Perhaps no where is there more controversy than in the United States over the alleged conflicts between science and religion. Most of that controversy is conducted by folks who are woefully uneducated when it comes to either subject.
Alvin Plantinga, noted philosopher, attempts to bring some systematic thinking to the dispute. His basic premise is that apparent differences between science and theism are largely superficial and the two are actually deeply in agreement. His second basic premise is that the true disagreement lies between science and naturalism.
First let me say, that this is all quite heavy reading for the average person. If you are untrained in logic, statistical analysis, and philosophy, you will probably, as I did, struggle to follow the train of argument. However with patience, you will certainly tease out the main arguments.
It is most important that one understand what evolution is. It is not as is popularly thought, how life arose on planet earth. It is how existing life became increasingly complex over time moving from the more simplistic to the more complicated. In other words, from amoeba to human. The basic scientific explanation for this is commonly known as “Darwinism” or the random genetic mutation which drive evolutionary change.
Plantinga, as I understand him, doesn’t say that this process is inaccurate, but he does say that there is nothing to stop God from using his own laws to “cause” this or that mutation, thus “directing” the movement of otherwise benign processes.
He addresses the issue of miracles by claiming that those who think there is a conflict claim that miracles are antithetical to a universe operating under “laws” which ours seems to be. Indeed, some theologians would agree, and claim that the biblical references to miracles are nothing but fairy tales used to make more consequential arguments, but not reflecting reality. Dr. Plantinga points out that this no-miracle scenario is only compatible with a “closed system”, and whether it be Newtonian physics or quantum physics, modern science no where posits the idea of a closed system. Therefore when God effects a miracle (if indeed God does) it cannot by definition violate any “law”.
He goes on to explain that certain scientific truths are not “defeaters” to theistic belief, such as the interpretation that the earth is flat from a reading of Genesis, and our scientific understanding that the earth is round. Plantinga would argue that this doesn’t defeat belief in God, but merely informs us that our interpretation of some parts of the bible may be faulty.
Generally speaking his finds Bebe’s intelligent design to be flawed in its thinking which I think is basically in accord with most of the mainstream scientific community.
As Plantinga moves into this arguments involving why science and naturalism are really at odds, the going gets quite a bit more tough and only someone with some basic background can make solid sense of the arguments. He finds that we as humans can be assured that our senses are reliable because God, he claims helps us to see truth. This is our compass in discerning the value of our senses and memories and reason. Naturalism only works for survival and reproduction and truth is not part of that equation, though one could argue I would think that a properly functioning memory, sensory apparatus and reasonable faculty do aid in survival in the end.
I’m ill-equipped to make a judgment here as to whether Plantinga has made a compelling case or not. I find his arguments persuasive in large measure, but then I am a believer and carry that foremost into my reading. I hope that I am open-minded enough to see obvious flaws, and were I trained in philosophy, perhaps I could.
However, I will say that I too, like Dr. Plantinga, feel ill-served by the so-called New Atheists who tend to substitute more insult than actual substance to their arguments. It is impossible I find to hold a decent conversation with their followers, well-versed or not, when all you get is snide “santa claus in the sky” retorts when you try to make cogent arguments.
I think this is an important contribution to the discussion, and one that all believers and non-believers need to read and discuss seriously. In the end, if properly understood, I don’t think we have all that much to argue about. Thinking believers are not anti-science and never were.
I am grateful to Oxford University Press and their publicity department for providing this book to me free of charge for review. There are no agreements with them as to the contents of this review, and all the remarks made are mine.
- Thomas Nagel Reviews Alvin Plantinga (maverickphilosopher.typepad.com)
- Naturalism and science are incompatible (openparachute.wordpress.com)
- Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism: Notes on the Preface (maverickphilosopher.typepad.com)
- Can Religious Belief Be Tested? (nybooks.com)