Tag Archives: Science

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.

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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.

Book Review: Screwtape’s Master Plan by Charles Anderton

In Screwtape’s Master Plan: A Satirical Take on Christianity and Culture Charles Anderton borrows the method and voice of C.S. Lewis’ famed character “Screwtape” (from The Screwtape Letters). For those unfamiliar with Lewis’ work, Screwtape is a demon whose primary goal is to lead humans away, or keep them away from knowing God. From the perspective of Screwtape, Anderton identifies key areas of the culture and mistaken ideas in the church that keep people away from the “gospel of costly grace.”

Anderton engages with a lot of important topics and, I think, some of the key issues facing the church today. Screwtape is indeed, an effective strategist in opposition to the gospel. Key attacks include convincing people that (1) faith and science stand in opposition to one another, (2) sex is only a biological act, (3) the “other” is the “enemy,” (4) we are free to make a god to our own liking, (5) “secular” jobs have no relation to Christian vocation, and (6) Jesus is insufficient or unnecessary. At the end, Screwtape presents a final plan to further segment the church from the broader culture so that it fades into irrelevance.

Anderton had some excellent insights on the Church and the culture and our enemy’s strategy to keep people away from the simple message of costly grace. His chapters on “Unspiritual Matter,” “Destroying Sexuality,” and “Discounting the Cost” were especially excellent.

There were a few areas where I think Anderton was a little simplistic in his characterization of the views of most young earth creationists and complementarians. I don’t fully in agree with him on these points but we do agree on his main points that (1) there is no real conflict between God’s revelation in the Bible and His revelation in Creation and (2) Christians shouldn’t add anything to the sufficiency of Jesus.

In the end we have a lot more points of agreement than disagreement and many of the chapters in his book are chapters that many people in our world (especially the West) really need to read. Our enemy is a deceiver and we, as a culture, have been deceived. In so many areas we have become blind to the lies that surround us every day. This book is a great contribution to bringing that deception into the light.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255

On a personal note: After reading the book from Professor Anderton (who I will now simply refer to as Chuck, per his request) I emailed him a more detailed description of several of my concerns and disagreements with the book. I attempted to be gracious but I wanted to clarify a few points and my interpretation of his book. I was a little nervous because email is not always the easiest way to offer criticism, or to receive it. Chuck replied with an incredibly gracious and well thought out response and I am grateful in return for his attitude. I wanted to share this because it demonstrates an important point I think he was trying to make in his book: It’s possible to disagree on a few points but still work towards the common goal of pointing people to God. Thank you, Chuck, for practicing what you wrote.

Future Astronomers and the danger of an incomplete data set

I was listening to a recent TED Radio hour and one of the topics was the ever increasing expansion of the universe.

Not that long ago, the conventional wisdom in physics was that we lived in a static universe, where stars and galaxies were at a fixed distance apart and that distance did not change. Eventually, astronomers and physicists discovered that the universe was expanding, that all the stars and galaxies were rushing away from us. The new conventional wisdom was that the universe was expanding but that rate of expansion was decreasing due to the gravity. However, once again, astronomers discovered that this was not the case. They discovered that not only is the universe expanding, but that it’s expanding at an ever increasing rate.

That means, that eventually (according to this TED talk), in the distant future, the distance between our solar system and every other star would be so great and the galaxy would be expanding so fast that even the speed of light would not be able to overcome the distance and rate of expansion of the universe, the result being that future astronomers would look up at the night sky and see… nothing. Their futuristic equipment would not be able to detect anything beyond their lump of matter and so, based on observation, they would conclude that there is nothing else in the universe. They would conclude what we just discovered is not true, that the universe is static and unmoving.

Brian Greene explains:

“They will conclude that the universe is static and unchanging populated by a single central oasis of matter that they inhabit, a picture of the cosmos that we definitively know is wrong. Now maybe those future astronomers will have records handed down to them from an earlier era like ours, attesting to an expanding cosmos teeming with galaxies, but would those future astronomers believe such ancient knowledge or would they believe in the static, empty, black universe that their own state of the art observations reveal? I suspect the latter.”

This is fascinating in and of itself, but it’s also fascinating to me because of its connection to another book I’m reading, Where the Conflict Really Lies by Alvin Plantinga.

In his book, Plantinga makes the case that there is really no conflict between Science and Theistic Religion (and that there is deep concord between the two and that there is real conflict between Science and naturalism).[1] There is however, a conflict between Naturalism and Religious belief because the two draw from a different evidence base.

Naturalism (sometimes called Scientific Naturalism) limits its evidence base to only what is testable and observable. Anything that could not be tested (say, a miracle, the existence of God, etc.) could not be considered part of “knowledge” in a naturalist system. Religious belief allows for a broader evidence base. It includes scientific (observable, testable) knowledge but it also is open to (rather, promotes the belief in) the existence of miracles, of a personal Creator, sustaining God who exists outside the system.

Religious belief, at least of the “historical religions” like Christianity, also relies on the accuracy of eye witness testimony, of records from an earlier generation, of ancient knowledge.

Back to our future astronomers. What worldview would allow them to know the truth? If they relied solely on Naturalism, their own system would not allow them to believe that the universe contained any other chunks of matter! The ancient knowledge based through the generations could not be part of their evidence base. It would lead them to ultimately wrong conclusions. For the future astronomers to gain a correct understanding of the universe they would have to trust the testimony of the previous generation, and only in this way could they could come to an accurate estimation of the reality of their universe.

To me, this illustrates the limitations of pre-defining an evidence base that excludes anything other than observable, testable data. It is simply the fact of life that other kinds of knowledge matter, like the testimony of others, even when such testimony is no longer testable. On the whole, I think Theistic religion gains the upper hand here, accepting scientific knowledge as true knowledge without limiting it to the only kind of knowledge.

[1] For two other posts on this see Normalists and Abnormalists and Being more precise: In Praise of Science not Naturalism.

Why do we trust God with the cosmos but not with our personal circumstances?

I’m reading Draw the Circle to review for BookSneeze and one of the chapters/devotionals raises the issue of why we have a hard time trusting God with our daily lives: “You tell me which is more difficult – keeping plants in orbit or determining our steps? The truth is that we already trust God for the big things; now we need to trust Him for the little things…” In other words, if we can trust God with holding the cosmos in His hands and maintaining the entire universe, why don’t we really trust Him to be able to take care of us on a personal level?

I think there’s a relatively obvious answer to this question: What happens in the cosmos, like the revolution of the planets, is extremely predictable while what happens in our personal circumstances is often quite unpredictable. You simply never know when someone will get in a car accident, lose their job, develop cancer, or develop an addiction. Daily life is notoriously unpredictable, which is also what makes it so worrisome.
By comparison, the universe continues on like clockwork, with predictable stability.

Or so I thought…

Three events over the past couple weeks made me change my mind a little on that. (1) An asteroid had a near miss with the earth. (2) Coincidentally, on the same day as the asteroid flyby, a meteor exploded in the Earth’s atmosphere over Russia, shattering windows and injuring a more than 1,500 people. (3) I read an article about how the Higgs is apparently just the right size to make the Universe fundamentally unstable. Perhaps the universe is not as predictable or stable as I have been led to believe.

Of course, this could lead a person to worry about everything! That would be a problem.

It would be far better to reason, as Jesus recommends, from small to large. Consider the sparrows (Luke 12:6-7), the ravens (12:24), and the flowers (12:27-28). Each of these is subject to decay and experiences the unpredictability of nature and yet receives the care and provision of God Himself. Since we are more valuable than each of these, we can expect God’s care and provision, even though our lives are also obviously subject to decay, suffering, and tragedy. Despite that reality, we trust that God will bring good out of suffering, even if we can’t see it in the moment.

It also makes sense, as Draw the Circle recommends, to move from large to small. After all, the fact that Jesus sustains the universe by His powerful Word (Hebrews 12:1-4) – and the experiential reality that the universe by and large is stable and predictable, ought to give us hope in God’s masterful design and sustaining power.

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.