Plantinga on Science and Religion

Plantinga on Science and Religion

A look at the continuing discussion on the compatibility of Science and Religion.


Transcript Plantiga on Science and Religion

Kevin Harris: You know, Dr. Craig, it seems to me that the debate about the compatibility or incompatibility of science and religion, these debates are heating up. We hear a lot about that these days. Now this is a perpetual question that we've long dealt with, and there is so much that's been published on this topic. And Alvin Plantinga has come to the table in a series of essays that he shares with Danial Dennett on science and religion. This evolution blog with Jason Rosenhouse picked up and he's commented on this exchange, and I think it brought out some things that we can talk about.

Dr. Craig: Alright, I wasn't aware that this exchange was being published. This is news to me. This was an infamous exchange at a meeting of the American Philosophical Association a few years back where Dennett and Plantinga appeared together. And the talk on the internet was that Dennett had really behaved rather disgracefully in this session and had refused to engage with Plantinga’s arguments in any sort of serious way, but just resorted to ridicule and sarcasm. And so it's interesting to me to see that they've now apparently revised their remarks into the form of these essays that are being published.

Kevin Harris: This author says,

If science and religion are incompatible, if that means it is highly unreasonable to accept simultaneously the claims of modern science and the claims of traditional Christianity, then I agree with it. The trouble is that the word “incompatible” is vague. People often take it to mean something like logically contradictory, and I do not agree that science and religion are incompatible in that sense.

Dr. Craig: Well “incompatibility” isn't the only vague word in that sentence. What does he mean by “modern science,” the claims of modern science, and what does he mean by “claims of traditional Christianity?” The whole sentence cries out for some definitions if he thinks these are incompatible with each other.

Kevin Harris: Well, the only example that he gives is that:

if you regard it as essential to your faith that the world not be more than ten thousand years old then you really do have a contradiction between science and faith. Short of that, however, religion always seems to have enough wiggle-room to avoid the charge of out-right contradiction.

Dr. Craig: That's a revealing sentence. Why doesn't he say science has enough wiggle-room to avoid the charge of outright contradiction?

Kevin Harris: It's kind of revealing.

Dr. Craig: Yes, but the more important point in that paragraph, Kevin, is the first sentence where he says, “the only way I can see for there to be an actual contradiction between science and religion is if you specifically build into religion some factual claim about the natural world.” So that if you have a factual claim about the natural world as part of your religious beliefs then there's the potential of contradiction with modern science. But that's not the only way that you could have a conflict between science and religious belief. It could also be if there were an inherently religious of metaphysical or philosophical claim built into a scientific theory. In other words, it may not be that it's religion which is entering into the ground of natural science by making a claim about the natural world, it might be that science could be making a metaphysical assertion that transgresses into the bounds of religion, and then a contradiction could arise.

And the reason I say this is that this has been a matter of dispute recently between myself and Jay Richards on the website in the question of the week.[1] Jay wrote in to the question of the week as a result of my claim that it is perfectly compatible with theism to say that the genetic mutations that drive the engine of evolution are random, because according to Francisco Ayala the way the biological scientist defines random is not by chance alone. Rather by random he means that these mutations do not occur for the benefit of the host organism in which they take place; that these are not ordered in such a way that they will benefit the organism in which the mutations occur. And that puts a totally different face on evolutionary theory because now evolutionary theory is not saying that the evolutionary process is driven by chance mutations, or that it does not have a teleology or an end in mind, or is directed by an intelligent agent toward a purpose.[2] It could very well be that God is directing and orchestrating the process of evolution toward his previsioned ends, and that he directs certain genetic mutations to take place at key junctures in the process with a view toward eventually producing homo sapiens on this planet. So it would only be in the case that science would exceed the boundaries of the natural world by making a metaphysical assertion – namely, in this case, that genetic mutations occur by chance – that you could have a contradiction with religion. And that's what Jay thinks has been done.

Kevin Harris: Jay's with the Discovery Institute.

Dr. Craig: Yes, Jay Richards thinks that science is in this case making metaphysical claims that bring it into conflict with religion, not that religion is making factual claims about the natural world that bring it into conflict with science. So it's a two-way street. Either discipline can make assertions in the field of the other that could result, potentially, in a contradiction between the two.

Kevin Harris: It seems like Plantinga, and what you say, as well, Bill, would at least get people out of a naturalistic mindset and get them in the gate, get them in the arena, so that they would say, you can't rule out God through this dearly held theory of Darwinian evolution.

Dr. Craig: Exactly. Plantinga is not arguing that theistic evolution is true, he's just saying there's no incompatibility between the theory of evolution properly understood and theism. In other words he disagrees with Jay Richards on this issue. Both Plantinga and I do not think that evolutionary theory is making the metaphysical assertion that these mutations occur by chance. As Ayala says, when it speaks of randomness it simply means not for the benefit of the organism in which they occur. But it's not making this metaphysical assertion that they occur by chance or are undirected. So Plantinga argues that God could be guiding the mutations that help to drive evolution forward. And Rosenhouse admits in his blog, “Science can't rule this out.” So he agrees with Plantinga on this score, that there's no incompatibility between theism and evolutionary biology.

Kevin Harris: You know, back to this illustration that he did earlier about the incompatibility of science and religion. If there's something in a particular religion that's built into it, for instance if you have a religion that teaches that the earth is sitting upon the back of a giant turtle, and it's not metaphorical and it's not poetic language or anything like that, but that's what it teaches, that's something we can falsify. We've been in outer space, we've been in orbit, that is not what is holding up the earth. So in that place there would be an incompatibility. I am encouraged that, really, the only thing that he can see, or that he brings out, that is young-earth creationism, which you don't have to hold to in order to be a follower of Christ. But he just uses that as an example; he would say, “Yeah, that would be a contradiction between the two.”

Dr. Craig: Right.

Kevin Harris: Basically, it sounds like this blogger that we're reading here, he wants some more satisfying answers.

Dr. Craig: That's right. He is not satisfied with Plantinga's demonstration that theism and evolutionary biology are compatible. He thinks that's too weak a claim. What he argues is that theism and evolutionary biology, while compatible, are just utterly implausible. The conjunction of these two is completely implausible, and he uses an illustration from Dennett. He says, “Prehistoric fiddling by intergalactic visitors with the DNA of earthly species cannot be ruled out except on grounds that it is an entirely gratuitous fantasy.” And he would say the same thing about theism. He would say, “Right, you can't rule out theism. You can't rule out that God has been guiding and orchestrating the process of evolution that leads to man, but,” Rosenhouse would say, “it's an entirely gratuitous fantasy. Why think that there is such a being as God?” Well, that's a good question and quite a different question. That opens the whole door to natural theology and one's justifications for thinking that indeed such a person exists.[3]

Kevin Harris: Yeah, and it's such a false analogy, as well. You would have these limited finite alien beings who themselves would be contingent, and then trying to compare that with what we discover through conceptual analysis that would be an infinite, immaterial, non-contingent, timeless, spaceless being.

Dr. Craig: Yes, I think that on his analogy it probably could be ruled out that there was intergalactic visitors fiddling with the DNA of early species. I think that that would probably be scientifically falsifiable, if he thinks that they somehow engineered or per-programed into life all the genetic material it would need eventually to evolve. That's very different from talking about a supervisor who co-exists with the entire process and guides it along the way. I don't think front-loading the process, which is what he seems to envision here, would be capable of doing the trick. So it's not even clear that his hypothesis is in fact compatible with the scientific evidence. But theism is compatible with the scientific evidence; there's no problem there. And then the question will be, “Well, do we have good grounds to think that God does exist?” and Plantinga thinks that we do. I think that we do. But that wasn't the subject of the debate between Plantinga and Dennett.

Kevin Harris: By the way, I just want to remind everyone in conclusion today, we have many resources at ReasonableFaith.org on science and Christianity, science and religion, and this whole debate.

Dr. Craig: There's one other thing that needs to be said with respect to this exchange. My understanding is that at the center of the debate between Dennett and Plantinga during their APA speech is Plantinga's evolutionary argument against naturalism. Namely, Plantinga claims there is an incompatibility between science and religion, but it's the religion of naturalism that is incompatible with science because he argues if our cognitive faculties are aimed merely at survival rather than at truth then we have no reason to trust our cognitive faculties to deliver us the truth. And in particular we cannot trust those cognitive faculties to deliver to us the truth of naturalism. Why should we believe naturalism when that's the conclusion of cognitive faculties that are not directed toward truth, but toward mere survivability. And Rosenhouse doesn't take any cognizance of this argument at all, which I take to be Plantinga's central point, namely that there really is a conflict here but it's not between theism and science. It's between naturalism and science.

Kevin Harris: And by the way that is the topic of the article that Plantinga contributes to the new The Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity. He covers that argument. And I'm just curious, Bill, because that is a wing-dinger, that argument, the evolutionary argument against naturalism. I've google around; I can't find a response to it. Is there anyone who has tried?

Dr. Craig: There must be, but I'm not following that debate, Kevin, because it's outside of my current area of research, and I need to be very single-minded in focusing in my work on divine aseity and the challenges to it. And so I'm not following the current debate over Plantinga's evolutionary argument against naturalism. But there surely must be responses in the literature to it.

Kevin Harris: I'll look around, but let me ask you this, then, in conclusion today: do you like that argument?

Dr. Craig: Oh, I like it very much. I think that Plantinga has shown very persuasively that on naturalism there just isn't any good reason to think that our faculties are probably reliable. He shows a number of ways in which our cognitive faculties could have survival value but without being reliable in delivering to us truths about the world. And so the argument strikes me as a very powerful one.[4]



[1] See Q&A #269, “Who Speaks for Science?” http://www.reasonablefaith.org/who-speaks-for-science (accessed March 4, 2014).

[2] 5:07

[3] 10:03

[4] Total Running Time: 14:29 (Copyright © 2012 William Lane Craig)