A few weeks ago I had the privilege of hearing Alvin Plantinga lecture on Science and Religion at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Although he is getting pretty old (in his 70’s I think), he seems to be in very good health. His talk was entitled Science and Religion: Why Does the Debate Continue? Feel free to comment on areas of agreement or disagreement. Below is my summary of what he presented*:
Plantinga began by identifying several different “loci” which help to perpetuate the ongoing rift between science and religion.
(1) the assocation of science with secularism or the so-called ‘scientific world view.’
(2) the alleged conflict b/t scientific theories of evolution and essential aspects of Christianity and other theistic religions
(3) the alleged conflict b/t religious claims and many explanations in evolutionary psychology
(4) the conflict between certain classical Christian doctrines and certain varieties of scientific or historical biblical criticism
(5) the alleged conflict b/t the epistemic attitudes of science and religion.
In his talk he treated only (2) above.
By way of treating (2), Plantinga defined these terms, which are crucial to his argument:
secular: of or relating to the worldly or the temporal as distinguished from the spiritual or eternal: not sacred.
Secularism with respect to x: the position, with respect to some particular area of life x, that secular approaches are all that is necessary or desirable in that area of life; no reference to the spiritual or supernatural is needed for proper prosecution of the activities or projects in that area.
secularism tout court: the idea that a secular approach to all life is satisfactory or required; there is no department or aspect of life where there needs to be, or ought to be, a reference to the supernatural or spiritual.
After defining these Plantinga went on to make a distinction b/t two versions of secularism:
scientific secularism: ‘objectifying inquiry’ is enough for understanding and practice.
autonomist secularism: we human beings construct or, better, constitute the truth about the world, and have no need to resort to the spiritual or supernatural.
Now of course Plantinga was giving commentary in between these definitions, but I can’t remember it all. After defining and explaining all of these terms he proceeded to relate them to Methodological Naturalism (hereafter MN).
Plantinga identified the position of MN essentially with the view of Hugo Grotius; that we should proceed (in doing science) as if God is not given. Thus MN will not allow for any reference to the supernatural in scientific theory, data, or relevant background knowledge.
Thus, MN is secularism with respect to science. Plantinga asserted that one of the reasons that the debate is fueled by the mistrust b/t science and religion is the confusion of scientific secularism with secularism with respect to science. He posited that science neither requires nor supports the former.
He then gave some common examples to demonstrate that science itself does not support scientific secularism. But the main claim that is important to see in his argument is that MN (which is equal to secularism with respect to science) is very different than scientific secularism, which is essentially what many of the “New Atheists” (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, etc.) are proclaiming. He believes that a confusion of these two is an “egregious one” and happens on both sides of the divide.
He moved onto Evolution and discussed several common theories: the Ancient Earth thesis, the Progress thesis, the thesis of Descent with Modification, the Common Ancestry Thesis, Darwinism, the Naturalistic Origins Thesis. Plantinga believes that the Christian (or theistic) doctine of creation (that God has created human beings in his image) is consistent with all of the above theses. BUT it is not consistent with the claim that the process of evolution is unguided (which is what Dawkins holds to essentially in The Blind Watchmaker).
Plantinga then discussed Dawkins The Blind Watchmaker. He noted that the subtitle of this book is “Why the evidence of evolution reveals a universe without design.” But why does Dawkins think this is the case?
He answers by stating that Dawkins does three things:
(1) he recounts some of the fascinating anatomical details of certain living creatures and their ways.
(2) He tries to refute arguments for the conclusion that blind, unguided evolution could not have produced certain of the wonders of the living world, and
(3) He makes suggestions as to how these and other organic systems could have developed by unguided evolution.
Now, of course Plantinga has problems with Dawkins points above. This is how he breaks down Dawkins actual argument of the book:
(1) We know of no irrefutable objections to its being biologically possible that all of life has come to be by way of unguided Darwinian processes;
(2) All of life has come to be by way of unguided Darwinian processes.
Now any first year logic student will see that the single premise of the argument is not sufficient to warrant the conclusion. There is what Plantinga calls a “striking distance” between the premise and the conclusion. He therefore thinks that Dawkins subtitle is misleading and just plain wrong. This is his actual statement about the subtitle:
“Dawkins utterly fails to show that ‘the facts of evolution reveal a universe without design;’ still the fact that he and others assert his subtitle loudly and slowly, as it were, can be expected to convince many that the biological theory of evolution is in fact incompatible with the theistic belief that the living world has been designed. Another source of the continuing debate, therefore, is the mistaken claim on the part of such writers as Dawkins that the scientific theory implies that the living world and human beings in particular have not been designed and created by God.”
Dr. Plantinga then moved into an argument to show that Dennett commits essentially the same mistake as Dawkins (though I will skip this part of the argument).
He explained their fallacy which helps to prolong the debate as such:
“Here we have another important source of the continuing debate between science and religion. Dawkins and Denett both hold that contemporary evolutionary theory—Darwinism, in particular—is incompatible with the Christian and theistic claim that God has created human beings in his own image. Both claim Darwinism, the theory that the principal mechanism driving the process of evolution is natural selection winnowing random genetic mutation, implies that the universe—the living universe, anyway—is without design.”
It is this confusion that Plantinga asserted is one of the most important, perhaps the most important, source of continuing conflict and debate b/t science and religion. “If you confuse Darwinism with unguided Darwinism, a confusion Dennett makes and Dawkins encourages, you will see science and religion as in conflict at this point.”
This confusion has resulted in these manifestations: the conflict raging over ID; the National Association of Biology Teachers: until 1997 that organization stated as part of its offical position that the “diversity of life on earth is the outcome of evolution: an unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable and natural process….”
Plantinga concludes by saying that “this confusion between Darwinism and unguided Darwinism is a crucial cause of the continuing debate. Darwinism, the scientific theory, is compatible with theism and theistic religion; unguided Darwinism, a consequence of naturalism, is incompatible with theism, but isn’t entailed by the scientific theory. It is instead a metaphysical or theological add-on.”
*My summary of what he said is taken directly from a handout outlining his discussion.