Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism

Written by Alvin Plantinga Reviewed By Justin L. Barrett

It is not uncommon for Christians to feel uncomfortable with contemporary science. The self-appointed public defenders of science often use it to bludgeon religious people. No wonder when the club comes out the faithful reflexively wince. But does it have to be that way? In his new book, eminent philosopher Alvin Plantinga offers a different perspective on the relationship between Christianity (and by extension, some other religions) and contemporary science: not only have the alleged conflicts been exaggerated; there is deep concord between Christianity and science, and there is some ill-fit between naturalism (the rejection of any deity) and science. Christians may embrace science—even evolutionary theory—as a means to refine their understanding of God’s creation. It is the atheist who has a challenge in reconciling his faith with science.

The bulk of this book’s attention is on evolution, but two exceptions merit attention here: the roots of modern science and divine action. Despite the best efforts of historians of science such as John Hedley Brooke and Peter Harrison, it appears that few recognize that the foundation of modern science includes assumptions from Christian theology. Chapter 9 neatly summarizes some of these foundational principles and in doing so shows science-suspicious religious folk that science may be more of a prodigal son than an arch nemesis. Concerning divine action, some theists seem to have a niggling feeling that if God intervened in the world God would be guilty of some kind of inconsistency in character. In two fascinating (but not easy) chapters Plantinga handily dispels these concerns, arguing against theological problems with such a God and against any insurmountable problems in relation to quantum mechanics.

Regarding evolution, Plantinga considers arguments against the compatibility of evolution and theism including those by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Philip Kitcher, and Paul Draper, concluding that none do better than provide very weak evidence against theism that is more than counterbalanced by other considerations having to do with the existence and character of living things. None demonstrate actual inconsistency between the existence of God and evolution by natural selection. A recurring confusion, Plantinga observes, is to take evidence for evolution as evidence for unguided, undirected, or unintended evolution. It is possible that some or all evolution is unguided, but demonstrating that organisms evolve through natural selection operating on mutations does not merit the further metaphysical add-ons. Considering Dawkins’s argument, Plantinga representatively writes, “At best it would show, given a couple of assumptions, that it is not astronomically improbable that the living world was produced by unguided evolution and hence without design” (p. 24). But he goes on to note the obvious: demonstrating that something is not astronomically improbable is a far cry from demonstrating that it is so.

Perhaps Plantinga’s weakest analysis is his examination of evolutionary psychology, including the evolutionary psychology of religion. A cloud of defensiveness floats over the treatment such that Plantinga fails to observe the same extra-scientific philosophical intrusions that he does when considering evolution generally. For instance, Plantinga takes offense unnecessarily at the notion that everything evolutionary psychologists seem to be able to say about music is that it is either an evolutionary byproduct or is adaptive for coordinating human activity. Why be offended unless evolutionary psychology, as a science, is in a position to pass judgments regarding the worth of music? It isn’t. Similarly, many of the examples of “superficial conflict” that Plantinga observes (e.g., D. S. Wilson or S. Guthrie’s approaches to religion) are surely guilty of the same extra-scientific metaphysical add-ons for which Plantinga flags Dawkins and Dennett. Evolutionary psychology proper does not appear to necessarily conflict with theism at all.

The book’s finale is Plantinga’s argument demonstrating that one cannot reasonably hold naturalism and evolution by natural selection simultaneously. Plantinga has been refining this argument for twenty years and here offers a battle-hardened version. The first premise is this: that human cognitive faculties are reliably truth-aimed has a low probability given the conjunction of evolution by natural selection and naturalism. From this start Plantinga argues that the conjunction of evolution and naturalism is self-defeating. If you have no good grounds for trusting your cognitive faculties as truth-aimed, why trust them regarding the truth of evolution? It is the theist who can embrace evolution. Plantinga efficiently addresses many of the criticism raised against this argument. The fair-minded reader will conclude that the argument is at least formidable. Those who do not follow his argument may fear that Plantinga has engaged in philosophical mumbo-jumbo to arrive at such an audacious position. Plantinga seems to anticipate such a reaction and effectively uses a wide range of quotations from prominent atheist scholars in support of his key premise.

Nevertheless, those most needing to hear Plantinga’s message may fail to give it a fair hearing for rhetorical rather than analytical reasons. At times it is not easy to follow without more philosophical training than the average scientist has. Further, Plantinga’s case would have been rhetorically stronger had he spent more time demonstrating where genuine conflicts between modern science (its epistemology and findings) and at least some religious beliefs lie, even if non-Christian ones. Hasn’t science produced at least some defeaters of enough strength to have helped cause the demise of some religious beliefs? Aren’t the foundations of science inconsistent with some theologies?

A surprisingly large number of people regard science and religions as competitors for hearts and minds. If they have the courage to carefully and fairly read Plantinga’s masterful new book, this conflict should be put to rest. With wit and appropriate humility, he convincingly demonstrates that the alleged conflict between at least the sort of theism that characterizes Christianity ranges from trivial to illusory.

Justin L. Barrett

Justin L. Barrett
Fuller Theological Seminary
Pasadena, California, USA

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