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Book Review: Where the Conflict Really Lies

Where The Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism by Alvin Plantinga


This review has been a long time coming. I first heard of Alvin Plantinga and his "evolutionary argument against naturalism" several years ago. I was impressed by the original paper, and when I heard that he wrote a whole book on it, I was quite excited. As a defender of the Christian worldview, I constantly come across skeptics who believe that there is a glaring conflict between science and faith. I have defended the complete compatibility of modern science with the claims of Christianity using the sciences and some philosophy. My reading "Where the Conflict Really Lies" by Alvin Plantinga is an attempt to expand my philosophical defense. Is it successful? This review will provide a chapter-by-chapter summary of the book that will conclude with my thoughts.

Part 1: Alleged Conflict

Chapter 1: Evolution and Christian Belief (1)

Plantinga begins by explaining that over the centuries many people have claimed there is conflict between science and Christianity. The only thing that has changed is the source of the claimed conflict- biology not astronomy. He explains it is important to define our terms in order to properly identify any conflict. He uses common affirmations of the historic Christian creeds regarding creation as a source for the minimum necessary claims of Christianity: God is the creator. As for science, he takes the current scientific theory and breaks it into its mere components: an ancient earth, rise in complexity of life over time, descent with modification, common ancestry, naturalistic mechanisms, and naturalistic origin of life. He explains that conflict has been alleged between the first scientific thesis (an ancient earth) and the interpretation of the Bible by some Christians, but since age is not part of the Christian creeds, he concludes that the conflict is merely superficial and not actual.

Richard Dawkins is one scientist who also alleges great conflict between science and the Bible. Plantinga addresses Dawkins' argument that modern evolutionary theory has revealed a universe without design. He shows that while Dawkins may be able to envision a general naturalistic mechanism to get complex systems, he has not proposed a detailed map from the simple to the complex, nor has he provided any scientific evidence of the details of a mechanism that would produce the specific points on the map. Plantinga also addresses Dawkins' appeals to probability and the claim that God, Himself, would require a designer. He concludes that Dawkins has not demonstrated that evolution (even if it is correct) can take place independent of an intelligent agent guiding the process.

Chapter 2: Evolution and Christian Belief (2)

Next Plantinga turns his attention to the work of Daniel Dennett. Dennett's primary claim is that evolution (and naturalism) can explain humanity's reasoning capabilities, artistic expressions, and religious and moral tendencies; thus a Designer is unnecessary. His defense of this claim comes in the form of producing a natural pathway that evolution could have followed to end with those attributes. Plantinga takes issue with this one two counts. The first is that no such pathway has been offered by Dennett (much like Dawkins' in the first chapter). Second, it is not logically possible to get from an organism without those attributes to one with them within the limits of a naturalistic universe. Plantinga goes into great detail explaining how both of these are the case. He also reiterates from the first chapter that the observations of scientists can only speak to a naturalistic pathway (if one, in fact, exists), but it does not speak to whether or not the trip down that pathway was guided or unguided. Dennett's claims do not stand, and even if his evidence for a pathway was valid, it still would not rule out a Designer.

The Enlightenment brought claims that evolution and religion are incompatible based on the idea that death and suffering existed for millions of years before humanity was created (a necessary feature of evolution). Plantinga briefly offers a theodicy (a way to reconcile evil with a good God), but he emphasizes that the reader may not agree with the theodicy and still has questions. However, he explains that all that a person needs to recognize is that if it is possible for God to have a good reason to permit death and suffering (as is a common claim to address the problem of death and suffering existing today), then it may also be applied to death and suffering existing before humanity was created (God could have a reason). Thus the idea that death and suffering are incompatible with religion is also false.

Chapter 3: Divine Action in the World: The Old Picture

Many skeptics believe that interaction with the world from outside it is not possible. This would mean that if God exists, He cannot affect our universe, so they still would hold to an incompatibility between science and religion. Plantinga explains that according to the Christian concept of God, He is a person. This means that He has knowledge, affections, purposes, and acts according to those three. Thus God has created the world, conserves the world, and governs the world. God created the world to operate according to the laws He put in place at the world's creation, but that does not mean that He cannot or does not act within this world apart from its conservation of it. The problem, as proposed by skeptics using the classical view of science, is that since the world is governed by fixed laws and science depends upon these laws being fixed, then any action from outside the universe would necessarily break the laws and would break science, so they hold that God's intervening in the world is not compatible with science.

There have been two views historically on this among scientists. The Newtonian view holds that the universe is a causally closed system. This means that the universe acts according to laws of nature when an outside force is not working in the system. It does not hold that the system is ontologically closed but merely causally closed. This allows for interaction by God and science to reliably operate in this world. The Laplacean view differs from the Newtonian view in that it holds that every natural state of the world is necessarily dependent upon the previous natural state, thus introducing ontological determinism and ontological closedness. This removes the possibility of any agency acting in the world (not just God, but human agency), thus it remains firm in the conclusion that God's interaction with the world is not compatible with science, and science cannot be compatible with religion. The Laplacean view introduced a philosophical feature (necessary dependency on prior physical events), so it is not the science that necessitates the incompatibility on this view, the incompatibility is sustained only through philosophy. So, on the classical scientific view (Newtonian view), science and religion are not incompatible.

Chapter 4: The New Picture

The Newtonian view, though, has been superseded by quantum mechanics. This view introduces a new challenge to the compatibility of theism and science. The challenge comes, as opposed to the causally-closed Newtonian view, in the opposite form of indeterminacy. Rather than outcomes being fully predictable (deterministic) with knowledge of past events and the laws that govern those events, (as long as the system is currently causally closed), quantum mechanics only allows for probabilistic predictability with enough possibilities that the outcome's predictability is practically impossible. Without predictability of how nature would operate in a causally closed system, there is no way to positively identify when an anomaly (miracle or intervention) has taken place.

Plantinga explains that this indeterminacy is not necessarily incompatible with God's intervening in the world. One view of quantum mechanics posits that in the multiplicity of possible outcomes for a series of events, one must be landed upon, but it seems that the "decision" is made without any cause. Plantinga offers that instead of positing "no cause" that the cause of the choice of which event will manifest is actually God. Meaning that any time a quantum indeterminacy exists, God decides. This view can be "amplified" from the quantum level to the macro level to culminate in the miracles that we see. This idea allows for God to intervene in nature without violating any law within it. And this view could even be extended to other free agents (such as humans). So, there is still no necessary incompatibility between science and religion.

Part 2: Superficial Conflict

Chapter 5: Evolutionary Psychology and Scripture Scholarship

So far the discussion has focused on areas of science where conflict with religion (Christianity, specifically) is alleged but does not actually exist. Plantinga now turns to two scientific areas where conflict does, indeed, exist. He begins by examining modern evolutionary psychology, specifically the claims of its proponents to have explained the origins of religious belief and practice. He goes over several different views regarding religious origins and explains that each one has a feature that places it in direct conflict with Christianity. All the views commonly hold that all religious belief is false, but they vary on how it evolved- whether it was selected directly for fitness or not, or whether it served as some psychological "crutch" or not. While some versions of these views may be compatible with Christianity (if the conflicting portion of the view is removed), they nevertheless in their common form are in conflict.

The second area is historical biblical criticism. This view takes the Bible as any other historical document and evaluates its claims from a perspective of methodological naturalism. The various views subordinate to this discipline all hold that one cannot assume the existence of God or even the supernatural realm, thus they conclude that all the supernatural claims of the Bible (including its inspiration, and thus authority) are not accurately reported. Since historical biblical criticism begins with the assumption of agnosticism (thus cannot allow for supernatural events to be accurately reported), it too stands in direct conflict with Christianity.

Chapter 6: Defeaters?

In the last chapter, Plantinga examined two disciplines of science that do, indeed, conflict with Christianity. The question now is, "do these conflicts constitute defeaters of the Christian worldview?" He begins by explaining the two kinds of defeaters. One defeater is identified by the receipt of new information that directly contradicts a belief; the second is the receipt of new information that removes the belief from being the exclusive explanation of something else. He also explains that conflicts can exist when only a certain more of one's "evidence base" is considered. The evidence base is the collection of beliefs regarding what is true. When some new information is received, it may be in conflict with a portion of the evidence base, but when the full evidence base is considered the conflict may become problematically inconsequential or even disappear completely.

Plantinga explains that with regards to evolutionary psychology and historic, biblical criticism that both of these disciplines limit their evidence base to only a portion of the full knowledge base of the Christian. While both do have conflicts with Christianity, those conflicts are only superficial because they do not take into consideration the full evidence base available to the Christian. When the full evidence base is considered, they do not come even close to offering defeaters for Christian beliefs. Plantinga recognizes and addresses in detail the challenges to this way of dealing with conflicts. He concludes that even with the challenges raised, evolutionary psychology and historic biblical criticism offer no threat to the Christian's view of the world.

Part 3: Concord

Chapter 7: Fine-Tuning

One of the areas of science where there is great concord with the claims of theism is in the fine-tuning of the physical laws and various features of the universe for life. Plantinga provides several examples and explains how they provide evidence for a designer of the universe. This argument has been met with four challenges, and Plantinga addresses each of them in detail. The first challenge attempts to explain away the fine-tuning by saying that we would not be here to observe the fine-tuning if the universe was not fine-tuned for life. While this is true, it only states what is already known and does not offer an explanation for the fine-tuning. The second challenge is more technical, dealing with the probability portion of the argument. The challenge is that the probabilities of the numerous possible alternatives do not add up to equal 100% probability because there is no upper limit (an actually infinite number) to the values of the various quantities in the physical laws. Plantinga shows how this is incorrect when more features of probabilities are taken into account.

The third challenge is the alternative explanation of the multiverse. The claim is that an infinite number of universes exist with different values for the laws of physics, and we just happen to be in the one that is fine-tuned for life (this one addresses the lack of an explanation in the first challenge). Plantinga explains that while it is true that in a multiplicity of universes one of them would likely produce a fine-tuned universe, but the question of probability is not about any universe being fine-tuned but this universe being fine-tuned. So this does not provide a challenge to the argument. The final challenge is that probabilities of the various values cannot even be assigned with any level of certainty. Plantinga grants this but offers that this is not the only way that the argument from fine-tuning is presented. Ultimately Plantinga does grant that while the argument from fine-tuning is best explained by theism, it is not an extremely persuasive argument for theism.

Chapter 8: Design Discourse

Plantinga turns from design at the macro scale to design at the micro scale: biochemistry. He appeals to the works of William Paley and Michael Behe in his descriptions of the "watch-maker argument" and irreducible complexity. Both authors observed that similar levels of form, function, and complexity can be found in both human-made systems and biological/biochemical systems. These are often used in two different ways to argue for a designer of the natural systems: the first is by analogy, and the second is by inference to the best explanation. Plantinga explains both approaches along with the common critiques of each. While he does not believe that any of the critiques have completely undermined either approach, he does believe that they are not as compelling as once thought.

However, Plantinga offers that both Paley and Behe should not be seen as offering arguments for design but rather recognizing design. He explains that the perception of design is properly basic. This means that we do not necessarily need an argument to have warrant (justification) for believing that we have perceived design. Just as a person does not need an argument to be justified in believing that he/she has accurately perceived instances of other minds, a person does not need an argument to be justified in believing that he/she has accurately perceived an instance of design. Since there is no argument being made, the critiques he described earlier do not apply. However, to be sure that he is not accused of offering some unfalsifiable support for intelligent design, Plantinga goes into detail about how, indeed, such beliefs can be defeated. He also observes that no critique meets the criteria of a defeater, so he believes that his "design discourse" is on solid ground, thus modern scientific discoveries in biochemistry are in concordance with religion.

Chapter 9: Deep Concord: Christian Theism and the Deep Roots of Science

Even though there can be some concord between science and theistic religion found in design arguments and discourse, that is not where the deepest concord exists. Plantinga offers seven different areas where science and religion not just agree but have extremely tight connections: the divine image in humanity, reliability and regularity of nature, scientific law, mathematics, induction, simplicity, and empirical science.

He explains how science is deeply connected to each of the seven. The Divine Image gives man the desire and cognitive resources to know and discover what is true about the world. Theism teaches that God governs His creation with regularity and reliability, so there is a legitimate reason to trust repeated observations and experiments of nature. The mechanism of that governance is the laws that God set in place at the moment of creation. Those laws can be described using mathematics, which is independent of the physical universe. Since humans can trust their reasoning and the universe acts according to set laws, we can learn from experience, which can verify and test mathematical models of the laws of creation. Being created in the Image of God, humans value simplicity and beauty in our theories, which, in the context of all the evidence, is usually an excellent test for the plausibility of a theory. Finally, being created in the Image of God gives our senses reliability. This is necessary if we are to rely upon the empirical to give us information about the world. In these seven areas, the ability to even conduct science is found to be greatly indebted to theism.

Part 4: Deep Conflict

Chapter 10: The Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism

Now, contrast all the above with naturalism. Plantinga posits that when that is done, not only is theism in deep concord with science, but naturalism is in deep conflict with science. In this final chapter, Plantinga presents his evolutionary case against the rationality of naturalism. He argues that if someone believes both naturalism and evolution the probability of the reliability of our cognitive faculties is low enough to offer a defeater for the reliability of any belief that we hold, including the beliefs that naturalism and evolution are true. He offers the argument in five steps and presents a case for each of the four premises. He addresses common challenges to each of the premises and addresses other defeaters for his final conclusion. He is careful to explain that he affirms the reliability of our cognitive faculties and believes that everyone (even the naturalist) should too, but that that logically compels one to surrender their naturalistic view or to commit to the general unreliability of cognitive faculties and any belief that is dependent upon them. Plantinga concludes the book by explaining that there is no significant conflict between science and religion (rather there exists great concord), but that the conflict really lies between naturalism and evolution.

Reviewer's Thoughts

"Where the Conflict Really Lies" was a challenging but rewarding read. The fact, that Plantinga grants, for the sake of argument, the essentials of evolutionary theory and demonstrates how theologically there is not any necessary conflict between it and the Christian worldview, really helps to frame the reader's understanding of how to respond to claims that evolution has "proven" Christianity false. He shows that the two can be held simultaneously without conflict, and leaves the reader to decide whether the evidence actually supports the evolutionary mechanism of creation or not. For the defender of the Christian worldview this really helps to widen the door for science/faith discussions with skeptics. Skeptics are already on the defensive about the overall worldview, if the issue of evolution can be set aside for the moment ("moment") to show the case for Christianity, they will be more open to its truth Many skeptics, though they may be open to God's existence, are not keen on giving up the theory of evolution. The brilliance of the defense against naturalism by Plantinga is that he uses the belief in evolution to argue for his conclusion.

This book is quite philosphically deep and not for the beginner. I do not believe that I would have understood even half of the book had I picked it up when I first heard of Plantinga's argument. So, I do offer a word of caution there. Of course, there is nothing to stop the reader from reading it a second or third time, each with deeper understandings to gain more from the book. I do highly recommend this book for anyone involved in science/faith discussions. Whether these discussions are with skeptics or with fellow Christians (such as those who hold to theisitic evolution or evolutionary creationism). Deep and challenging thinking rarely scares off my readers, so if you have read this far and have not picked up this book yet, go get it!