Science & Faith
4/3/12 at 10:14 PM 79 Comments

Which Worldviews are in Conflict with Science? Plantinga's Book: Where the Conflict Really Lies

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Many equate naturalism (the view that nature is all that exists) with the "scientific worldview." This is an often-repeated assertion of the new atheists. Alvin Plantinga's book, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (Oxford University Press, December 2011) provides solid reasons for rejecting this assertion of the new atheism. Based on his 2005 Gifford Lectures (a prestigious lectureship) and a long career of highly respected work in analytic philosophy, Plantinga has finally finished his definitive book on science and religion. I'm enjoying it now.

Plantinga's thesis in Where the Conflict Really Lies is that "there is superficial conflict but deep concord [i.e., agreement in light of all we know] between science and theistic religion, but superficial concord and deep conflict between science and naturalism" (page ix). Naturalism, rather than being equated with the "scientific worldview," is actually in conflict with science. Plantinga presented some of the arguments for this thesis at a recent conference (the audio is at the bottom of this webpage). I will review the details of Plantinga's argument against naturalism and other parts of his book in future blogs.

Chapter one addresses biological evolution with a focus on the logic of Dawkins' Blind Watchmaker thesis. Plantinga explains that Dawkin's thesis "is the claim that this process of evolution is unguided -- that no personal agent, not even God, has guided, directed, orchestrated, or shaped it." Plantinga says this conclusion is not reached primarily through scientific inquiry, but is the result mostly of various non-scientific assumptions. Even so Plantinga reviews the allegedly scientific grounds for Dawkins' thesis. Plantinga finds that despite the use of the authority "scientific evidence," Dawkins' arguments are rich in assumption-laden Darwinian storytelling and poor in biological data. How could a mammalian eye have evolved from an earlier organism that lacked eyes? Here is how Jay Richards summarizes Dawkins' argument in his review of this part of Plantinga's book:

The series must be continuous and each step, of course, must either confer on its possessor some survival advantage, or at least not exact a large cost in terms of survival. If one has an active imagination and is content with unrealistically Lego-like, bottom-up treatments of organisms, it's easy to conjure up a series of such steps.

Plantinga summarizes Dawkins' conjectures into one Big Question (page 19):

(BQ) Is there a path through organic space connecting, say, some ancient population of unicellular life with the human eye, where each point on the path could plausibly have come from a preceding point by way of a heritable random genetic mutation that was adaptively useful, and that could plausibly then have spread through the appropriate population by way of unguided natural selection?

Jay Richards continues in his review of Plantinga and Dawkins:

Dawkins answers this Big Question, in effect, by saying that he feels it's quite plausible. To which the obvious response is: So what? Of course Dawkins feels it's plausible. But that's not much of an argument. Others, such as Michael Behe, argue that at least some such pathways for some organs or molecular machines are quite implausible and unlikely to have been traversed, if one excludes the possibility of intelligent design. So Plantinga rightly concludes that all Dawkins's argument shows, at best, is that "given a couple of assumptions, . . . it is not astronomically improbable that the living world was produced by unguided evolution and hence without design."

There's nothing wrong with an argument that comes to a modest conclusion; but Dawkins claims to have shown that the evidence of evolution reveals a universe without design. As a result, he's guilty of severe overreach. This is especially obvious when Plantinga reduces Dawkins's larger argument to its logical core. It ain't pretty. In The Blind Watchmaker, Dawkins seems to be arguing ...

P is not astronomically improbable
therefore
P is true.

That argument form is, Plantinga observes, "a bit unprepossessing" [i.e., unattractive] (page 25). Normally, we don't think that if we can show that some event is not astronomically improbable, then we've established it.

Furthermore, as Stephen Meyer shows in TrueU, the odds for the origin of life (without intelligent design) are far worse than "astronomically improbable." All the known cosmic probabilistic resources (all time and all the opportunities for events to happen in the cosmos) are insufficient to make chance a reasonable explanation for life's origin.

You may wish to read the rest of Jay Richard's review of Plantinga here (scroll down to the part that I have quoted above to begin at this point in the review). Then read the rest of my review.

On pages 8-10 Plantinga distinguishes several meanings of "evolution." His "evolution meanings" classification system is similar to the one that Meyer and Keas offered here in a 2003 publication: Stephen C. Meyer and Michael N. Keas, "The Meanings of Evolution," Darwinism, Design and Public Education (Michigan State University Press, 2003).

The six prominent meanings of the "E" word addressed in the Meyer-Keas essay are:

  1. Change over time. Almost everyone believes in evolution in this sense because it is obviously true.
  2. Changes in the frequencies of alleles (gene varieties) in the gene pool of a population. This is well established by many studies.
  3. Limited common descent: particular groups of organisms (not all organisms) have descended from a common ancestor. Many cases of this are well documented.
  4. The mechanisms that produce common descent: chiefly natural selection acting on variations. Such mechanisms are known to have produced limited common descent. Is more extensive biological change (evolution #5 or #6) possible?
  5. Universal common descent: the theory that all organisms on earth have descended from a single common ancestor. This is controversial. Evolution #6 is even more controversial.
  6. Blind watchmaker thesis: the idea that all organisms on earth have descended from a common ancestor through unguided, purposeless, material processes such as natural selection acting on random mutations. Evolution in this sense entails the belief that unintelligent causes completely suffice to explain the origin of novel biological forms and the appearance of design in complex organisms.

Here is a foretaste of where Plantinga will go in his book: If evolution #6 actually were true, it would implicate naturalism and would undermine any good reasons we have for trusting our cognitive abilities, and thus destroy the only good reasons we have to trust science itself. That is "where the real conflict lies." I will summarize this argument in a future blog.

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