Julian Baggini reviews Alvin Plantinga’s “Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion and Naturalism”. This article appears in Issue 60 of The Philosophers’ Magazine. Please support TPM by subscribing.
It’s hard to resist the pull of military metaphors when talking about the recent battles between religion and the so called new-atheists: Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchins, Sam Harris et al. Fighting talk is only natural when combatants on both sides have often been vicious in their attacks. And like the western front in World War I, for all the blasts and flashes, neither side ever manages to advance its trenches. Yet in the very definition of madness, both forces persist in trying the same tactics that have never worked before as though they might suddenly prove efficacious.
So it is with some anticipation that God’s army has finally moved one of its heavier pieces of artillery to the front line. Alvin Plantinga is no household name, but in philosophy and theology he is widely recognised as one of the world’s smartest Christian thinkers. His new book, Where the Conflict Really Lies, is not just a robust defence of religion against the claim that it is defeated by science, but also a bold counter-attack.
If you want to make sense of this quagmire, where do you begin? With the question of where we all begin, because that is the key issue that Plantinga’s book illuminates. Those on the naturalist side of the debate – people who believe that the natural world is all there is – start with evidence, the hard, objective kind that anyone can examine and assess for themselves. For the religious, however, it’s quite different. “Maybe a few people accept religious beliefs strictly on the basis of what they take the evidence to be,” writes Plantinga. “But for most of us, our religious beliefs are not like scientific hypotheses” and “we are none the worse [for that].”
Plantinga is here referring to his enduring contribution to the theory of knowledge, his idea that some beliefs we have are “properly basic”. The belief that other people have minds and are not just zombies or automata, for example, is not one we can ultimately justify. Nonetheless, not only is holding such a belief justified, I’d be considered psychotic if I didn’t hold it. Belief in God, argues Plantinga, stands alongside other beliefs we can be “fully and entirely rational” in holding, even if we have no evidence or argument at all.
To his opponents, there is a clear difference between the basic beliefs that fit together and that everyone does and must share, and the enormous variety of religious beliefs that are clearly optional and which contradict each other. However, if you do grant that religious beliefs are properly basic, you effectively provide a Get out of Jail Free Card for almost (but not all) apparent cases of conflict between science and religion. The argument here is simple. For the naturalist, certain religious claims become untenable on the scientific evidence base. Perhaps surprisingly, the religious would agree. But, they would add, their evidence base includes facts other than scientific ones, such as the existence of a loving creator. If you add that to the scientific evidence for evolution, you will think that the most likely explanation for the emergence of life is that God works through random mutation to ensure creatures like us have evolved. And, he claims, nothing in evolutionary theory denies that possibility. The idea that the process is entirely unguided is a “metaphysical or theological add-on”. For all the theory says, “God could have achieved the results he wanted by causing the right mutations to arise at the right times, letting natural selection do the rest.”
There is much more in this book, including the latest iteration of Plantinga’s argument that naturalism undermines itself. Briefly, if you are a naturalist and so believe that human minds are simply the product of unguided evolution, you have a reason to think minds will enhance our survival prospects, but no reason to think they will generate true beliefs. So you no longer have any good reason to trust that your belief in naturalism is true. Hence the title of Plantinga’s book: the real conflict in which science is embroiled is with naturalism, not religion.
As usual, this is clever, but there are plenty of replies. And counter-replies. And counter-counter-replies. What Plantinga really shows in this mainly readable but often academically opaque book is why the war will end only in exhaustion. Where the conflict really lies is right down at the very basis of why people believe what they do, yet the war is fought over the beliefs themselves. It’s like trying to get rid of Japanese knot weed by hacking at the stems when the root system is too deep, too capable of regenerating itself even when viciously cut. Plantinga has a pretty sharp scythe and generally speaking he wields it well, despite some viciously personal attacks on the new atheists. But all he’s done is provide space for his own weeds to thrive for a while before they too are cut down to size and the whole cycle starts again.
Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion and Naturalism by Alvin Plantinga (Oxford University Press), £17.99/$27.95.
Julian Baggini) is co-founder of TPM and the author of The Ego Trick (Granta).