Monday, May 21, 2012

Alvin Plantinga on Science and Religion (Part 1)

May 20th 2012 saw Dr. Alvin Plantinga give a talk on the relation between Science and Religion in San Diego. Being reasonably close by, I drove down to hear his talk.

Plantinga's presentation

Plantinga's presentation basically deals with the perceived conflict between Science and Religion, especially on the topic of Evolution. His thesis is that there is no conflict between evolution as a science eviscerated from its materialistic philosophy, and "mere Christianity." Plantinga defines "mere Christianity" along the lines of C.S. Lewis and locates it in the Apostles' Creed, probably having some version of the Vincentian Canon in mind (ubique, semper, omnibus).

The first section of his talk was aimed to prove that contemporary evolutionary theory is compatible with theistic belief. He argues against the idea of evolution necessarily being a blind and unguided process. Using the writings of evolutionist atheists like Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins, Plantinga posits that the form of their main argument is as follows:

1) We know of no irrefutable objections to its being biologically possible that all of life has come to be by way of unguided Darwinian processes.


2) All of life has come to be by way of unguided Darwinian processes

Plantinga then states that such an argument is logically absurd. Therefore, making arguments based upon perceived blindness and unguidedness of the evolutionary process, and the randomness of mutations, to conclude that there is no God is "not part of or a consequence of the scientific theory of evolution as such, but a metaphysical or theological add-on."

In the accompanying notes, Plantinga has a second section which deals with broader antitheistic arguments from evolution, of which an interesting one which he skirted is the one on theodicy. He also gave an argument using Occam's Razor where he claims that there is "no additional Ockhamistic cost" for a theist "in the hypothesis of guided evolution."

After his first section, Plantinga decided to skip to his third section in his talk due to time constraint. The third section is entitled "Naturalism vs. Evolution," in which Plantinga through a logical syllogism proves that the proposition that our cognitive faculties are reliable cannot be accepted if Naturalism and Evolution are both taken to be true. Plantinga's conclusion is that holding on to naturalism with evolution is illogical and wrong; it cannot be rationally accepted.

Through his entire presentation, Plantinga desires to establish that there is no conflict between "science" and "religion," or rather evolution and "mere Christianity." Therefore embracing evolution does not make atheism and naturalism certain. A Christian therefore can embrace evolution without giving up his faith, and a scientist does not have to give up his "science" in order to be a Christian.

Main Analysis

After Plantinga's talk, there was a Q&A section in which I went up and asked him two questions, on two weaknesses I perceive in his argument. I will reproduce and expound on them further.

Plantinga is certainly right in his third point. Many people have correctly pointed out that naturalistic materialism cannot account for the reliability of cognitive faculties of any sort. The problem for Plantinga's argument however comes from other points of view than philosophical materialism, a worldview which is waning.

The first problem with Plantinga's argument is stated by other forms of theisms. Plantinga's argument is defensive in form in stating how evolution is compatible with "mere Christianity." But such an argument presupposes that the only two options are "mere Christianity" and naturalism. One however soon realizes that his argument is impotent in dealing with pantheism, panentheism and Process Theology. In pantheism for example, something which Richard Dawkins is not against by the way, evolution can be guided and our rational faculties can be reliable since nature equals "god," and yet in this system Christian theism is not only not accepted but actively rejected. In Process Theology, the evolutionary process towards the Omega state is certainly guided and has a telos in mind!

Plantinga rightfully disavows pantheism, panentheism and Process Theology. The question however is upon what basis can he do so? One can argue from the Scriptures of course, but that undercuts the entire argument made by Plantinga. After all, Plantinga' argument is for the superiority of Christian theism over naturalist atheism in its compatibility with "science" (evolution). If however it can be argued that Christian theism is no more superior than pantheism, panentheism and Process Theology in its compatibility with "science" (evolution), then Plantinga's argument collapses entirely. If anyone comes to the issue relatively unbiased, why should he think on the basis of Plantinga's argument that Christian theism is better than the other theisms available?

On a side note, Process Theology is a movement which can be slotted into "Mere Christianity" since it has never been condemned by any general council of the Church, indeed it is impossible for it to be condemned as such since it is hundreds of years late for the councils. Since Plantinga wants to stake Christianity on the ideal of "mere Christianity," upon what basis can he reject a belief in Process Theology as being part of "mere Christianity"? If one wants to go back to C.S. Lewis, perhaps one should consider whether Lewis or the Bible holds the definition for what Christianity is and is not.

The second problem with Plantinga's argument is to what extent his version of "mere Christianity," which is compatible with evolution, accepts or rejects the historical Adam and Eve and a historical Genesis. Does Plantinga holds Peter Enns' view of Genesis being a poetic myth recapitulating the experience of Israel?[1] It seems that Plantinga holds a view rather similar to what C. John Collins holds to, what is called a "mere-Adam-and-Eve-ism."[2] Plantinga states that he believes in a historical Adam and Even, but such is probably a couple from a founding population of hominids to whom God breathed their souls into them. (Presumably, they and other hominids were souless animals before that).

The problem with Plantinga's argument here however is that the compatibility question can only be answered in the affirmative only if one takes a certain view of "mere-Adam-and-Eve-ism," namely a view that presupposes an old earth, and standard evolutionary time frame etc. In other words, the compatibility question is in the ultimate sense vacuous. It is basically asking whether a theism that has modified its views to line up with evolution is compatible with evolution. Of course it is! I would be surprised if it isn't! If "mere Christianity" is enlarged to fit in evolutionary theories, then that "mere Christianity" is compatible with evolution is a foregone conclusion.

The problem with "mere Christianity" is that it is ultimately vacuous. If one can redefine the foundation of the Gospel and yet remain part of "mere Christianity," then we should know that "mere Christianity" is a mere front for any shenanigans to be done to the Christian faith. Confessing the death of Christ on the Cross for our sins means nothing if we can't agree on what "sin" is, what "death" is and so on. Since our salvation is based upon the fact that Christ fulfilled the Covenant of Works on our behalf, fulfilling what Adam should have done, denial of Adam being the first man is a denial of the Adam-Christ typology and thus of the Gospel itself.

Collins' proposal on the founding population, while ingenious, does not work. Adam has to be created out of the dust for the typology to be valid (cf 1 Cor. 15: 47), not from a pre-existing hominid. The typology of Christ who gives life, to Adam who became alive, in 1 Cor. 15:45 is destroyed by the hypothesis that Adam was a souless hominid (which of course has horrific consequences since these "souless hominids" behave very much like humans in terms of religions etc.).

Plantinga's argument so far fails in two ways. It fails to prove that Christian theism is superior in compatibility with the world in light of evolution. More fundamentally, it fails to prove that "mere Christianity" is even a legitimate actor in the question since including views modified in light of evolution is to argue in a circle.


[1] Peter Enns, The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn't Say About Human Origins (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, Brazos Press, 2012), 56

[2] C. John Collins, Did Adam and Eve Really Exist: Who They Were and Why You Should Care (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 13

[to be continued]

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