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Christian philosopher sees no conflict with evolution

What he gets right and what he gets wrong


M.C. from New Zealand asked for our response to the following quote that appeared in a New York Times article. The piece showcased Christian philosophy professor Alvin Plantinga and his 2011 book, Where the Conflict Really Lies. The article snippet is in red and M.C.'s words follow in green.

Mr. Plantinga says he accepts the scientific theory of evolution, as all Christians should. Atheists, he argues, are the ones who are misreading Darwin. Their belief that evolution rules out the existence of God — including a God who purposely created human beings through a process of guided evolution — is not a scientific claim, he writes, but “a metaphysical or theological addition.”

[Link deleted as per feedback rules.]

Any comments?


CMI’s Keaton Halley responds:

Hi M.C.,

I read Alvin Plantinga’s book, Where the Conflict Really Lies, when it first came out. The book does contain many helpful things. For example, Plantinga has a rigorous treatment of what he calls “the evolutionary argument against naturalism”, which is related to the ‘argument from reason’ that I covered in Monkey minds: How evolution undercuts reason and science. He also defends miracles as compatible with science, and points out how science is rooted in the Christian worldview.

By the way, Plantinga is featured positively in our documentary Darwin: The Voyage that Shook the World. And you might benefit from Marc Kay's review of his book in the Journal of Creation.

Unfortunately, however, Plantinga does claim that evolution is compatible with Christianity. Is this because he has sufficiently answered the many points of incompatibility that creationists have raised? No. For the most part, Plantinga doesn’t even interact with creationist arguments or the many biblical texts that contradict evolution. In fact, he displays his utter ignorance of creationist literature when he claims that we believe God created the world with built-in fossils and beams of distant starlight (p. 10).

Instead, Plantinga’s primary concern is to refute the idea that Darwinian evolution is intrinsically and necessarily purposeless. He argues that God could have guided the process. But even if he is correct on that point, he would still be a long way from reconciling Christianity and evolution.

Now, I disagree with Plantinga’s characterization of Darwinism as compatible with design. From its inception, Darwinists themselves have overwhelmingly conceived of Darwinian evolution as an unguided and unplanned process. That is a philosophical commitment, yes, but Darwinism was derived from and is still propped up by these philosophical concerns rather than purely scientific ones.

However, I would actually agree with Plantinga that one cannot rigorously rule out the possibility that mutations or other natural phenomena happen for a divine purpose. So he is correct that there is no necessary logical incompatibility between design and universal common descent per se. While there are plenty of other biblical and scientific reasons to reject evolution, if we leave those to one side for the sake of the argument, Plantinga is right to say that, hypothetically, “God could have achieved the results he wanted by causing the right mutations to arise at the right times” or, alternatively, “God could have set things up initially so that the right mutations would be forthcoming at the right times” (p. 16). So if we define them generically enough, evolution and design are not necessarily incompatible.

However, the bare logical consistency of some type of ‘guided evolution’ doesn’t let theistic evolutionists (TEs) off the hook. Most supporters of evolution understand it to be an entirely materialistic process, and this includes the champions of theistic evolution. Part of the difficulty, though, is that most TEs are not as philosophically sophisticated as Plantinga, and they speak out of both sides of their mouths—maintaining that evolution is at the same time directed and undirected. There is a deep incoherence in their own position.

As we pointed out in Did God create an ‘open’ universe?, many TEs insist that God relinquished a significant amount of control over evolution and let nature steer its own course. Their arguments for evolution based on natural evil and dysteleology (poor design), commonly assume that God did not exert total control over the process. Thus, evolutionists would have to rethink many of their favorite arguments for evolution if they adopted the view that God orchestrated evolution to achieve specific preordained ends like the creation of human beings.

Also, Darwin explicitly formulated his theory as an alternative to design, and this aspect of the idea was instrumental in helping it to become the ruling paradigm. TEs generally agree that Darwin’s mechanism explains away the appearance of design, so if they assert that there is nevertheless actual design present in living things, it can only be an undetectable kind of design. It would not be the kind of thing Romans 1 has in mind when it speaks of the Creator being evident from “the things that have been made” (Rom. 1:20).

Beyond this, TEs must deal with a host of biblical teachings fatal to their view. For example, Jesus and the NT authors said humans have been around since the foundation of the world, while TEs say humans arrived much later. The Bible says God made everything in six days, while TEs say it took billions of years. The Bible says God finished his work of creation on the Seventh Day, while TEs say the world is still under construction. The Bible says God supernaturally made Adam from dust and Eve from Adam, while TEs say that humans came from hominids. The Bible says that Adam’s sin brought death into the world, while TEs say death was present long before mankind. The Bible says there was a global Flood, while TEs say the fossil record rules out such a worldwide catastrophe. You get the idea.

It’s really unfortunate, then, that a great thinker like Alvin Plantinga is so sympathetic to theistic evolution. While I value his work, including the book under discussion, in any person’s teachings we must learn to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Published: 29 April 2017

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