Where the Conflict Really Lies – Alvin Plantinga (Review)

You may have heard that there is a conflict between science and religion.  Promoting such a war has enabled many on both sides, fundamentalist creationists and fundamentalist atheists, to sell a lot of books.  Even for those not on the extreme, there is a feeling and a fear that somehow faith in God is at odds with belief in science.

Of course, there is no such conflict.  But philosopher Alvin Plantinga wants to go one step farther then saying there is no conflict between science and religion.  He argues that there truly is a conflict, but it is between science and naturalism.

Before he gets there, he tackles the alleged conflict between faith and science.  This takes two forms, the idea that Darwin’s theory of evolution somehow refutes Christian faith and the idea that it is impossible to believe in miracles in a world of science.  Such conflicts simply do not exist.  Not only do they not exist, but promoting such conflict actually hurts science:

As a result, declarations by Dawkins, Dennett, and others have at least two unhappy results. First, their (mistaken) claim that religion and evolution are incompatible damages religious belief, making it look less appealing to people who respect reason and science. But second, it also damages science. That is because it forces many to choose between science and belief in God. Most believers, given the depth and significance of their belief in God, are not going to opt for science; their attitude towards science is likely to be or become one of suspicion and mistrust. Hence these declarations of incompatibility have unhappy consequences for science itself. – Plantinga, Alvin (2011-11-11). Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (p. 54). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

In the second part of the book Plantinga looks at two areas where there appears to be a superficial conflict: evolutionary psychology and scriptural scholarship.  While there may be small conflict, the claims of those two disciplines do not provide a defeater for belief in God.

Speaking of “defeaters”, it is important to grasp the understanding of basic beliefs for Plantinga.  Over and over again he speaks of many beliefs we hold with no evidence, things like perception, memory, and that other people have minds.  When we see a sheep on a hill far ahead we do not form an argument that there is a sheep.  We simply see it and believe it is there.  This belief is justified.  In the same way, believing other people perceive the world how we do and remembering what we had for breakfast do not require arguments and evidence.  A defeater is something that would prove such beliefs wrong.  If someone says of our seeing the sheep, “that’s my dog Skip,” we now have our belief defeated.

Plantinga argues that belief in God is just such a basic belief.  We do not need evidence to prove our belief in God, it is rational to believe in God in a basic way.  But can such a belief be defeated?  No such defeater has been found.  Plantinga argues that evolution is definitely nowhere close and the topics of part two, though there is superficial conflict, are not near being defeaters either.

Then in part three he discusses areas where there is concord between science and faith, making the claim that is extended in part four, that belief in science has much more justification for theism then naturalism.

Finally, part four is the height of the book.  Here Plantinga takes science, the belief in evolution, and naturalism, the belief that there is nothing outside of nature.  For Plantinga, you cannot sensibly believe in both evolution and naturalism.  For if all we are is nature, then our evolution is driven solely by survival.  We desire to feed, survive and reproduce.  Survival, not truth, is what is most important.

We assume that our cognitive faculties are reliable. But what I want to argue is that the naturalist has a powerful reason against this initial assumption, and should give it up. I don’t mean to argue that this natural assumption is false; like everyone else, I believe that our cognitive faculties are, in fact, mostly reliable. What I do mean to argue is that the naturalist—at any rate a naturalist who accepts evolution—is rationally obliged to give up this assumption. – Plantinga, Alvin (2011-11-11). Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (p. 326). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

One objection to Plantinga’s argument is that it seems obvious that true beliefs would ensure survival.  He admits this is true, but says it is irrelevant.  His argument is not about how things are but how we would expect things to be if naturalism and evolution were both true.  We cannot assume naturalism (materialism) is true from the outset.  If we imagine it being true we imagine a world where all that matters is survival and truth is irrelevant.  He says:

It is by virtue of its neurophysiological properties that B causes A; it is by virtue of those properties that B sends a signal along the relevant nerves to the relevant muscles, causing them to contract, and thus causing A. It isn’t by virtue of its having that particular content C that it causes what it does cause. So once again: suppose N&E were true. Then materialism would be true in either its reductive or its nonreductive form. In either case, the underlying neurology is adaptive, and determines belief content. But in either case it doesn’t matter to the adaptiveness of the behavior (or of the neurology that causes that behavior) whether the content determined by that neurology is true.29

Plantinga, Alvin (2011-11-11). Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (p. 340). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

In a natural world your desire to get a drink of water is driven by your biological need for water.  Any true beliefs you have about water, or false ones, are irrelevant.  Believing in naturalism and evolution thus provides a defeater for naturalism in that you have no good reason to hold it is true.

Plantinga’s argument is long and detailed, so I hope I did a halfway decent job of illustrating it here.  I first encountered some of these ideas of basic beliefs and defeaters in his book Warranted Christian Belief.  I found this book much better, more approachable for a non-specialist in philosophy.  That said, there were parts of it that were definitely a chore.  I am grateful for people like Plantinga who make such arguments, but I am more grateful for those who can distill them down to be made understandable for normal, average people.  I work my way through books like this because I think it truly helps me in ministry, but I can’t say I enjoy reading them as I do some other Christian thinkers like David Bentley Hart or James KA Smith.

Overall, a good and challenging read that has much that can be useful in helping those who have questions about faith and science.



2 thoughts on “Where the Conflict Really Lies – Alvin Plantinga (Review)

  1. Dave, Thanks for distilling this book. I’m afraid I would never get through it, but I’m familiar with some of Plantinga’s arguments, thanks to those of you who labor through them.

  2. Hello Dave,

    Thank you for the review and the recapitulation of Plantinga’s argument. For me the example that brings his argument home most clearly is the Naturalist’s/Materialist’s explanation for people’s faith in God or their religious belief.

    If one asks a Materialist: “Why do most people throughout our history from the primitive to the sophisticated believe in God or adhere to a religion?” The Naturalist has an explanation readily at hand. “Why primitives and the improperly educated have many fears that assail them: lightning, weather, future uncertainty, death … These fears can be paralysing and negatively impact survival. Belief in a God is evolution’s way of coping with these fears by giving us an imaginary, benevolent controller who takes care of things for us. We Materialists have now grown beyond that belief.”

    So, for the questions that matter most to us, evolution, because of the apparent survival value, drives us to believe a complete lie (according to the Naturalist) simply because the lie has “survival value.” If the religious answers to our biggest questions (according to Materialist philosophy) are ostensibly lies driven by survival value, then why should anything we believe necessarily be connected to truth and reality?

    Once again Dave, thank you for the review.

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