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

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

Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion and Naturalism

Part 2 of a review by Ian Kluge.

Editors Note: In part 1, Ian introduced Alvin Plantinga’s important new book as follows:

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)

Below, is the second half of Ian’s review:

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 that it exists? We can speculate, of course, but we can never acquire concrete specific evidence to make our speculations more than unscientific pipe-dreams.

Even worse, if we were to make contact with such a universe we would obviously share certain commonalities which means they would no longer be two completely different universes. This undercuts the basic premises of the many-universes argument. We are left with the bare fact that the only universe of which we actually have scientific knowledge shows a fine-tuning for life that is extremely difficult to explain in purely naturalistic terms – and is so mathematically improbable as to render it useless as a scientific explanation. Appealing to such odds is, in effect, on the same footing as appealing to God and miracles.

There is an example of Plantinga selling the theists short. He quotes but makes little use of molecular biologist James Shapiro’s statement that “there is “no detailed Darwinian accounts for the evolution of any fundamental biochemical or cellular system, only a variety of wishful speculation” (p. 258). If Shapiro is correct, there are no actual logical or scientific reasons to reject Behe’s “irreducible complexity.” Since there are no scientific reasons to give it up, the concept of “irreducible complexity” gains viability and credibility.

It is not hard to see why. The most obvious example of “irreducible complexity” is sitting in my driveway. Without all essential parts being simultaneously present in functional condition and in proper arrangement, the engine of my car cannot run and, therefore, would never be ‘selected’ to survive. Not only is there “no detailed Darwinian account” of how “irreducible complexity” arises in nature, there is none for something as relatively simple as my car. Indeed, the situation becomes more desperate for strict evolutionists when we observe obligate mutualism, in which at least two distinct species must be present and functional for either organism to survive. Examples of this are fungus and algae to produce lichens, and siboglinid tube worms and certain bacteria living around thermal vents in the oceans. Since neither can live without the other, we are required to imagine an entire cascade of random positive and perfectly adapted simultaneous mutations. As noted above, appealing to such odds is, in effect, not much different from appealing to God.

Plantinga also has a noteworthy answer to the supposed problem of God’s intervention in the cosmic processes. This difficulty is the problem of miracles, for as Hume noted in the 18th Century, divine intervention i.e. miracles requires God to break the very laws of nature He established. Therefore, God cannot guide evolution. Plantinga rejects this position for two reasons. In regards to classical physics, he notes that even though the laws of physics do not themselves postulate an isolated or closed universe, this assumption is a “metaphysical add-on” (p. 78). There is nothing in the laws themselves which necessitates causal closure. This “add-on” supposedly makes divine intervention impossible. The problem is that even today science does not know whether the universe is causally open or closed and so divine intervention cannot be absolutely ruled out. More importantly, any occasion on which God performs a miracle is an occasion when the universe is not causally closed; and the laws say nothing about what happens when the universe is not causally closed. (p. 82 – 83) Hume and his followers notwithstanding, divine intervention does not necessarily violate any natural laws and therefore, miracles are not prohibited by science.

According to Plantinga, “quantum mechanics offers even less of a problem for divine intervention than classical science” (p. 91) because QM works on probabilities, not strictly determinist laws. There is no absolutely necessary outcome, “only a distribution of probabilities across many possible outcomes” (p. 93). Given a quantum mechanical system, therefore, QM doesn’t say which configuration will in fact result from the initial conditions; instead we assign a spectrum of probabilities to possible outcomes (p. 93).

In other words, there is no physical reason why divine intervention, i.e. ‘miraculous’ effects, cannot occur since they are not categorically forbidden by QM. Plantinga admits that there is some controversy among Christian philosophers whether or not QM can explain such miracles as raising Lazarus from the dead, parting the Red Sea or walking on water. However, what counts or does not count as a miracle is a different question; what remains is the principle that divine intervention and miracles are not incompatible with scientific laws.

According to Plantinga, there is a “deep concord between theistic religion and science” (p. 265). He states, “Much of this alleged conflict is merely illusionary” (p. 265). In support he quotes the famous physicist (and philosopher) C.F. Von Weizsaecker: “I call modern science a legacy of Christianity” (p. 266). The reason is not hard to find. The medievals (above all Aquinas) insisted on “the rationality of God” (p. 265) as Whitehead writes, and since man is made in the image of God, man not only has an intellect by which he can understand nature but is impelled to do so in his quest for religious perfection. Aquinas, who gave this concept its best philosophical expression called it “the adequation of the intellect to reality” (p. 269). Not only are we able to understand reality but are required to do so in order to make use of the gifts (or “talents” in the Biblical allegory). Thus, religious faith, and Christianity in particular, created the attitudes needed to make science a necessary part of salvation, i.e. using one’s “talents” to know God’s creation. The book of revelation, the Bible, could be known by faith; the book of nature as it was called was knowable by careful study, i.e. induction and by reason.

Plantinga also notes the deep “concord” between theism and science insofar as the belief in “regularity, predictability and constancy” (p. 282) is common and necessary to both. Without faith in these three – even statistical order is still a calculable order – science is impossible. While naturalism cannot provide even the slightest suggestion as to the origin of these law, theism rooted them in God’s will, as physical expressions thereof, and thereby once again gave the study of nature a religious foundation and urgency. What he shows – and it would not be new to any graduate from a Catholic university even fifty years ago – is that science and religion are two flowers from the same plant and that their apparent conflict today is an aberration to be remedied. As Abdu’l-Baha says,

Religion and Science are intertwined with each other and cannot be separated. These are the two wings with which humanity must fly. One wing is not enough. [4]

He makes the reasons clear:

Should a man try to fly with the wing of religion alone he would quickly fall into the quagmire of superstition, whilst on the other hand, with the wing of science alone he would also make no progress, but fall into the despairing slough of materialism. [5]

This materialism has many aspects. One is ontological, which denies the existence of the soul, objective values, meaning and purpose. Another is sociological, reducing human beings to consumption machines and sexual robots. A third is scientific, which reduces humans to electro-chemical machines whose deepest thoughts and intuitions are no more than blips in a fMRI machine. Few people would actually consider this an adequate view of human nature.

Where the Conflict Really takes several important steps down the road to discovering the foundational unity of science and religion.

  • The first step is modeling the cool-headed analysis of concepts that is necessary if the debates between science and religion are to achieve progress in understanding. The debate must avoid provocative rhetoric and emotional appeals in order to remain rational, analytical and focused on carefully defined issues.
  • The second step is careful distinction between naturalism and science – a distinction that has far-flung consequences that may even have applications in sciences other than evolutionary biology.
  • The third step is Plantinga’s defense of divine intervention within the laws of classical and quantum physics.
  • The fourth and final step is his revival of the Thomistic argument that science and religion share the same intellectual roots.

Where the Conflict Lies will challenge some readers, but it is well-worth the effort needed to understand it.


[4] Abdu’l-Baha, Abdu’l-Baha in London, p. 28.

[5] Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 143.

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6 thoughts on “Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion and Naturalism Part Two

  1. Ian, I love the piece. With one exception – see below – I think you’ve got it totally nailed. In particular, your comments on multiple universes are very cogent and dead on. I also agree with your assessment of Plantinga – the guy knows what he is doing.

    The exception is irreducible complexity.

    I think all the available evidence points in a different direction than you suggest. I’ve seen no convincing scientific, theological, philosophical, logical or technical reasons that give it any viability or creditability at all. And there are more than ample reasons – from the same scientific, theological, philosophical, logical or technical sources – that suggest that it is simply wrong.

    In particular, no capable scientists who are believers endorse the concept, and the biologists among them are among those who testified against irreducible complexity as justification for intelligent design of the creationist type at the Dover trial several years ago. And, from a Baha’i viewpoint, I think it is indefensible. Nor does Plantinga endorse it.

    I’ve noticed that irreducible complexity gets mixed up with argument about intelligent design. Some arguments about intelligent design are simply creationism in disguise, but some are part and parcel of thinking about how God created the universe. So it is possible to get arguments about irreducible complexity – which basically are arguments to the effect that after God created the universe He had to do some tinkering (miracles, that sort of thing) to fix what didn’t work right the first time – mixed up with arguments about God’s role in creation.

    The example of “irreducible complexity” sitting in the front end of your car? It is trivially explained away. If anything, its a superb example of why irreducible complexity idea is so wrong. I’ll address it later.

    Now that I’ve whetted your appetite, let me apologize for not saying more. But I promise to write in more detail when I’m not at work.

    Warmly, Stephen

    1. Thank you for the kudos – but I disagree about irreducible complexity (IC), especially from a philosophical perspective.

      I’d like to address the mousetrap example that allegedly shows Behe’s error. Miller claims to show how removal of one of the 5 parts of a mousetrap can set-up a spit-ball throwing machine. This argument is obviously untenable. Indeed, he inadvertently proves Behe’s point because the removal of one piece puts an end to the mousetrap. The 5 piece mousetrap is irreducibly complex. When a part is removed, it might become something else, but whatever it is, it isn’t a the basic 5 piece mousetrap. If what you need is a mousetrap, getting a spit-ball throwing machine is useless. It does not serve your needs – and therefore is irrelevant. Miller proves Behe’s point exactly.

      Furthermore, Miller illustrates how intentional interference/influence is needed to create a new whole, i.e. the spit-ball throwing machine which is made by an intentional being (man) who imposes his intentions on the arrangement of parts. Miller’s interference inadvertently proves the need for some kind of external intentional intervention /influence (theologically, God) . The same argument applies to a lot of examples of supposedly self-organizing matter.

      Miller, of course, might argue that he only wanted to show we could make something else out of the original mousetrap. But ‘something else’ isn’t Behe’s point. Something else – e.g. a light sensitive spot – won’t do for an eye either . . . and if it won’t fulfill the needs for an eye, it is difficult to see why it should evolve in that direction.

      BTW, I think much of the resistance to IC in the scientific community is because it has been taken up by groups like young earth creationism etc. However, that’s a political issue that should not affect a scientific debate.

      I think Kant has an important contribution here. According to him, “we cannot conceive how a whole that comes into being only gradually from its parts can nevertheless be the cause of the properties of those parts.” (Cambridge Companion to Kant, 22) In short, the parts will not become parts-of-a-whole in a bottom-up construction of entities that have a purpose. There is no bottom-up – let alone random bottom-up creation for entities that have purpose. This, of course, brings up the dreaded word ‘purpose’ and the concept of intelligent design – which the Baha’i Writings clearly support:

      “This composition and arrangement through the **wisdom** [intelligence] of God and His pre-existent might, were produced from one natural organization, which was composed and combined with the greatest strength, ****conformably to wisdom,**** [design] and according to a universal law. From this it is evident that it is the creation of God, and is ***not a fortuitous composition and arrangement****” Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, p. 181.)

      1. Hi Ian:

        Ahh, finally, some good discussion with very intelligent and knowledgeable people I really like and respect! I really want this blog to be a place for this kind of serious discussion!

        In a post to Koinotely (on my latest blog) I drew a careful distinction between intelligent design as a broad philosophical perspective completely compatible with the Baha’i Faith and Michael Behe’s irreducible complexity perspective which attempts to deny the validity of natural processes as a means to generate life and things like that.

        I think you are trying to support the former position – which is entirely valid – by the latter position, which is not science.

        For the mouse trap, the issue is not whether it was a mouse trap before it was a mouse trap – which is the point I see you arguing. Obviously it wasn’t. Rather, the issue is whether the component parts could exist independently previous to the mousetrap and then be assembled into a mousetrap. Obviously they could and they can.

        And that is related to what Behe is trying to argue. Are there things that are irreducibly complex that could not have come into existence by the combination of pre-existing pieces. In other words, do certain things spring miraculously and full-blown into existence without any history of the emergence of the various parts that combine to make the new functionality? This is irreducible complexity.

        Obviously, for the mouse trap and your car engine, there is a fully traceable history that shows how the various component parts could have come into being. These are NOT irreducibly complex.

        What physics say, very much in keeping with its Platonic heritage, is that the design – the intelligent design – is there in the laws of nature. When the parts come together, the functionality built into those laws becomes physically manifest.

        What Behe is trying to say is very closely related to the idea that man is animal because some of his parts come from animals. Behe is trying to say no, this idea that the historical path is the source of the new functionality is wrong. Rather, God created this new functionality by miraculous intervention. The Baha’i Faith says that the new functionality – say the reality of man – was there from the beginning – and it finally became physically manifest. And this is very compatible with science. Behe’s idea is not.

    2. Precisely because it wasn’t a mousetrap before it was a mousetrap, the mousetrap is irreducibly complex. It needs all its parts i.e. its essential attributes – to be what it is. No addition except the right one can make it a mousetrap. That’s what makes it irreducible. Behe’s IC is a biologized counterpart to the concept of “essence” which are also unchangeable. (more below)

      However, you are are arguing that the parts of the mousetrap can pre-exist the mousetrap and then come together to form a mousetrap. I’m not sure what this can mean. If the mousetrap does not yet exist, those parts are not parts of a mousetrap. They are just random things. And why would they join up to form a mousetrap if they are only random pieces? One piece of a mousetrap or a third or half of a mousetrap gives no advantage in catching mice and hence there is no evolutionary ‘pressure’ in that direction. To say they somehow assembled themselves into a mousetrap when there was no evolutionary pressure for them to do so is no less an appeal to miracles than to say the mousetrap sprang full-blown into existence instantly.

      (Indeed, suggesting that these random pieces assembled themselves into a mousetrap opens the door to intentionality and teleological (formal and final) causation – something which is endorsed by the Writings but anathema to science.)

      The mousetrap and car engine do indeed have a traceable history – but these parts were intentionally made because there was already a design (formal and final cause) in mind **before** they were made. This traceable history per se did not shape the parts as parts-of-a-whole – as evolutionists must claim it did. There was no whole for them to be parts of.

      With organic entities, the problem becomes even more acute. Would anyone argue that there were separately developed eustachian tubes that suddenly joined together with auditory nerves and brains in a human head to form an auditory system?

      This brings us back to Kant whose position is summarized neatly by Guyer: “we cannot conceive how a whole that comes into being only gradually from its parts can nevertheless be the cause of the properties of those parts” This is the nub of the problem. Without the whole, the parts aren’t parts of a whole, i.e. just random things; they become parts of a whole by being incorporated into a whole. The existence of the whole is what influences their formation to become part of the whole.But if the whole is not there, there is no such influence and hence they are not parts. Why then would they join together?

      The Writings help us understand Behe from a philosophical perspective. Abdu’l-Baha (Some Answered Questions, 280) says there are four causes for “the existence of everything”: material, efficient, formal and final. As I wrote in one my earlier papers, science limits explanations to material and efficient causes – but this is not adequate. Behe’s IC entails formal and final causes which refer to the essence of things which are irreducibly complex.

      According to the Writings, the essence of a thing i.e. its formal and final cause is actualized in time through the material and efficient causes. In other words, the material and efficient causes only express the IC of the thing’s formal and material cause in the external world. The formal and final causes, however, are irreducibly complex – they are what they are or they are something else.

  2. Ian,

    I laud your mention of irreducible complexity.

    Stephen,

    I think just because a topic such as “intelligent design” has been turned into a political issue, doesn’t warrant dismissing it so readily on that account. Developments in computer science are increasingly supportive of the role of specific complexity, however lack of interdisciplinary knowledge among many biologists has hindered a full investigation.

    1. “Specified complexity amounts to a relationship between three attributes: contingency, complexity and specification. Contingency corresponds to freedom and variety (as when there are many distinct possibilities that may be selectively actualized), complexity corresponds to improbability, and specification corresponds to the existence of a meaningful pattern which, in conjunction with the other two attributes in sufficient measure, indicates an application of intelligence. Wherever all three of these attributes are coinstantiated, specified complexity is present.”
      http://www.megafoundation.org/CTMU/Articles/Cheating_the_Millennium-final.pdf

      “In acknowledging that “there is some considerable evidence that the notion of irreducible complexity does not completely (or even necessarily partly) exclude all evolutionary ideas,” RBH invokes certain results in the field of genetic programming. Although I agree with RBH’s basic assertion regarding the compatibility of IC and evolution, and even that computational simulations may support it in certain computational contexts, genetic programmers currently lack any coherent mapping from computational to naturalistic contexts. Thus, they are severely limited in the extent to which they can present any computational simulation as “evidence” of anything in the natural world (and I’m talking about a deeper level of correspondence than that discussed in recent criticisms of Lenski’s work).

      To realize the evidentiary value of such a simulation, one would need at least a minimal computational model of nature … e.g. the CAMU (Cellular Automaton Model of the Universe), which attempts to map some part of nature into a metaphysical cellular automaton. If, on the other hand, one prefers a self-contained language-based computational model, as is suggested by any likening of organisms to assembly language programs, then one is driven toward SCSPL and thus toward the CTMU. The CTMU follows from the fact that any comprehensive description of nature must account for the generation of computational syntax along with mere syntactic content, and must thus portray nature as telic and protocomputational rather than merely computational in essence. Nature has the capacity to self-generate and regenerate, whereas computational automata and even computation theory do not. This militates against the notion that nature is fully analogous to standard computation theory.

      In other words, the reason that the Cellular Automaton Model and other so-called “computational models of reality” fail as models of evolution is that they cannot account for the evolution of computation itself, the array or machine or circuit in which computation occurs, or even the relationship between the array and its contents. This leads naturally to the topic of manifolds. A cellular array is a discrete manifold in which neighboring cells are separated and connected by boundaries. In language theory, the concept of a cellular array corresponds to structural syntax, but the correspondence breaks down where the grammatical or generative part of syntax requires more of a setting than a mere discrete manifold can provide. Similar objections apply to any manifold in which discrete fitness landscapes are regarded as “points”.

      Thus, when RBH concludes that “a fair amount of the incredulity over what evolutionary processes can accomplish in unguided (by intelligence) selective contexts derives from a failure to appreciate the complexity (in the ordinary language sense) of the topographies of high-dimensioned natural fitness landscapes and the consequent availablity of multiple different pathways on those landscapes,” it is important to remember that there is more to a model of nature than any mere fitness landscape or manifold thereof can provide (regardless of dimensionality). Obviously, the properties of such landscapes can ultimately explain nothing without an explanation for the existence of fitness landscapes themselves.”
      http://www.iscid.org/ubbcgi/ultimatebb.cgi?ubb=print_topic;f=6;t=000401

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