Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night;
God said “Let Newton be! and all was light.”
Alexander Pope (1688-1744)
The two previous posts have looked at various aspects of Plantinga‘s view of the relationship between religion and science as expressed in his book Where the Conflict Really Lies. The first post took an overview to phase us in gently, and the second focused on two components of his detailed argument against the idea that religion and science are fundamentally opposed.
Now we have come to one of the two key buttresses supporting his overall position. Both these will be surprising to those who have come to accept the conventional view that science and religion are fundamentally at odds. He summarises them as follows before launching into a more detailed consideration of the first one (page 265):
Most people who have bought into the prevailing myth will have expected the exact opposite and he knows that.
In this post let’s take a closer look at his first trance breaker. We’ll save the second plank in his argument till next time.
The History of this Harmony
He opens with an obvious truth which most of us may well have overlooked and whose implications he is keen to unpack (page 266):
Modern Western empirical science originated and flourished in the bosom of Christian theism and originated nowhere else. . . . it was Christian Europe that fostered, promoted, and nourished modern science. . . . This is no accident: there is deep concord between science and theistic belief.
He defines what he means by science in this context (pages 267-268):
He accepts that what distinguishes the scientific approach or method is empiricism, the need to test belief against experience in a systematic way (page 268):
Then begins a line of thought that might at first seem likely to test the patience of an agnostic to breaking point, but I would ask any reader coming from that position to take the time to consider his argument very carefully indeed. He is looking at the notion, commonly held by Christians everywhere, that we are made in God’s image, and this will have an unexpected link to empiricism (ibid.):
God is a knower, and indeed the supreme knower. God is omniscient, that is, such that he knows everything, knows for any proposition p, whether p is true. We human beings, therefore, in being created in his image, can also know much about our world, ourselves, and God himself.
This capacity to learn about our world is a key aspect of our being and relates to this issue in his view (ibid.): ‘this ability to know something about our world, ourselves and God is a crucially important part of the divine image.’ And this is where he springs on us an unexpected point in favour of his case (pages 268-269):
God created both us and our world in such a way that there is a certain fit or match between the world and our cognitive faculties. . . . . For science to be successful . . . there must be a match between our cognitive faculties and the world.
That match is not at all what we should necessarily expect. The world could just as easily, probably far more easily be an incomprehensible and apparently random puzzle to us, but it is not.
As we discussed in the first post of the series evolution does not entail that our beliefs are true, only that our behaviour is adaptive (page 270):
What we find we have though goes far beyond the requirements of mere survival (ibid.):
I’ve just mentioned perception; clearly this is a most important source of belief about the world; and one condition of the success of science is that perception for the most part, and under ordinary and favorable conditions, produces in us beliefs that are in fact true.
And beyond that, science requires that we can accurately predict consequences on the basis of these beliefs (page 271):
For intentional action to be possible, it must be the case that we, given our cognitive faculties, can often or usually predict what will happen next. . . . . science as practiced by us humans requires predictability given our cognitive faculties.
This predictability makes successful empiricism possible. An expectation of such predictability is built into theistic religion (ibid.):
It’s an essential part of theistic religion—at any rate Christian theistic religion—to think of God as providentially governing the world in such a way as to provide that kind of stability and regularity. . . . . The world was created in such a way that it displays order and regularity; it isn’t unpredictable, chancy or random. And of course this conviction is what enables and undergirds science.
The Laws of Nature
He quotes Alfred North Whitehead as attributing (page 272 ) this ‘widespread instinctive conviction to “the medieval insistence on the rationality of God.”‘ This rationality extends beyond moral laws (page 273):
The rationality of God, as Aquinas thought, extends far beyond the realm of morality. God sets forth moral laws, to be sure, but he also sets forth or promulgates laws of nature, and he creates the world in such a way that it conforms to these laws.
He sees this point as crucial (page 275):
An additional critical factor is that the laws of nature lie within the grasp of our understanding (page 276):
On this conception, part of the job of science is to discover the laws of nature; but then of course science will be successful only if it is possible for us human beings to do that. Science will be successful only if these laws are not too complex, or deep, or otherwise beyond us. Again, this thought fits well with theistic religion and its doctrine of the image of God; God not only sets laws for the universe, but sets laws we can (at least approximately) grasp.
Also changing them, on the other hand, must lie beyond our reach (page 280)
The laws of nature . . . resemble necessary truths in that there is nothing we or other creatures can do to render them false. We could say that they are finitely inviolable.
So, to his conclusions (page 282):
With respect to the laws of nature, therefore, there are at least three ways in which theism is hospitable to science and its success . . . First, science requires regularity, predictability, and constancy; . . . From the point of view of naturalism, the fact that our world displays the sort of regularity and lawlike behavior necessary for science is a piece of enormous cosmic luck, a not-to-be-expected bit of serendipity. But regularity and lawlikeness obviously fit well with the thought that God is a rational person who has created our world, and instituted the laws of nature.
Second, not only must our world in fact manifest regularity and law-like behavior: for science to flourish, scientists and others must believe that it does. . . . such a conviction fits well with the theistic doctrine of the image of God.
Third, theism enables us to understand the necessity or inevitableness or inviolability of natural law: this necessity is to be explained and understood in terms of the difference between divine power and the power of finite creatures.
He goes onto to consider other more familiar issues, for example the uncanny way that the world can be described mathematically (page 284):
What Wigner notes . . . is that our world is mathematically describable in terms of fascinating underlying mathematical structures of astounding complexity but also deep simplicity. . . . It is also properly thought of as unreasonable, in the sense that from a naturalistic perspective it would be wholly unreasonable to expect this sort of mathematics to be useful in describing our world. It makes eminently good sense from the perspective of theism, however. . . . So here we have another manifestation of deep concord between science and theistic religion: the way in which mathematics is applicable to the universe.
What’s more, understanding the universe (page 286-287):
. . . involves mathematics of great depth, requiring cognitive powers going enormously beyond what is required for survival and reproduction. . . . What prehistoric female would be interested in a male who wanted to think about whether a set could be equal in cardinality to its power set, instead of where to look for game? . . . numbers and sets themselves make a great deal more sense from the point of view of theism than from that of naturalism.
The deep simplicity of the underlying regularities of our world is not what a godless universe would lead you to expect (page 298):
It isn’t a necessary truth, however, that simple theories are more likely to be true than complex theories. Naturalism gives us no reason at all to expect the world to conform to our preference for simplicity. From that perspective, surely, the world could just as well have been such that unlovely, miserably complex theories are more likely to be true.
And this paves the way for his final thoughts on this subject (page 302):
In this chapter, we’ve seen that theistic religion gives us reason to expect our cognitive capacities to match the world in such a way as to make modern science possible. Naturalism gives us no reason at all to expect this sort of match; from the point of view of naturalism, it would be an overwhelming piece of cosmic serendipity if there were such a match.
The next post will deal with his other major issue: ‘superficial concord and deep conflict between naturalism and science.’