Archive for May 20th, 2017

English: Image of Alvin Plantinga released by ...

Alvin Plantinga (Wikipedia)

My latest sequence mentions the Bahá’í view that religion and science are compatible and necessary if our civilisation is to progress. It therefore seems appropriate to republish this earlier sequence. This is the last of four: the first was published on Tuesday. 

If it proved difficult to grasp that there is no real conflict between religion and evolutionary theory, somewhat more difficult to even hear that there is only a superficial conflict between religion and science, and almost a self-evident and inescapable contradiction that ‘there is superficial conflict but deep concord between science and religion,’ then Plantinga‘s last idea will seem bizarre in the extreme. The last chapter of his deeply engaging book, Where the Conflict Really Lies, argues that there is ‘superficial concord but deep conflict between science and naturalism.’

By ‘naturalism’ he means a system of belief that excludes a priori any idea of God, supernatural power, spirit or anything similar. There can be no such things ever anywhere. This position, in his view, is fundamentally incompatible with science. As most of us have been indoctrinated to believe the exact opposite I may have to take his exposition of this case rather more slowly even than I did the explanation of his previous idea. This is why the quotes are even longer and there is a certain amount of repetition. Those who have got the point already should feel free to skim.

Naturalism and Evolution

Let’s pick up his argument with evolution (page 308):

The scientific theory of evolution just as such is entirely compatible with the thought that God has guided and orchestrated the course of evolution, planned and directed it, in such a way as to achieve the ends he intends. . . .   On the one hand, therefore, we have the scientific theory, and on the other, there is the claim that the course of evolution is not directed or guided or orchestrated by anyone; . . . .  This claim, however, despite its strident proclamation, is no part of the scientific theory as such; it is instead a metaphysical or theological add-on.

He goes on to explain an aspect of naturalism that I was not expecting to hear (page 310):

Naturalism tells us what reality is ultimately like, where we fit into the universe, how we are related to other creatures, and how it happens that we came to be. Naturalism is therefore in competition with the great theistic religions.

However, there is an undermining aspect of naturalism for anyone who chooses to espouse it (page 313):

. . . . .  suppose you are a naturalist: you think that there is no such person as God, and that we and our cognitive faculties have been cobbled together by natural selection. Can you then sensibly think that our cognitive faculties are for the most part reliable? . . . . . . the probability of our cognitive faculties being reliable, given naturalism and evolution, is low. But then . . . . . if I believe both naturalism and evolution, I have a defeater for my intuitive assumption that my cognitive faculties are reliable. If I have a defeater for that belief, however, then I have a defeater for any belief I take to be produced by my cognitive faculties.

We need to unpack a little more the logic that underlies this conclusion (page 315):

The principal function or purpose, then, . . . . . of our cognitive faculties is not that of producing true or verisimilitudinous (nearly true) beliefs, but instead that of contributing to survival by getting the body parts in the right place.  . . . hence it does not guarantee mostly true or verisimilitudinous beliefs. . . . . What Churchland therefore suggests is that naturalistic evolution—that theory—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.

Where exactly does this lead us? In Plantinga’s view to this conclusion (page 316):

With this notion of conditional probability in hand, we can put Darwin’s doubt as follows: the conditional probability that our cognitive faculties are reliable, given naturalism together with the proposition that we have come to be by way of evolution, is low.

So, if you believe naturalistic evolution is true you cannot be sure any of your beliefs, including naturalism, are true.

He goes onto to show how what naturalism proposes almost inevitably leads to and fuses with materialism and the implications of that for the viability of this world view (pages 318-320):

First, naturalists often argue that dualism (the thought that a human being is an immaterial self or substance intimately related to a human body) is incoherent or subject to crushing philosophical difficulties; hence, so they say, we are rationally compelled to be materialists. . . . A second and somewhat better reason is this: . . . It may not be completely easy to see or say precisely what naturalism is, but, so goes the thought, at any rate it excludes things like immaterial selves or souls.  . . . A third reason is as follows. Naturalists will ordinarily endorse Darwinian evolution; but how, they ask, could an immaterial soul or self have come to exist by way of the processes that evolutionary science posits? .  . . . . . That seems doubtful. . . . For these reasons and perhaps others, most naturalists are materialists about human beings. For present purposes, therefore, I propose to assimilate materialism to naturalism; . . . .  and what I’ll be arguing against is the conjunction of current evolutionary theory and naturalism, the latter including materialism.


He examines the nature of beliefs. He sees (page 321-322) that they have two aspects from a materialist point of view: neuro-physiological properties (NP) and content. This raises a critical question:

NP properties are physical properties; on the other hand content properties—for example the property of having as content the proposition all men are mortal—are mental properties.   . . . how are content properties related to NP properties—how is the content property of a particular belief related to the NP properties of that belief?

materialismThere are two types of explanation for that (page 322): a reductive materialist and a nonreductive materialist one. He explains what this means (page 322):

. . . [according to] reductive materialism,  . . . mental content properties are reducible to NP properties; according to nonreductive materialism, content properties are not reducible to NP properties, but are determined by (supervene on) NP properties. 

We then come to the key conundrum (page 326):

what is the likelihood, given evolution and naturalism (construed as including materialism about human beings), that the content thus arising is in fact true.

We mostly tend to assume (ibid.) that ‘the beliefs they produce in us are true.’ He feels that those of us who espouse naturalism are not so fortunate (ibid.):

What I do mean to argue is that the naturalist—at any rate a naturalist who accepts evolution—is rationally obliged to give up this assumption.

Why should that be (ibid.)?

This underlying neurology causes adaptive behavior; as Churchland says, it gets the body parts where they must be in order to survive. But (in line with nonreductive materialism) it also determines belief content. As a result, these creatures have beliefs, which of course have a certain content. And here’s the question: what reason is there for supposing that this belief content is true? There isn’t any.

Reliability of Belief

He does not expect us simply to accept that without further explanation (page 328):

Fleeing predators, finding food and mates—these things require cognitive devices that in some way track crucial features of the environment, and are appropriately connected with muscles; but they do not require true belief, or even belief at all. . . . . The objector is therefore right in pointing out that fitness requires accurate indication; but nothing follows about reliability of belief.

The physiological structures that underpin the cognitive devices that detect predators, amongst other things, have a limited function (page 330-331):

the structure is correlated with the presence of a predator and indicates that presence; but indication is not belief. Indication is one thing; belief content is something else altogether, and we know of no reason (given materialism) why the one should follow the other. . . . 

It is just a meaningless coincidence that this particular content tends to ride on the back of the firing of this useful clump of neurones (page 334):

The content doesn’t have to be true, of course, for the neuronal structure to cause the appropriate kind of behavior. It just happens that this particular adaptive arrangement of NP properties also constitutes having that particular content.

This has disturbing implications for the materialist follower of naturalism (page 336):

. . . . we can’t assume that if materialism were true, it would still be the case that true beliefs are more likely to cause successful action than false beliefs. And in fact, if materialism were true, it would be unlikely that true beliefs mostly cause successful action and false belief unsuccessful action.

Perhaps I need to spell out here what he explains above but perhaps too technically. Awareness that a predator is present is not a belief. It is a trigger to action based on Predator and preylower level brain processes.  Any beliefs that ride on the back of those processes at a higher level of brain function are irrelevant to the production of life-saving behaviour and may or may not be true.

And if that weren’t bad enough for our materialist follower of naturalism worse implications follow (page 338):

the underlying neurology is adaptive, and determines belief content. But . . .  it doesn’t matter to the adaptiveness of the behavior (or of the neurology that causes that behavior) whether the content determined by that neurology is true.

This is because this leads to the conclusion (page 340) that:

 the naturalist who sees that [the probability of beliefs being reliable when naturalism and evolution are both true] is low has a defeater for [the reliability of beliefs], and for the proposition that his own cognitive faculties are reliable.

This is therefore , in the case of a materialistic naturalist, a defeater for (page 345)

. . . . any other belief she thinks she has, including [Naturalism and Evolution] itself. . . . . . If you have a defeater for [the reliability of belief], you will also have a defeater for any belief you take to be produced by your cognitive faculties, any belief that is a deliverance of your cognitive faculties. But all of your beliefs, as I’m sure you have discovered, are produced by your cognitive faculties. Therefore you have a defeater for any belief you have. . . . . This is a really crushing skepticism, and it is this skepticism to which the naturalist is committed.

The final upshot of all this is (page 345): “Conclusion: [Naturalism combined with Evolution] can’t rationally be accepted.”

Perhaps with his tongue slightly in his cheek, Plantinga closes his book by saying (page 349):

My conclusion, therefore, is that there is superficial conflict but deep concord between science and theistic belief, but superficial concord and deep conflict between science and naturalism. Given that naturalism is at least a quasi-religion, there is indeed a science/religion conflict, all right, but it is not between science and theistic religion: it is between science and naturalism. That’s where the conflict really lies.

I accept that this book, in places, is somewhat inaccessible. The argument is sometimes dense (or perhaps it’s me) even when he has not closed me out with symbolic logic (though I have to admit I got slightly better at decoding it as the book went on). However, for me the theme of the book is absolutely critical. If we do not, as a culture, find a way of reconciling the apparent differences between religion and science and of working from a deep understanding of their fundamental compatibility, we will fail to solve the problems our increasingly global society faces swiftly enough to spare most of the lifeforms on this planet unacceptable levels of suffering. This reality is well captured in the words of a recent paper prepared by the Office of Social and Economic Development at the Bahá’í World Centre:

Social action, of whatever size and complexity, should strive to remain free of simplistic and distorted conceptions of science and religion. To this end, an imaginary duality between reason and faith—a duality that would confine reason to the realm of empirical evidence and logical argumentation and which would associate faith with superstition and irrational thought—must be avoided. The process of development has to be rational and systematic— incorporating, for example, scientific capabilities of observing, of measuring, of rigorously testing ideas—and at the same time deeply aware of faith and spiritual convictions.

I am very aware that in this sequence of posts I have been trying to convey the ideas of someone who is focusing on problems well outside my area of expertise. As a result, there’s been a great deal of quotation and relatively little comment. Next, I will be turning to an area of human experience which has been a focus of mine for almost forty years: the mind. At least the next two posts, and maybe more, will be looking at consciousness – again.

‘No surprise there, then,’ did I hear you say?


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