Saturday, February 4, 2012

On "Where the Conflict Really Lies" (Pt. 1)

Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism is Alvin Plantinga's popular-level challenge to the idea that science and religion are in conflict. At least, that's the defensive portion of the book. He goes on to argue that the real conflict is between science and an irreligious worldview.

I'm concerned that people eager for this conclusion will cite Plantinga as an intellectual authority without understanding which parts of his overall argument are strong vs. which parts are weak, overly specialized, or overly generalized. My plan is to cover select portions of his book, supporting or criticizing Plantinga as appropriate.

For new readers of this blog, let me say up front that I'm a naturalist, i.e. I believe the natural world is all there is. On the other hand, I don't think everyone who disagrees is making an intellectual blunder. I'm especially sympathetic with Deists, but also with other Theists who are drawing the best conclusion they can from their own experiences. Mistaken conclusions don't necessarily imply bad methods.

Series Index

1. Series Index; Preface
2. Chapter One — Evolution and the Image of God
3. Chapter One — Dawkins
4. Chapter Two — Dennett; Necessity; Rationalism
5. Chapter Two — Draper; Science Education; Natural Evil
6. Chapter Three & Chapter Four — Divine Action
7. Chapter Five — Evolved Ethics and Religion
8. Chapter Five — Historical Biblical Criticism
9. Chapter Six — Defeaters
10. Chapter Seven & Chapter Eight — Fine Tuning; Design
11. Chapter Nine — Deep Concord
12. Chapter Ten — Deep Conflict

Other Plantinga Posts

On "Naturalism, Theism, Obligation and Supervenience"

The Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (Pt. 1)
The Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (Pt. 2)


Worldview Terminology

Plantinga's use of terminology is a bit quirky. From the first page:
"I take naturalism to be the thought that there is no such person as God, or anything like God. Naturalism is stronger than atheism: you can be an atheist without rising to the full heights (sinking to the lowest depths?) of naturalism; but you can’t be a naturalist without being an atheist."1
Atheism is the most straightforward term for the thought that there is no such person as God. Why didn't he say that instead? I suspect he is using naturalism as a practical synonym for what is sometimes called explicit (or strong) atheism, as opposed to implicit (or weak) atheism.2 In other words, a committed naturalist holds a positive belief which rules out a God who exists beyond nature, but not everyone lacking a belief in God has given the issue much thought.

Readers can usually substitute 'atheism' for 'naturalism' in Plantinga's books and papers. This has the bonus of keeping things simpler for readers aware of the controversies surrounding the word 'naturalism.'

A Drop of Poison

Suppose I start this series by putting Plantinga in a list of famous contemporary apologists, then characterizing these apologists as immature, out of their element, and not nearly as respectable as old-school apologists like Augustine or Chesterton. I could color your entire perception of Plantinga's ideas and motivations in a way that puts him at a disadvantage.

This is a rhetorical technique called poisoning the well. I'm bringing this up only because Plantinga puts a drop or two into atheism's well. Nothing outrageous; maybe just enough to give the water a bitter tang.
"Why [Dawkins, Harris, Dennett, and Hitchens] choose this route is not wholly clear. One possibility, of course, is that their atheism is adolescent rebellion carried on by other means. Another (consistent with the first) is that they know of no good reasons or arguments for their views, and hence resort to schoolyard tactics. In terms of intellectual competence, the new atheists are certainly inferior to the “old atheists”—Bertrand Russell and John Mackie come to mind. They are also inferior to many other contemporary but less strident atheists—Thomas Nagel, Michael Tooley, and William Rowe, for example. We may perhaps hope that the new atheists are but a temporary blemish on the face of serious conversation in this crucial area."3
I have no objection to Plantinga addressing less developed but popular atheistic arguments. I just wish he would hold off on negative characterizations until after discussing the arguments.

Yes, I realize it might be hypocritical of me to bring this up. I thought about waiting for the last post in the series, but decided it's something readers should notice then look past to give both Plantinga and his opponents a fair hearing.

The Greatness and Limitations of Science

Why is it so important for worldviews to be compatible with science? Plantinga calls science "the most striking and impressive intellectual phenomenon of the last half millennium," since it is a "cooperative venture" among many brilliant people which progressively builds on previous questions.
"If there were serious conflicts between religion and current science, that would be very significant; initially, at least, it would cast doubt on those religious beliefs inconsistent with current science."4
I couldn't help but notice that these virtues of science are on par with theology in its heyday. Theology also had a lot of smart people coming up with ideas, then more ideas building on earlier ideas. Outside claims were resisted if they seemed out of line with established theology. So I don't think Plantinga has captured the reasons why science is such a big deal across worldviews, while orthodox theologies are not.

Is science like a religion, but less so? I get this impression from passages like:
"Some treat science as if it were a sort of infallible oracle, like a divine revelation—or if not infallible (since it seems so regularly to change its mind), at any rate such that when it comes to fixing belief, science is the court of last appeal. But this can’t be right. First, science doesn’t address some of the topics where we most need enlightenment: religion, politics, and morals, for example. […] Second, science contradicts itself, both over time and at the same time. Two of the most important and overarching contemporary scientific theories are general relativity and quantum mechanics. Both are highly confirmed and enormously impressive; unfortunately, they can’t both be correct."5
Maybe I'm overreacting, but it seems like Plantinga is highlighting the limitations of science without highlighting its strengths (besides current popularity). Scientific inquiry does not give infallible answers sufficient for all time; it gives answers at varying levels of confidence based on the evidence currently available to many people across different cultures and worldviews.

It's also odd for Plantinga to say that science doesn't address religion in a book devoted to what science tells us about religion. Does science have any bearing on politics or morality? That will depend on some preliminary moral and political philosophy. I think both topics are a combination of ends and means; and science has a lot to say about means.

Note: The Kindle Edition does not use traditional page numbers. I'm using "k. 93" to indicate Kindle location 93. This book is 6,220 locations long.

1. Plantinga, A. (2011). Where the conflict really lies: Science, religion, and naturalism [Kindle Edition]. New York, New York: Oxford University Press. k. 93.
3. Plantinga (2011). k. 114.
4. ibid. k. 136.
5. ibid. k. 128.

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