Magazine article Skeptic (Altadena, CA)

Debunking Plantinga: A Review of Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion and Naturalism by Alvin Plantinga

Magazine article Skeptic (Altadena, CA)

Debunking Plantinga: A Review of Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion and Naturalism by Alvin Plantinga

Article excerpt

Oxford University Press, New York. 2011. 376 pp. $27.95

ISBN-13: 978-0199812097

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

ALL SCIENTISTS ARE NATURALISTS. WHEN we do experiments in the laboratory or field we assume that the phenomena we study are guided by natural law and solely by natural law. We are uniformitarians; uniformitarianism holds that natural law acts the same way at all times throughout the universe and is eternal. We take for granted that we live, experiment and study nature in a closed universe where God never intervenes. This is a first principle of science. So reading this book by Alvin Plantinga, a highly respected philosopher and epistemologist of religion with a great deal of savvy about science, that reaches the conclusion that there is deep conflict between naturalism and science but deep concord between theism and science, is a journey into a spooky intellectual landscape where this first principle of science is violated.

The die of Plantinga's argument is cast on the first page of the preface where he proclaims "Naturalism is stronger than atheism: you can be an atheist without rising to the full heights (sinking to the lowest depths?) of naturalism; but you can't be a naturalist without being an atheist." Between this opening salvo and his conclusion on the last page (350)--"naturalism is at least a quasi-religion, there is indeed a science/religion conflict all right, but it is not between science and theistic religion: it is between science and naturalism"--is an arduous trek through evolutionary biology, quantum mechanics, historical biblical criticism, intelligent design, divine fine tuning of physical constants, and epistemology. The trek through epistemology is a steep one through the peculiar cultural lexicon of philosophers, with detours to establish the nature of warranted belief, rebutting defeaters (of arguments), undercutting defeaters, deflectors of defeaters and defeater-defeaters. One distinction Plantinga makes that actually has little influence on the practice of science is between methodological naturalism and rational naturalism. All scientists are at least methodological naturalists--we all make the assumption that God is not manipulating the experiments we do. But Plantinga identifies strident atheist-naturalists like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchins and Sam Harris as rational naturalists whom he identifies as "the Four Horsemen--not of the Apocalypse, nor of Notre Dame, but of atheism with the goal of tiding roughshod over religion." (Plantinga retired recently from Notre Dame University.) This distinction is central to his argument; rational naturalists are atheists, and so naturalism must be in conflict with theistic religion, but being a scientist requires only that you be a methodological naturalist. You can be an agnostic or even a theist and be a methodological naturalist.

The theory of evolution by natural selection looms large in Plantinga's analysis, and he is particularly critical of Dawkins, who he says is not warranted in claiming that the science of evolutionary biology, as successful as it is, disproves the existence of God. He argues that the claim that evolution is a process unguided by an intelligent, theistic force is a metaphysical "add-on," an assumption evolutionists make, rather than a conclusion that can be drawn from the theory of evolution or a fact proven by empirical science. In my opinion, Plantinga's argument is actually right. Neo-Darwinism--the modern theory of evolution resulting from the conjunction of Darwin's theory of natural selection with modern genetics--does not disprove theism in an absolute sense, but it certainly fails to confirm it. Life has been intensely studied from a Darwinian perspective for over 150 years, and not one shred of scientifically credible evidence has emerged that is inconsistent with the theory or that would suggest theistic intervention. And we are talking about millions of experimental results, millions of observations--millions of bits of information. …

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