Friday, December 30, 2011

Book Review: Where The Conflict Really Lies by Alvin Plantinga

Christian apologetics tends to be extremely defensive in nature. “Defending the faith” is the way we often think of apologetics. Of course we know that apologetics is more than simply defensive, but it is fair to say that a large amount of energy by Christians is spent responding to atheists – be it the so-called four horsemen of atheism (Dennett, Dawkins, Harris, or the late Chris Hitchens) or simply the run-of-the-mill atheists whom we've all encountered at one time or another.

Right out of the gate, I want to say this about Alvin Plantinga’s new book Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism - he takes the fight to the atheists. After reading this book, it becomes apparent that if they want to carry the mantle of rationality then naturalists/atheists have a lot of work to do.

From the beginning, in typical philosophical fashion, Plantinga is straightforward about the case he is about to spend the book making:
My overall claim in this book: there is superficial conflict but deep concord between science and theistic religion, but superficial concord and deep conflict between science and naturalism. (90-91) [All references are from the Kindle edition of the book]
He does not insist that science is at peace with every metaphysical commitment, however: “there is a science/religion (or science/ quasi-religion) conflict, all right, but it isn’t between science and theistic religion: it’s between science and naturalism” (103-104).

In Part I of the book, Plantinga recounts the alleged conflict that is said to exist between theism and science. He reviews arguments by Dawkins, Dennett, and Paul Draper, demonstrating that their commitment to naturalism is a metaphysical commitment and that science (and especially evolution) ought not to necessarily entail naturalism as the atheists are wont to insist. He also spends an extended amount of time discussing the question of whether a belief in a God who does miracles and “intervenes” in the world undermines the possibility of scientific exploration or knowledge. Arguing that science deals with the possibility of knowledge within a system when it is closed, it is silent on laws within a system when it is open (such as when a being intervenes from the outside).

Some may find Plantinga’s method of apologetics to be somewhat difficult to swallow. He believes that God’s existence cannot be strictly proven, but his view that God has implanted a sensus divinitatis within mankind means that a belief in God is properly basic and provides an epistemic ground for theistic belief. That is to say, just as we do not perceive other minds to exist, or perceive this house to be standing in front of us through a chain of arguments or inferences, we likewise do not believe that God exists because of a chain of inferences or arguments. Plantinga says that we perceive God rather than arguing to God.

That does not mean that defeaters cannot be presented to the perceiver of God. Theism is not, in principle, nonfalsifiable. Plantinga's argument for proper basicality cannot be used to prove any and every belief. The atheist, it is alleged, offers alleged defeaters for this belief, and the alleged defeaters are to be dealt with.
It is perfectly obvious that theists won’t be able to give an explanation of mind in general—they won’t be able to offer an explanation for the state of affairs consisting in there being at least one mind—because, naturally enough, there isn’t any explanation of the existence of God. But that is certainly not a point against theism. Explanations come to an end; for theism they come to an end in God. For any other view of the same level of generality they also come to an end. The materialist or physicalist, for example, doesn’t have an explanation for the existence of elementary particles or, more generally, contingent physical or material beings; that there are some is, from that perspective, a brute fact. It isn’t easy to say precisely what counts as begging the question; but to fault theism for failing to have an ultimate explanation of mind is as good a candidate as any. (545-551)
One of the most important claims Plantinga defends in the book is that evolution does not entail the claim that natural selection is an unguided process. The claim that evolution is unguided is a metaphysical commitment which makes a judgment in an area where science cannot speak with authority.
On the one hand, therefore, we have the scientific theory, and on the other, there is the claim that the course of evolution is not directed or guided or orchestrated by anyone; it displays no teleology; it is blind and unforeseeing; as Dawkins says, it has no aim or goal in its mind’s eye, mainly because it has no mind’s eye. This claim, however, despite its strident proclamation, is no part of the scientific theory as such; it is instead a metaphysical or theological add-on. On the one hand there is the scientific theory; on the other, the metaphysical add-on, according to which the process is unguided. The first is part of current science, and deserves the respect properly accorded to a pillar of science; but the first is entirely compatible with theism. The second supports naturalism, all right, but is not part of science, and does not deserve the respect properly accorded science. And the confusion of the two—confusing the scientific theory with the result of annexing that add-on to it, confusing evolution as such with unguided evolution—deserves not respect, but disdain. (4233-4240)
This claim of Plantinga’s will meet with some resistance from orthodox Christians who have (justifiably) less than friendly feelings towards evolution (especially given the new arguments surrounding Adam & Eve). The point, which is not to be missed, however, is that evolution as such, does not present a defeater for theism. It may present a defeater for a literal reading of Genesis, it may present a defeater for the Westminster Confession’s statements on creation, and it may present a defeater for inerrancy in general, but it does not present a defeater for Christian theism.
The truth of the theory of natural selection, therefore, doesn’t for a moment show that all of life has come to be by way of unguided natural selection, or even that it is biologically possible that it has come to be that way. It is therefore a mistake to say with Dennett that “the theory of natural selection shows how every feature of the world can be the product of a blind, unforesightful, nonteleological, ultimately mechanical process of differential reproduction.” (717-720)
The point in Plantinga’s discussion is not whether evolution is true or how old the universe is – the point is that even if one believes in evolution, the metaphysical claim of naturalism, which is often attached to evolution, is an added assumption. The one does not necessarily entail the other.

In Part II of the book, Plantinga reviews the superficial conflict that does exist between theism and modern science. He talks about evolutionary psychology as well as modern naturalistic methodologies in scripture scholarship (higher biblical criticism). Plantinga concedes that evolutionary psychology and higher biblical criticism cannot co-exist happily with a theistic worldview. However, he also argues that these issues are superficial in nature and that they do not offer defeaters for theistic belief since they entail the very metaphysical assumptions that are at issue.

In Part III Plantinga reviews the ways in which theism finds happy concord with science. He discusses the merits of fine-tuning arguments and Behe’s irreducible complexity. Some may be interested Plantinga’s evaluation of fine-tuning arguments from his analytical-philosophical perspective. In sum, he does not find the arguments to be nearly as strong as some classical apologists have:
The right conclusion, I think, is that the [Fine Tuning Argument] offers some slight support for theism. It does offer support, but only mild support. Granted: this is not a very exciting conclusion, not nearly as exciting as the conclusion that the argument is extremely powerful, or the conclusion that it is wholly worthless. It does, however, have the virtue of being correct. (3138-3140)
It is worth the effort to read his arguments for this conclusion, though we don’t have time to work through them in this review. He also has this conclusion regarding Michael Behe’s irreducible complexity:
On balance, then: Behe’s design discourses do not constitute irrefragable arguments for theism, or even for the proposition that the structures he considers have in fact been designed. Taken not as arguments but as design discourses they fare better. They present us with epistemic situations in which the rational response is design belief—design belief for which there aren’t strong defeaters. The proper conclusion to be drawn, I think, is that Behe’s design discourses do support theism, although it isn’t easy to say how much support they offer. (3679-3683)
He also discusses the “deep concord” between theism and science. He discusses the friendliness between the theistic view of human knowledge and the reliability of the senses, mathematics, simplicity, and contingency. Pointing to the Christian view of the image of God in man, his argument centers on the fact that God has made man to be a knower and has designed man’s mind to have a correspondence with the world around him.
According to theism, God has created us in such a way that we reason in inductive fashion; he has created our world in such a way that inductive reasoning is successful. This is one more manifestation of the deep concord between theism and science. (4111-4113)
Atheists cannot make such a claim. Part IV of the book is where Plantinga gets the knives out. Whereas Christians are able to account for induction, simplicity, the constancy of physical laws, the abstract non-physical laws of mathematics, and reliability of the senses, atheists have no such ground for rationality. Regarding physical laws,
[F]rom the point of view of naturalism, the character of these laws is something of an enigma. What is this alleged necessity they display, weaker than logical necessity, but necessity nonetheless? What if anything explains the fact that these laws govern what happens? What reason if any is there for expecting them to continue to govern these phenomena? Theism provides a natural answer to these questions; naturalism stands mute before them. (3939-3942)
Plantinga goes farther than to simply argue that atheists can’t explain the universe. He actually argues that rationality and atheism are mutually destructive. His argument that naturalism is self-defeating has been around in printed form for years. However, in this book it forms the meat and potatoes of his argument against naturalism.
What I will argue is that naturalism is in conflict with evolution, a main pillar of contemporary science. And the conflict in question is not that they can’t both be true (the conflict is not that there is a contradiction between them); it is rather that one can’t sensibly accept them both. (4252-4254)
What Plantinga essentially argues is that unguided natural selection only promotes the survival of the organism in question - not the gaining of truth. This means that while Christians believe we are designed to know truth and that there is a correspondence between the world and our senses, naturalism can make no such claim. Plantinga’s entire argument, formally stated, goes as follows. [KEY: P=Probability R=Rationality N=Naturalism E=Evolution]
(1) P(R/N&E) is low.
(2) Anyone who accepts (believes) N&E and sees that P(R/ N&E) is low has a defeater for R.
(3) Anyone who has a defeater for R has a defeater for any other belief she thinks she has, including N&E itself.
(4) If one who accepts N&E thereby acquires a defeater for N&E, N&E is self-defeating and can’t rationally be accepted. Conclusion: N&E can’t rationally be accepted. This argument shows that if someone accepts N&E and sees that P(R/N&E) is low, then she have a defeater for N&E, a reason to reject it, a reason to doubt or be agnostic with respect to it.
After stating the argument, Plantinga reviews a possible attempt by the naturalist to squirm out from under it:
Naturalistic evolution gives its adherents a reason for doubting that our beliefs are mostly true; chances are they are mostly mistaken. If so, it won’t help to argue that they can’t be mostly mistaken; for the very reason for mistrusting our cognitive faculties generally, will be a reason for mistrusting the faculties that produce belief in the goodness of that argument. This defeater, therefore, can’t be defeated. Hence the devotee of N&E has an undefeated defeater for N&E. N&E, therefore, cannot rationally be accepted—at any rate by someone who is apprised of this argument and sees the connections between N&E and R. (4757-4762)
All in all, Plantinga’s book takes the fight to the atheists. They have serious problems to work through which are endemic to their worldview. How an atheist proposes to solve the problem of rationality with unguided natural selection is beyond me. I am not heavily involved enough in the contemporary debates to really know for myself whether there even has been a proposed solution offered to Plantinga’s past iterations of the argument that naturalism is self-defeating.

Presuppositionalists will have mixed feelings about the book. On the one hand, they will utterly despise Plantinga's philosophical approach, which involves a great deal of discussion about probabilities (presuppositionalists are allergic to probabilities). They will also not agree with Plantinga's method of arguing for theism in general rather than Christian theism particularly. On the other hand, this book puts a large number of arguments and tools into the hands of the presuppositional apologist.

All in all, Plantinga’s book is an apologetic tour de force. Philosophically rigorous and yet written at a popular level, it constitutes a bold introduction to Alvin Plantinga which many lay Christians have heretofore not had popular access to, and it constitutes one of the strongest challenges to atheism in print. It may not be the book that many want, and most of his readers will not agree with Plantinga on everything (especially his apparent concession to theistic evolution), but one thing is for certain – this is the book which Christendom has needed for years, it is the pinnacle and summation of Plantinga’s philosophical prowess, and distills years of Plantinga's work into a single volume. We are blessed to finally have it.


  1. To a great extent, science depends on observation and religion relies on scripture. Science can now study only 5% of this Universe, since dark matter is 25% and dark energy about 70% of its critical density. Religion? According to which scriptures: the Torah, New Testament, Qur'an, Vedas, Buddhist sutras, ...? Many quantum physicists contend that observation is dependent on the observer; many mystics say that relying on scripture is less significant than direct experience.

    In my free ebook on comparative mysticism, "the greatest achievement in life," is a quote by Albert Einstein: "...most beautiful and profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and most radiant beauty - which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive form - this knowledge, this feeling, is the center of all religion."

    E=mc², Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity, is probably the best known scientific equation. I revised it to help better understand the relationship between divine Essence (Love, Grace, Spirit), matter (mass/energy: visible/dark) and consciousness (f(x) raised to its greatest power). Unlike the speed of light, which is a constant, there are no exact measurements for consciousness. In this hypothetical formula, basic consciousness may be of insects, to the second power of animals and to the third power the rational mind of humans. The fourth power is suprarational consciousness of mystics, when they intuit the divine essence in perceived matter. This was a convenient analogy, but there cannot be a divine formula.

  2. I have no idea what you're talking about, Ron, but in my new book I write about my suspicion we all may have just been spammed.

  3. My first paragraph was on topic, at least in reference to your review. The last two were a simple analogy...certainly not scientific.

    Many other reviews of Platinga's book have be repeated on multiple blogs. So too has my response. I give you credit for writing an extensive, well thought out and independent analysis.

    If you think my comment has no merit, please delete it.

  4. My apologies, Ron, but I had no idea what your post had to do with Plantinga's book or my review of it.

  5. Adam, Plantinga seldom writes about mysticism. Many of the founders of quantum physics, Heisenberg, Schroedinger, de Broglie, Jeans, Planck, Pauli, and Eddington, were supporters of mysticism. A good reference is "Quantum Questions / Mystical Writings of the World's Greatest Physicists," edited by Ken Wilber (Shambhala 1984, 2001).

    Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, Nobel astrophysicist, in 1959 invited me to the University of Chicago's Yerkes Observatory. He introduced me to mysticism and thru 1982 I met 19 mystics, of five faiths, in 12 countries. I also conduct an email forum for professors who teach mysticism at universities on six continents. The topic is usually omitted from discussions of science vis-à-vis religion.


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