Book Review of “Where the Conflict Really Lies. Science, Religion & Naturalism” by Alvin Plantinga
In “Where the Conflict Really Lies”, Alvin Plantinga sets out to demonstrate that, appearances to the contrary, there is no real conflict between science and (theistic) religion. While there are areas of superficial or apparent incompatibility, underneath we find a deep concord. By contrast, the relationship between science and naturalism is exactly the other way around: an appearance of harmony on the surface, but a fundamental discord underneath. There has been a veritable cottage industry of books purporting to demonstrate that, for various reasons, science and religion are really in harmony. To a skeptical observer, the very frequency with which these books are published suggests that the appearance of conflict is a hard one to dispel. The book flap heralds Plantinga’s effort as “a long-awaited major statement” on a controversial question. Indeed, the University of Notre Dame professor stands in high repute among academic philosophers. If there is any hope of averting the conflict between science and religion, it may well rest on someone with Plantinga’s credentials.
In Part I, Plantinga tackles the “Apparent Conflict” between science and Christian belief (evolutionary theory and the problem of divine intervention). Part II deals with the areas of “Superficial Conflict” (evolutionary psychology and biblical scholarship). In the second half of the book (Parts III & IV), Plantinga digs below the surface and explains where the deep conflict and deep concord really lie.
Unguided or misguided?
In Part I, Plantinga argues that theism is not in conflict with evolutionary science, only with unguided evolution, which is a metaphysical add-on, not a part of evolutionary theory proper. But what about the thesis that the source of mutations is random, an assumption that is part and parcel of evolutionary theory? “Random” in this context does not mean pure chance, but rather without foresight, or not necessarily concordant with the organism’s adaptive needs. According to Plantinga, random mutation is compatible with God orchestrating the whole process. It is just God’s way of creating novelty. But there is no wedge to drive between “random” and “unguided”. If God is steering evolution in the right direction, making sure that suitable mutations arise, the mutations cannot be “random” in the technical sense, for then they would occur for the benefit of the organism (or whichever plan is on God’s mind). This becomes clear when Plantinga, strangely enough, endorses creationist Michael Behe’s argument from “irreducible complexity” (IC, see further), a pseudoscientific concept that has been completely rejected by the biological community. Behe’s argument is that the evolution of IC systems requires the simultaneous occurrence of different beneficial mutations, which is exceedingly unlikely. Therefore, some intelligent designer must have monitored the development of IC systems, if not by miraculous creation, then at least by causing the requisite mutations for natural selection to work on. But then, obviously, the mutations arise to meet the organism’s adaptive needs, and are no longer “random”. That is exactly the point of Behe’s argument. Besides, why doesn’t God skip the cruel selection part and create a whole population of well-adapted organisms without further ado? (See below for Plantinga’s answer to the problem of evil.)
The thesis that mutations are random (i.e., unguided), rather than being a metaphysical afterthought, has been amply demonstrated and is accepted as the null hypothesis by evolutionary biologists. Experiment after experiment has shown that there is no evidence of nonrandom mutations arising because an organism “needs” them. Further, if some intelligent agent is triggering mutations after all, it seems that he/she/it is causing precisely the kind and rate of mutations that one would expect if the process were entirely undirected. Plantinga’s effort to stave off the conflict between theism and evolution is a failure. Either he is buying into creationist fantasies that have been put to rest long ago, or he is hammering on the excessively weak claim that it is logically and metaphysically possible that, all evidence to the contrary, evolution unfolds under supernatural guidance. But if the bar for rational belief is lowered to mere logical possibility, and the demand for positive evidence dropped, then no holds are barred. Evolution (or gravity, plate tectonics, lightning, for that matter) could as well be directed by space aliens, Zeus or the flying spaghetti monster. (I was going to include the devil in the list, but then it turns out that, on page 59, Plantinga has no qualms at all about treating the horned one as a serious explanation. There goes my reductio.)
The rest of this chapter on evolution is spectacularly ill-informed. Plantinga seems to imagine that he is the first to think about the “temporal constraint” (23) imposed on evolution: is the time span available to evolution by natural selection sufficiently large to account for complex adaptations and the diversity of life? In Darwin’s time, estimates of the earth’s age were much lower than today, and some (notably, Lord Kelvin) perceived this as a serious problem for the theory of evolution. Nowadays, we know that the earth (and life on it) is much older than Lord Kelvin imagined. The succession of organisms in the fossil record indicates that there has been plenty of time for complex adaptations to evolve. If we are to believe Plantinga, however, no evolutionary biologist has ever carried out the relevant “calculations” for the evolvability of complex adaptations, and the whole bunch of them are merely relying on “feelings and guesses” (22). This is patently untrue. Nilsson & Perger (1994) have calculated that the time needed to evolve an eye from a light-sensitive patch, ironically Plantinga’s own example, is in the range of a few hundred thousand years, a blink in the eye of deep time. Maybe Plantinga should read Evolution's Witness: How Eyes Evolved (Schwab, 2011), in which the ophthalmologist Ivan Schwab documents the evolution of eyes in meticulous detail and with lavish illustrations. Like ID advocates before him, Plantinga happily ignores the substantial body of literature reconstructing the evolution of complex adaptations, as well as computer simulations demonstrating the evolvability of such systems (Lenski, Ofria, Pennock, & Adami, 2003).
In a remarkable bout of irony, Plantinga trots out Bertrand Russell’s teapot against evolutionary biologists, arguing that “mere possibility claims are not impressive” (25). Famously, Russell asked us to imagine a celestial teapot orbiting the sun, so tiny and far away that it is invisible even to our best telescopes. Although we cannot disprove the existence of such a teapot, that does not make its existence a bit more plausible. According to Russell, the burden of proof rests on those who put forward unfalsifiable hypotheses, be it teapots or deities. Plantinga doesn’t quote Russell in full, but it is worth doing so:
Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.
If only Plantinga would keep the celestial teapot in mind while writing about his invisible mutation tinkerer.
In any case, if mere possibility were all that biologists were looking for, they could as well have stuck with Epicurean atomism. According to this ancient hypothesis, which was the main competitor to divine creation in explaining adaptive complexity before Darwin (Hume, 2007 ), the random swirl of matter in the universe will eventually produce orderly patterns and complex adaptations, given sufficient time. If biologists are satisfied with “mere possibility”, as Plantinga claims, why do they bother with evolution?
In the rest of part I (chapters 3 & 4), Plantinga takes issue with the hands-off conception of God that is currently in vogue among theologians. Miracles are perfectly possible, Plantinga claims, because there is nothing that prevents God from suspending the natural order and intervening in the world. But even if we grant that supernatural intervention is logically possible, the conflict between science and religion strikes back with a vengeance: there is no empirical evidence for the supernatural that stands up to critical scrutiny, and plenty of failed attempts to find such evidence (Boudry, Blancke, & Braeckman, 2010; Dawkins, 2006; Fishman, 2009). But that mighty elephant in the room gets no attention from Plantinga, who instead belabors the logical possibility of miracles with a 60-page digression into the different interpretations of quantum physics and lots of fancy formalizations (and even then, he ignores the recent work by philosopher Evan Fales  on the logical and conceptual problems plaguing divine intervention. At this point we’re no longer talking about a conflict between science and religion, but one between theology and more theology. This happens several times in the book: instead of dealing with the real areas of conflict between science and religion, Plantinga wastes his time in a rearguard fight with other theologians.
In Part II (chapters 5 & 6), Plantinga tells us that the discovery that humans are prone to detect agents where none are present, due to the evolutionary trade-offs in their cognitive equipment, does not in any way diminish the plausibility of belief in invisible supernatural agents. Again, his argument never moves beyond the level of logical possibility. By the same token, the discovery of the ideomotor effect – subtle and uncontrolled muscle movements below the level of consciousness – does not affect the belief that a Ouija board is really commanded by ghosts.
The problem of evil
The spectacle of an avowed theist wrestling with the problem of evil is invariably fascinating and often disquieting. Richard Swinburne, another eminent analytic philosopher and defender of theism, once suggested that God allowed the Holocaust to happen as a wonderful opportunity for the Jews to be courageous and noble. What does Plantinga have in store? First, he argues that Tennyson already knew that nature was “red in tooth and claw”, so we didn’t have to wait for Darwin to tell us that. Even if Darwin added nothing to the problem of evil, however, this reply does nothing to diminish the force of the original problem. It would be like an attorney arguing that the evidence against his client is already so incriminating that one more witness won’t make a difference. In any case, Plantinga misses the point. As Philip Kitcher (2007) has noted, death and suffering are the fuel for the engine of natural selection, the creative force of evolution. Because of overpopulation and finite resources, natural selection ruthlessly weeds out unfit individuals and winnows beneficial mutations. The evolutionary road towards Homo sapiens is paved with death, hunger and suffering. Would any loving creator use such a cruel and wasteful process? In response to Kitcher’s argument that the ultimate goal of evolution – a species receptive to God’s revelations – “rings hollow” in the face of the millions years of suffering and death preceding it, Plantinga calls on Genesis to argue that “[t]here is nothing in Christian thought to suggest that God created animals in order that human beings might come to be” (57). That is hardly surprising, since there is nothing in the Bible to suggest any form of common descent whatsoever. If anything, in fact, his solution exacerbates the problem, rendering the suffering of non-human animals even more pointless. If animals have evolved for their own sake and not for the biped ape that was given “dominion” (Genesis 1:28) over them, why did they deserve to suffer and die for millions of years, in an endless struggle with each other? Recall that it was God himself who, according to Plantinga, brought about the requisite mutations for the bacterial flagellum of the malaria parasite, or the fangs and venom of the rattlesnake.
The second reply is as preposterous as it is callous: the inordinate amount of death and suffering is a good thing because it allows us better to appreciate the monumental significance of Christ’s crucifixion:
any world that contains atonement will contain sin and evil and consequent suffering and pain. Furthermore, if the remedy [i.e. Christian atonement] is to be proportionate to the sickness, such a world will contain a great deal of sin and a great deal of suffering and pain (59)
But why stop there? Shouldn’t theists like Plantinga be praying for another Holocaust once in a while then, as a way of glorifying the divine remedy for evil? Will any amount of suffering satisfy the creator’s grandiose and narcissistic scheme of redemption? Does this also mean that it is morally wrong to prevent or relieve the suffering of others, because it would interfere with God’s wonderful plan of salvation? Note that this is a book in which the author simultaneously claims to know why God created millions of beetle species (107), but not why he permitted the Holocaust to happen.
In the short section on Biblical scholarship, Plantinga informs us that what God tells us in the Bible is “certainly true and to be accepted” (153), but that it may be “hard indeed to see what he is teaching.” In other words, the Bible is always right, regardless of the evidence. At this point, the reader is no longer surprised to learn that Plantinga does not see evolutionary psychology or Biblical scholarship as “defeaters” for Christian belief. From the seemingly innocuous claim that Christians conduct inquiry with a different set of beliefs, and deftly using the ambiguous term “knowledge base” as a semantic fulcrum, Plantinga adduces the claim that Christians possess a “source of knowledge” (177) not available to non-religious believers. Before you know it, non-Christian physics is “truncated” (176) owing to its leaving out of Christ.
This is such an easy trump card for theism that even Plantinga does not seem altogether convinced: after all, why would he bother to insist that “unguidedness” is not a proper part of evolutionary science, if all it takes to resolve the science/theism conflict is to enrich our “knowledge base” with the proposition “God created the living world”? In an attempt to assure the reader that not anything goes on this account, Plantinga gives an example where satellite photographs act as a defeater for the Biblical belief that the earth is the stationary center of the universe. But Plantinga never succeeds in pointing out a relevant epistemic distinction between, for example, classical young-earth creationism and his own brand. He is simply reckoning that readers will find flat earthism sufficiently absurd as to believe that his philosophical approach is guarded against it and similar follies. All this illustrates is the subjective point that Plantinga’s tolerance of absurdity differs from that of the next person.
In much of what passes as sophisticated theology these days, the term ‘God’ does no explanatory work at all, but functions as an intellectual vanishing point, a bundle of all explanatory loose ends. God is simply equated with the uncaused cause, the ground of all being, as that-which-does-not-require-further-explanation. Plantinga plays his own variation on that theme, claiming that theism “provides a natural [sic] explanation” of the existence of scientific laws and natural regularities. But it does nothing of the kind. God can only guarantee regularity if one accepts that God is a dependable fellow to start with. What reasons do we have, short of definitional non-starters, to assume that God will not act capriciously, that he will continue to sustain the natural order? This is especially true of Plantinga’s God, who can interfere at will in his creation and violate the natural order. Plantinga is impressed that the kinds of mathematics that are useful for understanding reality are extremely challenging, though just manageable by humans (284). Is God trying to find out how far he can push the human intellect? Are we like those lab rats trying to find their way out of a maze, with God monitoring the cosmic experiment?
There is a self-selection effect that Plantinga ignores. If some part of the world would require mathematics that are too complicated for us to manage, we would never be able to judge our own ignorance, because by definition we would never have those mathematics. Maybe today’s physics has already run up against human cognitive limits. The mathematics of string theory and M-brane theories are so arcane that they challenge the minds of even our most gifted scientists. The physical interpretation of these theories is even more difficult to get our heads around. It seems that the farther we move from the environment for which our brains evolved, the more quixotic and baffling the world appears to us. This is exactly what one would expect from a brain that is the product of evolution by natural selection (see below).
The vacuity of theistic ‘explanation’ becomes all too clear when Plantinga claims that both the complexity and relative simplicity of the world count in God’s favor. Naturalism gives us no reason to “expect the world to conform to our preference for simplicity” (298). Plantinga seems unaware of the probabilistic justifications for preferring simple explanations (Forster & Sober, 1994; Hitchcock & Sober, 2004; Jefferys & Berger, 1992). He wonders why we don’t live in a world where our most complex and cumbersome theories would be most successful, but the question is misguided. There is a probabilistic ‘penalty’ for complexity, which means that, all other things being equal, complex hypotheses are less likely than simple ones that fit the data equally well. The more complex a theory, the more ways in which it can go awry. The preference for simplicity is thus conducive to truth, regardless of the complexity of the world we are living in.
This book abounds in non sequiturs, most of which can’t be listed here. In his Dialogues concerning natural religion (2007 ), David Hume offers several alternative design hypotheses to theism, for example that the world was created by a group of gods, or an evil demon, or that it is the unfinished product of a young and inexperienced deity. Plantinga’s response to Hume is a blunt argument ad populum: there are more theists around, so theists can call the shots (263). On page 22, we learn that theists have more “freedom” in explaining complex adaptation and can “follow the evidence wherever it leads”: maybe there is a Darwinian explanation, maybe God intervened. That would be like saying that a believer in Bigfoot has more “freedom” than the skeptic in explaining strange footprints in the woods. In the chapter about design, Plantinga shields the design inference from rational assessment by noting that it is arrived at in an “immediate or basic way” (248). Indeed, only just as people ascribe intentions to irregularly moving dots on a screen in an “immediate, basic way”, and can’t help getting angry at their non-cooperative computers. What is this supposed to demonstrate? As Darwin taught us, just because something appears to us as designed or intentional does not mean that it is.
Is naturalism self-defeating?
In the final chapter, Plantinga mounts his infamous warhorse against naturalism. The prose goes in crescendo: those who claim that evolution is unguided as far as science goes are guilty of conflating science and metaphysics and deserve nothing but “disdain” (309). In this light, one cannot help wondering why scientists ever abandoned the view that lightning reflects the wrath of a deity and strikes only the wicked. Are those who say that lightning strikes with moral indifference, as far as the laws of physics are concerned, deserving of scorn and contempt?
Plantinga’s core argument is that evolution by natural selection cares about survival and reproduction only, not about truth. The naturalist, who believes his own cognitive faculties to be the product of evolution, has no reason to put trust in his own beliefs, including his belief in evolution itself. Naturalism is thus self-defeating. According to Plantinga, theism is the only way out of this vicious circularity. Our cognitive faculties are trustworthy because our creator ensured that they are. In the final chapter of their published dialogue, Daniel Dennett made short shrift of Plantinga’s argument against naturalism (Dennett & Plantinga, 2010), as has Evan Fales, with more patience (Fales, 1996).
In the current exposition, Plantinga makes a long and irrelevant detour into several strands of naturalism (reductive and non-reductive materialism), and couches his arguments in a technical framework that doesn’t serve any discernible purpose. Much is made of the trivial observation that, for an organism, survival does not always require belief. Of course it does not: bacteria and other lower organisms thrive well without it. From there, Plantinga slides to the claim that such activities as finding mates and fleeing predators “do not require true belief” (329, my italics). The crux is in the italics. There is a huge difference between the claim that an organism doesn’t need belief for survival (and a fortiori not true belief), and the claim that, if it relies on belief for survival, it need not be true belief. Compare: “If I want to go to the city, I don’t need a car. After all, I can take my bike. So I don’t need gasoline to go to the city. So in order to drive my car to the city, I don’t need gasoline.”
If and to the extent that an organism relies on belief as an adaptive strategy, it better be (approximately) true belief (in ecologically relevant situations). Plantinga pretends that natural selection is blind to belief content, but of course it isn’t. Selection weeds out neural structures that give rise to false beliefs (not always, but often enough). As soon as belief directs action, natural selection will kick in to weed out beliefs (usually false ones) that are not conducive to an organism’s survival and reproduction. Also, we have evolved brain mechanisms that enable us to learn about the environment in which we live and to modify our beliefs so as to bring them into greater accord with reality. The content of a belief is connected to its neurophysiological (NP) properties in an appropriate manner. A belief with a different content will have different NP properties (i.e. a different physical realization in the brain), and will thus result in different kinds of actions. Bizarrely, Plantinga thinks that the NP properties of a concrete belief stand to its content as a ball shattering a window stands to its being a birthday present (337). The content is thus completely irrelevant. Does a ball break a window “by virtue of being a birthday present”, asks Plantinga rhetorically? Of course not: some balls are not birthday presents, and some birthday presents are not balls but rather, say, stuffed animals, which usually don’t shatter windows. The property of being a birthday present is not causally connected to its breaking force and is thus irrelevant. What on earth is Plantinga trying to prove here?
There is a fascinating and ongoing philosophical discussion about the reliability of our cognitive faculties, their flaws and limitations, their blind spots and inherent biases, all from an evolutionary perspective (De Cruz, Boudry, De Smedt, & Blancke, 2011; Griffiths & Wilkins, in press; Papineau, 2000). But this problem should be tackled in a careful fashion and on a case-by-case basis, not, as Plantinga does, by compressing all the complications and details in one single proposition R (“our cognitive faculties are reliable”), and confusing such a rigid all-or-nothing approach with logical rigor. Sometimes this extremely reductive strand of formalism results in unintended humor. For example, at the very end of the book, Plantinga asks us to consider the “faculty (or subfaculty) that produces metaphysical beliefs”, and to call it M (where is it located in the brain?). If N is Naturalism and E is evolution,
What is P(MR/N&E), where MR is the proposition that metaphysical beliefs are reliably produced and are mostly true? (349)
This is the philosophical equivalent of doing brain surgery with an axe.
The extensive use of logical trickery is one of the most irritating aspects of this book. At some point in chapter 3, Plantinga pretends to prove that determinism is “necessarily false”, but the formalization of determinism he starts out with is obviously wrong. The trick is pulled off with two nested conditionals in the first premise: at that point, the rabbit is already smuggled in the hat, and what follows is just formalistic window dressing. Formalization can be a means to provide clarity and rigor to an argument, and thus to enhance a philosophical debate. Alas, it can also be misused as a rhetorical ploy to disguise non-sequiturs under a tapestry of symbols. This is analytic philosophy at its worst.
The upshot of the argument in this book, according to Plantinga, is that theism is “vastly more hospitable to science than naturalism” and that this belief in an invisible creator “deserves to be called ‘the scientific worldview’” (no worries about “metaphysical add-ons” this time). This is sheer rhetorical bluster. Naturalism emerges unscathed from Plantinga’s attack, and he has done nothing that comes even close of averting the conflict between science and religion. This book will not impress anyone except those who were already convinced that science and religion can live in peaceful harmony, and even in those accommodationist quarters, it seems to have put some people off (Ruse, 2012). If this is the best that sophisticated defenders of theism can come up with, God is in very dire straits indeed.
Many thanks to Jerry Coyne, Helen De Cruz, Yonatan Fishman and Griet Vandermassen for helpful comments and suggestions.
Boudry, M., Blancke, S., & Braeckman, J. (2010). How not to attack Intelligent Design Creationism: Philosophical misconceptions about Methodological Naturalism. Foundations of Science, 15(3), 227–244.
De Cruz, H., Boudry, M., De Smedt, J., & Blancke, S. (2011). Evolutionary approaches to epistemic justification. Dialectica, 65(4), 517–535.
Griffiths, P., & Wilkins, J. (in press). When do evolutionary explanations of belief debunk belief? In P. R. Sloan (Ed.), Darwin in the 21st Century: Nature, Humanity, and God. Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press.
Papineau, D. (2000). The evolution of knowledge. In P. Carruthers & A. Chamberlain (Eds.), Evolution and the human mind: Modularity, language & meta-cognition (pp. 170–206). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Sober, E. (in press). Evolutionary Theory, Causal Completeness, and Theism–the Case of “Guided” Mutation. In D. Walsh & P. Thompson (Eds.), Essays in Honor of Michael Ruse: Cambridge University Press.
 Note that, later in the book, this does not prevent him from rashly buying into Michael Behe’s slapdash calculations about unevolvability.
 The article was commissioned – though not published – by Illustrated Magazine in 1952. See http://www.cfpf.org.uk/articles/religion/br/br_god.html
 This is his formalization on page 81: “N (if (1) then F)”, where N means ‘Necessarily’, and F is the actual future. But proposition (1) itself contains a conditional: “
(1) (If U is causally closed , then P) and PAST
where P is the “conjunction of the consequents of all the laws [of nature]” and PAST is a specific state of the universe. But this formalization is bizarre. The bracketed part of (1) holds as soon as the universe is not causally closed (because ‘if A then B’ is equivalent to ‘not-A or B’). Because of these nested conditionals, Plantinga’s formalization of determinism states that (1) necessarily entails the actual future F. But of course, if supernatural powers are in the game (non-closure), the future state of the universe can no longer be derived from the past and the laws of nature (because god can mess things up). Plantinga’s determinism is a straw man. In any case, the formalization of P is awkward (what are the “consequents of the laws”?).