Science and Religion: a book review


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 wroteI 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

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11 thoughts on “Science and Religion: a book review

  1. Pingback: Science and Religion: a book review | ChristianBookBarn.com

  2. Thanks for linking to my review!

    A few things strike me in reading over your review of the Plantinga/Dennett exchange.

    You state: “In a sense, the compatibility between Science and Religion is an obvious empirical truth.” As you pointed out, this depends on what you mean by ‘compatibility’. But I want to suggest to you that there are a few ways in which this debate misses the compatibility issue altogether.

    1. That there are religious scientists does not establish the compatibility between science and religion. Instead, it establishes that people are able to hold both scientific views and religious views simultaneously. We already know that people are capable of compartmentalizing and of holding contradictory beliefs. So the compatibility between the two cannot be established by a sociological study of scientists. For similar reasons, compatibility cannot be established by looking at the history of the relationship between science and religion.

    2. There are several different forms of Christian theism. That one can find some forms of Christian theism which are compatible with all of our best scientific theories does not mean that Christian theism, broadly construed, is compatible with all of our best scientific theories. This is because there are plenty of forms of Christian theism which directly /contradict/ our best scientific theories.

    3. Science is more than a collection of theories with varying empirical support. It is also a collection of methodologies and inferential/explanatory norms. If religion directly violates those methodologies and norms — or presents a set of contrary methods/norms — then there is a conflict between religion and science. The idea of faith, central to Christianity, directly and obviously conflicts with scientific norms.

    • Thanks for the comment.

      Do you think that science and theism are contradictory? On my reading of the book, Dennett doesn’t seem to think so, even though he thinks theism is wrong.

      You may be right in that “compatibility between the two cannot be established by a sociological study of scientists,” but many scientists who are Christians have written at length about the logical compatibility of their two sets of beliefs. And the historical argument is, to me, compelling: it is difficult to see how science could have arisen out of theism if science and theism were incompatible. Indeed, several scholars have argued for a strong relationship.

      I am also surprised to see you say “the idea of faith, central to Christianity, directly and obviously conflicts with scientific norm.” How? I would think that the existence or non-existence of God was outside the scope of science. And when it comes to scientific methodologies, theistic scientists seem to follow the same ones as atheists.

      There are no doubt cases where, taking a Bayesian approach to science, theistic scientists have different prior probabilities for certain theories and hence are less (or more) convinced by new data. But all scientists bring personal factors into their priors. That is why (before the evidence for a new idea becomes compelling) there are always enthusiasts on the one hand and sceptics on the other. A case in point are the Jesuits who denied the Copernican system. They may have had a bias against Copernicanism, but they were not being unscientific when they pointed out the problem of the seemingly missing stellar parallax, and substituted the Tychonian system instead. Just, in hindsight, wrong.

      • “Do you think that science and theism are contradictory?”

        Where did I say that science and theism are /contradictory/? The question on the table is whether or not science and religion are compatible. The question is not whether science and theism contradict or even whether or not science and religion contradict. Contradiction is one kind of incompatibility, but not the only kind.

        “many scientists who are Christians have written at length about the logical compatibility of their two sets of beliefs.”

        Many scientists who are Christians may have written such books, but that doesn’t mean that (1) they were right or (2) that mere /logical/ compatibility is relevant to this issue.

        “And the historical argument is, to me, compelling: it is difficult to see how science could have arisen out of theism if science and theism were incompatible. Indeed, several scholars have argued for a strong relationship.”

        I’m familiar with the work of those scholars. I’ve read several of them.

        But here’s a different historical story that could be told. Science /did/ rise out of Christian theism. In the 16th-18th centuries, science and religion did not have a clear divide between them; God and his actions in the world were considered a part of science.

        Nonetheless, between the 18th century and now, we’ve somehow reached a point where it was against scientific norms to invoke God — we have this principle of methodological naturalism or perhaps something like Gould’s NOMA. The road between the 18th century and now was fraught with several failed theistic hypotheses, such that God was eventually placed outside the realm of science altogether.

        Now, we could have done the same thing with the shape of the Earth. Predictions based on a flat Earth continued to come out false; the Earth’s shape could have been declared to be outside the bounds of scientific inquiry. Perhaps a principle of Methodological Sphericity could be introduced: for the purposes of doing science, the Earth is assumed to be a sphere, but we can have faith that, contrary to appearances, the Earth is actually flat. Or we could come up with something analogous to NOMA: science and the Earth’s True Shape occupy independent realms of activity and are entirely independent.

        It’s also worth pointing out that just because science originates in x doesn’t mean that science and x are compatible. Medicine originates in all sorts of magical and divination practices, yet we do not think that medicine and magic/dviniation are compatible (in fact, they are incompatible).

        “I am also surprised to see you say ‘the idea of faith, central to Christianity, directly and obviously conflicts with scientific norm.’ How? I would think that the existence or non-existence of God was outside the scope of science. And when it comes to scientific methodologies, theistic scientists seem to follow the same ones as atheists.”

        Why assume that God’s existence is outside of science? However popular that might be as a slogan, it’s less than clear that it is true.

        In any case, my statement was that faith — believing particular propositions when they are contravened by empirical evidence — is anathema to scientific norms. I didn’t say anything about God’s existence. Consider that Christians have faith in the efficacy of intercessory prayer, that a particular set of events happened in the ancient middle east, and so on — all of which are open to empirical confirmation or disconfirmation.

        In any case, any theist who believes the Catholic doctrine that God’s existence may be shown by reason prior to faith — and is not something to be taken on faith — would likely disagree with you that God’s existence is not a matter for science. At the very least, all those theists who believe in design arguments would disagree with you.

        “They may have had a bias against Copernicanism, but they were not being unscientific when they pointed out the problem of the seemingly missing stellar parallax, and substituted the Tychonian system instead. Just, in hindsight, wrong.”

        I fail to see the relevance that this point has for the arguments I was presenting.

      • It’s interesting that you invoke Gould’s NOMA, because it’s one formulation of scientific/religious compatibility. And “believing particular propositions when they are contravened by empirical evidence” is not, as far as I know, anybody’s definition of “faith.”

        What moves us to believe is not the fact that revealed truths appear as true and intelligible in the light of our natural reason: we believe ‘because of the authority of God himself who reveals them, who can neither deceive nor be deceived’. So ‘that the submission of our faith might nevertheless be in accordance with reason, God willed that external proofs of his Revelation should be joined to the internal helps of the Holy Spirit.’ Thus the miracles of Christ and the saints, prophecies, the Church’s growth and holiness, and her fruitfulness and stability ‘are the most certain signs of divine Revelation, adapted to the intelligence of all;’ they are ‘motives of credibility’ (motiva credibilitatis), which show that the assent of faith is ‘by no means a blind impulse of the mind.’ … ‘Though faith is above reason, there can never be any real discrepancy between faith and reason. Since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind, God cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth.’ ‘Consequently, methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God. The humble and persevering investigator of the secrets of nature is being led, as it were, by the hand of God in spite of himself, for it is God, the conserver of all things, who made them what they are.’ – Catholic Catechism

        The Christian accepts the truth of the existence of God by faith. But this faith is not a blind faith, but a faith that is based on evidence, and the evidence is found primarily in Scripture as the inspired Word of God, and secondarily in God’s revelation in nature.” – Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology

  3. I couldn’t figure out how to leave a response to your last post on the same thread, so I will respond here instead.

    “It’s interesting that you invoke Gould’s NOMA, because it’s one formulation of scientific/religious compatibility.”

    I actually invoked two forms of science/religion compatibilism — NOMA and methodological naturalism — and then argued that we should actually take a rather different conclusion from their invocation (namely, that science and religion are not compatible after all).

    “And ‘believing particular propositions when they are contravened by empirical evidence’ is not, as far as I know, anybody’s definition of ‘faith.'”

    It’s not a definition explicitly endorsed. You quoted the Catholic cathetism and Berkhof’s /Systematic Theology/, both of which contained definitions I’d seen before. I’ve also read through the definitions given by Locke, Aquinas, Alister McGrath, Hebrews 11:1, and other sources. The two definitions you gave are closest to that of Aquinas, in his /Summa Theologica/ I, Q2, A2. According to this conception, God’s existence must first be proven as a preamble to the faith (what Catholics call the preambulae fidei) and then his revelations can be believed as a matter of trust (a perfect and omnibenevolent being would not have it in his nature to lie).

    This presents you with a problem. You seem to have two claims:

    1. God’s existence cannot be shown scientifically;
    2. Nonetheless, God’s revelation must be accepted on trust only after God’s existence has been shown by reason.

    The conjuct of these two claims would appear to lead to some variety of non-theism as a conclusion, unless you have some other way of demonstrating God’s existence via reason than through science.

    In any case, plenty of theists /do/ take God’s existence and several other beliefs merely on faith, by which those believers mean that they accept them regardless of what the evidence indicates. If you think the contrary is true, you’d have to explain why believers accept the efficacy of intercessory prayer even /after/ medical studies are presented to them which show that prayer is ineffective or why they will often respond with statements such as “it doesn’t matter; I have faith.” It may be that the official statements of /some/ theologians or church bodies, arising from an evidentialist theological stripe, do not accept this sort of faith. But lay believers (and many theologians of a fideist bent) /do/ accept this definition of faith.

    • This is all very interesting, but seems to have strayed a little from the subject of the Dennett/Plantinga book. I see that you stated “that we should actually take a rather different conclusion … namely, that science and religion are not compatible after all.” I’m not sure I understand your argument, but perhaps you should debate Plantinga! (or John Polkinghorne, for that matter).

      As to “faith,” I think intelligent debate on the subject would have to use the formal definitions from within the Christian community. You can’t just assert a definition of your own, or rely on anecdotal arguments.

      You also refer to “medical studies … which show that prayer is ineffective.” I must say, I’m not aware of such studies, and I don’t see how you could draw such a metaphysical conclusion from a medical study.

      • My preferred debate opponent on /this/ topic is John Haught, but I’ll be debating a Plantinga-wannabe on a radio show early next month. So stay tuned.

        As far as faith is concerned, I wasn’t merely asserting my own definition. Those who are fideists about God’s existence would agree with the definition I provided as would the average lay Christian. Nonetheless, I’m perfectly capable of engaging with the more sophisticated version (I already provided an argument against your view, which seems to deny evidentialism while accepting the preambulae fidei).

        As for the study on intercessory prayer, the Templeton prayer study is rather well known so I’m rather surprised you haven’t heard of it: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/31/health/31pray.html

        You have once again asserted that the claim that religious claims differ in some way from scientific claims (you identified the efficacy of prayer as a “metaphysical” isssue). Yet you provided no argument for this. We could once again imagine our Flat Earther, who claims that the Earth’s shape is a “metaphysical” issue and is not addressable by science. Of course, such a statement is an empty assertion designed to shield the Flat Earther’s belief from criticism. Ditto for the prayer studies: either intercessory prayer is effective at treating medical conditions or it is not.

      • Thanks for the link on the Templeton study. I was in fact aware of that study, but whatever it demonstrated, it certainly was not that “prayer is ineffective,” whatever that might mean. There have been a number of criticisms of that study (e.g. this comment).

        I also see you say that “the average lay Christian” would agree with your definition of “faith.” I’m not sure how you’d back up such a claim. I gave you the choice of a Protestant definition and the more or less official Catholic one (I didn’t give “my view”). For a more poetic definition, there is Dante.

        In any case, the question of compatibility between science and religion is probably best addressed by looking at how theists who are scientists understand the relationship between the two, and there is plenty of literature on that.

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