Tag Archives: Theism

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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Is Belief in God like Belief in a Flying Spaghetti Monster?

The Flying Spaghetti Monster is a staple of religious message boards. There is even a Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (Pastafarianism) which is recognized as a religion in the Netherlands and New Zealand. I have at least one coworker who claims allegiance.

Pastafarianism is, of course, a big joke, and that’s exactly the point. Atheists argue that belief in a Creator God is just as ridiculous as belief in a Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM). Of course, you can’t prove that God doesn’t exist, but you can’t prove that there isn’t a god-like Flying Spaghetti Monster floating around in the universe either. Both are matters of “faith” and both are ridiculous.

That’s how the argument goes. But is it logical?

The “argument” fails on a number of levels. Don’t be fooled by it. First, it’s a perfect example of the logical fallacy of the straw man, where you ascribe the weakest possible version of an argument to your opponent, making it easier to refute. Belief in God – at least from a theistic perspective – bears no resemblance to belief in a flying spaghetti monster.

Even aside from the logical fallacy employed,  there’s another reason to reject the comparison as absurd, and that reason can be summed up in two words: Explanatory Scope.

The explanatory scope of an hypothesis describes how much of the evidence it is able to explain. Newtonian physics has a broad explanatory scope because it accurately describes (and predicts) the motions in the world around us.

Belief in God, unlike belief in the FSM, provides a broad explanatory scope. That is, belief in God makes sense of the world around us. It “fits” with the evidence available to our minds. Here’s what I mean:

Belief in God makes sense of both our moral senses and the existence of a moral reality. Only a transcendent, personal, and perfectly good being can form the basis of objective moral reality (See The Moral Argument).

Belief in God makes sense of the fact that their is something rather than nothing. Everything that begins to exist has a cause, the universe began to exist, therefore the universe has a cause. That First Cause is God. And God cannot be a thing “in” the universe, but uncaused, timeless, and immaterial. (See the Kalam Cosmological Argument and the Leibnitzian Cosmological Argument)

Belief in God makes sense of the universe’s incredible complex and “tuning” to life. I hope to address this in a later post, but suffice it to say, the fact that our universe supports life is astronomically improbable. A creative transendent intelligence makes sense of this reality.

The list could go on: The theistic picture of God as a being outside the universe, personal, uncaused, timeless, and uncreated, makes sense of our personness, our free will, and the religious experiences of billions of people, among other things. It does so in a way that the FSM never could. That’s because there’s a key difference between the FSM and God, and the key logical fallacy that atheists make when they trot out this ridiculous comparison: God and gods are of a difference in kind.

The FSM as described is a god (small g), is a creature within the universe. Christians (and other theists) though, believe in God (big G) a Being that stands above and apart from the universe, ontologically different. And, as the prophets of the Old Testament will tell you, between the gods and God Himself, there is no comparison. Christians find the idea of gods ridiculous, too, but between those gods and God there is an immeasurable difference.

ENCORE! ENCORE!

I’m working on a new blog series and have a few posts in the queue, but I’m a little worried I’ll start something I can’t finish so I’m going to wait a bit before I let the cat out of the bag. In the meanwhile, I hope you enjoy a few more excellent remarks from quotable Chesterton:

First, the rather standard way of viewing the world:

“All the towering materialism which dominates the modern mind rests ultimately upon once assumption; a false assumption. It is supposed that if a thing hoes on repeating itself it is probably dead; a piece of clockwork. People feel that if the universe was personal it would vary; if the sun were alive it would dance.”

Now, Chesterton’s surprising, refreshing, even childlike perspective:

“[I]t might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life. The thing I mean can be seem for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they especially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life.”

Anyone who has a young child, or has spent any time with them, knows where he’s going with this.

“Because children have abounding vitality, because that are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grow-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon.

“The repetition in Nature may not be mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical ENCORE.”

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.