Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion and Naturalism (Part #1)

Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion and Naturalism (Part #1)

Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion and Naturalism

Part 1 of a review by Ian Kluge

For almost two decades now, we have witnessed a spirited, at times acrimonious debate between the defenders of science who are generally new atheists and the defenders of religion who are usually, but not always, Christian. While some participants may seek a final knock-out punch for one side or the other, a smaller group strives to find ways of actualizing the Baha’i doctrine of the essential harmony between science and religion. In the words of Abdu’l-Baha, “Science and Religion should go forward together; indeed, they should be like two fingers of one hand.” [1] Elsewhere he adds, “for true science is reason and reality, and religion is essentially reality and pure reason; therefore, the two must correspond.”[2] Each focuses on reality and employs the methods of reason. Ultimately “truth is one. . .”[3]

It follows from this that any apparent conflict between science and religion is either a misunderstanding of science or religion or both. In his new book, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion and Naturalism, Alvin Plantinga shows how misunderstandings about science have led to what are in reality pseudo-conflicts. He aims to show that “there is no [serious] conflict between Christian belief and science . . . [and that] there is conflict between naturalism and science.” (p. xii) In addition, he strives to show that while there may be some superficial differences between religion and science, there are deep and irresolvable conflicts between science and naturalism. According to him, the real clash is between religion and “a philosophical gloss or add-on to the scientific doctrine of evolution: the claim that evolution is undirected, unguided, unorchestrated by God (or anyone else.” (p.xii) As if this weren’t enough, Plantinga also shows that, contrary to Humean dogma, miracles can be explained scientifically without violating any classic or quantum laws of nature. Finally, he introduces the concept of “design discourse” as an interpretation of Paley’s and others writings about design.

In the pursuit of his goals, Plantinga shows why he is a rarity – a philosopher with religious commitments who is highly regarded even by non-believing philosophers especially in epistemology and metaphysics. His analysis of “warranted” belief, his solution to the problem of evil and an omnipotent and morally good God, and his reworking of modal metaphysics have spread his influence well beyond the confines of Christian-oriented religious philosophy. He and several others such as William Lane Craig (whom Dawkins assiduously avoids debating) and biophysicist/theologian Alister McGrath demonstrate that thinkers working within a religious tradition can be formidable and important philosophers beyond the borders of their personal faith. Both prove that Sam Harris notwithstanding, the end of (rational) faith has not yet arrived.

Where the Conflict Really Lies begins with a discussion of “evolution and Christian belief” (3) in which Plantinga argues that Christian belief is not incompatible with evolution per se, but is irreconcilable with the concept of “unguided,” (p. 12), undirected and, thereby, totally random evolution. Nature, as the Baha’i Writings say, is “not a fortuitous composition and arrangement.” (Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, p.181). However, Plantinga is not content to play a defensive game against the proponents of unguided evolution. He directly challenges their view by asking, “How does the [physical] evidence of evolution reveal such a thing?” (p.14). A moment’s reflection leads us to a series of question that undermine their views. What experiments could we perform to prove that evolution is purely fortuitous? No such experiment can be conceived even in principle, let alone carried out. How could one even formulate the specific testable hypothesis for this question? And even if we could, will the answer to such experiments be scientific, i.e. physical, quantifiable, repeatable or falsifiable? The obvious negative answers support Plantinga’s central contention that the apparent conflict between religion and science is caused by the ideological “add-on” (p. 79) of “unguided” evolution which is not a necessary part of belief in evolution. This add-on can be rejected without rejecting evolution per se.

Ironically, this leads to the conclusion that “naturalism is in conflict with evolution” (p. 310) because we cannot accept both at the same time. Science is empirical, i.e. it limits itself to the evidence it possesses and which meets the standard of being physical, quantifiable, predictable, objective and falsifiable. The problem is that the naturalist “add-on” of unguided evolution cannot meet any of those four criteria. Consequently, naturalism is not scientific, indeed, it “serve[s] of the main functions of a religion: it offers a master narrative, it answers deep and important human questions” (p. 311). With this observation, Plantinga makes good on his promise to show how empirical science and naturalism are in serious logical conflict – which has enormous implication insofar as it allows us to exclude naturalist interpretations from discussions about the unity of science and religion.

This is a vital point because it undercuts any argument that the Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Baha’i –necessarily reject evolution. And by extension, are intrinsically hostile to science. Some interpretations of these faiths may harbor negative attitudes towards science but it is not a matter of inherent necessity. In fairness, of course, it must be noted that the Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin was making this point in his 1955 book, The Phenomenon of Man in which he shows how material and spiritual evolution are part of the same cosmic process.

Plantinga’s position raises several important supplementary issues. First, is there any quantifiable, physical and falsifiable evidence that creation is ordered, i.e. guided, or, or fine-tuned? Plantinga gives his most interesting answer in regards to fine-tuning which claims that Paley’s purpose is not to present a logically rigorous argument for design but to present a description to help us perceive the reality of design directly and without any need for argumentation. He calls this “design discourse” (p. 225); “it is perception . . . rather than argument that is involved” (p. 237). Consequently, the various scientific critiques of Paley’s book are beside the point. No one disputes the examples of (apparent) order; rather, the dispute is about how the (apparent) order is ‘seen’ or understood. That is a tougher nut to crack, especially given that the concept of unguided evolution by random mutation has been shown to be an unscientific philosophical “add-on.” Proving the illegitimacy of an inherently rational perception warranted by observational evidence is not an easy task. Plantinga applies the same argument to Michael Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box and The Edge of Evolution. According to Plantinga, Paley and Behe “present us with epistemic situations in which the rational response is design belief” (p. 264). This does not prove there is design in a logically necessary way, but it does show that in light of the evidence, the perception of design is not irrational. Consequently, belief in design cannot be swept aside as a product of irrational religious faith.

This is no small feat in today’s heated intellectual climate – and Plantinga deserves credit for it – but we must also admit that it is a minimalist argument: we can’t prove design but we can show why it is not irrational to believe in it. It’s a good place to come from but I wouldn’t want to stay there. For this reason I think Plantinga sells Behe and Paley short on this issue. For example, he fails to press his advantage against the many-universes argument by pointing out that the many-worlds argument is not only unproven but also inherently unprovable. How could we use the laws of our universe – the only universe about which we can know any laws – to prove either theoretically or experimentally that a universe with completely different laws is possible let alone exists? We can speculate, of course, but we can never acquire concrete specific evidence to make our speculations more than unscientific pipe-dreams.

This is the first of two parts. The 2nd part will be posted next week.

[1] (Abdu’l-Baha in London, p. 71)

[2] The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 107.

[3] Paris Talks, p. 145.

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16 thoughts on “Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion and Naturalism (Part #1)

  1. As I understand it religion and science are different disciplines that approach problems from different prespectives.Religion looks at realities with the eye of faith, and accepts findings without objective evidence, whereas science looks at propositions and seeks out objective evidence to prove their veracity. It seems that the lines are sometimes blurred, and if the two diisclipines accepted the same ground rules, that they could speak the same language,and work to solve problems together. Perhaps if they approached subjects like ‘Meditation’, ‘Inspiration’ ‘Faith’ and ‘Intersessionary prayer’ and sought common ground in examining these topics. I believe that faith and reason are compatible, though Bahai topics liike ‘Women on the UHJ’ are beyond our comprehension at the moment, and sound like sheer preduice, the answers will become apparent in time, as the quesstion of the Guardianship did eighty years ago

    1. I wish to address the claim that religion is from the perspective of faith, and science from empiricism. Unfortunately, IMO, matters are not as simple as you suggest. Not all religion rely totally on faith – although I know that *some* branches of Protestant Christianity do. Baha’i and the Catholic Church espouse what is called “moderate rationalism” which says that some things can be known by reason and some cannot and it is important to distinguish the two. The philosophy of St Thomas Aquinas – still the quasi-official philosopher of the Church – or any medieval philosophy or today’s neo-Thomists will quickly reveal how important rationalism is in Catholic theology. The Baha’i Writings put it very succinctly: “The foundations of religion are reasonable.” Elsewhere Abdu’l-Baha says, “religion is “founded upon the premises and conclusions of reason, and both (religion and science) must bear its [reason’s] test.” (If you wish, I can send you a copy of my forthcoming paper, “Reason and the Baha’i Writings” 50 pages)

      It follows from the above that the alleged dichotomy of reason and faith is not the decisive difference between religion and science. Moreover. science and religion are both based on reason and faith. Science espouses the view that only things that are quantifiable, measurable, repeatably testable and falsifiable are true objects of scientific knowledge and real. This assumption cannot be proven by experiment, by observation in nature or by rational argument. It is simply a matter of faith without decisive evidence. But this does not reduce science to non-rational faith anymore than the opposite assumption by religion – there is more to reality than the proper objects of scientific study – reduces religion to non-rational faith. Anyone who thinks it does should spend some time with Nagarjuna’s “Verses from the Center.”

      According to the Bahai Writings, the human soul is intrinsically rational, indeed it is called the “rational soul.” Shoghi Effendi even refers to the “rational God” – which strongly suggests that God’s creation i.e. nature/reality – is rational. Science and religion have their roots in rationality. And that is where they must be reconciled.

      IMO, this reconciliation will take the form of complementarity or the polarity theory of the Giovanni Guardini whose ground-breaking book – “Der Gegensatz” or “Polarities” has not yet been translated from German into English. Polarities are like the north and south poles of a magnet: they are opposites but cannot exist without one another and define one another. Right and wrong are polarities; as soon as we have one, we also have the other and each helps define the other. Together they form a unified whole. Ibid. re religion and science.

    2. Faith is actually about integrity, not belief, it’s about the correspondence and consistency between top-down inward analytic deductive thought and bottom-up outward synthetic inductive action, I think eventually the concepts of syndiffeonesis, conspansive duality and multiplex unity will eventually provide some interesting new context for understanding some concepts found in Baha’i writings.

      “The Day Star of Truth that shineth in its meridian splendor beareth Us witness! They who are the people of God have no ambition except to revive the world, to ennoble its life, and regenerate its peoples. Truthfulness and good-will have, at all times, marked their relations with all men. Their outward conduct is but a reflection of their inward life, and their inward life a mirror of their outward conduct. No veil hideth or obscureth the verities on which their Faith is established. Before the eyes of all men these verities have been laid bare, and can be unmistakably recognized. Their very acts attest the truth of these words.” – Baha’u’llah

      ““By faith is meant, first, conscious knowledge, and second, the practice of good deeds.”
      – ‘Abdu’l Baha

      This was one of the quotes which, as a friend put it, “rocked my world” when I first heard it. Too often do we talk about faith as something opposed to knowledge and science, as involving blind trust in something one can never prove, and as a pursuit both illogical and impractical. This quote, on the other hand, presents a very different concept of faith, my understanding of which I will try and elaborate on here.”

      “O Pen of the Most High! Recount unto him who hath turned unto Thy Lord, the All-Glorious, that which shall enable him to dispense with the sayings of men. Say: Spirit, mind, soul, and the powers of sight and hearing are but one single reality which hath manifold expressions owing to the diversity of its instruments. As thou dost observe, man’s power to comprehend, move, speak, hear, and see all derive from this sign of his Lord within him. It is single in its essence, yet manifold through the diversity of its instruments. This, verily, is a certain truth. For example, 155 if it directeth its attention to the means of hearing, then hearing and its attributes become manifest. Likewise, if it directeth itself to the means of vision, a different effect and attribute appear. Reflect upon this subject that thou mayest comprehend the true meaning of what hath been intended, find thyself independent of the sayings of the people, and be of them that are well assured. In like manner, when this sign of God turneth towards the brain, the head, and such means, the powers of the mind and the soul are manifested. Thy Lord, verily, is potent to do whatsoever He pleaseth.”

      “The operation of combining language, universe, and model to create a perfectly self-contained metalanguage results in SCSPL, short for Self-Configuring Self-Processing Language. This language is “self-similar” in the sense that it is generated within a formal identity to which every part of it is mapped as content; its initial form, or grammatical “start symbol”, everywhere describes it on all scales. My use of grammatical terminology is intentional; in the CTMU, the conventional notion of physical causality is superseded by “telic causation”, which resembles generative grammar and approaches teleology as a natural limit. In telic causation, ordinary events are predicated on the generation of closed causal loops distributing over time and space. This loop-structure reflects the fact that time, and the spatial expansion of the cosmos as a function of time, flow in both directions – forward and backward, outward and inward – in a dual formulation of causality characterizing a new conceptualization of nature embodied in a new kind of medium or “manifold”.”

      “The animal spirit is the power of all the senses, which is realized from the composition and mingling of elements; when this composition decomposes, the power also perishes and becomes annihilated. It may be likened to this lamp: when the oil, wick, and fire are combined it is lighted, and when this combination is dissolved, that is to say, when the combined parts are separated from one another, the lamp also is extinguished.

      The human spirit which distinguishes man from the animal is the rational soul; and these two names—the human spirit and the rational soul—designate one thing. This spirit, which in the terminology of the philosophers is the rational soul, embraces all beings, and as far as human ability permits discovers the realities of things and becomes cognizant of their peculiarities and effects, and of the qualities and properties of beings. But the human spirit, unless assisted by the spirit of faith, does not become acquainted with the divine secrets and the heavenly realities. It is like a mirror which, although clear, polished, and brilliant, is still in need of light. Until a ray of the sun reflects upon it, it cannot discover the heavenly secrets.

      Man has also spiritual powers: imagination, which conceives things; thought, which reflects upon realities; comprehension, which comprehends realities, memory, which retains whatever man imagines, thinks, and comprehends. The intermediary between the five outward powers and the inward powers, is the sense which they possess in common, that is to say, the sense which acts between the outer and inner powers, conveys to the inward powers 318 whatever the outer powers discern. It is termed the common faculty, because it communicates between the outward and inward powers, and thus is common to the outward and inward powers.” – Abdu’l-Baha

      1. Why does there need to be a binary, either / or meaning when it comes to faith?

        Faith is about both belief and integrity. Specifically, it deals with the integrity with which one carries out one’s beliefs. Or, as Abdu’l-Baha noted, it is about knowledge, volition and action. That is, true faith reveals itself in action.

        1. I was raised Christian, and was taught that belief was synonymous with faith. After a while I felt this was that belief was not the point, it was something about how the inward and outward are connected, I think the concept of integrity includes belief, as in the coherence theory of truth.

          If knowledge is justified true belief as Plato once said, and faith involves a kind of knowledge, then belief is part of faith, but it’s not in my opinion the point of faith to believe in something without proof, from my experience I think it’s largely about being honest with what we know and how we act with that knowledge, rather than expecting others to believe like we do, as if that is the most important factor in being faithful to someone or something.

        2. I agree that “true faith reveals itself in action.” However, we must remember that knowledge conditions action; what we do and how we do it is shaped/conditioned by what we know about reality, as well as our interpretations – beliefs- about reality.

          Action grows out of knowledge – which is why Abdu’l-Baha puts knowledge first, i.e. prior to action, “good deeds.” Indeed, Abdu’l-Baha notes that actions done with good will but without knowledge can be very dangerous, e.g. trying to help an injured person.

          Abdu’l-Baha does not mention integrity in his definition of faith and there is a reason for this: evil doers can have perfect integrity and sincerity in their actions. Integrity is not necessarily a sign of goodness or even rightness. Rightness must be come from knowledge, i.e. the primacy of knowledge, even in faith.

          1. Integrity, sure, but with respect to what? People who think and do evil only have integrity within a limited scope, in the context of the whole they are in fact compromising the integrity of higher-order constraints. The concept of integrity is closely related to “unity in diversity” and the “dual process of consolidation and expansion” is but on example of how the integrity of a faith may be maintained. This is actually a general principle which to some extent can only be inferred through combinig sources within the Baha’i writings, even if it isn’t explicitly mentioned, it’s role is one of maintaining cohesion and consistency between multiplicity of states and unity of laws, there is a feedback between thoughts and actions, but it does begin with thought, and the conditioning and mirroring between inward expansion/consolidation and outward expansion/consolidation may offer some insight into how the deductive “science” and inductive “faith” can be complementary and mutually supporting each other.

            “Bahá’u’lláh’s incarceration in the prison-fortress of ‘Akká, the manifold tribulations He endured, the prolonged ordeal to which the community of His followers in Persia was being subjected, did not arrest, nor could they even impede, to the slightest degree, the mighty stream of Divine Revelation, which, without interruption, had been flowing from His pen, and on which the future orientation, the integrity, the expansion and the consolidation of His Faith directly depended.”

  2. There is a nice take on the Baha’i view of science and religion at http://info.bahai.org/article-1-3-2-18.html. The Baha’i teachings:

    … stress the fundamental harmony of science and religion. This view derives from the belief that truth (or reality) is one. For if truth is indeed one, it is not possible for something to be scientifically false and religiously true.

    So there is very much an overlap between the two domains. The source of authority, I would agree, is different. Again, the Baha’i website cited above:

    The truths of science are thus discovered truths. The truths of prophetic religion are revealed truths, i.e., truths which God has shown to us without our having to discover them for ourselves. Bahá’ís consider that it is the same unique God who is both the Author of revelation and the Creator of the reality which science investigates, and hence there can be no contradiction between the two.

    But, to understand and apply these truths is basically the same process. To understand the world and to understand what certain deep physical laws mean is very similar – if not the same – as understanding the revealed Word of God. Both require the same rigor, the same willingness to escape from preconceptions, and the same willingness to apply the principles so as to get empirical results.

    Now, agreed, your description – “Religion looks at realities with the eye of faith, and accepts findings without objective evidence, whereas science looks at propositions and seeks out objective evidence to prove their veracity.” – is a more accurate picture of the present state of affairs. But it is not an acceptable state of affairs from the Baha’i point of view. Nor was it true in the peak periods of religious/science agreement in the past.

    1. I would rather say that over the centuries, rationalism has played a larger and larger role. religion. Both Hinduism and Buddhism have a strong and influential tradition of rational philosophy, and this becomes even more pronounced in medieval Catholicism. It is also strong in Islam and Judaism. The role of rational reflection has increased in religion while in our age, irrationalism in the guise of postmodernism, has made a strong comeback through the trickledown from the ivory towers.

      We should not confuse the absolute faith based approach of *some* Protestant denominations (Luther: saved by faith alone) with the the attitudes and legacy of Christianity as a whole. 66% of the world’s Christians are Catholics brought up with the principles of moderate rationalism.

  3. “Feser notes that, unlike many contemporary scientists like Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne, Heisenberg was philosophically literate, and he understood that classical philosophical notions are essential for an understanding of nature. Heisenberg saw that the “strangeness” of quantum mechanics was merely strange to the modern mind; classical Aristotelian notions such as act (the actual manifestation of a property) and potency (the potential, but not actual, manifestation of a property) anticipated many of the seemingly counterintuitive findings of quantum mechanics.”

    “The forms assumed by the human embryo in its successive changes do not prove that it is animal in its essential character… Realizing this we may acknowledge the fact that at one time man was an inmate of the sea, at another period an invertebrate, then a vertebrate and finally a human being standing erect. Though we admit these changes, we cannot say man is an animal… Proof of this lies in the fact that in the embryo man still resembles a worm. This embryo still progresses from one state to another, assuming different forms until that which was potential in it – namely, the human image – appears.(21)” ~ Abdu’l-Baha

    1. You are quite right about Heisenberg. From my paper, “Reason and the Baha’i Writings”:

      “The work of Werner Heisenberg, one the original inventors of quantum theory, supports Omnes project, saying, “the mathematical scheme of quantum theory can be interpreted as an extension of modification of classical logic.” Indeed, Heisenberg endorsed the Aristotelian concepts of act and potency in his understanding of the quantum world. For him, the superposition of a particle refers to its potentials for actualization; for potentials – even opposite potentials to exist simultaneously does not violate standard logic. Heisenberg’s view that quantum theory is an “extension” of classical logic means that like Newtonian physics, standard logic is valid within its own sphere, i.e. the macro-world, which means that there is no inherent conflict with quantum physics not even in the Copenhagen interpretation. Standard logic is the appropriate logic for the macro-world which is why Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá make use of it.”

      We do not live in a bifurcated universe.

      Roland Omnes is a French mathematical physicists who has done pioneering work in reconciling standard logic with quantum logic. His book “Quantum Philosophy” is well worth it.

      “The probability wave of Bohr, Kramers, Slater… was a quantitative version of the old concept of “potentia” in Aristotelian philosophy.” (Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy, p. 15.)

  4. This book is a long-awaited major statement by a pre-eminent analytic philosopher, Alvin Plantinga, on one of our biggest debates — the compatibility of science and religion. The last twenty years has seen a cottage industry of books on this divide, but with little consensus emerging. Plantinga, as a top philosopher but also a proponent of the rationality of religious belief, has a unique contribution to make. His theme in this short book is that the conflict between science and theistic religion is actually superficial, and that at a deeper level they are in concord. Plantinga examines where this conflict is supposed to exist — evolution, evolutionary psychology, analysis of scripture, scientific study of religion — as well as claims by Dan Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Philip Kitcher that evolution and theistic belief cannot co-exist. Plantinga makes a case that their arguments are not only inconclusive but that the supposed conflicts themselves are superficial, due to the methodological naturalism used by science. On the other hand, science can actually offer support to theistic doctrines, and Plantinga uses the notion of biological and cosmological “fine-tuning” in support of this idea. Plantinga argues that we might think about arguments in science and religion in a new way — as different forms of discourse that try to persuade people to look at questions from a perspective such that they can see that something is true. In this way, there is a deep and massive consonance between theism and the scientific enterprise.

  5. This is a fair overview of Plantinga’s book but I can’t help wishing it was more detailed at least in one or two areas, especially the last point about religion and science being “different forms of discourse” trying to induce insight and/or understanding. This can be interpreted in many ways, at least one of them dangerous in my estimation. If we assume that both science and religion are ‘simply’ techniques for inducing ‘insight’ or ‘understanding,’ we can easily go too far and forget their purpose is to discover truth about the physical universe and human ontology. This is what happened in postmodernism in general and Feyerabend in particular. In the end, astrology and astro-physics were one. IMO, this is not the kind of harmony of science and religion the Baha’i Writings advocate.

    Personally, I have not yet seen a better explanation of their harmony than the one based on the Baha’i view of causality (Some Answered Questions 280) . Science studies the material and efficient causes and religion (and philosophy) study the formal and the final causes.

  6. The term Hinduism also occurs sporadically in Sanskrit texts such as the later Rajataranginis of Kashmir (Hinduka, c. 1450), some 16th-18th century Bengali Gaudiya Vaishnava texts, including Chaitanya Charitamrita and Chaitanya Bhagavata, usually to contrast Hindus with Yavanas or Mlecchas…,:’


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  7. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Relationship_between_religion_and_science

    Wikipedia has a nice article on all the complexities if this subject. It includes the four possible relationships religion and science can have to each other.

    The complex relationship between scientific theories and religious doctrines is that religion and science are big universal categories. The problem is not conflict between the universal categories but rather particular subsets thereof.

    What scientific theories are controversial depends on what religion people compare science to. Religions have a variety of positions when it comes to Divinity, Incarnation, Origin of the Universe/Life, After Death, Evil, Undeserved Suffering, Savation, Contemporay Issues, etc. For example, Belief Bet has profile pages on 20-30 religious groups that involve listing the beliefs or ranges of beliefs within a religious group on any of the given topics, which all have scientific implications.

    It’s a paradox that any and all scientific theories will both be in harmony with religion and in conflict with religion. The paradox is resolved because the words religion and science leand to viewing religion and science as being homogenous rather than heterogenous.

    It would be more accurate to ask these questions, What religious doctrines does any given scientific theory confirm or falsify? What scientific theories does any given religious doctrine confirm or falsify? The issue is that any religious doctrine and any scientific theory will make winners and losers among religious doctrines and scientific theories. The conflict, if any, isn’t between religion and science, but rather between specific doctrines and theories.

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