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Is There A Conflict Between Science And Religion?

Miracles: unlikely, but not impossible Hulton Archive/Getty Images hide caption

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In a recent book — Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion and Naturalism — the philosopher Alvin Plantinga argues that the conflict between science and religion is superficial. Natural science doesn't entail the nonexistence of "a person such as God" or even rule out the possibility of miracles. Given quantum indeterminacy, at least according to Plantinga, we have no grounds for saying that miracles are impossible, even if we do have good grounds for thinking them highly unlikely. Of course, as Plantinga would be quick to admit, this is not to say much on behalf of theism; after all, the point is a general one and doesn't depend in any way on the specific likelihood or truth of religious doctrines.

The same argument would allow us to conclude that natural science does not entail the nonexistence or impossibility of there being a teapot orbiting the sun (to use an example of the philosopher Bertrand Russell, recently made famous by Richard Dawkins).

Plantinga does have a stronger claim in mind though. He thinks that the truth of theism — which he explains thus: "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" — gives science the foundation it needs. In the absence of such a benevolent source of meaning, why suppose there is enough regularity or order in the world for the world to be knowable by us at all?

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And this is where Plantinga's argument gets interesting, although it is very far from being, in my judgment, in the least bit convincing. There is no deep conflict between science and religion, he says, but there is a deep conflict between science and what he calls "naturalism." Naturalism, for Plantinga, is the scientific world view; he explains it roughly as "the thought that there is no such person as God, or anything like God." Plantinga argues that science is, in a way, in conflict with itself!

I won't detail the argument he lays out. But his reasoning can be summed up this way: from a naturalistic point of view, we have every reason to doubt that our cognitive faculties are reliable. Therefore we can't seriously believe naturalism. For to believe it would be to have grounds for doubting the reliability of our own inclinations to believe it.

Why does naturalism give us reasons to doubt the reliability of our cognitive faculties? Because, so the reasoning goes, according to naturalism our cognitive faculties have evolved to maximize our fitness, not to represent the world accurately. What is a belief, from the naturalistic point of view, but a cluster of firing neurons. And their job is not to capture the truth — what would that even mean? — but to get our bodies where they need to be to avoid predators, to find food, encounter mates, and so on. So naturalism entails that our cognitive faculties are unreliable.

How can we even take naturalism seriously as something we might believe? Evidence for its truth would be self-defeating.

We can begin to see where Plantinga goes wrong when we notice that science is not committed to the nonexistence of God. The world view of science is the world view of a man repairing his automobile. The "check engine" light is on and he wants to know why. That light is an explanatory itch and the man wants to scratch it.

Now there may be a potential infinity of possible explanations for why the "check engine" light is on, ranging from "it isn't really on, I'm hallucinating it" to "my guardian angel is protecting me from going out today" to "a North Korean spy has tampered with my car." But these aren't very good explanations.

They're unreasonable, which is really just to say that they don't scratch the explanatory itch. Why not? One reason is that, other things being equal, they are not very likely. Given the way things are, it is much more likely that, oh, the alternator is on the fritz. Another reason is that, in part because they are so improbable, these further possibilities seem to raise more questions than they answer. It's like trying to scratch an itch by tickling it with a feather. It doesn't work. Naturalism is committed to acknowledging that it doesn't work.

Rationality is not a lock-step set of rules and regulations stipulating what we may and may not think. It is, rather, the appreciation of the way in which our interests, knowledge, evidence, and concerns, our sense of "other things being equal," shape what is likely, what is pertinent, what is useful, and what matters. And the thing about the guy fixing his car is that, if he's rational, he won't trouble himself with guardian angels, hallucinations or North Korean spies.

As with "check engine" lights, so with human cognitive faculties. Plantinga gives us no more reason to think that we need God to continue relying on what we see and feel and think than he gives us reason to think we ought to check with the State Department about the possible infiltration of North Korean vandals.

We don't need God to be rational and reasonable. Indeed, we couldn't make sense of God, or anything else — we couldn't make sense of "making sense" — if we were not sensitive to reasons and to the difference between good explanations and bad ones. Nor could a scientific theory — the theory of evolution, for example — give us evidence that we were not rational. Rationality, in the relevant sense, is presupposed by the way we live, not something for which we need to argue.

Plantinga's idea that science is in conflict with its own world view rests on a mischaracterization of that world view.

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