Alvin Plantinga on Science and Religion

images.jpegA 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;
Therefore,
(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.

9 Responses to Alvin Plantinga on Science and Religion

  1. You wrote:
    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;
    Therefore,
    (C) 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.”

    While the inference Plantinga ascribes to Dawkins is clearly fallacious, I can’t see why anyone would ascribe the inference to Dawkins (and, as any first year logic student knows, you oughtn’t strawman your opponent). I take it that Dawkins believes in addition to (1) that:
    (2) A theory that requires nothing outside of the processes of evolution to guide evolutionary processes is a simpler model than one that posits something additional and the simpler model is adequate for accounting for the facts at hand.
    (3) While someone might posit an additional guiding force beyond the mechanisms described in modern evolutionary theory, it is quite unlikely that such a force would be an intelligent force that would have used the mechanisms posited by modern evolutionary theory to bring about life as we know it in the way we know it was brought about.

    When you combine (1)-(3), the argument for (C) is no longer the pathetic sort of argument Plantinga likes to ascribe to Dawkins. It seems that granting the sufficiency of unguided explanation to explaining the relevant data it won’t take much work to get (2) having granted (1). (Surely Plantinga does not deny (1)). And, as for (3), you can consider poor design and apparent instances of natural evil as evidence for the claim that an intelligent and powerful agent with good intentions would not have used the mechanisms of modern evolution to bring about the sort of world we live in now by means of the historical events that preceded us. Think about the massive amounts of animal suffering that preceded mankind, think about the digger wasp, think about what seems to be poor design, etc…

  2. Clinton says:

    Clayon,

    Thanks for the comment! We appreciate your visit to Summa Philosophiae.

    I think that Plantinga thinks Dawkins is overly presumptuous in the claim of his sub-title. I think that his argument is a fair assessment of the book & if you read it (maybe you have), you see that he is essentially arguing in the way that Plantinga has layed out in the summary of Dawkins argument. So if there is a straw-man here, then that will have to be taken up with Plantinga himself since it is his argument.

    Let me treat your additional premises that would seemingly strengthen Dawkins argument.

    Concerning (2)- Why? Is it because a “designer” is unobservable? I don’t think that science is always as simple as you claim. Science frequently invokes unobservables (i.e. forces, fields, subatomic particles, mental states). Are these simple? Inevitably this all comes down to how one defines science. However, I think that scientists are often guilty of positing an evolution of the gaps as theists are at times positing a god of the gaps!

    Concerning (3)- You say, “it is quite unlikely that such a force would be an intelligent force that would have used the mechanisms posited by modern evolutionary theory to bring about life as we know it in the way we know it was brought about”
    Why is this the case? Why is it “unlikely?” Why is it so unlikely that if an intelligent guiding force exists, that it could not work through observable intermediaries? Theistic evolution can allow for genuinely teleological mechanisms capable of top-down causation, while materialism allows only blind, bottom-up processes.

    But do the “massive amounts of animal suffering….etc.” prove (3). I hardly think so. First, if you think that no intelligent force (or God) exists, I don’t think you have a grounding to show that animal suffering is indeed morally inferior to a possible state of affairs where it doesn’t exist. But I understand that you are trying to critique a world where an intelligent force uses evolution, and thus why would his evolutionary processes not be more efficient so as to avoid animal suffering, poor design, etc. So, I will think more about this question and post later (seeing that I am supposed to be doing something else right now…stay tuned).

  3. Hey Clinton,

    Thanks for the reply.

    The justification for (2) is not that God cannot be observed. The justification for (2) derives in part from (1). It seems that Plantinga does not believe that the mechanisms invoked by modern evolutionary are insufficient for explaining the relevant data. His point, I take it, is that the sufficiency of the explanation offered by the theory is not evidence of the absence of further forces (e.g., supernatural forces). That is undoubtedly correct. However, it is also undoubtedly correct that if T1 is sufficient for explaining a certain set of observations and T2 is also sufficient, if T2 contains T1 and posits additional explanatory entities, T1 is preferable to T2 ceteris paribus.

    As for (3), here is a quotation from one of Dawkins’ later works, A River Out of Eden:
    “I cannot persuade myself,” Darwin wrote: “that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars.” Actually Darwin’s gradual loss of faith, which he downplayed for fear of upsetting his devout wife Emma, had more complex causes. His reference to the Ichneumonidae was aphoristic. The macabre habits to which he referred are shared by their cousins the digger wasps, A female digger wasp not only lays her egg in a caterpillar (or grasshopper or bee) so that her larva can feed on it but, according to Fabre and others, she carefully guides her sting into each ganglion of the prey’s central nervous system, so as to paralyze it but not kill it. This way, the meat keeps fresh. It is not known whether the paralysis acts as a general anesthetic, or if it is like curare in just freezing the victim’s ability to move. If the latter, the prey might be aware of being eaten alive from inside but unable to move a muscle to do anything about it. This sounds savagely cruel but as we shall see, nature is not cruel, only pitilessly indifferent. This is one of the hardest lessons for humans to learn. We cannot admit that things might be neither good nor evil, neither cruel nor kind but simply callous – indifferent to all suffering, lacking all purpose. (Dawkins 1995, 95-96)

    This is not the first reference to the digger wasp in Dawkins’ work. I remember reading it in his Selfish Gene as well. In many of his works he is careful to point out that nature contains massive amounts of suffering and misery that we would not expect if God existed. Your point seems to be that God is necessary for making sense of the fact that animal suffering is bad. That strikes me as a mistake (It seems Plato exposed the mistake in The Euthyprho, but I might not be reading you properly). But, it also strikes me as missing the force of Dawkins’ argument. The point that Dawkins is making is essentially the point made in arguments from evil. The existence of certain kinds of evil constitute evidence against theism since the theist both believes in objective morality and believes that the world was created by a perfect being. Since the theists endorse the relevant moral assumptions, they cannot defend their view by saying that the atheist/agnostic cannot rationally accept those assumptions since what the atheist is offering is a reductio argument against those assumptions. Moreover, the aim is never to _prove_ (3), but to show that there is strong evidence in its favor.

    Anyway, I don’t have a copy of the one book Plantinga seems to have in mind, but I know for a fact that if you take into account more than just what he says in The Blind Watchmaker, Plantinga’s attacking a strawman. Given that Dawkins appeals to (3) in works published before and after The Blind Watchmaker, I think it is _highly_ likely that it is a strawman.

  4. Clinton says:

    Clayton,

    Sorry it took me so long to get back to you. I have been working on a paper. Yeah, Plantinga thinks that some of Dawkins other books are good in terms of argumentation. He just said that he thinks the subtitle of the aforementioned text is too presumptuous given that the argument within it does not justify the claim. Admittedly, I have not been able to think about Dawkins’ argument for too long. I am going to give you a theological answer as opposed to a scientific answer. The following quote is taken from an argument by William Dembski entitled “Christian Theodicy in Light of Genesis and Modern Science.” He writes in his argument the following:

    “Austin Farrer once asked himself what was God’s will in the Lisbon earthquake
    (that terrible disaster of 1755, when 50,000 people were killed in one day).
    Farrer’s answer was this–and it’s a hard answer, but I think a true answer–that
    God’s will was that the elements of the earth’s crust should behave in accordance
    with their nature. God has given them freedom to be, just as he has given us
    freedom to be.”

    Dembski admits that this sort of reply doesn’t really answer why there is such evil. I agree to some extent. But I am including this quote to get at something else. And again, my answer is theological. I think that after the Fall occurred (I am assuming you know what I am talking about when i say “fall), created things had the ability to go awry. Perhaps these sort of natural evils did not exist prior to the fall. Perhaps prior to the fall a female digger wasp did not lay her eggs in a caterpillar in such gruesome fashion. The entrance of sin into the world radically changed the way the entire cosmos functioned.

    To survive, animals often eat other animals. Humans eat animals as well. It appears that, at least in the present state of the creation, lower life forms are subjected to pain and death in order to facilitate the preservation of higher life forms. And I think that this is true across the board. But I do not think that this was the way things were intended to be. And I do not think that the Christian has a God that sits back and watches unengaged. The entire point of the Incarnation is that God has become man to do something for creation which creation could not do for itself; to bring about redemption for the entire cosmos.

    Could you explain a little more what you mean by saying that I fall into the Euthyphro dilemma. I am familiar with the dilemma and I think that the horns of the dilemma can be split by the theist, but I am not sure that I am tracking with you on exactly how I am committed to Euthyphro’s objection.

    My answer might not be satisfactory to you. If it isn’t I apologize. I will be thinking about this more. I will say that people have tried to answer this question in different ways. The medieval answer (of Aquinas I think) was that animals do not have souls so they can’t experience true pain anyways in virtue of their purely material constitution. I don’t buy this argument.
    Others have argued that God allows the natural instances of evil as a “flashing sign”, so to speak, to humanity to show them how pervasive and destructive sin really is. This would then serve to show the need for redemption. But I am not so sure that I find these arguments persuasive. Let me know what you think.

  5. Clinton says:

    Clayton,

    Let me clarify:

    You said:
    The point that Dawkins is making is essentially the point made in arguments from evil. The existence of certain kinds of evil constitute evidence against theism since the theist both believes in objective morality and believes that the world was created by a perfect being.

    My point is I don’t think that Dawkins can argue this way. He has to assume that there is such a moral value as evil and he can’t do this as an atheist. Consider the following argument (which I am sure you have heard before, being a professor)

    (1) If God did not exist, then objective moral values would not exist.
    (2) Evil exists
    (3) Therefore, objective moral values exist. (from 14)
    (4) Therefore, God exists. (Modus Tollens, 13, 15)

    What are your thoughts?

  6. Clinton says:

    Also, in reference to Dawkins argument concerning natural evil (digger wasp, etc.), I think that this argument can go the other way as well. Consider Anthony Flew’s recent conversion to Theism. “He says he has a lifelong commitment to following the evidence where it leads, and that new advances in the sciences have shown him that materialism and Darwinism simply cannot account for the world as it is and life as it is. Examining the fine-tuning of the universe and the mind-boggling complexity of the cell (a compexity that evolution presumes but cannot explain), Flew now believes that the design of the universe requires a designer” (taken from an article covering his conversion). Dawkins says it must be just evolution, no theism involved because of x,y & z (insert natural evils, etc). But it can also be said that theism must be involved to account for a,b & c (fine-tuning, specified complexity, etc.).

  7. My point is I don’t think that Dawkins can argue this way. He has to assume that there is such a moral value as evil and he can’t do this as an atheist. Consider the following argument (which I am sure you have heard before, being a professor)

    (1) If God did not exist, then objective moral values would not exist.
    (2) Evil exists
    (3) Therefore, objective moral values exist. (from 14)
    (4) Therefore, God exists. (Modus Tollens, 13, 15)

    What are your thoughts?

    I’d say two things. First, I think (1) is demonstrably false. I don’t know many philosophers who think there is a good case to be made for (1). The only philosopher I know who believes (1) is W.L. Craig, and I don’t think his work in meta-ethics is particularly well-regarded by those who have the relevant expertise. (It’s not just atheists and agnostics who think (1) is false, for a highly entertaining abusive review of a book on divine command theory by a theist, there’s an infamous review by Peter Geach.) The euthyphro argument shows that theism does no better and no worse when it comes to accommodating the objectivity of morality. But, even if you deny that, it is completely irrelevant. The problem of evil can be thought of as a reductio argument. For the theist believes (2). Given that belief and the God exists, the atheist either derives a contradiction or shows that (2) is strong evidence against (4). They don’t have to believe (2) or (4) to run the reductio.

    You are right that additional evidence such as evidence from the fine-tuning argument can be brought in to try to shore up the argument for theism, but that fact does not show that Dawkins’ original argument is the logical howler Plantinga claims. (In fact, neither does your earlier point about evil. Again, it might be that (1) is true, but an argument that assumes that (1) is false might have a false premise without being the sort of logical howler ascribed to Dawkins).

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