Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism

By Alvin Plantinga. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. xiv+360 pp. $27.95 (hardcover).

In the contemporary controversy between science and religion, atheists and theists, Plantinga’s Where the Conflict Really Lies brings a whole new level of clarity for the academic and the layman. He sets out to show, with clear logic and definitive language, how the slogans of science conflicting with religion is a superficial conflict under certain worldviews which scientists call for. While covering an array of subjects from cosmologies to evolution, he also tackles the subdiscussions within each field and the implicating nuances and their interfaces with religion (e.g., Newtonian physics and quantum physics). This book will definitely force materialists and naturalists to reconsider their worldviews while also giving theologians and philosophers a foundation to build on with future contributions to the field. 

Plantinga succinctly highlights his objective in the very first paragraph, “My overall claim in this book: there is a superficial conflict but deep concord between science and theistic religion, but superficial concord and deep conflict between science and naturalism” (ix). By religion Plantinga responds with the Christian faith as the central focus but his claims are generic that are applicable to all faiths. The only exception to this point is the chapter Historical Biblical Criticism (152–62), which is idiosyncratic to the Christian faith. The book is structured based on what Plantinga considers to be different levels of conflicts and concords (alleged, superficial, and deep) between science and religion. Accordingly, he touches upon the contemporary claims of physicists and biologists within each level. However, the book is not repetitive in its material but rather highlights the different elements within physics and biology relevant to the type of conflict. For the purpose of brevity and limitations of this review, I will highlight his central arguments through the categories of physics and biology rather than the structure he applies in the book (what I believe is the heart of the book). 

In the realm of physics, Plantinga weaves together a thorough analysis of different cosmologies and how they can conflict with religious worldviews. He compares Newtonian physics, Laplacean physics, which he puts under the “Old Picture” paradigm, and quantum physics, the “New Picture”, and whether any of these conflict with divine intervention. Starting with Newtonian physics, he discusses how classical mechanics works under the assumption that natural forces operate under an isolated system without any outside causal influence (78). According to this metaphysical stipulation, he argues, there is no violation of divine intervention, as causal closure is not applicable to the modeled situation (83). When an external agent interferes with a system that has been conceptually modeled as a closed system, the Newtonian model is no longer applicable. Furthermore, he critiques the very assumption from the scientific worldview when he writes, “You won’t find that claim in physics textbooks—naturally enough, because that claim isn’t physics, but a theological or a metaphysical add-on. (How could this question of the causal closure of the physical universe be addressed by scientific means?)” (79). He then moves on to explain how Laplacean mechanics makes it impossible for divine intervention. Plantinga explains that Laplacean is equivalent to Newtonian physics with the additional factor of total determinism, implying a complete lockout of any involvement of external agency. Rather, the universe is launched from a set of initial configurations, which creates a completely closed material universe and fixture of laws. Additionally, he notes the Laplacean worldview implies that free will becomes obsolete as all effects are fixed products based on initial configurations (88). However, he points out again that this absolute determinism is unjustifiably invoked from a scientific view, as this isn’t something classical mechanics can prove (85). Therefore, he concludes that classical mechanics holds no areas of conflict with religion. It is important to note, however, that Plantinga doesn’t review any arguments put forward for the justification of these metaphysical assumptions on their own ground. 

After concluding with classical mechanics, he provides an even more compelling argument for the compatibility of divine action and quantum physics while carefully maneuvering through opposing arguments. He first contrasts classical mechanics with quantum mechanics on the difference of their productive outcomes. Classical mechanics delivers fixed results, whereas quantum mechanics deals with probabilities (94). He then argues this makes it all the easier for God to intervene to perform miracles, making the least probable probability probable, and therefore dissolving any conflict. His real mastery is shown when he discusses collapse theories in the microscopic quantum realm that lead to the conclusive macroscopic reality. These quantum collapses could easily be the work of divine intervention on which he writes, “The macroscopic physical world supervenes on the microscopic, God could thus control what happens at the macroscopic level by causing the right microscopic collapse-outcomes” (116). In response to material determinism and even divine determinism, he rescues free will and human agency in the context of quantum mechanics with the analogy of a theater set with regularity and predictability, causing only some collapse-outcomes while leaving the other outcomes to free persons (120). Finally, he does caution as to how this compatibility relies on certain collapse-theories and therefore one must have clear epistemic weight distribution on sources of warrant (120–1). 

Through the vast literature on evolution theory Plantinga artistically sieves out the metaphysical scaffolding on which it rests upon. Apart from clarifying the obvious conflict with the literal reading of scripture (10), Plantinga highlights the difference between the science of evolution with the meta-science of unguided or random mutation against God’s intervening in the process. The latter he claims is what science itself cannot conclude on (12). While arguing against claims made by Daniel Dennet and Richard Dawkins, who state otherwise, he also touches upon the issue of how consciousness cannot arise from unconscious matter: “Evolutionary theory does not pronounce on such questions as whether it is logically possible that minds should come to be in a universe which is originally mindless” (38). The discussion becomes much more nuanced in the context of evolutionary psychology. Here Plantinga clearly demarcates and clarifies the difference between and the implications of the questions how and why. He points out how explanations on how humans came to believe in God and religion, which some biologists think undermines the entire religious enterprise, does not impugn the truth. He remarks, “finding a ‘natural’ origin for religion in no way discredits it” (140). Whereas explanations on why humans came to believe in God depend on the interpretation of the scientist, and thus where actual conflict can arise. This is why he discusses the views of Steven Pinker, who believes religion was a hope made in desperate measures (137), which Plantinga holds cannot be argued for scientifically. He also criticizes Sigmund Freud’s opinions, that beliefs are not truth oriented but rather by wishful thinking, on claiming no proper grounds for restricting all cognitive faculties to that particular goal (150). Moreover, while criticizing evolution on materialistic grounds, Plantinga remains true to his epistemic humility when bringing the discussion into the realm of “fine-tuning”. In discussing if Darwinian natural selection undercuts fine-tuning (mainly referring to the work of Michael Behe), he concludes, “On balance, Behe’s design discourses do not constitute irrefragable arguments for theism. . . . Taken not as as arguments but as design discourses they fare better.  . . The proper conclusion to be drawn, I think, is that Behe’s design discourses do support theism, although it isn’t easy to say how much support they offer. . . My job here is to tell the truth, whether or not it is exciting” (264). 

In summary, the book definitely achieves its goal. Plantinga clearly exposes the metaphysical structure that materialists and naturalists rely on, making their entire worldview shaky, and thus clearly highlighting the potential and actual conflicts between science and religion. Though it is hard to criticize Plantinga, it is worth noting the lack of discussion on information theory, which is pertinent to the topic. Though this is implicitly alluded to in some parts (271–91), Plantinga would do better with an explicit discussion.