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.”  Elsewhere he adds, “for true science is reason and reality, and religion is essentially reality and pure reason; therefore, the two must correspond.” Each focuses on reality and employs the methods of reason. Ultimately “truth is one. . .”
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.
 (Abdu’l-Baha in London, p. 71)
 The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 107.
 Paris Talks, p. 145.