Where the Conflict Really Lies, Part 2

In part 1 of my review of Dr. Alvin Plantinga’s book, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism, I spent all my time discussing how he deals with the superficial conflict between theism and science. That’s because Plantinga spends most of his book discussing the issue. When it is time to move on to the deep concord that exists between science and theism, you have reached page 191 of 350. I suppose he spends so much time on the issue because there is so much discussion of it in today’s society.

When Plantinga moves on to discussing what he sees as the deep concord between science and theism, he brings up many familiar arguments. He starts with the “fine tuning” argument, which says that science has found many, many aspects of the universe that would forbid life if they were much different from how we actually observe them:

For example, if the force of gravity were even slightly stronger, all stars would be blue giants; if even slightly weaker, all would be red dwarfs; in neither case could life have developed. The same goes for the weak and strong nuclear forces; if either had been even slightly different, life, at any rate life even remotely similar to the sort we have, could probably not have developed (p. 195)

Thus, it really does look like the universe was “rigged” to produce life, as the theist believes.

Plantinga also discusses the argument that turned me from atheist to creationist – the argument from design. When we observe nature, we see instances of the most exquisite design, which generally implies the existence of a designer. He says that the design argument isn’t an irrefutable argument for theism. After all, there are ways around it. However, they “add to the pile” of evidence for theism. Here is how he puts it:

…design discourses do support theism, although it isn’t easy to see how much support they offer. I realize that this is a wet noodle conclusion: can’t I say something more definite and exciting? Well, I’d love to; but my job here is to tell the sober truth, whether or not it is exciting. That obligation can sometimes interfere with telling a good story, but what can I say? (p. 264)

I think Plantinga saves the best reason for a deep concord between science and theism for last. In Chapter 9, he details how Christianity was instrumental in producing the science we have today. I have discussed this before (here and here), but not surprisingly, Plantinga does a much better job. He spends a lot of time showing how Christian ideas such as the fact that man is created in the image of God, that God is a rational lawgiver, and that God made creation for man allowed Christians to study nature in the detailed way that led to modern science. As he notes:

Indeed, the important twentieth-century physicist C.F. von Weizs├Ącker goes so far as to say, “In this sense, I call modern science a legacy of Christianity.” (p. 266)

Now I come to the part of the book with which I was least happy. In the last chapter (Chapter 10), he gives what he calls “The Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism” to make the case that there is a deep conflict between science and naturalism. I have discussed this before, but in essence, the argument holds that evolution is not expected to produce a brain that will believe in true statements. It is only expected to produce a brain that will make its person survive. As a result, if you believe that evolution is all there is, you can’t expect that the statements you believe are actually true. They are just the things that make you survive. For example, evolution could produce in early man a behavior of avoiding lions, but not necessarily because of a belief that lions are predators. It could just as easily produce an aversion to lions by making a person believe that lions are a manifestation of an evil god. In the end, then, if all your beliefs are simply the result of evolution, then there is no reason to expect them all to be true. In fact, there is no reason to expect that even most of them are true. As a result, there is no reason to expect that the conclusions of science are true. Nontheistic evolution, then, argues against the conclusions of science!

Obviously, most everyone believes that the conclusions of science are true, so there must be more to how we got here than just evolution. Otherwise, we would be a race of survivors, not a race of thinkers. As I said previously, I don’t like this argument because I think it ignores a legitimate issue: true beliefs produce even more beliefs that lead to survival. For example, if I believe that I should avoid lions because they are predators, then I will probably look at any lion-like animal as a predator as well. Thus, animals that are large, have sharp teeth, and have sharp claws should all be avoided. In this way, the true belief that a lion will eat me if I get too close will probably produce more true beliefs like a tiger will eat me if I get too close. As a result, I would expect that evolution would favor the development of true beliefs, because they will produce a larger set of beliefs that will lead to even better survivability.

Plantinga tries to answer this objection by making the distinction between instincts (which he calls “indicators”) and beliefs. Evolution favors anaerobic ocean bacteria that “know” which way is down, because going down leads them to oxygen-free zones, where such bacteria thrive. However, he says that this isn’t a belief, because he doesn’t think bacteria have beliefs. Instead, it is an indicator. Good indicators enhance survivability, but true beliefs do not. However, I don’t think this saves the argument. In the end, I think true beliefs can act like good indicators. They can lead to a much larger set of practices that make you more survivable. In the end, then, while I find his Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism interesting, I don’t find it convincing.

However, as I said in part 1 of this review, I do think there is a deep conflict between naturalism and science. It isn’t because of the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism, however. It is because a commitment to naturalism immediately excludes possible conclusions for no reason. Scientists simply shouldn’t adopt a framework like that. If science is about finding out how the universe really works and how it really came to be, then the supernatural has to at least remain a possibility. Even some atheists admit this.

9 thoughts on “Where the Conflict Really Lies, Part 2”

  1. Atheists that admit it are certainly more honest and true to science than those that reject it simply because their ideology clashes with it. For example, if you look at the facts, and you believe that the facts point towards evolution, you have to admit that it’s POSSIBLE, (maybe not plausible, but possible) that God sparked evolution as you see it, because you can’t know for sure that He didn’t. Of course, this goes the other way as well. Everyone on both sides has moments of doubt in their beliefs, whether they admit it or not: it’s only human to do so! I’m also glad Dr. Plantinga didn’t come to a forceful conclusion, because, with his self-confessed “wet noodle” conclusion, that’s really all one could come to, given the nature of science. Also, I agree with you about Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism. It’s pretty far-fetched, and, though it might reinforce some already-convinced believers, I find it hard to imagine myself being convinced by that particular argument, as I’m sure many do. It struck me as a bit odd, and not unlike the punchline of a sci-fi novel. As I read it, I was thinking “I hope Jay doesn’t support this,” (I must have somehow missed the “least happy with” part) and when I saw you disagreed I was rather relieved.

    1. W. Brown, you are precisely right about the nature of science. Science cannot prove anything. All it can do is build up evidence. The argument from design just adds evidence to the theist’s view. I also think you are right about the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism. I think it is only convincing to those who already believe.

  2. I think if I understand what Plantinga is arguing for is the same as the argument that ontological naturalism cannot explain our moral beliefs. Questions like what one “ought to or not do” are totally irrelevent in a system with no God. There can only be answers that lead to moral relativism. Arguing that beliefs are “true” in a worldview that includes only material things is self referentially incoherent.

    1. Mark, I don’t think that’s what he is arguing. His argument assumes there are true beliefs. It just says you wouldn’t expect naturalistic evolution to produce them.

  3. Jay –

    I wholeheartedly agree with your statement, “It is because a commitment to naturalism immediately excludes possible conclusions for no reason.” Unfortunately, I think that Christians (including creationists) have had trouble seeing how large of an effect this exclusion of possible conclusions has for science as a whole. If you’re interested, I’m co-organizing a conference at ORU that we’ve titled Engineering and Metaphysics, which discusses the *practical* engineering applications that a non-reductionist view will give us. Anyway, I thought you might be interested.

  4. Thank you Dr. Wile for the book review. Another book that I’ve heard of that sounds interesting is “The Unobservable Universe” by Scott M. Tyson. Have you heard of it? If you have, I would be interested in hearing what you think. It’s so hard to distinguish between pop science and serious science. Do you think it would be a good read? Thanks again!

    1. My pleasure, Enoch. I am glad that you enjoyed it. I have not heard of The Unobservable Universe. Sorry I can’t help you there. I am currently reading Why God Won’t Go Away: Reflections on the “New Atheism” by Alister McGrath. It’ the first time I have read anything by him, and so far, I think it is very good.

  5. The silly thing, Mr. Brown, is that scientists also have ideologies. Scientists are – not always, thank goodness, but stereotypically – capable of letting their ideologies get in the way of their science. Any historical review of science will show that.

    Unless, of course, that conflicts with your ideology.

    Oh, and Westborough Baptist Church is (unofficially) officially excommunicated for foolishness. By me. Right now. They don’t count.

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