Theistic Notebook

February 27, 2011

Alvin Plantinga on Science and Religion: Are they Compatible? Part 1

Alvin PlantingaWhat follows is part 1/3 of my transcription of Plantinga’s opening statement during his exchange with Daniel Dennett in 2009. The mp3 is available here. Also, Plantinga and Dennett co-authored a book shortly after this debate.

“Science and Religion: Where the Conflict Really Lies”
Speech delivered by Alvin Plantinga at the 2009 American Philosophical Association Central Division Conference.


“Science and Religion: Where the Conflict Really Lies.”  That’s the title.  Our question is this: are science and religion compatible?  A useful project would be to try to make this question more precise.  What is religion?  What is science?  What is incompatibility and in what varieties does it come?  There is explicit contradiction, implicit contradiction, contradiction in the presence of plausible assumptions, improbability of conjunction, and the like.  Some claim that theism itself is inconsistent; in which case, naturally enough, it will be incompatible with science … and everything else [audience laughter].  Others retort that the same goes for science: current general relativity is incompatible with current quantum theory, so that current science itself is inconsistent.  In which case, it is incompatible with religion … and everything else [audience laughter].  These are good topics, but they’ll have to wait for another occasion.

Here I’ll assume that we have at least a pretty good rough grasp of the question.  I won’t be talking about religion generally but about specifically theistic religion and in particular Christian belief.  But the Christian part will be less important than the theistic part.  When I speak of Christian belief I am thinking of C.S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity”: something like the intersection of the great Christian creeds.  So although what I say is explicitly concerned with Christian belief, it will also be relevant to many varieties of Judaism and Islam.

Why think there is conflict here?  Many suggestions have been offered.  For example, theistic religion endorses special divine action in the world, miracles for example.  But such action would contradict the laws promulgated by science.  Another example, there is such a thing as the scientific worldview and it is incompatible with theistic religion.  Christian belief implies that human beings have been created in God’s image, but contemporary evolutionary theory—properly understood— implies that neither God nor anyone else has designed, planned, or intended that human beings come to be.  Evolutionary psychology is full of theories that are incompatible with theistic understandings of human beings.  Some scientific Biblical scholarship argues that historical claims of Christianity—for example, that Jesus rose from the dead—are false, or anyway groundless.  These are all of great interest, but I’ll limit myself on this talk to a cluster of issues having to do with evolution.

I’ll argue:

(1) That contemporary evolutionary theory is not incompatible with theistic belief

(2) That the main anti-theistic arguments involving evolution together with other premises also fail

(3) That even if current science— evolutionary or otherwise—were incompatible with theistic belief, it wouldn’t follow that theistic belief is irrational or unwarranted or in any other kind of trouble.  And finally:

(4) That naturalism—the thought that there is no such person as the God of the theistic religions or anything like—God­ is an essential element in the naturalistic worldview, which is a sort of quasi-religion itself in the sense that it plays some of the most important roles of religion.  And, I’ll argue that the naturalistic worldview is in fact incompatible with evolution.  Hence, there is a science and religion (or quasi-religion) conflict alright, but it’s the conflict between naturalism and science, not between theistic religion and science.

Part 1 – Contemporary Evolutionary Theory is Compatible with Theistic Belief

The term “evolution” covers a variety of theses.  There is the ancient earth thesis for example.  There is the thesis of decent with modification.  That is the thought that the enormous diversity of the contemporary living world has come about by way of offspring differing—ordinarily in small and subtle ways—from their parents.  There is the common ancestry thesis:  the claim that­—as Gould put it—­there is a tree of evolutionary descent linking all organisms by deep ties of genealogy.  I’ll use the term “evolution” to refer to the conjunction of these three theses.

There is also (4), the claim that the principle mechanism driving this process of descent with modification is natural selection—natural selection winnowing random genetic mutation.  Since a similar proposal was characteristic of Darwin—he said natural selection has been the main but not exclusive means of modification—we’ll call this thesis Darwinism (so that’s the fourth thesis).

Now it’s clear I think that there’s no conflict between theistic religion and the ancient earth thesis or the descent with modification thesis or the common ancestry thesis.  According to theistic belief, God has created the living world, but of course he could have done so in many different ways and in particular in ways compatible with these theses.  What about the fourth thesis, Darwinism?  Is it incompatible with theistic religion?  Many apparently think so.  Among them are Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett seated here to my left [audience laughter], George Gaylord Simpson and many others, and far to the other side Phillip Johnson.  But are they right?  Where exactly would such an incompatibility arise?

A suggested source of conflict has to do with the Christian doctrine of creation—in particular the claim that God has created human beings in his image.  This requires that God intended to create creatures of a certain kind, and planned that there be creatures of that kind.  Rational creatures perhaps, with a moral sense and a capacity to know and love him.  It requires that God intended to create creatures of such a kind, and then acted in such a way as to accomplish this intention.  This claim is purely consistent with evolution (those first three theses), as conservative Christian theologians have pointed out as far back as 1871 with Charles Hodge at Princeton.  But is it also consistent with Darwinism?  It looks as if it is.  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, by orchestrating the course of evolution, he could have ensured that there come to be creatures of the kind he intends.  Now what is not consistent with Christian belief, however, is the claim that evolution and Darwinism are unguided or I’ll take that to include being unplanned and unintended.  What is not consistent with Christian belief is the claim that no personal agent (not even God) has guided, planned, intended, directed, orchestrated, or shaped this whole process.  Yet precisely this claim is made by a large number of contemporary scientists and philosophers who write on this topic.  There is a veritable choir of distinguished experts insisting that this process is unguided; indeed, sometimes insisting that it is part of the contemporary scientific theory of evolution itself to assert that it is unguided so that evolutionary theory as such is incompatible with Christian belief.

According to George Gaylord Simpson for example, “Man (and no doubt woman as well) is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind.” [i]

In this connection, the late Stephen Jay Gould and others have emphasized what they take to be the chancy, contingent, and undirected character of evolution.  If the evolutionary tape were to be rewound and then let go forward again, the chances are we’d get creatures of a very different sort from the ones actually present on earth.  The chances are we’d get nothing much like Homo sapiens.  But Gould’s suggestion, I think, presupposes that God has not guided and orchestrated the course of evolution; and hence, can’t be appealed to as a reason for supposing that he has not done so.  Given the biological evidence and the proposition that God has indeed created human beings in his image … [audience cough obscures a few words] … Gould’s suggestion is wholly implausible.  For if the tape were rewound and then let go forward again, no doubt God still would have intended that there be creatures created in his image, and would still have seen to it that there be such creatures.

What about the fact that genetic mutations are said to be random?  You might wonder whether genetic mutations could be both random and intended and caused by God.  If these mutations are random, aren’t they just a matter of chance … blind chance?  But it is no part of current evolutionary theory to say that these mutations are random in extent, implying that they are uncaused (they are said to be caused by cosmic rays for example), and still less that they occur just by chance.

According to Ernst Mayr, the dean of post-World War II biology, “When it is said that mutation or variation is random, the statement simply means that there is no correlation between the production of new genotypes and the adaptational needs of an organism in a given environment.” [ii]

Elliot Sober puts the point a little more carefully (or maybe more fully), “There is no physical mechanism (either inside organisms or outside of them) that detects which mutations would be beneficial and causes those mutations to occur.” [iii]

The point is that a mutation accruing to an organism is random, just as neither the organism nor its environment contains the mechanism or process or organ that causes adaptive mutations to occur.  But clearly a mutation could be both random in that sense, and also intended (and indeed caused) by God.  Hence, the randomness involved in Darwinism does not imply that the process is not divinely guided.  The fact (if it is a fact) that human beings have come to be by way of natural selection operating on random genetic mutation is not at all incompatible with their having been designed by God and created in his image.  Therefore Darwinism is entirely compatible with God’s guiding, orchestrating, and overseeing the whole process.  Indeed it’s perfectly compatible with the idea that God causes the random genetic mutations that are winnowed by natural selection.  Maybe all of them.  Maybe just some.  Those who claim that evolution shows that humankind or other living things have not been designed apparently confuse the naturalistic gloss on the scientific theory with the theory itself.  The claim that evolution demonstrates that human beings and other living creatures have not—contrary to appearances—been designed, is not a part of or a consequence of the scientific theory as such, but a metaphysical or theological add-on.  Naturalism implies of course that we human beings have not been designed and created in God’s image, because it implies that there is no such person as God.  But evolutionary science by itself does not carry this implication.  Naturalism and evolutionary theory together imply the denial of divine design.  But evolutionary theory by itself doesn’t have that implication.  It is only evolutionary science combined with naturalism that implies this denial.  Since naturalism all by itself has this implication, it’s no surprise that when you conjoin it with science—or as far as that goes anything else: the complete works of William E. McGonagall, poet and tragedian for example, or the Farmer’s Almanac, or the Apostle’s Creed—the conjunction will also have this implication [audience laughter].


i Simpson, Gaylord. The Meaning of Evolution: A Study of the History of Life and of Its Significance for Man. Rev. ed. Yale University Press, 1967. 345.
ii Mayr, Ernst. Toward a New Philosophy of Biology: Observations of an Evolutionist. Harvard University Press, 1989. 99.
iii Sober, Elliot. “Evolutionary Theory without Naturalism.” Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Religion. 3. Oxford University Press, 2008.

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