Science in Christian Perspective

Letter to the Editor

Response to Plantinga

David J. Krause
839 Country Rd.
Ann Arbor, MI 48103

From: PSCF 49 (December 1997): 285-286.                                                        

In Methodological Naturalism? (Sept. 1997: 14354), Alvin Plantinga argues for the scientific validity of the "God did it" hypothesis that Christians may legitimately reject methodological naturalism if the occasion demands, and, by playing with words, offers yet another God-of-the-gaps theology while claiming he is not doing so (we are amazed to learn, for example, that Newton "was not endorsing any of the characteristic ideas of god-of-the-gaps thought" [my emphasis]). Plantinga's insular, our-science-against-yours tone is indeed common in this deconstructionist, post-modern world, and he is by no means the only one calling for a revision of naturalistic criteria for doing science and the creation of a "science" that will serve special interests. Muslim scholars such as Nasr and Butt urge an "authentic Islamic science" that will be based on the Qu'ran rather than on foreign western values. Other call for a distinctively African science that will incorporate a multitude of spiritual powers in nature as part of its explanatory nexus. Yet others argue that dreams and mysticism can be legitimate alternatives to Western naturalistic science, at least for particular cultural groups such as Native Americans. But is science as done by Christians also destined to become just one more of this multitude of inward-facing practices carried out by particular religious communities, whose visions for the universe will possess validity only for the members of that group?

What concerns me most, however, is an assertion that appears repeatedly throughout the paper and which I will call "Plantinga's principle:" Christians should practice a science that takes into account all they know, including that known as the result of God's special revelation in the Scriptures and through the church. Given the centrality of this concept to his argument, it is strange that he makes no attempt to clarify or explain its meaning: he apparently is content to assume that such knowledge is single-valued and agreed upon by all Christians. In fact, however, as even the most casual reflection will reveal, this notion of "what Christians know" is profoundly problematic. As one example, consider Henry Morris. I think no one will doubt that he is sincerely motivated by what he knows as a Christian, particularly as a result of his extensive biblical studies, and his theories have received their greatest support among precisely those who regard the Scriptures as inerrant and infallible. We are nevertheless all aware of the conflict his theories have precipitated, particularly among Christians who practice science professionally. As a broader example, consider the entire history of post-Reformation theology and the twenty-some thousand different Christians churches and organizations in the world today. They stand as monuments to the diversity and divisiveness that so often seem to be an integral part of "what Christians know about God." I offer one additional example, this one drawn from the history of science.

Cardinal Roberto Bellarmino [Bellarmine] (15421621), prosecutor of both Bruno and Galileo, was a brilliant, capable, and very influential theologian-philosopher, perhaps as eminent in his own day as Plantinga is in ours. Like Plantinga, Bellarmine was firmly convinced that there was no such thing as an allegedly neutral or purely objective perspective from which a Christian could study and understand God's created universe. It is also evident that nearly four centuries ago he would have fully supported Plantinga's principle. In the Letter to Foscarini which set the stage for Galileo's trial and in which Bellarmine outlined his opinions of the heliocentric theory, he clearly recognized that the theory might have some advantages over the geocentric one if considered only form the instrumentalist perspective of what might well be called "methodological naturalism." But, he pointed out, since all parties involved in the controversy were Christians, they must use all of what they know to be true form the teachings of the Scriptures and from the church, and from that perspective the theory was simply unacceptable. Even apart from the Galileo affair, Bellarmine was personally dedicated to a Plantinga approach to nature. In spite of the formal commitment to Aristotelian philosophy that was required of him as a Jesuit, he deliberately incorporated non-Aristotelian features into his own geocentric cosmology because he felt that hey were required by specific biblical passages which, for him, took precedence over the natural reasoning of Aristotle. Bellarmine's conclusion that the heliocentric theory was incompatible with both the clear teaching of Scripture and the doctrines and interpretations of the church over the centuries is surely one of the best examples of Plantinga's principle in action in the entire history of science. Given Bellarmine's commitment to that principle and his intellectual rigor, it is not only easy to understand and even respect the stand he took, it is difficult to see how he could have possibly concluded anything else.

And what was the result? An unmitigated disaster for future relationships between science and Christianity, and a major step toward the anti-clerical and anti-religious sentiments of the Enlightenment.