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DOES SCIENCE CONTRADICT RELIGION?

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By Alvin Plantinga

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The Montréal Review, June 2011

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Science and Religion: Are They Compatible? (Point/Counterpoint) by Daniel C. Dennett and Alvin Plantinga (Oxford University Press, 2011)

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One of today's most controversial and heated issues is whether or not the conflict between science and religion can be reconciled. In Science and Religion: Are They Compatible?, renowned philosophers Daniel C. Dennett and Alvin Plantinga expand upon the arguments that they presented in an exciting live debate held at the 2009 American Philosophical Association Central Division conference.

-- Oxford University Press

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Many people, these days, hold the opinion that religion and science conflict; in some deep way they are opposed to each other. Some think the occurrence of miracles, endorsed by many religions, is incompatible with science; some think there is such a thing as a scientific world-view, and it excludes God as well as anything else supernatural; and some think there is conflict between the current scientific theory of evolution and religion. Richard Dawkins, for example, apparently thinks so; indeed, the very subtitle of his book The Blind Watchmaker is How the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design.

I was asked to give a talk at the American Philosophical Association meeting in February of 2009, on the question whether religion and science are compatible; Daniel Dennett was asked to comment on my talk. I narrowed the topic to the question whether science and theistic religion (in particular, Christianity) conflict. I argued that in fact there isn't any conflict between classical Christian belief (defined, perhaps, by the intersection of the great Christian creeds) and the thought that the living world has come to be by way of an evolutionary process. More specifically, there is no conflict between Christian belief and the proposition that the main process driving evolution is natural selection working on or winnowing random genetic mutation. That is because, obviously enough, God could have directed, overseen, orchestrated, the whole process to achieve the end he proposed to achieve. For example, God could have caused the genetic mutations that form the raw material for natural selection; by causing the right mutations at the right times, he could bring about the sorts of creatures he intends to create.

There is conflict, of course, between Christian or theistic belief and the idea that evolution is unguided by the hand of God or anyone else. That idea is certainly inconsistent with theistic religion; it is not, however, part of the scientific theory of evolution. Many biologists believe and assert that the process is unguided; it doesn't follow that the scientific theory of evolution is a theory of unguided evolution. Even if most biologists thought evolution is unguided, that still wouldn't follow. (Even if most physicists thought the laws of physics were instituted and established by God, it wouldn't follow that, according to current physics, these laws were thus established.) The thought that evolution is unguided is a metaphysical or theological add-on, not part of the scientific theory in itself. The thought that evolution is unguided is a consequence of naturalism, the view that there is no such person as God or anything like God. The conjunction of evolution together with naturalism is inconsistent with theistic religion (as is the conjunction of naturalism with anything else-Greek mythology, quantum mechanics or the phonebook); but the scientific theory of evolution alone is entirely compatible with theistic religion.

I went on to argue for a conclusion endorsed by Nietzsche and many others: that naturalism has serious skeptical consequences. Call this the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN). We all assume that our cognitive faculties-memory, perception, logical insight, among others-are reliable; they produce an appropriate preponderance of true over false belief. But if you accept naturalism and evolution, so I argued, you have a defeater for that natural assumption-a reason to give it up, to reject it, a reason not to believe it. That is because the probability of our cognitive faculties being reliable, given naturalism and evolution, is low. And if you have a defeater for your cognitive faculties' being reliable, then you have a defeater for any of your beliefs produced by your cognitive faculties; of course that is all of your beliefs. Among your beliefs, however, is the conjunction of naturalism with evolution itself; you therefore have a defeater for that belief. In this way, the conjunction of naturalism with evolution is self-defeating; hence there is conflict between naturalism and evolution, one of the pillars or contemporary science. So if you think of naturalism as a religion, or at any rate a quasi-religion, then there is a science/religion (or quasi-religion) conflict alright, but it's not between theistic religion and science: it's between naturalism and science.

Dennett agreed with my first claim: that in fact there is no conflict between evolution and theistic belief. He went on to say, however, that many very silly claims are compatible with science-for example, Supermanism, according to which that redoubtable comic book character is real. (But the way Superman flies around without the benefit of wings or aircraft? The way he can leap over tall buildings in a single bound? Is that really compatible with current science?)

How is this relevant in the context? Apparently Dennett thinks someone might hope to defend religion by pointing out that it is consistent with current science (just as in another context someone might try to defend science by pointing out that it is consistent with theistic religion). Dennett means to point out that this not much of a defense; Supermanism and many other silly ideas are compatible with current science. Dennett also believes that theistic religion (unlike science) really is silly, and suggests that the onus is on theists like me to show that theistic belief is not as silly as Supermanism. This is a little difficult-it's like trying to show that belief in, e.g., other minds, or the past, or an external world is not as silly as Supermanism. Nevertheless I gave it a try: I pointed out that Superman, despite being able to leap tall buildings at a single bound and being more powerful than a speeding locomotive, is pretty small potatoes compared to God (and that's even if we ignore the sizeable handicap of being a mere comic book character).

Dennett denies my second claim, namely that there is conflict between naturalism and science; he denies the conclusion of EAAN (the evidential argument against naturalism). As far as I can see, however, he doesn't really address the argument at all; he simply rejects its conclusion.

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Alvin Plantinga is John A. O'Brien Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of God Freedom and Evil (William B. Eerdmans, 1978), Essays in the Metaphysics of Modality (OUP, 2003), Warranted Christian Belief (OUP, 2000).

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FROM THE ARCHIVES:

THE COMPATIBILITY OF SCIENCE AND RELIGION

EVOLUTION AND BELIEF

By Robert J Asher

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THE LAST SUPERSTITION

A REFUTATION OF THE NEW ATHEISM

By Edward Feser

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GOD AFTER DARWIN

By John F. Haught

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