Daniel C. Dennett and Alvin Plantinga, Science and Religion: Are They Compatible? (Point/Counterpoint Series) New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. 96 pp.
At an American Philosophical Association Central Division Meeting in 2009, two starkly contrasting philosophers, Alvin Plantinga and Daniel Dennett, met to discuss the compatibility of science and religion. That context allowed for the beginning of an intriguing debate, but one which needed to be extended. Science and Religion allowed Plantinga and Dennett to do precisely that. Transcripts of the original presentations begin the dialogue, followed by responses from each scholar, and final replies.
Alvin Plantinga is undisputedly one of the finest Christian philosophers alive today, and Daniel Dennett is one of the well-known New Atheists. As such, it will probably come as a surprise to many that in this debate it is Plantinga who makes the convincing case that religion and science are incompatible. Plantinga first narrows “religion” to “theistic religion, in particular Christian belief,” and goes on to focus “science” on modern evolutionary theory. Between Christian theism and modern evolutionary theory, says Plantinga, there is no incompatibility. The only real incompatibility would be between Christian belief and “the claim that evolution and Darwinism are unguided.” But Plantinga asserts that evolution being unguided is a presupposition, to make evolution exclude the possibility of design is to “confuse a naturalistic gloss on the scientific theory with the theory itself.” Here is where science and religion become incompatible. Evolution is science, says Plantinga, and naturalism is the religion with which evolution is incompatible.
Simply defined, naturalism is the belief that there is no God, or anything like Him. But if evolution is joined with naturalism, Plantinga argues the odds of our cognitive faculties being reliable is low. If evolution and naturalism are accepted, and what has just been stated is true, we don’t have reliable cognitive faculties. This defeater of reliable cognitive faculties can’t be defeated. If reliable cognitive faculties are defeated, beliefs attained through those faculties are also defeated, evolution and naturalism included. Thus, naturalism joined with evolution “is self-defeating and can’t rationally be accepted.” Since evolution is a pillar of science, and Plantinga asserts naturalism is an unjustified philosophical position, the obvious solution is to give up on naturalism.
Dennett first responds to Plantinga’s assertion about the compatibility of theistic belief and evolution by agreeing with him. “Contemporary evolutionary theory,” says Dennett, “can’t demonstrate the absence of intelligent design.” But Dennett goes on to liken design to belief that aliens are the designers, and says this is “an entirely gratuitous fantasy.” In short, says Dennett, theism is compatible with contemporary evolutionary theory, but so is “Supermanism” and countless other fictions. Dennett simply asserts theism is no more rational than most science fiction. His response to Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN) essentially involves pointing out that our brains are “syntactic engines” evolved over millions of years to track truth.
Plantinga, in his first reply to Dennett, concedes that Supermanism might be compatible with evolution. But Plantinga also points out that Supermanism is relevantly dissimilar from theism, and that Dennett can’t rely on this analogical argument to discredit theism. Plantinga expresses disappointment in how Dennett misses the point of the EAAN. Plantinga is not asserting that our cognitive faculties aren’t reliable, nor that evolution did not happen. Rather, he is concerned about the chances of having reliable cognitive faculties given both evolution and naturalism.
Dennett’s next response is hardly satisfactory, as he simply continues carrying on about Supermanism and demonstrating his gross misunderstandings of Christianity, at one point stating “God is not Jesus” and likening the relationship of God and Jesus to that of Jor-el and Superman. Dennett makes another attempt to respond to Plantinga’s EAAN, stating “hearts are for circulating the blood, and brains are for tracking the relevant conditions of the environment and getting it right.” That sounds fantastic, but it seems to simply beg the question against Plantinga’s point.
In his last essay, Plantinga is forced to approach Dennett like a school teacher chastising a toddler for misbehaving while playing dodge ball in recess. This might seem amusing were it not for the fact that Plantinga is chastising a professional philosopher for violating basic rules of good argumentation. Lacking anything substantive to which to reply, Plantinga concludes “If this is the best Brights can do, I think I’ll stick with the Dims.”
Dennett’s last attempt at refuting Plantinga’s EAAN would leave any professional philosopher speechless, “I have shown that Plantinga’s argument depends on a false premise.” Dennett simply asserts this in his concluding remarks. He furnishes no additional arguments, but simply relies on the replies to which Plantinga has already responded. This is only a more graceful way of saying “Nu uh!” when faced with a serious argument to which one does not know how to respond.
Overall, this little volume is a good introduction to the compatibility of Christianity and science. It provides a very useful presentation of Alvin Plantinga’s increasingly well-known EAAN. This is done in an engaging debate format that pins two leading philosophers against one another.
Disappointment with Science and Religion stems from an expectation that Dennett will lay aside the New Atheist rhetoric and seriously engage a colleague the philosophical community at large holds in high esteem. Additionally, both Plantinga and Dennett make several appeals to their previous work, though this doesn’t take too much away from the book if one is generally familiar with their major ideas. These negatives aside, the book is enjoyable, and has tremendous apologetic value in a culture that sees science and religion as being at odds. For Evangelicals seeking to regain intellectual credibility in the culture, moving beyond a debate about creation/evolution is useful. Even for Christians with reservations regarding evolution, it is possible to conditionally point out that the science of evolution is very much incompatible with the religion of naturalism.
Josiah J. Batten