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.
Standard sceptical theism focuses on our ignorance of the realm of values. I want to suggest a different kind of sceptical response to an evil E. This response identifies a good G such that it is clear that the occurrence of a good relevantly like G logically requires the permission of an evil relevantly like E, but instead the scepticism is in that we have on balance no significant evidence against the conjunction:
- G obtains and
- G outweighs E and
- there is no alternative good G* dissimilar from G that doesn’t require anything nearly as bad as E and that would be more or approximately equally worth having.
If the triple conjunction holds then G justifies E, and so if we have no significant evidence against the triple conjunction, we have no significant evidence that E is unjustified. (Yeah, one can dispute my implicit transfer principle, but something like that should work.)
And it’s fairly easy to generate examples of G that do the job for particular E. Take Rowe’s case of the horrendous evil inflicted on Sue. Let G be Sue’s having forgiven E’s perpetrator. We have no significant evidence against the conjunction (1)-(3), then. Granted, we may have significant evidence that G did not obtain in this life, though even that is probably a stretch, but we have no balance no significant evidence that G didn’t obtain in an afterlife. My intuitions strongly favor (2)–there is a way in which forgiveness seems to defeat evil–but in any case we have no significant evidence against (2). As for (3), granted there are many great moral goods that don’t require anything nearly as bad as E, but I don’t think we have on balance significant evidence that these goods are roughly as good as or better than G. Now, of course, it can be the case (whether due to a logical contradiction or dwindling probabilities) that we don’t have significant evidence against any conjunct but we do have significant evidence against the conjunction. But I don’t think this happens here.
In a forthcoming paper, I defend the view that knowledge does not require believing on the basis of evidence. In other words, I argue against what I call the “Evidence Thesis”, which states:
(Evidence Thesis) S knows that p at t only if S believes that p on the basis of evidence at t.
How does the evidence thesis relate to evidentialism, formulated and defended by Earl Conee and Richard Feldman? Well, their view is about epistemic justification, and it states that the doxastic attitude one is justified in having is the one that fits the evidence. Evidentialism is a popular view, and we can see that it is distinct from the evidence thesis. However, VERY MANY evidentialists endorse the evidence thesis. So do VERY MANY internalists. On the other hand, almost no externalist will endorse the evidence thesis. So long as one’s true belief was produced in the right way (e.g., by a reliable process, with safety, with sensitivity, by properly functioning faculties, by an exercise of the right sort of ability, etc.), the belief counts as knowledge. Despite the fact that some people seem to presume the truth of the evidence thesis, we can see that a great many theories of knowledge (the externalist ones) entail that it is false. And I argue that it is false in my paper. So, my argument both provides support for the many externalist theories of knowledge and also gives many evidentialists and internalists a reason to revise their views.
In this post, I want to try out a counterexample against the evidence thesis.
The latest (July 2011) Faith and Philosophy contains an excellent article by Jeff Speaks on some difficulties related to establishing the consistency of certain claims (he uses as examples the existence of human freedom and the existence of evil) with the existence of an Anselmian God. The basic idea is this: since an Anselmian God is, by definition, a necessary being, establishing the possibility of an Anselmian God is tantamount to establishing the necessary, and therefore actual, existence of an Anselmian God. But these compatibility arguments typically, in one way or another, assume the possibility, and so the actuality, of an Anselmian God. If we were allowed to assume this premise, our task would be extremely easy! We could argue as follows:
- God (actually) exists
- Evil (actually) exists
- The existence of God is consistent with the existence of evil.
Piece of cake! Now I, of course, take this argument to be sound. In fact, I even think that some people (depending on their background beliefs) might be rational in allowing this argument to increase their confidence in the truth of (3). But clearly this argument cannot be used to respond to atheist arguments from evil against the existence of God. It is dialectically inadmissible in that context.
In his paper, Speaks argues that Warfield’s argument for the compatibility of necessary omniscience with human freedom and Plantinga’s free will defense are both a lot like this. That is, they both assume that, possibly, an Anselmian God exists. But if that assumption is admissible, then we could just use this simpler argument. But obviously we can’t use this simpler argument, so the premise must be inadmissible. (This isn’t exactly the way Speaks puts his points together; it’s my interpretation of what his arguments actually show.)
Speaks states the “principal conclusion” of his paper as follows:
any argument for the compatibility of two propositions must also be an argument for the possibility of each of those propositions. Hence it is impossible to argue for the compatibility of two propositions, one of which is necessary if possible, without arguing for the truth of that proposition. (p. 291)
In this post, I’m going to push back.
Emanuel Rutten sent me the following interesting argument which I am posting with his permission. Please make sure to be clear that if you cite this post, everything except the title, the preceding sentence and this sentence, is taken verbatim from Rutten. He has some other interesting arguments on his blog, some of which alas are in Dutch.
Take the following metaphysical principle, connecting possible worlds, knowledge and truth: ‘If it is impossible to know that p, then p is necessarily false’. This principle seems cogent. For, if a given proposition p could be true, then, plausibly, there is some possible world in which some subject knows that p is true. In other words, if in *all* possible worlds *all* subjects do not know that some proposition is true, then, plausibly, that is because that very proposition cannot in fact be true.
Well, on a Cartesian view of knowledge, that is, to know p is to be certain that p is true, the above principle has an interesting consequence. For, take for p the proposition ‘God does not exist’. It seems reasonable to hold that it is impossible to know that God does not exist. For, whatever the arguments against God, there will always be some (perhaps an extremely remote) possibility that God does exist after all, so that we can never truly say, on the Cartesian view, that we know that God does not exist. But then it follows that it is necessarily false that God does not exist. Hence, it is necessarily true that God exists. The principle thus entails theism. Is this new argument for theism convincing?
Rowe-style arguments from evil contend that there are evils that are inscrutable in the sense that we do not know a justification for them.
Let’s say a justification for E is a reason R such that, in light of R, God would be justified in allowing E.
An evil is inscrutable provided we don’t know a justification for E. But what does it mean not to know a justification? On the strongest reading, there is the ability to understand R in the full detail that God understands it in and know that the reason thereby understood justifies E. On the weakest reading, there is the ability to give some definite description D of R and know that the reason falling under D justifies E.
That there are evils on the inscrutability corresponding to the strongest sense of “know the justification” is not at all surprising given theism.
But on the weakest sense of “know the justification”, as long as we know that God exists, we are in position to know that there is a justification for E, since that God exists entails that E is justified. And then we know R under the description “the reason or collection of reasons that justifies God in permitting E”. And if we want slightly greater specificity, we might advert to some moral theory that gives us a characterization of the sorts of reasons that can justify a permission of an evil.
So for the Rowe argument to impress an intelligent theist who claims to know that God exists would require some in-between sense of “know the justification” that satisfies two conditions: (a) it is probable on theism that we would know the justification for every evil (or every evil that we have sufficiently investigated) and (b) the theist cannot plausibly claim to know the justification for every evil. These two conditions pull in opposite directions.
I have been making the circuit presenting a paper which in part defends an argument for atheism from “irreligious experience.” It is similar to work done by Draper in 1991 and Gellman in 1992. I’m sure others have versions of the idea.
This past week, I had a religious experience. I’m not sure what to make of it, and I’ll be thinking about it for some time. It was very vivid and strangely specific. In thinking about it this far, I think there may be an interesting research project worth pursuing (it will be a very long time before I can pursue it, so I put it out here in the hopes that someone else will).
I learned only recently that Basil Mitchell died this summer. It is not too strong to say that he was one of my heroes. He edited a volume Philosophy of Religion that came out the year I was born and which was a watershed for philosophy of religion (the book, not my birth :-). A few years after that, he wrote The Justification of Religious Belief which, as it happens, I re-read at my lunchtimes last semester. It is still a remarkable work. He was the pioneer of the cumulative case argument for God’s existence. As all the biographies note, he was doing this at a time when it was extremely unpopular. This was all happening at a time with the Society of Christian Philosophers was just a glimmer.
His spiritual story kicks off Kelly Clark’s collection Philosophers Who Believe and Mitchell recently wrote a memoir, Looking Back on Faith: philosophy and friends in Oxford, which I have just ordered.
Mitchell succeeded C.S. Lewis as President of the Oxford Socratic Club, and preceded Richard Swinburne in the Nolloth Chair in Christian Philosophy.
As far as I can tell, the Times of London barely noticed (I had to pay two pounds 50 to even see it), but there is a longer recognition in the Telegraph here. The wiki page has a link to a short biography on the Gifford Lecture page. The best online item I’ve found is a touching and inspiring remembrance (by whom I cannot tell) on his personal home page here. Even if you didn’t know much about Mitchell, I recommend you read this short piece, for it portrays an ideal for which we should all strive. I’ve also ordered a copy of this detailed article by Brian Hebblethwaite for Theology, which I will gladly send a copy of to anyone who asks.
Richard Swinburne was kind enough to write a nice note as well, which I paste below the fold.
Christine Overall famously argued that miracles, conceived as violations of the laws of nature, would be evidence against the existence of the traditional God. A lengthy debate with Robert Larmer ensued, in which Larmer argued that only slight modifications to the law-breaking account of miracles are necessary in order for miracles to serve as evidence for, rather than against, the existence of God. Larmer tries to argue that miracles do not violate the laws of nature, but nevertheless holds that they are different from ordinary events in that they don’t follow from the laws of nature. (I don’t have Larmer’s book handy to remember the exact details of his account.)
The Overall-Larmer debate in some respects replays one dialectical thread from the Leibniz-Clarke correspondence: Clarke defends the view that any sufficiently widespread natural regularity should be regarded as a law, and any event that violates such a regularity should be regarded as a miracle. Furthermore, Clarke argues, miracles of this sort occur from time to time. Leibniz argues that God, as traditionally conceived, would not create a world of the sort Clarke envisions and, furthermore, that Clarke’s weak conception of laws does not allow a theologically adequate distinction between miracles and ordinary events.
I think Overall pretty decisively won the debate with Larmer, and Leibniz pretty decisively won the debate with Clarke on this and most other points. (One point where Leibniz clearly loses: his insistence that if there were not a unique best possible world God would be unable to create a world is clearly false.) However, there are a lot of people who seem to disagree, who continue to hold that miracles are best understood as somehow in tension with laws, and that such events can serve as evidence for the existence of the traditional God. I in fact think that miracles should not be conceived as in any sort of tension with laws, so, instead of speaking of miracles, I’ll speak of ‘lawless events’. Lawless events are those which don’t follow, either probabilistically or deterministically, from the laws of nature. (interpret ‘follow from’ in whatever sense your favorite theory of laws requires.) In this post I am concerned with arguments from the traditional divine attributes against the occurrence of lawless events. These arguments will of course work backward to show that lawless events would be evidence against the existence of a being with those attributes.