Science, Faith, Conflict and Concord

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.”

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  • Hi Scot, you and your readers might be interested in an interview I did recently with Plantinga on his new book. You can find that interview here:

    I’d love your feedback.


  • Paul W

    “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.)”

    I’d be interested in reading more on this front. Not sure I understand the top-down vs bottom-up distinctions.

    I’m someone who tends to give a fair amount of personal credence to religious intuition and as such I’ve been friendly to the trajectory of Plantinga’s work on warrant and properly basic beliefs.

  • Paul W

    “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.”


    Do you really think the intended QED of this work consists of proving God’s existence? Or perhaps just that if one does moves from naturalism to theism it should be incumbent upon them to do so on the basis of evidence?

    I’ve not seen this book and cannot speak to it accordingly. However, Plantinga’s epistemological projects seem focused more along the lines that it is perfectly legitimate not to try to prove God’s existence. I’ve broadly understood his contention along the lines that if our epistemic faculties are functioning in a healthy manner then we are able to properly and legitimately intuit God without recourse to proofs or evidences.

    In short, for Plantinga, it is fine to believe in God without proofs. And that it is ok to build one’s worldview to include God as a basic assumption (hypothesis, conjecture, postulate etc) at the very start.

  • RJS

    Paul W,

    Scot read this book and wrote the post. I haven’t read the book, at least not yet. From what I know of Plantinga’s work this summary seems accurate though. Doesn’t Plantinga argue that evolution alone gives us no ground for trusting our logic or our deductions?

  • scotmcknight

    Paul W, I agree that is not his intention but without that proof at some level it is harder to agree with what appears to be a sudden belief inserted into the argument. Paul W., yes, I know Plantinga’s properly basic beliefs. It comes off at times as “theism just makes better sense on some of these issues.”

  • scotmcknight

    Paul W., yes, he does claim that evolution gives us no ground for believing that our perceptions match reality. I don’t agree: it seems to me, and I’m open to correction, that evolution worked in such a way that those humans/brains that work in such a way that their perceptions and reality match will survive more easily (and did). That makes just as much sense to me. Appeal to the imago Dei is a great idea, and I agree, but it becomes an assumption.

  • Paul W

    RJS– I should have read the tag line better. Opps.

    Scot– The argument that evolution gives us no ground for believing that our perceptions match reality strikes me as a bit of a stretch too. Once Plantinga steps into the role of critic he volunteers IMHO a greater burden of proof. And so I agree with your uptake on that. Without the empirical arguments it feels like we get cheated out of something substantive.

  • Amos Paul

    I must agree with Paul W that, while having not (yet) read this book, Plantinga is generally very meticulous about *not* believing in God on the basis of some argument(s). Though I must disagree with Paul in adding that doing so isn’t even appropriate. Plantinga argues that it’s not theism at all if you do so (epistemelogically) as it’s commitment to an argument rather than God. The purpose of arguments, then, is merely to give intellectual weight against ‘doubt’ that might crop up against one’s perfectly natural and intuitive sense of God.


    When you say, “It comes off at times as ‘theism just makes better sense on some of these issues.'”

    I must say–that’s likely the point. Philosophical arguments may not ‘do much’ for you. But from what I’ve understood from Plantinga’s previous work is that his Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism [] is mainly aimed at pointing out the absurdity of justifying one’s worldview within a strict naturalist framework. It is entirely a philosophical point that is, on its own, un-related to theism.

    Conversely, arguing that theism *does* justify a scientific worldview quite well is only a demonstration of the explanatory weight of theism. It’s not there to ‘argue’ someone into accepting theism. It’s to contrast the philosophical strength of theistic premise with the lack of strength of an atheistic premise. But, as I said, Plantinga would be philsophically opposed to trying to give people arguments to base their belief in God upon rather than attempting to rely on God Himself directly.

    And, full disclosure, I fully accept Plantinga (and Calvin’s, actually) sensus divinitatis as well as his Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism. I like this summary he presents of the latter in Christianity Today:

    The basic idea, which is far from being original, is that if you are a naturalist and think that we have come to be by evolutionary processes, then you will think that the main purpose of our cognitive processes, our mental faculties, is survival and reproductive fitness, not the production of true belief. Evolution doesn’t give a rip about whether your beliefs are true. It only cares whether or not your actions are adaptive, whether they contribute to your fitness. From the point of view of evolution together with naturalism, you wouldn’t expect that our faculties would be really adjusted to truth or aimed at truth. They would just be aimed at fitness.

    But if this is true, if our minds are aimed at mere survival, not at truth, then it’s not probable that our minds should be reliable—that is, produce an appropriate preponderance of true over false beliefs; and if that is so, then one who believes both naturalism and evolution should reject the thought that our minds are reliable. But that’s a crippling position to be in. Nietzsche is among the people who have suggested this problem. Some contemporary philosophers—Thomas Nagel, for example—have voiced the same worry, and so did Darwin himself.

  • AHH

    Scot, your use of the word “concordist” here is at odds with how it is normally used in science/faith discussions. “Concordism” in these discussions is a hermeneutical term, meaning that Scripture must “line up” with the findings of science. So for example a concordist would not take the 6 “days” of Genesis 1 as a literary construction, but rather must match up the days with either 24-hour days or long ages.
    I can’t immediately decide on a single term you could have used instead — maybe something like “harmonization”.

    That quibble aside, and without having read this book, it seems like there needs to be discussion about what is meant metaphysically by “guided” and “unguided”, since Plantinga is apparently saying “unguided” is incompatible with theism.

    From a Christian standpoint that respects God’s sovereignty over nature, nothing is unguided, in the sense that nothing is outside the realm of God’s providence. So if Plantinga just insists that we affirm God is ultimately in charge of natural processes (like evolution), that’s fine. The problem would come if, as the ID movement does, he wants/needs the “guidance” to be scientifically detectable.
    I guess a test would be whether Plantinga would call the formation of rain (which Scripture credits to God) “guided” or “unguided”, given that it can be fully explained naturally with no reference to God. If he would say “unguided”, would he accuse atmospheric scientists of giving into naturalism? If he would say “guided”, then he should disavow the ID movement’s equation of that with scientific detectability of God’s action.

    His “evolutionary argument against naturalism” has always made me go “huh?”? Surely there is great survival value in being able to figure out things that are true about the world around us. Sure, we can’t prove that our minds give us true beliefs, but we also can’t prove that we aren’t just brains in a vat somewhere.

  • Amos Paul

    “Surely there is great survival value in being able to figure out things that are true about the world around us.”

    And why do you assume this, AHH? Do you expect that animals have true beliefs about the machinations of the world? Or useful ones?

    Utility does not imply true. While truth *may* imply utility–there is no deductive and little inductive reason to suppose that minds adapted on the grounds of fitness must be minds adapted to finding the actual truth of the world.

    We may *hope* this is true. But there’s no way to know and very little justification to trust that it is. And, to clarify, evolution isn’t about creating intellectually ‘rational’ beings. It’s about adapting to changing conditions, which includes the adaptation of how our thinking works. Evolutionary theory does not assert that mankind is intellectually correct about the world, merely that we’ve adapted to the conditions surrounding us and, if those conditions change, we may well die out or change completely. That’s Evolution.

    If all this is so, it gives us very little reason to suppose that we actually *do* (or could) know anything about the truth of the world.

    Moreover, this argument is not against evolution itself–it’s concerning the absurdity of justifying one’s beliefs about evolution and science with a naturalist worldview. It, philsophically speaking, doesn’t really work.

  • Scot, hasn’t Plantinga already done work in proving the existence of God? I’m thinking of God, Freedom, and Evil. If so, why should he repeat such arguments here?

  • scotmcknight

    AHH et al….

    Plantinga uses the word “concord” throughout.

    Yes, I know about his properly basic beliefs stuff, but once one enters into the game of how science and faith relate, and one uses science (as he does) in the Michael Behe fashion, then I think he’s entered into some need for justification outside his basic belief theories.

  • David P

    I’ve just been reading a few chapters of it. I read the Behe chapters. I’m not sure I agree with you Scot that he needs to move beyond the ‘basic belief’ justification for God. That’s his basic premise throughout his work. I think he’s just trying to demonstrate that a theistic worldview could be a better home for science than a naturalist one. When I read him speaking of Behe, I became a lot more sympathetic to Behe than I have been in years – when he changes the thought from argument to discourse, it makes things more compelling. It sounds like you want him to attempt to provide empirical evidence for God since he is interacting sympathetically with Behe. But I see him undercutting, directly, the ID argument that they can *demonstrate* design, particularly when he distinguishes between knowing someone is angry/upset via inductive reasoning vs. the basic sense. I think he’s arguing for something similar to Polkinghorne, where no, I can’t give you a detailed logical proof for God’s existence, but I can show you reasons why a theist outlook makes a lot more sense of the world. I really didn’t find him pro-standard-ID. It’s somewhere in between. It’s much more akin to the anthropic principal type arguments than to what the Discovery Institute espouses. (We probably basically agree here) I admit, I was surprised when he interacted positively with Behe. Shows my own prejudices, I suppose.

    I’m not sure what you mean by this: “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.”” Are you saying that he needs to demonstrate empirically that natural selection need not give you an accurate perception of reality? I’m not sure you could get evidence for that. If natural selection WAS guided, then we wouldn’t have it. 🙂 I think you might be conceding too much ground to the scientists there (full disclosure: my background is biochem).

    Just my two cents.

  • AHH

    Amos @10,

    Plantinga’s argument may require too deep a discussion to have on a blog post, but do you really think rational thought has no survival value? Utility of a belief means that it will work in the current situation. But when the environment changes, the creature with false but useful beliefs will be at a disadvantage compared to one with true beliefs about the world.

    Of course from the perspective of naturalism (which I do not hold) one cannot prove that useful evolved minds will true beliefs. But it strikes me as absurd to assert that such a correspondence is unlikely, that there is “very little reason” for it.

    Now if Plantinga were to just argue that the fact that we seem to be able to form true beliefs concords well with theism, more so than it would with naturalism, I would agree.
    But it sounds like he is saying that his argument disproves naturalism, which strikes me as silly philosophizing no more convincing than the ontological argument for the existence of God (to which I have always had a similar “huh?” reaction).

    But as I said, I have not read Plantinga. I’d be interested to have somebody who has thought at lot about the philosophy of science, like dopderbeck or Justin Topp, weigh in on this.

  • Amos Paul


    ‘Rational’ just means how we think. How do we ‘know’ that we think truly about the world? It’s a philosophical assumption. An intuitive one, I grant you.

    However, again, simply asserting evolution within a totally naturalistic worldview makes no real distinction between a ‘rational’ thinking mind and not. That is, there is no real difference between your mind and an animal’s other than things like complexity, computing capacity, etc.

    If so, what reason do we have to suppose that the way that *our minds* work is the correct truth finding way (especially when evolution is a dynamic, never-ending process with no perfect end)? When we observe animals, we see all their minds working very differently. No two types appear to see or understand the world the same way. And I’m talking substantively different observations of animal thinking rather than simply a steady degree of complexity comprehension. It seems quite presumptuous and inductively weak, in my eyes, to then conclude that the human mind is the ‘correct’ rational machine in that we uniquely have the power to ‘truly’ see and understand the world as it is.

    Indeed! A theistic or at least religious sort of worldview has a certain philosophical form that justifies intuitive and objective truth, structure, or what have you in existence. Conversely, a naturalistic worldview *starts* with the ‘rational’ structure of our minds (that is, how our minds think–we call it logical) and attempts to fit our experience into that grid. It doesn’t justify it. It just does it expecting results. But what of confirmation bias? Our minds would likely find results whether they were ‘true’ or not if it evolved to succeed in working the way it does.

    But what if that grid is wrong? What if, like any other animal, it only developed to help us survive within particular conditions? What if all our science and all our ‘advancement’ is nothing more than humans trying as hard as they can to fit a chaotic and incomprehensible existence into the framework of their own minds?

    From a naturalistic perspective–I see no reason at all to suppose that our minds can or should understand the truth of anything. Doing so is merely useful for us, as our evolutionary theory would posit should be expected. Hume argued much the same when he made the extreme skeptical case of not having any real reason to expect the future to be consistent with the past other than it is useful to our experience. It doesn’t mean it’s right. It’s just a useful component of the experience.

    Philosophically asserting that the future will be like the past or that the utility of our minds must be able understand some truth, however, are both positions that lack justification. By the standards of our own minds, those are bad assertions.

  • David P.

    @ 11. Peter G., I wonder if using the language of “prove existence of God” is the wrong way to think about what he says. I honestly can’t say I’ve read anything much by him at all, just some chapters of the present book. But the overall sense I get is it isn’t about trying to present logical proofs for God’s existence (like Lewis in Mere Christianity); I think it’s a bit more subtle than that. It’s just showing that belief is a) philosophically cogent and b) can, in many cases, make more sense of the world we encounter than can a non-theistic outlook. When I hear the word ‘proof’, I hear it in a positivist sense, and I think that’s pretty far from Plantinga’s type of thinking. I could be very wrong, but that’s the sense I get.