SBTS lectures feature renowned philosopher Alvin Plantinga

Communications Staff — October 31, 2007

Science and religion should not be incompatible, but the two are often at odds because science falsely demands a purely naturalistic universe, renowned Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga told students at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary on Oct. 23.

Plantinga serves as the John A. O’Brien Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. He was the featured speaker for the annual Norton Lectures Oct. 23-25 at Southern Seminary. Plantinga is the author of numerous books, including God, Freedom and Evil, The Nature of Necessity and Warranted Christian Belief.

Evolutionary biologists such as Richard Dawkins, an atheist and author of the recent book The God Delusion, use faulty arguments to show that the biological theory of evolution is incompatible with theism, Plantinga said. From there, scientists in the mold of Dawkins reject the possibility of Christianity and its supernatural worldview, Plantinga said.

“Dawkins utterly fails to show that the facts of evolution reveal a universe without design,” Plantinga said. “Another source of the continuing debate [between religion and science] is the mistaken claim on the part of such writers as Dawkins that the scientific theory implies that the living world and human beings in particular have not been designed and created by God.”

Plantinga said there is great concord between Christian belief and science on the issue of God’s divine action in the world.

The traditional Christian definition of divine action is any work of God in addition to creation and the conservation of the world, such as miracles, answers to prayer and the Holy Spirit working in the hearts of people, he said.

While many secular philosophers, theologians and scientists alike argue that such divine action is contrary to the laws of science, Plantinga said such apparent conflicts are only superficial.

Some opponents of special divine action, including Rudolf Bultmann and Langdon Gilkey, argue that Newtonian laws of nature leave no room for divine action beyond creation and conservation. Bultmann (1884-1976) and Gilkey (1919-2004) were liberal Protestant theologians who rejected a supernatural worldview.

Newton’s ideas about laws of nature, however, do not preclude special divine action, for Newton himself only applied the ideas to a closed system, Plantinga asserted.
“Newton thought God regularly and constantly intervened in the world,” he said. “Newton’s idea was really this, that his laws applied only in a closed or isolated system. Systems in which there is no causal activity from the outside. There is nothing here to prevent God from changing the velocity or direction of a particle, or from creating ex nihilo (out of nothing) a full-grown horse. There is nothing in Newtonian mechanics or classical science to declare that the material universe is indeed a closed system.”

With the development of quantum mechanics, which has largely superseded Newtonian mechanics in the field of science, there is even more obvious agreement between science and special divine action, Plantinga said.

“Quantum mechanics argues that laws exist that are probabilistic, but not deterministic,” he said. “Given a certain system, quantum mechanics assigns probabilities to the possible outcomes in different situations. Miracles are clearly not incompatible with this approach to science.”

Despite this obvious concord between science and special divine action, many modern-day philosophers, theologians and scientists — such as Philip Clayton and Arthur Peacocke — still reject the idea of special divine action. However, Plantinga said they have no coherent basis for their objection, as quantum mechanics easily allows for special divine action.

Holding to both naturalism and evolution at the same time is self-refuting, Plantinga argued. Naturalism denies the existence of the supernatural and asserts that all events can be explained by purely natural causes.

Naturalism and evolution “are often thought to fit together very nicely,” he said. However, “there really is a religion-science conflict. But it’s not between Christian beliefs and science. Rather it’s between naturalism and science.”

According to naturalistic evolution, the human abilities to think and reason evolved to promote survival and not to produce true beliefs, Plantinga said. Therefore, if a person assumes naturalistic evolution to be true, it doesn’t make sense to assume that human reasoning produces true beliefs, he said.

So if naturalistic evolution is true, it doesn’t make sense to place any trust in any human reasoning—including the reasoning that leads to naturalistic evolution, he said.

“The traditional theist, on the other hand, has no corresponding reason for doubting that it is a purpose of our cognitive systems to produce true beliefs,” Plantinga said.

The audio from Plantinga’s lectures is available at

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