat there.' Then as I walk towards it I discover that it's just a patch of snow. I formed the original belief in the basic way; I didn't argue to it, I just looked over that way and thought, `Oh there's a mountain goat.' And then I found out I was wrong. So I have a defeater for it. The defeater in this case was my perception that it's a patch of snow as I got closer to it." Plantinga elucidates: "I argue that Simonian science doesn't give a Christian a defeater for the beliefs with which it is incompatible, because the evidential basis of science is just part of the Christian evidential basis; my point here is that this doesn't imply that a Christian can never get a defeater for one of his religious beliefs" (p. 186). He adds: "I'm claiming more strongly that, at least by implication, that it's not the case that science is not a probabilistic defeater for Christian belief. It's not the case that given the existence of science, that somehow makes Christian belief less probable or in some way undercuts it. So it's not just that there's no logical conflict but also that there's no probabilistic conflict either between science and theism."
The author turns to the controversial issue of the fine-tuning argument (FTA) in the next chapter and contends that "the FTA offers some slight support for theism. It does offer support, but only mild support"(p. 224). Various theists from sundry positions will have strong disinclinations concerning this conclusion. Plantinga at that point opines: "A design argument would proceed with premises and proceed to the conclusion that something or other has been designed. Another way that this could go, though, would be that one could simply perceive design. You form the belief that there is design here in the basic way: you're not arguing to it but you just look at it and find yourself with that belief. Francis Crick for example, who is no friend of theism, says that that everything looks so designed that a biologist has to constantly remind himself, `It's not designed, it's not designed! It just evolved!'"
The following chapter on design and irreducible complexity relates to the preceding essay but yields essential distinctions. Plantinga contends that on the balance "Behe's design discourses do not constitute irrefragable arguments for theism, or even for the proposition that the structures he considers have in fact been designed. Taken not as arguments but as design discourses they fare better, they present us with epistemic situations in which the rational response is design belief--design belief for which there aren't strong defeaters. The proper conclusion to be drawn, I think, is that Behe's design discourses do support theism, although it isn't easy to say how much support they offer" (p. 264).
Chapter Ten offers Plantinga's most recent explication of the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN). Prior to his central critique of naturalism he makes the case that "theistic religion gives us a reason to expect our cognitive capacities to match the world in such a way as to make modern science possible" (p. 303).
The claim by the New Atheists that the course of evolution is unguided, deficient of teleology "despite its strident proclamation, is not part of the scientific theory as such; it is instead a metaphysical or theological add-on. On the one hand there is the scientific theory; on the other, the metaphysical add-on, according to which the process is unguided... The second supports naturalism, all right, but is not part of science, and does not deserve the respect properly awarded science. And the confusion of the two--confusing the scientific theory with the result of annexing that add-on to it, ... deserves not respect, but disdain" (p. 309).
Plantinga argues that naturalism is in conflict with evolution as he deems naturalism a "quasi-religion;" this in part means the "real conflict lies not between science and naturalism" (pp. 310-311). From the perspective of theism our cognitive "faculties are indeed for the most part reliable," but "suppose you are a naturalist: you think that there is no such person as God, and that we and our cognitive faculties have been cobbled together by [unguided] natural selection. Can you then sensibly think that our cognitive faculties are for the most part reliable? I say you can't. The basic idea of my argument follows: First, the probability of our cognitive faculties being reliable, given naturalism and evolution, is low. ... If I believe in both naturalism and evolution, I have a defeater for my intuitive assumption that my cognitive faculties are reliable. If I have a defeater for that belief, however, then I have a defeater for any belief I take to be produced by my cognitive faculties. That means that I have a defeater for my belief that naturalism and evolution are true. So my belief that naturalism and evolution are true gives me a defeater for that very belief" (pp. 312-14). He then quotes non-theists Nagel, Stroud, and Churchland in support (p. 315).
"If we came to believe that our capacity for objective theory [true beliefs, e.g.] were the product of natural selection, that would warrant serious skepticism about its results" (Thomas Nagel).
"There is an embarrassing absurdity in [naturalism] that is revealed as soon as the naturalist reflects and acknowledges that he believes his naturalistic theory of the world .... I mean he cannot say it and consistently regard it as true" (Barry Stroud).
The author notes that a universal defeater is a "defeater for every belief, including that belief, including itself [N&E]. Suppose I believe I've taken a drug that destroys cognitive reliability. If I believe that, then I have a defeater for R in that case and for every belief that I hold including that one. As long as I believe that, I've got a universal defeater. As long as you believe N&E and the probability of R on N&E is low, you have a defeater for everything, any belief you have; including N&E. That means you can't reason your way out of it."
Plantinga further develops his EAAN: "What evolution underwrites is only (at most) that our behavior is reasonably adaptive to the circumstances in which our ancestors found themselves; hence it does not guarantee mostly true or verisimilitudinous beliefs; but there is no particular reason to think they would be: natural selection is interested, not in truth, but in appropriate behavior. ... Indeed, Darwin himself expresses serious doubts along these lines: `With me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man's mind, which has been developed from the mind of lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey's mind?'" (pp. 315-316).
The author then presses: "I want to argue that the naturalist has a powerful reason against [the assumption of cognitive reliability] and should give it up. I don't mean to argue that this natural assumption is false; like everyone else, I believe that our cognitive faculties are, in fact, mostly reliable. What I do mean to argue is that the naturalist--at any rate a naturalist who accepts evolution--is rationally obliged to give up this assumption" (p. 326).
Plantinga makes the following vital distinction a focus: "We are not asking about how things are, but about what things should be like if both evolution and naturalism (construed as including materialism) were true. We are asking about P(R/N&E), not about P(R/the way things actually are). Like everyone else, I believe that our cognitive faculties are for the most part reliable, and that true beliefs are more likely to issue in successful action than false. But that's not the question. The question is what things would be like if N&E were true" (pp. 335-336). This devastates materialistic naturalism as per a powerful defeater for N&E. Christians can, on even unaffirmed evolutionary presuppositions, defeat naturalism with epistemic simplicity. And yes, some devout evolutionary naturalists will declare that they are not persuaded. However, proof is not persuasion and N&E has been given a metaphysical deathblow by the hands of an eminent Christian philosopher. May concrete-minded science buffs as well as new atheist-types be inspired to study philosophy and epistemology as they leave N&E behind.
This is a book that needed to be written; a popular work by a scholar who often writes books that seem to be abstruse to the general reader. It is one of the best books I have read that tackles many of the artificial difficulties between the relationship of science and religion. Plantinga writes in a simple, straightforward manner, yet covers significant issues comprehensively and with reassuring philosophical detail and scholarly research. Lucid, buoyant, and very conversant, this book is the one of the best defenses of theism within Darwinian presuppositions. Since this volume places the assumption of unguided evolution under the scrutiny of rigorous philosophical analysis, it is a must-read for apologists, naturalists, and Christian philosophers; I know of no other volume like this one, and it ought to be compulsory reading in university and seminary courses.
I employ a different apologetic methodology, a dissimilar epistemic emphasis, and I have many theological convictions that diverge from the author's; nevertheless, Plantinga's EAAN is a potent tool when deployed from the Christian Worldview.
By Mike Robinson,
Author of "Truth, Knowledge, and the Reason for God"