Exploring The Real 'Conflict': Science Vs. Naturalism Whether it's creationism vs. evolution, miracles vs. magic tricks, or faith vs. fact, religion and science have long been pitted against one another. But in a new book, Where the Conflict Really Lies, philosopher Alvin Plantinga argues that religion and science share more common ground than you might think. He discusses the book with NPR's Rachel Martin.
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Exploring The Real 'Conflict': Science Vs. Naturalism

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Exploring The Real 'Conflict': Science Vs. Naturalism

Exploring The Real 'Conflict': Science Vs. Naturalism

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Whether it's creationism versus evolution, miracles versus magic tricks, or faith versus fact, religion and science have long been pitted against one another. But in his latest book, called "Where the Conflict Really Lies," philosopher Alvin Plantinga argues that the real incompatibility is between religion and naturalism, a philosophical view that denies the existence of any spiritual or supernatural reality.

Religion and science, he says, share more common ground than you might think. For example, scientists may argue that miracles can't exist because they defy scientific laws. But Plantinga says actually that's not true.

DR. ALVIN PLANTINGA: These laws are all stated for closed systems. A closed system is one such that there isn't any causal input into from the outside. Nothing outside the system is causing something to happen.

MARTIN: OK. So that's a closed system. Now, the miracle.

PLANTINGA: Supposed God created a horse in Times Square in New York City. Any system in which that horse came to be would not be a closed system.

MARTIN: So no scientific law is applicable.

PLANTINGA: And therefore there wouldn't be any conflict between God's doing that miracle, let's say, and the scientific laws.

MARTIN: So Plantinga says science and religion don't conflict, as long as they respect each other's boundaries.

PLANTINGA: I think science is wonderful, important, maybe the most impressive intellectual episode of the past half a millennium has been the development of science. I also am a Christian. If there is an alleged incompatibility between them, well, that disturbs me. It's something I want to look into and see whether or not that is, in fact, so. And my argument is for the conclusion that it isn't so.

MARTIN: That sounds like what you're saying is that there has been a reticence to recognize common ground between science and religion. Why has there been such a reticence? If these intersections are so obvious, why do people emphasize the differences?

PLANTINGA: Well, of course, science started off in the bosom of Christian belief in the West. The early scientists - Newton, Boyle, and so on - were all believers in God and they saw science as a way of exploring the world that God has created. I think that the present emphasis on conflict arises, at least in part, because a number of thinkers tried to co-opt science into the service of atheism. And they want to use science as a kind of weapon in the battle between atheism and theistic religion.

MARTIN: You yourself are a Christian. Is there not a big part of your own personal religious doctrine that depends on faith, taking a leap of faith philosophically, and believing in certain things that simply can't be scientifically proven?

PLANTINGA: Well, I think there are lot of things they can't be scientifically proven that everybody accepts. That there's been a past, for example. Bertrand Russell once said that as far as our evidence goes the old world of popped into existence five minutes ago, complete with all the crumbling mountains and rusting automobiles, and apparent memories and the like. Do we have a scientific proof that that's not so? Well, of course not.

I mean science presupposes that there has been a past. It doesn't prove that there has been. So I mean it's not as if whatever is true or sensible to believe has to be provable by virtue of science. Science is absolutely wonderful but it's a limited endeavor. It doesn't cover the whole of the knowledge enterprise, you might say.

MARTIN: Can you talk a little bit about what it is like to be a religious person, a Christian in the world of philosophical academia?

PLANTINGA: Well, when I began as a philosopher many years ago - 50 years ago or so - there were very few Christians in philosophy. And the few there were, were for the most part inclined to keep their heads down, so to speak. The subjects philosophy, was heavily secular. That's not true anymore. Now, maybe - I don't know - perhaps as many as a sixth of philosophers are believers in God of one kind or another. And maybe a higher proportion of graduate students in philosophy are.

And I'm sort of delighted to see that Christianity is doing much better in the philosophical world now, than it was when I began in philosophy.

MARTIN: You have atheists in your circle of friends?

PLANTINGA: Yes, I do. Yeah, sure.

MARTIN: Do you talk about this stuff all the time or you just kind of agree to just relax and talk about football or the weather, not address the big issues?

PLANTINGA: In college and in graduate school, you do that kind of thing. But after you've been at it quite a long time, then you're more inclined to set those things aside, because you know how the conversation will go anyway.


PLANTINGA: It really won't go anywhere, and you talk about other things. But it doesn't just have to be about football. Even when you're at Notre Dame, there are topics besides God and...

MARTIN: And football.


PLANTINGA: ...and football. Maybe not very many but some.

MARTIN: Alvin Plantinga is a professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. His latest book is called "Where the Conflict Really Lies." And he joined us from member station WGVU in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Dr. Plantinga, thank you so much for speaking with us.

PLANTINGA: It was my pleasure.

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