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

The knowledge we’ve gleaned from science has shrunk the remaining possible realm of deities to the infinitesimal. Religionists have responded by arguing that omnipotent deities exist perpetually beyond the detection of science. Half a century ago, this response was the dogma of religious outliers. But it’s now the theist mainstream, as shown by its centrality in Alvin Plantinga’s book, Where the Conflict Really Lies. Plantinga, who teaches at Notre Dame, has been hailed by fellow philosophy professor Michael Bergmann as the world’s leading philosopher of religion.

Plantinga advocates the view that science and religion fit together well. More remarkably, he argues that science and naturalism (including naturalistic humanism) don’t. He errs, however, by framing the “science” he deems compatible with religion and incompatible with naturalism as particular principles derived scientifically, such as the principles of evolution.

Rather, science has to be understood as a methodology. It is a set of tools for inducing the viability and reliability of conclusions based on observations of reality. Observations of reality constitute evidence and, in parsing that evidence, the tools of the scientific method serve the function of distinguishing erroneous conclusions from accurate ones.

In his presentation of theism, Plantinga assumes that an omnipotent deity can’t be detected by science and is therefore a part of the “evidence base” of theism. Under this rubric, evidence of an omnipotent deity cannot and will never be found by science. This latter point may be the only one on which he and secularists agree. Like the dogmatists of a half-century ago, though, he takes the position that this fact doesn’t even slightly support the conclusion that an omnipotent deity doesn’t exist. Instead, he throws out induction entirely and insists that only what he calls a “defeater,” or proof that no deities exist, would make science incompatible with religion.

Religionists may thus rationalize their belief in an omnipotent deity all they want. But asserting that such a position is consistent with science is beyond the pale. Saying that an omnipotent deity exists but can’t be evidenced by science falls into the category of an assumption. Science doesn’t entertain assumptions. Theories in science propose interpretations of partial sets of facts, until additional facts are ascertained that either confirm the theory or force modifications. They can’t be based on a complete absence of facts, or worse yet, on ignoring lots of inconsistent facts. The notion of an omnipotent deity quite simply goes against too many known facts about the universe. Assuming that such a deity exists doesn’t meet the requirements even for a scientific theory, and it is therefore incompatible with science.

In contrast, Plantinga’s arguments about specific principles derived using the scientific method include some pointed criticisms of arguments advanced by secularists for the incompatibility of science and religion. The ones that point out weakness in a scientific theory will either result in an effective rebuttal or a refinement of the theory.

Noteworthy from the standpoint of humanism, Plantinga begins by asserting that evolution is compatible with theism. That argument itself is a major concession to science. Without much ado, he tosses the creationists overboard. However, when necessary to support his arguments on this and other points, he repeatedly changes the definition of what theism is to fit the scientific principles. For example, he entertains deadpan the idea that “the designer” in intelligent design could be a “committee of designers.” On the age of the earth and eons necessary for evolution of life, he points to Augustine’s assertion that the first six days of Genesis could each be eons long. But how many who take the Bible as the word of God accept Augustine’s writing as the word of God? In case after case, he comes up with some possible religious tenet, or human interpretation of one, that is compatible with a particular scientific principle. In the end, though, it becomes very unclear whether the sum of “religious” principles that Plantinga has successfully reconciled with science in this manner together constitute an existing religion.

The truth is, the whole of Plantinga’s argument doesn’t even attempt to reconcile science and religion. Instead, it carves out religion as an exception or parallel universe to science. Similar to predecessors such as Karl Heim’s supernatural fourth dimension of the 1930s, Plantinga builds on an alternative epistemology allowing for divine entities to escape scientific detection. In light of Plantinga’s status at the top of mainstream philosophy of religion, his pursuit of equally marginal ideas evidences at least the beginning of the end stages of religionists’ efforts to reconcile science and religion. But the book also shows that they won’t go down without a fight.

His assertion that science and naturalism are incompatible pushes his aim to a different level. In the end, his argument is all bluster, based on the sole assertion that naturalism and evolution are incompatible. Tellingly, his attack relies on another combination of cherry-picked definitions of naturalistic knowledge, confused premises, and unfounded assumptions. Astoundingly, his argument ignores the most basic statement of Darwinism —natural selection—by alleging that human cognitive faculties couldn’t possibly have evolved to be as reliable as they are under evolution and naturalism.

Worse, his argument focuses on the wrong proof. As he argues, the probability that a human belief is true will be low if naturalism and evolution are both true. Thus, he mistakenly equates reliability of cognitive faculties with accuracy of beliefs. Obviously, proof of his assertion doesn’t lend itself to proof of reliability of human cognition. Not so coincidentally, his conclusion is correct under established science of human development as applied in one respect: infants. The reliability of their beliefs is low. In the most positive light, perhaps his conflation of reliability of cognitive faculties with accuracy of beliefs causes him to again ignore a defining faculty of advanced forms of life: induction. Fortunately, during their upbringing in the naturalist world, immature humans have the tool of induction to define and refine the accuracy of their beliefs. Naturalists accept the clear evidence that young humans use their reliable cognitive faculties to induce truths, to learn, about the world from experience. Only after learning simple truths first, and then complex truths, are we capable of exercising the freedom to rely on our faculties by ourselves. At that point, the database of our understanding has become accurate and broad enough to allow us to choose behavior that enables us to have a high probability of surviving until death by natural causes and maybe have some fun along the way. Plantinga, in contrast, ignores everything after the infant stage. Whatever it is he is attacking, it’s not naturalism.

Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism by Alvin PlantingaIronically, the notion that the accuracy of human beliefs improves with experience is the basis for naturalists’ conclusion that faith in deities is an outmoded, inaccurate belief. In that instance, however, it is improvement in the accuracy of cultural knowledge that takes place over generations and millennia, rather than the childhood of an individual.

Plantinga’s attack on naturalism even gets personal. In another of his assumptions, asserted more fully in other writings as proof that a deity exists, he agrees with John Calvin that believers have a sense of the divine that lets them know the deity. Given that this belief in a deity is supposed to be automatic, there is no distinction between believing and having the ability to sense. But in Plantinga’s universe, despite the ecumenicalist veneer of his presentation on “theism,” a fully functioning sense of the divine corresponds only to (surprise!) a personal, a la Christian, deity. He calls any other conception of a deity the result of a “weak” sense of the divine.

While everyone is supposedly born with the sense, anyone who loses it does so by sinning or as a result of someone else’s sins. He asserts bald-face that a person who has lost it suffers cognitive dysfunction, unless the person has yet to fully think through the consequences of his or her rejection of the existence of divine entities. Finally, he claims that what replaces the knowledge of a deity after the loss of the sense is the age-old slander of sloth. Humanists have thrived despite worse attacks, but, tellingly, Plantinga even disdains “resentful” believers who have come to fear the deity in which they believe. Thus, he has even abandoned the theological project of assuring the sufferers of “evil” that the deity is nonetheless on their side. In doing so, Plantinga eats his own, and the first reaction of a humanist can only be to pity them.