All too many of us have been taught to think that science has proven the truth of atheist naturalism. Since we live in a demythologized world shorn of sprites, daemons, fairies, and dryads, it follows that we remove from our worldview God or indeed transcendence in any form. The scientific endeavor’s methodological agnosticism easily morphs into a much more dubious methodological and ultimately philosophical atheism. While neither of these is necessarily invalid, neither is in the least scientific.
Alvin Plantinga is one of the most important Christian analytic philosophers alive. In Where the Conflict Really Lies, he makes his case that there is superficial conflict but deep concord between science and theism, and superficial concord but deep conflict between science and naturalism. He is not necessarily arguing a specifically Christian case, but for a transcendent God, without specifying what transcendence consists of beyond God’s being the creator of the universe, as well as all powerful, all knowing, and all good.
Mind and Cosmos
He starts with modern popular atheism, from 18th- and 19th-century propagandists to the so-called New Atheists, authors of recent best-selling rejections of theism, and dispatches their claims of direct conflict between science and theism with relative ease. There’s nothing scientific about the metaphysical proposition that evolution is unguided. Approaches of these sorts are shown to prove far less than is usually claimed.
Plantinga limns and evaluates the debate regarding the possibility of miracles. An impressive array of writers, many of them theists, maintain that divine miracles undermine God’s moral integrity and creation’s free will, introducing a divine split personality wherein God maintains the laws of nature and at the same time breaks them. Plantinga argues that this approach suffers from a lack of clarity in that the line of demarcation between divine intervention in and divine sustenance of creation is hardly a bright one. After noting that quantum mechanics neither confirms nor denies the possibility of miracles, he concludes that there is no conflict between science and theism.
Having dealt with apparent conflict, Plantinga moves on to what he considers areas of superficial conflict. Evolutionary psychology posits that human behavior is shaped purely by Darwinian forces. This particular approach, though adept at understanding the content and causes of pornography and war, stumbles more than a bit when trying to explain Bach or Cezanne and is hopelessly out of its element on Mother Teresa.
Ultimately, evolutionary psychology emphasizes survival rather than development of true beliefs. Since no Christian can accept these claims, Plantinga descries an actual conflict. Likewise with biblical criticism, many versions of which come to materialist conclusions that Christians must reject.
Plantinga distinguishes two types of scientific methodological naturalism: the weak version passively leaves transcendent or supernatural forces out of consideration, while the strong version actively denies them. If a weak methodological naturalism is assumed, then theists can accept evolutionary psychology and biblical criticism as valid disciplines while acknowledging some troubling aspects of both. The conflict is real, but superficial.
Plantinga then makes the case for deep concord between theism and science. He starts by setting aside a couple of intriguing but insufficient developments. Too much is often made of modern physicists’ observations regarding fine tuning of the universe. Its support of theism depends on one’s assumptions regarding the antecedent probability of theism versus atheism.
Likewise, the Intelligent Design movement — the shabby treatment of which by most of the scientific community is as deplorable as it is inexcusable — provides a form of discourse (rather than a set of arguments). It presents epistemic situations to which the rational responses are entirely consonant with theism, though the extent of the consonance is difficult to determine.
The fuller concord lies in the historical reality of science’s deep roots in the western Christian tradition itself. Modern science was made possible, and then fostered, nourished, and promoted, by late medieval Christendom; it is a fact that it developed nowhere else. Plantinga examines the (easily overlooked) extent to which theistic religion gives pre-scientific peoples reason to expect that their cognitive capacities will match physical reality in such a way that science will be possible.
He closes the book by noting that false beliefs do not necessarily hamper evolutionary success — antelope would survive just as well by fleeing from tigers because they are orange as because of their predatory skills — and thus there is no reason to conclude that evolution has handed us trustworthy cognitive faculties (as opposed to sensory perceptions). However, the beliefs that comprise evolutionary naturalism are entirely products of their owners’ cognitive faculties, which these beliefs have now thrown into doubt. Without a reliable correspondence between cognition and truth, science becomes impossible. Thus, Plantinga claims, there is superficial conflict but deep concord between theistic religion and science, and superficial concord but deep conflict between naturalism and science.
Thomas Nagel is not a believer and carries no particular brief for theism, but he argues, as the subtitle to Mind and Cosmos puts it, that “The Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False.” His key holding is that materialist reductionism cannot explain consciousness, which it can only account for as a wildly unlikely accident. In this regard, he acknowledges a debt to the Intelligent Design movement and, like Plantinga, rightly decries its viciously unfair treatment in orthodox scientific circles.
Referring to reductionist extensions of Darwinism as a triumph of theory over common sense, he notes that the materialist account of mind as reducible to matter leaves consciousness unexplained. Reducing love, loyalty, and ambition to a set of electrochemical impulses in the brain falls ridiculously far short of explanation and treats subjective mental experience, including the experiences that make up the scientist’s endeavors, as unreal and ultimately unreliable. Thus, like Plantinga, Nagel concludes that materialist neo-Darwinism undermines the scientific worldview on which it seeks to build.
In constructing an alternative, Nagel presents himself with an admittedly difficult problem: to provide an anti-reductionist account of remarkable things (the mind) such that they are not wildly unlikely, while retaining the scientific aspiration of a single natural order unified on the basis of common elements and principles. Acknowledging that much is still unknown, he posits a nontheistic teleology as the most likely explanatory principle. The details are fuzzy (he is trying to point in a direction, not birth a fully formed theory), but he calls for an understanding that holds mind and consciousness as the inevitable results, rather than the unlikely side effects, of whatever process produced the natural world. That is, the unfolding of evolution must not be considered limited to physical phenomena only but must be moving in a direction that makes consciousness likely if not inevitable.
In positing a teleological purposiveness to evolutionary forces, Nagel is not claiming to believe in God. He rejects theism because he sees it — not unfairly given many of its current manifestations — as positing direction purely from outside the natural order. If naturalism relies too much on chance, theism, as Nagel sees it, relies too much on miracle.
This is a worthy challenge. If God’s creative activity is primarily a matter of redirecting nature from the outside to produce what could not otherwise have come into being, it is entirely fair to reject him as a Gnostic demiurge who makes the natural order as arbitrary as atheist neo-Darwinism makes consciousness. And neither the flaccidly emotive “god concept” of liberalism nor the mechanical and anthropomorphized semi-deity of literalism is immune.
The Christian response to Nagel demands a regrasping both of God as transcendent creator — hence unchangeable, impassible, simple, eternal, etc. — and as mysteriously incarnate. The latter is not just the logically necessary prelude to atonement and the solution for human sin but an essential part of God’s relation to his created order, which is fulfilled, not violated, by his entry into it.
A Christianity that properly understands both creation and Incarnation, and remembers itself as the greatest engine of scientific curiosity in human history, may be properly undaunted by evidence of evolution, and uncowed by atheistic bullyragging. Christ is the Truth. Accordingly, his revelation may bring us into deep concord with the veracities of the world he created and redeemed.
Daniel Muth, principal nuclear engineer for Constellation Energy, is secretary of the Living Church Foundation’s board of directors.