Dr. Alvin Plantinga on Science and Christianity

Alvin Plantinga, a thoroughly brilliant and thoroughly enjoyable man.
Dr. Alvin C. Plantinga is arguably the most important Christian philosopher alive today. Best known for his works in epistemology, metaphysics, and Christian apologetics, he is widely credited for the revitalization of Christian philosophy that took place in the mid-to-late 1900s. Indeed, a 1980 Time Magazine article reported on the remarkable resurgence that had occurred in religious philosophy and gave Plantinga the lion’s share of the credit for it, calling him “America’s leading orthodox Protestant philosopher of God.” Thanks to a member of my church, I found out that he would be lecturing at Taylor University, which is only about 35 minutes from my home. I was incredibly excited to hear such an amazing servant of God, and he certainly didn’t disappoint.

His first talk was entitled, “Science and Religion: Where the Conflict Really Lies.” He started his lecture with several witticisms. For example, many people are surprised to learn that although he is a Protestant, he is currently on the faculty at the University of Notre Dame, a Roman Catholic institution. He says many people wonder why he left his faculty position at Calvin College to go to Notre Dame. “It’s actually quite simple,” he said, “I wanted to become Pope, and there has never been a pope from any university with the name Calvin.” He said he thought it would be fun to be the first Protestant Pope, and the University of Notre Dame would help him get closer to that goal. But he said he quickly found out that “becoming Pope is harder than you might think,” so his dream is still not realized.

I actually think I understand why Dr. Plantinga went from a Calvinist college to a Roman Catholic university. Like all deep thinkers, he understands that in order to be truly educated, we must look at issues from a variety of perspectives. I think part of the reason he ended up as a Protestant philosopher at a Roman Catholic university was so that he could see various aspects of Christian philosophy from a different perspective. I find that quite laudable.

Once the initial witticisms were at an end, he said that what he was planning to discuss was part of a larger project in which he wanted to demonstrate:

There is superficial conflict but deep concord between Christian belief and science, and there is superficial concord but deep conflict between naturalism and science.

I strongly agree with this statement, but for different reasons than Dr. Plantinga.

As any good philosopher would, Dr. Plantinga wanted to carefully define his terms so that it is clear exactly what that statement means. He defined Christianity as what the major Christian creeds have in common. If you take the Apostle’s creed, the Nicean creed, etc. and find all the points that they have in common, that is what he defined as Christian belief. I tend to agree with him on that definition. While it is tempting to say, “Christianity is what the Bible says,” the problem with that statement is a lot of Christians have a lot of different ideas on what the Bible actually says. Since each creed is a representation of what many serious Christians believe the Bible says, using all the common beliefs in the major creeds is probably the best way to offer a broad definition of Christian belief.

He then says that for the purpose of origins, he will consider evolution to be the definition of science. While science encompasses a lot more than evolution, it is clear that the vast majority of scientists think that evolution is the proper explanation of origins, so that is the best representation of science. I disagree with that definition (obviously), but for the point of the argument, I will allow it. Given these two definitions, he said it is clear that science and Christianity are not in conflict, because none of the common beliefs expressed in the major creeds have a problem with all that evolution entails (an ancient earth, descent with modification, common ancestry, and natural selection operating on mutations).

Dr. Plantinga gave a good defense for that statement, indicating that the only real problem that Christianity (as he defines it) has with evolution is the idea that it is random and unguided. As long as evolution is guided so that it can accomplish God’s purpose (to produce people in His image), then there is no problem. Thus, he spent a significant amount of time talking about how the randomness that so many scientists attribute to evolution is not a necessary part of evolution. He sees it as a theological add-on to evolution. I think he made that case very well.

One interesting thing that came out of this discussion is that Dr. Plantinga said this about the works of Richard Dawkins:

The God Delusion is kind of an angry screed rather than a serious contribution to the issue of God’s existence, but The Blind Watchmaker is very much worth reading.

I wholeheartedly agree. Having read all of Dawkins’s major works, I still think The Blind Watchmaker is his best. I regularly recommend it to creationists so they can see why intelligent people believe in evolution. However, The God Delusion is simply worthless. The work of virtually any atheist philosopher is much better at making the case against God’s existence than Dawkins’s piece of trash.

Having demonstrated that Christianity and evolution are not in conflict (even though a superficial understanding of both might lead one to believe otherwise), he then tried to make the case that evolution is, in fact, incompatible with naturalism. Now I absolutely agree with his point, but not for the reasons he gave.

His reasoning is that of philosopher. He says that if evolution happened completely randomly, then what we call “beliefs” are simply products of our nervous system. If that’s the case, there is no reason to think that our beliefs are true. Furthermore, there is no reason to think we can trust our intellectual faculties. Evolution doesn’t care about producing rational beings engaged in the pursuit of truth. Instead, evolution just cares about producing the fittest individuals. Since the correctness of beliefs does not affect fitness, then in the end, the chance of each of your beliefs being correct is, at best, 50/50. Maybe what you conclude from your senses is correct, maybe not. However, you can’t really know, since whether or not those beliefs are correct has nothing to do with your evolutionary fitness.

Thus, if you consider 100 beliefs that you might have, the chance of those 100 beliefs being correct is 0.5 raised to the 100 power, a tiny, tiny number. Given that evolution requires all sorts of true beliefs (the conclusions of genetics, the meaning of the fossil record, etc.), the chance of it being true is virtually zero in a naturalistic world. So to him, there is deep conflict between naturalism and evolution, because naturalism tells you that evolution is almost certainly not true.

In the question/answer session, one person before me and one person after me brought up the same basic objection to his argument. We all claimed that true beliefs do have a selective advantage, because they can help us make life-saving decisions. For example, I said if I believed lion tracks represent a lion, then I will avoid areas that have lion tracks, and that might very well save my life. Someone with a false belief about lion tracks (that they indicate a tasty treat is nearby, for example) will be much more likely to be killed by the lion, so in the end, true beliefs make you more likely to survive.

Dr. Plantinga countered with the fact that all you have to do is avoid the lion tracks to survive. You don’t have to believe they represent a lion or that the danger is in the form of a lion. For example (this is my example, not his), if you believed the lion tracks are markings made by an angel to alert you of an evil presence that will corrupt your soul, you will still avoid the lion tracks. That belief, then, will make you just as fit to survive as someone who believes that lion tracks mean a lion. Thus, whether or not a belief is true has little bearing on survival.

I pressed him on this issue later on, in private. I said that the naturalist merely has to look at what we know to show that people are rational and can make true conclusions about the world. After all, we know that there is consensus on most beliefs in science. If people couldn’t use rationality to form true beliefs, there would be a wide range of beliefs regarding even the most basic things in science, like genetics, cells, etc. However, there is broad consensus on these matters, indicating that true beliefs do not come about by chance. So even if the naturalist cannot point to the specific reason behind why the ability to believe true things evolved, it clearly did, or there wouldn’t be such broad agreement on so many things when it comes to science.

Dr. Plantinga countered that it is quite true that there are rational beliefs in this world, but that could be the result of God creating us in His image. If naturalists really want to posit that random evolution can produce rational creatures in pursuit of truth, they must show that it can. I still disagreed with him. In the end, the theist says we are rational because God created us to be rational. The naturalist says we are rational because there is a selective advantage to being rational. Both are statements of faith, so in my mind, both are equally valid. Dr. Plantinga disagreed, but he did so (as he seems to do everything else) quite amiably. In the end, we agreed that at minimum, both positions take faith.

Now as I said, while I disagree with his specific argument, I do agree with his overall statement. There is a deep concord between Christianity and science, because Christianity is consistent with the vast majority of the data. There is deep conflict between naturalism (as well as evolution) and science, because naturalism and evolution are inconsistent with a large quantity of the data.

Even though Dr. Plantinga and I are in disagreement on this matter (and others as well), I am thankful that his staggering intellect is working for God!