Tag Archives: Naturalism

A Conflict Between Naturalism and Science?

Around 5 years ago I was browsing the philosophy shelf at Barnes and Noble when I came across a book with one of the most compelling thesis I have ever come across. The book is called Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism by philosopher Alvin Plantinga.

Plantinga argues that while there are apparent conflicts between science and theism, the two are actually fundamentally compatible. And, while science and naturalism are apparently compatible, the two actually have a deep conflict. Given that most in our culture believes the exact opposite, this is a startling thesis.

We first need to define Naturalism and distinguish it from science. Naturalism is the belief that nature is all there is that, at base, there is no purpose or mind directing the universe or humanity. Naturalism is a philosophy, a metaphysic, a worldview. Naturalism is not the same thing as science, though the two are often confused by Christians and Atheists alike.

Science, on the other hand, is the method by which we understand the physical world around us. Science has a deep compatibility with Christianity – though several apparent conflicts. (Plantinga specifically addresses miracles and evolution.)

Conflict and compatibility

The deep compatibility between science and Christianity comes from the nature of God and the nature of humanity. God, in Christianity, reveals Himself in nature, in the physical world. And, He has made us humans in such a way that we can understand that same physical world. Because God is a God of order, the physical world is ordered and subject to rationale inquiry. And, because humans are created in God’s image, we have the capacity to reason, use language, and come up with theories for how things are and how they came to be. Our reasoning, language, and theories may be flawed, but the capacities which we use are generally reliable because they are God-given.

But, whereas there is a deep compatibility between Christianity and science, there is a deep conflict between the pseudo-religion of naturalism and science. What does he mean? Plantinga gives a strong and weak version of his argument. The strong version of his argument, he argues, gives a “defeater” for the naturalist, and here he spends most of his time. The weaker version of the argument doesn’t necessarily provide a “defeater” but for me it is more comprehensible and thus, for now, more compelling.

The reliability of our beliefs from naturalism

Plantinga argues that, if both naturalism and evolution are true, the probability of the content of our beliefs being true, is low. But, if it’s unlikely that our beliefs are true, then we have no reason to have confidence in any of our beliefs, including our beliefs about naturalism and evolution. Thus, the beliefs that naturalism and evolution are true forms a defeater for the argument “naturalism and evolution are true”. And, in fact, it forms a defeater for any other scientific claim.

But why does Plantinga believe that it is improbable that the content of our beliefs are true given unguided naturalistic evolution? The answer lies in the nature of evolution and the materialistic view of neurophysics.

Unguided evolution and neurophysics

First, unguided evolution: The theory of evolution argues that life evolves through natural selection in order to reproduce itself. Natural selection favors whatever “gets the body parts in the right place” in order to survive, and survive long enough to reproduce, thus passing along the genetic code. That is, evolution through natural selection is blind and agnostic when it comes to truth. “Truth” only comes in insofar as it leads to survival and reproduction. If evolution can produce a desired behavior with a lie, it is not the worse for wear.

Second, neurophysics: The brain works through collections of neurons and connections between those neurons. Let’s call a particular collection of neurons firing in a particular way “N”. N has two properties: Neuro-physiological properties (NP Properties) and content. The NP properties are the physical properties which make up the mental state. The content is the belief. For example, the thought “naturalism is overrated” is the belief or content. It is true to the extent that, in the real world, naturalism is overrated. On a naturalistic worldview, the content arises from the collection of neurons, N, firing in a specific way.

Beliefs and Indicators

Here Plantinga makes a crucial distinction between beliefs (the “content” that arises from N) and the indicators that lead to the response which the NP properties produce. That chemical/physical response is what is selected for during the evolutionary process. Whether or not the belief is true doesn’t matter. That the zebra runs away from the lion matters. The content of the Zebra’s belief isn’t. The Zebra’s belief could be a lie. It wouldn’t matter, so long as the Zebra responds in a way that it escapes danger.

If this seems dubious to you, it did to me at first, too. Two reasons spring to mind. First, I implicitly trust that my beliefs are generally reliable. It’s hard to imagine a world in which they are not. But, the question isn’t whether I think my beliefs are reliable, but whether under naturalism I am warranted to think they are.

Second, we often think about our cognitive processes in the following way: The NP properties of the neurons N produces a belief. That belief produces the action. That belief then needs to be reliable for the action to lead to survival and reproduction. But, says Plantinga, that’s not how it works. Again, from a naturalistic/materialistic worldview it’s the NP properties by themselves which produce the action, so the truth of the belief, it’s relevance to the real world, is suspect.

Now, if the truth of beliefs is not what naturalistic evolution selects us for, then what is the probability that our beliefs are reliable? Again, you may think your beliefs are reliable, but the question is this: Given naturalistic evolution, what is the probability of our beliefs being reliable? They’re low.

But, if you doubt whether or not your beliefs are reliable, then you should doubt your belief about naturalism is reliable and you should also doubt your beliefs about science. Thus, belief in naturalism and evolution is self-defeating, since it undermines the reliability of our beliefs in general.

Now, there are a few key steps in this argument that I admit I do not fully comprehend, especially the relationships between the NP properties, actions, and the content of our belief. That makes this strong version of the argument interesting to me, but not quite as compelling as it would be if I understood it more clearly. Perhaps if you read that chapter in his book you’ll be able to enlighten me further.

How sociology helped me see the conflict more clearly

There’s a weaker version of the argument, though, which says something similar, and which is newly compelling to me. After I read this from Plantinga five-ish years ago I set it aside. It gathered dust on a shelf in my brain until I started reading a lot of sociology books. There I discovered something interesting: Naturalistic sociologists are fond of pointing out how unreliable our reasoning actually is. 

Case in point: Future Babble by Dan Gardner. The thesis of this book is that people – especially experts – are terrible at making predictions about the future because humans weren’t designed through the evolutionary process to do this. In fact, Gardner gives a whole list of instances where we shouldn’t trust our beliefs because of evolutionary embedded functions. We’re not, on Gardner’s account, fitted for this sort of predictive and abstract thought. As I read, though, I couldn’t help be think: Gardner is undermining his own argument! If I shouldn’t trust experts, why should I trust Gardner? If I couldn’t trust my own faculties, why should I trust my own interpretation of his book?

Gardner’s is an exceptional case, but it’s far from the only time I’ve noticed this. There seems to be a growing consensus in the secular books I’m reading that evolution has not produced people who are terribly good at discerning truth. In most cases, it’s just not relevant to survival! But, again, if the naturalist recognizes that he is not equipped to discern truth, why should he accept his truth about such questions as: Does God exist?

The compelling argument to me then, is this: Perhaps there are some beliefs which we would expect evolution to produce a strong correspondence between that belief in reality. But there are other beliefs, those most associated with abstract and technical thought, which naturalistic evolution would not design us for. Or rather, for which unguided evolution would be entirely agnostic. Philosophy, mathematics, the scientific method, etc. would have had no bearing on whether or not a member of the species could survive and reproduce. In fact, today, knowledge of some of these areas might be a detriment to reproduction (“What does an engineer use for birth control? his personality”).

Closer correspondence with reality

In other words, give unguided evolution, it seems we shouldn’t trust our beliefs to tell us the truth unless they are specifically associated with those things which evolution would select. “Naturalism is true” is one of those claims which we shouldn’t trust, given our belief in naturalism. Hence, it defeats itself.

But, if God exists and created us then we would expect him to enable us survive, reproduce, and be able to think rationally about philosophy, science, religion, morality, mathematics, and all sorts of other abstract things which have nothing to do with survival and reproduction. And, of course, we do think about all those sorts of things and, indeed, our beliefs do seem to be at least somewhat reliable – though certainly far from infallible.

Thus, once again, I see the rationality of belief in God for, once again, it provides a broader explanatory scope of the world  I live in than does atheism.

Advertisements

On the Self-Defeating Nature of Modern Social Science

I really like Social Science books. I find them fascinating and, usually, helpful. But more and more I am realizing that they can be self-defeating.

I just finished the book Future Babble. The thesis of the book is that “expert predictions” are generally terrible. The more confident the person making the prediction, the less likely they are to be right.

There’s a certain guilty satisfaction that comes from this book. You read story after story of how pompous and self-confident experts failed miserably in predicting the future. But after a little while Gardner begins to sound pompous himself and it loses its charm.

But there’s a deeper problem. Why is future prediction so often wrong? There are two pillars to Gardner’s argument. The first is that the world is too complex. The second is that our brains were not wired for this kind of thinking.

Gardner, like the vast majority of social scientists who I read, is functionally atheist in his writing (I don’t know his actual belief system but heaps as much scorn on “prophets” as he does on pundits.) He believes that our brains are merely the function of an evolutionary process. We evolved to survive and reproduce, not solve complex problems or look deep into the future. Our minds simply aren’t suited toward the work of making predictions. We are hopelessly biased.

But if our brains are not evolved to do this kind of abstract thinking, why should we trust the author of this book? Is my brain biased to find his argument compelling? Then again, maybe I’m biased against his argument? Can I trust my brain to correlate to reality? According to Gardner, probably not.

And so, as compelling as some of the points Gardner makes are, those very arguments undercut my belief that he’s even capable of making those arguments. It’s self-defeating.

There’s a similar sort of self-defeating argument in Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind (a must read, by the way). Haidt’s argument is both descriptive and moral. He is describing how we make moral judgments, but he also makes implicit moral judgments about our proper response to this reality. But for Haidt, moral judgments don’t correspond to moral reality. They’re not pointers to objective right and wrong. They’re merely the result of evolution. So, while seeing moral judgments in Haidt we also see through them. His argument might be interesting, but it carries no moral weight.

C.S. Lewis described this in The Abolition of Man as “seeing through” everything until there is simply nothing at all to see.

Alvin Planitinga in Where the Conflict Really Lies shows how this self-defeating argument plays itself on the naturalist worldview. If our brains have not evolved to making abstract rationale judgments – only survive and reproduce in a limited environment – why should we believe our own minds in making judgments about science and God.

Plantinga’s argument, then, is that there’s a fundamental conflict between science and naturalism (the belief that nothing exists outside of the natural world.) I tend to agree, and see the same truth play out in social science.

There need not be such a conflict in a Christian worldview. In the Christian worldview, we should expect to see, and in fact do see, a correspondence between the observable world and our ability to understand it. The world is fundamentally complex, yes, and we struggle to wrap our minds around it, but we can understand it, and we can have confidence that we can understand it because the same God who made it, made us.

Book Recommendation
The Abolition of Man

Incomplete Picture: Bad Science

What happens when we have an incomplete, incorrect, or inadequate understanding of the doctrine of Creation?

For my final post in this series I make the observation that if we have an incomplete view of Creation, we will devalue scientific pursuits. I suppose that it is appropriate that this post follows on the heels of my book review of Alvin Plantinga’s philosophy/science book Where the Real Conflict Lies. Perhaps between the two some reader will decide science isn’t so bad after all.

Let’s start by taking a look at why science has been devalued by so many in Christianity.

Science and Religion Appear to Contradict:

The apparent contradictions reside around epistemology (how we know stuff) and supernaturalism. That is, the “scientific worldview” claims that we only know things through reason and observation and that there are no supernatural processes. Christianity claims several sources of knowledge which include reason and observation and add to those history and Revelation. Additionally, Christianity sees both a supernatural cause behind everything (God creating the Universe) and supernatural intervention at various points in history within the created realm. These first two contradictions can be resolved when we understand that the “scientific worldview” is really a philosophical add-on to science, that is, the scientific method of hypothesis-building and observation. There is no default reason why one would have to accept one with the other and, in fact, I believe Christianity, supernaturalism and all, provides just the right environment to spur scientific discovery.

There is another kind of apparent contradiction, however, and that is between what appears to be revealed through the scientific method and what appears to be revealed in Scripture. The most obvious of these resides around the question of origins. On many interpretations of science, an old earth view best interprets the scientific data but, on many interpretations of Scripture, a young earth view best interprets the Scriptural data. What are we to make of such observations? Do science and religion stand in contradiction to each other? In some sense, it would appear so. This particular interpretation of scientific data stands in contradiction to that particular interpretation of Scriptural data. These apparent contradictions shouldn’t be taken lightly and we shouldn’t try to resolve them too soon. There are important questions at stake. However, ultimately I would say that there is no real contradiction between what God has revealed in nature and what he has revealed in Scripture. The problem must reside in our understanding of one or the other.

Note: A final observation needs to be made here on authority. Christians take Scripture to be authoritative. Because Scripture is “special revelation” it can be used to better understand “general revelation.” It’s our glasses for seeing the world correctly.

Science doesn’t provide the deep answers to our most pressing concerns:

The modern scientific community attempts to answer many questions – Where did we come from? Where are we going? What is the nature of our humanity? Christians, however, already have answers for many of these questions. We were created by God. We are awaiting the New Creation. We are image bearers of the living God, fallen, but able to be redeemed.

So, then, what can science add if we already have answers to these most pressing questions? The best science can do, it seems, is provide limited answers to problems which will be obliterated at the End of the Age.

True, but what happens now still matters and, if science can make advances in medicine, or help solve issues of global hunger, that’s a quantifiably good thing. Our lives are measurably better than they were a hundred years ago thanks, in large part, to the efforts of the scientific community. No, it can’t answer our deepest questions or resolve or most profound problems, but we can still thank God for its contribution in our world.

Science “replaces” Theism as a worldview:

Given the above two concerns there is a fear, not unfounded, that science replaces a Christian (or, generally Theistic) worldview. In fact, Naturalism/Materialism does. It provides a competing perspective on who God is (there is none), who we are (conglomerations of matter), and where we are going (annihilation). But, once again, it is a mistake to equate science with its philosophical add-on: Naturalism.

Science and Theology, friends:

There is another way to view all this and, I think, is quite Biblical. It goes back to Creation. God spoke and the world came into being. If God created the world, and declared it good, we should expect that the study of that world (science) and our study of God (theology) ought to be friends. And indeed they are.

Material creation points to the glory of God. Science helps us better understand material creation. Psalm 19:1 says “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” Creation points us to the glory and grandeur of the Creator. It doesn’t tell us all we need to know, but it does help us know that God exists and that he is Divine (Romans 1:20).

Christianity provides fertile ground for scientific discovery. This is a point Plantinga makes over and over in Where the Real Conflict Lies. If God created us with purpose, it makes sense that we would seek out to understand His creation and have minds capable of understanding the world.

Materialism/Naturalism is not so kind. It is not uncommon for those holding to a materialist perspective to deny the ability of our reason and observations, ironically, by pointing to their own observations. The best they can answer is that we have arrived here by dumb luck. Christianity, on the other hand, provides an explanation for why we are here and can comprehend and a reason to pursue science – in order to see more clearly the glory of God!

Shout-Outs:

Alvin Plantinga, Where the Real Conflict Lies (see my review here)

Charles Anderton, Screwtape’s Master Plan (see my review here)

Abraham Kuyper, On Calvinism (See his observations on Normalists vs. Abnormalists)

Blog Fide Dubitandum: The blog is apologetic in nature and does a great job at showing the follies of philosophical materialism. It’s good reading.

Book Review: Where the Real Conflict Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism by Alvin Plantinga

Where the Real Conflict Lies

Where the Real Conflict Lies

Introduction

I started reading Where the Real Conflict Lies in a bookstore coffee shop around Christmas time and was so intrigued by its thesis that I knew I had to buy it. That thesis, expressed early and often, is this: “there is superficial conflict but deep concord between science and theistic religion, but superficial concord and deep conflict between science and naturalism.” In other words, on the surface it appears as though there is a conflict between theistic religion and science but, in reality, theistic religion provides just the right environment for science to flourish. Conversely, while there appears to be agreement between science and naturalism (unguided evolution) there is actually deep conflict. On this latter point, Plantinga argues that believing in naturalism and evolution is an untenable position. I believe this is the most recent form of his “evolutionary argument against naturalism.

Solidness: Plus+

Plantinga is a philosopher and so he argues his points from a philosophical point of view. Logic is his primary tool of argumentation, though he also calls upon the latest scientific theories (including evolutionary biology, quantum mechanics, etc.). All of this is filtered through a broadly Christian perspective and all Christians (and, in fact, many other theists) will benefit from his well reasoned arguments against naturalism. It should be noted that throughout Plantinga assumes the position of guided evolution. Nevertheless, many of his arguments are compelling regardless of your views on the age of the earth.

Freshness: PlusPlus++

Plantinga is a deep and careful thinker. The book is filled with fresh (for me, anyway) insights into the relationship between theistic religion and science. For many, this book has the potential to provide a paradigm shift in how to look at the religious/scientific/naturalistic worldviews.

Style: Neutral

My only trouble with this book was the style. The writing is excellent, but I struggled with the style. Plantinga is a great and witty writer. However, at numerous points, he adopts what I can only assume to be a technical philosophical style, which basically looks like math formulas. This may be par for the course in a philosophical work as this is but for the untrained (me!) it wasn’t hard to get lost. I probably would have found his arguments more compelling had I understood them better.

Recommendation

I recommend this book for those interested in a strong philosophical defense of Theism. Plantinga is one of the modern masters in this area. However, if you do read this, you must be willing to think! This is no light reading. Following his arguments takes time and effort, but it’s worth it.

Being more precise: In praise of Science, not Naturalism

Is there a conflict between faith and science?

I had an enlightening conversation this morning in which I was reminded that certain words have “expanded” meaning within various subcultures. One word that isn’t used very carefully, especially in Christian subcultures, is the word Science. Sometimes we say Science to mean Science (the study of nature) and Naturalism (the philosophical presupposition that no supernatural force interacts within the natural world.) When we do this we, as Christians, tend to view Science with a negative light. If Science is Naturalism or necessarily includes Naturalism, then Science becomes antithetical to belief in an active God and therefore appears offensive to our worldview. I don’t believe this is the correct way to view Science.

Science, as a method, is an amoral way to learn about the created world. You can approach it either from a Theistic or a Naturalistic perspective (see Kuyper’s wise words on Normalists and Abnormalists).

We are, perhaps, accustomed to seeing it approached from the Naturalistic perspective but it need not work that way and, in fact, historically this has not been the case. Much of what was gained through the Enlightenment came from Theistic Christians who were interested in learning about God’s creation. In other words, the pursuit of scientific knowledge sprang from a religious impulse.

The actual methods of Science do not change much based on the philosophical position you bring to the table. A theistic scientist will still consider the scientific method to be sound because he believes God is a God of order and not disorder and has established laws by which the universe functions.

One important difference is that the Christian will not view science as his only means of knowledge. He will also look to the Biblical text. Ultimately, these are not competing sources of knowledge, though for a time they may appear so. This appearance of conflict only arises because of our own human frailty not because of any differences in ultimate reality. The conflict is superficial, not substantial.

The other difference is that the Christian believes that, although the world usually functions based on the God-ordained laws of nature, God does intervene in what we might call Miracles. Acknowledging that possibility, we are not surprised by things like the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We acknowledge that for this to happen God intervened in the world and broke the rules which, as the rule-maker, He is free to do.

So, Christian, do not look down or with suspicion on Science. We have gained much because of it. It is Naturalism (the philosophical position) not Science, with which we struggle.

Normalists and Abnormalists

I’m currently reading Abraham Kyuper’s On Calvanism (it’s not so much about calvanism-as-TULIP as it is calvanism-as-worldview). One of the more interesting sections is about the relationship between faith and science. Kuyper argues that there is no conflict between faith and science but between the underlying philisophical systems of the “Normalists” and the “Abnormalists.” I have quoted liberally from it below, but no worries, it’s in the public domain:

“Notice that I do not speak of a conflict between faith and science. Such a conflict does not exists. Every science in a certain degree starts from faith, and, on the contrary, faith, which does not lead to science, is mistaken faith or superstition, genuine faith it is not.”

“Hence it follows that the conflict is not between faith and science, but between the assertion that the cosmos, as it exists today, is either in a normal or abnormal condition. If it is normal, then it moves by means of an eternal evolution from its potencies to its ideal. But if the cosmos in its present condition is abnormal then a disturbance has taken place in the past, and only a regenerating power can warrant it the final attainment of its goal.

Of the Normalists he states…

Materially, however, they reject the very notion of creation, and can only accept evolution – an evolution without a point of departure in the past, and eternally evolving itself into the future, until lost in the boundless infinite. No species, not even the species of homo sapiens, originated as such, but within the circle of natural data developed out of lower and preceding forms of life. Especially no miracles, but instead of them the natural law, dominating in an inexorable manner. No sin, but evolution from a lower to a higher moral position. If they tolerate the Holy Scriptures at all, they do it on condition that all those parts which cannot be logically explained as a human production be excinded. A Christ, if necessary, but such a one as is the product of the human development of Israel. And in the same manner a God, or rather a Supreme Being, but after the manner of the Agnostics, concealed behind a visible Universe, or pantheistically hiding all existing things, and concieved of as the ideal reflection of the human mind.

Of the Abnormalists he states…

The Abnormalists, on the other hand, who do justice to relative evolution, but adhere to primordial creation over against an evolutio in infinitum, oppose the position of the Normalists with all their might; they maintain inexorably the conception of man as an independent species, because in him alone is reflected the image of God; they conceive of sin as the destruction of our original nature, and consequently as rebellion against God; and for that reason they postulate and maintain the miraculous as the only means to restore the abnormal; the miracle of regeneration; the miracle of the Scriptures; the miracle in the Christ…

In summary he says…

Not fath and science, therefore, but two scientific systems or if you choose, two scientific elaborations, are opposed to each other, each having its own faith. Nor may it be said that it is here science which opposes theology, for we have to do with two absolute forms of science, both of which claim the whole domain of human knowledge, and both of which have a suggestion about the supreme Being of their own as the point of departure for their world-view.

This passage was strikingly similar to the introduction to the book Where the Real Conflict Lies by Alvin Plantinga which I read last time I was at Barnes and Noble. If I ever pick up that book, you can expect to see some excerpts form that as well.