I am inclined to think those who already agree with Alvin Plantinga’s projects will think his new book, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism, quite the landmark defense of a concordist approach to science and faith, while those who don’t already agree with Plantinga will remain unconvinced. I’m in the group who is mostly unconvinced. I am a theist; so I agree with many of Plantinga’s conclusions — I too believe God guided the evolutionary process. But for me an apologetic like this needs more than what we get in this book.
To be sure, Plantinga’s arguments are often a marvel of logical force and intricate care, other times his pages are filled with insights, and often they are enveloped in genuine wit, but the QED of this book is the one that nagged at me all the way through: how to prove that God exists when one is talking about science and faith. More often than not, I said to myself: “Good argument if one is a theist. Without that assumption there’s something missing.” Theism, in other words, can explain evolution as the way God works; naturalism contends there is no God and therefore evolution is unguided. I’m not a naturalist; but to get from the second group into the first group requires some argumentation.
The thesis of this book is that theism and evolution (guided to be sure) are in concord and compatible, but evolution and naturalism (unguided evolution) are in deep conflict. In other words, science and faith are compatible; science and naturalism are in conflict. The essence of the problem is that naturalism has no grounds for arguing that God doesn’t exist. Evolution doesn’t reveal — because it can’t — what makes evolution work as it does. It marks the path of evolution. Thus, Plantinga pushes hard the distinction between evolution and naturalism, or what some on this blog call scientism (the view that science, and science alone, can explain everything). Naturalism is what he calls an “add-on”: it adds “unguided” and “no God” to the evolutionary process and then explains evolution without recourse to God and, at times, by arguing it proves there is no God. Evolution can’t do that because it is designed merely to describe what is in the genetic codes of the universe. It should talk about what it can; when it goes beyond that it becomes no-longer-science. It becomes metaphysics. One must ask, however, if what we have at times in this book is simply my explanation vs. your explanation.
Where the Conflict Really Lies is the printed form of the well-known Gifford Lectures (2005). Plantinga subjects Dawkins and Dennett and Draper to withering criticism for metaphysical add-ons to their evolutionary theories, and contends that the real problem is not between science (evolution) and faith, for a person of faith can believe in evolution because a person of faith can argue that God guided evolution. Evolution does not require the add-on of unguided because science can’t know such. He also argues that quantum mechanics alters the old Newtonian simplicities of how the universe works, and therefore changes the whole discussion of “special revelation” and “intervention” and “miracle.”
Plantinga studies two elements he thinks are “superficial conflicts”: namely, evolutionary psychology, where he examines Mother Teresa’s altruism as a defeater for ordinary ways of thinking about evolution and how morals develop, and he also examines biblical critical scholarship as arguing for a conclusions that are inconsistent with classic Christian faith. A more thorough study of what history can achieve would have set biblical criticism in context.
He embraces a deep concord between science and faith in the fine-tuning argument (anthropic principle), and is in support of Michael Behe’s irreducible complexity arguments. He thinks it wiser to articulate all of this as design discourse instead of design argument. That is, we perceive some things as designed. I wonder (aloud here) if moving this to discourse actually pushes against intelligent design and moves us closer to Polkinghorne’s bottom-up approach to science and faith. (Plantinga is, as I read him, a top-down guy.)
Deep concord, so he argues, is also found in the capacity of humans to know this world reliably and truly. That is, he contends theism better explains – on the basis of the image of God in us — a world made of natural “laws” and that we can know these laws and that we can live in confidence in this world because of what we know. He roots this in the image of God: and here he relies on the older way of understanding “image of God,” namely as intellectual. (More recent studies see the image of God as relational and, even more, as describing humans as representing God. So, intellectual capacities aren’t the main focus. There’s an irony in this book in how he understands “image of God,” but it is not fatal since he’s using a traditionalist viewpoint.)
The deepest conflict between naturalism and evolutionary science is that naturalism cannot convincingly establish that our minds can give us true beliefs about the world.
Philosophical arguments about material realities don’t do much for me. So when he deconstructs some evolutionary or naturalist arguments with logic alone, without material or empirical or inductive arguments, I say to myself “Interesting, but this is the time we let the scientists talk.”
I found more editorial errors in this OUP book than any OUP I’ve ever read.