Book Reviews

Book Review: “Where the Conflict Really Lies” by Alvin Plantinga

There are few names bigger than Alvin Plantinga when it comes to philosophy of religion and there are few topics more hotly debated than science and religion. Plantinga’s latest book, Where the Conflict Really Lies (hereafter WCRL) has therefore generated much interest as it has one of the foremost philosophers of religion taking on this highly contentious topic.
Plantinga minces no words. The very first line of the book outlines his central claim: “there is superficial conflict but deep concord between science and theistic religion, and superficial concord and deep conflict between science and naturalism.”1

The first part of the book is dedicated to the superficial conflict between science and religious belief. The reason this alleged conflict is important is due, largely, to the success of the scientific enterprise. Because science has shown itself to be a reliable way to come to know the world, if religion is in direct conflict with science, then it would seem to discredit religion. Not only that, but, Plantinga argues, Christians should have a “particularly high regard” for science due to the foundations of the scientific enterprise on a study of the world.2

In order to examine this alleged conflict, Plantinga first takes on the article of science most often taken to discredit religion: evolution. Here, readers may be surprised to find that Plantinga does not try to argue against evolution itself. Rather, Plantinga draws a distinction between the notion of evolution and Darwinism. The former, argues Plantinga, is consistent with Christian belief, whether or not it is the way the variety of life came to be, while the latter is not consistent with Christianity because central to its account is the notion that the process of evolution is unguided.3

WCRL then turns to Richard Dawkins. Plantinga argues that “A Darwinist will think there is a complete Darwinian history for every contemporary species, and indeed for every contemporary organism.”4  Here again there is nothing which puts such a theory in conflict with Christian belief. Writes Plantinga, “[The process of evolution] could have been superintended and orchestrated by God.”5 But Dawkins (and others) claim that evolution “reveals a universe without design.” But what argument is provided towards this conclusion? Plantinga draws out Dawkins reasoning and shows that the only logic given is that evolution could have happened by way of unguided evolution. But then:

What [Dawkins] actually argues… is that there is a Darwinian series of contemporary life forms… but [this series] wouldn’t show, of course, that the living world, let alone the entire universe, is without design. At best it would show, given a couple of assumptions, that it is not astronomically improbable that the living world was produced by unguided evolution and hence without design. But the argument form ‘p is not astronomically improbable’ therefore ‘p’ is a bit unprepossessing… What [Dawkins] shows, at best, is that it’s epistemically possible that it’s biologically possible that life came to be without design. But that’s a little short of what he claims to show.6

Plantinga then moves on to argue that Daniel Dennett’s argument is similarly flawed.7 Paul Draper’s argument that evolution is more likely on naturalism than theism is more interesting, but assumes that “everything else is equal.”8 But then, everything is not equal. Theism provides a number of relevant probabilities which weigh the argument in favor of theism instead.9

The arguments against theism from evolution are therefore largely dispensed. What of the possibility of divine action? Some argue that God doesn’t actually act in the world—in fact, the argument is made that even most theologians don’t believe this, despite writing that God does act in various ways. The argument is made that because of natural laws, God cannot or does not intervene.10  However, one can simply argue that the correct view of a natural law is that “When the universe is causally closed (when God is not acting specially in the world), P.”11

Plantinga does acknowledge that there are some fields in science which do provide at least superficial conflict with theism. These include evolutionary psychology and (some) historical critical scholarship.12 Evolutionary psychology generally doesn’t challenge religious belief. “Describing the origin of religious belief and the cognitive mechanisms involved does nothing… to impugn its truth.”13 Now some suggest that religious beliefs are due to devices not aimed at truth, and this would provide a reason to doubt religious belief.14 However, the way that most do this is by conjoining atheism with psychology or operating under other assumptions which undermine religious belief a priori. While this may mean that specific conclusions in psychology are in conflict with theism, these conclusions only follow from the anti-theistic assumptions at the bottom. Thus, while some accounts of evolutionary psychology are in conflict with theism, they don’t provide a solid basis for rejecting it.15 Similarly, varied methods of historical concept may draw some conclusions which are in conflict with Christian theism, but these methods are themselves undergirded by assumptions that theism is, at best, not to be entered into historical discussion.16

There are, Plantinga argues, significant reasons to think that theism is in concord with science. First, the argument from cosmological fine-tuning, he argues, gives “some slight support” for theism.17 The section on fine-tuning has responses to some serious criticisms of such arguments. Most interesting are his responses to Tim and Lydia McGrew and Eric Vestrup—in which Plantinga argues that we can indeed get to the point where we can assess the fine-tuning argument;18 Plantinga’s discussion of the multiverse;19 and his discussion of relevant probabilities regarding fine-tuning.20

Michael Behe’s design theory is discussed at length in WCRL.21 Plantinga offers some additional insights into the Intelligent Design debate. He argues that one can view design not so much as a probabilistic argument but instead as simple perception.22 He reads both Behe and William Paley in this light and argues that they are offering design discourses as opposed to arguments.23 This, in turn, allows him to argue that design is a kind of “properly basic belief” and he offers a robust discussion of epistemology to support this intuition.24

Further, there is deep concord between Christian Theism and Science when one looks at the very roots of the scientific endeavor. Here, rather than simply listing various theists who helped build the empirical method, Plantinga argues that science relies upon various theistic assumptions in order for its methods to succeed. These include the “divine image” in which humans are capable of rational thought;25 God’s order as providing regularity for the universe;26 natural laws;27 mathematics;28 induction;29 and simplicity and “other theoretical virtues” (like beauty).30

Finally, Plantinga turns to naturalism: does it really resonate so well with science? Plantinga grants for the sake of argument that there is at least superficial concord between naturalism on science, if only because so many naturalists trumpet this “fact.”31 Yet there is, he argues, a deep conflict between science and naturalism: namely, that if evolution is true and naturalism is true, there is no reason to trust our cognitive abilities.32 “Suppose you are a naturalist,” he writes, “you think there is no such person as God, and that we and our cognitive faculties have been cobbled together by natural selection. Can you then sensibly think that our cognitive faculties are for the most part reliable?”33

Plantinga argues you cannot. The reason is because we have no way to suppose that evolution is truth aimed, but rather it is merely survival aimed (if indeed it is aimed at all!). He also argues that because naturalists are almost all materialists, there is no way to adequately ground beliefs.34 Finally, because naturalism and evolution conjoin to give a low probability that our rational abilities are reliable, we have received a defeater for every belief we have, including naturalism and evolution.35 Thus, the conflict “is not between science and theistic religion: it is between science and naturalism. That’s where the conflict really lies.”36

WCRL covers an extremely broad range of topics, and will likely be critiqued on each topic outlined above and more. The book touches on issues that are at the core of the debate between naturalists and theists, and as such it will be highly contentious. That said, the book is basically required reading for anyone interested in this discourse. Plantinga provides extremely valuable insights into every topic he touches. His discussion of biological design, for example, provides unique insight into the topic by locating it within epistemology as opposed to biology alone. Further, his “evolutionary argument against naturalism” continues to live despite endless criticism. The list of important topics Plantinga illumines in WCRL is extensive.

Where the Conflict Really Lies will resonate deeply with those who are involved in the science and religion discourse. Theists will find much to think about and perhaps new life for some arguments they have tended to set aside. Naturalists will discover a significant challenge to their own paradigm. Those on either side will benefit from reading this work.


1 Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies (New York, NY: Oxford, 2011), ix.
2 Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies, 3-4. (Unless otherwise noted, all references are to this work.)
3 12 (emphasis his).
4 15 (emphasis his).
5 16.
6 24-25.
7 33ff, esp. 40-41.
8 53.
9 53ff.
10 69ff.
11 86, see the arguments there and following.
12 129ff.
13 140.
14 141ff.
15 143ff.
16 152ff.
17 224.
18 205-211.
19 212ff.
20 219ff.
21 225-264.
22 236ff.
23 240-248.
24 248ff; see esp. 253-258, 262-264.
25 266ff.
26 271ff.
27 274ff.
28 284ff.
29 292ff.
30 296ff.
31 307ff.
32 311ff.
33 313.
34 318ff.
35 339ff.
36 350.

This review was originally posted at Apologetics315 here:



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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick has an MA in Christian Apologetics from Biola University. His interests include theology, philosophy of religion--particularly the existence of God--astronomy, biology, archaeology, and sci-fi and fantasy novels.


3 thoughts on “Book Review: “Where the Conflict Really Lies” by Alvin Plantinga

  1. Very well written. I feel like I have a satisfactory understanding of the book. Can’t wait to read it for myself!

    Posted by Tafacory | March 15, 2012, 12:14 PM
  2. RE: evolutionary argument against naturalism.

    Cognitive science, it seems to me, has reached a similar conclusion: our brains consistently make systematic errors.

    But I don’t understand that there’s any force to this argument against a scientific epistemology.

    Actually, the success of the scientific way of knowing seems to show that though we have significantly flawed natural belief mechanisms (as Plantinga argues we would have under naturalism), we’re able to augment and correct them to enough of a degree to obtain true beliefs.

    (That is, unless our flawed belief system fools us into thinking science can give us truth.)

    So, his argument doesn’t undermine everything we’ve come to know through science. Instead, it seems to undermine what we thought we knew by using only intuition or something.

    One way his argument could be valid is if science itself really does require theism. Then, the sucess of science over our flawed belief mechanisms is actually the success of theism over our flawed belief mechanisms.

    Posted by Geoffrey Charles | March 15, 2012, 12:23 PM

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