Alvin 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:
- There is no conflict between theistic religion and the scientific theory of evolution.
- There is no conflict between science and the common theistic belief that there have been miracles.
- 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.
- There is deep concord between science and theistic religion.
- 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 SchrÃ¶dinger 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.