The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.
— Albert Einstein
Where The Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, & Naturalism

Where The Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, & Naturalism

Alvin Plantinga. Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

This book review was first published in JODT (Spring 2013). You can find it in the Journal here. But since the book was so good and the topic continues to be considered by many, I thought that some might enjoy the book as much as I did.

            Alvin Plantinga (1932-   ) is an American Analytical Philosopher and the John A. O’Brien emeritus Philosopher at the University of Notre Dame. There are few names bigger than Alvin Plantinga when it comes to Christian Philosophy and there are few topics calculated to be more volatile than the relationship between Science and Religion. Plantinga’s most recent book, Where the Conflict Really Lies, has generated much interest as now one of the foremost philosophers of religion has addressed this difficult topic.

            Plantinga does not ease the reader into his work, but instead begins the first sentence of his work with the claim: “there is a superficial conflict but deep concord between science and theistic religion, but superficial concord and deep conflict between science and naturalism” (ix). Not only does this statement provide the thesis of his 350 pages, but it also provides the outline for his work. The first part of his book is dedicated to the superficial conflict between science and religion, but before beginning the discussion, Plantinga is careful to define Naturalism and Atheism as two separate entities, seeing Naturalism as assuming the latter, but not vise versa.

            Immediately Plantinga addresses the “Four Horsemen” of Atheistic Evolution: Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris (x). He regards their claims as being “loud and strident” but not containing substance (x). Subsequently, he seeks to address this first aspect of his thesis. The impetus for considering this claimed conflict between science and religious belief is that “Modern science is certainly the most striking and impressive intellectual phenomenon of the last half millennium” (xi). If science were found to be in conflict with religion, then it would seem to discredit religion. Plantinga also argues the Christians should have a “particularly high regard” for science (3-4).

            In order to consider the alleged conflict, Plantinga first addresses evolution. Here some readers may be surprised that Plantinga does not seek to argue against evolution itself. Rather, Plantinga draws a distinction between guided and unguided evolution. The former, Plantinga argues, is consistent with Christian belief – regardless of whether God actually used this means or not- while the latter is clearly not in accord with Christianity (12).

            The book then turns to Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett who both claim evolution is incompatible with religious or Christian belief. Plantinga considers both these voices in the modern debate and concludes their reasoning to be similar: that unguided evolution could have happened. Plantinga concludes that at best what Dawkins and Dennet show is the epistemological possibility that it is biologically possible that life came to be without design. Such an argument is rather meager. For those who would claim that God cannot or does not act within history because it breaks Scientific Laws, Plantinga adequately explains that these laws assume a closed system, but by definition, God acting in history would imply a system that is not closed (78-86).

            Plantinga does concede that there are some branches of science that do provide a superficial conflict with theism. These include evolutionary psychology and scientific scripture scholarship (130). Regarding evolutionary psychology, Plantinga concludes: “finding a ‘natural’ origin for religious belief in no way discredits it” (140). As Plantinga begins to address scientific scripture scholarship, he asserts “striking parallels” between this and evolutionary psychology (152). He explains that classical commentary on scripture is content to explain what the text says, while Historical Biblical Criticism (HBC) is a “different kettle of fish” (155). Whereas the former seeks to explain the text for what it says, the latter seeks to declare what is true. He sees this branch as an enlightenment project finding its roots in Spinoza and only allowing for reason and no amount of external authority (155).

            Thus HBC is not scientific, despite its claims, because it begins with assumptions that only allow for a small window of interpretation. Because it assumes no outside authority or supernatural outcomes, it cannot claim to be scientific (156). He references several scholars to show that HBC will only consider some of the evidence because of the beginning assumptions and that orthodox Christianity begins with the assumption of authority and faith.

            Plantinga goes on to critique Ernst Troeltsch for assuming that God never does anything specially (miracles and resurrection) because such an assumption is not scientific (158). Bultmann is also considered at several points for asserting at the outset of his study that God does not work supernaturally in history. This is an unscientific claim, and as Plantinga later points out, is also fallacious. He concludes that neither of these enterprises produces defeaters for belief.

            The second part of his original thesis is now taken up by considering significant reasons that theism is in agreement with science. He begins with an in-depth discussion of fine-tuning. His conclusion is that fine-tuning gives “some slight support” for theism (224). He then moves to biological arguments by considering Behe’s Irreducible Complexity argument. He concludes that this argument presents “us with epistemic situations in which the rational response is design belief- design belief for which there aren’t strong defeaters” (264). Furthermore, there is a strong concord between Christian belief and the roots of scientific evaluation. Here Plantinga argues that science relies upon various theistic assumptions for its methods to succeed.

              Plantinga’s final consideration is the conflict between Naturalism and science. While he does grant that there is superficial concord between the two, he shows a deep conflict between Naturalism and evolution; namely, that if both are true, then there is no reason to trust our cognitive abilities (311ff).

               Since evolution is survival aimed and not truth aimed (if it has an aim at all), we have no epistemological basis on which to trust our cognitive evaluations. Plantinga claims this to be a defeater for every belief that we believe (assuming Naturalism and evolution are correct) including the belief in naturalism and evolution (339ff). Thus, the conflict “is not between science and theistic religion: it is between science and naturalism. That is where the conflict really lies” (350).

            Plantinga provides essential and valuable insights into every topic contained in this work. This book is sure to become a necessary work for any individual interested in this discussion, but should not be expected to be the last word, or say all that could be said. Plantinga clearly shows the superior nature of theistic epistemology over naturalistic epistemology as it pertains to science. Theists will find new life to older arguments, while Naturalists will discover significant challenges to their paradigm, and both groups will benefit from a careful consideration of this work.

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