A Must Read: Plantinga’s Gifford Lectures: “Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism”

A Must Read: Plantinga’s Gifford Lectures: “Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism” December 7, 2012

A Must Read: Plantinga’s Gifford Lectures: Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, & Naturalism

Recently I wrote about a long forgotten and neglected theology book that has fortunately been taken out of the “cemetery of forgotten books” and republished (Adrio König’s Here Am I!) right now I am about half way through a book that should never suffer that fate (and need such a resurrection). Well known Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga delivered Gifford Lectures at St. Andrews University in 2005; Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, & Naturalism (Oxford University Press, 2011)is based on those lectures. Plantinga states his central thesis thus: “there is superficial conflict but deep concord between science and theistic religion, but superficial concord and deep conflict between science and naturalism.” (p. ix)

Obviously, since I have not finished the book (it’s not an easy read and must be read slowly) I cannot review it thoroughly. My intention here is only to recommend it. I also confess that I’m not expert enough in either philosophy or science to evaluate it thoroughly competently. All I can say is that I have so far not found any flaw or fault in Plantinga’s arguments and would like to know what those are if anyone thinks he or she has found one or more. For the most part, the author is providing philosophical arguments to support what I and most other conservative (very broadly defined) Christians have always believed—that there is no essential conflict between true science, that is science when it is true, and essential, that is “mere,” Christian theism.

I picked up this book with a bit of reluctance for two reasons. First, I’m not that excited about apologetics or philosophical theism. My own theological orientation trends more toward what evangelical theologian Donald G. Bloesch infelicitously called “fideistic revelationism” or “revelational fideism” (I don’t remember which but either phrase could describe it). That is, I tend to agree with Pascal about the God of the philosophers not being the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” and with Kierkegaard that authentic Christianity is always a leap of faith, a risk, involving commitment that transcends reason. However, I also tend to think that Christianity cannot be irrational and that the proper role of apologetics is to demonstrate that. There I agree with, for example, Hans Küng in Does God Exist? An Answer for Today. Küng argues that belief in God, especially the Christian God, is not amenable to rationalism. That is, there are no and need not be absolute, knock-down, drag-out proofs of God’s existence such that anyone who thinks otherwise is being irrational. However, Küng argues, and I agree, that, overall and in general, believing in God is more consistent with reason insofar as nihilism is not an option than atheism. I think reason can be an ally of Christian faith in removing the false stumbling blocks modernity has put in the path to faith.

Plantinga’s book is of that nature. That is, it does not seem to be an exercise in critical rationalism (a lá Popper) or even foundationalism but an exercise in Reformed epistemology. According to Plantinga, it can be shown rationally that belief in God is rationally justified basic belief that needs no proof (like belief in other minds) and that so far, anyway, nothing true in philosophy or science has undermined belief in God.

Plantinga’s basic argument can be summed up this way: All the alleged scientific and philosophical arguments against belief in God and miracles are presuppositional and perspectival. Nothing that is truly scientific about science, for example, undermines belief in God or miracles. All that atheists can base allegedly scientific arguments against God on are philosophical, “worldviewish,” metaphysical add ons to science that carry no more weight than belief in God itself. The same can be said for miracles. Nothing about either Newtonian science or quantum physics really conflicts with belief in miracles. All the objections raised against miracles, including those by modern naturalistic theologians (e.g., Bultmann), are of a non-scientific nature.

Ultimately, what Plantinga is demonstrating step-by-step, very logically, is that there is no real conflict between real science and Christian theism, including miracles but only between naturalism and Christian theism and that not only is naturalism not essential to science, it is actually in conflict with science!

Now, as I said, all I really want to do here is recommend Plantinga’s book. I’m not going to get into the details of his arguments. I happen to think they are valid. But I do want to mention one specific point he makes on pages 52-54. In this section of Chapter 2 “Evolution and Christian Belief” Plantinga asks (and answers) “Why Do People Doubt Evolution?” Here he suggests that one major reason is because leading evolutionists have wrongly linked evolution with naturalism such that (they have implied if not outrightly stated) the two are inseparable. Leading evolutionary theorists and popularizers of evolution have wrongly taught that in order to accept evolution one must reject God as playing any role in designing and guiding the processes of emergence of life forms. Because this idea, that either atheism or deism is necessary for belief in evolution, has caught on, the believing public has to a very large extent reacted against evolution. “The vast majority of Americans are Christians, and many more (some 88 or 90 percent, depending on the poll you favor) believe in God. But when that choir of experts repeatedly tell us that evolution is incompatible with belief in God, it’s not surprising that many people come to believe that evolution is incompatible with belief in God, and is therefore an enemy of religion.” (p. 53)

Anyone who knows anything about Plantinga and his careful, precise, step-by-step way of arguing a point knows that I cannot begin to do justice to his arguments (stated overly simply above) here. I strongly recommend that people read the book; in my opinion, it completely clears away the rubble of false stumbling blocks to faith in God and miracles put there by naturalistic scientists, philosophers and theologians. It does not and does not intend to “prove” the existence of God or miracles. But it demonstrates that there is a large element of fideism involved in the arguments against God’s existence and miracles. There are, in other words, identifiable unsupported presuppositions smuggled into the arguments against them. Plantinga reveals what they are and shows they are not necessary to the integrities of science, philosophy or theology.

I’m sure someone will be tempted to remind me (or tell me, as if I didn’t know) that Plantinga is a Calvinist. Indeed. He’s even a supralapsarian! And he implies that all Christians (meaning, of course, all real Christians) embrace meticulous providence. (He quotes from the Heidelberg Catechism as if that were the doctrinal standard for all Christians.) But, I have never said or implied that Calvinists are wrong about everything; I have learned much from and appreciated the writings of many Calvinist authors and theologians. It’s the aggressive Calvinists who teach (directly or indirectly) that only Calvinism is authentic, biblical Christianity that I oppose. I also oppose Calvinism as it relates to soteriology, but that’s not the subject of Plantinga’s book and his arguments are not tied to it.

Now, as often, I have to stop and tell a story. I’ve lived long enough in this world of theology to have a lot of them to tell! (I could tell, for example, about the two world class theologians who argued with each other standing right in front of me. One of them was drunk and cursed the other one out. Or I could tell about the world class theologian who said very publically about theology “After all, it’s all just guess work.”) One time I saw and heard Plantinga attempt to engage in “dialogue” with Paul Holmer, a Wittgensteinian fideist or at least postliberal theologian. Never have I witnessed a better example of “two ships passing in the night.” It was an amazing spectacle of the proverbial “whale” and “elephant” attempting to meet. Two giants of Christian thought and they might as well have each been speaking in tongues to each other. Very obviously, neither one could make any sense of the other one because of their radically different presuppositions and methods of thinking and talking about God. For example, in true Kierkegaardian fashion, for Holmer, God can never be an object. It’s not just that we should never “make” God into an object; God cannot be an object so that when we attempt to talk about God in objective language we are not talking about God. Absolutely no light was shed on the subject of God or theology in that failed attempt at dialogue—except that there are, unfortunately, apparently, incommensurable ways of thinking about God and “God-talk” in contemporary Christian theology. And the problem for me was that I could sympathize with both. Cognitive dissonance to the max!

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  • Tim Reisdorf

    …leading evolutionists have wrongly linked evolution with naturalism…

    and many Christians have as well.

    Can you tease out what you mean by “true science”? Is this the opposite of getting an hypothesis wrong (like the Phlogiston theory of heat) or is it more about limiting the conclusions of science to its proper bounds (keeping it out of the realm of philosophy and religion)?

    • rogereolson

      The latter. It is science unadulterated by smuggled metaphysical assumptions or pronouncements (e.g., Carl Sagan’s “The cosmos is all there is, all there ever was, and all there ever will be.”)

  • AHH

    I have not read the book, but was struck by this part you quoted from the “Evolution and Christian Belief” section:
    leading evolutionists have wrongly linked evolution with naturalism such that (they have implied if not outrightly stated) the two are inseparable. Leading evolutionary theorists and popularizers of evolution have wrongly taught that in order to accept evolution one must reject God as playing any role in designing and guiding the processes of emergence of life forms.

    It is not just some “leading evolutionists” who perpetrate this falsehood. Much of our problem with evolution in the church comes because Christians make the mistake of agreeing with the scientific atheists on this point. The “Intelligent Design” movement (as exemplified by the culture-war propagandists at the Discovery Institute) seems to be characterized at its core by this mistake Plantinga points out, by conflating the science with the God-excluding philosophy that some incorrectly attach to the science, and by refusing to make the key distinction between metaphysical naturalism (what Plantinga is talking about) and methodological naturalism (the description of how science works by looking for natural explanations for things in nature).
    It is time for the church to see evolution (as science) as part of God’s Providence like any other natural process, rather than adopting the metaphysical interpretation of the scientific atheists. If we continue to let the atheists tell us what evolution “means”, we will continue to tilt at windmills by opposing well-established science in the mistaken belief that such opposition is necessary to protect the faith.

    As an aside, what Plantinga decries is not really a dominant postion among scientists, including “leading” ones. Maybe more so among “popularizers”. But the addition of this metaphysical baggage is mostly the act of a loud minority. Other scientific voices (Stephen Jay Gould, for example) have opposed this welding of metaphysics onto the science.

    • rogereolson

      I have not interpreted “intelligent design theory” as anti-evolution but as anti-naturalism. Can you provide evidence that anyone associated with the Discovery Institute or intelligent design theory (I’m talking about scholars of it) is anti-evolution? I thought, perhaps wrongly, that theistic evolution was compatible with intelligent design theory.

      • AHH

        Take it from a veteran of these discussions, asking for evidence that the ID movement is anti-evolution is a little like asking for evidence that the Pope is Catholic.
        You are actually right that the basic idea of Intelligent Design (that God’s design in nature is scientifically detectable) is not mutually exclusive with Theistic Evolution (the idea that evolution in its basic sense of common ancestry is true, and that ultimately God is responsible for creating life). And there are a few in the ID movement who are theistic evolutionists (although they avoid that term); Michael Behe is a prominent example.

        You are right that they mainly bill their fight as being not against evolution but against “naturalism”. But almost always the scientific theory of evolution is painted as being metaphysically naturalistic, so that opposing evolution itself (sometimes in its basic common ancestry sense, sometimes the theory of natural selection for how evolution happened) becomes their vehicle for opposing “naturalism”. This failure to separate the science from the philosophy is exactly the mistake Plantinga decries. Somewhere here is a metaphor about throwing out the scientific baby with the naturalistic bathwater.

        • rogereolson

          I deleted a middle paragraph about a particular organization because it contained unsupported and possibly slanderous claims about a particular organization. The discussion here is NOT about any particular organization but about Plantinga’s arguments against naturalism.

        • John I.

          I’d say that AHH not only overstates his case, but also stereotypes and pidgeon-holes a movement that is more diverse–much as “emergent” gets pidgeon-holed even though it was–and tries to remain–a movement in the sense of being broad-tented and diverse.

          The leading lights of the intelligent design movement are not of one mind, and all are open to evolution as change over time. They differ in the amount of change they think possible. They are of similar views vis a vis the failings of the various materialist or naturalist evolutionary theories. That does not, however, make them “anti-evolutionary”. I also find that they are very adept at pointing out how current evolutionary-science as practiced in universities and institutions is heavily dependent on particular philosophical perspectives.

          Personally, I’m rather agnostic about how God got the world from lifeless world to a world full of it. It’s an interesting question, and one worth investigating, but whatever the answer my faith in Jesus does not depend on it.

          For those interested, there are interesting and informative reviews of Plantinga’s work and interactions with him on the Discovery Institute website at the following links:

          Jay Richards’ review of Where the Conflict Really Lies:

          Part 1: Plantinga on Where the Conflict Really Lies at

          Part 2: “A Bit Unprepossessing”: Plantinga on the Logic of Dawkins’s Blind Watchmaker at

          Part 3: What’s in a Word? “Randomness” in Darwinism and the Scientific Theory of Evolution” at

          Plantinga’s reply to Richards: Seeking an Official Definition of “Randomness”: A Reply to Jay Richards at

          The New York Times review of Plantinga’s work, by Jennifer Schuessler entitled, Philosopher Sticks Up for God at:


          The Amazon link is http://www.amazon.com/Where-Conflict-Really-Lies-Naturalism/dp/0199812098/ref=tmm_hrd_title_popover

          At the Amazon site, the review by Mike Robinson summarizes well the various chapters of the book, giving a good overview of the contents.

  • John

    Plantinga is a Molinist, not a Calvinist.

    • rogereolson

      Well, he’s a supralapsarian. In my book that makes him some kind of a Calvinist! many Calvinists use Molinism to support their belief in meticulous providence. I thought we’d established that here earlier. Bruce Ware, for example. And Millard Erickson.

      • Adam Omelianchuk

        Ware and Erickson are confused. Middle Knowledge doesn’t reconcile compatibilistic views of freedom and divine foreknowledge, because knowledge of deterministic facts are part of God’s natural knowledge. That is, they are already reconciled apart from God’s middle knowledge.

        • rogereolson

          I’m not sure they would think you have understood their uses of middle knowledge. They both believe in counterfactuals of freedom. God’s middle includes them. God uses that knowledge to manipulate (my word, not theirs) history and human lives without taking away free will which they understand compatibilistically. If you meant that their view of foreknowledge is deterministic, I quite agree. I’m not sure they would, however.

    • John I.

      I’d call Plantinga an Ockhamist, rather than a molinist, and he does consider himself to be within the Reformed and Calvinist traditions–though it’s obvious he departs from those traditions in terms of his theodicy. Plantinga argues his position from grounds that do not necessitate him referring to Molinism. Plantinga begins from an investigation of evil, the nature of God and other minds, and the nature and necessity of free will and lands at a position that is very similar to Molinism.

      Thomas Flint and William Craig, on the other hand, are clearly Molinists and argue from and for such a position.

  • That reminds me of a conversation I once watched between McGrath and Dawkins (though I would never label Dawkins as an intellectual giant). Dawkins kept attacking McGrath’s faith, and McGrath kept talking about Christianity in general and historically, and neither one knew what the other one was talking about.

  • Bev Mitchell

    I read Plantinga’s book a while back and am working from selected parts that I underlined. A while later, I read Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ “The Great Partnership: Science, Religion and the Search for Meaning” and just wanted to make notes on practically every page. This was not the case with Plantinga. In what follows, I will try to explain what may be the basis for these different reactions. As you know, I lean strongly toward relational (open) theology, so you can probably guess where this is going.

    While Plantinga’s basic thesis is very helpful – the problem is naturalism vs. theism not evolution vs. Christian belief per se., he does not go far enough for many Christian evolutionary biologists. Early on he uses Dawkins, Dennett etc. as his foils and essentially makes arguments from design as the only acceptable Christian (even theistic) position. His resistance to libertarian freedom in God’s world seems to limit him to his position. As far as I can tell, his ‘divine collapse-causation (DCC) model (pg. 116) is another way to express meticulous control (or divine design). I realize that he counters this criticism and works some sort of freedom into this model, but, to me, it still seems too tied to determinism (pg. 119 “The thought would be….”). I should read the book again to see if I missed something, but……..

    Quotes from From Alvin Plantinga “Where the Conflict Really Lies”

    “What is not consistent with Christian belief, however, is the claim that this process of evolution is unguided – that no personal agent, not even God, has guided, directed, orchestrated, or shaped it.” pg. 11

    “But if he created human beings in his image, then at least he intended that there be creatures of a certain sort, and acted in such a way as to guarantee that creatures of that sort came to be.” pg. 14

    “God could have achieved the results he wanted by causing the right mutations to arise at the right times, letting natural selection do the rest.” pg. 15

    “…..according to Christians and other theists, God has designed and created the world; he intended that it take a certain form and then caused it to take that form.” pg. 34

    “It is perfectly possible that the process of natural selection has been guided and superintended by God, and that it could not have produced our living world without that guidance.” pg 39

    As a contrast, consider the quotes (below) from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ excellent book. As I read them, Sacks position would be much more acceptable to many Christian evolutionary thinkers who try to get beyond the Intelligent Design way of thinking. Libertarian freedom vs. meticulous control is once again the issue.

    Both of these authors also effectively take on the modern atheists – but if I were Dennett or Dawkins, I would run from the Rabbi.

    Quotes from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks “The Great Partnership”

    “Spinoza set the stage for a whole series of determinists of different kinds, each finding the course of history in some other shaping force, but all agreed that we are what we are because we could not be otherwise than we are, and that all thoughts to the contrary are mere illusion.” pg. 116.

    “But why would a being independent of the universe wish to bring a universe into being? There is only one compelling answer: out of the selfless desire to make space for otherness that, for want of a better word, we call love.” pg. 24.

    “…to preserve meaning in desperate circumstances we must be able, or be helped, to do a number of things. First is the refusal to believe that we are victims if fate. We are free.” pg. 36

    “For if God created the physical universe, then God is free, and if God made us in his image, we are free.” pg. 38

    “The changeless, unmoved mover was the God of Plato and Aristotle. The God of history was the God of Abraham. They simply did not belong together.” Pg. 83

    “From the outset, the Hebrew Bible speaks of a free God, not constrained by nature, who, creating man in his own image, grants him that same freedom, commanding him, not programming him, to do good.” pg. 124

    “Faith is not certainty. It is the courage to live with uncertainty.” pg. 97

    And finally, one I cannot resist:

    “Why did he divide the Red Sea? Because the Israelites needed to get to the other side.” pg. 80

    • rogereolson

      I just don’t see any essential conflict between the Plantinga quotes and the Sacks quotes. Why can’t one believe in intelligent design without believing in exhaustive divine determinism? Perhaps Plantinga does believe in the latter, but I don’t see that as essential to his arguments against unguided evolution. And I am troubled by any Christian rejection of guided evolution. Surely God intended all along that creation would bring forth human beings! Our existence is not accidental, surely.

      • AHH

        What I would push back on here (and probably Bev) is the idea that “guided” is equivalent to “intended” and “not accidental”. “Guided” seems to imply that God has to do something interventionist, above and beyond God’s Providence in “natural” processes. While I would not deny that God can and maybe did work in such ways in the evolution of life, I would deny that such “guidance” is theologically necessary. God can accomplish God’s creative purposes without the sort of interventionist “guidance” that the ID movement seems to require.

        • rogereolson

          A big part of Plantinga’s argument is about the ambiguity of the term “divine intervention.” Again, please read the book.

      • Daniel W

        The issue is that one of the central tenets of the theory of evolution is natural selection. The idea of natural selection does not just arise out of a desire to move God out of the equation. The issue is that many things seem not so intelligently designed. One could just endlessly appeal to the fact that one cannot know the mind of God or how God would do things if he guided evolution precisely, I suppose. We could declare it is a mystery why God left us an appendix that we no longer need, but has killed thousands upon thousands of humans. We could declare it is a mystery why he made the laryngeal nerve in mammals much longer than it needs to be to the point that it may even be maladaptive. We could declare it is a mystery why God let dozens of elephant like species that he lovingly created go extinct before reaching the modern elephant. We could declare it is a mystery why God created many male mammal species to murder infants so that they might be able to mate with nursing females.

        The question is, if God guides evolution, why do we have evidence for natural selection? Why is it that so many things do not seem designed? Is he just trying to trick us? Is there something interfering in the process of his design? I am struggling with these questions myself.

        • rogereolson

          Then by all means, read Plantinga’s book. You may not like his appeal to mystery, but he argues for it philosophically as well as theologically.

        • Andy

          I thought they might have found a purpose for the appendix. One popular news article speculated that if “It produces and protects good germs for your gut.” There was a Wikapedia article as well, but it was way too technical for me.

          Why comment on this? I guess despite Roger’s cautions against relying on mystery too early, I seem ready to concede that “I don’t know” fairly quickly on this topic.

      • Bev Mitchell


        In response to AHH you say “I thought, perhaps wrongly, that theistic evolution was compatible with intelligent design theory.” Well, not really, depending on how intelligent design is viewed. Yes, God is intelligent 🙂 and there is apparent design in the various forms of life. The hard sledding comes when we try to talk about exactly where God intervened. Many ID proponents want to identify specific things, structures, processes that they think just could not have evolved, but needed some kind of special intervention, outside of normal evolution. Theistic evolutionists, as far as I know, are sceptical about there being any such places.

        Now, to your response and reaction to my longish comment. I thought that I might get into trouble, and obviously did not make myself clear enough. This is again too long, and I’m working on a shorter version, but some things just seem to take a lot of words.

        Of course God intended that intelligent beings would evolve who could receive his love and return his love, who could accept his Holy Spirit, in part in order to continue God’s great project of renewal with and through them. God also knew intelligent life would be a sure result of his making any life possible, and through his Spirit he makes this all possible, continuously. The problem, as always, comes when we try to put what we see the Spirit doing into words, especially when we try to say how this all works (mechanistically). Hence the problem with ID.

        Creation includes not just our universe in the sense of Genesis or beginnings, but also could be seen as all the works of the Spirit. The Incarnation; the fact that we can become new creatures by yielding to the Spirit; and the risen Lord is, presumably, some wonderful combination of Spirit, energy, matter and life – and the only example, to date, of such a being. We (Christians) don’t seem to have major battles over exactly how, mechanistically, the Spirit accomplishes these creative wonders. Yet, when it comes to the universe, and particularly life on earth, and particularly human life, we seem to want to know at least something of the mechanism(s) the Spirit of God uses, or, at least, the specific points where he acted especially. We seem to be on the hunt for God’s fingerprints. Plantinga suggests we might look for some particularly crucial mutations.

        If I were the least bit inclined to look for God’s specific fingerprints in life on earth, I’d have a close look at chloroplasts. These essential organelles started out life a couple of billion years ago as free living, photosynthesizing cyanobacteria. Then they became associated with much larger cells such that an obligatory mutualism developed between them leading to the precursors of plants. All plants have chloroplasts and all complex life depends on their activity. Yet, I have no expectation of finding God’s special action on chloroplasts. Nor do I think that evolution could not account for all of this. Yet I also believe that God is present to all of it and makes it all possible.

        Approached from a different angle, the interface between the Spirit and our world of energy, matter and life is real – the Bible clearly says so. We are privileged to see/experience the results in observing life, spiritual regeneration, spiritual formation, divine healing etc. In our world of energy, matter and life we can, very successfully it turns out, ask the bold question “how does that work?” For example, consider a single green leaf in the summer sun and the simple questions – How does that leaf make glucose, and how did that mechanism come about? To give the full, 2012 scientific answer to these questions, with complete understanding of all of the evidence, would take a small army of physicists, inorganic chemists, organic chemists, molecular biologists, physiologists and evolutionary biologists. Even an understanding that a single person can have is mind boggling (See Nick Lane’s Chapter 3 on photosynthesis in his “Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution”). As Christians we believe that this is all made possible by a loving God through the action of his Spirit on this world. Yet, when we ask how?, in the mechanistic sense, we come up empty. When we search the Scripture for the Spirit’s methods that are put to use at the interface of Spirit and our reality of energy, matter and life, what we get is assurance that God’s Word is sufficient, talk of a wind that blows wherever it pleases, of sound that gives no evidence of location, of fire, of breath but no indication of mechanism.

        I still think, for Christians, it comes down to seeing God as power and control or as love and freedom. If we hold too strongly to the former, when it comes to the work of the Spirit, we seem to want to know how, (and we interpret Scripture that way). If we lean more toward love and freedom as God’s essence then we are not so upset to discover that we can’t know exactly how (or even inexactly, how). We are more satisfied with answers like “God makes it possible”, “God sustains it”, “The Holy Spirit makes it possible for us, and all life, to be and to become.” And our interpretation of Genesis and related Scripture then becomes more open and free to accept the spiritual message and to give it precedence. This is where I see the big difference between Plantinga and Sykes.

        Many Christians are thinking along these lines, as you know. These are people far more able than I am on the theological front. I come at it as an experienced biologist and Christian layman. But, I think I am beginning to understand what these theologians are saying. Just one example, and a particularly good one, is Amos Yong. A good place to begin is his 2011 paper “Reading Scripture and Nature: Pentecostal Hermeneutics and Their Implications for the Contemporary Evangelical Theology and Science Conversation” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 63 (1): 3-13. Also, responses from several theologians to Yong’s book “Spirit of Creation” are quite helpful, as is the book. These responses were published in Canadian Journal of Pentecostal-Charismatic Christianity and are available at https://journal.twu.ca/index.php/CJPC/issue/view/7

        I hope this gets me out of the woodshed re perceived rejection of guided evolution. It all depends on where we locate God’s guidance and to what degree we feel God “needs” to guide matters. He clearly does what is necessary, but we are largely in the dark regarding the details, and Scripture may well not be intended to provide them.

        • rogereolson

          I don’t see any conflict between that and Plantinga. But I have never thought of “intelligent design” as requiring belief in either scientific proof of guided evolution (although most ID theorists think it’s important to at least see evidence where it exists and not brush it aside out of naturalistic impulses) or divine determinism. I’m sure there are ID theorists who do require those (for what they think robust Christian faith would look like), but I distinguish between intelligent design as teleological belief about the world and intelligent design as a movement.

    • AHH

      After reading Bev’s Plantinga quotes (I have not read the book), I can further clarify my comments above regarding the ID movement and theistic evolution.

      Plantinga apparently objects to “unguided” evolution and wants it to be “guided”. And the better parts of the ID movement (as opposed to the populist 90% that is generally anti-evolution) do just oppose the “unguided” aspect. Some Theistic Evolutionists would advocate “guided” evolution, while others like Bev would still affirm God as creator but would reject the whole guided/unguided way of framing things.

      Three related key points here:
      1) The mainstream scientific theory of evolution says that evolution is “unguided” as far as science can tell. That does not address the metaphysical question of God’s ultimate responsibility. If we have a robust view of God’s Providence, we can still affirm God’s role in things that are “unguided” (no supernatural intervention) as far as humans can tell, like the development of a child in the womb or the provision of rain or the evolution of life.
      2) For the ID movement, it is typically framed as theologically necessary not only that God at least “guide” the development of life, but also that the “guidance” be scientifically detectable. Their framing does not allow that God might “guide” things in ways that are not detectable to human scrutiny, despite Scripture implying that God can work in such subtle ways.
      3) The ID movement and maybe also Plantinga conflates two different questions here.
      The real theological question is whether God is ultimately responsible for evolution.
      A second question is whether God “guides” evolution (for the ID movement, in detectable ways).
      Contra the ID movement, those are NOT equivalent questions. If Plantinga is saying that scientific theories where evolution appears “unguided” within the scientific bounds of the theory are equivalent to metaphysical naturalism, then he is making a similar mistake to that of the atheists he criticizes.

      I wonder if Plantinga thinks Christians should oppose Einstein’s understanding of gravity, since it is how the Sun formed (and as Christians we confess that God created the Sun) but within the theory the process is “unguided”.

      • rogereolson

        Why don’t you read the book? Plantinga is at least one of the leading Christian philosophers alive today. I would think someone as interested as you seem to be in this discussion would want to read what he has to say. So read and then react. Right now you’re just saying “if he says” this and “if he says” that. All I have said in my post is that he opposes metaphysical naturalism as scientifically unsupported. Nowhere (so far) does he speak against methodological naturalism. Yes, he argues for guided evolution, but his argument is not that science can demonstrate that but that nothing science has demonstrated conflicts with it.

      • John I.

        Re “Contra the ID movement, those are NOT equivalent questions.”

        I’m not aware of any significant writing from that movement that takes such a position; seems to me to be a straw man argument to argue that they do.

        It seems to me that in a broad view, the ID position is one that is evangelically possible and so is worth investigating rather than dismissing. Some investigations take decades, and some have been ongoing for far longer. Hence I do not see any need to draw the curtain on ID ideas and investigations.

        • rogereolson

          I, for one, simply do not know where fear of intelligent design theory comes from–especially among Christians. And yet I’ve encountered a lot of it. I theorize that some of it comes from the perceived personality flaws of some of its spokespersons. But some of it seems to come from a kind of knee-jerk reaction to anything having to do with origins that is non-naturalistic.

          • AHH

            I don’t think it is helpful to attribute others’ motives as “fear”.

            I was asked by an ID proponent in my church why most of us Christians in science are negative toward ID; here is part of what I said:

            If you’re saying it’s theologically necessary to scientifically detect God, that atheism wins if these design arguments are wrong, then that’s the God of the Gaps and it’s a mistake. But if you’re just saying that God’s creative action might be scientifically detectable, and you’d like to look for those signs because they might be helpful in apologetics, that’s OK by me, as long as you don’t set things up so that our faith depends on these arguments.
            However, much of the ID in Christian culture is a politicized movement. This movement is an us-versus-them culture-war thing, it gets used to deny even well-established aspects of evolution like common ancestry, and it tends to demonize theistic evolutionists, saying things like Christian professors really know evolution is false but they lie to protect their reputations. Somebody asked me why Intelligent Design is so unpopular with Christians in science, and I think much of it is the behavior of the ID movement, and because we’re repulsed by that movement some legitimate ideas may not get a fair hearing because of guilt by association.

            To this I would add wariness because biological design arguments have in the past collapsed in ways harmful to the faith (Paley) and the way that the movement “on the ground” (sometimes but not always contrary to what its leaders might express) buttresses the naive anti-evolutionism within churches that harms our mission to the scientifically literate.

          • rogereolson

            I thought I made a strong distinction between my appreciation of intelligent design inquiry and theory and any particular movement. Perhaps that was in response to some comments like yours later.

          • AHH

            I think you did make that important distinction at some point here.

            I was mainly trying to answer your (rhetorical?) question about why many of us have an aversion to ID. It needs to be noted that, as humans, it is not so easy to separate the “theory” of ID from the movement that promotes it.

            As an analogy, the “theory” of Christianity is often rejected because all people see of it is televangelists and hypocrisy and maybe the dead or abusive church of their youth. Similarly, the “theory” of ID suffers among scientists (including Christians) because all they see is “movement” aspects like the Discovery Institute, “Expelled”, the Kansas School Board fiasco, and preachers who frame things so that ID claims have to be right and evolution false in order for our faith to be true.

            It would also help if “theory” leaders and other Christian leaders sympathetic to ID would distance themselves from the negative aspects of the “movement”. This happens occasionally (for example Hugh Ross was critical of the propaganda film “Expelled”, and occasionally an ID person will admit that there is no scientific doubt about evolution in the sense of common ancestry), but not often enough. If Plantinga clearly says that the science of evolution is not in conflict with our faith, that is a good step.

          • rogereolson

            He does say it as do many, many evangelical Christians. When I was editor of Christian Scholar’s Review we published many articles about reconciling evolution and Christian faith. However, many evangelical scientists teaching in Christian colleges and universities, have been punished for daring to affirm theistic evolution. I think that’s a shame. I, for one, am not even interested in what you are calling the “ID movement.” I know very little about it. (One of its leaders was my colleague for a short time but we never met.) My impression, however, is that there is over reaction on both sides. Many in the scientists, even Christian ones, over react to any search for evidence of design in nature out of fear that it could lead to creationism encroaching on their science. I cannot understand why any Christian would be averse to at least seeking for and acknowledging evidence of God in “the book of nature” (even though as a theologian I’m not much on “natural theology”). I know Christian scientists (I’m not talking here about members of the Church of Christ, Scientist but about Christians who teach and conduct research in the physical sciences) who prefer to live dual lives–thinking absolutely contrary thoughts in their academic spaces and in their ecclesiastical spaces. Many have (unthinkingly, I suspect) adopted the medieval “two truths” theory of Siger of Brabant.

  • Rob

    I wish to make a point in response to something you say towards the beginning. You say you are not excited by philosophical theism (and no one can fault you there!) but you explain your lack of interest as stemming from your view that Christian faith is a commitment that transcends reason. You remark further down that you do not think there are any absolute proofs of God’s existence.
    I do not see why those two convictions of yours would push you away from philosophical theism as every Christian philosopher of Religion I know would agree wholeheartedly. The motto of the Society of Christian Philosophers is Faith Seeking Understanding and I think that truly describes the attitude of much of the contemporary work in Christian philosophy of religion.
    Arguments for God’s existence are always going to be of interest, and professional interest to philosophers, but I should warn non-philosophers not to make too much of them. What I mean is, just because philosophers of religion are eager to discuss, debate, and publish on them does NOT mean that they think the arguments are in any sense necessary or recommended for responsible belief in God. I do not personally know a single Christian philosopher of religion who thinks this way. None of them goes into a conference with their beliefs held hostage to the outcome of a debate; they debate arguments for the existence of God for the same reasons a philosopher might debate freewill–it is of interest to philosophical reflection.

    • rogereolson

      I don’t disagree. In fact, I should add to what I said that, to me, the ontological argument for the existence of God, given some modern philosopher’s explanations (e.g., of existence as a predicate), is conclusive. But I don’t suspect people who disagree of being either stupid or immoral. However, I don’t think Christian faith, Christian belief in the Christian God, the God of Jesus Christ, arrives at the end of any argument. The arguments are valid and useful insofar as they demonstrate that belief in God is not irrational. I agree with Reformed epistemology that belief in God is basic and justified. There are many popular evangelical apologists, however, who seem to me to want to go further and argue that belief in God, even the God of Jesus, and in Jesus as God, is rationally compelling such that anyone who disagrees is simply irrational.

      • Rob

        I think you would like Paul Moser’s book The Elusive God. A great book about knowing God interpersonally written by one of the world’s leading epistemologists.

        • rogereolson

          Thanks for the recommendation.

  • Plantinga suggests that leading evolutionary theorists and popularizers of evolution have WRONGLY taught that in order to accept evolution one must reject God as playing any role in designing and guiding the processes of emergence of life forms.

    May I suggest that, with few exceptions, evolutionary scientists and theorists have not “wrongly” taught that in order to accept evolution one must reject God. In fact, the evolutionists are more honest in insisting upon this conclusion than are theistic evolutionists who dabble with one foot in evolutionary thought, and the other foot in divine creation. Macro-evolution is an fallacy for which there is not a shred of credible and testable evidence.

    The theory of macro-evolution is on the verge of being totally discredited as we speak. A little known fact is that many avowed evolutionary scientists have already moved away from Darwin’s thesis of ‘selection of the fittest.’ But it’s the new genome studies and discoveries that are wreaking havoc in the evolutionary community. Every new genome discovery to date has screamed against macro-evolution and in favor of divine creation. This is the best kept secret of die-hard evolutionists, but little-by-little the truth is leaking out. My prediction: The theory of macro-evolution will be totally abandoned by the scientific community within the next 25-50 years. “In the BEGINNING God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1).

    • Chuck C

      “Macro-evolution is an fallacy for which there is not a shred of credible and testable evidence.”

      I used to say things like this all the time when I would argue with my evolutionist friend. “Micro – evolution (evolution within a species) might be true but there is no evidence for macro – evolution (evolution across species). As a Christian, honestly, I did not truly understand the theory of evolution but only the Christian caricatures that I was fed. My friend directed me to the Talk Origins website so that I could finally learn what the other side was saying. The evidence for macro – evolution IS micro – evolution. They cannot really be separated. If you allow that the one may have happened, then you have opened the door to proving the other.

      “Every new genome discovery to date has screamed against macro-evolution and in favor of divine creation.” Really? Recent discoveries are proving divine creation? Perhaps you are talking about what is sometimes called the anthropic principle. (There are different names for.) This is the idea that the odds were so astronomically high that a given factor would develop/evolve in a manner that would help bring about human life, that it almost seems as if something (or someone) “made sure” it all happened in just the right way. If so, I would hardly call that proving divine creation. Can you tell us more about these discoveries?

      “A little known fact is that many avowed evolutionary scientists have already moved away from Darwin’s thesis of ‘selection of the fittest.’” You might want to know that evolutionists call this “The Longest Running Falsehood in Creationism” (see http://chem.tufts.edu/answersinscience/demise.html). As Christians we really need to stop deceiving ourselves. The basic theory of evolution is solidly accepted in the halls of academia and is in no danger of being overturned. If scientists are feeling freer to modify the theory, it is because the basic framework is solidly entrenched.

      I am so glad for Christian websites like this one, where we can discuss inspiration and the infallibility/”innerrancy” of the Bible, and perhaps learn something about Evangelical hermeneutics rather than believe that we must only choose between atheism and fundamentalism.

      • rogereolson

        In 30 years of teaching in three Christian universities (all with evangelical inclinations) and during five years as editor of Christian Scholar’s Review (an evangelically-oriented interdisciplinary scholarly journal) I have not found one biologist with a Ph.D. in biology who believes evolution is false. Many evangelical biologists (e.g., in the American Scientific Affiliation) believe some mixture of evolution and creation (e.g., “progressive creationism”) is viable, but none that I have known outrightly reject evolution and most were/are theistic evolutionists. Many keep fairly quiet for fear of being ostracized–by conservative Christian constituents and by secular peers in professional societies (for believing in guided evolution).

  • Craig Wright

    In regards to Plantinga’s Calvinism, here is a quote that shows his modified view in commenting on the five points of the Synod of Dort: “…is it not at best dubious to take as a standard for confessional unity such highly specific and detailed pronouncements on matters of great difficulty about which the Bible itself is at best terse and enigmatic?” (“Philosophers Who Believe” p. 178, n. 3)
    As to the Discovery Institute’s acceptance of evolution, after attending one of their conferences and reading a few of their books, they are a bit ambiguous. They seem to accept evolution but make a big deal out of rejecting Darwin’s random selection, so they end up with a guided evolution, but leaves gaps for God to enter into the process periodically, which is not clear, and so leads them to be attacked as promoting a “god-of-the-gaps” concept.

  • John Caputo wrote an article that basically says that its harder to prove ones atheology than it is that of faith. That the burden of proof for unbelief is so extensive that a true atheism essential is nonexistent – Towards a Radical Theology, Not a Radical Atheism: A Review of Modern Atheism, Atheology and Divine Inexistence (http://relevancy22.blogspot.com/2012/11/towards-radical-theology-not-radical.html).

    “…I think, and Watkin seems to agree, that there are no non-circular arguments against the existence of God, if by God we mean a being outside space and time. If that is what a radical atheism would mean, there is no such thing (243, n.3). What resources could we ever marshal to show what there is not in a world beyond space and time? If it is “difficult” enough to try to prove that something is there, it is even harder to prove there is not.”

  • Bev Mitchell


    As promised, I had another look at Plantinga’s book, particularly Part IV. Here my philosophical background is not nearly adequate to critique anything, but Plantinga argues that one cannot logically hold to both naturalism and biological evolution. If I follow him, this is because, without an intelligence outside ourselves, we have no logical reason to believe that the “truths” we discover are indeed true. A completely naturalistic-materialistic universe could not produce intelligent beings who could logically trust their beliefs to be true. I’ll have to let the philosophers debate that one, but it may well be a great argument against materialistic naturalism.

    Plantinga clearly does not present this as an argument against biological evolution. Quite the opposite.

    In earlier parts of the book, if I recall correctly, he basically develops the case that only the reality of an intelligent being outside our natural universe provides any logical reason for us to accept the evidence for biological evolution. And discusses ways we might go about this. In short, logically speaking, only theists should be arguing in favour of biological evolution. An interesting bit of breaking news that may well be true.

    It will be great (and big news) if this apologetic is found to be correct by open minded philosophers. But, we still have the questions of how theists proceed in their thinking about biological evolution. My position, hopefully made a bit clearer yesterday, is that we theists who are also Christians, have no real need to look for specific places where God intervenes in the evolutionary steps that led to life. Others, eg. many of the ID proponents (see comments by AHH), may want to see more direct evidence of God’s handiwork. This could also be summarized as one group is quite happy to take it on faith that God is doing what is necessary and it turns out to be the freedom to be and to become that he gives living things that is paramount. Others will want to take a more apologetic approach and find hard evidence for places where God intervened.

    Christians still do need to reach some agreement on how to talk about evolutionary biology and especially, what questions to ask about it (eg. can we specifically hope to see direct evidence of God intervening at any particular point? and how do we agree that we have found such a point?) But, logically, disagreement on such matters should not interfere with Christian fellowship.

    The problem faced, however, is analogous (not homologous) to our disagreements about what questions should be asked of Scripture. Our ability to disagree agreeably over Scriptural interpretation will have to be markedly improved as we move toward consideration of how to disagree agreeably on how to interpret evolutionary biology. Much work needs to be done, but the good news is that many are already hard at work on the various fronts. I hope lots of folk are paying attention.

    The wonderful thing about Plantinga’s book, and I suspect a major reason you are so positive about it, is that he gives Christians good philosophical and logical reasons to feel free to accept evolutionary biology. That indeed is a major advance.

  • John I.

    ID is not, fundamentally, about the “mechanism” nor how things “mechanistically” occurred or were carried out. Rather, it comes from the belief that only intelligent minds design things, that the universe and especially life has the appearance of design, that the design is not just apparent but real, and that design is in principle detectable.

    ID research has been to a significant degree about how one goes about detecting design. One hypothesized tool (but not the only one) is that things that cannot arise by any known materialist causal means (e.g., genetic mutation is a materialist means) likely occurred by way of an intelligent one. Hence, if materialist Darwinian evolution cannot account for the appearance of new biological structures in organisms, then the alternate possibility is that an intelligent mind can account for it. The difficulty in using this particular tool to investigate potential design is that we do not have a non-material intelligence to query as to its design methodology, nor do we have examples of life designed by other non-materialist intelligences to investigate. Thus it is probelematic to determine how intelligences go about designing life and then instantiating the design.

    However, that is not the only tool for detection of design by an intelligence; it may not even be a good tool. However, the jury is still out on that and it is arguable that we currently have an intelligence of the gaps (i.e., intelligence fills in where materialism cannot) versus promissory materialism (there is no currently viable materialist account, but there will be).

    • rogereolson

      Very well stated. Thank you.

  • Bev Mitchell

    This should go right after your December 14 response to AHH, but it would not fit.

    I’ve stayed out of this discussion on ID for the last few days since AHH obviously has more experience in the trenches and is explaining very well the problem we evolutionary biologists who are Christians (or not) have with the apparent fundamental goal of many ID folks.

    Now, as for the ‘dual-lives’ ‘physical’ scientists (assuming that you mean non-biologists) we should not blame science or evolutionary theory for their plight. Sort of tongue-in-cheek I’d begin by blaming not enough good biology courses. 🙂

    More seriously, church-level evangelical theology has some serious catching up to do to help these brothers and sisters. They are extremely busy people and may well face a steady diet of ‘choose science or faith’ in their churches and reading. If they teach in certain church-run colleges and universities, they have an additional problem that you have explained so well many times. Telling it “like it is” may not be a particularly rewarding option.

    But consider this. To come to the point where I could speak with some confidence about theological aspects at the faith-science interface, I had to be retired and willing to spend two to three years, straight, catching up on some of the wonderful insights of theologians and biblical scholars (like yourself) – particularly what has been coming out since the mid-nineties. Nothing was entirely new and it was all very faith affirming, but I needed much better ways to put my position into at least popular theological words. I suspect, for many of the dual-lives scientists whom you meet, their pastors would not even recommend many of the theological/biblical studies writers who I regularly refer to: Boyd, Enns, Fee, Kugel, Levenson, McKnight, Oord, Pinnock, Polkinghorne, Reno, Sacks, Sanders, Sparks, Torrance, Wright, Yong, and of course, Olson. The extreme reactions several of these writers have faced (not just by ID folks) is sufficient indication that theological homework is desperately needed in many quarters. If agreement can be reached somewhere in the vicinity of what the authors on my list propose, we will all be much better positioned to be done with this perennial problem. Maybe. 😉

    • rogereolson

      I agree. But I have met dualists who belong to liberal churches just as much as those who belong to conservative churches. The problem doesn’t seem to me to be tied to any one particular type of Christianity. Among more liberal Christian scientists, I think they are troubled by what they see as a lack of evidence for God and creation, even design, in scientific research, but believe they should believe in them even as liberal Christians. But especially among them I find a strong resistance to investigating possible evidences of design in nature. I think that’s because they know how absolutely unacceptable that is in their secular professional societies.

  • Cornelis

    A lot of interesting reading here. A tremendous amount of “what/if” suppositions.Beautiful quotes indeed.
    The one i Loved most was the quote from Sacks about the Israelites crossing the Red Sea.
    Sometimes I wonder………….
    I suppose God can do a lot without being disturbed by what we call science. Maybe all the philosophy forgets the answer Sacks gives.
    Maybe we’re just guessing
    Not to scientific I suppose.
    But never the less……
    I learned a lot from you folks.
    Thanks for that.
    By the way….. Plantinga’s book is indeeed very interesting.
    I liked the Bible more.