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Sep 27, 2012 - Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism ... as to the philosophy of religion, turns this alleged opposition on its head. [...] Thomas Nagel
In his absorbing new book, Where the Conflict Really Lies, Alvin Plantinga, a distinguished analytic philosopher known for his contributions to metaphysics and theory of knowledge as well as to the philosophy of religion, turns this alleged opposition on its head. His overall claim is that “there is superficial conflict but deep concord between science and theistic religion, but superficial concord and deep conflict between science and naturalism.” By naturalism he means the view that the world describable by the natural sciences is all that exists, and that there is no such person as God, or anything like God. [...]
Most of Plantinga’s book is taken up with systematic discussion, deploying his epistemology, of more specific claims about how science conflicts with, or supports, religion. He addresses Richard Dawkins’s claim that evolution reveals a world without design; Michael Behe’s claim that on the contrary it reveals the working of intelligent design; the claim that the laws of physics are incompatible with miracles; the claim of evolutionary and social psychologists that the functional explanation of moral and religious beliefs shows that there are no objective moral or religious truths; the idea that historical biblical criticism makes it unreasonable to regard the Bible as the word of God; and the idea that the fine-tuning of the basic physical constants, whose precise values make life possible, is evidence of a creator. He touches on the problem of evil, and though he offers possible responses, he also remarks, “Suppose God does have a good reason for permitting sin and evil, pain and suffering: why think we would be the first to know what it is?”
About evolution, Plantinga argues persuasively that the most that can be shown (by Dawkins, for example) on the basis of the available evidence together with some highly speculative further assumptions is that we cannot rule out the possibility that the living world was produced by unguided evolution and hence without design. He believes the alternative hypothesis of guided evolution, with God causing appropriate mutations and fostering their survival, would make the actual result much more probable. On the other hand, though he believes Michael Behe offers a serious challenge to the prevailing naturalist picture of evolution, he does not think Behe’s arguments for intelligent design are conclusive, and he notes that in any case they don’t support Christian belief, and perhaps not even theism, because Behe intentionally says so little about the designer.
Plantinga holds that miracles are not incompatible with the laws of physics, because those laws determine only what happens in closed systems, without external intervention, and the proposition that the physical universe is a closed system is not itself a law of physics, but a naturalist assumption. Newton did not believe it: he even believed that God intervened to keep the planets in their orbits. Plantinga has a lengthy discussion of the relation of miracles to quantum theory: its probabilistic character, he believes, may allow not only miracles but human free will. And he considers the different interpretations that have been given to the fine-tuning of the physical constants, concluding that the support it offers for theism is modest, because of the difficulty of assigning probabilities to the alternatives. All these discussions make a serious effort to engage with the data of current science. The arguments are often ingenious and, given Plantinga’s premises, the overall view is thorough and consistent.
The interest of this book, especially for secular readers, is its presentation from the inside of the point of view of a philosophically subtle and scientifically informed theist—an outlook with which many of them will not be familiar. Plantinga writes clearly and accessibly, and sometimes acidly—in response to aggressive critics of religion like Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. His comprehensive stand is a valuable contribution to this debate.
I say this as someone who cannot imagine believing what he believes. But even those who cannot accept the theist alternative should admit that Plantinga’s criticisms of naturalism are directed at the deepest problem with that view—how it can account for the appearance, through the operation of the laws of physics and chemistry, of conscious beings like ourselves, capable of discovering those laws and understanding the universe that they govern. Defenders of naturalism have not ignored this problem, but I believe that so far, even with the aid of evolutionary theory, they have not proposed a credible solution. Perhaps theism and materialist naturalism are not the only alternatives.
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