Science and Religion: Are They Compatible? by Daniel C. Dennett and Alvin C. Plantinga
I recently read Science and Religion: Are They Compatible?, a brief (77 page) record and extension of a 2009 debate between atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett and Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga. Many books of this kind exist, but this one is better than most, since both participants think and write quite clearly on the topic.
Daniel Dennett (left, photo: David Orban) & Alvin Plantinga (right, photo: “Jonathunder”)
In a sense, the compatibility between Science and Religion is an obvious empirical truth. Science began in the Age of Cathedrals. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead suggested that “the greatest contribution of medievalism to the formation of the scientific movement … must come from the medieval insistence on the rationality of God” (Science and the Modern World, p. 15). Even today, a significant number of scientists in the West are Christian (about 30%, according to this study). Globally, there are also very substantial numbers of Muslims and Hindus.
There may, of course, be conflicts between specific scientific theories and specific interpretations of religious writings. In Galileo’s time, the Ptolemaic astronomical system and the Tychonian astronomical system were seen by many Catholic theologians as compatible with their interpretation of Joshua 10:13, while the Copernican astronomical system was seen as incompatible. The Tychonian and Copernican systems were both roughly consistent with empirical data (the Tychonian system was less elegant, but the Copernican system predicted stellar parallax, which was not observed until the 19thcentury). The Copernican system won out, though the Jesuits taught the Tychonian system for some time. Today, both the anti-Copernican interpretation of Joshua 10:13 and the concept of an absolutely stationary “centre” of the universe have been abandoned, and so conflict no longer exists in that field.
The Tychonian astronomical system
In this book, Plantinga (p. 2) re-focuses the question on the compatibility between, on the one hand, generic Christianity (as defined in, for example, C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity) and, on the other hand, evolutionary theory (the “hot topic” of recent centuries). Even here, the existence of believers in theistic evolution seems to make the compatibility an empirical truth. C.S. Lewis once wrote “I believe that Christianity can still be believed, even if Evolution is true.” A recent poll in the US found the following beliefs among college graduates and postgrads (N = 269):
Plantinga argues (p. 4) that the only evolutionary concept incompatible with Christianity is the idea that mutations are “unplanned and unintended” (theistic evolution, of course, takes mutations to be divinely guided), but that truly random mutations are not actually essential to the theory. In support of this, Plantinga (p. 6) quotes Ernst Mayr: “When it is said that mutation or variation is random, the statement simply means that there is no correlation between the production of new genotypes and the adaptational needs of an organism in the given environment” (Toward a New Philosophy of Biology, p. 99). Dennett agrees (p. 26) with the compatibility between evolution and theistic belief (though himself denying theism for other reasons), and also agrees (p. 29) that evolution does not require mutations to be truly random. As evidence of this (p. 30), Dennett points at computer simulations of evolution, where things evolve in spite of the use of pseudorandom number generators which are, in fact, completely deterministic.
Having so quickly come to agreement on the main topic, much of the book is concerned with naturalism in Science and with the rationality of religious belief in general. Plantinga attempts (p. 19) an interesting argument suggesting that atheistic evolution gives no foundation for Science, in that we have no reason to believe that the beliefs in our brains are true (merely that they are adaptive). Dennett disagrees strongly here (p. 35) arguing that evolution has made our brains “highly reliable truth trackers.” It’s not at all obvious to me that this is true (we may well have evolved, for example, to have false but beneficial beliefs about other people), and Dennett provides little real argument for his position here (referring primarily to his other books on the topic).
Dennett goes on to argue (p. 31) that “naturalism is tacitly assumed … throughout scientific investigation.” He uses what is in my view a somewhat shaky courtroom analogy (courts will acquit a murder suspect if accidental death is a viable alternative, but do not “tacitly assume” that accidental death is the only option). If Dennett means metaphysical naturalism (as Plantinga does), his point is clearly empirically false, given the large number of religious scientists, and Plantinga points that out (p. 42, p. 63). If Dennett means methodological naturalism, it’s probably true, but not particularly relevant to the point being argued. Dennett’s response to Plantinga (p. 48) doesn’t really clarify the issue.
Towards the end of the book are arguments for and against the ideas of Michael Behe which I found less interesting (it might perhaps have been more interesting had Behe himself been involved, but there is probably little new to say about his ideas). The surprising thing about this book was discovering the extent of agreement on the main topic. On theism generally, Plantinga and Dennett were always going to have radically different perspectives, for reasons outside the scope of this book, and rehashing those perspectives provides few new insights. To quote Teilhard de Chardin, “after close on two centuries of passionate struggle, neither science nor faith has succeeded in discrediting its adversary.”
Plantinga’s final conclusion is that “there isn’t any conflict between Christian belief and science in the area we’ve been investigating. Christian belief and evolutionary science are entirely compatible. Perpetuating the myth that there is conflict, furthermore, is harmful both to religion and to science.” Dennett accepts this compatibility but denies that Plantinga has proved the stronger claim that “Science depends on theism to underwrite its epistemic self-confidence.” Neither author follows up on the question of how the myth of conflict might be harmful.
See also plurilogue.com, skepticfreethought.com, thinkingfaith.org, and The American Scientific Affiliation for other reviews of this book.
Science and Religion by Daniel C. Dennett and Alvin C. Plantinga: 3½ stars