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

Alvin Plantiga
Published by Oxford University Press in 2011

Reviewed by Brian Glenney, Philosophy, Gordon College

A tribal shaman, an atheist scientist, and a religious philosopher enter a bar. After getting drinks, the ground begins shaking violently and all three quickly duck under the table. The shaman pours out his beer to appease the angry god. The scientist guzzles his, anticipating the worst, and is surprised to see the philosopher doing likewise. “How is your God appeased?” he asks. The philosopher replies, “With good sense, not bad beer.”

For over two decades, Alvin Plantinga has argued that our good sense – our cognitive faculties – is reliable only if God is its maker.1 In accepting this, we are guaranteed, “that there is a match between our cognitive powers and the world” (xiv; emphasis in original). If cognition is a product of evolution, the mind may be merely adaptive, effective only at enhancing reproduction, and unreliable for detecting the truths of reality.

Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism anchors this notion in the rough waters where science and religion swim together. What is the place of religion in science, or as Plantinga puts it, the place of naturalism in science? The real conflict, he argues, lies not between science and religion but between science and naturalism, as naturalism fails to provide an adequate explanatory account of the reliability of the cognitive processes by which science, or naturalism itself, came to be.

The book is moderately accessible, although careful readers will need the patience to learn such epistemological arcana as Bayes’ theorem. Sometimes whimsical and full of creative arguments, the book is rarely dry. It is also clearly structured, first arguing that apparent conflicts between science and religion are merely verbal disputes. For instance, on the issue of evolution Plantinga writes, “There is no conflict between theistic belief and evolutionary theory, including the thought that all of life has come by way of natural selection operating on random genetic mutation” (129). Any actual conflict between science and religion arises from more speculative sciences like evolutionary psychology.

Plantinga goes on to demonstrate the deep concord between science and religion, such as how religious belief anticipates scientific findings such as fine-tuning and how religious belief allows for intentional design to explain complex biological systems. On this latter point, he writes:

God might have caused the right mutations to arise in the right circumstances in such a way as to bring it about that there exists organisms of a type he intends; the organisms resulting from this kind of evolution would be designed, but also a product of natural selection working on random genetic mutation. (253)

Plantinga concludes with the central argument that science and naturalism – not science and religion – are deeply at odds.

The book is certainly timely. Plantinga informs his overarching argument with criticisms of a number of pressing claims pertinent to Christian thought including methodological naturalism and lawful divine interaction. In doing so, he makes suggestive appreciations of Intelligent Design, defends divine intervention – the claim that God intervenes in the natural world miraculously – and entices readers into considering how Christian com-munities might engage in science differently, “in the sense of engaging in empirical study unconstrained by methodological naturalism” (190). These views have caused many, such as philosopher Michael Ruse, to identify Plantinga’s claims as harmful to scientific inquiry, Christian or otherwise.2

We can gain a sense of the book’s methodology, creativity, and an appreciation of Ruse’s worry by considering Plantinga’s interpretive gloss on William Paley and Michael Behe’s design arguments. Plantinga claims that we immediately perceive design in complex systems: “The idea would be, therefore, that when you are on that walk with Paley and encounter a watch, you don’t make an inference to the thought that his object is designed; instead, upon examining the object, you form the belief in that immediate or basic way” (248; emphasis in original). Perceptual belief is unique from intellectual belief in that it is “basic,” bequeathedinitial warrant not refutable by evidence against premises, as there are no premises to refute. Instead, only “defeaters,” or sub-optimal belief-forming contexts, undercut basic belief. Memories of your breakfast are basic: they may be called into question upon discovering that you took psychotics instead of your morning vitamins. But trust your recall if someone begins offering evidence against your breakfast memories.

According to Plantinga, treating design as perceptual rather than evidential puts Paley and Behe’s design arguments on a better footing. For one, evidence from evolutionary biology cannot undercut perceived design. Two, arguing that belief-forming mechanisms are sub-optimal cannot undercut perceived design, as this is, given Plantinga’s overarching argument, a defeater for the claims of evolutionary biology themselves.

However, it seems unlikely to me that we perceive design as straightforwardly as all that. For one, all perceptual identification is partially indistinct. For instance, an expert entomologist’s identification of butterflies may enjoy high but not perfect accuracy. Why? Butterflies are difficult creatures to identify in their environment: poor lighting conditions, quick and chaotic flight patterns, not to mention mimicking species. However practiced a perceiver might be, immediate conditions interfere with belief-forming mechanisms, making the initial warrant of perceptual belief probable, not perfect.

Does Plantinga and Behe’s own perception of design in complex systems, such as the flagella of E. coli, enjoy full warrant? Is it not affected by the immediate conditions of the flagella’s minute size, novel structure, and unique operation? Ironically, the very complexity praised by Plantinga and Behe as cause for claiming perceived design might be the very thing that demands a lower initial probability to the accuracy of design identification.

The conditions for perceiving design are complex in another way: to be accurate, perceptual belief must be informed by background conditions. For instance, good entomologists will know the population statistics of the locality where they are identifying butterflies. If they identify a butterfly with high accuracy, their knowledge that such butterflies have rarely been found in that area lowers the probability of their identification. If the high probability of their identification’s initial warrant falls below reasonable acceptance because of these background conditions, they will have little reason to think that their initial identification is correct; the probability of their initial identification will be defeated.

Background conditions also apply to Plantinga and Behe’s perceived design of flagella. If Behe is a good evolutionary biologist, he will be informed of the existing background conditions of the success in accounting for numerous complex systems by way of the random physical processes involved in natural selection.3 So, when he inspects the flagella, his perceptual belief of design will be influenced by these background conditions and the probability of initial warrant will decrease, perhaps even below reasonable acceptance. Natural selection does seem to be a defeater, at least for the probability of perceived design.

Considering these background conditions also helps to understand why Ruse might find the claims of Plantinga and Behe so objectionable to scientific inquiry. Their analysis fails to acknowledge the past success of evolutionary biology in accounting for complex natural systems without design. Because of this, they promote a science that is not disposed to provide an account of the origin of complex systems that aligns with the strategies utilized for enjoying these past successes. This failure is also specific to Plantinga’s book, which does little in the way of engaging the numerous arguments against intelligent design that employ such examples.

However, Plantinga’s book has something incredibly powerful to add to the science and religion debate. Who needs flagella when you have the human mind and its diverse, numerous, and hopefully reliable cognitive systems? He is right to apply pressure here, for Christian belief is quite specific in its claim that the human mind is unique: designed imago Dei. Plantinga’s claim, that if we fail to accept imago Dei we fail to have a basis for the reliability of the mind’s faculties, has attracted immense attention and interest over several decades, and with this recent book such attention should continue.


  1. His argument first appeared in Warrant and Proper Function (New York: Oxford University Press 1993), chapter 12.
  2. For instance, see Ruse’s short article, “Alvin Plantinga and Intelligent Design,”The Chronicle of Higher Education (December 14, 2011);

  3. See some examples in chapter 5 of Kenneth Miller, Only a Theory (NY: Viking Penguin, 2008).

Brian Glenney

Norwich University
Brian Glenney is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Norwich University.