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Alvin Plantinga Can’t Say That, Can He? A Review of Where the Conflict Really Lies (2016)

 Review: Alvin Plantinga. 2011. Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. xvi+376 pp.

     Behe and Intelligent Design
     “Deep Concord”
Playing Defense
     Evolutionary Origin for Religion?
     Scripture Scholarship
     Divine Action
The Frontal Assault on Naturalism
     Material Things Can’t Think
     The Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism


Buckle up for this: “On balance, theism is vastly more hospitable to science than naturalism, a much better home for it. Indeed, it is theism, not naturalism, that deserves to be called ‘the scientific worldview.'” And this: “[T]here is indeed a science/religion conflict, all right, but it is not between science and theistic religion: it is between science and naturalism.”[1] These bold claims come from Alvin Plantinga’s hard-hitting Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (hereafter WCRL). Plantinga[2] has had a distinguished career as a brilliant and innovative philosopher. One of his projects has been to make the intellectual world safe for theism at a time when it has been under fire from both those inside and outside of the faith. He makes no secret of his strong Christian belief, and within the bounds of academic discourse he is a fierce champion of classical Christian theism. Bringing that fight to a more general audience[3], Plantinga here takes dead aim at the common atheistic notion that science favors—maybe even belongs to—naturalism as a worldview.

To that end Plantinga is a gifted advocate, marshalling humor, sarcasm, the occasional swipe, taking colleagues’ ideas prisoner (more on that later), and other rhetorical maneuvers. To wit: How can there be a science/religion conflict involving naturalism? Because “since [naturalism] plays some of the same roles as religion, we could properly call it a quasi-religion” (WCRL, p. x). You could use that same logic to call a doughnut a health food. Plantinga is wily that way—but is he right? In this paper I’ll look at three main areas: (1) his design arguments, purporting to show the concord between science and theism; (2) his claims that ideas like evolution and divine action pose no substantive challenge to theism’s compatibility with science; and (3) finally, his frontal assault, the claims that on naturalism thinking is impossible and cognition is unreliable.


Behe and Intelligent Design

That Plantinga thinks that the case for unguided evolution hasn’t been made is an understatement. (He doesn’t put much stock in God-guided evolution, either, but at least admits that it’s possible.) He turns to Michael Behe and the intelligent design movement for the science. The first of Behe’s two main theses is that there are a number of biological structures that are ‘irreducibly complex’; they cannot have evolved by successive small changes because any precursor lacking all of the fully functioning parts just won’t work. A household example is the mousetrap: take any of its few parts away, Behe proposes, and it no longer catches mice. A biological example is the blood clotting system. Plantinga asserts that Darwinists have supplied inadequate explanations for these apparent roadblocks to unguided evolution and “for the most part ignore” the problem (WCRL, p. 228).

We might call Behe’s second thesis unachievable complexity: the amazing subcellular machines that do the business of life are too complex for unguided natural selection to have achieved because they would have needed two or more precise mutations to arise simultaneously in the same protein. He cites malaria’s resistance to the drug chloroquine as his key example—drug resistance only exists if there are two mutations in the key gene, not either one alone. He uses the rarity of such simultaneous mutations to measure the pace of mutation needed to create subcellular machinery and judges it impossible within the available time scale. He thus concludes that “most mutations that built the great structures of life must have been nonrandom.”[4]

But none of this has stood up to scientific scrutiny, including that of Christian biologist Ken Miller, who says the following about Behe’s claims and methods: “Yet, at the heart of his anti-darwinian calculus are numbers not merely incorrect, but so spectacularly wrong that this badly designed argument collapses under its own weight.” And this: “It would be difficult to imagine a more breathtaking abuse of statistical genetics.”[5] Malarial parasites actually do achieve a degree of chloroquine resistance from either one of the two key mutations.[6] In Behe’s second major book, another pivotal claim about the evolution of the AIDS virus was also just plain wrong.[7] And Darwinists haven’t ignored Behe’s ‘irreducibly complex’ systems; on the contrary, they have solved all of them within our current means.[8] Even the mousetrap illustration fails—it’s not irreducibly complex, either.[9]

Though he doesn’t doubt Behe, to Plantinga’s credit he allows that biological design doesn’t fare that well as an explicit argument. Then he turns to a surprising plan B: Our intuition about what has been designed runs so deep, he says, that perhaps it constitutes a properly basic belief—a belief as basic as believing that there was a past or that other people have minds. If so, belief in design would then be considered basic knowledge without the need for evidence or argument.

But there was a time when our similarly dyed-in-the-wool intuition that the Sun revolves around the Earth could also have been nominated as properly basic. That was demolished by advancements in astronomy. It turned out that our intuition said more about our perceptual wiring than about the outside world. Couldn’t this also be true of the design intuition? In any case, no belief can be properly basic unless its underlying framework is true. For design, that would mean proof of theism and the defeat of Darwinism as an unguided process, both of which are far out of reach. Plantinga acknowledges as much and puts little substantive weight here (WCRL, p. 264).


Plantinga also invokes a ‘fine-tuning’ design argument, one which claims that the universe’s basic constants are so narrowly tailored to allow life that the only plausible explanation is divine design. But is all of that true? First, we don’t even know that the physical constants can be varied: they may be fixed to their values by more fundamental properties. Second, we don’t know that our universe is really that special. Universes with different fundamental constants could be unusual and interesting in different ways. Life could arise through different chemistries or under different physical laws. Physicist Victor Stenger modeled a wide range of possible constants, and many variations met a key prerequisite for life—star lifetimes long enough to generate high nuclear-weight elements.[10]

Third, there may be an overarching mechanism for producing many separate universes or regions with varying laws. Physicist Paul Davies says that “some version of a multiverse is reasonable given the current world view of physics.”[11] Plantinga strangely argues that even so, why our particular universe has life-friendly constants still requires explanation. But if you’re in a bridge tournament so large that it includes all possible deals, then it’s no longer unusual that some people are dealt amazing hands. Once you add to this that we could only be in universes that are life-friendly, no further explanation is needed.[12]

But let us grant for the sake of argument that there is only one universe, the constants can vary widely, and our universe is the only vaguely interesting outcome of those variations. Even so, a very unlikely outcome does not support the inference that our universe’s features are due to some nonrandom process like design.[13] If a large number of outcomes is possible and any one of them is unlikely, then maybe our particular unlikely event simply happened. Then again, maybe it wasn’t as unlikely as we think. Cosmologist Stephen Hawking writes: “[T]he present state of the universe could have arisen from quite a large number of different initial configurations…. [which] shows that the initial state of the part of the universe that we inhabit did not have to be chosen with great care.”[14] And how plausible is Plantinga’s preferred alternative—that an all-powerful, all-good, all-knowing, immaterial, immanent being simply existed from all time, no explanation necessary? For his part, after mounting a defense that does not address the key objections adequately, Plantinga nonetheless concludes that he can’t put much weight on the fine-tuning argument.

“Deep Concord”

In WCRL‘s chapter of this name, Plantinga describes how human science fits the world in amazing ways that would be wholly unexpected unless God had designed it that way. Based on his lecture notes presenting similar arguments, Plantinga seems to view such arguments as confirmatory for theists, but unlikely to convince skeptics.[15] They are a bit of a hodgepodge, with similar claims and soft arguments overlapping and reappearing (sometimes in confusing ways) throughout the chapter. For the sake of clarity, I will organize his most important claims into three categories: abstractions, order, and our perfect fit with the world.

Our ability to understand abstractions depends on God. Argument 1: Propositions, sets, or numbers must be thought of in order to exist. But there are too many of them for all of them to have been thought of by humans, so God’s infinite mind must step in. But whether universals exist, and how they may (or may not) exist outside of mental activity, has tied philosophers in knots for thousands of years. Thus Plantinga’s premises are hotly disputed, putting his conclusion in doubt.[16]

Argument 2: Abstractions like the number ‘3’ cannot do or cause anything, so we could not know about them. But God can think these abstractions, and since we are in causal relation with God, we come into causal relation with abstractions through God, and that allows us to know about them. Somewhere there is a real argument for the main premise, but not in WCRL; Plantinga only asserts that “it seems sensible to think” that it’s true (p. 291). I’m not convinced. When we think of ‘3’, it refers to a numeral on a page, a collection of objects, a calendar date, and so on—always something concrete or meaningful that is in causal relation to us. The difficulty may be that Plantinga doesn’t think that material brains can actually think about ‘3’ or anything else. More on that in the last section.

Reliable order depends on God. The short version of Plantinga’s argument goes like this: Science requires an orderly world. On naturalism, however, a well-ordered world would be “a piece of enormous cosmic luck” (WCRL, p. 283). On theism, by contrast, it is God’s good governance that makes things run predictably. Plantinga actually uses a series of muddled and repetitive arguments here. Consider the following examples.

First, he argues that we are able to learn from experience and count on that learning to be generally applicable in the future. But this is tantamount to simply saying that the world is orderly and produced us. Since we grew up in such a world, why wouldn’t we learn to use induction par excellence?

Second, Plantinga takes solace in the ability of mathematics to articulate underlying patterns. But if this is what math is designed to do, of course it will do so provided that the world has such patterns. What Plantinga really seems to mean is that math not only works, but works deeply and at times beautifully. Agreed. But why shouldn’t it in a naturalistic world? Why shouldn’t mathematics wonderfully describe the world from which it arose, and which it was created to model?

Plantinga also asserts that the laws that make the universe run seem somehow inevitable. But he does not demonstrate that this is anything more than a human celebration of lawful regularity after we’ve figured it out, perhaps sprinkled with a human idea that the laws in our universe are the only ones possible. This segment of Plantinga’s ‘deep concord’ arguments really just comes down to whether we should truly expect the order that we see given theism, and whether we should not expect to see it given naturalism.

Even on Plantinga’s view, theism doesn’t necessarily inspire confidence in the world’s regularity, for God can and does override his own natural laws whenever he sees fit. As he recognizes, other theists raise this concern about divine action (WCRL, pp. 97-100). Plantinga further notes that William of Ockham believed that God could act irrationally or contrary to his sense of what is good. Finally, we see a degree of natural evil in the world that is hard to square with God being all-good and all-powerful. Here Plantinga counters that God’s ways are mysterious and that we shouldn’t expect to understand them. Not only that, but God may have ceded authority to other supernatural beings, such as “Satan and his minions” (WCRL, p. 59). Plantinga’s own assertions give us less and less reason to count on the regularity of a God-governed world; a well-ordered naturalistic world presents none of these difficulties.

And why shouldn’t a naturalistic world be orderly? Plantinga gives two reasons. First, it could parallel the orderly unfolding that we have seen so far and “then diverge wildly,” so that experience-based induction would fail (WCRL, p. 295). But how, exactly? Plantinga just says that it’s possible. To me, his scenario sounds awfully strange under naturalism, but not so strange if God was exercising the prerogative to act in mysterious ways, overriding natural law when he chose to, or ceding authority to Satan and his minions. Second, Plantinga asserts that the world could be patternlessly chaotic. But that’s not self-evident; after all, order can emerge from chaos through naturalistic mechanisms, as seems to have happened in our world after the Big Bang. And even if Plantinga’s claim is completely true, it again depends upon considerations raised by arguments concerning fine-tuning. We wouldn’t be here without order emerging; is that a fact in need of special explanation, or not? See above.

The perfect fit between us and the world depends on God. Plantinga asserts that there is a beautiful fit between human abilities and our world, and that this fit is not at all expected under naturalism. His first argument: “[I]f the world were very different, our faculties might not serve us this way at all” (WCRL, p. 270). Take vision, for example. In a world “obscured by thick darkness, our eyes would be of no use” (WCRL, p. 270). But in that case, of course, we would have evolved the faculties that would serve us in that type of world.

His second argument is that our mathematical abilities “far surpass what is required for reproductive fitness,” both now and “back there on the plains of Serengeti” (WCRL, p. 286). So why can a sea lion balance a ball on its nose while walking on its front flippers? Why could my dog Casey make athletic leaps to catch Frisbees, even playing ricochets off of the fence? Those abilities seem no more related to evolutionary fitness than our ability to do complex math, and yet they don’t seem to require God to explain them, either. It is a straightforward exercise to find the underlying components of these skills that were selected for, and then see how they could be recombined in novel ways. So, too, with mathematics. Start with some basic awareness of numbers and operations, curiosity and reasoning, in the service of bringing understanding and order to your surroundings. Add the ability to build on prior intellectual progress over years, even centuries. Then it’s not hard to see how arithmetic could advance to calculus and beyond. Plantinga’s flippant dismissal of this argument is simply wrong.

Third, Plantinga argues that although many theories can explain a given body of evidence, we love theories that are economical and elegant. That much appears to be built in. But the world matches it, obliging our preference with phenomena that beautiful and parsimonious theories can handle. That is not a given. We could live in a world with “insufficient simplicity for science” (WCRL, p. 299), or where “unlovely, miserably complex theories are more likely to be true” (WCRL, p. 298). But we are made in God’s image, and God likely shares our preference for elegance and so reflected that in the world that he created. He also likely made sure to match our abilities with the world’s features, allowing us to be successful at science.

But doesn’t the preference for simplicity and elegance make perfect sense for beings born in a naturalistic world? Vulnerable creatures in an unforgiving environment would exult when they could bring elegant order to seeming chaos. And that our faculties match the world is unsurprising. We were bred and born in this briar patch. How would they not match? Naturalistic evolution shaped us to grasp complex science in the same way that it shaped us to understand math.

Moreover, maybe we learned to see what the world deals us as simple and beautiful even when it is not always either. In building an elegant theory, we may have had to scrap for every little piece of the puzzle, sometimes building painstakingly across generations. The results can be ugly, and sometimes we can’t seem to get there at all. Consider the biochemical pathways inside a cell, or the hair-raisingly complex wiring of the brain, even from what little we know so far. Even in physics, things are not all rosy. Confirming the existence of the Higgs boson was amazing, but it’s lighter than expected, creating the possibility of the universe collapsing.[17] Then there is the possibility of multiple universes, each with a different physics. The apparent incompatibility of quantum mechanics and relativity still looms large. Even for seemingly straightforward planetary mechanics, the best models require supercomputers.[18] Elegance seems to be more of a human aspiration—and cause for celebration when we get it—than a fundamental feature of our world.

Besides, a world where “miserably complex theories” are the rule sounds more like a world governed by a capricious supernatural being than one that falls out of the unfettered unfolding of physical law. And doesn’t it seem odd to trumpet the preference for elegant scientific theory in support of theism, in which God is the explanation for everything, and exists in full-blown perfection and goodness from all time? Theism raises many more puzzles than it solves, none of which can be explained or investigated.

Playing Defense

Naturalists tend to think that science poses essentially fatal challenges to theism, especially since the discovery of biological evolution—or at least that science and theism are wholly incompatible. Not surprisingly, Plantinga begs to differ. At worst, he claims, certain key areas of science present only “alleged” or “superficial” conflict with theism. In this section I’ll look at how Plantinga defends this view as it pertains to evolution, hypotheses about the evolutionary origins of religion, scriptural scholarship, and divine intervention.


His case that theism and evolution are fully compatible focuses on five main contentions. One of these is that naturalistic evolution could not produce the human mind, which I’ll tackle further below in my critique of Plantinga’s frontal assault. Plantinga’s remaining four contentions defend the rationality of theistic belief, question whether unguided evolution is as certain as naturalists claim, attack naturalism’s purported advantages over theism at explaining everything, and assert that unguided evolution is not out of character for the God of theism.

Is belief without evidence irrational? Plantinga seems to take special relish in attacking Daniel Dennett’s antitheistic claims. One of these is that evolution is rational, whereas belief in God is irrational. One of Plantinga’s career-spanning projects is to show that individual belief in God not only may be rational, but may actually count as basic knowledge—even without argument or evidence, or even in the teeth of what others like Dennett would call slam-dunk evidence against theistic belief. According to Plantinga’s view, certain types of religious belief can be properly basic, akin to the belief that the past is real—ideas for which we require no proof. But there’s a reason why Plantinga didn’t call this book Religious Belief of Certain Kinds Can Be Rational. For even if theistic belief is properly basic (and not all theistic philosophers grant this[19]), that doesn’t buy him much. Plantinga allows that we have just as much right to grant properly basic status to Judaism, Islam, some forms of Hinduism and Buddhism, and some Native American faiths[20], so the argument gives Christianity no special status.

And there are bigger problems. As applied in the real world, the notion flirts with (if it doesn’t collide with) circularity. Beliefs can only be properly basic if their underlying framework is actually true, and to be true, there can be no undefeated challenges.[21] Plantinga puts it like this: “There is some reason to think that if theism is indeed true, … then religious belief would be independent of arguments from reason.”[22] Grant for the sake of argument that the only substantive challenge to the truth of Christianity is the problem of evil. Then Plantinga might say that if the problem of evil is neutralized, Christianity is true, and religious belief has warrant as properly basic. Yet Plantinga also approvingly describes the rock solid faith of a Christian who believes so strongly in God’s goodness that the problem of evil poses no threat to her faith.[23] In effect, this yields “if Christian belief is true, then the problem of evil poses no real challenge.” Plantinga doesn’t exactly sign on to this circular path, but in operation among believers, it’s hard to see how one avoids it.

Maybe that problem isn’t exactly Plantinga’s doing, but the following one is. His claim that faith is rational in the absence of positive evidence in its favor only holds up to the extent that substantive challenges to theism are met. To meet one such challenge requires showing that Dennett is wrong (or at least not demonstrably right[24]) about unguided evolution—and showing that does require evidence and argument. So faith without arguments or evidence is rational only if arguments or evidence show that naturalistic evolution isn’t true. That makes Plantinga’s rationality claim a thin one unless he can seriously dent evolution, an issue to which we now turn.

Is unguided evolution even plausible (much less proven)? Plantinga asserts that there is nothing in the scientific case for evolution to show that God couldn’t have actively guided it along. In fact, there may be huge roadblocks that God had to help natural selection navigate around (such as those addressed above in the discussion of Michael Behe’s work). Moreover, he maintains that the arguments for unguided evolution are weak, ultimately boiling down to vague assertions (like “the necessary mutations are almost bound to be forthcoming”[25]) and assurances that natural selection’s progression required no astronomically improbable leaps. The success of unguided evolution is possible, like Bertrand Russell’s teapot orbiting out near Mars[26], but its mere possibility doesn’t make it likely, so we have “no reason whatever to endorse it” (WCRL, p. 26).

But the teapot is astronomically improbable—that was Russell’s point. Not being astronomically improbable is actually the solution, not the problem. Pardon the poetic oversimplification, but doesn’t thermodynamics hold that if something can happen, it will happen? That is, if a change (like fitness-improving mutations) is possible and even marginally favored (imparting improved fitness on organisms), then given enough time, opportunities, and reasonable progressions in probability space, it will happen. So not being astronomically improbable removes the key obstacle. For even if a given step is unlikely, so long as it is not overwhelmingly unlikely (and we saw that the arguments for Behe’s unbridgeable gaps have not stood up), it becomes likely over the long haul of geological timespans. Once you establish that the process can plausibly unfold on its own, the tables are turned on Plantinga’s assertion that simply being “not astronomically improbable” gives no reason to endorse naturalism. In fact, it undercuts (if it doesn’t remove) the impetus to invoke divine guidance.

Later Plantinga makes a point of distinguishing between determinism based on Isaac Newton’s physics, which left room for God’s guidance, and determinism based on Pierre-Simon Laplace’s physics, which did not. Newton could not get his mechanics to account for the entire complex array of planetary movements, so he invoked God’s intervention to keep things on track. Laplace took planetary mechanics an amazing step further, fixing most of the deficiencies of Newton’s model. Napoleon is supposed to have then asked Laplace why God didn’t appear in his account of planetary motion, and if the story is to be believed, Laplace replied: “Sire, I had no need of that hypothesis.”[27] The more you can explain on naturalistic terms, the less reason there is to invoke God. And there are related reasons not to invoke God if naturalistic evolution is a better theory than God-guided evolution, and if guided evolution is grossly out of character for a theistic God.

Is naturalism a better explanatory framework? Naturalism shows how the organized complexity that suggests design can instead arise on its own through the dumb operation of basic physical laws. Theism presupposes unexplained, unimaginable organized complexity existing from all time. Here’s how Plantinga defends theism on this point (WCRL, pp. 27-30), with my parries in italics:

  1. It is wrong to characterize biological arguments from design as explaining nothing (by virtue of the designer being as complex as what is designed). If you saw tractors on some other planet and concluded that they were made by intelligent life, would your conclusion suffer from ‘not explaining anything?’ If the goal is to explain the existence of life, design accomplishes that. It doesn’t explain the origin of organized complexity, but that wasn’t the goal. Perhaps not, but accomplishing that makes naturalism more comprehensive and more plausible.
  2. Every theory has a brute fact barrier beyond which there is no further explanation. For theism, this is the existence of God; for naturalism, it might be the existence of elementary particles. Imagine claiming that in the first instants of the Big Bang, while basic particles were still condensing, an undetectable, galaxy-sized computer that uses no energy flashed into being. God’s pre-existence is much harder to explain than that, and theists don’t even try. So naturalism’s brute facts seem simpler and easier to swallow, and they suggest investigatory inroads that theism cannot provide.
  3. It is misguided to claim that theism is immensely improbable because God is so complex. That wrongly applies the standards of materialism to God and the immaterial world when materialism is not a given. Theism claims that God is immaterial, and immaterial things don’t have parts, so God isn’t complex in the way that material things are. There is no explanation for how immaterial things can exist at all, never mind how they can be complex, so Plantinga’s assertion seems to retreat by tucking more inconvenient questions behind the unexplainable mysteries of God.
  4. Grant for the sake of argument that God is complex and therefore improbable in materialistic terms. But again, materialism isn’t a given. Classical theism claims that God is a necessary being who therefore has a 100% probability of existing. Richard Dawkins, at least, hasn’t offered an argument against that. In The God Delusion Dawkins did rebut traditional theistic arguments, including the ontological argument.[28] And apart from Dawkins’ popular works, many others have addressed it.[29]

Would creating through guided evolution be out of character for God? Plantinga’s right about one thing here: The problem of evil is vast no matter how God chose to create. In WCRL[30], Plantinga suggests a few possible reasons why God might have permitted evil:

  1. For reasons that are simply beyond our understanding.
  2. To tell “not merely the greatest story ever told,” but “the greatest story that could be told” (WCRL, p. 59), the story of incarnation and atonement. And for there to be atonement, there has to be sin and evil, and for the problem and remedy to be proportionate, “a great deal” of sin and evil. It is stunning to see that in print. The various theories of atonement are all problematic in one way or another. But to see atonement elevated to a fundamental good valuable enough to justify the suffering on Earth, rather than a loving act necessitated by Earth’s woes, hits me as beyond backwards. It leaves me nearly speechless, except for this inadequate response: Is atonement really the best story that could be told? Would it really be a worse story for God the all-good, God the all-powerful, to create a harmonious world in which a need for atonement was unthinkable?
  3. Because God ceded some authority over the world and evolution to other beings, such as “Satan and his minions, for example” (WCRL, p. 59). But why would God do that? Plantinga doesn’t say.

So things are problematic for God even on a creationist account, and Plantinga thinks that they’re no worse under guided evolution. But I’m not sure that that’s right. Unfolding creation over a time scale of billions of years seems out of character, or at least unnecessary, for an all-powerful being. And it’s certainly not the elegant process that we would expect of theism’s God. It works through powerful forces that are dangerous for life and create all manner of natural evil, and Plantinga’s thought that this might be due to authority ceded to Satan and his minions raises more questions than it answers. Moreover, all of the blind alleys and wrong turns of evolution then get chalked up to a supposedly perfect God. Worst of all is the huge amount of animal suffering leading up to the appearance of humans. Why would that be necessary if God could just create humans right off the bat? Plantinga answers: “There is nothing in Christian thought to suggest that God created animals in order that human beings might come to be” (WCRL, p. 57). Exactly! Humans aren’t the only point, and animals have value in their own right. But then why choose a drawn-out, error-prone process that required our emergence be built on millions of trial runs and billions of agonizing deaths?

Plantinga wants to say that there is only alleged conflict between evolution and theism. But with its unseemly time scale and proclivity for error and dead-ends, evolution is out of character for theism’s God. Worse still, it exacerbates an already deeply troubling problem of evil for any theist account. That’s a substantial conflict, not an alleged or superficial one. So at best Plantinga’s defense here preserves a modicum of possibility for God-guided evolution, but a thin one compared to naturalism’s power as a framework that explains more, explains better, stays within character, contains simpler brute facts (that may yet yield to still simpler ones), and lacks theism’s internal problem of evil.

Evolutionary Origin for Religion?

Plantinga tries to make peace with another evolutionary argument—the attempt to show an evolutionary origin for religion. Plantinga takes some delight in dismissing outright some hypotheses in evolutionary psychology, especially those that explain away any hint of altruistic behavior. But he gives surprising (and perhaps ill-advised) weight to certain evolutionary theories of religion. One is Scott Atran’s, which explains religion in terms of sociological and psychological concepts like community commitment and handling anxiety. Another is Stewart Guthrie’s idea that to increase our chances of survival, we err towards imputing agency where there may be none. And yet another is E. O. Wilson and Michael Ruse’s hypothesis about the evolutionary underpinnings of morality. Plantinga has no problem with these ideas so long as you remove from them any embedded assumption that religious belief is not true, or that objective morality does not exist. Under those conditions, he says, knowing how faith might be rooted in evolution is no different from understanding how perception might be so rooted.

But maybe Plantinga concedes too much for his own good here. Understanding perception’s evolutionary roots doesn’t threaten its essence. But if you grant that we tend to overimpute agency to scary natural phenomena, though this doesn’t necessarily mean that imputing agency to God is false, it does provide one more reason to doubt the presence of divine agency. Similarly, a naturalistic theory of religious belief doesn’t in and of itself mean that faith is unfounded, but it does show how it could arise for reasons other than being true.[31] Likewise, an evolutionary mechanism for morality means that you no longer have to say that God imparted a moral sense to humans (and humans alone). And that fits well with the observation of astonishing instances of moral behavior in other species—and (rightly) renders human morality (such as it is) an evolutionary continuity, not a divine gift, as theists have often asserted. Again, Plantinga retains a modicum of possibility for theism while its plausibility wanes. These evolutionary models don’t prove that religious beliefs aren’t true, but they carve out one more place where it isn’t necessary to hypothesize God in order to have a reasonable explanation for certain facts about the world.

Scripture Scholarship

Plantinga takes the entire Bible to be the authoritative (he doesn’t say literal) teaching of God. He acknowledges that it can be hard to decipher its true teachings, and he describes traditional biblical commentary as a tool toward that end. By contrast, he sees historical biblical criticism (HBC) as stripping away any theological assumptions and looking at the texts “scientifically”—in scare quotes here because Plantinga doubts that HBC qualifies as real science. He acknowledges that the results of this type of biblical criticism directly conflict with his traditional Christian views, but thinks that such conflict is to be expected and is thus of no significance. Since HBC rejects the deliverances of faith available to the believer, of course it will reach conflicting (and, Plantinga surely thinks, erroneous) conclusions.

I’ll leave HBC for others to tackle. But when Plantinga says “it may be hard indeed to see what [God] is teaching” (WCRL, p. 153), I wonder whether he’s downplaying the problems posed by even traditional biblical scholarship. Volumes have been written on this; here is a ridiculously thin sampling: The Old Testament lays out arbitrary, antifemale standards of justice (e.g., Deuteronomy 22:28); prescribes brutally violent elimination of whole populations defeated in war, including children and animals (e.g., Joshua 6:21); designates virgins as spoils of war (e.g., Deuteronomy 21:10-14); and appears to endorse child sacrifice (Judges 11:29-39) well after God commands Abraham to kill Isaac. There are thousands of versions of the New Testament books, which can differ substantially and in ways that sometimes suggest theological agendas. And we have no originals or even copies close to the originals.[32] The Gospels portray Jesus flatly contradicting himself (e.g., Matthew 5:16 vs. Matthew 6:1-16), appearing to misunderstand his mission (e.g., Mark 9:1), undermining family bonds (e.g., Luke 14:26), and proposing unconscionably harsh punishments (e.g., Matthew 22:1-14). The Gospel resurrection accounts agree on little; the later in time that they were written, the more details and fantastic supernatural appearances that they claim (which is the opposite of how accurate historical narrative should work[33]). And the Gospels’ claims and theological underpinnings are at odds with those of Paul[34], who was a contemporary of the Church’s founding—unlike the Gospel writers, whose identities and sources are completely unknown. This leads many—believers among them—to question the divine origin of the scriptures, rather than just wonder at the difficulty of extracting divine teaching.

Divine Action

“God so governs the world that whatever happens is to be thought of as ‘coming from his fatherly hand'” and nothing is the “result of mere chance” (WCRL, p. 67). Many, including some theologians for whom Plantinga withholds praise, believe that the world is deterministic in a way that precludes such divine activity. But determinism applies when a system is causally closed or isolated, and science doesn’t assert that our world is causally closed. That idea is a philosophical add-on that sneaks in. Thus, Plantinga concludes, God could “legally” intervene from outside of the universe (WCRL, pp. 65-90).

Other theologians offer various qualms about this idea. Some argue that God could intervene, but would not because it’s out of character in three main ways. First, the problem of evil suggests that it’s out of character for God: why would God turn water into wine yet fail to prevent the Holocaust? Plantinga’s answer is that God’s ways are just too far beyond our understanding for us to know why. Second, regularity is required for rational, free action. But Plantinga says that God could intervene here and there without a substantive loss of the needed regularity. Third, God wouldn’t set up an orderly creation on the one hand, and then intervene to undermine that order on the other. Plantinga answers that if God had good reason to act specially, it wouldn’t decrease his greatness in the slightest (WCRL, pp. 97-108).

So according to Plantinga, God could intervene at any time, and in any way that he chooses, and it wouldn’t violate scientific laws or God’s own character. Quantum mechanics offers a gentler route to intervening without overriding physical laws. Here’s how it might work. Under some quantum models (e.g., Ghirardi-Rimini-Weber), systems localize 10,000,000 times per second, and there is no physical cause of their assuming the next state. God could engage at these collapse points—what Plantinga calls “divine collapse-causation.” God would be constantly engaged at every point in the universe, but never overriding anything. Plantinga further speculates that human souls might also act on the physical universe by influencing collapse outcomes, explaining how souls influence brain events (WCRL, pp. 92-97, 113-21).

There are problems with Plantinga’s answers, though. First, as just mentioned, others more or less in Plantinga’s philosophical camp have raised cogent objections that, for example, divine action may be out of character for a theistic God. I don’t find Plantinga’s replies adequate here. And even the experts Plantinga consulted could not reach agreement that all of the biblical miracles reported were compatible with quantum mechanics. Second, divine action is scientifically vacuous because we have no proposed mechanism for how God could interact with the material world, no way to investigate any of this, and the purported impact on the world is undetectable unless you subscribe to theism and claim to discern God’s activity in the world. Third, the space between events that is supposed to allow God to act doesn’t seem sufficiently spacious on close inspection. As Plantinga acknowledges, there is an interpretation of quantum mechanics that is deterministic (Bohm’s), and many physicists believe it. One theoretical physicist puts it this way: “I would say that not only is a refutation of determinism essentially impossible, but not the slightest argument in favour of that idea is to be found in modern physics.”[35] Moreover, computer hardware is completely reliant on quantum behavior, yet it is predictable enough for us to use it to fly planes and land probes on Mars. How would we then suppose a need for divine guidance at every location in the universe, ten million times per second? Fourth, there is no substantive evidence that miracles even occur. Religious experience, testimony, and texts, including the Bible, offer the weakest possible support. And when postbiblical miracle claims can be investigated, they don’t hold up. Meanwhile, the dispiriting ubiquity of evil and tragic caprice in the world make the putative implementation of divine action look meager and arbitrary at best.

Even if in the end we have to grant that special divine action is “legal” and possible, Plantinga has a tough spot to defend. Laplace, Charles Darwin, and their successors have been busy eroding the ground around ‘possible.’ Just as with unguided versus guided evolution, a more complete knowledge of the science does not prove that God can’t intervene, it just keeps removing reasons to think that God does intervene. In earlier centuries God was thought to be necessary for anything at all to happen, intervening and shaping events all of the time, because things were poorly understood and, absent God, seemed haphazard. Lightning was thought of in terms of punishment, not in terms of electricity, for example. Now divine intervention seems to have less and less such territory to occupy.

Preserving some mere ‘possibility’ that God does this or that does not carry the day. And we saw how Plantinga’s design arguments fail. Now all that is left is Plantinga’s two-pronged direct attack on the plausibility of naturalism.

The Frontal Assault on Naturalism

Plantinga saves his best for last. Perhaps the largest strand of naturalism says not only that there is no theistic God nor any other supernatural being, but that there is nothing more in the universe than matter and energy, and nothing that can’t, at some level, be accounted for by physics. That’s materialism. A key claim of materialist naturalism is that human bodies are purely physical, meaning that brains account in some way or another for all of our mental experience, and unguided natural selection brought brains and mental activity into existence. This is not compatible with classical theism, at least as Plantinga sees it, and as you can guess, he’s not buying it. Both prongs of his assault focus on the intersection of brain and mentality, what they are and how they came to be. Prong one is that purely material things cannot think. Prong two is Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism (EAAN).

Material Things Can’t Think

Elsewhere Plantinga has argued forcefully that matter can’t think[36], and I suspect that this position lurks at the heart of his EAAN. But in WCRL, he does not go much further than quoting all or part of the following from John Locke four times in the first two chapters (pp. 17, 32, 37, and 38): “[I]t is as impossible to conceive that ever bare [Plantinga renders this ‘pure’] incogitative Matter should produce a thinking intelligent Being, as that nothing should of itself produce Matter.”[37] Plantinga notes that this sentiment is widely held by theists and later (on p. 321) refers the reader to his “Against Materialism.”[38]

Arguing elsewhere[39], Plantinga features a well-known thought experiment by Gottfried Leibniz, the point of which is that no matter how one might study a purportedly thinking material system, one could only ever see parts interacting, nothing that could be conceived of as thought.[40] Plantinga asserts similarly that no matter from which angle you might study some network of neurons, there is nothing about them that “will so much as slyly suggest that it has content of any sort,” particularly not any that could be “about something,”[41] a key element of having a belief. A network of neurons simply cannot have any sort of content, the same way that a number cannot have weight. But don’t computers have content? Yes, he says, but it’s the wrong type. Even if neurons had content like computers do, it is derived content. What’s lacking is primary content, the kind that comes affiliated with the meaning we attach to it, like the meaning of concepts and words. But you can simply see that having that would be impossible for a material object, Plantinga claims.[42]

This poses no problem for thought that has an immaterial underpinning. For that, there are no parts and no interactions; thought is seen as a basic property of the immaterial, like a negative charge for an electron. Plantinga writes: “To ask ‘How does a[n immaterial] self produce thought?’ is to ask an improper question. There isn’t any how about it.”[43]

Plantinga grants that material systems could possess what he calls indicator content, or representations. These could include measurements of blood sugar or body temperature, or seeing a tree. It could even include a frog tracking and catching a fly, or a running back calculating the locations and movements of would-be tacklers.[44] But no matter how hard materialists try, representations cannot be promoted to beliefs. Even setting aside that materialists typically ignore Leibniz’s challenge, a representation is simply “nowhere near sufficient for belief.”[45] A thermostat doesn’t believe it’s too cold or too hot. It’s simply not possible for a material object to have or to be a belief.

Double standard. Doesn’t Plantinga evince an odd double standard on mechanism? He criticizes naturalist attempts at constructing a mechanism for thought, while asserting that immaterial thought is so radically basic that mechanism need not even be considered. How he would scoff if materialists made a similar retreat. Fortunately, there is no need.

If it’s all physics, then it can’t be rational is not an argument that Plantinga makes, but it’s a common one leveled against a physicalist understanding of the brain[46], and thus an important one to dismiss early. The idea is that a purely causal computation process cannot yield reliable, rational inference. But it’s the organization that matters—the right organization harnesses the underlying mechanics to drive all kinds of logical, rational processes. Computers do this all of the time. A computer can play chess and Jeopardy better than a human can, and that takes quite a lot of reliable inference, inference based on silicon organized in the right way with the right computation process. Similarly, when plain old matter gets organized as neurons, which in turn are organized into huge and superbly interwoven networks, the immutable interactions of matter and energy unfold as sensing, thinking, feeling, and deciding.[47]

Impossible to conceive.” Locke says that it’s impossible to conceive of thinking arising just from matter, and Plantinga invokes Locke saying that four times in short order. But how strong of an argument is that? After all, the list of things that are true but that were once impossible to conceive of is long. In Locke’s day it was also impossible to conceive of living organisms as simply complex arrangements of nonliving matter. So when Plantinga claims that you can just see that it would be impossible for a material thing to have content[48], he rightly draws an admonishment from Michael Tooley: “Philosophers do not have an especially impressive track record with regard to such judgments.”[49] And even others within the faith are not necessarily of one mind with Plantinga. Peter van Inwagen, former president of the Society of Christian Philosophers, says that the mystery of thinking holds equally for nonphysical as for physical entities.[50] And Nancey Murphy is one of a number of Christian philosophers and theologians who embrace a physicalist understanding of mental activity.[51] Maybe the inconceivability shoe is actually on the other foot.

Leibniz’s challenge. I think Plantinga is right that materialists should answer Leibniz’s challenge, which is to explain how thought could arise from the interaction of physical parts. The problem is that the challenge sneaks in several distractions. First off, Leibniz asks us to look at the brain as if it were a mill. Goodness! That would be like using a kid’s first violin lesson as a thought experiment when considering the Boston Symphony’s rendering of Beethoven’s Fifth. A mill just won’t do. How about a galactic cluster? Or the ecosystem of the Amazon? Plantinga and Leibniz would probably claim that it’s irrelevant how big the illustrative system is, but I think that scale and complexity do matter here.

The second distraction is this: As we saw, Plantinga assumes that thought is a fundamentally mysterious, primary property of some immaterial something that just occurs whenever called upon, and that it is just obvious that it could not be carried out by a purely material object. Leibniz builds the same assumption into his thought experiment; it simply asserts that it is obvious on its face that interacting mill gears could not explain perception or thought. Rather, the explanation “must be sought for, therefore, in the simple substance, not in the composite or in the machine.”[52] But what if this long-held belief is wrong?

According to Tooley, Plantinga’s view asserts an intrinsic model of content, in which simple concepts are “irreducible, nonlinguistic entities” that exist on their own no matter what. Under that model, a computing system can’t tap into the intrinsic system of meaning. By analogy to smartphones, you could only be connected to real content if you had a data connection to the immaterial cloud of intrinsic meaning. That idea drives Plantinga’s claim that computers and brains are inherently barred from encoding primary content, the kind that you can think with. By contrast, materialism takes thought to be a special kind of information processing. In such a causal, functionalist model, a computational system could embody or even create its own self-contained system of meaning (as Tooley argues). This would be analogous to a smartphone that carried its own offline content.[53] If that model holds, then material information systems have what it takes for thinking, and that would undercut Leibniz’s unsupported presumption against the millworks yielding thought.

The last and maybe most important concept obscured by Leibniz’s challenge is this: Leibniz forces you to look at the millworks from the outside, making you wonder indeed how that could ever sustain thought. What may well be going on, though, is that we are the mill (or, perhaps, the Amazon). Many naturalists think that subjective experience arises when information is processed in certain ways, so that our experience arises because we are a thinking system.[54] That may be difficult to grasp as an abstraction, but it’s critically important in this discussion. In the end, Leibniz’s thought experiment conceals more than it reveals, and nothing he says suggests that it is untrue or impossible that thinking is a special type of computational organization, on an unimaginable scale, experienced from within. And this makes much more sense of the data that we have than Plantinga’s intuitions about immateriality.

Does ‘indicator content’ give away the store? Plantinga has no trouble conceding that evolution selects for accurate indicator content, or indicator representations, which effectively steer the causal computational chain toward adaptive behavior, “[b]ut none of this, so far, has anything to do with belief, or with the truth of a belief.”[55] A body temperature sensor or a blood sugar sensor are indicators. But so is seeing a tree; and a frog spotting, tracking, and attacking a fly; and a running back aware of defenders’ positions, trajectories, and even “ferocious looks.”[56] So says Plantinga. But what is an indicator, and what is a belief?

It turns out that, applied to how human faculties seem to work, what Plantinga calls indicator content covers a lot of cognitive real estate. A great, maybe the great, strength of brains appears to be their ability to represent, or map, the outside and the inside world.[57] That’s how we know what’s going on, what may happen next, and how to respond. The key building block of our cognitive maps could simply be indicators. The fly is resting on the lily, the linebacker is at 10 o’clock and moving fast, my body temperature is 100.9°F. But if the brain can process raw sensory input into basic indicators, couldn’t it use similar procedures to process indicator data into higher-level indicators? The two types of data are not really any different as substrates of computation. And if we have this map-processing facility par excellence, why could you not then compare maps to each other, compare expected maps to actual maps, compare actual maps to preferred maps, make maps of maps, and make logical inferences about maps? The computational possibilities for this indicator concept are broad.

And seeing a tree, tracking a fly, or interpreting the facial expressions of football defenders are already complicated attributions, several rungs up on the processing ladder. Are we so sure that calling certain data a tree is not really a kind of low-level belief that ‘I’m seeing a tree?’ Or that this maple is a tree, but that this Chevy is not? If the running back is pretty sure that he can outrun the safety because he remembers his speed from playing Pop Warner together, is that still not a belief? Perhaps having a belief means assigning a high level of confidence to the accuracy of a map, which itself seems to be a higher level indicator function. In the end, it seems that Plantinga’s conceded indicator content grants exactly what materialist accounts of high-level cognition need, including some type of beliefs.

Evidence, schmevidence. There is an impressive amount of evidence that the brain is responsible for mental activity. Or is there? First of all, what is the evidence? Such things as caffeine, alcohol, anesthetics, and a host of other physical substances cause mental changes. Many areas of the brain are mapped to mental activities, either through seeing the results of damage, as in a stroke or brain trauma, or through imaging studies. Brain size and/or complexity corresponds roughly with animal intelligence. Our brain size was important enough for us to pay a significant price in terms of complications accompanying delivering babies. Mental states such as sleep and meditation have predictable EEG correlates. And so on. Second, who finds this evidence convincing? Patricia Churchland, for one. She says that through this pileup of evidence, “[b]y the mid-twentieth century, the steam had largely gone out of the dualist hypothesis”[58] advocated by Plantinga. And it’s not only naturalists who think this. Christian philosopher Murphy says that “nearly all of the human capacities or faculties once attributed to the soul are now seen to be functions of the brain,”[59] and “if it [a purely physical basis for mental activity] is treated as a scientific hypothesis rather than a philosophical doctrine we see that it has all of the confirming evidence one could hope for.”[60]

But Plantinga’s not having it, and counters as follows: Say a materialist claims that being in pain is identical to having certain nerve fibers, the C-fibers, fire. It’s obvious, he says, that C-fibers could fire without the experience of pain, and that one could have pain without C-fibers firing.[61] On the contrary, it’s quite realistic, if the pain system were described well by someone not trying to torpedo the idea, that there truly could not be pain without this correctly defined brain activity, and vice versa.

Plantinga also complains: “How can we so blithely declare these [neural and mental] properties identical when they look so different?”[62] And then he ridicules the idea. This simply ignores the notion that certain computing organizations take on subjectivity when one is such an entity. True or not, the idea warrants thought, debate, and investigation, not ridicule, particularly when Plantinga’s proffered immaterial alternative has no mechanism and can’t be investigated. Nancey Murphy, among others, expresses deep skepticism concerning the reliability of intuitions favoring dualism, like those of Plantinga.[63]

Plantinga’s other objection to the evidence also achieves little, as he again hitches his fortune to possibility as plausibility ebbs. Sure, brain function is necessary for mental function, he says, but there’s no proof that it’s sufficient. But that’s a difficult front to defend. The concept of an immaterial mind is fine if we have no clue how any of this works. But it’s scientifically empty—untestable, thus neither provable nor disprovable. So as the materialist alternative becomes more richly understood by the day, as Nancey Murphy implies, the philosophical debate over ‘whether’ brains think evaporates in favor of the scientific question about ‘how’ they do.

Plantinga has one more card up his sleeve, the other prong of the assault on materialism, to which I now turn.

The Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism

Plantinga first gave his famous evolutionary argument against naturalism—a successor to proposals by C. S. Lewis[64] and Richard Taylor[65]—in 1991, and in a number of different publications and forums since. It has stimulated an extraordinary amount of engrossing, and I would hazard fruitful, academic give and take over the decades. The short version of the argument is that it is unlikely that our cognitive faculties are mostly reliable if they arose through purely naturalistic evolution. Therefore, if you believe that that’s how we came to be, then you can’t trust your cognitive faculties, nor any beliefs arising from them, including the belief that naturalism is true. Belief in naturalism is therefore self-defeating—a scary thought that caught a lot of people’s attention for obvious reasons.

In setting the stage for his argument, Plantinga makes a distracting and unnecessary move by recruiting unwilling allies. One is Patricia Churchland, based purely on the following quotation, significantly redacted by Plantinga:

Boiled down to essentials, a nervous system enables the organism to succeed in the four F’s: feeding, fleeing, fighting, and reproducing. The principal chore of nervous systems is to get the body parts where they should be in order that the organism may survive. Insofar as representations serve that function, representations are a good thing. Getting things right in space and time, therefore, is a crucially important factor for nervous systems, and there is often considerable evolutionary pressure deriving from considerations of speed. Improvements in sensorimotor control confer an evolutionary advantage: a fancier style of representing is advantageous so long as it is geared to the organism’s way of life and enhances the organism’s chances of survival. Truth, whatever that is, definitely takes the hindmost.[66] [bolded portion by Churchland, but omitted by Plantinga]

Hanging on to the last sentence alone, Plantinga claims that “[w]hat Churchland therefore suggests is that naturalistic evolution … gives us reason to doubt two things: (a) that a purpose of our cognitive systems is that of serving us with true beliefs, and (b) that they do, in fact, furnish us with mostly true beliefs” (WCRL, p. 316). Even out of context, when you include what Plantinga omitted, Churchland has to be emphasizing the key role that accurate representation can play. In context, it looks as if Churchland is expanding her point, raised in the paragraph preceding the quotation, that the brain is not primarily in the “truth-for-its-own-sake” business, but rather in the “four F’s” business.[67] In no way does this imply any fundamental problem with our cognitive apparatus. On the contrary, the thrust of Churchland’s paper—and much of her larger body of work—is not questioning if the brain gets things right, but rather figuring out how it gets them right in drawing conclusions apt for survival and reproduction. There is not a hint that she claims that our cognitive processes are fundamentally unreliable or misleading. Certainly Plantinga has mischaracterized Churchland’s views in the service of bolstering his own.

The second unwitting ally is Charles Darwin. Plantinga cites a passage from a private letter in which Darwin states: “But then with me, the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy.”[68] The thrust of the letter indicates no doubt as to the truth and value of natural selection and Darwin’s scientific convictions as a whole. Nor did any hint of such a doubt ever emerge in the better-vetted forum of published views. And even though Plantinga has acknowledged that other scholars believe Darwin was referring to higher convictions such as philosophy or religion[69], he nonetheless titles the main premise of his argument “Darwin’s Doubt” (WCRL, p. 316). With Darwin as with Churchland, Plantinga has the tail unfairly wagging the dog.

It’s also worth tackling the flip side of Plantinga’s attack on naturalism. If God was in charge of creating our cognitive faculties, Plantinga wants us to think that, unquestionably, God would have gotten them right. But in situation after situation, God’s purported handiwork gives us cause to wonder whether such presumptions about his skill (or aims) are truly warranted. Let me shine a quick spotlight on two: human reproduction and knowledge of God. Around 287,000 women per year die of complications related to pregnancy or childbirth[70], and for every death, 30 suffer long-term injury or illness.[71] Birth defects afflict 3% of infants, causing 3.2 million defect-related disabilities per year.[72] There are 2.6 million stillbirths annually[73], and 2.4 million infant deaths in the first 28 days of life.[74] Is this the result of divine error or divine purpose? Neither inspires confidence. For as Evan Fales put it, “[i]f God can see fit to allow small children to die of terrible diseases for some greater good we cannot imagine, might He not have given us radically defective cognitive systems, and allowed us to be lulled into thinking them largely reliable, also for some unimaginable reason?”[75]

Similar questions arise concerning Plantinga’s assertion that we were designed to know God and his teachings (e.g., WCRL, chapter 9), and that we may even have a special built-in faculty to facilitate such knowledge. If that’s true, why are there millions of nonbelievers and hundreds of conflicting religions and Christian sects? Christians have been at each other’s throats disagreeing about God’s teachings. There are libraries of theology books professing conflicting views that change over time, and Christian believers still disagree on some of the most basic ethical teachings. It appears that this important design aim did not go optimally. Can we be so sure that cognition in God’s hands would have gone better?

But on to the details of the EAAN. Plantinga has slimmed the argument down over the years by rightly jettisoning certain portions. Yet in the end, the focus of his attack is hard to reconcile with naturalism as I understand it. Plantinga allows, as we saw, for indicators that he considers effective in triggering adaptive behavior, such as when a frog catches a fly, or a zebra knows a predator is close by. As naturalism has it, indicators like these are encoded through the appropriate neurophysiological properties of the brain in such a way that under the proper circumstances, they trigger adaptive responses. So far so good. But in organisms of a certain complexity, Plantinga asserts, indicators also encode belief content separate from the indicator content. And then he claims that the belief content may have nothing whatever to do with the corresponding indicator content. Because natural selection acts on the neurophysiological structure(s) encoding the indicator, say, of the predator, that content is accurate and reliable. But the belief arises on its own, through a process Plantinga does not describe; and because it is invisible to natural selection, there is nothing to ensure that its content is relevant or accurate:

We know of no reason why the content of a belief should match what that belief … indicates. Content simply arises upon the appearance of neural structures of sufficient complexity; there is no reason why that content need be related to what the structures indicates [sic], if anything. Indeed, the proposition constituting that content need not be so much as about that predator; it certainly need not be true. (WCRL, p. 331)

If disconnected belief content arose in parallel with accurate neurophysiological representation, that would be troublesome for naturalism. But Plantinga gives no basis for asserting this. And it doesn’t hold up well to scrutiny. To borrow his oft-used query: Why think a thing like that?

We discussed already that Plantinga’s distinction between an indicator and a belief is on uncertain ground. Now he proposes a different kind of disconnect between them. There is the neurophysiological structure that carries indicator content of a predator so as to trigger escape behavior, and this same structure somehow also encodes separate belief content that may be completely unrelated to the predator content. It sounds computationally impossible to this layperson, but it’s beyond me to argue that. What I do argue is that there is an excellent competing hypothesis: The indicator content of ‘predator’ is the belief. It encodes, in effect, ‘I believe that there is a predator close by with sufficient confidence to warrant ditching breakfast and investing energy in escape.’

For us to survive, natural selection had to get this right. As Churchland and many others assert, to that end we developed multiple levels of simple and complex representations, of the internal world, of the external world, of possible outcomes and possible threats, of the past, and of possible futures, all interlocking in fantastically complex ways. This is what humans are best at. It’s how we overcame so many obstacles and learned so many problem-solving survival skills.

These representations are what the neurophysiological structures encode. And a reasonable idea is that their activation and processing constitute our thoughts as we experience them from the inside of the processing activity.[76] There is simply no evidence or reason to postulate that these structures also encode content confusingly different from what they have so painstakingly encoded in the first place. Under the scheme I suggest, when we register a low body temperature, and we feel a cold wind with goosebumps on our skin, and our fingers are painful from cold—we feel cold, and we know it. Period. Where Plantinga’s interpretation is strange and strained, this one makes the most sense of what we know. And with the loss of this core premise, the EAAN fails.


In the end, allegedly superficial conflicts between science and theism turn substantial, areas of purported deep concord turn illusory, and the frontal assault on naturalism turns hollow. Plantinga cannot make good his claim that theism is the proper home of science.


[1] Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 309, 350.

[2] His name is pronounced as PLAN-tin-guh.

[3] Despite aiming for a general audience, Where the Conflict Really Lies is no walk in the park, and Plantinga uses sections in smaller type for his more abstruse arguments.

[4] Michael Behe, The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism (New York, NY: Free Press, 2007), p. 83.

[5] Kenneth R. Miller, “Falling Over the Edge.” Nature Vol. 447, No. 7148 (June 28, 2007): 1055-1056.

[6] David E. Levin, “Review: The Edge of Evolution.” Reports of the National Center for Science Education Vol. 27, No. 1-2 (January-April 2007): 38-40.

[7] Ian Musgrave, “An Open Letter to Dr. Michael Behe (Part 7).” The Panda’s Thumb. <http://pandasthumb.org/archives/2007/11/an-open-letter-9.html>. Contra Behe, Musgrave points out that “the HIV virus has evolved several [protein-protein] binding sites since it first infected humans.”

[8] See: Kenneth R. Miller, “Review of Darwin’s Black Box.” Creation/Evolution Vol. 16 (1996): 36-40; Robert L. Dorit, “A Review of Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, by Michael J. Behe.”
American Scientist Vol. 85, Issue 5 (September/October 1997): 474-475; and David Ussery, “A Biochemist’s Response to ‘The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution’.” Bios Vol. 70 (July 1999): 40-45.

[9] John H. McDonald, “A Reducibly Complex Mousetrap.” Department of Biological Sciences, University of Delaware (March 14, 2011). <http://udel.edu/~mcdonald/mousetrap.html>.

[10] Victor J. Stenger, “The Anthropic Coincidences: A Natural Explanation” in The Improbability of God ed. Michael Martin and Ricki Monnier (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2006): 125-149.

[11] P. C. W. Davies, “Multiverse Cosmological Models.” Modern Physics Letters A Vol. 19, Issue 10 (March 28, 2004): 727-743.

[12] Plantinga argues at length that observer selection effects—the fact that we couldn’t find ourselves in other than a life-friendly universe—can’t wipe away the need to explain why such a universe might be the only one to exist. But once there is a systematic way of universes existing along continua of the values of the constants, then the observer selection effect problem goes away; it’s no longer odd that life-friendly universes exist, and it’s guaranteed that we could only find ourselves in one of those.

[13] Michael Ikeda and Bill Jefferys, “The Anthropic Principle does not Support Supernaturalism” in The Improbability of God ed. Michael Martin and Ricki Monnier (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2006): 155-166.

[14] Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time (10th anniversary pbk ed.) (New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1998), p. 137.

[15] Alvin Plantinga, “Two Dozen (or so) Theistic Arguments” in Alvin Plantinga ed. Deane-Peter Baker (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2007): 203-228. (Original presentation 1986.)

[16] Here’s an alternative way to think about it: In the concept of ‘potential space’ in anatomy, there’s the possibility of space opening up between two features usually immediately adjacent (such as if fluid accumulates). Similarly, abstractions like numbers and sets potentially exist even if unthought, in the sense that they stand ready for use when reality calls upon them.

[17] Dennis Overbye, “Finding the Higgs Leads to more Puzzles.” The New York Times (November 4, 2013).

[18] Richard Carrier, “Fundamental Flaws in Mark Steiner’s Challenge to Naturalism in The Applicability of Mathematics as a Philosophical Problem.” The Secular Web (January 18, 2003). <https://infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/steiner.html>.

[19] Stewart C. Goetz, “Belief in God is Not Properly Basic.” Religious Studies Vol. 19, No. 4 (December 1983): 475-484.

[20] Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 350.

[21] There are technical qualifications to my assertion that are far above my paygrade, but the basic point is on target, as Plantinga’s statement immediately after this note in my main text indicates.

[22] Alvin Plantinga, “Religion and Science” (May 27, 2010) in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2013 Edition) ed. Edward N. Zalta (Stanford, CA: Stanford University). <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2013/entries/religion-science/>.

[23] Alvin Plantinga and Michael Tooley, Knowledge of God (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2008), pp. 180-181.

[24] Plantinga can maintain that theism is at least provisionally true even if not all challenges to it are rebutted so long as none of them demonstrably succeed.

[25] Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co., 1986), p. 79.

[26] In an unpublished article Russell presented a thought experiment in which one might assert the existence of a teapot orbiting undetectably between Earth and Mars. No one could disprove it, but there would also be no good reason to believe it. Dawkins invokes the same idea against theism in The God Delusion (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006), pp. 51-52.

[27] A detailed discussion of what likely did and did not actually occur appears in the Wikipedia entry for Pierre-Simon Laplace. The substance of Laplace’s achievement is not disputed; see A. Pannekoek, “The Planetary Theory of Laplace.” Popular Astronomy, Vol. 56 (1948): 300-311.

[28] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006), pp. 77ff.

[29] See, for example, treatment of cosmological arguments or ontological arguments on the Secular Web, and Quentin Smith, “Kalam Cosmological Arguments for Atheism” in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism ed. Michael Martin (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 2006): 181-198.

[30] Plantinga has famously advocated the free will defense (FWD) in his “The Free Will Defense” in The Problem of Evil: Selected Readings ed. Michael L. Peterson (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992). The FWD has its own problems, such as presupposing that we have libertarian free will (which materialist naturalists reject). For treatment of the free will defense within philosophical debate and the possible problems it creates within Christian theology, see James R. Beebe, “Logical Problem of Evil” in Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Martin, TN: University of Tennessee at Martin). <http://www.iep.utm.edu/evil-log/>.

[31] Bradley Monton and Logan Paul Gage, “Book Review: Alvin Plantinga: Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism.” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, Vol. 72, No. 1 (August 2012): 53-57.

[32] See, for example, Bart D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2005).

[33] Michael Martin, The Case Against Christianity (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1991).

[34] Paul’s experiences of Jesus’ resurrection are not of Jesus in the flesh (e.g., Acts 26:12-18), yet he equates his with those of the Apostles (e.g., 1 Corinthians 15:8), and he goes to some trouble to endorse a physical resurrection of a new body in Heaven, as opposed to that of one’s corpse on Earth (1 Corinthians 15). See Richard Carrier, “Why I Don’t Buy the Resurrection Story” (6th edition).” The Secular Web (March 2, 2006). <https://infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/resurrection/>.

[35] Jean Bricmont, “Determinism, Chaos and Quantum Mechanics” (September 2002). <http://www.academia.edu/3241035/Determinism_Chaos_and_Quantum_Mechanics>.

[36] For example, in Alvin Plantinga and Michael Tooley, Knowledge of God, pp. 51-66, and Alvin Plantinga, “Against Materialism.” Faith and Philosophy Vol. 23, No. 1 (January 2006): 3-32.

[37] John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Bk. IV, Ch. X. The Secular Web. <https://infidels.org/library/historical/john_locke/human_understanding.html>.

[38] Alvin Plantinga, “Against Materialism.”

[39] In Alvin Plantinga, “Against Materialism,” and Alvin Plantinga and Michael Tooley, Knowledge of God, p. 52.

[40] Here is Plantinga’s rendering of Gottfried Leibniz’s Monadology (1714) in Knowledge of God:

17. It must be confessed, moreover, that perception, and that which depends on it, are inexplicable by mechanical causes, that is by figures and motions. And supposing there were a machine so constructed as to think, feel and have perception, we could conceive of it as enlarged and yet preserving the same proportions, so that we might enter it as into a mill. And this granted, we should only find on visiting it, pieces which push one against another, but never anything by which to explain a perception. This must be sought for, therefore, in the simple substance and not in the composite or in the machine (p. 52).

[41] Alvin Plantinga and Michael Tooley, Knowledge of God, p. 54.

[42] Alvin Plantinga and Michael Tooley, Knowledge of God, p. 54.

[43] Alvin Plantinga and Michael Tooley, Knowledge of God, p. 58.

[44] On the running back example, see Alvin Plantinga, “Reply to Beilby’s Cohorts” in Naturalism Defeated? Essays on Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism ed. James Beilby (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002): 204-275, pp. 258-259.

[45] Alvin Plantinga and Michael Tooley, Knowledge of God, p. 61.

[46] For example: Victor Reppert, C. S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea: In Defense of the Argument from Reason (Westmont, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003).

[47] Since this isn’t Plantinga’s argument, I won’t devote more space to it here. For a fuller treatment, see: Richard C. Carrier, “Critical Review of Victor Reppert’s Defense of the Argument from Reason.” The Secular Web (July 21, 2004). <https://infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/reppert.html>. For a Christian perspective, see Nancey Murphy, Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies? (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

[48] Alvin Plantinga and Michael Tooley, Knowledge of God, p. 54, 57.

[49] Alvin Plantinga and Michael Tooley, Knowledge of God, p. 195.

[50] Peter van Inwagen, Metaphysics (3rd edition) (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2009), p. 374.

[51] See Nancey Murphy, Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies?

[52] Gottfried Leibniz’s Monadology as rendered in Alvin Plantinga and Michael Tooley, Knowledge of God, p. 52.

[53] Alvin Plantinga and Michael Tooley, Knowledge of God, pp. 190-195.

[54] For example, Patricia S. Churchland takes a compelling stroll through this and many other issues related to the current state of knowledge of the brain in Touching a Nerve: The Self as Brain (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co., 2013), pp. 33-35 and elsewhere.

[55] Alvin Plantinga, “Reply to Beilby’s Cohorts,” p. 259.

[56] Alvin Plantinga, “Reply to Beilby’s Cohorts,” p. 258.

[57] See: Patricia Smith Churchland, “How do Neurons Know?Daedalus: Journal of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences Vol. 133, No. 1 (Winter 2004): 42-50; Patricia S. Churchland and Paul M. Churchland, “Neural Worlds and Real Worlds.” Nature Reviews Neuroscience Vol. 3, No. 11 (November 2002): 903-907; and Richard C. Carrier, “Critical Review of Victor Reppert’s Defense of the Argument from Reason.”

[58] Patricia S. Churchland, Touching a Nerve: The Self as Brain, p. 49.

[59] Warren S. Brown, Nancey C. Murphy, and H. Newton Malony, Whatever Happened to the Soul: Scientific and Theological Portraits of Human Nature (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1998), p. 1.

[60] Nancey Murphy, Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies?, p. 5.

[61] Alvin Plantinga, “Against Materialism,” p. 24. The broader argument occurs on pp. 22-28.

[62] Alvin Plantinga, “Against Materialism,” p. 25.

[63] Nancey Murphy, Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies?, pp. 112-115.

[64] C. S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study (London, UK: New York, NY: MacMillan, 1947).

[65] Richard Taylor, Metaphysics (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1963).

[66] Patricia Smith Churchland, “Epistemology in the Age of Neuroscience.” Journal of Philosophy Vol. 84, Issue 10 (October 1987): 544-553, pp. 548-549.

[67] Cf. William Ramsey, “Naturalism Defended” in Naturalism Defeated? Essays on Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism ed. James Beilby (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002): 15-29. There Ramsey gives an example of how the brain might support fitness over “truth for its own sake”: Say that your habitat contains both a predator and a harmless creature that look alike. When you encounter one or the other, should you take your time and carefully decide which is which before responding—truth for its own sake—or run like hell and figure it out later? The obvious survival strategy preserves the sort of approximate accuracy that supports survival, but at the expense of immediate precision. It rightly categorizes animals that look a certain way as “possibly dangerous” so that you can react accordingly until you know for sure which subcategory an animal falls under. This implies no unreliability in our faculties, and as we’ll see, is decidedly not the fight that Plantinga picks with our cognitive processes.

[68] Charles Darwin, Letter to William Graham, 1881. <http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/letter/entry-13230>.

[69] Alvin Plantinga, “Introduction: The Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism” in Naturalism Defeated? Essays on Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism ed. James Beilby (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002): 1-12, p. 3n7.

[70] World Health Organization, “Why Do So Many Women Still Die in Pregnancy or Childbirth?” (Geneva, Switzerland: WHO, 2013). <http://www.who.int/features/qa/12/en/>

[71] World Health Organization/Partnership for Maternal, Newborn, and Child Health, “PMNCH Fact Sheet: Maternal Mortality” (Geneva, Switzerland: WHO/PMNCH, 2011). <http://who.int/pmnch/media/press_materials/fs/fs_mdg5_maternalmortality/en/>

[72] World Health Organization, “Congenital Anomalies, Fact Sheet Number 370” (Geneva, Switzerland: WHO, October 2012). <http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs370/en/>.

[73] World Health Organization, “Stillbirths” (Geneva, Switzerland: WHO, 2011). <http://www.who.int/reproductivehealth/topics/maternal_perinatal/stillbirth/en/>.

[74] World Health Organization, “Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health: Data, Statistics and Epidemiology.” (Geneva, Switzerland: WHO, 2012). <http://www.who.int/maternal_child_adolescent/epidemiology/en/>.

[75] Evan Fales, “Darwin’s Doubt, Calvin’s Calvary” in Naturalism Defeated? Essays on Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism ed. James Beilby (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002): 43-58, p. 56.

[76] It may be that it is the monitoring of these processes that constitutes our thoughts, but this is immaterial in the current discussion.

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