Posted by jlwile on February 20, 2012
I have written about Dr. Alvin Plantinga before (here, here, and here). He is arguably the most important Christian philosopher alive today and is largely responsible for the revitalization of Christian philosophy that took place in the mid-to-late 1900s. As my previous posts indicate, I don’t always agree with Dr. Plantinga. However, each time I have read one of his books or listened to one of his lectures, I have learned a great deal. As a result, I was thrilled to receive a copy of his newest book, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism for Christmas.
Like any serious book on science or philosophy, this is not an easy book to read. It’s not that Plantiga is hard to understand – quite the opposite. It’s just that he thinks very, very deeply. As a result, when you read his books, you also have to think deeply. Of course, the hard work is rewarded if you stick with it, but make no mistake about it – reading this book in its entirety is hard work. Now Dr. Plantinga has made it a bit easier for you if you don’t want to work quite so hard. The book is written in two fonts: a large one and a small one. If you read just the large font, you can understand the message of the book, but you won’t get bogged down by certain details. If you read the small font as well, you get the message of the book in all its philosophical depth. While that is challenging, it is well worth it.
Dr. Plantinga encapsulates the message of his book in an elegant phrase. He says that his overall claim can be summed up as follows:
There is a superficial conflict but deep concord between science and theistic religion, but superficial concord and deep conflict between science and naturalism. (p. ix)
Needless to say, I wholeheartedly agree with this statement. Interestingly enough, however, I agree with it for slightly different reasons from those that are given in the book.
In the first part of the book, Plantinga deals with the alleged conflicts that exist between science and theistic religion. At first, he deals with evolution. He discusses the arguments of people like Dr. Richard Dawkins and Dr. Daniel Dennett, and he shows just how poor those arguments are. This alone is worth the price of the book. At one point, he discusses how Dennett says that anyone who doubts evolution is inexcusably ignorant, while Dawkins says that such people are either ignorant, stupid, insane, or evil. He then makes this very noteworthy observation:
Here Dennett and Dawkins remind one of a certain kind of religious personality with which we are all too familiar: if you disagree with them, you are not only wrong, but wicked, and should be punished… (p. 33)
That is so true. Time and time again, atheists like Dawkins and Dennett behave like the Inquisition – they declare who is reasonable and who is not, and they allow no one to question their pronouncements.
In the end, Plantinga shows that evolution is not in conflict with Christianity, and I completely agree. I think evolution is in conflict with the data, but not with any theistic religion. In the end, God could have created by evolution if He wanted. I just think the evidence clearly says that He didn’t. The only thing that conflicts with theistic religion is nontheistic evolution, but as Dr. Plantinga explains, the nontheist is actually shackled by his own beliefs:
For the nontheist, undirected evolution is the only game in town…the only way it could have happened is by way of unguided Darwinian evolution; hence it must have happened that way; hence, there must be a Darwinian series for each current life form. The theist, on the other hand, has a little more freedom here: maybe there is such a series and maybe there isn’t; God has created the living world and could have done it in any number of different ways; there doesn’t have to be any such series. In this way the theist is freer to follow the evidence where it leads. (p. 24, emphasis his)
I actually believe this is the deep conflict that exists between atheism and science. If you are committed to believing there is no God, you cannot follow the evidence wherever it leads. Instead, if it leads to something that is supernatural, you have to ignore the evidence. As a result, atheism automatically hampers a person’s scientific investigations.
In the next part of the book, Plantinga talks about divine action in the natural world. Some claim that if you believe in a supernatural being who is involved in the world, you can’t be a scientist. However, that’s nonsense, and Plantinga shows just how nonsensical such an idea is. His arguments follow the lecture I wrote about previously, so you can read about that lecture if you want to learn the details.
In the end, the two things that most people see as problems between theistic religion and science (evolution and divine action) don’t really produce a conflict at all, at least according to Plantinga. Where does he see the “superficial conflict” between science and theistic religion? Let me use his own words:
Obviously, then, there is a conflict between Christian belief and some of the theories or “results” from [historical Biblical criticism] as well as from evolutionary psychology. And the next question is this: suppose you are a classical Christian, accepting, for example, the whole of the Apostle’s Creed. Suppose you are also, as I believe Christians should be, wholly enthusiastic about science…suppose further that you see both evolutionary psychology and [historical Biblical criticism] as proper science…do they give you a good reason to reject [Christian] beliefs, or at any rate hold them less firmly? (p. 161)
He goes on to show that the answer to that is definitely, “No.” Even if historical Biblical criticism and evolutionary psychology are legitimate science (and there are many who would say otherwise), they are only in superficial conflict with Christianity.
With the superficial conflict between science and Christianity out of the way, Dr. Plantinga then goes on to discuss the deep concord that exists between science and Christianity. I will discuss that in the next part of my review.