An Interview with Alvin Plantinga

An Interview with Alvin Plantinga

NPR recently interviewed Dr. Plantinga on the alleged conflict between science and religion. Dr. Craig comments on the interview.

Transcript An Interview with Alvin Plantinga

Alvin Plantinga: A number of thinkers try to co-opt science into the services of atheism and they want to use science as a kind of weapon in the battle between atheism and theistic religion.

I think there are a lot of things that can't be scientifically proven that everybody accepts. Science is absolutely wonderful but it's a limited endeavor. It doesn't cover the whole of the knowledge enterprise, you might say.

Kevin Harris: Welcome to Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig. Well, Dr. Craig, our favorite philosopher outside of you, of course, Alvin Plantinga was on NPR, and we have a transcript of that interview.

Dr. Craig: Yeah, he's my favorite.

Kevin Harris: “Exploring the Real Conflict: Science verses Naturalism,” and it's talking about the new book Where the Conflict Really Lies.

Rachael Martin: Philosopher Alvin Plantinga argues that the real incompatibility is between religion and naturalism, a philosophical view that denies the existence of any spiritual or supernatural reality. Religion and science, he says, share more common ground than you might think. For example, scientists may argue that miracles can't exist because they defy scientific laws. But Plantinga says, actually that's not true.

Alvin Plantinga: These laws are all stated for closed systems. A closed system is one such that there isn't any causal input into it from the outside. Nothing outside the system is causing something to happen.

Kevin Harris: Closed system. Is the universe a closed system, Bill?

Dr. Craig: Well, not on the theist view. On the atheist or naturalistic view the universe is a closed system because it is all there is, and there's nothing outside it. But for the theist we believe that it's not closed because there's a transcendent creator and designer of the universe who can act in it. So what Plantinga's point is is that these natural laws describe what happens within the universe. That is to say, they predict what will happen given that no supernatural agent intervenes. But if a supernatural agent does intervene and causes something which does not lie within the productive power of the things in the universe the laws of nature are not violated because they only predict what would happen in the absence of any sort of divine intervention. And that remains in force.

Rachael Martin: Okay, so that's a closed system. Now, the miracle.

Alvin Plantinga: Suppose God created a horse in Times Square in New York City. Any system in which that horse came to be would not be a closed system.

Rachael Martin: So no scientific law is applicable.

Alvin Plantinga: And therefore there wouldn't be any conflict between God's doing that miracle, say, and the scientific laws.

Dr. Craig: Right. The scientific laws have implicit in them ceteris paribus conditions. That is to say they predict what will happen all things being equal. That's what we mean by ceteris paribus clause. They have implicit clauses all things being equal. That is to say, given that there is no divine intervention into this system this is how this system operates. So if there is a divine intervention the law isn't violated because the law has built into it these implicit ceteris paribus conditions. So a miracle, in short, isn't a violation of the laws of nature. Rather a miracle is an event which does not lie within the productive power of nature.

Rachael Martin: So, Plantinga says science and religion don't conflict, as long as they respect each other's boundaries.

Alvin Plantinga: I think science is wonderful, important, maybe the most impressive intellectual episode of the past half a millennium, has been the development of science. I also am a Christian. If there is an alleged incompatibility between them, well, that disturbs me. It's something I want to look into and see whether or not that is in fact so. And my argument is for the conclusion that it isn't.

Kevin Harris: Bill, first of all, the interviewer for NPR seems to be kind of rehearsing Stephen J. Gould's non-overlapping magisteria principle here that religion and science are totally different and they don't overlap. Now, I don't think Alvin Plantinga would hold that; in fact I think he's trying to dispel that.

Dr. Craig: Yes, she's putting words in his mouth when she says science and religion don't conflict as long as they respect each other's boundaries. That does sound more like Gould's view – that you have these two separate fields that have boundaries and you only get into conflict when you overstep the line.[1] That's not Plantinga's view at all.

Kevin Harris: And you smart people be over here on the science side, [laughter] and you delusion people, you ought to be over here. So let's respect each other's boundaries.

Dr. Craig: Yeah, and that's not Plantinga's view. Plantinga, I'm sure, would think that religious or theological truths might have scientifically investigable implications, and that there could be statements of science that might have theological significance. So I don't hear him saying that.

Rachael Martin: It sounds like what your saying is that there has been a reticence to recognize common ground between science and religion. Why has there been such a reticence? If these intersections are so obvious why do people emphasize the differences?

Alvin Plantinga: Well, of course, science started off in the bosom of Christian belief in the West. The early scientists Newton, Boyle, and so on were all believers in God. And they saw science as a way of exploring the world that God has created. I think that the present emphasis on conflict arises at least in part because a number of thinkers try to co-opt science into the services of atheism and they want to use science as a kind of weapon in the battle between atheism and theistic religion.

Dr. Craig: Here she goes in the exact opposite direction of her earlier question. First, she said that science and religion don't conflict if they respect each other's boundaries. Now she's saying, why is it that people don't recognize these intersections and emphasize the differences? And what Plantinga wants to say is that in fact these intersections do exist and that the illusion of a conflict arises because people are trying to co-opt science and misuse it for naturalistic purposes. Here he's emphasizing that science and Christian theology historically have been allies; indeed modern science was birthed in a culture that was Christian and theistic, and that the illusion of conflict is something that arises because of a determined effort on the part of atheists to try to use science as a kind of apologetic for atheism.

Rachael Martin: You, yourself, are Christian. Is there not a big part of your own personal religious doctrine that depends on faith, taking a leap of faith philosophically, and believing in certain things that simply can't be scientifically proven?

Alvin Plantinga: Well, I think there are a lot of things that can't be scientifically proven that everybody accepts: that there's been a past, for example. Bertrand Russell once said that as far as our evidence goes the whole world could have popped into existence five minutes ago complete with all the crumbling mountains and rusting automobiles and apparent memories and the like. Do we have a scientific proof that that's not so? Well, of course not. Science presupposes that there has been a past, it doesn't prove that there has been. So, I mean it's not as if whatever is true or sensible to believe has to be provable by virtue of science. Science is absolutely wonderful but it's a limited endeavor. It doesn't cover the whole of the knowledge enterprise, you might say.

Dr. Craig: Now, what's interesting about that question is that she equates believing in things that can't be scientifically proven with taking a leap of faith and anyone who knows Plantinga's epistemology knows that he wouldn’t equate those two. Plantinga thinks we have all kinds of basic beliefs that are perfectly rational to hold, that are part of the deliverances of reason, even though they're not things that can be scientifically proven. But that doesn't mean that you take a leap of faith to believe in them.

Kevin Harris: You know, Bill, if I were to ask this question as an interviewer I would do it as kind of playing devil's advocate in a sense, and exposing the common thinking of faith being blind and so on. But I think she's asking it because she really thinks that it is. [laughter]

Dr. Craig: I don't get the impression that she's playing devil's advocate. Here we see Plantinga's emphasis on the importance of properly basic beliefs, beliefs which cannot be proven inferentially based on evidence but which we're nevertheless fully rational to hold. And these would include things like the reality of the past. It's impossible to prove scientifically that the world wasn't created five minutes ago, as Bertrand Russell imagined. Or in the reality of the external world. It's impossible to prove scientifically that you're not a brain in a vat of chemicals, being stimulated with electrodes by a mad scientist to think that you're here in this reality surrounding you.[2] The reality of other minds is something that can't be proved. There's no way to prove that other people are not soulless automata who exhibit the external behavior of persons with an interior life, but in fact they have no minds. So all of these things would be examples of things that cannot be scientifically proven and yet we are all rational to hold in a properly basic way. So Plantinga thinks that much of our beliefs, not just theological beliefs, are not scientifically proven but are held in a properly basic way. George Mavrodes, philosopher from the University of Western Michigan, once characterized Plantinga's epistemology by saying that we think that we have a kind of foundation of knowledge and then we build this skyscraper upon this foundation. And he says, on Plantinga's view that's just completely the wrong image. He said our system of knowledge is more like a big empty lot with some rambling foundations running all around the lot, and here and there they'll be a few bricks piled on top the foundations, but for the most part it's just these properly basic foundational beliefs. So that most of what we believe, in fact, can't be scientifically proven.

Rachael Martin: Can you talk a little bit about what it is like to be a religious person, a Christian, in the world of philosophical academia?

Kevin Harris: In other words, what's a good boy like you doing in a rock and roll band? [laughter]

Alvin Plantinga: Well, when I began as a philosopher many years ago, fifty years ago or so, there were very few Christians in philosophy, and the few there were were for the most part inclined to keep their heads down, so to speak. The subject of philosophy was heavily secular. That's not true anymore. Now maybe, I don't know, perhaps as many as a sixth of philosophers are believers in God of one kind or another, and maybe a higher proportion of graduate students are, and I'm sort of delighted to see that Christianity is doing much better in the philosophical world now than it was when I began in philosophy.

Dr. Craig: Yeah, I feel so privileged, Kevin, to have lived through and witnessed this revolution in philosophy, myself, beginning in the late 1960s and persisting right on up to today. And it's so encouraging what Plantinga says here, that even a higher proportion of graduate students who are coming up through the pipes, getting their doctoral degrees and will be our future professors, and even a higher proportion of them are Christian theists. So this is so encouraging to see this ongoing revolution in the field of philosophy. When you look at the field today compared to, say, back in the 1930s and the 1940s it's like the difference between night and day.

Rachael Martin: Do you have atheists in your circle of friends?

Alvin Plantinga: Yes, I do, yeah. Sure.

Rachael Martin: Do you talk about this stuff all the time, or do you just kind of agree to just relax and talk about football or the weather; not address the big issues?

Alvin Plantinga: In college and in graduate school you do that kind of thing. But after you've been at it quite a long time you are more inclined to set those things aside because you know how the conversation will go anyway. It really won't go anywhere, and you talk about other things. But it doesn't just have to be about football. Even when you're at Notre Dame there are topics besides God and football. Maybe not very many, but some. [laughter]

Dr. Craig: Yeah, what's remarkable about this interview, I think, is that the interviewer trails off into talking about these personal tidbits and trivialities, but did you notice she never talked about the main theme of the book: the real conflict between science and naturalism? She completely misses the point of the whole book. She never asks him, “Well, what is the real conflict?” What is the conflict between naturalism and religion? And therefore the interview, I think, is just lame, it falls flat in the end. What she needed to get from Plantinga is this remarkable claim that the conflict between science and religion is not between science and Christianity; it's between science and naturalism. Plantinga's claim is that there is a conflict between science and religion alright, but it's not between science and Christianity; it's between science and the religion of naturalism. He claims that naturalism has a built-in defeater, that it's a self-defeating worldview. Why is that? Well, simply this: if naturalism is true then our cognitive faculties are selected by natural selection not for truth but for survivability.[3] Now, you might say, “Well, if they give us the truth that would make us more apt to survive. By aiming at survivability they'll get truth.” But what Plantinga shows is that that's by no means clear. There are all sorts of ways in which our beliefs could promote survival without providing true beliefs. And therefore if you believe that the cognitive faculties that we possess are aimed not at truth but at survivability then you really ought to doubt the deliverances of your cognitive faculties. You really ought to be very skeptical about what they say. But then if you're skeptical about what they say you'll be skeptical about naturalism because that is a deliverance of your cognitive faculties. And so you will be skeptical about the view that you're cognitive faculties have evolved simply aimed at survival and not at truth. You'll be skeptical about the whole naturalistic story. So naturalism has inherently this kind of built-in defeater to it that makes it impossible to rationally affirm.

Kevin Harris: What an amazing argument. And he spells it out. I'm going to email Rachael Martin, the interviewer here, and ask her if she even read the book. I really don't think she did. And this drips with the typical things that we hear. In the intro of the piece she says, “Whether it's creationism verses evolution, miracles verses magic tricks, or faith verses fact, religion and science have long been pitted against one another.” Once again we're doing the old difference between faith and fact dichotomy. And, Bill, we have defined miracles, we have talked about the problem of miracles, and go to the chapter on Reasonable Faith, as well, on the problem of miracles. But everything on TV, it's a miraculous survival, it's a miraculous rescue from the plane crash. So people are quite confused about what it really means to be a miracle.

Dr. Craig: Yeah, and I think Plantinga characterizes it correctly here. Miracles are not violations of the laws of nature, but they are things that are not within the productive capacity of nature barring a divine intervention. Given this closed system of naturalistically operating causes, the event would not take place at the time and place in question under those conditions. It lies outside the productive capacity of nature at that time and place.

Kevin Harris: Well, Dr. Craig, you're certainly right. You've long said that Alvin Plantinga has made a major contribution to philosophy, and certainly Christian philosophy.

Dr. Craig: Yes, we can be grateful to have had among us at this time such a giant in the field, and it's gratifying to see his work continuing to have notoriety and influence both in the philosophical realm, but now also in the wider culture.

Kevin Harris: And, we'll see you next time on Reasonable Faith.[4]

[1] 5:02

[2] 10:10

[3] 15:11

[4] Total Running Time: 18:18 (Copyright © 2012 William Lane Craig)