I am going to provide a critique of Alvin Plantinga’s “Where the Conflict Really Lies” on a chapter by chapter basis. There is a lot of material that will not get covered if I try to do the whole book at once.
Plantinga gives us six ideas behind evolution. The first is ancient time, or the idea that the earth is 4.5 billion years old, the second is that life has progressed from simple to complex forms, the third is descent with modification, the fourth is common ancestry, the idea that all life descended from a common ancestor, the fifth is that descent with modification is a random natural process, and the last is that life originated from non-living elements without special intervention.
He claims that these ideas are independent with the exception of 3 and 5; that is to say, that descent with modification is required for evolution to be a random natural process.
Plantinga, at this point, ALMOST leaves out the idea of “natural selection.” He mentions it only as the most popular theory explaining random natural descent with modification. This is like saying that the most popular theory about the solar system is that everything rotates around the sun, not the earth. Nor does the author tell us what natural selection really means. The proper understanding of natural selection weakens his argument against Dawkins in this chapter. His (non-)treatment of natural selection is very surprising.
A proper definition of evolution understands that evolution is, at a very basic level, the intersection of natural selection and deep time. So Plantinga’s first idea of evolution (ancient time) is also not given the attention it deserves. He pays next to no attention to the implications of deep time.
Natural selection is the idea that die off rates will determine which genetic traits get passed on or not. The living things that survive are those that get to pass their traits onward. Deep time (4.5 billion years) gives natural selection the ability to produce the complexity we see today. The progression from simple to complex forms is a logical corollary of the emergence of life from non-living elements that existed at the beginning.
Natural selection does not care about the traits themselves; therefore, traits that do not aid survival get passed on when they are found with traits that do aid survival.
Evolutionary biology is not blind to improbability of unguided macro evolution on the face of it, but the addition of deep time balances out the apparent improbability. Along with common ancestry and the geological and fossil evidence, the theory is a force to be reckoned with.
Throughout the chapter, the author keeps insisting that at least some occurrences of descent with modification could be god directing evolution, not natural selection. The problem with this is how do you know? What markers (other than probability) exist to distinguish a link in the evolutionary chain as either a process of natural selection or a divine intervention?
Plantinga goes on and on about probabilities, but what is the probability of divine intervention against the probability of the same physical laws and processes we observe today being the formative force of descent with modification?
Simply put, if we are going to claim divine intervention, what is the physical evidence? What does such divine intervention tell us about the working of nature? Can we then predict with any logical consistency how and when this divine intervention will affect our world in the future? Is the proposal of divine intervention proposing an exception to the laws of physics? How does such a proposal not destroy the scientific method? (The author has promised to address these kinds of objections in a later chapter.)
The concept of divine intervention does not give us a model to test. Who reading this can show and prove a specific example of divinely guided descent with modification? Whereas we can observe natural selection occurring, not just with virii, but with African elephants increasingly born without tusks because the ones with tusks are being killed.
His argument with Dawkins is that Dawkins’ argument that unguided natural selection is possible is weak as it doesn’t prove anything but merely is an argument from probability. I’ll say something about that in my look at the next chapter where he deals with Dennett saying the same thing.
Plantinga goes so far as to claim that even if a complete chain of Darwinian descent could be proven, it would be equally as valid to claim agnosticism on the issue. Essentially, he is claiming that his theory can’t ever be proven wrong. And that’s not science.
He concludes the chapter by making some arguments concerning the nature of god. Dawkins makes the argument that the existence of God is as improbable as evolution since God is also complex. The author responds that God is not complex because he is not matter, he is spirit. So then God exists in a different context than the material world. However this understanding only works within a narrow context. What if God is more complex even though he is spirit by virtue of the spiritual plane being so much more complex on a basic level? The Bible implies over and over again that the spiritual realm is much more advanced than man can ever comprehend.
Plantinga asks for a rebuttal to the argument that god is a necessary being. I think the simple response is that, at least to science, necessary implies the ability to be observed, either in form or in effect. Science can’t observe god, so we err on the side of him not being necessary. This goes back to my argument regarding divine intervention being a violation of physical laws.