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Plantinga on Where the Conflict Really Lies

Anyone interested in the dialogue between science and religion needs to read Alvin Plantinga's new book, Where the Conflict Really Lies. The book is based on a series of Gifford Lectures that Plantinga delivered in 2005. But it is also a culmination of years of thoughtful reflection on the subject. A nice article about Plantinga in the New York Times on December 13 is probably responsible for the book's out-of-stock status at Amazon. But you can get it right away in Kindle format.

Where the Conflict Really Lies contains so much careful analysis, and covers so many different topics, that a complete review is almost impossible. Over the next few weeks, however, I'd like to reflect on and engage several of Plantinga's arguments here at ENV.

Before I start, I should confess a personal interest. Plantinga has deeply influenced my own thinking. In fact, I drew on Plantinga's work in both a master's thesis and in my doctoral dissertation. So reading his mature thinking on the relationship between science and religion is truly a pleasure.

Plantinga is one of a small group of Christian analytic philosophers who emerged on the scene in the late 1960s and became more influential over the years. Though he would not claim credit, he is at least partly responsible for the huge growth of Christian analytic philosophy in the English-speaking world since that time.

One of Plantinga's virtues is his intellectual courage. Cowardice mars so much Christian scholarship, including Christian theology. As we all know, the commanding heights of culture, including academia, are now largely hostile to theism and Christianity. As a result, there is strong sociological pressure for academics to accommodate and capitulate to the dominant secular culture. Academic promotion can often depend on it. This is especially true in the overlapping territory of science and religion.

Plantinga never chose the accommodationist route, however. Instead, throughout his career, he challenged, and often challenged decisively, the prevailing conventional wisdom and fundamental assumptions in the academy. For years, he taught philosophy at Calvin College, but moved to Notre Dame in 1982, where he taught until his recent retirement. He has since returned to Grand Rapids, Michigan, and is again teaching at Calvin.

His thesis in Where the Conflict Really Lies is as clear as it is provocative. He argues that "there is superficial conflict but deep concord between science and theistic religion, but superficial concord and deep conflict between science and naturalism." (p. ix) So there is a conflict, but it's not between science and (theistic) religion. It's between science and the naturalism that so many try to confuse with science, but which Plantinga argues is really just a philosophical gloss or add-on. (Plantinga presented his thesis at the recent science and faith conference held at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. You can listen to the audio here.)

Not surprisingly, Plantinga spends a good bit of time dealing with biological evolution in Part I of the book, Alleged Conflict. In Part II, Superficial Conflict, he deals with evolutionary psychology and Biblical Criticism. In Part III, Concord, he discusses (and defends to some extent) the evidence for cosmic fine-tuning, Mike Behe's argument for intelligent design, and the Christian and theistic origins of modern science. Finally, in Part IV, Deep Conflict, he lays out, in what he hopes is its final form, his justly famous "evolutionary argument against naturalism." The argument shows (I think successfully) that one can't reasonably believe in both naturalism and evolution (understood along Darwinian lines).

In the next installment, I'll discuss his treatment of biological evolution. In the meantime, you should get the book.