Prosblogion Reviews: Where the Conflict Really Lies
February 3, 2012 — 14:44

Author: James Beebe  Category: Books of Interest Prosblogion Reviews  Tags: , , , , , , ,   Comments: 35

Where the Conflict Really LiesAlvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism, Oxford University Press, 2011, 376 pp., $27.95 (hbk), ISBN 9780199812097
Reviewed by James R. Beebe (University at Buffalo)
Alvin Plantinga, philosophy of religion’s most distinguished contemporary statesman, has once again produced a carefully crafted book that raises compelling challenges to widely held doubts about the cogency of belief in God. Where the Conflict Really Lies began as Plantinga’s 2005 Gifford Lectures, and pieces of it have appeared in Science and Religion: Are They Compatible (Oxford, 2011, co-authored with Daniel Dennett), and in a handful of articles. It is filled with the kind of careful analysis, philosophical rigor and understated humor that have become hallmarks of Plantinga’s notable career.
The central claims of Where the Conflict Really Lies are the following:

  1. There is no conflict between theistic religion and the scientific theory of evolution.
  2. There is no conflict between science and the common theistic belief that there have been miracles.
  3. There are superficial conflicts between Christian belief and evolutionary psychology, on the one hand, and scientific scripture scholarship, on the other, but these conflicts don’t provide defeaters for Christian belief.
  4. There is deep concord between science and theistic religion.
  5. There is deep conflict between science and naturalism.

Plantinga’s case for (v) is a restatement of his well-known evolutionary argument against naturalism, which first appeared almost twenty years ago in Warrant and Proper Function (Oxford, 1993). Because this argument will be familiar to many and because I found the 300 pages that preceded Plantinga’s most recent statement of it to be more thought-provoking, I will say nothing further about (v) in this review.


In support of (i) Plantinga examines the essential doctrines that make up the scientific theory of evolution–that the earth is 4.5 billion years old, that life has progressed from the relatively simple to the relatively complex across time, that the diversity of life has come about by way of descent with modification, that life originated at one place on earth and all subsequent life has branched out from there, and that the primary mechanism driving descent with modification is natural selection operating on random genetic mutations. Plantinga then argues that each of these doctrines is compatible with theistic belief. Summarizing his view on evolution and theistic belief, he writes, “God could have caused the right mutations to arise at the right time; he could have preserved populations from perils of various sorts, and so on; and in this way he could have seen to it that there come to be creatures of the kind he intends” (p. 11). Taking theistic belief to be neutral on the question of evolution, he continues, “God has created our world. He may have done it in many different ways; he may have employed many different means; he may have done it all at once, or in stages; he may have done it relatively recently, or, more likely (given current science) billions of years ago. However he did it, Christians and other theists believe that he has in fact done it” (p. 68).
The centerpiece of Plantinga’s argument that evolution and Christian belief are compatible is his claim that–contrary to what many proponents of evolution claim–it is no part of evolutionary theory to claim that the process of random mutations being winnowed by natural selection is an unguided one. In support of this contention Plantinga cites Ernst Mayr’s explanation of the randomness of mutations in terms of there being “no correlation between the production of new genotypes and the adaptational needs of an organism in a given environment” and Elliott Sober’s claim that “[t]here is no physical mechanism (either inside organisms or outside of them) that detects which mutations would be beneficial and causes those mutations to occur” (pp. 11-12). According to Plantinga, the claim that evolution is unguided is “a philosophical gloss or add-on to the scientific doctrine of evolution” (p. xii) or a “metaphysical or theological addition” (p. 65). Not only does current evolutionary science not include the thought that evolution is unguided, Plantinga contends that “it quite properly refrains from commenting on that metaphysical or theological issue” (p. 58).
It seems, however, that the most Plantinga is justified in claiming is that as far as the current state of scientific evidence goes, evolution might or might not have been unguided. Defending this latter way of putting the matter would be controversial enough, but Plantinga goes further and claims that attempting to address the question of the guidedness or unguidedness of evolution–even with a vastly improved evidence base–would be out of bounds. Science would be treading into areas where it has no business being. However, there does not seem to be sufficiently good reasons for Plantinga to make this claim. Consider the fact that Plantinga thinks Michael Behe’s claims about the irreducible complexity of certain microbiological structures and processes have at least the potential to shed light on the question of how likely it is that evolution could have produced the microbiological structures and processes we observe today if it had been completely unguided. And if it is possible for there to be legitimate scientific arguments in favor of guidance in evolution, it will also be possible for there to be evidence and arguments against there being such guidance. Furthermore, it seems that Plantinga’s central point could be defended using the weaker claim that the current state of scientific evidence vastly underdetermines the conclusion that evolution is unguided instead of relying upon the stronger claim that no amount of scientific evidence could ever support this conclusion.
Plantinga defends (ii)–the claim that there is no conflict between science and miracles–by analyzing both the Newtonian picture of the world and the more recent picture provided by quantum mechanics and asking what divine intervention would have to be in order to contradict with either of them. Regarding the Newtonian picture, Plantinga argues that its various conservation laws (e.g., those concerning the conservation of linear momentum and energy) apply only to systems that are causally closed. But, he argues, “Any system in which a divine miracle occurs, however, would not be causally closed; hence such a system is not addressed by those laws” (p. xiii). Hence, there is no incompatibility between scientific laws and the claim that God acts in the world in ways other than by creating and preserving it.
Regarding the potential conflict between special divine action and quantum mechanics, Plantinga notes that the Schrödinger equation for a system associates a wave function with the system that assigns a certain probability to each possible configuration of that system (p. 97). The equation provides only a distribution of probabilities across many possible outcomes without specifying which configuration will in fact result. But this means that if God decides to make one outcome rather than another come about, he will not have violated any quantum mechanical laws. Whichever outcome God chooses to bring about will have a non-zero probability and hence will not be impossible. Thus, quantum mechanics seems to provide no reason for thinking special divine action conflicts with science.
I was somewhat surprised by how much of an account of divine and human action Plantinga thinks can be built in the space provided by the foregoing points about quantum mechanics. Plantinga hypothesizes that God may exercise control over what happens at the macroscopic level of the universe by causing the right microscopic wave function collapse outcomes: “In this way God can exercise providential guidance over cosmic history; he might in this way guide the course of evolutionary history by causing the right mutations to arise at the right time and preserving the forms of life that lead to the results he intends. In this way he might also guide human history” (p. 121). Plantinga also hypothesizes that human beings “dualistically conceived” exercise their free will by causing quantum collapse-outcomes (pp. 123-124).
Plantinga contends that those who maintain there is a conflict between science and miracles do so on the basis of their metaphysical commitment to naturalism rather than on any scientific basis. Once again, he claims that such a view is “a gratuitous metaphysical or theological addition–one that has no scientific credentials” (p. 86) or “a pious hope, or a philosophical add-on, or both, even if one that is at least rather naturally suggested by the success of physics” (p. 79). One might put the point by saying that just as the practice of science ordinarily involves methodological naturalism but not metaphysical naturalism, scientific practice ordinarily involves the methodological presupposition of the causal closure of the physical world without a metaphysical commitment to causal closure.
Once again, however, Plantinga seems to make a claim that is unnecessarily strong. He asks “How could this question of the causal closure of the physical universe be addressed by scientific means?” (p. 81). Yet Plantinga also allows that scientific evidence can at least in principle tell us something about how probable it is that unguided evolutionary processes have produced all the variety of the living world. And he further grants that cosmological fine-tuning arguments and Behe’s arguments from irreducible complexity have the potential to tell us something about the probability of unguided evolution. If the scientific evidence were to suggest that it was astronomically improbable that unguided evolution could have produced the biological diversity we observe, this would seem to provide a reason for believing that some kind of guidance or intervention from outside of nature was required, in which case we would have scientific evidence that bore on the question of the causal closure of the physical world.
In any case, the arguments Plantinga puts forward in support of (i) and (ii) make for an interesting philosophical defense of a position that combines God’s intentional creative activity with the theory of evolution, in a way that does not reduce to either Old Earth creationism or more familiar varieties of theistic evolution. Theistic evolution typically allows for God’s creative activity at the beginning of the world and often for God’s undetectable sustaining activity as well. But it does not customarily allow for regular divine intervention and guidance in the natural order where God directly causes certain microphysical configurations to come about rather than others. Plantinga’s position is thus likely to reinvigorate contemporary discussions of theistic evolution.
Plantinga also has some interesting things to say about (iii)–i.e., that the conflicts between Christian belief and evolutionary psychology or scientific scripture scholarship are superficial. As with the topics above, Plantinga contends that the truly scientific parts of these areas of study do not conflict with Christian belief and that it is only metaphysical or theological additions to these theories that do. For example, some evolutionary psychologists claim that we have an innate disposition to think there is a disinterested objective morality that is binding upon us and that religion has played an adaptive role in human evolutionary history. Both of these claims, Plantinga argues, are compatible with theistic belief. It is only when evolutionary psychologists add that belief in a disinterested objective morality is an illusion and that religious belief is illusory that we get a conflict. But the conflict that results, Plantinga maintains, is superficial.
In regard to (iv)–the claim that there is in fact deep concord between science and theistic belief–Plantinga offers a fascinating new take on cosmological fine-tuning arguments and Behe’s arguments from irreducible complexity. Behe’s arguments have been widely maligned and cosmological fine-tuning arguments are often seen as only mildly effective in the face of the multiverse response. Plantinga, however, proposes to recast the considerations involved in these arguments in such a way that they are no longer arguments at all. He proposes that these design arguments should be seen as ‘design discourses’–i.e., descriptions of the experiential circumstances in which we are hard-wired to respond with design beliefs. Plantinga writes, “I encounter something that looks designed and form the belief that it is designed: perhaps this isn’t a matter of argument at all (anymore than in the case of perception or other minds). In many cases, so the thought goes, the belief that something or other is a product of design is not formed by way of inference, but in the basic way; what goes on here is to be understood as more like perception than like inference” (253). Plantinga offers the following gloss on William Paley’s famous design argument: “Construed in this way, Paley is not proposing an argument; he is instead directing our attention to the way we are inclined to form design beliefs in certain circumstances, and trying to get us into those circumstances by describing in detail what those ‘contrivances of nature’ are like; he is trying to get us to recall design beliefs, and put us in situations in which we form design beliefs” (255). Commenting on Behe, he writes, “So the real significance of Behe’s work, as I see it, is not that he has produced incontrovertible arguments for the conclusion that these systems have been designed; it is rather that he has produced several design discourses, several sets of circumstances in which design perception occurs, for which in fact there aren’t any defeaters” (p. 266).
It seems only fitting that Plantinga has thus returned in what may be the final book of his career to epistemological themes that have characterized his defense of theistic belief from the beginning. In 1967 Plantinga argued in God and Other Minds that arguments for belief in God seem no worse than arguments for belief in other minds and that while the best arguments offered in favor of the latter may seem quite weak, it is still eminently rational to believe in them. This thought was later developed in Faith and Rationality (1983), Warrant and Proper Function (1993) and Warranted Christian Belief (2000) into a full-blown defense of the idea that belief in God is foundational or properly basic (in the sense of not being inferentially derived from other beliefs) and thus does not require the support of philosophical or scientific arguments. Critics of theistic belief, of course, will not be persuaded by Plantinga’s most recent addition to these arguments, but his arguments definitely serve to make it more difficult for skeptics to impugn the rationality of religious belief. Instead of the easier task of attacking design arguments, they are now faced with the more difficult task of showing that religious belief has not in fact been produced by properly functioning cognitive processes aimed at producing true beliefs about design.
In conclusion I thought I would mention a couple of zingers that Plantinga aims at the New Atheists, for those who might be interested in such things. In addition to referring to Richard Dawkins and Peter Atkins as “dancing on the lunatic fringe” (p. 77), Plantinga maintains that the New Atheists “propose to deal with their opponents not by way of reasoned argument and discussion, but by way of ridicule and ‘naked contempt’…. Why they choose this route is not wholly clear. One possibility, of course, is that their atheism is adolescent rebellion carried on by other means. Another (consistent with the first) is that they know of no good reasons or arguments for their views, and hence resort to schoolyard tactics. In terms of intellectual competence, the new atheists are certainly inferior to the ‘old atheists’–Bertrand Russell and John Mackie come to mind. They are also inferior to many other contemporary but less strident atheists–Thomas Nagel, Michael Tooley, and William Rowe, for example. We may perhaps hope that the new atheists are but a temporary blemish on the face of serious conversation in this crucial area” (pp. x-xi). Plantinga also offers the following comment on Dennett’s dilettantish discussion of the epistemic status of beliefs formed on the basis of faith: “I’m sorry to say this is about as bad as philosophy (well, apart from the blogosphere) gets” (p. 47). Plantinga’s harsh words stem from the fact that Dennett fails to engage the best work in philosophy of religion on this topic. Plantinga asks, “Is this because he is ignorant of that work? Or doesn’t understand it? Or can’t think of any decent arguments against it? Or has decided that the method of true philosophy is inane ridicule and burlesque rather than argument? No matter; whatever the reason, Dennett’s ventures in the epistemology of religious belief do not inspire confidence” (p. 47). Passages such as these suggest an addition we might make to Plantinga’s 1984 classic, “Advice to Christian Philosophers”: Cast your best insults as hypotheticals, if you want to be able to maintain your public commitment to Christian charity.
CLARIFICATION (added March 19, 2012): The closing paragraph of my review has seemed to many to suggest that I thought Plantinga did something improper by casting indirect or hypothetical insults toward Dennett, Dawkins, etc. It was not my intention to suggest this. On the one hand, it doesn’t in general seem permissible for Christians to insult others. On the one hand, some of Plantinga’s insulting suggestions seem to me quite well founded, given the lack of argument but no lack of vitriol in the writings of those he targets. Moreover, it really does seem to be a good idea to cast your best insults as hypotheticals. So, I don’t think Plantinga did anything wrong, and it has been quite interesting to hear the suggestions of some Christian scholars on when and how they might be justified in insulting others.

Comments:
  • The “zingers” at the New Atheists are equally aimable at the “new theists” who seem to be ubiquitous in the media and online these days, especially the so-called Discovery Institute. Tu quoque suggests that Plantinga’s insults about new athiest insults are a little bit hypocritical.

    February 3, 2012 — 23:18
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    James, thanks for the review.
    “And if it is possible for there to be legitimate scientific arguments in favor of guidance in evolution, it will also be possible for there to be evidence and arguments against there being such guidance.”
    I disagree. Consider any physical system which evolves from state A to state B by a process which includes apparently random steps, which might be truly random (i.e. unguided) or designed (i.e. guided). Further suppose we know precisely the history of that process. Then, by statistically analyzing the data we may falsify the hypothesis that the process was unguided, but not the hypothesis that it was guided. Very roughly suppose we find out that the apparently random effects have the form 11001100110011001100. Given the statistical improbability of this kind of sequence of events we conclude that some kind of guiding hand and not a random source has caused it. If, on the contrary, we find that the apparently random sequence has the form 10110101101101110001 then nothing follows. That sequence does not warrant the claim that a random source is behind it. In general, given a sequence of data, it is only possible to falsify (but not to ascertain) the hypothesis that it was produced by a random source.
    Here is the argument in the context of evolution. Given the physical laws and the state of our universe shortly after the Big Bang the following question makes scientific sense: What is the probability p that in this universe some intelligent species will evolve *without* any guidance by some transcendental intelligence, i.e. by purely naturalistic/blind means? Now, it is perhaps the case that the physical sciences will never be able to compute p, but we can reason about what different values of p imply. Thus a low value of p would falsify metaphysical naturalism, for we would have scientific proof that naturalistic evolution will (probably) not produce an intelligent species. But a high value of p would not falsify theism, for the theist will hold that God has set up the universe in such a way that intelligent beings would evolve. In conclusion then and contrary to the general impression, any advancement in the physical sciences in the context of natural evolution has the potential of falsifying (or making less probable) naturalism, but not theism.
    “I was somewhat surprised by how much of an account of divine and human action Plantinga thinks can be built in the space provided by the foregoing points about quantum mechanics.”
    Actually, it is remarkable how the structure of physical law (and in particular of quantum mechanics) makes possible both God’s special providence according to classical theism (which includes the design and creation of humankind), as well as the realization of human free choices, without violating the physical closure of the universe. Here is a model of how this might work.
    “But it does not customarily allow for regular divine intervention and guidance in the natural order where God directly causes certain microphysical configurations to come about rather than others.”
    The idea that God allows the universe’s machinery to run by itself, but intervenes in critical moments and places in the micro realm, is I think misleading. Rather, out of all contingent states of the universe that the physical law allows and which do not violate its physical closure, God actualizes one which realizes both His/Her special providence as well as human free choices.
    Now I haven’t read Plantinga’s book, but I find that his defense of Behe’s idea of irreducible complexity is unfortunate, for probably there are not in fact any irreducible complex biological systems. Given that God’s special providence can obtain at high values of p, it seems to me implausible that God should gratuitously violate the physical closure of the universe at the level, say, of a microbe’s propelling tail. The whole idea goes against the grain of the physical sciences, and makes no theological sense either.

    February 4, 2012 — 3:14
  • > Very roughly suppose we find out that the apparently random effects have the form 11001100110011001100. Given the statistical improbability of this kind of sequence of events we conclude that some kind of guiding hand and not a random source has caused it.
    Good old apophenia.
    What are the statistical probabilities of 11001100110011001100, 00000000000000000000, and 01001011010101100011?
    *Exactly equal.* Each has 1/2^20 odds (1/1048576); they have exactly the same probability of being generated by flipping a coin. Someone wins every lottery.
    (The third list is a permutation of your example I generated via random.org. Doesn’t look very random, does it?)
    > In general, given a sequence of data, it is only possible to falsify (but not to ascertain) the hypothesis that it was produced by a random source.
    Only given very strong assumptions about the possible generating sources. For example, if you held to a universal complexity Kolmogorov prior, then you *could* rank the 3 sequences by complexity – probably #2, #1, and #3. (But I can’t know that for sure, Kolmogorov complexity being uncomputable!)
    > Thus a low value of p would falsify metaphysical naturalism, for we would have scientific proof that naturalistic evolution will (probably) not produce an intelligent species. But a high value of p would not falsify theism, for the theist will hold that God has set up the universe in such a way that intelligent beings would evolve.
    Given your setup, you can never reject either naturalistic evolution or theism – we would not be pondering the question if we did not exist! And dealing with anthropic effects is a heavily disputed area, with counterintuitive consequences to pretty much any approach.
    (Remember, that’s all Plantinga does: establish that theism doesn’t logically contradict any of the other positions. He does this by developing unfalsifiable theistic positions, eg. the free will defense of evil, or the quantum mechanics example.)

    February 4, 2012 — 10:46
  • David J. Houston

    “Passages such as these suggest an addition we might make to Plantinga’s 1984 classic, “Advice to Christian Philosophers”: Cast your best insults as hypotheticals, if you want to be able to maintain your public commitment to Christian charity.”
    Far from stepping away from Christian charity, Plantinga is continuing in the noble tradition of Christian satire. You can find other examples in the OT prophets, John the Baptist, the Apostle Paul, and, of course, the Lord Jesus. My personal favorite is from Elijah’s encounter with the priests of Baal who cried out to their God to consume their offering by fire and didn’t seem to be getting anywhere with him. Elijah used some hypotheticals of his own:
    “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” – 1 Kings 18:27
    There’s no disparity between Plantinga’s words and his Christianity. Christians have always recognized that a quip will often do more to bring a person to their senses than a thousand gentle words.

    February 4, 2012 — 10:57
  • Plantinga errs with his notion of divine intent in the process of evolution. He sorely disregards Mayr’s argument against teleology. Mayr supported teleonomy-mechanism-causalism in biology as ” What Evolution Is ” in effect notes.
    Per Lamberth’s teleonomic/atelic argument, as science indeed finds no intent, then to aver divine intent contradicts rather than complements science.
    To aver still nevertheless makes for the new Omphalos argument that God deceives us with teleonomy when teleology rules,because as John Hick, that ever-ready rationalizer, that God makes the evidence for Himself ambiguous in order not to overcome our free wills to make us worship Him.
    No, science never finds intent! That is a scientific fact as both Mayr and Simpson recognize as well as a philosophical point, contrary to the NCES.
    Carneades, the original ignostic, and Thales of Miletus and Strato of Lampsacus proclaim no intent. Her is where Aristotle the Satrygite errs as an ontological naturalist.
    And Plantinga ought not use those silly comments about us gnu atheists as he does not evince acquaintance with our arguments: he projects his ways of writing on to us!
    We find him at fault for farragoes of solecistic,sophisticated sophistry of woeful,wiley woo!

    February 4, 2012 — 22:50
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    gwern,
    Please observe that in my previous post I was careful to speak about the statistical probability of a *kind* of sequence. Now it is a fact that we have statistical tools which can falsify the hypothesis that a particular data sequence has been generated by a random source. According to the naturalistic interpretation of natural evolution mutations have been produced randomly. Thus, the naturalistic interpretation can (at least in principle) be checked and falsified by science. According to the theistic interpretation of natural evolution the whole process (including its mutations) have been guided by an intelligent purpose. That interpretation cannot be falsified even in principle by science. Therefore, any advancement of the scientific knowledge about natural evolution may decrease the probability of naturalism but not of theism. That’s my argument. To recap: Contrary to what many people believe there is nothing in the science of natural evolution which implies or makes it more probable that the evolutionary process was unguided. And, what’s more, advances in the science may yet produce evidence against naturalism’s hypothesis that the process was unguided.
    As for the Kolmogorov complexity you mention. The Kolmogorov complexity is one means by which we can test the hypothesis that a sequence was produced by a random source. If the Kolmogorov complexity is less than maximal then we know that (probably) that sequence was not produced by a random source. The fact that in general we cannot compute the exact value of the Kolmogorov complexity is irrelevant, for we can often compute an upper bound of it, and that’s sufficient. So, for example, every time we compress a file by using pkzip we prove that its Kolmogorov complexity is less than maximal, and thus prove that this file was probably not produced by a random source.
    “Given your setup, you can never reject either naturalistic evolution or theism – we would not be pondering the question if we did not exist!”
    But we do exist, and thus we can ponder the question about how probable it is that *unguided* natural evolution in our universe (with its laws and initial conditions) would produce some kind of intelligent species capable of pondering. In theory we could use computer simulations of our universe and see what happens. Unfortunately it may be unfeasible for science to estimate the value of that probability, which if low would falsify naturalism and confirm creationism (whereas if high would only show that natural evolution does not falsify naturalism). But there may be other ways. Keith Ward in his book “God Chance and Necessity” argues that that probability is low, based on the fact that unguided natural evolution does not have an intrinsic pointer towards ever greater complexity.
    “Remember, that’s all Plantinga does: establish that theism doesn’t logically contradict any of the other positions.”
    No, Plantinga goes much further than that. He argues first that there is a deep concord between theism and the physical sciences, and secondly that there is a deep conflict between naturalism and the physical sciences. The latter claim is particularly relevant for it punctures one of he dominant myths of our times, namely that the physical sciences support naturalism. In fact, in order to keep naturalism compatible with the findings of modern science naturalists have been violating Occam’s razor to a comically excessive degree, often proposing that reality consists of a dynamically growing multiverse within a dynamically growing multiverse – with potentially an infinitive number of universes at each level.

    February 5, 2012 — 6:11
  • I disagree with Plantinga’s (and apparently Sober’s) belief that a process could be both random and guided. I think Theism and Darwinism could be compatible, but not the way Plantinga proposes: by God feeding mutations into the process — in which case they are not random; or maintaing the survival of organisms — in which case it is not natural selection, but supernatural selection. Rather, a Theist could maintain that God has created a large enough universe so that eventually human-like creatures would evolve via an unguided process.
    Dianelos: “Contrary to what many people believe there is nothing in the science of natural evolution which implies or makes it more probable that the evolutionary process was unguided.
    I’m pretty sure I disagree with this statement, Dianelos. If it could be shown that (natural selection acting upon) a merely random process could account for evolution, without the need of guidance, then that would be a simpler explanation than guided evolution, and Occam’s razor would tell us to choose the former.
    I’m reading Plantinga’s book now. I skipped ahead to the part where he discusses Behe. He doesn’t defend Behe. But I personally think Behe has presented a fairly strong case against neo-Darwinism. And I think there is a stronger case against the unguided origin of life.

    February 5, 2012 — 14:17
  • Your discussion of (i) doesn’t mention the theological issues raised by a process of creation that involves starvation, disease, and death by violence on a massive scale. Does Plantinga address these at all?

    February 5, 2012 — 14:38
  • James Beebe

    Robert, Plantinga addresses that issue on pp. 57-65. Roughly, his position is that evolutionary science raises no new problem of evil and does not make current versions of the problem much worse. Also, he argues that the best kinds of possible worlds are those that contain the overwhelming display of love and mercy that characterizes Jesus’ death. But those worlds will also be worlds where there is a lot of suffering and death.
    BTW, I enjoyed reading your book, The Theory of Almost Everything, a couple of years ago.

    February 5, 2012 — 14:50
  • Andrew Moon

    Hi James,
    Thanks for the nice review!
    I found interesting your paragraph where you attribute to Plantinga the claim that
    “attempting to address the question of the guidedness or unguidedness of evolution–even with a vastly improved evidence base–would be out of bounds. Science would be treading into areas where it has no business of being”
    which is possibly inconsistent with Plantinga’s later statement about Behe’s work moderately raising the probability of theism. I’m not convinced that Plantinga really was saying what you attribute to him, despite the quotes you give. You might well be right though.
    Plantinga hermeneutics aside, I’m interested in whether the following proposition is true:
    1) Propositions about whether evolution (or parts of the human evolutionary process) was guided or unguided are outside the bounds of evolutionary science.
    Suppose Plantinga is right about “divine discourse”, where we can just see or have a seeming that certain things are designed, and this experience justifies or warrants us (perhaps, when the seeming is produced properly functioning faculties, etc.) in believing that these things are designed. It seems that our justification/warrant for believing propositions about whether something or other was designed (or guided) depends on the deliverances of this design-discourse faculty (I’ll call it a ‘DD-faculty’ for short). In fact, it seems that the following is true:
    2) Outside of the DD-faculty, there IS no other way of detecting if something’s been designed.
    (2) seems true, and I’ll assume its truth for now.
    Now, consider the following proposition:
    3) The deliverances of the DD-faculty can be used as data in evolutionary science.
    I argue the following:
    – IF (3) is true, THEN (1) is false. If we can use the DD faculty in evolutionary science, then claims about guidedness are not outside the realm of science.
    On the other hand,
    – IF (3) is false, then (1) is true. All claims attributing design by intelligent design theorists (or the lack of design by some evolutionary biologists), it seems to me, ultimately derive their warrant from claims believed by way of the DD-faculty. This is what (2) would have to entail. But then it seems that claims about guidedness would have to be outside of the realm of evolutionary science.
    What do you think, James?

    February 5, 2012 — 15:09
  • Prof. Beebe,
    Do you think Sober would accept Plantinga’s view that supernaturally caused mutations or selection is consistent with Darwinian evolution? I find it difficult to believe that he would.

    February 5, 2012 — 15:12
  • James Beebe

    Bilbo writes, “I disagree with Plantinga’s (and apparently Sober’s) belief that a process could be both random and guided.” It should be noted (not just for Bilbo but others in this discussion as well) that ‘random’ can refer to a variety of distinct phenomena and that mathematicians and scientists provide specific definitions of the notions they use when they are thinking about it carefully. Note, too, that improbability does not equal randomness, since as someone noted above two sequences can have the same improbability of chance occurrence and yet one of them can intuitively seem much more random. Finally, note that all random number generators are carefully designed and that generating random sequences turns out to be a very tricky design problem. Cf. Dembski’s “Randomness by Design” for details (http://philpapers.org/rec/DEMRBD).

    February 5, 2012 — 15:43
  • James Beebe

    Bilbo asks, “Do you think Sober would accept Plantinga’s view that supernaturally caused mutations or selection is consistent with Darwinian evolution?” Plantinga seems right in claiming that special divine action is consistent (which means bare logical or metaphysical co-possibility) with quantum mechanical descriptions of physical systems, since such descriptions only assign very low probabilities to a variety of what we would commonsensically call ‘impossibilities.’ My guess is that Sober would grant the possibility claim but then argue that the possibility is in some way implausible or otherwise unacceptable to believe.

    February 5, 2012 — 15:48
  • christian

    i read this book a bit ago, so for what it’s worth (and this is not entirely original to me):
    there is potential conflict between science and christianity that plantinga fails to consider. now, i’m not terribly interested in whether what i’m about to call ‘science’ counts as science by plantinga’s standards, but science is open to revision in a way in which christianity is surely not.
    it is part of, or supposed to be part of, the scientific worldview that the scientist must “follow the evidence where it leads”.
    it is part of, or supposed to be part of, the christian worldview that the christian must “have faith in god come what may”.
    now, it is interesting whether these claims are indeed part of either view. it is also interesting how to fill these caricatures out. what seems reasonable, however, is that faith requires a sort of commitment to p despite evidence against p, whereas a scientific worldview does not.
    this is an issue that needs to be addressed, since it is the core issue plantinga is dealing with in his wonderful book.

    February 5, 2012 — 15:55
  • James Beebe

    Andrew, first an intuitive argument against (1): As IDers note, we use ordinary science to detect design all the time. E.g., crime scene investigators and their ilk try to determine if the blood stains, position of the deceased’s body, etc. are consistent with the deceased dying of natural causes or foul play. In fact, any time someone is trying to determine whether a surprising and highly improbable event was simply a coincidence or the result of cheating, we seem to be doing the same. The ex-wife of the Lottery Commission who is suing the Commish for all he’s worth wins the lottery right before her suit is scheduled to go to court. A slacker student turns in a brilliantly argued paper that resembles Nozick’s closest-continuer theory in many respects. We use ordinary evidence to try to rule our or rule in favor of the “it just happened that way by chance” hypothesis vs. “there was cheating of some kind” hypothesis. The first hypothesis corresponds roughly to chance, the latter to a design hypothesis. So, I think it’s quite easy to argue against (1).

    February 5, 2012 — 15:57
  • Prof. Beebe,
    Regarding Darwinian evolution, I understand biologists to be using “random” as meaning “random with respect to fitness.” If a supernatural being is guiding the mutations so that they increase fitness, then it’s difficult to see how this is consistent with Darwinian evolution.

    February 5, 2012 — 16:06
  • James Beebe

    Andrew, regarding (2), the claim that outside of the DD-faculty, there is no other way of detecting if something’s been designed: First, Plantinga rightly connects the faculty with whatever faculty we use to reason about other minds in general. Secondly, research developmental and cognitive psychology on Theory of Mind suggests that there isn’t a single faculty involved, where ‘single faculty’ is understand as modular in some sense (encapsulated, localized, etc.). Rather, there are many cognitive processes that subserve understanding other people’s mental states. When enough of these processes break down, people become ‘mindblind’ (to use Simon Baron-Cohen’s term), which typically entails severe autistism. Without the DD-faculty, we would be unable to engage in any form of social cognition at all; we would be unable to treat people as sufficiently different from rocks. In that kind of condition, it should be unsurprising if we should also be unable to detect design. We would have this inability because we would be pretty bad off (cognitively speaking) in general.
    Furthermore, (3) strikes me as being too close to being a rewording of the negation of (1), the key proposition in question. (3) states that it is permissible to use the only possible means we have of detecting design in evolutionary science. But whether it is indeed permissible is the very thing in question. So, (3) can’t be used to show (1) is false.

    February 5, 2012 — 16:11
  • James Beebe

    Bilbo, the claim that mutations are guided by God conflicts with the claims of biologists who claim that they are not guided. The key question, however, is not whether there are biologists who disagree. The question is whether there is anything in the evidence for evolution that conflicts with this claim. Plantinga argues (quite rightly) that there is not. Consider the evidence for evolution: There are anatomical and genetic homologies. What about them shows that mutations are unguided? The fossil record reveals that living things in the past were much different from living things today. What about that shows that mutations are unguided? We don’t know why most mutations happen. What about that shows they aren’t regularly guided? Note that appeals to Ockham’s razor are not appeals to the body of evidence in support of evolution. They would be appeals to “theoretical virtues” which go beyond evidence.
    Furthermore, Plantinga’s claim in his book is primarily that it is possible that mutations are guided by God, not that they actually have been. As noted above by someone above, Plantinga is once again trying to show compatibility (i.e., mere logical co-possibility) between theism and evolution.

    February 5, 2012 — 16:33
  • Prof. Beebe,
    First, I’m an ID proponent, so I’m well aware of shortcomings in the theory of Darwinian evolution. However, Plantinga is not just trying to show compatibility between theism and evolution. He is trying to show compatibility between theism and Darwinian evolution. As I stated previously, I think there can be compatibility between the two*, but not the way Plantinga attempts. If Darwinian evolution is correct, then all mutations were random with respect to fitness. I don’t see how this leaves room for some mutations not to be random with respect to fitness, which is what Plantinga’s method would be: God feeding mutations into the evolutionary process that enhance the survivability of an organism.
    * A Theist could maintain that God has created a large enough universe so that eventually human-like creatures would evolve via an unguided process.

    February 5, 2012 — 16:57
  • Andrew Moon

    Hi James,
    Quick thought on your quick argument against (1). I’ve read ID theorists use such examples (Dembski’s forensic science example), but I was thinking specifically about evolutionary science, which is what (1) mentions. I’m not so sure about that. This may not be very important.
    Here’s what’s more interesting to me. On (2), I think I’d have to fine-tune it to make it more interesting. (I’m trying to not spend too much time on blogging!) Of course, if we did not have the DD-faculty (and I mean ‘faculty’ more broadly than the more restricted modular understanding), we would be very cognitively poor, perhaps not able to go to school and even learn about evolutionary biology in the first place. So, I agree with what you were pointing out there. I do think I’m still after something interesting though.
    Maybe this is closer to what I was after:
    2′) Apart from a direct deliverance of the DD-faculty producing a seeming or a belief that some bit of biological material X (an organism, DNA strand, whatever) is designed, there is no way to know that X was designed (apart from another direct deliverance of the DD-faculty regarding the design of one of X’s parts OR one of the things X is a proper part of OR one of X’s descendents or ancestors).
    This may still need to be fine-tuned, but I hope it gets closer to what I was aiming for. And this would call for an appropriate revision of (3):
    3′) The deliverances of the DD-faculty (in the way mentioned in (2′)) can be used as data in evolutionary science.
    Anyway, enough blogging. Ahhhh, it’s so hard not to get sucked in!!!

    February 5, 2012 — 18:37
  • James Beebe

    Bilbo writes, “If Darwinian evolution is correct, then all mutations were random with respect to fitness. I don’t see how this leaves room for some mutations not to be random with respect to fitness, which is what Plantinga’s method would be: God feeding mutations into the evolutionary process that enhance the survivability of an organism.” Darwinian evolution states that mutations are random with respect to fitness in the sense that there is no physical mechanism that sees to it that organisms get just the mutations they need in order to become evolutionarily more complex or adaptive. Plantinga focuses in on the “there is no *physical* mechanism” part, stating that it is no part of genuine evolutionary science to claim “there is no physical mechanism and no non-physical, supernatural mechanism either.” Plantinga asks what part of the evidence for evolution could support this latter, stronger claim. He seems right in claiming that this stronger claim is obtained only via a philosophical (or quasi-philosophical) inference from the scientific evidence. So, Plantinga’s claim is that divinely guided mutations are consistent with the genuinely scientific part of evolution but not with evolution plus the philosophical denial of the supernatural.

    February 5, 2012 — 22:26
  • Paul Pardi

    Thanks for this James. I recently did an interview with Dr. Plantinga on Philosophy News. You and your readers may be interested in checking it out. You can read that here: http://www.philosophynews.com/post/2011/12/13/Interview-with-Alvin-Plantinga-on-Where-the-Conflict-Really-Lies.aspx.
    Thanks!
    Paul Pardi

    February 6, 2012 — 0:53
  • Plantinga focuses in on the “there is no *physical* mechanism” part, stating that it is no part of genuine evolutionary science to claim “there is no physical mechanism and no non-physical, supernatural mechanism either.” Plantinga asks what part of the evidence for evolution could support this latter, stronger claim. He seems right in claiming that this stronger claim is obtained only via a philosophical (or quasi-philosophical) inference from the scientific evidence.
    I guess that a Darwinist could argue that random mutations (wrt fitness) are sufficient to explain evolution, so what grounds are there for supposing that additional mechanisms — either physical or non-physical are involved? If a bullet is found in a dead person’s brain, I would think a pathologist might be justified in attributing the person’s death to the bullet, without needing to say, “Of course, there might also be a supernatural explanation for the person’s death that I don’t know about.” And if it turned out that there was a supernatural explanation, then we would say that the pathologist was mistaken in thinking that the bullet was the (sole) cause of the death. Likewise, if a (non-random) supernatural cause of a mutation was responsible for the fitness of an organism, then the Darwinist was mistaken in thinking that a random mutation was responsible. And this would be a falsification of Darwinian evolution, for that organism, at least.
    I’m sorry, but the two are not compatible.

    February 6, 2012 — 16:14
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Bilbo: “ If it could be shown that (natural selection acting upon) a merely random process could account for evolution, without the need of guidance, then that would be a simpler explanation than guided evolution, and Occam’s razor would tell us to choose the former.”
    We can simulate the Darwinian algorithm in computers and thus we know that it works extremely well at the absence of any guidance. But we *don’t* know whether an unguided Darwinian algorithm is likely to produce intelligent life in our universe. We could only know that if science were able to compute the probability p I spoke of above. Naturalists of course must assume that p is not small and that therefore no supernatural guidance is necessary. I tend to agree with them, due to theological reasons. But anybody’s opinion in this matter is irrelevant. The claim that according to science natural evolution took place in an unguided fashion is factually false.
    But let’s suppose that the value of p is small and that merely random processes do explain the evolution of intelligent life. What then? First, this would not imply that actual evolution has not been guided by God. As I have argued the structure of physical law is such that God could have guided the evolutionary process to produce the human species and its cognitive faculties exactly according to the divine design without in any way violating the physical closure of the universe.
    Above you suggest that if unguided natural evolution could explain the evolution of humankind then Occam’s razor would compel us to choose the belief that natural evolution was in fact unguided. But Occam’s razor becomes relevant only when two hypotheses have similar explanatory power. In our case unguided evolution would explain the human genotype but would fail to explain the greater part of what it means to be human, including our consciousness, our free will, and our moral perception. In any case both theism and naturalism are ontological theories, and thus have to account for everything. And just in order to account for the structure of quantum phenomena many naturalists have found it expedient to multiply entities beyond imagination – so it’s not like naturalism is a particularly parsimonious theory.
    “If Darwinian evolution is correct, then all mutations were random with respect to fitness.”
    As James explains above, one should not equivocate the meaning of “random” in the expression “random mutation”. And in case please observe that the expression “random data” can be misleading, for there is no such thing as random data. What exists are sources of data, and these sources can be random or non-random (and in the latter case can be intelligent or not intelligent). Any given sequence of data may have been generated by a random as well as a non-random source. For example, and contrary to appearances, the sequence 7777777777 may have been generated by a random source, and the sequence 3141592653 may have been generated by a non-random source. What is sometimes possible to do is to probabilistically falsify the hypothesis that a particular sequence has been produced by a random source; for example the probability that either of the above sequences has been produced by a random source is low. In other words, it is sometimes possible to confirm that the source of a particular data sequence is not random, but it is not possible to confirm that the source of a particular data sequence is random. Therefore, even if we knew the entire history of the natural evolution of the species in minute detail, it would be impossible to confirm that the apparently random bits in it have been produced by a random source and not, say, by a guiding intelligence.

    February 6, 2012 — 18:57
  • Bilbo writes: “If Darwinian evolution is correct, then all mutations were random with respect to fitness. I don’t see how this leaves room for some mutations not to be random with respect to fitness, which is what Plantinga’s method would be: God feeding mutations into the evolutionary process that enhance the survivability of an organism.”
    1. The mutations miraculously added in don’t have to enhance fitness. They may, instead, enhance other qualities than fitness of interest to the Creator. Are we more fit than cockroaches or E. coli in the evolutionary sense? It’s hard to say. Yet, plausibly, we have many qualities of interest to the Creator that cockroaches or E. coli lack.
    2. I am not sure the assumption that there is no correlation between mutations and fitness is actually doing essential explanatory work in the standard evolutionary models. Suppose we replace the assumption instead by an assumption that among higher organisms there is a degree C of correlation between mutations and fitness, at least in higher organisms. Let E(C) be evolutionary theory modified in this way. If C is close enough to 0, the empirical predictions of E(C) will be undetectably close to the empirical predictions of E(0), i.e., orthodox evolutionary theory. Granted, E(C) for positive C will have greater complexity than E(0), but it may fit better into a larger theory that explains other things (e.g., fine tuning, why there are contingent beings, how we know objective moral truths, etc.) I suspect that in our present state of biological knowledge, we don’t have very precise bounds on the constant C, and in particular, we certainly don’t know that C=0.
    3. Divine interventions could occur at a rate that is statistically insignificant vis-a-vis evolutionary theory on the whole. It is a fairly standard view that miracles are rare.

    February 6, 2012 — 21:31
  • Hi Dianelos and Alexander,
    I don’t mean to ignore what you wrote, but as an ID proponent, I’ve been fond of saying that I don’t have philosophical or theological objections to Darwinian evolution, merely empirical ones. But while trying to figure out what’s going on in Plantinga’s usually very reasonable mind, I think I’ve stumbled upon a theological objection to Darwinian evolution. Here’s a first draft:
    1) If Darwinian evolution is true, then our cognitive faculties were produced by an unguided process. (If my argument against Plantinga’s view is correct).
    2) Therefore, our cognitive faculties are very probably unreliable. (from Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism).
    3) But it is very probable that we have reliable cognitive faculties (given the goodness of God).
    4) Therefore, it is very probable that Darwinian evolution is not true.
    Still mulling it over, but I think there might be something to it.
    We could make it a philosophical objection, also:
    1*) Our belief that Darwinian evolution is true is based upon our cognitive faculties.
    2*) But if Darwinian evolution is true, then our cognitive faculties are very probably unreliable (from (1) and (2) above).
    3*) Therefore our basis for belief that Darwinian evolution is true is unreliable.

    February 7, 2012 — 20:59
  • Joshua Rasmussen

    Christian,
    it is part of, or supposed to be part of, the christian worldview that the christian must “have faith in god come what may”.
    I’d just like to report that I know many, many self professed Christians who think one should “follow the evidence where it leads” and not have faith in god “come what may”.

    February 7, 2012 — 23:33
  • CliveStaples

    How, exactly, does one “guide” a random process? Say that f(x) specifies some probability density function over the possible genetic outcomes of a particular instance of reproduction. Does God simply cause some particular outcome to occur? If so, in what sense is the process still “random”, i.e. accurately described by f(x)?

    February 8, 2012 — 2:52
  • Ibn Sina

    Clive,
    1. You could guide it by causing and sustaining the random process.
    2. What does random mean? Ernest Mayr defined random mutations thus : ‘When it is said that mutations or variation is random, the statement simply means that there is no correlation between the production of new genotypes and the adaptational needs of an organism in a given environment’. We can accept the randomness of mutations (in this sense) whilst also affirming God’s guiding hand in the process of evolution. Perhaps He caused certain vital mutations to occur for instance, and perhaps many of these mutations were not for the sake of the organisms adaptational needs but for the sake of enhancing certain good qualities (Plantinga makes this point).

    February 9, 2012 — 16:09
  • James Beebe

    Clive, I think Plantinga would argue that the probability density function for some random process will take into account only the range of possible outcomes that have ordinary physical causes. With respect to those causes, the outcome is random. If God intentionally brings about a particular outcome, it will not have an ordinary physical cause. But this will not conflict with anything in the prob. density function or the scientific theory behind the function because they will only be taking into account the ordinary range of physical causes. They will, Plantinga will contend, be silent about supernatural causes. They will not take supernatural causes into consideration and rule them to be irrelevant to the formulation of the prob. density function because science isn’t concerned with such things. So, the processes will be random from a purely physical perspective but not random from a divine perspective.

    February 10, 2012 — 9:59
  • James, that was very clearly put – thanks. Values of x very far out on the distribution f(x) would have to be chosen only very rarely so as not to mess up the distribution.
    Chaos theorists have found that chaotic systems can be driven toward a desired state using a very small perturbation. It seems possible in principle, then, that God could use a series of quantum-level perturbations to achieve any desired result, without going outside of the high-probability part of the distribution.

    February 10, 2012 — 10:44
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    CliveStaples,
    Theism (but not Deism) entails special providence, i.e. the idea that God continuously interacts with creation. For example it entails that God has designed and guided the evolution of humankind. Thus, according to theism, it is not the case that the source of mutations (as well as of the other effects in natural evolution) was random. And as I have argued above even if we knew in the minutest detail how the evolutionary process took place it would be impossible to ascertain that these sources were random. So, there cannot possibly be any scientific evidence that favors the claim that the sources of the contingent events which drove the evolution of humankind were random.
    As to your specific questions. God can cause a particular outcome to occur without violating the statistical nature of the density function, as long as that outcome (or the conjunction of many individual outcomes) is not exceedingly improbable according to that function. Here is a way to think about this issue: On theism God has designed humankind before the creation of the universe. Now consider all the physical states the universe could have evolved to after the Big Bang, if *unguided* by God. In an extremely small proportion (but still large number) of these states humanity would have evolved according to God’s design. The naturalist will agree with the latter claim, for the naturalist believes that in the actual universe humanity has in fact evolved without any guidance. Well then, God would have only to actualize into reality one of the many possible physical states which comport with God’s design for humanity, and thus guide the evolution of humanity without in any way violating the density functions entailed in physical laws, or indeed violating the physical closure of the universe.

    February 10, 2012 — 11:29
  • Prof. Beebe,
    If I understand your point, it is that God could have intervened in nature and caused non-random mutations (with respect to fitness) without it being detectable, because the mutations would have fallen within the range that random mutations can achieve. And since it isn’t detectable, it is consistent with Darwinian evolution.
    I see this as being a philosophical dodge. We allow scientists to maintain that random mutations can explain evolution, when in fact such an explanation would be false. I think it would be more honest just to say to scientists, “Whether or not God’s guiding hand in evolution is detectable, if Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism is correct, then God did indeed guide it. In which case, the theory of Darwinian evolution, whether or not empirically falsifiable, is indeed false.”

    February 10, 2012 — 14:43
  • I’ve been reading Elliot Sober’s comments, as he is quoted here:
    http://scienceblogs.com/evolutionblog/2012/02/the_trouble_with_theistic_evol.php?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+scienceblogs%2Fevolutionblog+%28EvolutionBlog%29
    It looks like Prof. Beebe’s and Plantinga’s interpretation of Darwinian evolution is correct, and mine is not.

    February 14, 2012 — 19:14
  • James Beebe

    I thought I would add some clarifying remarks about the closing remark of my review, viz. “Passages such as these suggest an addition we might make to Plantinga’s 1984 classic, “Advice to Christian Philosophers”: Cast your best insults as hypotheticals, if you want to be able to maintain your public commitment to Christian charity.”
    I have to admit that I have never felt completely convinced that I liked the way I worded this comment. It seems to suggest that I think Plantinga did something that conflicts with a public commitment to Christian charity and that he is trying to cover up his departure from this commitment by putting his insults in the hypothetical mode.
    However, I don’t think Plantinga did anything wrong in making the remarks that he did in the way that he did. This is true, even though it doesn’t in general seem permissible for Christians to insult others. On the one hand, some of Plantinga’s insulting suggestions seem to me quite well founded, given the lack of argument but no lack of vitriol in the writings of those he targets. Moreover, it really does seem to be a good idea to cast your best insults as hypotheticals. So, I think my closing remark may have more negative connotations than I intended.
    It may even be an issue worthy of some degree of serious reflection to consider when and how a Christian scholar can be justified in insulting others.

    February 26, 2012 — 16:38