Thursday, September 13, 2012

Nagel reviews Plantinga

As some of you know, I think very highly of Thomas Nagel and Avin Plantinga. This review will give you an idea why. [I have not got the time to take out the poor formatting - I apologize.]

A Philosopher Defends Religion
SEPTEMBER 27, 2012
Thomas Nagel
Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism
by Alvin Plantinga
Oxford University Press, 359 pp., $27.95                                                 
Sijmen Hendriks
Alvin Plantinga, Utrecht, the Netherlands, 1995
The gulf in outlook between atheists and adherents of the monotheistic religions is profound. We
are fortunate to live under a constitutional system and a code of manners that by and large keep it
from disturbing the social peace; usually the parties ignore each other. But sometimes the conflict
surfaces and heats up into a public debate. The present is such a time.
One of the things atheists tend to believe is that modern science is on their side, whereas theism is in
conflict with science: that, for example, belief in miracles is inconsistent with the scientific
conception of natural law; faith as a basis of belief is inconsistent with the scientific conception of
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A Philosopher Defends Religion by Thomas Nagel | The New York Re...
1 van 6 8-9-2012 17:38knowledge; belief that God created man in his own image is inconsistent with scientific explanations
provided by the theory of evolution. In his absorbing new book, Where the Conflict Really Lies,
Alvin Plantinga, a distinguished analytic philosopher known for his contributions to metaphysics
and theory of knowledge as well as to the philosophy of religion, turns this alleged opposition on its
head. His overall claim is that “there is superficial conflict but deep concord between science and
theistic religion, but superficial concord and deep conflict between science and naturalism.” By
naturalism he means the view that the world describable by the natural sciences is all that exists, and
that there is no such person as God, or anything like God.
Plantinga’s religion is the real thing, not just an intellectual deism that gives God nothing to do in
the world. He himself is an evangelical Protestant, but he conducts his argument with respect to a
version of Christianity that is the “rough intersection of the great Christian creeds”—ranging from
the Apostle’s Creed to the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles—according to which God is a person who
not only created and maintains the universe and its laws, but also intervenes specially in the world,
with the miracles related in the Bible and in other ways. It is of great interest to be presented with a
lucid and sophisticated account of how someone who holds these beliefs understands them to
harmonize with and indeed to provide crucial support for the methods and results of the natural
Plantinga discusses many topics in the course of the book, but his most important claims are
epistemological. He holds, first, that the theistic conception of the relation between God, the natural
world, and ourselves makes it reasonable for us to regard our perceptual and rational faculties as
reliable. It is therefore reasonable to believe that the scientific theories they allow us to create do
describe reality. He holds, second, that the naturalistic conception of the world, and of ourselves as
products of unguided Darwinian evolution, makes it unreasonable for us to believe that our
cognitive faculties are reliable, and therefore unreasonable to believe any theories they may lead us
to form, including the theory of evolution. In other words, belief in naturalism combined with belief
in evolution is self-defeating. However, Plantinga thinks we can reasonably believe that we are the
products of evolution provided that we also believe, contrary to naturalism, that the process was in
some way guided by God.
I shall return to the claim about naturalism below, but let me first say more about the theistic
conception. Plantinga contends, as others have, that it is no accident that the scientific revolution
occurred in Christian Europe and nowhere else. Its great figures, such as Copernicus and Newton,
believed that God had created a law-governed natural order and created humans in his image, with
faculties that allowed them to discover that order by using perception and reason. That use of
perception and reason is what defines the empirical sciences. But what about the theistic belief
itself? It is obviously not a scientific result. How can it be congruent with a scientific understanding
of nature?
Here we must turn to Plantinga’s general theory of knowledge, which is crucial to understanding his
position. Any theory of human knowledge must give an account of what he calls “warrant,” i.e., the
conditions that a true belief must meet in order to constitute knowledge. Sometimes we know
something to be true on the basis of evidence provided by other beliefs, or because we see that it is
entailed by our other beliefs. But not every belief can depend on other beliefs. The buck has to stop
A Philosopher Defends Religion by Thomas Nagel | The New York Re...
2 van 6 8-9-2012 17:38somewhere, and according to Plantinga this happens when we form beliefs in one of the ways that
he calls “basic.”
The basic belief-forming capacities include perception, memory, rational intuition (about logic and
arithmetic), induction, and some more specialized faculties, such as the ability to detect the mental
states of others. When you look in the refrigerator and see that it contains several bottles of beer,
you form that belief immediately without inferring it from any other belief, e.g., a belief about the
pattern of shapes and colors in your visual field. When someone asks you whether you have had
lunch yet, you can answer immediately because you remember having had lunch, and the memory
is a belief not based on any other belief, or on perception, or on logical reasoning.
Beliefs that are formed in the basic way are not infallible: they may have to be given up in the face
of contrary evidence. But they do not have to be supported by other evidence in order to be
warranted—otherwise knowledge could never get started. And the general reliability of each of
these unmediated types of belief-formation cannot be shown by appealing to any of the others:
Rational intuition enables us to know the truths of mathematics and logic, but it can’t tell us
whether or not perception is reliable. Nor can we show by rational intuition and perception
that memory is reliable, nor (of course) by perception and memory that rational intuition is.
But what then is the warrant for beliefs formed in one of these basic ways? Plantinga holds that the
main condition is that they must result from the proper functioning of a faculty that is in fact
generally reliable. We cannot prove without circularity that the faculties of perception, memory, or
reason are generally reliable, but if they are, then the true beliefs we form when they are functioning
properly constitute knowledge unless they are put in doubt by counterevidence.
knowledge is therefore dependent on facts about our relation to the world that we cannot prove
from scratch: we can’t prove the existence of the physical world, or the reality of the past, or the
existence of logical and mathematical truth; but if our faculties do in fact connect with these aspects
of reality, then we can know about them, according to Plantinga’s theory.
For example, if our perceptual beliefs are in general caused by the impact on our senses of objects
and events in the environment corresponding to what is believed, and if memories are in general
caused by traces in the brain laid down by events in the past corresponding to what those memories
represent, then perception and memory are reliable faculties, which can give us knowledge even
though we cannot prove they are reliable.
So far we are in the territory of traditional epistemology; but what about faith? Faith, according to
Plantinga, is another basic way of forming beliefs, distinct from but not in competition with reason,
perception, memory, and the others. However, it is
a wholly different kettle of fish: according to the Christian tradition (including both Thomas
Aquinas and John Calvin), faith is a special gift from God, not part of our ordinary epistemic
equipment. Faith is a source of belief, a source that goes beyond the faculties included in
God endows human beings with a sensus divinitatis that ordinarily leads them to believe in him.
(In atheists the sensus divinitatis is either blocked or not functioning properly.)
 In addition, God
acts in the world more selectively by “enabling Christians to see the truth of the central teachings of
A Philosopher Defends Religion by Thomas Nagel | The New York Re...
3 van 6 8-9-2012 17:38the Gospel.”
If all this is true, then by Plantinga’s standard of reliability and proper function, faith is a kind of
cause that provides a warrant for theistic belief, even though it is a gift, and not a universal human
faculty. (Plantinga recognizes that rational arguments have also been offered for the existence of
God, but he thinks it is not necessary to rely on these, any more than it is necessary to rely on
rational proofs of the existence of the external world to know just by looking that there is beer in the
It is illuminating to have the starkness of the opposition between Plantinga’s theism and the secular
outlook so clearly explained. My instinctively atheistic perspective implies that if I ever found
myself flooded with the conviction that what the Nicene Creed says is true, the most likely
explanation would be that I was losing my mind, not that I was being granted the gift of faith. From
Plantinga’s point of view, by contrast, I suffer from a kind of spiritual blindness from which I am
unwilling to be cured. This is a huge epistemological gulf, and it cannot be overcome by the
cooperative employment of the cognitive faculties that we share, as is the hope with scientific
Faith adds beliefs to the theist’s base of available evidence that are absent from the atheist’s, and
unavailable to him without God’s special action. These differences make different beliefs reasonable
given the same shared evidence. An atheist familiar with biology and medicine has no reason to
believe the biblical story of the resurrection. But a Christian who believes it by faith should not,
according to Plantinga, be dissuaded by general biological evidence. Plantinga compares the
difference in justified beliefs to a case where you are accused of a crime on the basis of very
convincing evidence, but you know that you didn’t do it. For you, the immediate evidence of your
memory is not defeated by the public evidence against you, even though your memory is not
available to others. Likewise, the Christian’s faith in the truth of the gospels, though unavailable to
the atheist, is not defeated by the secular evidence against the possibility of resurrection.
Of course sometimes contrary evidence may be strong enough to persuade you that your memory
is deceiving you. Something analogous can occasionally happen with beliefs based on faith, but it
will typically take the form, according to Plantinga, of a change in interpretation of what the Bible
means. This tradition of interpreting scripture in light of scientific knowledge goes back to
Augustine, who applied it to the “days” of creation. But Plantinga even suggests in a footnote that
those whose faith includes, as his does not, the conviction that the biblical chronology of creation is
to be taken literally can for that reason regard the evidence to the contrary as systematically
misleading. One would think that this is a consequence of his epistemological views that he would
hope to avoid.
We all have to recognize that we have not created our own minds, and must rely on the way they
work. Theists and naturalists differ radically over what justifies such reliance. Plantinga is certainly
right that if one believes it, the theistic conception explains beautifully why science is possible: the
fit between the natural order and our minds is produced intentionally by God. He is also right to
maintain that naturalism has a much harder time accounting for that fit. Once the question is raised,
atheists have to consider whether their view of how we got here makes it at all probable that our
A Philosopher Defends Religion by Thomas Nagel | The New York Re...
4 van 6 8-9-2012 17:38cognitive faculties should enable us to discover the laws of nature.
Plantinga argues that on the naturalist view of evolution, interpreted materialistically, there would be
no reason to think that our beliefs have any relation to the truth. On that view beliefs are states of
the brain, and natural selection favors brain mechanisms solely on the basis of their contribution, via
behavior, to survival and reproduction. The content of our beliefs, and hence their truth or
falsehood, is irrelevant to their survival value. “Natural selection is interested, not in truth, but in
appropriate behavior.”
Plantinga’s version of this argument suffers from lack of attention to naturalist theories of mental
content—i.e., theories about what makes a particular brain state the belief that it is, in virtue of
which it can be true or false. Most naturalists would hold that there is an intimate connection
between the content of a belief and its role in controlling an organism’s behavioral interaction with
the world. To oversimplify: they might hold, for example, that a state of someone’s brain constitutes
the belief that there is a dangerous animal in front of him if it is a state generally caused by
encounters with bears, rattlesnakes, etc., and that generally causes flight or other defensive behavior.
This is the basis for the widespread conviction that evolutionary naturalism makes it probable that
our perceptual beliefs, and those formed by basic deductive and inductive inference, are in general
Still, when our faculties lead us to beliefs vastly removed from those our distant ancestors needed to
survive—as in the recent production and assessment of evidence for the existence of the Higgs
boson—Plantinga’s skeptical argument remains powerful. Christians, says Plantinga, can “take
modern science to be a magnificent display of the image of God in us human beings.” Can
naturalists say anything to match this, or must they regard it as an unexplained mystery?
Most of Plantinga’s book is taken up with systematic discussion, deploying his epistemology, of
more specific claims about how science conflicts with, or supports, religion. He addresses Richard
Dawkins’s claim that evolution reveals a world without design; Michael Behe’s claim that on the
contrary it reveals the working of intelligent design; the claim that the laws of physics are
incompatible with miracles; the claim of evolutionary and social psychologists that the functional
explanation of moral and religious beliefs shows that there are no objective moral or religious truths;
the idea that historical biblical criticism makes it unreasonable to regard the Bible as the word of
God; and the idea that the fine-tuning of the basic physical constants, whose precise values make
life possible, is evidence of a creator. He touches on the problem of evil, and though he offers
possible responses, he also remarks, “Suppose God does have a good reason for permitting sin and
evil, pain and suffering: why think we would be the first to know what it is?”
About evolution, Plantinga argues persuasively that the most that can be shown (by Dawkins, for
example) on the basis of the available evidence together with some highly speculative further
assumptions is that we cannot rule out the possibility that the living world was produced by
unguided evolution and hence without design. He believes the alternative hypothesis of guided
evolution, with God causing appropriate mutations and fostering their survival, would make the
actual result much more probable. On the other hand, though he believes Michael Behe offers a
serious challenge to the prevailing naturalist picture of evolution, he does not think Behe’s
arguments for intelligent design are conclusive, and he notes that in any case they don’t support
Christian belief, and perhaps not even theism, because Behe intentionally says so little about the
A Philosopher Defends Religion by Thomas Nagel | The New York Re...
5 van 6 8-9-2012 17:38designer.
Plantinga holds that miracles are not incompatible with the laws of physics, because those laws
determine only what happens in closed systems, without external intervention, and the proposition
that the physical universe is a closed system is not itself a law of physics, but a naturalist
assumption. Newton did not believe it: he even believed that God intervened to keep the planets in
their orbits. Plantinga has a lengthy discussion of the relation of miracles to quantum theory: its
probabilistic character, he believes, may allow not only miracles but human free will. And he
considers the different interpretations that have been given to the fine-tuning of the physical
constants, concluding that the support it offers for theism is modest, because of the difficulty of
assigning probabilities to the alternatives. All these discussions make a serious effort to engage with
the data of current science. The arguments are often ingenious and, given Plantinga’s premises, the
overall view is thorough and consistent.
The interest of this book, especially for secular readers, is its presentation from the inside of the
point of view of a philosophically subtle and scientifically informed theist—an outlook with which
many of them will not be familiar. Plantinga writes clearly and accessibly, and sometimes acidly—in
response to aggressive critics of religion like Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. His comprehensive stand
is a valuable contribution to this debate.
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.
The details are complicated, and are set out in Plantinga’s three-volume magnum opus, Warrant:
The Current Debate and Warrant and Proper Function (both Oxford University Press, 1993) and
Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford University Press, 2000). 
This is often the result of sin, though not necessarily the sin of the unbeliever; see Plantinga,
Warranted Christian Belief, p. 214. 
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