Here is my critique on Chapter 6 of “Where the Conflict Really Lies” by Alvin Plantinga.
Plantinga argues that science does not defeat Christian belief because it excludes the evidence base of Christian theists. Basically, the inclusion of the evidence base of Christian theism makes scientific theories denying religion and the supernatural improbable.
I must quote a portion of this chapter here because I believe it is one of the keystone passages of this book:
“(...) the evidence base of a Christian theist will include theism, belief in God and also the main lines of the Christian faith, therefore it will assign a high probability to hypotheses probable with respect to the Christian faith.” (p.168)
This statement seems tautologically irrelevant. Of course if you start with certain assumptions then you will end up favoring theories that comport with those assumptions. That proves nothing.
However I think the thing to really be aware of in this chapter is how Plantinga starts slipping in new ideas and concepts by using words that he doesn’t take time to properly define and defend. The first being “Christian theism”. Up to this point theism has been treated rather generically. In fact you’ll remember a few chapters ago were Plantinga attempted to answer the argument from pluralism by resorting to generic theism. Now all of a sudden the topic is Christian theism, and the special set of evidence that Christian theism brings to the table. He doesn’t talk about why we are focusing on Christian theism, as opposed to say Islamic theism, or the theism of a random Amazon river tribe. Or for that matter, the Christian theism of a liberal mainline denomination, which night have no problem joining agnostic scientists in excising the supernatural from our “evidence base.”
To say that agnosticism doesn’t disprove theism is something anyone can accept. However the author goes further than this in placing the facts of Christian theism on the same level of evidence as the facts of science. This is where he fails spectacularly. Like I said above, he uses words like faith, belief, memory, perception, and revelation more or less interchangeably. He illustrates the idea of the “evidence” afforded by belief by giving an analogy where he is falsely accused, and can’t defend his alibi although he remembers clearly being elsewhere than the scene of the crime. He implies that asking theists to not include theistic beliefs in their evidence base is like asking scientists to not include anything from memory. The problem with comparing memory of events to a theistic evidence base is that the memory of events is a matter of recalled observation and lies firmly within the realm of reason, not faith.
What is very clear here is that we are dealing with very different categories which are muddled by virtue of the author inserting words like these without introducing their concepts and integrating them properly into his argument. Specifically, he needed to elucidate the concept of revelation and make an argument for its parity with normal scientific evidence. He doesn’t do so.
His first use of the word “revelation” is on p.172:
“(...) according to MN [methodological naturalism] the parameters for a scientific theory are not to include reference to God or any other supernatural agents (although, again, they can refer to beliefs about the supernatural); and the theory, like the data set, also can’t employ what one knows or thinks one knows by way of revelation.”
He seems to equate faith and revelation on p.178:
“(...) faith is a special gift from God, not part of our ordinary epistemic equipment.”
Then almost denies revelation on p.179:
“But there are many of the deliverances of faith such that it is at least plausible to think that they cannot be known by way of reason.”
The can of worms is now open for business. Which is it, Plantinga? Is revelation central to faith or not? If it is plausible that faith “cannot be known by way of reason” then is it also plausible that faith CAN be known by way of reason? If can be known by way of reason then whither faith? Let’s all be methodologically naturalistic scientists. He throws his whole argument away here.
Assuming that faith requires revelation, what places this revelation on par with scientific evidence obtained by reason/observation? According to our quote from p.172, revelation can be “what one knows or thinks one knows”. It seems like we can’t even be sure about the content of revelation let alone its importance. He admits in footnote 3 in this chapter that this will differ between Christian sects, and his non-treatment of non-Christian theism doesn’t even touch the fact that it will REALLY differ between all religions. And not all religions (or even Christian sects) need a defense against “methodologically naturalistic” science.
Assuming the revelation in question is an interpretation of the Christian faith that requires such a defense (that’s a WHOLE LOT OF GIVENS for the sake of argument) then aren’t we qualified to inquire as to the validity of that revelation? How does the revelation primarily come? Christians are split on this; evangelicals will say scripture, Catholics will admit the revelation of scripture but condition its interpretation by the church, Pentecostals will add revelation through the spirit, etc. Mormons, for their part, believe writings from a set of gold plates that are no longer available because Joseph Smith returned them to the angel Moroni. I grew up around Christians that claimed to receive leading from god all the time.
(It is an interesting commentary on the whole issue that the conflict between science and religion tends to be the sharpest for those Christian sects that hold most closely to the Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura. Sola scriptura has evolved, through the classic fundamentalist-modernist controversy, and into the modern evangelical era, to incorporate a doctrine of verbal, plenary inspiration and inerrancy. This means that every word (“verbal plenary”) is without error (“inerrant”) by virtue of being given by god to the writers of scripture (“inspiration”). Thus the stage is set where these battles must be fought.)
Anybody can claim a revelation, thereby creating their own body of evidence, and go on to challenge science, I suppose. If we allow the Christians to do this, we must allow all religions to do this. What about the claims of Scientology? Unless Plantinga wants to clarify for us what a valid revelation is, how we can know it, and whether faith even requires revelation at all!
Thus the chapter ends very “head-scratchingly”. On page 187 he contrasts “empirical evidence” with theism, but at the end of the chapter says that we should engage in “empirical study unconstrained by methodological naturalism”, when he hasn’t even told us why we should consider revelation empirical, much less what kind of revelation is valid in the first place. He suggests we practice “Christian science”, but not the “Mary Baker Eddy” type. Well, why NOT the Mary Baker Eddy type?
Is not science very rightly justified in bypassing all of this mess with an agnostic view of the supernatural? We should be very thankful for such “methodological naturalism.”
I am just so incredulous about this chapter. Let me just say that I’ve never taken my car to the mechanic for a problem and had it traced back to the supernatural. I suppose Plantinga would disagree that maybe in some instances some kind of god-directed quantum system wave function collapse might have caused what appears to be a natural problem? Or does all this theory only apply to questions of origins. Of course some Christians will claim that god made my car break down because I am in rebellion to him. If my mechanic is a Christian maybe he will print that up on the service receipt. I mean it IS part of his evidence base, right? I can see it now, “FAILURE OF STARTER MOTOR DUE TO DIVINE INTERVENTION TO COUNTER CUSTOMER’S SPIRITUAL REBELLION.” There is scriptural warrant for such a conclusion. It’s no worse than “THE UNIVERSE AS WE KNOW IT TODAY BROUGHT INTO EXISTENCE DUE TO DIVINE INTERVENTION TO BRING MORE GLORY TO GOD.”
The author tries to claim that the beliefs involved in a theistic evidence base can in fact be defeated. He gives the example of several passages in scripture that imply a flat earth. (In other words, revelation appears to contradict direct observation.) Obviously a part of the Christian theist evidence base is falsified right? Well… the short version of the author’s argument is that it is not the revelation itself that is at fault but his interpretation that is at fault.
The second can of worms is now open for business. There’s the obvious bait and switch--we thought the theistic evidence base was important but now it can be a matter of individual interpretation, and only that can be defeated, not the faith itself. Okay that’s fine but as your theistic evidence base is now shown to be merely an interpretation of revelation, there is nothing preventing anyone from reinterpreting away the revelation underpinning the theistic evidence base. If your revelation is the Old and New Testaments, call it all symbolic and literary and let’s all agree with the scientists. You say you can’t call it all symbolic and literary? What characteristic of your revelation, or what secondary revelation, provides the authority to interpret it in the way that results in your preferred theistic evidence base? Or are you just being a good Protestant and making this decision on your own? The author hasn’t really laid a framework for the concept of revelation.
All the logical formulaic argumentation he uses in section 7 (“The Reduction Test”) is a fancy way of saying when the observed phenomena contradict the theistic evidence base, toss the existing interpretation (reduce) and reinterpret revelation so that it matches what you observe. It’s as if we can’t possibly know what god has to say so we have to keep figuring out what we think god is saying as science shows us new things by continuing to shove him further and further into gaps where science does not speak or contravene. I am very strongly of the opinion that such a Christianity is worthless.
So basically when science contradicts your religion, simply overweight your side of the argument with your interpretation of your religion’s revelation or, failing that, reinterpret your religion’s revelation to eliminate the inconsistency. It’s old “if you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bulls**t” routine, except in reverse.
This is the “Christian science” Plantinga thinks we should engage in.
I’ll end my critique of this chapter by highlighting a very interesting admission that he makes in regard to human facilities of knowledge. In section 5 (“Faith and Reason”) he tells us that Reason is “part of our created cognitive nature; every properly functioning human being” has it. Faith, on the other hand, is a gift from god. So not everybody has faith; it is not something all humans are created with. This goes against against the argument he made earlier in the book that religion is something that god primed all humans to search god out with.
Also, if he is going to argue that science in its most complete form must include a theistic evidence base, then only those with the special gift of faith can conduct science properly. So are the only proper scientists those who are believers? I’ve heard this argument from a few fundamentalists but not really from the broader Christian church. It’s just demeaning to non-believers who are told that they are locked out of real truth.