Alvin Plantinga's new book Where the Conflict Really Lies has gotten some attention in the lat few days, since being reviewed sympathetically by Thomas Nagel in the New York Review of Books. Alas, despite the nature of the argument that Plantinga appears to be making, and that Nagel views appreciatively, the response has fallen along predictable lines.
Plantinga's argument, at least as summarized by Nagel and reflected in the clip above, is fairly straightforward: There is not any innate conflict between religion and science, and that properly understood the two disciplines can inform one another. The real culprit, he argues, is a form of metaphysical naturalism and materialism which is, he argues, ultimately self-contradictory.
The main thrust of his argument in the clip above is intriguing. He argues that metaphysical naturalism takes as its principle that evolution produces creatures that are well-adapted to their environment. But if that is so, he claims, then there is no necessary connection between being well-adapted to the environment and having the capacity to form true propositions about the environment. In other words, if it is evolutionarily advantageous for us to view the world in a way that does not reflect its "true" nature, then this is what evolution will select for. If the frog who "believes" that the fly he grabs with his tongue is gift from the Frog God is more effective at catching flies than the one who "believes" that both he and the fly are simply matter in motion, then the evolutionary argument is that the "religious" frog will have a survival advantage.
Plantinga's point, which Nagel appears to endorse, is that there is no way, from within a materialist metaphysical framework, to determine with any certainty that our beliefs about the world do in fact reflect the way that the world really is. This is not to say that we aren't quite well justified in behaving as though we had such certainty, but we can't establish it with certainty in the way that metaphysical materialist might like.
This is important in the ongoing science/religion debate because those scientists who view metaphysical materialism as the only rationally legitimate starting point for conversations about the nature of the world do so on the basis of the claim that their approach to naturalism operates within the context of things that we already "know" to be true. But Plantinga's point is that we only "know" them to be true in the sense that, on materialist terms, we are well-adapted to view the world as though it corresponded to materialist principles. The problem isn't that, as far as we know, they do in fact correspond to those principles. The problem is that we can say that only so far as we know, which is to say, not very far at all. The kind of certainty that the materialist wants to start with is no more available to him or her than the certainty that there is a God who exists. The materialst, just as much as the theist, argues from within an epistemic framework that he or she then works out from, rather than beginning from an epistemic blank slate and establishing unvarnished truths.
All of which is to say, in the hoary language of contemporary philosophy, that all of our knowledge about the world, both religious and scientific, is "theory-laden." We don't begin with a view from nowhere, but rather we begin from a framework, which is not itself subject to rational question. Or at least, to the extent that it is, it is so only to the degree that our questioning serves to establish enough grounds to proceed onto other questions with. Otherwise we'd spend all of our time questioning first principles and never get beyond the state that Descartes finds himself in at the beginnings of his Meditations on First Philosophy, a state of radical doubt from which we cannot escape. Descartes attempts to escape by establishing what he thinks he can know for certain. But these days many philosophers, myself included, would say that we proceed, necessarily, in the absence of any form of definitive certainty.
Now, like this argument or not, it is a philosophically important statement about the nature of both religious and scientific knowledge that calls into question some basic epistemic claims that materialists make in favor of their own positions. This appears to be what Nagel appreciates about the argument, as he notes here:
I say this as someone who cannot imagine believing what he believes. But even those who cannot accept the theist alternative should admit that Plantinga’s criticisms of naturalism are directed at the deepest problem with that view—how it can account for the appearance, through the operation of the laws of physics and chemistry, of conscious beings like ourselves, capable of discovering those laws and understanding the universe that they govern. Defenders of naturalism have not ignored this problem, but I believe that so far, even with the aid of evolutionary theory, they have not proposed a credible solution. Perhaps theism and materialist naturalism are not the only alternatives.
Now what Nagel is saying here is a restatement of Plantinga's point, namely that a naturalistic or materialistic account of the world cannot, in principle, step outside of its metaphysical presuppositions in order to establish with certainty that it is saying something true about the world. The way he phrases it, however, makes it sound as though he is saying that we lack a particular data point or set of data points that, as a result of our lacking it, makes a religious perspective justifyable. At this point, Jerry Coyne jumps in to accuse Nagel of falling for a classic "God-of-the-gaps" arguement:
Nagel has fallen for the God-of-the-gap trap. The credible solution is to do more work to find out how the structure of the mind produces consciousness, and how natural selection might have acted to promote that feature. Does Nagel think that science has used all its resources on this problem, and failed? Does he not know how relatively primitive neurobiology is right now? Nagel has just thrown up his hands and said, “You people haven’t explained it, therefore perhaps Plantinga is right.” Or there might be “another alternative.” Curious that Nagel doesn’t propose what that alternative might be. I guess he’s purveying a Philosophy of the Gaps.
The problem is that this is not what Plantinga appears to be arguing, nor what Nagel appears to be endorsing. The issue is not that we, as of now, lack a scientific account for how a certain kind of knowledge arises in the world, or that this account can be explained within the parameters of a certain kind of neurobiology. Coyne thinks that this is a question that is subject to scientific resolution. Plantinga and Nagel think it is not -- it is a philosophical quandry rooted in a philosophical position, vis., naturalistic materialism. If Plantinga's point is wrong, then it's wrong on the basis of some flaw in his argument, not on the basis of the development of more sophisticated tools for analysis of the natural world.
In a similar vein, Sean Carroll argues against Plantinga's understanding of the idea of "faith":
So what about faith? Even if your faith is extremely strong in some particular proposition, e.g. that God loves you, it’s important to recognize that there’s a chance you are mistaken. That should be an important part of any respectable road to knowledge. So you are faced with (at least) two alternative ideas: first, that God exists and really does love you and has put that belief into your mind via the road of faith, and second, that God doesn’t exist and that you have just made a mistake.
The problem is that you haven’t given yourself any way to legitimately decide between these two alternatives. Once you say that you have faith, and that it comes directly from God, there is no self-correction mechanism. You can justify essentially any belief at all by claiming that God gave it to you directly, despite any logical or evidence-based arguments to the contrary. This isn’t just nit-picking; it’s precisely what you see in many religious believers. An evidence-based person might reason, “I am becoming skeptical that there exists an all-powerful and all-loving deity, given how much random suffering exists in the world.” But a faith-based person can always think, “I have faith that God exists, so when I see suffering, I need to think of a reason why God would let it happen.”
Now, it may very well be that Plantinga's view of the nature of faith includes such certainty. His statements about the nature of what he calls "properly basic" beliefs might give one grounds for making that argument. But that is by no means a necessity. It is entirely possible to hold a proposition by faith while also being simultaneously completely aware of the possibility that it is wrong. This seems to me to be a mischaracterization of faith based, is is the god-of-the-gaps arguement, on a misunderstanding of the kind of claims that Plantinga is making, and that are supported within the broader field of the philosophy of religion.
The work of "saving the appearances" in a loving and all-powerful God in the face of the reality of suffering can take place within the context of the recognition that one may be wrong, and even within the context of grave doubts about the goodness and power of God. And here again the analogy to the work of science is a propos, because science too operates within the framework of accepted theories that have to find ways to maintain themselves in the face of counter-evidence.
To me the deep connection between science and religion isn't that they ultimately confirm or must support the same picture of reality, but that they are in many ways analogous approaches to thinking about how we know and what we know about the world, which run on parallel tracks with one another. They may view the same phenomena, and come to different conclusions, but they both operate with the context of human attempts to reason about and make sense of the world within which we dwell. And in that regard both are valuable and necessary.