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Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism
by Alvin Plantinga
Oxford, 376 pages, $27.95

“Naturalism” is a slippery term. In one common usage, it is the methodological thesis that the only rational forms of inquiry are those using the methods of natural science. In another, it is the metaphysical thesis that the natural world is all that exists. Either way, it is typically pitted against religious belief. In effect, it is, Alvin Plantinga tells us, “the thought that there is no such person as God, or anything like God.”

Naturalism in either form is often held to be supported by science, especially by those who think science undermines religion. Plantinga begs to differ with both assumptions. In Where the Conflict Really Lies, he aims to show that “there is superficial conflict but deep concord between science and religion, and superficial concord but deep conflict between science and naturalism.”

Plantinga succeeds admirably in demonstrating the latter half of this claim. His case is enshrined in what is known as the “evolutionary argument against naturalism” (or EAAN), which he first presented almost twenty years ago and which has justly become one of his best-known contributions to philosophy.

The thrust of the EAAN is as follows: Natural selection favors behavior that is conducive to reproductive success. Such behavior might be associated with true beliefs, but it might not be; it is certainly possible that adaptive behavior could be associated instead with beliefs that happen to be false.

In that case, there is nothing about natural selection per se that could guarantee that our cognitive faculties reliably produce true beliefs. Any given belief would have roughly a fifty-fifty chance of being true. And the probability that the preponderance of true beliefs over false ones would be great enough to make our cognitive faculties reliable is very small indeed.

If evolution is only part of the story of the origin of our cognitive faculties, this is not necessarily a problem. For example, if there is a God who ensures that the neurological processes generated by natural selection are generally correlated with true beliefs, then our cognitive faculties will be reliable. But suppose that, as naturalism claims, there isn’t more to the story. Then, for all we know, our cognitive faculties are not reliable. They may be reliable, but we will have no reason to believe that they are, and good reason to believe that they are not.

That means that we also have good reason to doubt the beliefs that are generated by those faculties. For the naturalist, that will include belief in naturalism itself. Naturalism, then, when conjoined with evolution, is self-defeating. Evolution—which, Plantinga is happy to allow, is a key component of contemporary science—is thus better interpreted within a non-naturalistic framework. Of course, various objections have been raised against this argument; Plantinga presents his most up-to-date response to them in this book. That alone makes the volume worth the price of admission.

What is less clear is how much support the EAAN gives to theism, specifically—and, in general, whether Plantinga’s book really establishes a “deep concord” between theism and science. He devotes a great deal of the book to rebutting allegations that there is a deep conflict between theism and science, and his arguments on this score are largely successful. For example, he shows that New Atheist writers like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett have failed to make a serious case for the incompatibility of evolution and theism. He also ably demonstrates that the arguments of modernist theologians who glibly assert that science leaves no room for miracles are remarkable only for their lack of clarity and rigor.

Still, deep concord is more than the mere absence of outright contradiction between views, and here, it seems to me, Plantinga’s arguments are less convincing. He acknowledges (rightly, in my view) that design inferences of the sort associated with William Paley and intelligent design theory do not constitute strong arguments for theism. But he suggests reinterpreting the tendency to see design in complex biological phenomena as a kind of “perception” rather than an inference or argument.

Just as you can perceive that someone is angry from the expression on his face, so too, Plantinga writes, can you perceive that an organ was designed from the order it exhibits. And just as the former perceptual belief is rational despite its typically not involving an inference or argument, so too is the latter rational even if it does not involve an inference or argument.

This analogy is simply too quick. As any Aristotelian can tell you, it is one thing to attribute a function to something, but quite another to attribute design to it. That roots have the functions of anchoring a plant to the ground and taking in nutrients may well be something we just perceive on close examination.

But that is precisely because having such functions is of the nature of roots—something built into them, as it were. In that respect, they are very different from an artifact like a watch, whose metallic parts do not have a time-telling function built into them by nature. That function has to be imposed on them from the outside, which is why a watch requires a designer.

Yet because natural objects are not artifacts, to perceive functionality or order in them is not ipso facto to perceive design. And that means that while Plantinga’s EAAN and defense of the rationality of “perceiving” functionality in nature strike a blow against the naturalist’s dogmatic rejection of teleology, they do not by themselves constitute reasons to embrace theism.

That is not to say that a divine intellect is not ultimately responsible for the order of things. But for the Aristotelian—and for Thomists, who build on an Aristotelian foundation—that claim certainly does require an argument, and an argument that does not conflate function and design. Too many Christian apologists have done this, at least since the time of William Paley, but which Aquinas’ Fifth Way—though often mistakenly associated with Paley’s argument—does not.

This conflation is of a piece with another conflation bemoaned by Thomists, also in evidence in Plantinga’s book. Aquinas distinguished between God as primary cause and created things as secondary causes. Digestion, growth, photosynthesis, erosion, genetic mutation, human action, and so on and so forth are all causal processes within the natural, created order.

But God is not merely one cause within the natural order acting alongside these others, not even an especially grand and powerful cause. He is, rather, the cause of there being any natural order in the first place. Created, secondary causes are like the characters and events in a novel. God as primary cause is like the author of the novel.

God’s effects are therefore not to be sought merely in otherwise unexplained natural phenomena, any more than an author’s influence extends only to unusual plot points. Just as a novelist is responsible for every aspect of the story, God is the source of all causality, including ordinary, everyday causes for which we already have good scientific descriptions.

For exactly that reason, it is not to science that we should look for evidence of God’s existence, no more than we deduce the existence of a novel’s author from a detailed description of the content of the story, or as an explanation of odd story elements. That there is any story at all, even the most simple or pedestrian one, is reason enough to affirm the existence of an author.

And that there is any world at all, or any causality at all, is the proper starting point for an argument for God as first cause. To appeal to God as an explanation of specific aspects of nature that have yet to be given a satisfactory scientific account is to reduce him to the level of a secondary cause, a lame “God of the gaps.” For the Thomist, it is to metaphysics—rather than to intelligent design arguments in physics, astronomy, or biology—that we must look for the rational foundations of theism.

Now while Plantinga himself does not try to ground an argument for God’s existence in such “god of the gaps” apologetics, he does say things that seem to imply a conflation of primary and secondary causes. This makes God into something like the master plotter Keyser Söze in the movie The Usual Suspects, who subtly manipulates key events from behind the scenes so as to ensure that everything goes according to plan.

Hence Plantinga suggests that we might think of God as “guiding,” “directing,” or “orchestrating” the course of evolution by “causing the right mutations to arise at the right time, preserving certain populations from extinction, and so on,” and as exercising “control” of physical reality at the quantum level by “causing the right microscopic collapse-outcomes.” From a Thomist point of view, however, God does not have to “guide” or “control” anything, just as the screenwriter of the movie does not need (as Söze does) to guide, control, cajole, or threaten the characters to do what they wanted them to do. God’s causality, like theirs, is far more radical than that.

Still, its clarity and wit, elegance and sheer brilliance, show that Where the Conflict Really Lies is not the work of a man in need of anyone to lecture him about authorship. Plantinga is the kind of philosopher from whom one always learns, even when one disagrees with him.

Edward Feser teaches philosophy at Pasadena City College.