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In Seattle, Alvin Plantinga & Jay Richards Address an Audience of More than a Thousand


This past Friday night at University Presbyterian Church in Seattle, internationally renowned philosopher Alvin Plantinga addressed an audience of more than a thousand on the central thesis of his recent book, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion and Naturalism (Oxford University Press).

Co-sponsored by the Center for Science & Culture, the event featured a dialogue between Dr. Plantinga and Discovery Institute philosopher Jay Richards, reprising some themes of a series of posts they exchanged one year ago here at Evolution News & Views.

In his remarks, Plantinga offered two key propositions: (1) There is no inherent incompatibility between Darwinism, as Plantinga understands it, and Christian theism. (2) There is an inherent incompatibility between Darwinism and naturalism. In other words, while there is superficial conflict but deep concord between science and Christian theism, there is superficial concord but deep conflict between science and naturalism.

Concerning the first proposition, Plantinga argued that since Darwinism only refers to the concept of universal common ancestry and successive modification, and the various mechanisms that account for it (including natural selection, mutations, recombination, genetic drift, etc.), such a view is not in tension with orthodox Christianity. Plantinga did concede that unguided evolution is not compatible with traditional theistic belief. He nonetheless argued that the allegedly unguided nature of evolutionary change is not part of the modern concept of Darwinian evolution.

As for the second proposition, Dr. Plantinga articulated his well-known evolutionary argument against naturalism: If we are indeed the product of blind and purposeless processes, he says, the probability that our cognitive faculties are a reliable gauge for truth is likely to be relatively low, since natural selection promotes only survival. His conclusion is that one cannot rationally hold simultaneously to both evolution and naturalism, since belief that the human brain is the result of mindless chance and necessity is a defeater for any beliefs that one holds -- including naturalism.

Following Plantinga's lecture, Dr. Richards gave a presentation responding to Plantinga's thesis, followed by a reply from Plantinga. Plantinga and Richards agreed on almost everything, but a point of contention was a small yet significant difference of opinion on semantics, concerning Plantinga's use of the word "Darwinism." In technical use, Richards explained, "Darwinism" is understood to refer to a process that is, by its very nature, unguided (thereby rendering it incompatible with traditional theism).

The final part of the evening's program was a lively Q&A, which elicited some thoughtful questions from the audience. One questioner asked why natural selection could not select for true beliefs, since such beliefs are more likely to promote survival than false ones. Plantinga's response was that, as he writes in his book, "all that's required for survival and fitness is that the neurology cause adaptive behavior; this neurology also determines belief content, but whether or not that content is true makes no difference to fitness."

Notably, the series of posts by Plantinga and Richards last year at ENV concluded with Plantinga observing that "It is comforting, however, to see that our disagreement is merely verbal."