Where The Conflict Really Lies

Science, Religion, And Naturalism

by Alvin Plantinga

Where the Conflict Really Lies

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Where The Conflict Really Lies

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Preface

My overall claim in this book: there is superficial conflict but deep concord between science and theistic religion, but superficial concord and deep conflict between science and naturalism. Now central to the great monotheistic religions — Christianity, Judaism, Islam — is the thought that there is such a person as God: a personal agent who has created the world and is all-powerful, all - knowing, and perfectly good. I take naturalism to be the thought that there is no such person as God, or anything like God. Naturalism is stronger than atheism: you can be an atheist without rising to the full heights (sinking to the lowest depths?) of naturalism; but you can't be a naturalist without being an atheist. Naturalism is what we could call a worldview, a sort of total way of looking at ourselves and our world. It isn't clearly a religion: the term "religion" is vague, and naturalism falls into the vague area of its application. Still, naturalism plays many of the same roles as a religion. In particular, it gives answers to the great human questions: Is there such a person as God? How should we live? Can we look forward to life after death? What is our place in the universe? How are we related to other creatures? Naturalism gives answers here: there is no God, and it makes no sense to hope for life after death. As to our place in the grand scheme of things, we human beings are just another animal with a peculiar way of making a living. Naturalism isn't clearly a religion; but since it plays some of the same roles as a religion, we could properly call it a quasi -religion. If my thesis is right, therefore — if there is deep concord between science and Christian or theistic belief, but deep conflict between science and naturalism — then there is a science/religion (or science/quasi-religion) conflict, all right, but it isn't between science and theistic religion: it's between science and naturalism. Many would dispute my claim that there is no serious conflict between religion and science — indeed, many seem to think naturalism or atheism is part of the "scientific worldview." Among them are the "new atheists": Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris. These are the Four Horsemen — not of the Apocalypse, nor of Notre Dame, but of atheism; and their aim is to run roughshod over religion. Their objections and complaints are manifold. First, they attribute most of the ills of the world to religion: they point to the Crusades, to witch hunts, to religious wars, to intolerance, to current terrorism, and much else besides. Of course the world's religions do indeed have much to repent; still (as has often been pointed out) the suffering, death, and havoc attributable to religious belief and practice pales into utter insignificance beside that due to the atheistic and secular ideologies of the twentieth century alone. The Four Horsemen also claim that religious belief is unreasonable and irrational, as silly as believing in the Spaghetti Monster or Superman, or maybe even the Green Lantern. Their claims are loud and strident. They propose to deal with their opponents not by way of reasoned argument and discussion, but by way of ridicule and "naked contempt" (see footnote 16 in chapter 2). Why they choose this route is not wholly clear. One possibility, of course, is that their atheism is adolescent rebellion carried on by other means. Another (consistent with the first) is that they know of no good reasons or arguments for their views, and hence resort to schoolyard tactics. In terms of intellectual competence, the new atheists are certainly inferior to the "old atheists" — Bertrand Russell and John Mackie come to mind. They are also inferior to many other contemporary but less strident atheists — Thomas Nagel, Michael Tooley, and William Rowe, for example. We may perhaps hope that the new atheists are but a temporary blemish on the face of serious conversation in this crucial area.

Be all that as it may, these new atheists unite with the old atheists in declaring that there is deep and irreconcilable conflict between theistic religion — Christian belief, for example — and science. (And here they are joined by some from the opposite end of the spectrum: those Christians who believe that reason and modern science are the enemies of Christian belief.) Now if this were true, it would be both important and unhappy. Modern science is certainly the most striking and impressive intellectual phenomenon of the last half millennium. Think of the development of physics from the time of Isaac Newton to the present: the sheer intellectual brilliance and power of that tradition is astonishing. It involves a large number of extremely talented people, but also an army of less incandescent luminaries — all addressing an evolving set of overlapping questions in such a way that the later answers oft en build on and carry further the earlier answers. What is particularly striking about modern science (at least to a philosopher) is that it is in this way a cooperative venture. (Of course it is also, oft en, an extremely competitive venture.) Scientists not only collaborate with each other; they regularly build on each other's results. It's no surprise that this intellectual splendor has also had some unfortunate and unintended side effects. Some treat science as if it were a sort of infallible oracle, like a divine revelation — or if not infallible (since it seems so regularly to change its mind), at any rate such that when it comes to fixing belief, science is the court of last appeal. But this can't be right. First, science doesn't address some of the topics where we most need enlightenment: religion, politics, and morals, for example. Many look to scientists for guidance on matters outside of science, matters on which scientists have no special expertise. They apparently think of scientists as the new priestly class; unsurprisingly, scientists don't ordinarily discourage this tendency. But of course a scientist pontificating on matters outside her field is no better than anyone else pontificating on matters outside her field. Second, science contradicts itself, both over time and at the same time. Two of the most important and overarching contemporary scientific theories are general relativity and quantum mechanics. Both are highly confirmed and enormously impressive; unfortunately, they can't both be correct. Still, modern science is impressive and amazing. If there were serious conflicts between religion and current science, that would be very significant; initially, at least, it would cast doubt on those religious beliefs inconsistent with current science. But in fact, I will argue, there is no such conflict between Christian belief and science, while there is conflict between naturalism and science. My argument goes as follows. In Part I, Alleged Conflict, I note some areas of supposed conflict between science and Christian (and theistic) belief. First, there is evolution. Second, there is the claim that theistic religions endorse miracles or other kind of special divine action, thereby going against science. I argue that these apparent conflicts are merely apparent. There is no real conflict between theistic religion and the scientific theory of evolution. What there is, instead, is conflict between theistic religion and a philosophical gloss or add-on to the scientific doctrine of evolution: the claim that evolution is undirected, unguided, unorchestrated by God (or anyone else). I argue next that there is no conflict between science and the thought that there are and have been miracles — for example, miraculous healings, and the chief miracle of Christianity, Jesus' rising from the dead. In particular, I argue that special divine action, including miracles, is not incompatible with the various conservation laws (the conservation of energy, for example), in that these laws apply to systems that are causally closed — closed to causal influence from the outside. Any system in which a divine miracle occurs, however, would not be causally closed; hence such a system is not addressed by those laws. In Part II, Superficial Conflict, I point out that there are indeed some areas of actual conflict between science and Christian belief. For example, certain theories from evolutionary psychology, and certain theories in scientific scripture scholarship (or "historical Biblical criticism," as I will call it) are inconsistent with Christian belief. Unlike the alleged conflicts in Part I, these are real conflicts. Though real, however, these conflicts are superficial; that is because they don't tend to provide defeaters for Christian or theistic belief. The reason, as I argue, is that the scientific evidence base, constrained as it is by methodological naturalism, is only a part of the Christian evidence base. Perhaps certain Christian beliefs are improbable from that partial evidence base; it doesn't follow that they are improbable from a Christian's complete evidence base. If so, however, these theories don't (automatically, at any rate) constitute or provide a defeater for the Christian beliefs with which they conflict. This conflict is therefore properly thought of as superficial. So far, then, what we see is that there is superficial conflict between Christian belief and science. But there is also concord, as I argue in Part III. In chapters 7 and 8 I consider the "fine-tuning" arguments for theism, pointing out that they offer non-negligible evidence for theistic belief.

And in chapter 9, Deep Concord, I point out several ways in which Christian and theistic ways of thinking are deeply hospitable to science. These all revolve around one central theme: according to Christian belief, God has created us in his image, which includes our being able, like God himself, to have knowledge of ourselves and our world. He has therefore created us and our world in such a way that there is a match between our cognitive powers and the world. To use the medieval phrase, there is an adaequatio intellectus ad rem (an adequation of the intellect to reality). In Part IV, Deep Conflict, I argue that the same most emphatically does not go for science and naturalism. Here there is superficial concord, if only because so many distinguished thinkers wrap themselves in naturalism like a politician in the flag, claiming that science is a supporting pillar in the temple of naturalism. But such concord is at best superficial; more exactly, perhaps, it isn't as much superficial as merely alleged. On the other hand, there is deep and serious conflict between naturalism and science. Taking naturalism to include materialism with respect to human beings, I argue that it is improbable, given naturalism and evolution, that our cognitive faculties are reliable. It is improbable that they provide us with a suitable preponderance of true belief over false. But then a naturalist who accepts current evolutionary theory has a defeater for the proposition that our faculties are reliable. Furthermore, if she has a defeater for the proposition that her cognitive faculties are reliable, she has a defeater for any belief she takes to be produced by her faculties. But of course all of her beliefs have been produced by her faculties — including, naturally enough, her belief in naturalism and evolution. That belief, therefore, — the conjunction of naturalism and evolution — is one that she can't rationally accept. Hence naturalism and evolution are in serious conflict: one can't rationally accept them both. And hence, as I said above, there is a science/religion conflict (maybe a science/quasi-religion conflict) to be sure, but it is between science and naturalism, not science and theistic belief.

From Where The Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism by Alvin Plantinga. Excerpted by permission of Oxford University Press Inc. Copyright 2011 Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

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