Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism
September 18, 2012
A Philosopher Defends Religion
The gulf in outlook between atheists and adherents of the monotheistic religions is profound. We are fortunate to live under a constitutional system and a code of manners that by and large keep it from disturbing the social peace; usually the parties ignore each other. But sometimes the conflict surfaces and heats up into a public debate. The present is such a time.
One of the things atheists tend to believe is that modern science is on their side, whereas theism is in conflict with science: that, for example, belief in miracles is inconsistent with the scientific conception of natural law; faith as a basis of belief is inconsistent with the scientific conception of knowledge; belief that God created man in his own image is inconsistent with scientific explanations provided by the theory of evolution. In his absorbing new book, Where the Conflict Really Lies, Alvin Plantinga, a distinguished analytic philosopher known for his contributions to metaphysics and theory of knowledge as well as to the philosophy of religion, turns this alleged opposition on its head. His overall claim is that “there is superficial conflict but deep concord between science and theistic religion, but superficial concord and deep conflict between science and naturalism.” By naturalism he means the view that the world describable by the natural sciences is all that exists, and that there is no such person as God, or anything like God.
Plantinga’s religion is the real thing, not just an intellectual deism that gives God nothing to do in the world. He himself is an evangelical Protestant, but he conducts his argument with respect to a version of Christianity that is the “rough intersection of the great Christian creeds”—ranging from the Apostle’s Creed to the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles—according to which God is a person who not only created and maintains the universe and its laws, but also intervenes specially in the world, with the miracles related in the Bible and in other ways. It is of great interest to be presented with a lucid and sophisticated account of how someone who holds these beliefs understands them to harmonize with and indeed to provide crucial support for the methods and results of the natural sciences.
Plantinga discusses many topics in the course of the book, but his most important claims are epistemological. He holds, first, that the theistic conception of the relation between God, the natural world, and ourselves makes it reasonable for us to regard our perceptual and rational faculties as reliable. It is therefore reasonable to believe that the scientific theories they allow us to create do describe reality. He holds, second, that the naturalistic conception of the world, and of ourselves as products of unguided Darwinian evolution, makes it unreasonable for us to believe that our cognitive faculties are reliable, and therefore unreasonable to believe any theories they may lead us to form, including the theory of evolution. In other words, belief in naturalism combined with belief in evolution is self-defeating. However, Plantinga thinks we can reasonably believe that we are the products of evolution provided that we also believe, contrary to naturalism, that the process was in some way guided by God.
I shall return to the claim about naturalism below, but let me first say more about the theistic conception. Plantinga contends, as others have, that it is no accident that the scientific revolution occurred in Christian Europe and nowhere else. Its great figures, such as Copernicus and Newton, believed that God had created a law-governed natural order and created humans in his image, with faculties that allowed them to discover that order by using perception and reason. That use of perception and reason is what defines the empirical sciences. But what about the theistic belief itself? It is obviously not a scientific result. How can it be congruent with a scientific understanding of nature?
Here we must turn to Plantinga’s general theory of knowledge, which is crucial to understanding his position. Any theory of human knowledge must give an account of what he calls “warrant,” i.e., the conditions that a true belief must meet in order to constitute knowledge. Sometimes we know something to be true on the basis of evidence provided by other beliefs, or because we see that it is entailed by our other beliefs. But not every belief can depend on other beliefs. The buck has to stop somewhere, and according to Plantinga this happens when we form beliefs in one of the ways that he calls “basic.”
The basic belief-forming capacities include perception, memory, rational intuition (about logic and arithmetic), induction, and some more specialized faculties, such as the ability to detect the mental states of others. When you look in the refrigerator and see that it contains several bottles of beer, you form that belief immediately without inferring it from any other belief, e.g., a belief about the pattern of shapes and colors in your visual field. When someone asks you whether you have had lunch yet, you can answer immediately because you remember having had lunch, and the memory is a belief not based on any other belief, or on perception, or on logical reasoning.
Beliefs that are formed in the basic way are not infallible: they may have to be given up in the face of contrary evidence. But they do not have to be supported by other evidence in order to be warranted—otherwise knowledge could never get started. And the general reliability of each of these unmediated types of belief-formation cannot be shown by appealing to any of the others:
Rational intuition enables us to know the truths of mathematics and logic, but it can’t tell us whether or not perception is reliable. Nor can we show by rational intuition and perception that memory is reliable, nor (of course) by perception and memory that rational intuition is.But what then is the warrant for beliefs formed in one of these basic ways? Plantinga holds that the main condition is that they must result from the proper functioning of a faculty that is in fact generally reliable. We cannot prove without circularity that the faculties of perception, memory, or reason are generally reliable, but if they are, then the true beliefs we form when they are functioning properly constitute knowledge unless they are put in doubt by counterevidence.1Human knowledge is therefore dependent on facts about our relation to the world that we cannot prove from scratch: we can’t prove the existence of the physical world, or the reality of the past, or the existence of logical and mathematical truth; but if our faculties do in fact connect with these aspects of reality, then we can know about them, according to Plantinga’s theory.
For example, if our perceptual beliefs are in general caused by the impact on our senses of objects and events in the environment corresponding to what is believed, and if memories are in general caused by traces in the brain laid down by events in the past corresponding to what those memories represent, then perception and memory are reliable faculties, which can give us knowledge even though we cannot prove they are reliable…