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Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science,…

Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism

by Alvin Plantinga

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Basic premise of this book, right from the beginning, is that there is 'a superficial conflict but deep concord between science and theistic religion, but superficial concord and deep conflict between science and naturalism'. Plantinga tries to substantiate this proposition and does that in a eloquent, often even humorous way. For a more indepth review, see Rik Peels '‘Alvin Plantinga over conflict en harmonie tussen geloof en wetenschap’(http://bit.ly/V9VewS and Thomas Nagel's review in the New York Review of Books (http://bit.ly/QmoQHW)

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  FransKoopmans | Apr 9, 2014 |
Still trapped in his Cartesian Bubble

Mr Plantinga's new book is ostensibly about the conflict between theism and science. The goal is to establish that they are not in conflict. It is a strange book in that it is part philosophy, part theology, part Christian apologetics and in part a religious devotional tract.

Before I criticize the author's position, let me first contextualize it a bit.

Mr. Plantinga is a thinker in the Dutch Reformed (Calvinist) philosophical tradition. Until the latter half of the 19th century, one could claim to be a Christian and claim to be rational at the same time. However, along came critical biblical studies undermining the accepted view of the bible's authorship and historicity, and then came the onslaught of geology which established the fact that no biblical flood occurred, dinosaurs predated humans by eons and evolution was a fact( even if the path and mechanisms are still in dispute ). This thoroughly discredited the veracity and credibility of the bible. If something as basic as the creation story and the biblical flood never occurred, what else didn't occur? Maybe we evolved after all. Maybe there was no Garden of Eden. Maybe Jesus never rose from the dead (For why a group might invent the resurrection story read Festinger's When Prophecy Fails). What's a believer to do? The only option left is retreating to commitment. Theology went from a scholarly science to an ideology. This response expressed itself as fundamentalism among the low-brow, neo-orthodoxy among the high-brow and presupposionalism among the Dutch Calvinists (For someone who still maintains that one can do scientific theology, see Wolfhart Pannenberg, Theology and the Philosophy of Science. For a discussion of this process of Protestant theology becoming an ideology see, Retreat to Commitment, W.W. Bartley III).

Following Calvin, leading Dutch reformed thinkers like Nicholas Wolterstorff and Alvin Plantinga developed what has become known as the 'New Reformed Epistemology.' (You can Google to find other notable Dutch Reformed presuppositionalists). The thinking was, since there is no longer any evidence for Christianity, let's abandon evidentialism altogether. The new mantra is: "The Holy Spirit' creates its own listeners." From now on, we'll just assume god exists and Christianity is true.

In fact on pages 167-168, the author says, "My evidence base is the set of beliefs I use, or to which I appeal, in conducting inquiry...It is important to see in this connection that the evidence base of a Christian theist will include theism, belief in God and also the main lines of the Christian faith"
The point of the book is not to establish the truth of Christianity. That option has been forever foreclosed to Christian apologists. Instead, the author wants to establish that belief in god is rational and that a certain type of Christian theism is not incompatible with science. The purpose is to immunize the Christian faith from rational and scientific criticism and falsification.

However, it is a stripped down version of Christian theism and not the Classical Christianity of our ancestors that he defends. The author accepts evolution, and since he says he accepts the findings of science, he would no doubt also accept the ancient age of the earth, the fact that there is no evidence for a worldwide flood, and that there is no archaeological evidence for the Jewish exodus from Egypt.
He argues for theistic evolution and god's continual intervention in the world. He says that god intervenes at the quantum mechanical level by collapsing the wave function to achieve his results without violation of natural law (because the collapsed eigenstates are unpredictable anyway). Through this process, god can also guide and orchestrate the direction of evolution. This definition is therefore not incompatible with science. However, this definition of god's intervention makes his presence and activities undetectable. From an explanatory standpoint, this addition of god into the mix adds nothing.

Rather than comment on every twist and turn of the author's argument, let me just comment on a few: the rationality of belief in god, faith as a form of knowledge and the evolutionary argument against naturalism.

The author defends the thesis that belief in god is rational. To make his point, he asks if we can prove (I guess in the mathematical sense) that other minds exist. He claims we can't do it, yet we accept that other minds exist. We believe all kinds of things we can't prove. That's rational he claims, so what's so irrational about believing god exists then? Belief in god is on the same order as believing other minds exist. Except that it isn't. I interact with other people all day every day and use a common language and cooperate on common tasks. The brute facticity and immense weight of the world and other minds confronts me constantly. This does not occur with belief in god. Where is the immense weight of evidence for god? If there is, why struggle with doubt, dear believer? I have never once in my life doubted whether my children have minds.

Secondly, the author claims that there are other sources of knowledge than science, namely religious faith. He claims that since we accept the reliability of rational intuition, memory, and perception, we should accept religious faith as reliable knowledge. Once again, the author ignores the brute facticity and immense weight of the world that confronts every living thing. Reality constrains our perceptions, intuition and memory. We constantly interact with the world and the feedback we receive corrects our cognitive mistakes. What are the corrective constraints on religious faith knowledge?

Thirdly, Plantinga argues that if evolution is true, our cognitive faculties would be unreliable and we could not obtain reliable knowledge (our cognitive faculties have a very low probability of being reliable). Only a god who created us (i.e., guided our evolution) could guarantee the reliability of our cognitive faculties. This is his famous evolutionary argument against naturalism. We do have reliable knowledge. Therefore, naturalism is false.

I, however, I accept evolution and fully accept that our cognitive faculties are unreliable. So how is reliable knowledge possible then? It is possible by means of a method external to us. It is called scientific methodology. It is an intersubjective activity that corrects for the unreliability of our cognitive faculties in order to arrive at reliable knowledge. Plantinga thinks that science's lack of apodictic certainty is a weakness. It is its strength. The scientific community is constantly correcting itself, making knowledge more reliable and thereby overcoming individual cognitive flaws. Hence, from this perspective, evolution and naturalism are consistent with reliable knowledge. Religion is just the opposite.

This book is a case in point. Plantinga assumes the truth of theism and has to do mental gymnastics to argue for the compatibility of a watered down Christian theism and science.

This brings up a larger problem I have with Plantinga's position. He completely ignores the social determinants of knowledge. To him, we are isolated social atoms trapped in a Cartesian bubble struggling to establish warranted and justified true belief. As I just mentioned, we are born into a society with pre-given meaning and knowledge. I learn the knowledge from credible community leaders knowing that I can retrace the steps that establishes this as knowledge if I need have to justify it. Science is a community activity and not a solitary activity. It assumes the immense weight of the facticity of a world where no one has witnessed people rising from the dead or water being turned into wine.

In the end, Christian theism can be defined in such a manner to make it compatible with science, but the resulting religion will doubtless be unsatisfying to most people. According to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity (CSGC) at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, there are approximately 41,000 Christian denominations and organizations in the world. According to many of them, your eternal destiny is uncertain unless you pick the right one. What's a prospective Christian to do? I guess the Holy Spirit will guide them to the right one. Who needs evidence? ( )
2 vote PedrBran | Dec 14, 2012 |
Plantinga constructs several arguments around the theme of science and religion. His enthusiasm and wit make what could be a dry topic refreshingly enjoyable. Plantinga first answers the question is there a fundamental conflict between science and theistic religion. He admits that, on the surface there might seem to be, particularly between evolution, specifically Darwinism, and a theism that believes God created man in his own image. He cleverly shows that this apparent conflict is merely superficial and is between theism and the unscientific philosophical naturalism that is erroneously tagged on to science by some less sophisticated practitioners. He then turns the table and argues, again cleverly, that it is naturalism that has a fundamental conflict with Darwinism. This argument is based around the proposition that a process of unguided evolution is unlikely to have created in our brains any true beliefs. (You have to read this bit carefully, as Plantinga admits it seems counterintuitive at first. But he makes his case.) As Plantigna is a strong supporter of science and scientific endeavors, this book would be of interest to those who think that evolution and science can't find accommodation and should persuade them that they are indeed compatible. It would also be of interest to acolytes of the pseudo-religion of naturalism, showing a clearly rational flaw in their philosophy. If they claim to be rational, they must either give up naturalism or a belief in Darwinism.

My only minor quibble was that the book was obviously edited after it was typeset as there are several places where the typeface gets significantly smaller for several paragraphs before reverting to standard size, all for no apparent reason unless it was to fit in more words as an after thought. ( )
  rrp | Feb 25, 2012 |
Showing 3 of 3
The extensive use of logical trickery is one of the most irritating aspects of this book. At some point in chapter 3, Plantinga pretends to prove that determinism is “necessarily false”, but the formalization of determinism he starts out with is obviously wrong. The trick is pulled off with two nested conditionals in the first premise: at that point, the rabbit is already smuggled in the hat, and what follows is just formalistic window dressing. Formalization can be a means to provide clarity and rigor to an argument, and thus to enhance a philosophical debate. Alas, it can also be misused as a rhetorical ploy to disguise non-sequiturs under a tapestry of symbols. This is analytic philosophy at its worst.

The upshot of the argument in this book, according to Plantinga, is that theism is “vastly more hospitable to science than naturalism” and that this belief in an invisible creator “deserves to be called ‘the scientific worldview’” (no worries about “metaphysical add-ons” this time). This is sheer rhetorical bluster. Naturalism emerges unscathed from Plantinga’s attack, and he has done nothing that comes even close of averting the conflict between science and religion. This book will not impress anyone except those who were already convinced that science and religion can live in peaceful harmony, and even in those accommodationist quarters, it seems to have put some people off (Ruse, 2012). If this is the best that sophisticated defenders of theism can come up with, God is in very dire straits indeed.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0199812098, Hardcover)

This book is a long-awaited major statement by a pre-eminent analytic philosopher, Alvin Plantinga, on one of our biggest debates -- the compatibility of science and religion. The last twenty years has seen a cottage industry of books on this divide, but with little consensus emerging. Plantinga, as a top philosopher but also a proponent of the rationality of religious belief, has a unique contribution to make. His theme in this short book is that the conflict between science and theistic religion is actually superficial, and that at a deeper level they are in concord.

Plantinga examines where this conflict is supposed to exist -- evolution, evolutionary psychology, analysis of scripture, scientific study of religion -- as well as claims by Dan Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Philip Kitcher that evolution and theistic belief cannot co-exist. Plantinga makes a case that their arguments are not only inconclusive but that the supposed conflicts themselves are superficial, due to the methodological naturalism used by science. On the other hand, science can actually offer support to theistic doctrines, and Plantinga uses the notion of biological and cosmological "fine-tuning" in support of this idea. Plantinga argues that we might think about arguments in science and religion in a new way -- as different forms of discourse that try to persuade people to look at questions from a perspective such that they can see that something is true. In this way, there is a deep and massive consonance between theism and the scientific enterprise.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:12:30 -0400)

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