Book Review – Plantinga's Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism

Image of Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism
by Alvin Plantinga
Oxford University Press 2011
Hardcover 376

Lesser mortals like me can’t claim to fully understand everything Alvin Plantinga writes in books like Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism. What we can do is pick up some high-protein food for thought, and possibly, along the way, improve our thinking habits in some potent ways. I read the book primarily as an audiobook, but also in the hardcover form.

First, some context. Plantinga is an analytical philosopher. He writes from a Christian worldview, but—at least in this book—isn’t really doing apologetics for Christianity or for creation doctrine, except maybe indirectly.

Rather, the book is focused on a single two-part question—and the author’s focus throughout is laser sharp. The question is this: Is there really any substantial conflict between science and “theistic religion,” and is there instead substantial conflict between science and naturalism?

Much of the time, Plantinga refers to Christian theism in particular, but he occasionally points out that most of what he is attempting to show applies to other theistic religions as well. His thesis is stated in the Preface:

There is superficial conflict but deep concord between science and theistic religion but superficial concord and deep conflict between science and naturalism. (ix)

Plantinga sums up what he means by naturalism. Also from the Preface:

[N]aturalism plays many of the same roles as a religion. In particular, it gives answers to the great human questions: Is there such a person as God? How should we live? Can we look forward to life after death? What is our place in the universe? How are we related to other creatures? Naturalism gives answers here: there is no God, and it makes no sense to hope for life after death. As to our place in the grand scheme of things, we human beings are just another animal with a peculiar way of making a living… . we could properly call it a quasi-religion.

The Structure of the Book

Consistent with Plantinga’s orderly, methodical way of thinking, Where the Conflict Really Lies is well organized. Below is an adaptation of the table of contents with third level points omitted and a few glosses of my own added.

Part I: Alleged Conflict

1 Evolution and Christian Belief 1 (Richard Dawkins)

2 Evolution and Christian Belief 2 (Daniel Dennett, Paul Draper, etc.)

3  Divine Action in the World: The Old Picture (Isaac Newton, Pierre Laplace, causally-closed systems)

4 The New Picture (Quantum mechanics and divine intervention)

Part II: Superficial Conflict

5 Evolutionary Psychology and Scripture Scholarship (Examples of science that is in “superficial conflict” with religion, and beliefs that are in genuine conflict but turn out to not actually be science.)

6 Defeaters (Ways beliefs may be weakened or become untenable: rebutting defeaters, undercutting defeaters, rationality defeaters, warrant defeaters; also strong vs. weak methodological naturalism)

Part III: Concord

7 The Fine-Tuning Argument (Argument that the universe has a Designer, weakness of objections, limited usefulness of the argument)

8 Design Discourse (A alternative way to argue for design)

9 Deep Concord: Christian Theism and the Deep Roots of Science (How Christianity gave birth to science, and why)

Part IV: Deep Conflict (“where the conflict really lies”)

10 The Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (How belief unguided evolution/naturalism renders all beliefs irrational)

The Reading Experience

The Audible recording of the book is just shy of 13 hours long, and is read warmly by Michael Butler Murray. Murray is less than fully engaged in Plantinga’s reasoning and frequently fails to emphasize the right word in a clause—the one that sets up a key contrast with the ones before it. He’s not robotic, though, and has a friendly, inviting delivery. The lack of appropriate emphasis doesn’t usually hinder comprehension.

Readers probably shouldn’t try to tackle this book in audio form alone. Plantinga’s concepts—and especially his distinctions—are frequently high-density. In audio, expect to be hitting the rewind occasionally. I also lowered the playback speed to something closer to 1.0 for this one.

Perhaps because Plantinga is an analytical philosopher, or perhaps because it’s just his preference, each chapter in the book includes a section in which the author lays out his reasoning in a compressed format akin to symbolic logic. For me, this was impossible to follow in audio. One tiny example:

(1)P(R/N&E) is low.

Translation:

The conditional probability that our cognitive faculties are reliable, given naturalism together with the proposition that we have come to be by way of evolution, is low. (317)

Those who aren’t fans of that kind of abstraction shouldn’t be intimidated, though. It’s usually possible to follow Plantinga’s reasoning without grinding through all the steps, and the author helps readers do so by using smaller print for most of these sections:

I have employed two sizes of print: the main argument goes on in the large print, with more specialized points and other additions in the small. This book is not intended merely for specialists in philosophy. (xv)

Alas, there is no audio equivalent of the smaller print in this book. Murray enounces his way through every bit of it without missing a beat.

Highlights

  • Clarity and restraint. Where the Conflict Really Lies is relentlessly precise, studiously avoids over-generalization, and is completely rant-free. When Plantinga reasons to a conclusion, he claims a larger conclusion than he thinks the reasoning supports. This is so unlike how we do public discourse these days, I occasionally laughed out loud at the surprisingly small claim he was willing to make after many pages of rigorous examination.
  • Subtle, dry humor. Plantinga is consistently cool and analytical, but is not without feeling. You just have to get accustomed to the scale of it. I’d quote some bits, but really have to drive on that smooth Plantinga road for a while before the tiny bumps can hit you funny.
  • Dismissing Dawkins and Dennet. Speaking of humor, I found Plantinga’s quick and thorough demolishing of the “new atheists” pretty funny. After chapters 1 and 2, the book focuses on more thoughtful antagonists.
  • This!

For according to the Christian story, God, the almighty first being of the universe and the creator of everything else, was willing to undergo enormous suffering in order to redeem creatures who had turned their backs on him. He created human beings; they rebelled against him and constantly go contrary to his will. Instead of treating them as some Oriental monarch would, he sent his Son, the Word, the second person of the Trinity into the world. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. He was subjected to ridicule, rejection, and finally the cruel and humiliating death of the cross. Horrifying as that is, Jesus, the Word, the son of God, suffered something vastly more horrifying: abandonment by God, exclusion from his love and affection: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” All this to enable human beings to be reconciled to God, and to achieve eternal life. This overwhelming display of love and mercy is not merely the greatest story ever told; it is the greatest story that could be told. (58-59)

  • The defeaters concept (163ff). Rather than analyze in terms of arguments and validity, Plantinga works in terms of beliefs and belief-defeaters. This is a section I hope to re-read soon.
  • Naturalism vs. Materialism (318-322). In this book, “materialism” refers to the belief that human beings in particular are material objects: there is no “immaterial substance or self;” humans “do not have an immaterial soul, or mind, or ego.” Since all materialists are naturalists, Plantinga decides that for the book’s purposes he will “think of naturalism as including materialism” (322).
  • Index!
  • Divine Intervention. Fascinating discussion on why belief in divine intervention, including miracles, is not in any way in conflict with “classical science” (Newtonian) and gets along even better with quantum mechanics (chapters 3 and 4).
  • “Causally closed.” I hadn’t realized how easily Newtonian physics/“classical science” accepts the supernatural. They key concept is that Newton, and other pioneers of science, believed the “laws” of physics apply to causally closed systems. Divine intervention comes from outside the system and, therefore, doesn’t suspend or violate the “laws of physics”—because, when intervention is occurring, the system is not causally closed. (My old definition of what a “miracle” is will need revision.)
  • The fine tuning argument (chapter 7). I had heard this argument for the existence of design in the universe before but had not read a careful analysis. Very interesting material.
  • Christianity pretty much invented science (chapter 9). Probably my favorite chapter in the book. The understanding that God created a universe that is orderly, predictable, and knowable demanded the kind of study we now call science.
  • Naturalism + Evolution is self-defeating belief (chapter 10). Plantinga reasons that in naturalistic/unguided evolution, there is not really any survival advantage for reasoning to true conclusions, only for reasoning to conclusions that produce survival-favoring responses. That being the case, naturalistic evolution would mean our mental faculties are unreliable, and all of our beliefs are unreliable—including believe in naturalistic evolution. I’m not entirely persuaded of the premise that truthful reasoning is no more useful for survival than practical reasoning, but this is a fascinating argument.

Weaknesses

  • Guided/theistic evolution. Plantinga apparently accepts that evolution and natural selection account for the origin of the species (I say “apparently,” because this is not really the question he is interested in in this book. It is assumed). What he rejects is the idea that unguided evolution is actually integral to the scientific enterprise, and that this sort of evolution happened.
  • Discussion of faith vs. reason (178). Plantinga seemed to inadequately define what faith is, from the point of view of Calvin and Aquinas—either that, or I disagree with Calvin and Aquinas! It seems more likely that Plantinga mistakes a species of faith for the whole in this brief passage. I hoped for more on this, because part of what I’m reading for is hunting down and closing some gaps in my worldview.

Where the Conflict Really Lies was a stimulating read. I could almost feel long-dormant parts of my cerebral cortex resuscitating. In the end, he convinced me that there is indeed deep concord between theistic religion and science and deep conflict between naturalism and science. I was certainly predisposed to accept this conclusion—but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong!

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There are 2 Comments

Paul Henebury's picture

Good review Aaron.  I had some of the same impressions when I read the book.  Especially his 'Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism' which was so nuanced as to leave me wondering if he gave too much away.

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I actually like his habit of favoring a really strong argument for a smaller point over a weaker argument for a bigger point. (Tilt toward understatement)

In the case of his evolutionary argument against naturalism, though, I wasn't entirely sure one of his premises really held up. I needed a bit more explanation of why natural selection wouldn't favor true reasoning over untrue reasoning. It was certainly clear to me, though, that natural selection couldn't justify the belief that supposedly evolved minds should be seen as especially reliable sources of truth.

They'd have to be highly suspect at best, because even if natural selection would favor accurate reasoning over inaccurate reasoning most of the time, it wouldn't have to do so in every case. You could even dream up situations where false belief would have a better survival result.

That leaves naturalists with no reason to be confident that human reason actually works reliably.

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