Review of Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism, by Alvin Plantinga

Alvin Plantinga’s central argument in Where the Conflict Really Lies (Oxford University Press, 2011) is that, while there is superficial conflict between science and theism,¹ there is actually a deep concord between them; further, while there is a superficial concord between science and naturalism,² there is actually a deep conflict between them. Naturalism has become so deeply ingrained in the thought of most western academics today that to question it is considered tantamount to questioning science itself. But Plantinga brilliantly turns that notion on its head, first by deconstructing the alleged areas of conflict between science and theism, then by showing areas of concord between science and theism, and finally by demonstrating the impossibility of simultaneously affirming both evolution and naturalism.

Plantinga begins by evaluating the arguments of two of naturalism’s most notorious (or famous, depending on which side of the debate you land on) defenders, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. Dawkins and Dennett’s basic claim is that Darwinian evolution has disproven theism. But is that really the case? Plantinga first points out that the theory of evolution makes no metaphysical claims; it merely states that all life on earth has evolved from a common ancestor through natural selection operating on random mutations. But it is logically possible that this entire process was guided by God. While unguided evolution is certainly incompatible with theism, that “unguided” part is a theological add-on to the theory, and can’t possibly be demonstrated scientifically.

Dawkins and Dennet face other problems with their claims. Dawkins in particular seems to reason as follows: 1) I can conceive of a scenario in which the simplest organic systems gradually developed into the most complex systems through a series of successively adaptive mutations. 2) Therefore, it is not astronomically improbable that such a scenario happened. 3) Therefore, this in fact disproves theism. That may be an oversimplification of his argument, but the reader can see quite a few leaps in logic there; just because someone can imagine it, that doesn’t make it so.

Plantinga goes on to rebut the claim that the idea of divine intervention (i.e., miracles) is incompatible with scientific laws. The gist of his argument here is that scientific laws—such as gravity, or the conservation of energy—only apply to systems that are causally closed. But, of course, if God were to act specially to bring about a miracle, we would not be talking about a causally closed system, would we?

Plantinga then addresses some alleged defeaters for theism—namely, evolutionary psychology and higher biblical criticism. I won’t get into the details of his arguments here, but suffice it to say that these aren’t significant defeaters when you analyze them closely. For example, even if there is an evolutionary explanation for why we come to have religious beliefs, that doesn’t make those religious beliefs untrue. After all, it is possible that God could have guided the evolutionary process to bring about religious beliefs in that way. Further, if evolution were true, then there would also be an evolutionary explanation for why we come to believe in evolution! But of course evolutionists don’t think that undermines belief in evolution, so why would it undermine religious belief?

The next section of the book deals with two popular arguments for Intelligent Design—1) the physical argument from fine tuning, and 2) the biological argument from irreducible complexity. The fine-tuning argument states that our universe displays a number of finely tuned laws (like gravity, the speed of light, etc.), such that if the values of these laws were only slightly different from their actual values, then life would not be possible. For example, if the force of gravity were only slightly greater or weaker, then our universe would have either collapsed in on itself or expanded too rapidly for galaxies to form. The argument from irreducible complexity—which was first popularized in Darwin’s Black Box by Michael Behe—states that there are certain biological systems (such as the bacterial flagellum) that have a minimum degree of complexity, such that they could not be reduced to earlier, simpler stages of development without losing functionality. Behe’s arguments have been criticized with an appalling degree of hostility and derision, which is entirely out of place in academic discussion.

By contrast, Plantinga’s treatment of these arguments is refreshingly measured and charitable. But his conclusion might come as a slight disappointment to Intelligent Design advocates. He thinks that these arguments provide only modest support for theism, and I tend to agree with him here. Part of the problem is that we really have no way of determining the relevant probabilities. For example, the primary naturalistic explanation for fine tuning is the “multiverse” hypothesis combined with the anthropic principle: there may be an infinite number of universes, each of which with different values for its physical laws, and we have to find ourselves in one friendly to life, simply because if we were in a different universe, we wouldn’t be here to observe that fact. Now this has always struck me as a lame argument, like trying to win the lottery by buying all the tickets. But since it is impossible to verify empirically (and thus not scientific!), we have no way of weighing its probability against theism. But Plantinga suggests that a more helpful way forward would be to speak of design discourse rather than design argument. That is, it might be better to speak of perceiving or intuiting design as a basic belief rather than concluding design through logical inference (in the same way we also come to believe in the past, the existence of other minds, etc.). In this sense, we don’t need to present an argument for design, any more than we need to present an argument for the basic reliability of our memory. But that doesn’t mean that such beliefs cannot be disproven; even my own memory sometimes fails me.

Plantinga then argues that the theist is on much firmer ground when it comes to the epistemological foundations of science. In order for us humans to successfully do science, there has to be what medieval scholastics have called an adaequatio intellectus ad rem—a match between our minds and the real world. Something has to account for the fact that our cognitive faculties actually give us reliable access to the deep structure of reality. Not only are we able to come to a knowledge of things as they appear to us, but we can actually come to understand the laws that underlie them (and how exactly would such knowledge have given our ancestors a survival advantage on the plains of the Serengeti?). Likewise, the universe itself is law-governed, predictable, and intelligible. If naturalism were true, all of this must be taken to be an inexplicable brute fact. But if theism were true, all of this would be expected, given the fact that we are made in God’s image and designed specifically to come to a knowledge of the truth about God, ourselves, and the world we live in.

In the final chapter, Plantinga presents his familiar (to philosophers, at least) evolutionary argument against naturalism: if naturalistic evolution is true, then our minds evolved not with the aim of acquiring true beliefs but with the aim of conferring survival advantage. Therefore, we have no reason to trust what our minds tell us to be true, even when it comes to naturalism itself! In this way, naturalistic evolution becomes self-refuting. Now the objector might argue that holding true beliefs does in fact make an individual more fit to survive (if I rightly believe I should run away from a hungry tiger, I’ll be more likely to survive). But Plantinga points out that this is not in fact the case. If beliefs are nothing more than neural structures responding to environmental stimuli, then what counts is how those neural structures cause our bodies to behave, not the truth value of the beliefs associated with those neural structures. The content of the beliefs could even be the opposite of the truth, so long as the body gets where it needs to go (say, fleeing a predator). In fact, on Darwinian terms you could have an organism responding to its environment in the appropriate way, without ever forming conscious beliefs in the first place.

Overall, I think that Plantinga has done an outstanding job of showing that naturalism is grossly overrated, and not nearly as compatible with science as naturalists would have us think. If I had one complaint about the book, it would probably be that Plantinga is quite a bit more comfortable with theistic evolution than I am. I personally don’t have a problem with an old earth, or some degree of natural selection, or even some limited common descent for animals. But I am pretty skeptical of the productive capacity of genetic mutation, and on theological grounds I think that primate ancestry for humans is problematic. But aside from those reservations, I would highly recommend this book for anyone who desires to understand the true relationship between science and theism/naturalism.


¹ “Theism” is the belief that the universe has been created by a personal, transcendent divine being. This would include Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, among others.

² “Naturalism” is the claim that nature is all that exists; ultimate reality is impersonal. It is often used interchangeably with terms like atheism and materialism, although there are subtle differences between them.

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