Book Plunge: Where The Conflict Really Lies?

What do I think of Alvin Plantinga’s book? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

Since this book has been one talked about highly in the modern science debate, which I do enjoy, I figured I should take a look. Alvin Plantinga is one of the biggest names in Christian philosophy today. He has also written some on what he sees going on in the new atheism today so I was eager to see where he would say the real conflict in the science and religion debate lies.

Plantinga starts off with a case that I have been making. He looks at the idea that many atheists will say evolution is true, therefore theism is false. Plantinga is willing to grant evolution for the sake of argument and contends that it could be that God would use an evolutionary process to bring about the creation the way that He wants to.

I find this an important point to stress.

Too often, fundamentalist atheists and fundamentalist Christians think the exact same way. If evolution is true, then Christianity is false, and if Christianity is true, then evolution is false. It could be that they’re both true. It could be that they’re both false. There is nothing in one that necessarily contradicts the other. To be sure, some forms of Christianity would face contradictions with evolution and some understandings of evolution would contradict Christianity.

For instance, if you hold evolution is an unguided process, then for the most part, this would go against Christianity, yet the problem with that position is that that position is not known through science. It is a metaphysical idea. Meanwhile, if you hold to a view like young-earth creationism, then you will no doubt find a conflict with evolution.

It’s my stance with Christians that if you are not science-minded, don’t argue evolution. Leave that to those who are science-minded. If you are science-minded and you want to present a scientific argument against evolution, have at it! Now if you are a skeptic who holds to evolution and receives such an argument, it behooves you to really look at it. I contend that if evolution falls, it will fall because it is bad science and will do so when better science shows up.

Plantinga also points out that the theist in fact has the most options at this point. For a naturalist, at this point, evolution is the only game in town. The theist can be open to evolution or he can go with fiat creation if he thinks the evidence warrants that. Neither one will be harmful to his views.

If we instead go with the route of the fundamentalists, we create a false gap between science and religion. When it is asked why so many don’t believe in evolution today in America, it is because for the most part, most people in this country are theists and if it comes down to choosing God who most people would claim to know through a personal experience (Not validating that. Just stating it) and it comes down to choosing God or evolution, the majority of them will choose God. We could argue that they should sit down and weigh out the evidence and make a decision, and I agree they should, but that sword also goes the other way.

If many atheists are taught that belief in Christianity means that they have to give up evolution and then in their eyes be anti-science, then it becomes a no-brainer just as much. If they want to be scientifically-minded people, then they will just have to reject the resurrection. This is why so few that I meet no doubt have really failed to interact with the evidence and in fact taken knee-jerk positions. (Jesus never existed for instance. The sad part is that there are more scientists who hold to a YEC view than there are historians who hold that Jesus never existed. If the atheists see YEC as a joke, they should see Christ-mythicism as a bigger one.)

I contend that too often the evolution debate has been a knee-jerk debate as well based on people thinking that the “plain reading” of a text must be the right one and that Genesis must have been written to address scientific issues. Both of these are modern presuppositions. The problem that we really have is not with what the Bible says, but with the modern thought processes we read into the Bible.

What about miracles? Plantinga again sees no contradiction there as well. It is this idea that we often encounter that if you believe in miracles, you believe in a God who is constantly intervening in the system. While we would say God intervenes, we do not think it is constant. In fact, I consider this to be based on a large misnomer. God is constantly interacting with the system holding it all together. Much of the modern debates assume that if God is doing anything with the creation, it is when He directly acts in the form of a miracle. Other than that, the creation can run just fine on its own, all the while ignoring that it requires God’s upholding of it for it to just exist.

The reason that we recognize miracles is because we do have an organized system. Why is it a virgin birth would be seen as a miracle? Because we know darn well what it takes to make a baby. Why would walking on water be seen as a miracle? Because we know what happens when people try to walk on water. Why would a resurrection be seen as a miracle? Because we know that dead people stay dead.

It has never made sense to me to say that because we live in an era of modern science, we now know miracles don’t happen. Sure, the ancients weren’t as scientific as we are, but did they have to be to know what it takes to make a baby, that people don’t naturally walk on water, and to know that dead people stay dead? Are these recent discoveries since the scientific era?

Plantinga does briefly touch on biblical criticism and I would have liked to have seen more replies to what is going on in that area since too many atheists just read the people that agree with them and go on from there. (I think of Victor Stenger who on Unbelievable? decried people who use just one source and then said for the questions about the Bible, he relies on Bart Ehrman. By all means read Ehrman, but read his critics as well and if you read the NT scholarship that is conservative, then read people like Ehrman as well) This was a part that Plantinga looked to have brought in and then just let drop.

Plantinga goes on to talk about two areas of agreement he sees between Christianity and science. Both of these are in the areas of fine-tuning. One is the intelligent design of the cosmos. Plantinga is a bit more hesitant there, but he does lean to the idea that fine-tuning of the universe if demonstrable, and to some extent I think it is, does fit in well with theism.

The next area would be in the area of the research of Michael Behe with Darwin’s Black Box. Plantinga does think that Behe is on to something here. To go with Behe would not rule out evolution either, but it would point to evolution needing to be guided and he spells out what he thinks would be needed to have a defeater for Behe’s beliefs. Those wanting more on these last two points will need to read the work itself since I don’t discuss the science as science.

The next area of concord that he sees is that science arose in a Christian milleu and this was because the Christians saw themselves in the image of God and that God made a creation that is rational and meant to be understood. Plantinga makes the case that it is incredible that mathematics of a complex nature that we can do would be that which is just what we need to understand the universe.

Finally, he brings out the deep conflict. For this, Plantinga uses his famous evolutionary argument against naturalism where he says you can believe in one or the other, but you will face a problem if you believe in both because you will have a defeater for your belief in naturalism. The argument is an interesting one worthy of consideration.

So this gets us to where the conflict really lies and that is….

Do you really think I’ll spoil it for you? This was a great ending to the book and I recommend instead of my sharing it, that you go read it for yourself.

A downside to the book however is that I did often wish when historical questions came up, like Biblical criticism or the history of science, that a historian had been called on to write those. Also, sometimes, the writing in Plantinga’s book becomes highly technical and thus it will not be as accessible to the layperson. Still, there is plenty here for all readers to consider. I recommend this one for an excellent look at the modern debate between science and religion.

In Christ,

Nick Peters


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12 Responses to “Book Plunge: Where The Conflict Really Lies?”

  1. R.W. Johnson Says:

    Good stuff, Nick. Looking forward to reading this one.

  2. labreuer Says:

    Fun fact: the folks who wrote The Fundamentals—from which we get the term ‘fundamentalist’—knew the difference between the (i) science of evolution; (ii) philosophy of evolution. Quotation here.

    Having steeped myself in the creation–evolution debate for several years of my life, I have concluded that the real battle is something like a mythological battle with critical implications for day to day life:

         (1) enlightened self-interest
         (2) agape: unconditional, sacrifical self-giving

    The science is really incidental; what is at stake behind the scenes is a no-holds-barred contest about what model of human community is the best. The naturalistic evolutionary world-picture only really allows (1). This gives rise to an unfalsifiable psychological egoism. If psychological egoism is true and the only truth—if there is no possible spiritual rebirth with the power to produce victory over the flesh—then (2) is ludicrous insanity and nobody would ever be truly doing it. Indeed, people would only present the appearance of doing (2); deep down, we would all know (backed by copious science!) that people are fundamentally self-centered, with everyone else ultimately being nothing other than a means to an end. Whether we choose to delude ourselves about this is a personal choice, based on whether you want to confront reality as it is, or generate a mind-dependent reality to shield you from the ugliness. It’s like what flavor of ice cream you prefer. Religion, of course, is such a flavor, and really a bad one at that.

    And so, the science is used (yep, the psychological egoist uses science just like he/she uses people) as a foundational mythology: there never was a chance of true agape. Our ontological being is rooted in “nature red in tooth and claw”, and as long as there is scarcity of resource (something we have faith in science to cure), it will be each man or woman for himself/herself unless cooperation is sufficiently cost-free. Genesis says everything started out in peace (contra the competing creation-myths of the time) and the rest of the Bible promises we can restore shalom through divine power manifested in mortal vessels; the philosophy/mythology of evolution says everything started in chaos, was conditioned by vicious, merciless competition, and can only possibly get its salvation through the activities of its defenders. We haven’t seen that pattern anywhere else!

    While my thoughts on this have been stewing for a while, reading Allan Bloom’s discussion of social contract theory in The Closing of the American Mind, combined with all my reading on modernism (including the fragmentation of society and psyche) and failure of science to accurately model personhood (see Narrative Knowing and the Human Sciences, perhaps What Is a Person?), really started the synthesis going. Bloom discusses the social contract theory of Hobbes and Locke and notes how it is built on precisely one thing: the fear of death. I hearkened to Hebrews 2:14–18 immediately. Hobbes and Locke had zero conception of the common good: they held to a radical individualism which Alasdair MacIntyre attributes to the failure of the “Enlightenment project” of morality in After Virtue.

    Either Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, or all is sand, held together loosely by the State, with each particle doing its own thing, with only minimal coordination with nearby particles. The mythology of evolution actively works to decrease the plausibility of Jesus being that way, that truth, and that life. The mythology of evolution actively works to decrease the plausibility of any strong common good, a common good which could bring about significant cohesion and demonstrate the supernatural power of God working, via weakness, through the Body of Christ. After all, were (2) to be displayed in its glory, those holding to (1) would be quite embarrassed. Perhaps one would feel a great pressing, crushing weight, from carefully tended rationalizations of denial that there is another, better way, of which one has been an active enemy.

  3. tildeb Says:

    There is no evidence for any indication of intervention/interference/insertion other than environment and chemistry for changes to life over time. To suggest that there is cause to justify such a belief without any causal evidence really is an incompatible justification than those used to inform the method of science.

    Once one allows belief alone to be a justifiable reason for an explanatory model about nature, one is no longer doing science. That is why belief in some version of creationism in biology is not compatible with doing biological science. Contrary to your and Plantinga’s assurance that there is no compatibility issue believing on the one hand some version of POOF!ism is an active and casual agency in the realm of biology and on the other a physical mechanism that seems to fully account for these changes over time, there really is a compatibility problem. Once your explanatory model includes POOF! as a justified interactive causal agency, it loses all scientific credibility because it is not susceptible to verification by evidence.but allowed equivalency by religious proclamation as needing none. This only works in religion… which is what ‘science’ becomes that allows for its use as a justification in place of evidence. And it works only so far as areas unknown to science. Note the unidirectional flow from which knowledge about nature comes: science informs religion and never the other way around.

    Plantinga’s assurances aside, what he is really proposing is a god-of-the-gaps explanatory model in that perhaps, maybe, at some unknown point, in some unknown way, by some unknown mechanism, there was an unknown intervention to unknown causal effect carried out by an unknown agency. Furthermore, this creationist model is fully compatible with a natural process that requires no such intervention for it to be demonstrated to possess its full explanatory modelling of changes to life over time… so much so that we can base applications, therapies, and technologies on the model that work reliably and consistently for everyone everywhere all the time without ever once encountering any need for POOF!ism to explain some part of it.

    So, yes, there really is an incompatibility problem between two explanatory models that are incompatible with each other. You cannot include any amount of POOF!ism in any scientific model without turning it <fully into religious belief. Evolution is science par excellence and cannot allow any creationism into its model and still be considered a scientific theory. As soon as you do, it’s no longer evolution but a version of evolutionary theism with the emphasis on theism.

    • labreuer Says:

      […] some version of POOF!ism is an active and casual agency in the realm of biology […]

      Is it the case that only Sophisticated Scientists™ like Lawrence Krauss are allowed to write books titled A Universe from Nothing, massively equivocating on the word “nothing”, while simultaneously professing:

      I try to be intellectually honest in everything that I write, especially about what we know and what we don’t know. If you’re writing for the public, the one thing you can’t do is overstate your claim, because people are going to believe you. They see I’m a physicist and so if I say that protons are little pink elephants, people might believe me. And so I try to be very careful and responsible.

      ? After all, the universe quantum fluctuating into existence is POOF!ism. But then we have folks like Caltech’s Sean Carroll giving lectures claiming quantum fluctuations do not happen. What you need is an ‘observer’—technically defined—to kick things off. But whence comes that observer? Well, we gotta POOF! it from existence somewhere, so hey, let’s find a mysteries hat, like reheating in cosmic inflation, from which we can POOF! the rabbit.

      You see, everyone needs “some version of POOF!ism”. The atheist chooses an impersonal mathematical object which can randomly produce ugly discontinuities (with zero specified mechanism—do not pull back the curtain to this Wizard of Oz†); the theist says that it is mind which does the POOF!ing, via free choice. And hey, we even have scientific support that such discontinuities—which can be called a kind of ‘irrationality’—are useful for sentience: see The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic. Actually, they are probably critical for sentience, for creativity, for science. So the theist locates what would otherwise be ugliness—mathematical discontinuities which seem critical for understanding reality—in the best place possible: mind.

      Gosh @tildeb, this makes me so upset of my preferred version of POOF!ism. But wait a second, science flies you to the moon and religion flies you into buildings, right? Science couldn’t possibly build nuclear bombs, allow humanity to massively alter the climate, force-starve millions of human beings, etc. Religion couldn’t possibly introduce a radically new and better form of charity (more), or do anything like that. Or, if it can, surely there is a non-religious way of accomplishing that result, while for whatever science can do, only science could do that thing. After all, your mythology demands these things be true.

      † Alternatively: you may pull back the curtain with faith that the same problem won’t recapitulate, like those really neat Russian nested dolls. Or at least, we can let it recapitulate a few times, but contra induction, we will believe that at some point we’ll hit Democritus-style atoms, and then we will have an all-explanatory, Theory of Everything, which all scientists can happily worship and serve for the rest of their material lives.

      • tildeb Says:

        Simple enough to demonstrate your point of equivalency, lab: show us the evidence!

        That’s what Krauss does. That’s what Carroll does. Hey, if something from ‘nothing’ is what you’re really talking about with belief in the INTERVENTION by a divine agency of Oogity Boogity somewhere in the historical record of evolution that underpins the notion of compatibility, then why not do the same, labreuer? Show us the evidence.

        Yeah… that’s what I thought; you haven’t got something equivalent here at all. You’ve only got… nothin’.

      • labreuer Says:

        Simple enough to demonstrate your point of equivalency, lab: show us the evidence!

        I wasn’t demonstrating a point of ‘equivalency’—I don’t know what that would be. Perhaps it was ‘equivocation’ that you meant? If so, the equivocation is clear: Krauss’ use of “nothing”, conflating (i) nothing existing; (ii) a quantum mathematical object capable of generating entire universes. His book title, “A Universe from Nothing”, obviously pretends to refute ex nihilo, nihilo fit. When pressed on this, he admits that some less exciting (sophisticated?) book title probably wouldn’t have gotten him as much popularity (money and spreading of his memes).

        In addition, I was exposing POOF!ism on the part of Sean Carroll and Lawrence Krauss. It would seem you don’t understand the science, so I think it would be best for you to stay on the playground, and let the adults have a serious discussion. Or, you could watch Sean Carroll’s lecture to which I linked, read up on reheating in cosmic inflation, and then maybe you’d know enough for us to have an intelligent conversation.

        As it is, you merely have untested faith in the current cosmological model. You trust your authority figures. After all, they have worked great –miracles– science! You don’t really understand the science—no matter than the lay Christian really understands theology—but you don’t need to, not to be an (Sophisticated?) Atheist Evangelist! When all else fails, you can throw around your pet terms, your epithets, and feel like you’re actually helping humanity get closer to the truth. Ain’t it a wonderful feeling? Can’t get enough of it, eh? Just don’t, uh, look behind the curtain.

        Show us the evidence.

        I’ll show you mine when you show me yours. Show me how either (i) Sean Carroll is wrong, and you can get quantum fluctuations (allowing Lawrence Krauss’ idea of a universe fluctuating into existence to happen), or (ii) how Sean Carroll extracts an observer from reheating. Can’t do it? Well hmmm, that’s curious. It’s like there’s mystery—or Oogity Boogity, which seems to be your preferred Sophisticated Term ™—in both explanations. It’s like everyone has to bottom out somewhere, as Feynman explained:

        One might still like to ask: “How does it work? What is the machinery behind the law?” No one has found any machinery behind the law. No one can “explain” any more than we have just “explained.” No one will give you any deeper representation of the situation. We have no ideas about a more basic mechanism from which these results can be deduced. (The Feynman Lectures on Physics, Volume III, 1–7)

        Are we back to religion introducing a fantastically new kind of charity and science making nuclear bombs for Hiroshima and Nagasaki—I mean, science flying us to the moon and religion flying us into buildings?

      • tildeb Says:

        You seem slower than usual today so let me clarify: you are suggesting that the creative interventionist agency supposedly responsible for the POOF!ism somewhere in the evolutionary past is equivalent to Krauss’ something-from-nothing model, equivalent to the ‘observer’ Carroll talks about. To be clear, Carroll says the ‘observer’ has nothing to do with consciousness or intelligence (of course). An “observation” in quantum mechanics happens whenever any out-of-equilibrium macroscopic system becomes entangled with the quantum system being measured. It will then decohere (become entangled with the wider environment), which causes a splitting of the wave function into separate branches.

        Now, I follow Carroll and candidly admit that I do not understand much of the physics he talks about because my fluency in the descriptive language of math he uses is not good enough. But I do know that the role of the ‘observer’ that you are trying to make equivalent to your agency for POOF!ism is misplaced.

        Further, Carroll has it made it perfectly clear that :

        One can go further than I did in the brief clip above, to argue that any notion of God that can’t be judged on the basis of empirical evidence isn’t much of a notion at all. If God exists but has no effect on the world whatsoever — the actual world we experience could be precisely the same even without God — then there is no reason to believe in it, and indeed one can draw no conclusions whatsoever (about right and wrong, the meaning of life, etc.) from positing it. Many people recognize this, and fall back on the idea that God is in some sense necessary; there is no possible world in which he doesn’t exist. To which the answer is: “No he’s not.” Defenses of God’s status as necessary ultimately come down to some other assertion of a purportedly-inviolable metaphysical principle, which can always simply be denied.

        So my point to your comment is you are intentionally conflating the idea of a divine creative interventionist agency that has meddled somewhere in the evolutionary past to be EQUIVALENT to what causes Krauss’ something-from-nothing and Carroll’s ‘observer’. The difference, I point out, is that both of these guys can substantiate and justify their claims with evidence. You can’t. The equivalency you attempt to insert here fails on merit.

      • labreuer Says:

        To be clear, Carroll says the ‘observer’ has nothing to do with consciousness or intelligence (of course). An “observation” in quantum mechanics happens whenever any out-of-equilibrium macroscopic system becomes entangled with the quantum system being measured. It will then decohere (become entangled with the wider environment), which causes a splitting of the wave function into separate branches.

        Of course he says that; I made it tremendously easily for you to find that, saying “What you need is an ‘observer’—technically defined—to kick things off.” Now, show me this observer.

        Further, Carroll has it made it perfectly clear that :

        One can go further than I did in the brief clip above, to argue that any notion of God that can’t be judged on the basis of empirical evidence isn’t much of a notion at all.

        Under scientism, yes one can argue this. So all that mind-created stuff you talked about, created “without any external causal agency directing us”? I guess it “isn’t much of a notion at all”. All Carroll is doing is recycling Hume’s Fork, which is hilariously self-refuting.

        Never mind that ‘meaning’ is the most important thing to virtually every human. Never mind that if God were to show up in the most meaningful place, he’d show up there, and not in the mass of the Higgs Boson. Seriously, do you expect to find out about God via the mass of the Higgs Boson? Imagine if you did that with your significant other. You might not have have a significant other after attempting it. You make out science—the “empirical evidence”—out to be the thing that matters the most, but then you admit that your judgment of what “matters the most” is 100% mind-constructed with zero causal connection to reality. Zero!

        Self-destruct in 3, 2, 1, POOF!

      • tildeb Says:

        Still a slow day, I see. Note the use of the words ‘being measured’ and try the whole comprehension thing again. You’ll get there.

      • labreuer Says:

        Can you, or can you not point me to the empirical observer which is critical for Sean Carroll’s understanding to work out? Which is it?

      • tildeb Says:

        I can only point to the person doing the measuring. My understanding is that that is when and where the wave discoheres in the same way that we can’t measure both time and velocity simultaneously (we are dealing with a probability function here… where something is at some moment in time) because the wave function (a probability wave and not a physical wave, let us remember) collapses (in that one of the measurement axes must be at zero to capture the other position accurately. (Granted, this understanding then has ramifications in our ‘capturing’ accurate data of physical reality.) But, as I said, my understanding of the physics translated to other models is shaky even though I try my level best to understand Carroll’s postings. What I do know is that Carroll is unequivocal about not attributing any kind of intelligence or consciousness to the observer that causes this discohering effect. And that’s why I claimed you were trying to make a false equivalency with an intelligent consciousness intervening in evolution (and not a collapsing probability wave function called ‘evolution’).

      • labreuer Says:

        You’re confusing general measurement in QM, with that initial measurement required to get the universe started. No worries; one would have to be familiar with Krauss’ work or equivalent to in any way grok that. Remember, the topic here is POOF!ism, by your instigation. Fine then. Lawrence Krauss has posited a quantum mathematical object, which he calls “nothing”, as the thing that preceded the Big Bang. Sean Carroll has claimed that quantum fluctuations—of which the Big Bang would be an example—do not happen; only observers (by his technical definition) can futz with the quantum wave function and do things like pop out universes [like ours]. Ok then. Show me evidence of that primordial observer—which we must understand is not ‘intelligent’, per Carroll. Fail to show me this evidence, and you have your own flavor of POOF!ism—it just has sophisticated equations to go with it, instead of the sophisticated systems theologians use. Let us test your EQUIVALENT, your way.

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