Alvin PLANTINGA. Science, Religion, and Naturalism. Where the Conflict Really Lies. Edited by John Chryssavgis. New York: Fordham University Press, 2012. pp. 368. $32.00 hb. ISBN 978-0-8232-3885-9.
Reviewed by Gerald McCARTHY, Assumption College (retired), Worcester, Massachusetts 01609

P.’s targets are the “new atheists” who believe that naturalism is an essential part of the scientific world view. His straightforward alternative is: “There is superficial conflict but deep concord between science and theistic religion but superficial concord and deep conflict between science and naturalism” (ix). P. establishes this claim in four stages that divide his book into four sections.

The first explores “alleged conflicts” between theism and science provoked by Darwinian biology and physics. P. contends that this conflict is only “alleged” because it reflects not science but “metaphysical or theological add-ons” (63, 97-107, 308), none of which are conclusions of “sober” science. Pace Dawkins and Dennett, Darwin’s account, even if correct, does not preclude the possibility (or plausibility) of divine guidance of the evolutionary process (16, 39-40). Classical physics precludes divine intervention only on the non-scientific assumption that the physical system is closed (76-89). Modern physics (quantum mechanics) is even more hospitable to divine intervention (94-96, 113-121).

“Superficial Conflict,” the second section, examines “real” challenges to theistic (and Christian) belief. Evolutionary Psychology challenges the cognitive claims of religious experience, while Higher Biblical Criticism diminishes the historical grounds on which Christian belief rests. Although genuine, both challenges are superficial because they are easily deflected. It is an instance of the genetic fallacy to conclude that a natural explanation of religious belief is incompatible with its cognitive character (140-143). Modern Biblical scholarship proceeds on methodologically naturalistic assumptions which may be acceptable for certain purposes (168-174). However, these assumptions need not constitute the totality of the evidence base with which the believing Christian interprets the Scriptures, and this broader evidential base will confer more plausibility on certain narratives (e.g., miracle stories) than the artificially restricted evidence base of the methodological naturalist. (174-178).

Not only is the conflict between theism and science merely apparent or superficial, but historically and conceptually they are natural allies. P. spends about 70 pages of the third section (“Concord”)analyzing arguments for and against Intelligent Design (225-264) and a theistically fine-tuned universe (194-224). Finding their argumentative force slight (224, 262-264), he reinterprets them as “disclosure discourse” designed to induce us to see natural and cosmic history in a certain way. In a familiar move, he assimilates this sort of perception to our “basic” (i.e., non-inferential) knowledge of the mental states of others and explores how these beliefs can be supported and/or defeated (240-264). The final chapter examines the fit between our cognitive abilities and the world (e.g., the applicability of mathematics to the physical world, the reliability of induction) that is presupposed by the scientific enterprise. This remarkable

adequatio mentis ad rem, P. argues, is probable in a theistic world but “an overwhelming piece of cosmic serendipity” in a naturalistic one (303).

P. devotes his final section (“Deep Conflict”) to an analysis of naturalism’s self-defeating character. Developing what he calls “Darwin’s doubt” (316-317), he argues that, just as the remarkable accomplishments of science are most intelligible in light of theism, they are least intelligible when viewed naturalistically (314). As we have seen, confidence in the cognitive reliability of our belief- forming processes is central to the scientific enterprise. In P.’s view, naturalism cannot justify this confidence. He conjoins naturalism with a materialist analysis of belief, arguing that only neurophysiological, not mental, properties of beliefs are required to confer evolutionary advantage (325-335). For example, the “belief contents” of a zebra fleeing a lion are irrelevant to its survival. Its adaptive fright-flight response can be described without reference to them. Therefore, the truth of belief contents confers no advantage and is, as it were, a fifth wheel in the process of natural selection. If so, the cognitive reliability of our belief-forming processes is likewise irrelevant and the likelihood that they are reliable is extremely low (339-346). But, if they are not reliable, then their products, including science and naturalism itself, are unreliable. Naturalism and science turn out to be enemies, not allies.

P. is a skilled logician and epistemologist whose controversial views on Christian apologetics are well-known. The arguments in this volume extend and, in some cases, compress arguments found in his trilogy of books on warrant, especially Warranted Christian Belief. Interested readers may well want to refer to these volumes for a fuller presentation of crucial points. His careful style typically enables the reader to get clear on the logic of his argument. Naturally enough, his argument raises important questions. I found the following to be the most important.

1. Does P. interpret Dawkins and Dennett adequately? He reads them as claiming only that “it could be plausible” that Unguided Natural Selection explains natural life and argues that such a claim is too weak to support their conclusion that it can do so (19-26; 40-41). His citations from Dawkins and Dennett seem to indicate that they believe that Unguided Natural Selection is “plausible,” not merely possibly plausible. This conforms more, I believe, to their primary intentions. On this reading, natural selection and theism could still be compatible but theism would be theoretically otiose. To refute this, P. would have to rely more heavily on arguments for Intelligent Design than he seems willing to do (225-236).

2. Does P. underestimate the potential for conflict within the believer’s evidence base? He notes that some religious beliefs can be defeated when they conflict with some scientific beliefs (183-186), citing as an example a figurative interpretation of a Biblical text whose literal interpretation conflicts with scientific evidence. Almost all Biblical critics concede that the proper interpretation of a Biblical passage requires a correct determination of its literary genre. But to what genre do we assign the stories of the Garden of Eden? Jonah and the whale? The Virgin Birth? The Ascension of Jesus? The Resurrection? This decision, which will guide our interpretation of the stories, will rest significantly on our decision concerning the antecedent probability of the stories which will depend in part on methodologically naturalistic canons of historical criticism. Thus, part of the Christian’s evidence base might confirm the traditional literal truth of the story of the Virgin Birth (it is one of the articles of the Apostles’ Creed) and another (the canons of literary historical criticism) might disconfirm its literal meaning. This internal conflict of many modern Christians is not as “superficial” as P. thinks.

3. How appropriate is it to assimilate belief in divine design to other forms of “basic” beliefs? Just as we can see either malevolence or humor in a smile (both basic beliefs), is not the universe ambiguous enough that we might see it as divinely designed or as “… a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”? Wouldn’t both beliefs be properly “basic” and enjoy similar degrees of warrant?

4. P.’s concluding argument rests on the premise that naturalism provides a defeater for belief in our cognitive reliability. While correctly noting the circularity of arguing for cognitive reliability (345-346), does he overlook the circularity that appears to be involved in defeating it? After all, identifying and weighing potential defeaters are cognitive enterprises. Wouldn’t the defeat of cognitive reliability defeat the cognitive reliability of the defeaters?

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