Monday, February 6, 2012

On "Where the Conflict Really Lies" (Pt. 2)

[Series explanation and index here.]

Chapter One

Is there a conflict between science and theism? It's useful to draw a distinction between (1) science as a method and (2) science as the body of knowledge we've gained through this method. Plantinga begins with the alleged conflict between biological evolution (a major result of scientific method) and certain kinds of theistic belief.
"I’ll be concerned in particular with Christian belief and science; most of the alleged conflicts, however, have to do with theism, belief that there is such a person as God, rather than with doctrines that separate specifically Christian belief from other theistic religions such as Islam and Judaism. Most of what I say, therefore, will apply to other theistic religions as well as to Christianity."1
Christianity, Islam, and Judaism are popular forms of theism, but what applies to them does not necessarily apply to other theistic religions.

Reasoning from the doctrine that humans — and not other species — were created in the image of God, Plantinga declares it essential to Christian faith that God specially "guided, directed, orchestrated, or shaped"2 the biological origin of humankind. This further narrows the scope of the theism under examination, since not all Christians draw the line at this point. A few do not require the special creation of humans.3 Many others draw the line at a more-or-less historical understanding of Genesis.4

So Long, Young Earth Creationists!
"Many Christian evangelicals or fundamentalists accept a literal interpretation of the creation account in the first two chapters of Genesis (as well as the genealogies in the next few chapters); they are inclined therefore to think the earth and indeed the universe vastly younger than the billions of years of age attributed to them by current science. [...] Of course Christian belief just as such doesn’t include the thought that the universe is young; and in fact as far back as Augustine (354–430) serious Christians have doubted that the scriptural days of creation correspond to 24-hour periods of time."5
Sorry, all the Christians I knew growing up, Plantinga doesn't intend to defend your faith as compatible with science. Plantinga defines Christian belief as what's included in a list of nine creeds.6 Genesis isn't affirmed as history in those creeds, so you're on your own. (I didn't check the creeds to see if they include his interpretation of "God created man in his own image" from the same creation stories.)

What about Augustine? Plantinga gives the impression that "serious Christians" from Augustine onward have left room for an old earth, but Augustine's main deviation from Young Earth Creationism was in thinking creation was instantaneous! If anything, he was a Young-er Earth Creationist (by a few days). He came to this idea because of a popular theology in his day that made it hard to picture God working on something over time, and because he struggled to make sense of how the days could be separated by an evening and morning on a global scale (since it's always evening and morning somewhere on Earth).7

The seven days themselves are a red herring if humankind started about six thousand years ago, were almost wiped out in a flood, then started to grow again before having their languages divided. Personally, I don't see any point between Adam and Jesus where the Bible signals a change from myth to history. Jesus' genealogy in Luke 3 implies a historical interpretation throughout; other New Testament references support or are consistent with Genesis-as-history. If Plantinga wants the Abrahamic religions to represent theism as a whole, then he needs to do a much better job of removing recent creation from the discussion.

Oh well, there's still a lot of material here about science being compatible with God intervening in the development of humankind. Let's see how Plantinga plans to ease that particular tension for the subset of theists troubled by the notion of unguided evolution for humans, but not otherwise troubled by modern evolutionary theory.

Defining Evolution

Plantinga lists four theses of "evolution strictly so called" plus a fifth thesis he calls "Darwinism" and a sixth thesis he calls the "naturalistic origins thesis." He argues that the doctrine of God creating humankind in his image is clearly consistent with the first four theses, less obviously consistent with Darwinism, but absolutely not consistent with the naturalistic origins thesis.

Evolution Proper

1. Ancient Earth thesis. The Earth is billions of years old.
2. Progress thesis. Life started out simple and has progressed to complex forms. Humans are the culmination of this process.
3. Descent with modification thesis. Biodiversity comes about from changes in offspring.
4. Common ancestry thesis. Life on Earth originated once, so we're all related.


5. A natural mechanism is responsible for descent with modification. Natural selection and other natural processes are included here.

Naturalistic Origins

6. Life evolved without divine intervention.

This would be better if Plantinga left out everything but (3) and (5).8 Evolution concerns inheritable changes across generations. Darwin proposed natural selection as a major mechanism of these changes. His contemporary, Mendel, discovered genetic inheritance. In the late 1920's, Wright pointed out genetic drift as another mechanism of evolution. It wasn't until the early 1940's that several researchers were able to identify DNA as the physical carrier of genetic information. These are the elements of evolutionary theory. So you see, it's primarily about a process that's going on right now. Like gravitational theory, we can apply this knowledge to understand what happened in the distant past, but those findings are secondary.

Is the Earth billions of years old? Yes, but we know that without any reliance on biological science. Did complex forms of life arise from simpler forms of life? It sure looks like it from the fossil record. Do we share ancestry with other life on Earth? Both the fossil record and genetic analysis suggest so. Is evolution a natural process? It appears to be.

Plantinga is happy to accept (1) through (5), saying that "God could have caused the right mutations to arise at the right time; he could have preserved populations from perils of various sorts, and so on; and in this way he could have seen to it that there come to be creatures of the kind he intends."9 In essence, it could look to the world that natural gene variation and natural selection explain evolution...but God was behind the scenes manipulating these processes to produce the human species.

I like to compare this to the view that rain is a natural process, but God can tweak the natural world just enough to send rain for the crops of praying farmers. Since scientists can't rule out this possibility, it would be a philosophical addition to meteorology to say that rain falls without divine intervention.

I don't have a problem with this, so long as people understand how modest such claims really are. It usually turns into a foot-in-the-door tactic, however, where God becomes possibly involved and suddenly it can't rain without a miracle. That will be the pattern of this book.

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. 202.
2. ibid. k. 264.
3. Howard J. Van Till, for example.
4. See
5. Plantinga (2011). k. 294.
6. ibid. k. 266.
7. Discussed at length in Augustine's book The Literal Meaning of Genesis.
8. See
9. Plantinga (2011). k. 319.

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