Evolution and Alvin Plantinga
Department of Philosophy Huntington College
Huntington, IN 46750
From Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 44 (December 1992): 150-162
When a contribution to the creation-evolution debate comes from one of the world's leading Christian philosophers, attention must be paid. Such a contribution is Alvin Plantinga's "When Faith and Reason Clash: Evolution and the Bible," which appeared in the September 1991 issue of the Christian Scholar's Review. Some valuable initial responses to Plantinga's argument have come in the form of comments by Howard Van Till and Ernan McMullin, which were published along with Plantinga's article. Plantinga's reply to McMullin and Van Till, however, changes the situation by opening up aspects of his position which were not clear from the initial paper,1 so it is necessary for the discussion to continue.
My procedure will be as follows: I shall begin with a brief sketch of Plantinga's position, as set out in his original article, followed by a preliminary assessment. I shall then take up in some detail three aspects of Plantinga's position, the first dealing with the general significance of the controversy in the current intellectual climate, and the other two with Plantinga's handling of certain aspects of the evidence in the case. I conclude with an assessment of Plantinga's proposal for the inauguration of a "theistic science" which for Christians would provide an alternative to the methodologically naturalistic science2 which is now espoused by virtually all scientists, whether they be theists, naturalists, or agnostics.
I. Summary of Plantinga's Position
Plantinga begins by asking how Christians should address apparent conflicts between faith and reason, such as those between the Bible and the teachings of science. He reviews and dismisses several views (including MacKay's "complementarity") according to which no conflict between science and Scripture is really possible. When a conflict does emerge, he tells us, we should not always assume that science is correct, so that our interpretation of Scripture must be altered, but neither should we invariably assume that our interpretation of Scripture is correct and our science is in error. There is no general recipe or formula for the resolution of such conflicts; rather, "All we can do is weigh and evaluate the relative warrant, the relative backing or strength, of the conflicting teachings" (p. 14). If our warrant for thinking that the Lord is teaching us something in Scripture on a certain topic is quite strong, and the evidence for a conflicting scientific view is weak or ambiguous, then we should conclude that current science is in error; but if the scientific evidence is strong and the evidence concerning what the Lord teaches in Scripture is less clear, it may be our understanding of Scripture which needs correction.
Turning to the issue of evolution, Plantinga first elaborates on the role this theory plays in contemporary Western culture, in particular, its role as a secular myth - "a deep interpretation of ourselves to ourselves, a way of telling us why we are here, where we came from, and where we are going" (p 17). He then proposes to consider, from a theistic and Christian perspective, how likely it is that the theory is true. He presents the Grand Evolutionary Story (GES) as comprising five distinct claims: there is the Ancient Earth Thesis, that the earth is several billion years old; the Progress Thesis, that life has progressed from relatively simple to relatively complex forms; the Thesis of Common Ancestry (TCA), which holds that all life on earth is descended from a single original form; the Darwinian Thesis, which says that there is a naturalistic explanation of the development of life; and the Naturalistic Origins Thesis, which claims that life developed from non-living matter without any special creative activity of God but just by virtue of the ordinary laws of physics and chemistry.
Plantinga then explains that he accepts both the Ancient Earth Thesis and the Progress Thesis. On the other hand, the Naturalistic Origins Thesis seems to him "mere arrogant bluster . . . vastly less probable, on our present evidence, than is its denial" (p. 20). So his serious efforts at evaluation are focused on the Thesis of Common Ancestry and the Darwinian Thesis. He points out that a number of prominent evolutionists proclaim evolution as absolutely certain, given the scientific evidence. But, he counters, these prominent evolutionists are all atheists, and so have ruled out in advance the possibility of divine creation; hence it is important for Christians to make their own, independent assessment of the evidence. In a brief review of several classes of evidence,3 Plantinga finds it on the whole unimpressive; on balance, TCA is less probable than its denial, given the scientific evidence plus Christian theism (but setting aside the evidence from early Genesis, which is in dispute among biblical scholars). He concludes with a call for a new kind of science "Theistic Science" in which Christians will shed the constraints of methodological naturalism and consider the phenomena of nature and human life "from the perspective of all that we know.....what we know about God, and what we know by faith, by way of revelation, as well as what we know in other ways" (p. 30).
On several of these points, I believe Plantinga is clearly correct. Certainly the fact that many leading evolutionists are atheists, and so for them evolution is "the only game in town," plays a role in explaining the claims of certainty which are often made for this theory. It is perfectly correct, then, to assert that Christians need to make their own, independent assessment of the evidence for evolution. And it is very plausible that the result of this assessment will be that this theory is less than maximally certain. So far, then, there is agreement, but some other points require further discussion.
II. Is Evolution Religiously Neutral?
One theme which receives considerable emphasis in Plantinga's paper is that evolution "TCA and GES" is "not religiously neutral." Howard Van Till appears to concede this, but only in the sense that evolution (like other scientific theories) is able to be incorporated into the "mythology" of a naturalistic culture. Plantinga replies that "to say that science was not neutral in that sense would be to make a statement weak in excelsis" (p. 84); what he had in mind was something much stronger. He goes on to say,
GES plays an important role in the conflict between Christian theism and naturalism (taken as a mythology, a deep account of ourselves and the world around us). This role is that of providing an answer to a question that is both insistent and monumentally difficult from a naturalistic perspective: how did all this astounding variety of life with its millions of species get here? Their ancestors can't have just popped into existence, but neither, from a naturalistic perspective, could they have been created by God, so where does all this life come from, and how did it get here? Evolution gives an answer the naturalist can accept, and it gives the only such answer anyone can presently think of (p. 84).
Now it is certainly true that evolution can and does play this sort of role in naturalist mythology and naturalist apologetics - a fact which is acknowledged and deplored by Van Till (see pp. 37-42). But what conclusion should we draw from this fact? It should be noted that the characteristic Plantinga identifies in evolutionary theory - that of providing a naturalistic explanation for what otherwise might require the action of God or other supernatural powers - is by no means unique to GES and TCA, nor does it, by itself, provide any good reason for rejecting a theory which exemplifies it, provided only that (1) the theory provides a naturalistic explanation of some range of phenomena, and (2) some significant group of people has regarded these phenomena as direct manifestations of supernatural powers. If people are inclined to view wind, rain, and lightning as direct manifestations of divine activity, then a naturalistic theory of the weather can strike a blow against religion - a point exploited with vulgar effectiveness by Aristophanes in the Clouds. And if someone is disposed to regard natural disasters such as earthquakes as resulting from the actions of fallen angels (a hypothesis which Plantinga regards as not improbable on the basis of our evidence!4), the explanation of earthquakes in terms of plate tectonics gives a boost to naturalism.
But we need not turn for examples to the archaic or the fanciful. Consider, for example, the hypothesis that the earth is several billions of years old. Doesn't this hypothesis "provid[e] an answer to a question that is both insistent and monumentally difficult from a naturalistic perspective: how did all this astounding variety of [geological formations, including continents, mountains, and complicated rock strata, as well as] life with its millions of species get here?" It's true that merely the general hypothesis of the earth's great age does not provide detailed answers to all of this, any more than the bare thesis that evolution occurred provides detailed explanations for those millions of species. But it's evident that any naturalistic explanation for all of this will require vast stretches of time; given a much shorter time-span, naturalistic geology (to say nothing of naturalistic biological evolution) simply cannot put the ground under our feet.
This fact, of course, has not gone unnoticed. It's precisely for this reason that Creation Science advocates are determined to resist the old earth hypothesis to the last ditch; they have correctly noted that old-earth theory is "not religiously neutral," that it plays a crucial role in contemporary naturalist mythology and apologetics. But here, of course, Plantinga and his Creation Science colleagues part company. In spite of the fact that old-earth theory plays this crucial role in naturalist mythology, Plantinga embraces it with no apparent reservations, just because it is confirmed by good scientific evidence.
What should we conclude from all this? Certainly we should note with concern the use of evolutionary theory by prophets of naturalism such as Carl Sagan. When a theory is being used in this way, we do well to scrutinize with special care whether the theory is really supported by good evidence as claimed, or whether on the contrary it has been adopted for its apologetic value in the absence of such evidence. (Of course we should scrutinize in the same way theories which are specially favored by Christian apologists!) If such a theory does withstand scientific scrutiny, then we should examine it carefully so as to detect and remove any "mythological accretions" which have been added to the scientific theory in order to make it more useful for ideological purposes. Clearly both of these kinds of scrutiny are greatly needed in the case of evolution, a theory which may well hold the all-time record for ideological accretions. But once this has been done, if a theory has been validated by good evidence and stripped of mythological accretions, then it can and should be adopted in good conscience by Christian scientists and intellectuals, notwithstanding any misuse that may have been made of it by the purveyors of naturalism. And this goes for evolution as much as for naturalistic meteorology, plate tectonics, and old-earth theory. And I believe Plantinga, Van Till, and McMullin would all agree with this, even though their respective emphases vary considerably.
III. Plantinga and the Bible
The reader of Plantinga's original paper might well be struck by two things concerning his use of the Bible: First, there are what appear to be fairly confident assertions about what the Bible teaches, or about what we have reason to believe the Bible teaches, on this or that subject, especially on subjects related to the divine creation of the world. Consider, for example, the following assessment of "what the Lord intends us to learn from early Genesis":
Most clear, perhaps, is that God created the world, so that it and everything in it depends upon him and neither it nor anything in it has existed for an infinite stretch of time. Next clearest, perhaps, is that there was an original human pair who sinned . . . That humankind was separately created is perhaps less clearly taught; that many other kinds of living beings were separately created might be still less clearly taught; that the earth is young, still less clearly taught (p. 15).
But second, there is a complete lack of any reference to the kinds of hermeneutical questions which might seem relevant to understanding the Bible's teachings on creation; considerations of literary genre, for instance, or of the historicity of the early chapters of Genesis, or of the nature of ancient world-views, or of the origin of natural science in a Greek and Western rather than a Semitic context.
In view of these two features, I think a reader might be pardoned for concluding that Plantinga feels entitled to interpret Scripture quite straightforwardly - to give a "face-value interpretation," as one might say - without concerning himself with sophisticated hermeneutical issues. Van Till apparently did conclude this; he chides Plantinga for ignoring the "difficult and relevant issues of epistemology and hermeneutics in the arena of biblical exegesis" (p. 35). Plantinga's reply is just a mite testy: "Academics, other intellectuals, the readers of this journal and the audience of my original lecture all get told about a dozen times a day that there are epistemological and hermeneutical difficulties in determining what the Bible teaches; this hardly needs further emphasis" (p. 81). To Van Till's assertion that "we need far more than a naive biblical hermeneutic or a simple `folk exegesis,'" Plantinga replies, "That is hard to dispute, but I can't see why Van Till felt obliged to say it" (p. 82). Concerning the interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis, he writes, "this is a difficult area, an area where I am not sure where the truth lies" (p. 81). The passage cited just above, about "what the Lord intends us to learn from early Genesis," is not spoken by Plantinga in his own voice but is put into the mouth of an adherent of Creation Science.5 Later on, he illustrates the perplexities of Genesis-interpretation by citing James Barr as follows:
So far as I know there is no professor of Hebrew or Old Testament at any world-class university who does not believe that the writers of Genesis 1-11 intended to convey to their readers the ideas that: (a) creation took place in a series of six days which were the same as the days of 24 hours we now experience; (b) the figures contained in the Genesis genealogies provide by simple addition a chronology from the beginning of the world up to the later stages of the Biblical story, and (c) Noah's flood was understood to be worldwide, and to have extinguished all human and land animal life except for those in the ark.6
The proper response to this sort of situation, according to Plantinga, is to recognize that the primary author of Scripture is the Lord, and that what we need to know in reading Scripture is "what he intends to teach in the text in question." What God intends to convey in a given text, furthermore, can vary more or less independently of what the human author meant by his words. The two may coincide, of course, but God can intend to teach us things never dreamt of by the human author (as in the case of various Old Testament prophecies) - and, on the other hand, God may very well not intend to teach us some things which are clearly asserted by the human author (i.e., by the text itself) - including, perhaps, the things which, according to Barr, are asserted in Genesis 1-117.
In view of all this, we can hardly accuse Plantinga of minimizing the difficulties of biblical interpretation. Still, it must be noted that he nowhere discusses in any concrete way how these issues apply to the text of Genesis, nor (with one exception8) does he say anything about the hermeneutical principles which guide his interpretations. I think we must conclude, therefore, that Plantinga's statements about what the Bible teaches are to be taken purely as personal opinions, items in his intellectual autobiography. The reader may, of course, find that she has reasons of her own for assenting to these views, and if so there is no reason why she need abandon them. But if she did not have such reasons before reading Plantinga, she will have none after reading him.
But does this really matter? Plantinga thinks not; he says "I explicitly set aside questions of the proper understanding of the early chapters of Genesis, just because this is a difficult area where I am not sure where the truth lies." He goes on,
I do believe that the Lord intends to teach us here not only that the world depends upon him for its existence, but also (at least) that the world has not existed for an infinite stretch of time, and that there was an original pair of human beings whose sin brought calamity upon the human race . . . I also think it likely that he intends to teach us that human beings were created in a special way and in an act of special creation; but I could be persuaded otherwise. Nothing in my paper hinges on these exegetical beliefs, however, or, as far as I can see, upon any other exegetical beliefs about which there is sensible controversy (pp. 81-82, emphasis added).
The claim that nothing in his paper hinges on those exegetical beliefs does not seem to be true. Setting aside the passage cited about what the Lord is teaching us in Genesis, there is also the following claim: "If, for example, current science were to return to the view that the world has no beginning, and is infinitely old, then current science would be wrong" (p. 14). (That the Bible teaches that the world has not existed for an infinite period of time is specifically listed as an exegetical belief on which "nothing in my paper hinges.")
What Plantinga may have intended to assert was that the principal conclusions of his paper do not depend on his exegetical views - in particular, this would be true of his conclusion that TCA is less probable than its denial, given only theism and the empirical scientific evidence. Here considerations about what the Bible teaches are not germane, since the conclusion is explicitly about what is probable apart from specific biblical teaching. But this does not settle the matter. For is it not possible that Plantinga's assessments of the probabilities in question have been influenced by his beliefs about what the Bible teaches? He holds (as all Christians must) that what God teaches us is certainly true, and he considers it probable that God has taught us that human beings were specially created. He may have intended to make his assessment of the probability of TCA independent of this and other exegetical beliefs, but can we be sure he has succeeded? I really don't see how we can be sure of this; nor does it seem to me that Plantinga's own views on this point are highly privileged. (Surely it is no longer necessary to argue that the causes of our beliefs are often hidden from us.) So I don't see how we can be at all confident that Plantinga's main conclusions really are uninfluenced by his exegetical beliefs,9 and in view of this, his failure to provide any support whatever for those beliefs can hardly be dismissed as unimportant.
IV. Plantinga's Hypothesis
The most interesting question about Plantinga's hypothesis is whether or not he has one. McMullin assumes that he does, but just what it is is unclear:
The presumed inadequacy of current theories of evolution is part of what leads Plantinga to propose his own alternative. What exactly is it? Is it that God brought to be in a miraculous way each of the millions of species that have existed since life first appeared on earth? . . . Perhaps he means that God just created the phyla. . . . But why not all species? How is Plantinga to decide just which thesis is more probable than TCA? (p. 73).
To this Plantinga replies, in effect, that he has no alternative to propose and doesn't need one:
What I say is that from a theistic or Christian point of view, TCA is unlikely, somewhat less likely than its denial. That is all I am claiming; I am not proposing an alternative explanation . . . In order to claim quite properly that an explanation is improbable, you are not obliged to be able to point to a better alternative (p. 89).
This response immediately raises a number of questions. One thought which may occur is that Plantinga is gaining an unfair advantage by pointing out the weaknesses of a hypothesis he opposes, while leaving his own view in the dark and thus safe from criticism.10 A more important consideration, however, is the apparent clash between his procedure and current philosophy of science. One of the best-learned lessons in recent philosophy of science is that the evaluation of a scientific hypothesis does not, in the typical case, focus on just one hypothesis at a time; rather, the concern is with pairs (or other multiples) of competing hypotheses.11 One of the reasons Karl Popper's "falsificationism" has been generally abandoned, is that it would lead to the rejection of far too many hypotheses; many theories, in fact, are "born falsified" in that, right from the outset, they fail to conform to all the known data in the field under study. If a hypothesis which has shown significant promise encounters anomalous data, the normal scientific response is to retain the hypothesis until a superior replacement hypothesis emerges. To recommend abandoning a theory with no replacement in sight is, scientifically speaking, a counsel of despair. Is this what Plantinga is asking us to do in the case of evolution?
As a result of conversations with Plantinga, I believe his response would be that he is not, himself, engaging in biological science and does not intend (at this point) to be making recommendations to scientists. His concern is with the truth of GES and TCA, not with their role as "paradigms" guiding scientific research. If he were speaking of the acceptance of scientific theories (as establishing "research programs," and the like) he would have other things to say. His claim is simply that, given the truth of Christian theism together with the available scientific evidence, both GES and TCA are less likely than their respective denials. How scientists should proceed in these matters is another question entirely.
It is possible to detect in all this the influence of the scientific anti-realism of a Bas van Fraassen - which is not to say that Plantinga would adopt van Fraassen's views wholesale. And it opens up an intriguing possibility: perhaps Christians who are scientists - including the proponents of Plantinga's "theistic science" - would be best advised to accept TCA and even GES as working hypotheses, pursue research programs based on them, and so on, all the while holding, along with Plantinga and other right-minded persons, that both GES and TCA are probably false. No doubt it would be surprising if things turned out this way, but Plantinga has said nothing that would rule it out.
Clearly we are dealing here with some fascinating issues. But
a more elementary sort of question now obtrudes itself, namely, Can Plantinga
stick to his refusal to offer an alternative hypothesis? And does he, in fact,
stick to it? I believe that, contrary to his protestations, he does need to
present an alternative view in order for his argument to go through. And it's
clear that he does have such a view, but unfortunately it is not specified in
sufficient detail to do the work that is required of it.
The place where the need for an alternative shows itself is when Plantinga undertakes to assess the empirical evidence adduced in support of TCA. He says of one strand of evidence: "[It is] reasonably probable on the hypothesis of special creation, hence not much by way of evidence against it, hence not much by way of evidence for evolution" (p. 23, and see similar remarks on pp. 24, 103-04, 105, and 107-108). The burning question here is the one already posed by McMullin: "Which thesis is more probable than TCA?" What particular hypothesis does Plantinga have in view, so as to be able to say that the evidence is "reasonably probable" on that hypothesis? Here it clearly will not do to say that the hypothesis in question is simply the denial of TCA. For TCA is a fairly strong hypothesis, and its denial is correspondingly weak in its logical force - that is to say, it is compatible with an enormous range of alternatives, and the alleged evidence for evolution may be extremely probable with respect to some of these alternatives and extremely improbable with respect to others.
But of course, it simply is not true that Plantinga is committed only to the negation of TCA. It is quite clear, from various things he says, that his view is at least that "God did something special in creating initial forms of life, then something special in creating some other forms of life, then something special in creating human beings" (pp. 88-89). (And the "something special" in the latter two cases must be something which involves lack of continuity of descent from earlier forms. God might, quite conceivably, do "something special" in arranging that a particular, very improbable mutation should occur, leading to the appearance of a more advanced kind of creature. But this would not be "special" enough for Plantinga, for it would not be inconsistent with TCA.) So we know at least this much about Plantinga's view. Could we suppose, then, that what he means to be saying is that the evidence cited for evolution is not improbable on that hypothesis?
I think we had better not suppose this - not that is, if (as is wise) we want to take Plantinga to be saying something sensible. For while the hypothesis stated above is far more determinate than merely the negation of TCA, it is nowhere near determinate enough to enable us to evaluate the alleged evolutionary evidence in its light. What would need to be further specified is how many "forms of life" have been specially created - or, better, at what taxonomic level this is supposed to have occurred. Suppose, for instance, that the view is just that God created the phyla, and after this allowed evolution to take its course. On this creationist hypothesis, the likelihood of most of the evidence for evolution is exactly the same as it is on TCA - for a great deal of that evidence pertains to taxonomic levels below the phyla, and with respect to these lower levels the predictions of this "phylum creationism" are exactly the same as those of TCA itself. And on the other hand, the complaints of creationists (including Plantinga) about the scarcity of transitional forms below the level of phyla would also lose their point; this scarcity is as much (or as little) a problem for phylum creationism as it is for TCA. It should be noted, furthermore, that phylum creationism comports badly with the view, dear to the hearts of Plantinga and other creationists, that human beings are specially created by God in a way that excludes pithecine descent. If God's special creative activity occurs nearly always at the level of phyla or above, then this claim about the special creation of a single species - or at most of a genus - has a strong ad hoc flavor about it; it becomes (to use one of Plantinga's favorite words) very much an "epicycle"12 on the creationist view.
If, on the other hand, God's special creative activity is thought of as occurring frequently at lower taxonomic levels, then the situation with respect to the evidence changes. The creationists will gain in being able to chide evolutionists over the scarcity of transitional forms, but they will also incur the burden of explaining, in a non-arbitrary fashion, the evidence which is generally held to support the occurrence of evolution at these levels. It may be that somewhere the creationist will find an optimum balance between the two--a level of special creative activity which imposes the greatest burdens on the evolutionary hypothesis in comparison with his own. This level would be determined, as McMullin suggests, by "checking to see what evolutionary theory has . . . been able to explain successfully. And then whatever is left over, God is more likely to have brought about miraculously" (p. 73). Plantinga, however, maintains a discreet silence about all this.
At this point Plantinga might want to claim that his statements about the likelihood of the evidence on the hypothesis of special creation are mere offhand remarks, not essential to his main line of argument - thus, he does not after all need to offer an alternative hypothesis. I am not convinced that this is so. TCA, after all, is a theory for which considerable empirical evidence has been adduced.13 In evaluating TCA, it is essential to try and determine how strongly that evidence supports the theory. And it is difficult to see how that can be done without considering whether there is a plausible alternative theory such that the evidence is as likely, or nearly as likely, on that theory as it is on TCA. The role of the alternative explanation seems to be essential here - but it's a role which Plantinga leaves unfilled.
In certain respects, then, Plantinga's handling of the empirical evidence for evolution leaves the reader in even greater perplexity than his treatment of scriptural data. Plantinga gives the reader no reason whatever to suppose that his interpretations of Scripture are correct, but there is no serious doubt as to what the interpretations are. But when Plantinga says that the evidence for evolution is reasonably probable on some alternative to the evolutionary hypothesis, we have no way of knowing, in sufficient detail, what that alternative is; thus, we are unable even to formulate the proposition which we would need to evaluate in order to determine whether Plantinga's claims are warranted.
V. Theistic Science
It's possible that Plantinga might be able to accept at least a good deal of this. (Though I don't predict that he will accept it!) He does not claim, after all, to be either a scientist or an exegete, and the primary aim of his paper is not to tell scientists and exegetes what conclusions they should reach. His remarks about the Bible and about the evidence for evolution can be taken as merely illustrative - examples of the kinds of conclusions that might be reached, if Christian scholars and scientists were to deal with these issues in the proper way. It is, however, the way in which these matters are to be handled, the kind of study which is to be made of them, which constitutes the main burden of his two papers. These concerns are focused in his proposal for "Theistic Science."
Now Plantinga's proposal for Theistic Science is fairly sketchy; it does not involve anything like a complete blueprint showing how such a science is to be constructed. Still, some things about it are reasonably clear, as is shown in the following quotation:
In all the areas of academic endeavor, we Christians must think about the matter at hand from a Christian perspective; we need Theistic Science. Perhaps the discipline in question, as ordinarily practiced, involves a methodological naturalism; if so, then what we need, finally, is not answers to our questions from that perspective, valuable in some ways as it may be. What we really need are answers to our questions from the perspective of all that we know - what we know about God, and what we know by faith, by way of revelation, as well as what we know in other ways. In many areas, this means that Christians must rework, rethink the area in question from this perspective (p. 30).
McMullin expresses serious concerns about this proposal. One thing he objects to is Plantinga's principle, according to which, in cases of apparent conflict between science and Scripture, we "balance" one against the other and determine our interpretation accordingly: If the Scriptures are clear and the scientific evidence shaky, we modify our understanding of science, while if the scientific evidence is strong and the exegetical evidence weak or ambiguous, it is our interpretation of Scripture which must be changed. McMullin writes:
[This principle] has one quite disastrous consequence: it sets theologians evaluating the validity of the arguments of the natural philosophers, and natural philosophers defending themselves by composing theological tracts. Either way, there will be immediate charges of trespass. The theologian challenges the force of technical scientific argument; scientists urge their own readings of Scripture or their own theories as to how Scripture, in general, should be read. In both cases, the professionals are going to respond, quite predictably: what right have you to intrude in a domain where you lack the credentials to speak with authority? The assessment of theory-strength is not a simple matter of logic and rule but requires a long familiarity with the procedures, presuppositions, and prior successes of a network of connected domains, and a trained skill in the assessment of particular types of argument (pp. 61-62).14
McMullin also objects to the acceptance of non-empirical sources of knowledge (such as faith and revelation) in the proposed new science, for this means that such a science "lacks the sort of warrant that has gradually come to characterize natural science, one that points to systematic observation, generalization, and the testing of explanatory hypothesis." Indeed, this new discipline is not well described as science: since it "requires faith, and faith (we are told) is a gift, a grace, from God," and since it "appeals to a specifically Christian belief, one that lays no claim to assent from a Hindu or an agnostic," it "lacks the universality of science, as that term has been understood in the Western tradition. . . To use the term `science' in this context seems dangerously misleading; it encourages expectations that cannot be fulfilled, in the interests of adopting a label generally regarded as honorific" (p. 57).
McMullin goes on to say,
I do not object . . . to the use of theological considerations in the service of a larger and more comprehensive world-view in which natural science is only one factor. . . . But I would not be willing to use the term, "science," in this context. Nor do I think it necessary to do so in order to convey the respectability of the claim being made: that theology may appropriately modulate other parts of a person's belief-system, including those deriving from science (pp. 57-58).
And in the concluding pages of his comment, he provides an example by sketching out, in a manner inspired by Karl Rahner and Teilhard de Chardin, a way in which evolution can be incorporated into a Christian world-view and theology (pp. 78-79).
Plantinga rejects all of these arguments. To the objection that his "balancing principle" leads to excessive conflict and to persons speaking outside their proper areas of expertise, he replies
Where there is apparent conflict between Scripture and science, we must try the best way we can to see how to resolve it; given present academic arrangements, this will inevitably result in someone's making pronouncements that are outside his field. . . . This could be avoided only if there were professionals, experts, who were expert in the relevant science, and also in philosophy and philosophy of science, and also in theology. None of us . . . fills a bill like that.15 So if McMullin means to suggest that philosophers should stick to their philosophy, theologians to their theology, and scientists to their science, then no one could address apparent conflicts of the sort that occasioned my paper. But we, the Christian community, need answers to these questions . . . (pp. 92-93).
He goes on to note that McMullin also endorses the idea of a synthetic enterprise, involving science, philosophy, and theology, in which such issues will be addressed - and nothing is solved or answered merely by denying the name "science" to the enterprise.
Still, Plantinga is unwilling to give up the name "science." On the one hand, McMullin's charge that this discipline lacks the warrant that comes from empirical scientific research reflects a misunderstanding. Plantinga's Theistic Scientists will carry out such research, it's just that they will also consider the deliverances of exegesis and theology in reaching their scientific conclusions (p. 97). And as for "lack of universality," he responds that "science, if it is practiced in such a way as to honor the methodological naturalism McMullin urges, is by no means always universal" (p. 98). As an example, he cites a piece of sociobiology authored by Herbert Simon, in which benevolence and unselfish love are explained as "bounded rationality" and "docility." After discussing the application of this to Mother Teresa, he says, "I should think no Christian could even for a moment take this seriously as an explanation of [her] behavior" (p. 98). So methodologically naturalistic science is not necessarily universal; therefore the lack of universality in Theistic Science is no problem. And in general, Plantinga clearly regards methodological naturalism as an arbitrary dogma; he repeatedly issues challenges to provide a justification for it, while exuding confidence that no decent justification will be forthcoming.
There is certainly some force in these replies. I believe, however, that at a number of points Plantinga has failed to fully grasp McMullin's objections, and thus his replies fall short. I do not think McMullin's complaint about the lack of empirical warrant in Theistic Science was based on a misunderstanding. Undoubtedly, the Theistic Scientist will carry out the customary activities of observation, experimentation, testing of hypotheses, and the like. But at crucial points, what grounds her conclusions will not be these activities but rather specific Christian theological beliefs - beliefs which, as McMullin rightly says, lay "no claim to assent from a Hindu or an agnostic. "Her scientific conclusions, at these crucial points, will indeed be without empirical warrant. Plantinga waves off the problem of universality with his sociobiology example, but this misses the point. Sociobiology is universal, not in the sense that its conclusions are acceptable to everyone, but in that its methods are open to all: Anyone, be he Hindu, agnostic, or Calvinist, can pursue the empirical and conceptual inquiries which will validate or refute sociobiology's claims.16 (I would agree with Plantinga that many of them richly deserve to be refuted.17)
It is true that McMullin's "comprehensive world-view" will require a synthesis of considerations from science, philosophy, and theology, and those involved in constructing such a synthesis cannot remain within narrowly defined disciplinary boundaries. But I believe there is a distinct difference between the way in which McMullin envisages this procedure, and the way it would go on in Theistic Science. As I think McMullin conceives of it, the synthetic enterprise takes place at a rather advanced level of study in the respective disciplines. The day-to-day scientific work of the Christian biologist, geologist, or astronomer goes on in the same way, and according to the same principles (including methodological naturalism18) as that of her secular colleagues. Scripture scholars will determine the meaning of biblical texts according to the best methods of exegesis and hermeneutics, without straining to accommodate the texts to modern scientific conclusions. Theologians will determine the meaning of essential Christian doctrines in the light of Scripture, tradition, experience, and so on. Only when these inquiries have reached a fairly advanced stage does the synthesizer, the constructor of worldviews, bring the various disciplines together to fashion, as it were, the capstone on the edifice of truth.19 Even at this stage, furthermore, there will be a disposition for the most part to accept the results of the various disciplines at face value, while appropriately "modulating" them so as to arrive at a unified perspective. In such an enterprise the possibilities of conflict and of territorial trespass still exist, to be sure, but they are greatly minimized.20
In Theistic Science, on the other hand, the interaction (and the potential conflicts) occur at a much lower level. The scientist practices his geology with the Book of Nature before him and the Book of God in his hand, and what he says about each will depend in part on what he reads in the other. The possibility of excessive and unproductive conflict, pointed out by McMullin, is much more pressing here. There is also the all-too-real likelihood that in a theologically conservative context (and that is the only place Theistic Science has a chance of being taken seriously) the theological disciplines will assert hegemony and, supported by the ecclesiastical authorities, will attempt to "call the shots" for the "lesser" secular disciplines. Plantinga's present academic setting effectively insulates him from such concerns--but recent events at his alma mater, Calvin College, should remind him that this is no idle possibility.21
Now if the Scriptures really are relevant to detailed scientific conclusions, this relevance must be recognized in spite of the practical difficulties just noted. But are they relevant? McMullin would not deny the relevance altogether; he does not think we can eliminate in principle the possibility of a conflict between science and faith. But these possibilities are largely limited to conflicts regarding human nature, freedom, and moral responsibility; the first two chapters of Genesis, on the other hand, "are not to be read as literal history" (p. 62).22
Plantinga apparently disagrees. But does he really? Consider again the quotation given above from James Barr. If Barr is right in holding that the author of Genesis intended to teach a literal six-day creation, a young age for the earth, and a world-wide flood, this will create some embarrassment for those who prefer to think that the biblical writers used an ancient world-picture only as a convenient manner of speaking and were not seriously committed to it. But Barr's view is absolutely devastating for those who, like Plantinga, hold that the creation story is relevant for deciding on a scientific view to be accepted by contemporary Christians. If Barr is right, Plantinga's choices would seem to be stark: Either accept an uncompromising version of Creation Science, or admit the Genesis account is not relevant to our acceptance of scientific views about origins.23
Plantinga's response to this, in conversation, is that what follows from Barr's statement is at most that what the human author(s) of Genesis meant is not relevant to the assessment of our scientific theories; what is at issue, however, is what the Lord, the divine author, intends to teach us - and this, as has been noted, may be quite different than what the human author thought. This move solves the problem for Plantinga only by reminding us of the potentially wide gap between what the human author meant and what God meant by Scripture - a gap, let us recall, that Plantinga has given us no directions whatever for crossing. So for all that he has said, it could very well turn out that the relevance of Scripture to scientific hypotheses is no more extensive than Van Till and McMullin think it is.24
In the conclusion of his essay Plantinga points out that his call for Theistic Science is not new: It represents a key idea in the tradition of Reformed Christianity, the idea which was expressed by the founding of the Free University of Amsterdam as well as Calvin College. But, he says, "We must admit . . . that it is our lack of real progress that is striking" (p. 30). He goes on to attribute this lack of progress to the inherent difficulty of the undertaking, as well as to the lack of support and recognition for such an undertaking in the secular academy.
I wish to suggest a different assessment. It should be noted, to begin with, that precisely in the natural sciences the achievements of certain Calvin College faculty members (such as Davis A. Young, Clarence Menninga, and Howard Van Till) are far from negligible. But of course, not all good things come from Grand Rapids, or even from Friesland. There is in the twentieth century a vigorous tradition of Christian reflection on the natural sciences, carried on by such thinkers as Karl Heim, F. R. Tennant, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Ian Barbour, John Polkinghorne, Richard Bube, Donald M. MacKay, and, last but far from least, Ernan McMullin.25 Each one of these, I am sure, would agree that a great deal remains to be done. But what they have accomplished should not be minimized - and here I believe Plantinga would agree.26
From the standpoint of Theistic Science, to be sure, all this may be quite unsatisfactory; the persons named have scrutinized and interpreted standard, "mainstream" science, but have not created a distinctively Christian natural science. But I think the lack of progress in Theistic Science can be linked to another historical tradition - one which includes Bellarmine and the persecutors of Galileo, the efforts of "flood geologists" in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, much of the anti-evolution movement since Darwin, and in our own time the purveyors of Creation Science.27 These efforts to create a "Christian" natural science have failed, I suggest, not because of lack of talent or effort but because the thing does not exist: there is one nature, and one science of nature, and the attempt to construct an alternative on a biblical basis is doomed to failure, because that is not what the Bible is about. At best, those who make such an attempt will repeatedly discover, fifty years too late, that the Bible does not "clearly teach" about science what their grandfathers said it did, and that the scientific knowledge their grandfathers rejected should indeed, albeit tardily, be welcomed as true insight into the structure of God's creation. Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.28
1Alvin Plantinga, "When Faith and Reason Clash: Evolution and the Bible,"" pp. 8-33; Howard Van Till, "When Faith and Reason Cooperate," pp. 33-45; Pattle Pun, "Response to Professor Plantinga," pp. 46-54; Ernan McMullin, "Plantinga's Defense of Special Creation," pp. 55-79; and Alvin Plantinga, "Evolution, Neutrality, and Antecedent Probability: A Reply to McMullin and Van Till," pp. 80-109; all in Christian Scholar's Review XXI:1 (September 1991); page references in the text are to this material. I will draw upon a number of points made by Van Till and McMullin, but will not be giving a complete account either of their responses or of Plantinga's reply to them. Pattle Pun's paper, unfortunately, suffers a fate which comes frequently to comments which do not generate major disagreements; Plantinga acknowledges it with enthusiasm, but it is not picked up in the subsequent discussion and will not be pursued here.
2"Methodological naturalism" will be understood to mean that only natural objects and forces can be referred to in scientific explanations.
3 In his Reply, Plantinga admits to an error here: "I represent myself as arguing against TCA . . . ; as a matter of fact, however, I am questioning the hypothesis that wings, brains and the like have developed according to the mechanisms suggested by contemporary evolutionary theory" (p. 103). He goes on to explain this lapse by saying, "These two hypotheses are of course intimately connected; in particular, it is hard to imagine (given naturalism) how the former could be true unless some version of the latter were" (p. 103, emphasis added). But how does this bear on what a theist should conclude about the probability of TCA?
4 See hisThe Nature of Necessity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974), p. 195.
5 Here I rely on a conversation with Alvin Plantinga. I must say that the text of Plantinga's essay does not seem to me to make it clear that this passage is not stating Plantinga's own views, though it is certainly consistent with this interpretation. In any case, Plantinga does agree with several of the views here attributed to the creationist; this is made clear in a quotation below, taken from pp. 81-82 of his Reply.
6 P. 96; the reference for the citation is a "personal letter to David C. K. Watson, (April 23, 1984), published in the Newsletter of the Creation Science Association of Ontario, vol. 3, no. 4, 1990/91." Plantinga acknowledges that this view may not be held quite as universally by Old Testament scholars as Barr asserts--but it does appear that he embraces the substance of the view as stated by Barr.
7 The only possibility which may be excluded is that God intends to teach us precisely the opposite of what the human author asserts - at least, Plantinga provides us with no example of this.
8 The one exception is that, when our reasons for thinking God teaches us a certain thing in Scripture are comparatively weak, and there are very strong reasons from other sources to think that the view in question is false, then we should conclude that probably God does not intend to teach us the item in question. No doubt that is good advice, but taken by itself it will not get us very far.
9 I must confess that I find it difficult to credit that any well-informed person, uninfluenced by biblical exegesis, could assign a high probability to the view that humans are specially created purely on the basis of theism and the empirical evidence.
10 To avoid misunderstanding, let me say that I do not think Plantinga has deliberately proceeded this way in order to give himself an unfair advantage. I do believe that, as a matter of fact, his procedure does give him an unfair advantage.
11 Prominent among the philosophers of science who have established this point are Thomas Kuhn (see The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd edition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), and Imre Lakatos (see The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes: Philosophical Papers, Volume I, ed. John Worrall and Gregory Currie, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978). Lakatos writes: "Important criticism is always constructive: there is no refutation without a better theory. . . . [W]hat normally happens is that progressive research programmes replace degenerating ones" (p. 6). Also, "A theory can only be eliminated by a better theory, that is, by one that has excess empirical content over its predecessors, some of which is subsequently confirmed" (p. 150).
12 On at least seven occasions, Plantinga refers to actual or possible modifications of evolutionary theory as "epicycles." Presumably an epicycle is an ad hoc adjustment to a theory--but in several of these cases Plantinga makes no attempt to argue that the adjustments in question really are ad hoc. One is left with the impression that, for Plantinga, any modification of evolutionary theory to accommodate new data would be an "epicycle."
13 There is to be sure another relevant question to be asked here; namely, what is the antecedent likelihood of God's proceeding in one way or the other? That is to say, leaving aside the empirical evidence concerning evolution, and leaving aside also the specific teaching of Genesis about creation, whatever it is, which is more reasonable to expect--that God would proceed by evolutionary means, or by way of special creation? Both Plantinga and McMullin devote considerable attention to this question (see pp. 21-22, 74-76, 99-102), and the results are fascinating though finally (in my opinion) inconclusive. In any case, Plantinga seems to be correct when he says that we must rely mainly on the empirical evidence rather than on these estimates of antecedent likelihood (see p. 102).
14 I am taking a small liberty by applying McMullin's remarks directly to Plantinga's principle; they originally apply rather to a slightly different principle proposed by Galileo. But the points made do, in McMullin's view, apply to Plantinga's approach with equal force.
15 What Plantinga says here is undoubtedly true. I think it is fair to remind the reader, however, that McMullin is one of the world's premier historians and philosophers of science, and is extremely familiar with the relationships between science and religion over the past several centuries. Plantinga is a superb metaphysician and philosopher of religion, but has no comparable credentials in science or the philosophy of science.
16 I take it that the objective of sociobiology is to see how much of human behavior can be explained in terms of our inheritance from lower forms of life. In order to pursue such an enquiry it is by no means necessary to assume in advance that all human behavior can be so explained, and any such assumption should be rejected as an unwarranted "mythological addendum" to the scientific project.
17 Another problem with Plantinga's appeal to sociobiology stems from the fact that his controversy with Van Till and McMullin concerns natural science, whereas this example is from behavioral science. It is widely recognized, however, that natural science and behavioral science are quite different from each other in respects which are highly relevant to the way in which they interact with the Christian and theistic worldview.
18 To launch into a defense of methodological naturalism at this point would carry us too far afield. There is, however, a possible misunderstanding lurking here which deserves to be laid to rest. If a science is practiced in accord with methodological naturalism, this means that only natural entities and forces will enter into the explanations given by that science. (One possible reason for this might be that supernatural entities cannot be subjected to experiments, nor can their behavior be captured in our laws.) Methodological naturalism does not mean, however, that every event whatever must be explainable in terms of naturalistic science. The point is made nicely in the saying, sometimes heard in the discussion of an alleged miracle, "There is no scientific explanation for this event." This sentence captures both the idea that "scientific" explanations must be of a certain kind (viz., naturalistic), and also the claim that there are real events which cannot be explained in this way.
In a comment on this paper, David Wilcox poses the question of how theists, Hindus, and agnostics can work together to produce a common science: "What does a common assumption of `methodological naturalism' mean? Clearly, it must mean something different for each worker, yet the expected behavior for each (such as uniformity and rational/lawful order) must be similar enough that the workers will make parallel predictions about experimental outcomes. But, the meaning of that methodological naturalism will be miles apart for the workers. That meaning is not implicit in the assumption. That is as true for the materialistic world-view as it is for any other. Thus, an agnostic is always as subjective as a theist."
19 Philip Quinn has suggested to me that I am giving here a highly idealized description of the process of synthesis. No doubt this is true; a scientist or scholar concerned with synthesis will be unlikely to exclude all thoughts of the final result until a late stage of the process. What is crucial, however, is that the methodological integrity of the respective disciplines be maintained.
20 There is a substantive underlying issue here: How seriously are the various sciences, as practiced in the secular academy, compromised by the naturalistic assumptions of their more influential practitioners? Clearly, McMullin takes a relatively optimistic view on this point: naturalistic bias and distortions no doubt exist, but they can fairly readily be separated from the healthy, "genuinely scientific" core of the disciplines. Plantinga, on the other hand, is much more prone to find the trail of the naturalistic serpent over everything. At this deep level, what we are dealing with may well be a conflict between Thomism and Kuyperianism.
21 A significant suggestion at this point comes from David Wilcox, who writes: "If one accepts the idea that we live and work within a hierarchy of recognitional models (data patterns to world views), it becomes possible to do integration continuously. In fact, one must, for one can never `shuck off' the guidance of the higher levels, nor can one dodge the empirical pressure of the lower levels. However, each discipline works with a different part of reality. At the lower levels of data recognition, the `world-view' effect is remote, mediated down through the hierarchy. Thus people of different world-views may, in part, work together. At the higher world-view levels, the effects of the `data' is remote, mediated up through the hierarchy. Thus, Christians in different disciplines may, in part, be working together. Theologians, however, would have progressively less to say as they approached the data of the physical world, and scientists would have less to say as they approached the Biblical text. Disciplines would be distinct, and yet still sensitive to the Scripture as it spoke to foundational understandings in their areas. And that, I think, we are called to."
22 McMullin writes, "I do not believe that Scripture does prescribe that the universe had a beginning in time, in some specific technical sense of the term, `time'" (pp. 64-65).
23 Note that each of the three items mentioned by Barr, taken separately, is incompatible with well-established scientific data quite apart from the issue of TCA vs. special creation. A literal six-day creation is incompatible with the long periods known to have elapsed between the appearances of various forms of life. That the genealogies provide a complete chronology is incompatible with abundant data which establish for homo sapiens an antiquity of 50,000 to 100,000 years. And a world-wide flood in historic times is incompatible with a very large range of geological and archaeological data.
24 It should be kept in mind that neither Van Till nor McMullin rules out a priori any possible relevance of Scripture to scientific theories. It is rather that when they examine the actual content of science and Scripture respectively, they find the relevance to be minimal.
25 To say that this list is incomplete would be an understatement; in reality, it is a mere sampling of those who could have been mentioned. The reader who finds one or more of his favorite names omitted is invited to add it to the list with my blessing.
26 Plantinga informs me that his complaint about the lack of progress was directed at the Reformed community and its specific project, here labeled "Theistic Science;" he was not meaning to deny the achievements of thinkers such as those named in the text.
27 I would not be strongly critical of the persons early in this list, though the persecution of Galileo was certainly reprehensible. In the eighteenth century it was quite reasonable to try and interpret the geological record in terms of Noah's Flood; to try to resurrect this failed science today is a different matter entirely.
28 I am indebted to Alvin Plantinga, Ernan McMullin, Philip Quinn, and David Wilcox for valuable comments on earlier versions of this paper.